Chrystal and I recently returned from a trip out to the West Coast. Big Sur to be exact. A long time trials buddy Mike Melchior was getting hitched. He lives in Salinas, CA which is only about 45 to an hour north of Big Sur. The invitation, a bi-folded piece of yellow card stock, made the affair sound like it would be a good time. Being that Mike is an old friend who I hadn’t seen in at least five years I decided that it would be fun to make a little vacation out of the event.
The trip began in Hartford with an early flight out of BDL. Because I had redeemed some credit card points for the tickets we had two connections to look forward to, one in Charlotte, NC and another in San Francisco. That’s right we were not landing in San Fran to drive to Monterey, we were flying there. The flights were relatively painless aside from being separated on our longer flight between Charlotte and San Fran. Between Monterey and San Fran was a great little 22 minute flight at only about 12,000 feet. It gave us some time to see the landscape that we would be enjoying in the coming six days.
I had traveled to this area of the country when I was between elementary and middle school. Back then it was to visit my Auntie Gail and Uncle Keith who lived in Walnut Creek. I remember that we did the 17 Mile Drive and it was quite nice. Unfortunately we would not have the time to go down that road again, but we did get to see more of Big Sur this time, but more of that in a second. First, Monterey would be our home base for a couple days before we headed east toward the climbing.
The wedding on Saturday turned out great. The weather in the area is historically absolutely beautiful during October. No one knows this better than Mike’s now wife, Shelley. She works as a meteorologist at the Monterey Airport, though not for the airport. Unfortunately she also could see almost a week ahead of the big day that there would be a storm coming through. Weather in this area of the country is very different than in other parts.
Rain generally precedes a front here on the East Coast and in most other areas around the country. In the Monterey region and perhaps all of the West Coast, rain follows a front. Despite the rain in the morning Mike and Shelley were able to have a nice private ceremony at McWay Falls at Julia Pfieffer State Park. This is an idyllic scene. A small stream drops clear onto the sand and into the azure ocean. My picture of the falls at right is obviously from a different day.
After the ceremony the majority of the guests, including Chrystal and I, first got to congratulate the couple at the reception area at Pfieffer State Park. The reception was great because of its relaxed atmosphere. No suits, ties or uncomfortable shoes. It was a BBQ that happened to have a couple newlyweds at it. Here we got to meet a few of Mike and Shelley’s friends. I was able to discuss beer and brewing with Mike who lives in Alaska and meet Ron a super tall guy from Nova Scotia who lives now in Phoenix. Even though the weather cleared as the afternoon and the party went on, it still was a little chilly. As illustrated by Ron and his blue sweater with white reindeer on it. At first read that may not seem funny, but think of the most stereotypical Canadian wearing a cheesy sweater image you can think of. That was him. Unfortunately I didn’t get a shot of that.
Pinnacles National Monument
When I started planning this trip I also invited Ben so that Chrystal, Ben and I could do some hiking and climbing. Ben decided to visit with a cousin in San Francisco while we attended the wedding then meet us later. Mike told me that the only place to climb was at nearbyPinnacles National Monument, about 40 miles east as the crow flies. Chrystal and I headed east to Pinnacles which has a Mediterranean climate and chaparral vegetation.
We only spent two days here. Our first we basically had a chance meeting with Ben in the parking lot. We had arranged to meet approximately at the same time but we were running earlier than Ben. Cell service in the park and within a 5-10 mile radius seemed to be non-existent so all plans had to be executed the ol’ fashioned way. As Chrystal and I ate our lunch we planned an elaborate scheme to draw Ben’s attention to our car and the extra guidebook opened to the page with a map of where we would be. This along with a note was a fool proof way to meet.
Well we completely underestimated Ben’s tunnel vision. As we ate lunch a car drove by. Chrystal said, “Hey wasn’t that a white PT Cruiser?” “Yep”, I replied. So I waited a minute or two because I figured he would drive back to the lot we were in since the closer lot was full. Turns out it wasn’t so he had parked and I needed to walk down there to meet him.
No big deal, after exchanging some hello’s we headed off to do some climbing. Pinnacles is more like Mission Gorge, CA than any crag out here. There are mini-crags that contain anywhere from 1-2 routes up to 20-30. Overall there looked to be nearly 500 routes in the guidebook we borrowed from Mike and Shelley. There was also a bit more hiking involved as well. Which didn’t turn out to badly since the trails are very well maintained so they are smooth and wide. The rock has a much different composition as well which lead to difficulties finding routes. I think it took us nearly two hours to figure out where to set our first route. That route turned out to be a challenging, slightly overhanging crack/chimney called The Slot (5.9). After a few laps on this we headed to the main part of the Discovery Wall for another route.
Ben and I had been practicing some sport climbing at the gym prior to our trip. This was mainly because Mike had told me that Pinnacles was mostly sport lead. I was feeling relatively good with climbing sport stuff, but only if it was well beneath my limit. This brought us to Portent. The route is rated only a 5.6 but is rather nerve racking. The route is approximately 120 feet, heading consistently left on an 85 foot section of the wall. The rock here is not very good for traditional protection, not that there was much to be had on this climb. This is true for most of Pinnacles. Holds are awkward since they are almost always small gravel or slightly larger sized rocks literally stuck into the main composition of the wall. It is some weird function of the volcanic process that created the park. As such the slabby wall is very coarse which made for some scary climbing clipping into the 5-6 bolts on the whole route. The first bolt is a solid 25-30 feet off the ground. Ouch.
Despite the nerves the route went well with Ben cleaning on my rope drag stricken setup. I should have used a couple double length runners. Unfortunately because of the lateness in the day Chrystal didn’t get a chance to climb the route. But she did get a good picture from the ground. As well as the one to the right.
Since we camped on a Sunday and in off-peak time the campground was nearly empty. Only one other camper shared our section of the campground and he was a couple hundred yards away. With the solitude we felt like we were wilderness camping. After some delicious dinner of peppers, onions, linguica sausage and pasta we star gazed. The Milky Way was clearly visible and I think it was the most stars I’ve seen in a long time.
With morning we made a discovery, we had had a masked bandit rob us in the night. No we didn’t lose our money or credit cards, we lost our food and clean rental car. For some reason the driver side window was down and a raccoon had jumped into the car. He had eaten our food that was in my bag as well as made a mess of the leftover sausage and pasta dinner. Chrystal and I spent the next 20 minutes cleaning the car out. 🙁
Monday brought the same crystal clear skies and 80-85 degree temps. Chrystal and I decided to head to The Unmentionable to climb a couple routes while Ben split off back to Salinas to pick up his brother. Unmentionable is a small pinnacle of rock that has two climbs on it. The easier 5.5 and a 5.9. We both did both. Though the 5.9 was on top rope. The 5.5 is ok and the 5.9 was fun. The pair of routes are more for the novelty than anything else.
While at this pinnacle of rock which is only 45 minutes from the parking lot, I felt the most isolated I think I have ever felt. This wasn’t in a bad way though. Chrystal and I were completely alone in this section of the park, or the whole thing for all we knew. There was no sound except for the wind rustling the low scrubby bushes. No road noise, no motorcycles, no people and only one airplane 30,000 feet above us. It was really refreshing.
Once again we intersected with Ben and his brother, but in a completely random and fortuitous manner. As I said cell service is non-existent. Therefore we planned roughly were we would be prior to Ben leaving and we took his two-way radio. After doing The Unmentionable, Chrystal and I opted to just hike rather than climb. This lead us back to the car to drop off gear and then to to Bear Gulch Cave. The cave is formed by a narrow canyon being created by a stream then large boulders fall and wedge themselves into the canyon leaving an open space beneath. There are bats in the cave at certain parts of the year which causes them to be closed to hikers, but at this time they were partially open.
After getting through the cave we made chance meeting with Ben and his brother John via the two-way radios. We found out they parked on the west side of the park. There is no road traversing the park. So after a quick stop at the Bear Gulch Reservoir (weird seeing water in a desert), we headed back to our car so Ben and John could fill up on water for their trek back across the park before their car was gated in.
The drive back to Big Sur was relatively uneventful. There were a few tarantula spottings on the road, some of which may have been run over. It was fun being on a section of road that was almost completely straight for six miles. Chrystal and I stopped in Monterey again to go to the Monterey Fish House, which had been recommended to us. It lived up to the hype, with enormous fresh raw oysters and some grilled/smoked ones. We rolled into Fernwood Campground on the banks of the Big Sur River around 10 pm. We didn’t get to see how great a spot we had until the morning though.
Big Sur is absolutely beautiful. The mountains come right down to the frothy waves rolling in one after another. Hwy 1 is a great drive and there is no shortage of scenic vistas. If you turn around to face east the mountains rise up to nearly 3,500 feet. Redwoods line the valleys and low scrubby bushes fill the rest of the hillsides.
Chrystal and I went horseback riding on our first morning in Big Sur. Again being off-peak and a weekday we were the only people on the ride excluding the guide of course. Chrystal got paired up with a brown horse named Rocky. I was paired with a blond horse named Sunny. Our ride brought us across the Big Sur River, on the edge of some fields and finally to the beach. Just before we saddled up we noticed that Sunny seemed a little lively. We found out he was. He had a penchant for taking a beeline off the trail and standing over a bush. At first I couldn’t figure out what the hell was going on because he kept moving back and forth while over the bush. I then figured out he was scratching his belly. After this happened once our guide told me to try and pull hard to the opposite side of the trail with the reins. This would keep Sunny’s head turned and prevent him from seeing his favorite scratching bushes. Turns our I am no horseman because I couldn’t keep my steed from the bushes. Oh well it made for a good laugh.
Later that day we met up with Ben and John. We decided to go back to Andrew Molera State Park, where we rode
in the morning, to do a little hiking. We decided to do a trail that followed the river down to the ocean. At the beach we had to ford the river. It was cold! Chrystal had a little trouble crossing because it was so cold and relatively deep for her. But she got across just fine. After drying off and taking in the view from the beach. From here we could see behind us many of the areas that were burned, as you can see in the picture at left. Wildfires are a normal part of this area and many plants need it to grow correctly.
From the beach the Ridge Trail brought us up about 700 feet to the foot hills of the mountains which are primarily on the east side and closed for hiking side of Hwy 1. The trails were smooth but steep in some areas. The sunny was relentless as there were no trees and no clouds. This did help the vultures to catch thermals. There were plenty of them too. No condor sightings though.
That night we were feeling pretty tired and weren’t up for much of cooking anything. We went to a few little restaurants near our campground looking for a nice cozy place for a beer and a burger. Unfortunately one of the presidential debates was playing in every place we went into. Who the hell wants to watch that on their vacation!? We ended up back at our own campground’s bar/restaurant. Luckily we were able to sit in a room off from the main eating room where the TV was. In our room was a small piano which John started to play quietly. He is a musician and is quite good at the piano. After about 10 minutes of quiet playing the bartender came over and asked him to stop playing because people were trying to watch the debate. Can you believe it? How about reading how it was in the newspaper? How about resigning yourself to the fact that California is going blue and there isn’t a thing your vote, be it Obama or McCain, will do to change that. We were on vacation, I would imaging that everyone in a campground bar would also be. Unplug for a little and get away from real life. That’s what vacation is, right? Why don’t you call into the office and check some of your email while your at it, jeeze.
Despite the TV our burgers and beers were good. It also prompted us not to linger. We picked up some firewood at the camp store and headed back to our site along the river, which provided a much more pleasing backdrop of sound, to sit around the fire and have a couple brews. Well Chrystal had her cheap wine.
We departed from Big Sur the next day, saying goodbye to Ben and John as well. From here we headed to Salinas and Mike and Shelley’s house. We were to stay here overnight to catch our morning flight out of Monterey. Mike and Shelley have a cute place with a great floor mat saying, “A pilot and a normal person live here.” Mike had to head out to work around 7 that evening but I got to catch up a bit with him. We were also able to meet Shelley a little more too. At the wedding she obviously was busy buzzing around to all the guests making sure they were comfortable. Here we were able to really get to meet her. Guess what, she’s great! She brought us to an awesome Mexican restaurant that between the three of us ran us $25. We left with doggie bags too.
Our flights back turned out OK. We missed our 22 minute jaunt to SFO but were rerouted on a set of flights going to Phoenix then Hartford. We made one less connection and got back only 1 hour later than originally intended. Overall, the trip was very much worth it. Big Sur is beautiful. I would really like to go back there at some point after some of the areas east of Hwy 1 are open. Mike mentioned the Ventana Wilderness which has backcountry camping. Maybe I could make it out there for some of that. You would be hard pressed to find a better combination of weather, ocean and mountains. Maybe Squamish British Columbia, but I’ll have to go there first to confirm. If you ever have a chance to go to Big Sur don’t hesitate, its worth it.