In many journeys in and around the Little Sur River drainage, the high point has often been dayhiking to the top of Pico Blanco. Yet, while any time spent on the mountain-top is a special experience, the necessity to descend after a few hours is always an unwelcome tug. The stunning views, the steady ocean breeze, and the deep silence enticed me to stay longer. An overnighter had to happen, so I and two companions threw together a plan to sleep on the mountain the night before summer solstice.
I began the trek at Bottcher's Gap, descending through the early evening to the Little Sur campground, where my companions met me a few hours later, guided by headlamps. After a deep sleep next to the rushing stream, we awoke to a warm morning, set about making a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and hit the trail for the summit.
We walked through Pico Blanco Boy Scout Camp, a strange island of civilization in the wilderness, replete with Coke machines, cars, buildings, and uniformed boy scouts.
Then a steep 1,350-foot climb to the top of Launtz Ridge. Descending from the ridge, we dropped into Duveneck's Hole, a dark redwood canyon that harbors an abandoned and dilapidated establishment of hunting huts. Skirting along the north edge of the canyon, we turned a corner to catch our first foreboding glimpse of the rock-strewn south face of the majestic mountain atop which we would spend the night.
Pico Blanco thrusts 3709 feet above sea level, splitting the drainages of the Little Sur River and its south fork. The two streams join northwest of the mountain and meander to the sea. Legend has it that the Native American population of Esselens believed that Pico Blanco was a sacred mountain from which all life originated. The original inhabitants believed that the peak's summit was the only place left standing during the Great Flood. Three creatures -- the eagle, the coyote, and the hummingbird -- survived the deluge on top of the mountain and went on to recreate the world. Pico Blanco, Spanish for "white peak," refers to the white limestone which caps its summit.
The early inhabitants weren't the only ones with an appreciation of the mountain, though the present "owners" of the mountain hold a less sacred view of the peak. The Granite Rock Co. of Watsonville bought Pico in the late 1950s with the intention of mining the top of the mountain for limestone, a critical ingredient in concrete (Pico Blanco is said to be the largest single mass of limestone on the West Coast). The firm's plans, which encompassed lopping off the top several hundred feet of the mountain, were quashed in the 1970s by environmental group lawsuits that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Regardless, Granite Rock still owns the peak; anyone treading on it is trespassing. So we were planning to clamber up a holy mountain on Midsummer's Eve, the day before solstice, a holy day celebrated since pagan times as the return of summer. And we were going to be trespassing. Almost ironic. Didn't see any no trespassing signs, so what the hell.
With no water source at the summit, we had decided to fill up every container we had at the south fork of the Little Sur, which skirts the shoulder of Pico Blanco. We stashed our packs just below a meadow dotted with eight-foot yucca blooms to avoid carrying the weight down and back up from the river, and descended the 500 feet or so in elevation to the water. After a refreshing dip in the mossy waterfall grotto below Pico Blanco Camp, we filled every container we had, including a two-gallon collapsable jug that would carry the majority of our overnight supply. While strapping on our framepacks at the meadow, we noticed a leak in the jug. With no suitable patch, we were forced to carry it by hand up the mountain, slung in a cotton-netting grocery bag to keep the small tear towards the top. It made the nearly 1800-foot ascent all the more challenging.
We reached the summit, worn out, at around 3 p.m., to find three dayhikers
we had chatted with earlier in the meadow below. Our exhaustion faded into
excitement as we joined the trio's enthusiasm for the expansive views.
To the north, Bottcher's Gap and Devil's Peak. To the east, Skinner Ridge
and the Little Sur drainage. To the south, Launtz ridge, Mt. Manuel, and
the south fork and Launtz Creek drainages. And looking westwards, a splendid
view of the ocean, the mouth of the Little Sur, and Andrew Molera State
I handed out Jelly Belly's (champagne would have been too heavy to carry), the dayhikers doled out brownies, we took a picture of them for their photo album, and they descended. We were alone on top of Pico Blanco. And, as the day wore on, the elements increasingly played up the sense of isolation. Like a tidal wave in slow motion, a wall of fog crept towards us. Eventually it rolled in, leaving us on a rocky island in a sea of white, with nothing but several peaks far to the east and south as signs that there still was an earth below us. Looking back on this magical part of the adventure, we wondered which one of us was the coyote, the hummingbird, or the eagle.
As we hunkered down around 7 p.m. to cook up our dehydrated meals with the water that remained in the punctured 2-gallon jug, waves of fog began to wash over the summit, coating us with a cold film of moisture that instantly soaked clothing, skin, and hair. We threw on our rain shells to ward off the chilly moisture. Our hunger sated after slurping up dinner, the fog dropped back to about 20 feet below us, just in time for a sunset that painted the sky yellow, then pink, then purple. The breeze disappeared, leaving us on our island in a silent dusk, waiting for the first stars to show themselves.
We managed to find the only relatively flat spots (there were exactly three) among the sharp rocks to spread our sleeping bags, watch the stars become countless, and quickly drift off to sleep. I was awakened at 4 a.m. to the annoying clamminess of a wet sleeping bag. The fog had rolled over us and soaked everything. Thanks to the marvels of synthetic fills, I stayed warm, but not as comfortable as I would have liked.
I drifted in and out of sleep until the sun peeped over the far eastern ridges. We climbed out of our soggy bags to watch it rise, beginning the first of its many shorter and shorter journeys across the sky until Dec. 21, winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. As the solstice sun rose and began drying off our gear, we watched our shadows, cast upon the fog roiling just below us. We packed up and began our descent into the fog, thankful for the special night Pico Blanco had granted us on its summit.
Editors Note: While certainly an enticing destination, the summit of Pico Blanco is in fact private property and should be respected as such. A large part of the mountain itself, however, is National Forest land and therefore open to the enjoyment of all. Just be sure you know where one ends and the other begins to avoid hiking yourself into trespassing trouble.