An Adventure to the Window
Photographs by and courtesy of Terry Trotter, © 1999
Seems like man always attaches mythic importance to the Great White Something Or Other. The Native Americans of the Great Plains had their mythological Great White Buffalo. Central Europeans tell the legend of a Great White Stag that led their ancestors from the steppes of central Asia into the greener pastures along the Danube. When we were about eighteen years old, George St. Clair and I set out to find the Great White Redwood. At the time, we didn't attach any cosmic significance to it. We were just out for one heck of a good hike. Deeper understanding would come later.
Our adventure began in the parking lot of Big Sur State Park and took us to the top of Mount Manuel, then off the trail through the brush and steep canyons into Doolans Hole, a foreboding depression in the redwood undergrowth. In the upper reaches of Doolans Hole we would find a rare freak of nature: An albino redwood tree.
From Doolans Hole our course lay east over the ridge to the Ventana Window. We would climb the east side of the Window and trek along the ridge to the Double Cone Peak. We would return to the Window, then hike down its steep south side to Ventana Creek. We would follow the creek to where it merges with the Big Sur River just below Ventana Camp then pick up the Pine Ridge Trail to the state park. We carried climbing ropes, which we would need at least three times: To climb out of the Window, to rappel back into the Window, and to descend the steep cliffs surrounding a 50-foot waterfall on the upper reaches of Ventana Creek.
In the sixties, when we were in high school, the Ventana Chapter of the Sierra Club was all over the Ventana Wilderness like yellow jackets on raw meat. The chapter's mountaineering section, which totaled maybe ten regular and ten occasional hearty souls--was not content to stick to the forest service trails. (Who can tell trail from not-trail in the Ventana half the time anyway?) Wielding machete, folding saw and trail tape, some of the more ardent members bushwhacked their way through the heart of the wilderness along every conceivable contour and corridor.
Led by Ward Allison of Pebble Beach, Sam Hopkins of Carmel, Norm McBride of Carmel and others, they attacked the Ventana with the tenacity and perseverance of a team of mountaineers laying siege to Everest. Ward Allison was the impresario, a man obsessed.
There were great tales, mostly true, of wild off-trail Sunday hikes led by Ward. He always counseled to carry a flashlight and plenty of food. With good reason. You never knew where you might end up or when you'd return. On one trip, Ward's dog gave out and he hefted the poor creature into a fireman's carry and lugged him out of the wilderness. He didn't arrive home until Monday morning after a bivouac in a ravine. (Warning: Make sure your dog's in good shape before you invite him along.)
There were plenty of other Ward tales. Once he and a fellow named Jim Shipley, an artist, rock climber and former circus acrobat from Monterey, bivouacked on the rim of Yosemite Valley after they completed the standard route on Washington's Column. They hadn't planned to make an overnight of it and Ward had to wrap the ropes around himself to keep warm. My story is about the Ventana Wilderness, but the Washington Column bivouac becomes relevant, as you will see.
I always suspected that Ward had an extra joker in his deck, which probably accounted for his zest for adventure. His eyes had the distant stare of madness --or genius, depending on your perspective. Whatever he might be talking about at the moment, you just had the feeling that in his mind he was blazing his next Ventana cross-country route or preparing for his next Yosemite escapade.
In his mid-forties when I knew him, Ward was tall and lean with a chiseled face. He had survived a severe broken back earlier in life and was told he'd never walk again. His wilderness exploits were undoubtedly designed, in some measure, to scorn whatever gods he believed had conspired against him. He was an inspiring wilderness leader, an enthusiastic mentor and an unselfish teacher. He lent me ropes and other equipment for my adventures. He took me on my first practice climbs at Granite Creek and the Pinnacles, led my first Yosemite climb and taught me to belay, rappel and tie climbing knots.
(Ward's wisdom: Practice tying knots under a cold shower with your eyes closed. I don't' know if he ever practiced what he preached. However, I understood his message a few years later when two climbers stranded at night in bad weather on El Capitan died because one of their knots came undone during a rappel to a ledge. My Mom didn't mind me going off on wild adventures as long as I didn't tell her about them, but she drew the line at dragging a piece of old gold-line into the shower.)
To get back to my story, George and I left late one afternoon in early spring from the Mount Manuel trail head in Big Sur State Park, where my father had dropped us off. We quickly hiked to the top and bivouacked underneath an enormous coastal live oak alongside the Mount Manuel trail, a few hundred yards from the summit and near the spot where we would leave the trail the next morning to follow the Sierra Club's flags into Doolans Hole.
It was cold and damp so we pulled a water repellent tarp over our sleeping bags. Good thing, too, because it rained lightly most of the night. Upon waking next morning it was bright, cold and clear. The ridges and peaks to the east of us--including the ridge we would traverse later that day into the Window -- were dusted with snow. And further east we could see more storm clouds coming.
"Wow, look at that," said George with characteristic enthusiasm.
"Maybe we'll see some snow later today, if it doesn't melt first," I said, secretly wondering if we really wanted to see snow.
George and I loved our wilderness outings. That much we had in common. Our five years of shared adventures, beginning when we were about 16, were a bridge into manhood. And they became the ties that would bind us for more than three decades. In some fundamental ways, however, we couldn't have been more different. He was lanky; I was stout. He was tennis; I was football. His glass was half full; mine was half empty. He was logic; I was intuition. He was sincere; I was sarcastic. He loved the journey; I thrived on conquest. (He was John Muir; I was, uh, Ward Allison?) We made a good team.
We ate breakfast, packed and sauntered down the trail to where the first of Ward's yellow trail tape flags was strung. If you didn't know what to look for, you would have passed by it. If you saw it, you might have thought the forest service was marking a tree to prune, which didn't make any sense. They didn't even do a good job of keeping the trails cleared, let alone prune shrubs a few yards off the trail.
On Ward's instructions, we knew the yellow flag marked the start of a bushwhacked trail-- of sorts. The precipitous path led down a nearly shear hillside of oak, chaparral, manzanita and madrone. We could barely make out where they had followed what might have been a deer path. The flags were every 30 yards or so and the occasional machete or saw bite also marked their trail. Even if we had lost sight of the flags, it soon became clear that all we had to do was to kick a stone and follow it down the hillside descending steeply into the watershed of Doolans Hole Creek.
As we descended we lost the sun. It grew dark, damp and chilly. We knew we were getting close to the bottom when the tops of redwood trees began to appear. The yellow flags had pretty much petered out but it was obvious which way to go. The steep decline at this point made it inconvenient if not down right perilous to stop and tie off a flag. One slip and it was ass over tea kettle all the way to the bottom--unless you hit a redwood. It was almost steep enough to warrant letting out our 200 foot rappel line. Being young and cocksure, we trusted our feet.
At the bottom we found ourselves surrounded by redwoods. Lining the narrow creek was a forest of woodwardia fern and elk's clover, lush, green and unusually tall. As with many of the nooks and crannies of the redwood country, Doolans Hole is a world of its own, something out of a fairy tale (sometimes a frightening one). Dark, foreboding, the silent redwood canopy suggests of hobbits, trolls and witches.
"Wouldn't surprise me to run into a hippie up here," I said.
"No Bill," George said, kicking logic into high gear. "No hippie is going to spend the time and energy to come back in this far."
He missed my joke, but he was right. We would see no one that day.
We immediately began the upstream blitz. There were no yellow flags--none had been promised--and we needed to follow the creek until we came upon a large grove of trees that housed the Great White Redwood. It would be on our right hand side as we faced upstream, Ward had counseled.
The stream was tough going, as Ventana rock hopping usually is. Big boulders and small, redwood burls and large tree stumps blocked our way. Fortunately, the canyon walls never became steep enough to prevent us from crashing through the underbrush alongside the stream when the creek bed became too cluttered. It was preferable to stay in the creek. As tedious as the rock hop was, it was better than breaking brush on the bank.
Somewhere along the way, it began to drizzle. After about an hour the terrain flattened and soon we came to a spot where the stream widened a bit. A small clearing lay before us on the right bank with a large stand of redwood trees. There, in front of the stand, looking like a tall, scrawny flocked Christmas tree, was the Great White.
Before our adventure, George and I had learned that there were three known albino redwood trees in the coastal forests. To this day, one can be seen near the pay booth of the private Fern Campground in Big Sur. A shrub maybe five foot high by ten foot across, it is redwood in all respects but one: the needles are creamy white. I believe most people pass by that albino shrub without noticing it. A campground attendant admitted as much once. From time to time --most recently last spring--I return to the see the creature.
We had been told there was an albino redwood in Humboldt County, which I've never tried to find and don't know if it still exists. The one we were looking at now was real different from the one at Fern Campground. The Doolans Hole albino had a thin reed of a trunk that reached maybe 15 to 20 feet, although it looked even higher. Hard to tell; you lose perspective among those giants.
The two albinos I've seen have one thing in common. They produce no chlorophyll. George took a sample of the albino redwood and back at home ran a check on its composition to verify there was not a drop of chlorophyll in the needles. The albino thrives off the chlorophyll of the trees around it. Our Great White Redwood was a parasite.
"I can't believe we didn't bring a camera," I whined.
"Aw, it's too dark anyway," said George. "A picture wouldn't turn out."
At times like this George and I usually bubbled over with the sometimes wise, often silly pronouncements that can only come from the fountain of youth. This day, however, we were mostly silent, the wonder and oddity of the moment beyond words for two sophomoric philosophers.
As we stood in awe it began to rain harder. We still had a long way to go. Our destination was the Ventana Window, and we knew the route would get tougher. We had to scale a steep incline to the ridgeline then follow another bushwhacked cross country path to the Window, where we planned to spend two nights. We filled several empty water bottles because once we left Doolans Hole we would not return to water for nearly three days. We bid farewell to the albino tree, figuring we weren't likely to pass this way again.
(When George found out I was writing this article, he went to find the albino. We thought it might have fallen victim to one of the forest fires of the last two decades. God must watch over fools and albino redwoods. George found it, and so we know the albino survives.)
Following Ward Allison's instructions, we left the creek bed and began to mount the sheer dirt slope leading from the basin. We were soon out of the redwoods and into the tan oak and alder, intermixed with small open grassy meadows. With full water bottles, our packs had increased in weight by more than half and every step was a chore. We rested often, looking back to see where we had been. The rain was falling harder and where we should have seen Doolans Hole and the slope of Mount Manuel was only mist.
At some point the rain turned to sleet and a short time later to snow. We tramped up a near vertical meadow, dipping under the oaks from time to time, then into the open again. We were climbing to the end of a ridge, whose contour we would follow east to the Window. We wouldn't pick up the yellow flags and bushwhacked trail again until we topped out on the ridge at a large unnamed bald marked on topographical maps with approximate elevation of 3,412. The Sierra Clubbers called it Mulberger's Dome after Roy Mulberger a local Sierra Clubber. I'm not certain the first name was Roy and I'm not certain of the spelling of his last name.
I am quite certain of one thing: The worst was just beginning. Light snow dusted the dome; the snow falling now was sticking for good. For the next two hours or more we would crash through manzanita, chaparral and increasingly deeper snow, making our way to the Window, a distance of less than a mile. The snow was drifting to depths of one to two feet along the north side of the ridge. In lightweight hiking boots and blue jeans we were unprepared for trail breaking in snow. We were soaked in no time, but we weren't cold because we were working so hard. We swapped the lead often because it was at least a little easier for the man following.
Snow covered the narrow bushwhacked trail and we only had the flags to mark the way. They led generally along the north side of the ridge. In clear weather we would have seen the Little Sur watershed, Pico Blanco and Bouchers Gap to the north and Ventana Double Cone directly ahead. In the snow storm we couldn't see a thing.
And snow storm it was becoming. We were maybe halfway between the dome and the Window when the precipitation picked up and the snow began to fall heavily. George and I usually hiked with a lot of banter between us. Now we were silent. Neither of us wanted to admit we were nervous. We needed to get to the Window and figure out what to do next. Although rare, snows like this one are not unknown in the Ventana. We were experienced woodsmen who had found ourselves in heavy rain before but not snowfall like this.
Three years earlier I had spent part of an Easter week huddled under a tarp at Carmel River Camp with three other fellows hoping that a torrential rain would lift. We remained relatively dry and saw no point in continuing our planned trek up the Carmel River to Hiding Camp. For one thing, the trail crosses Carmel River two or three dozen times between Carmel River Camp and Hiding. The stream was as high as I had ever seen it and very dangerous. At the very least, we'd be soaked at every crossing. So we sat under our makeshift tents, kept a fire going and were comfortable.
On the third day, the rain let up and we hiked without packs to Hiding Camp and back in one day. The river crossings proved perilous enough without packs. By the time we started the return trip to Carmel River Camp our legs were so chafed we took off our pants and underpants and walked half naked for several miles, certain that no one else was fool enough to be out in this weather. We returned safely to our snug bivouac and plenty of dry firewood and hot coffee.
I could be almost comfortable in heavy rain. Snow? That was different. People died in snow, didn't they? Hypothermia? The mind was at work the entire snow-crunching schlep along the ridge to the Window. George was silent, but based on what happened a little while later I know his mind was working on overtime, too.
Southside of the Window, taken from the Double Cone.
I had trekked into the Window three times before from the north side, including once with George. On those trips, we left from Pico Blanco Scout Camp, followed the north fork of the Little Sur to where Jackson Creek empties into it, then followed Jackson to a spot where the Sierra Club's yellow flags led away from the creek, over a rise and into the final draw that ended in the Window. That last half mile is just about as steep as it looks from Boucher's Gap. It's nearly straight up and if the ground beneath were hard rock instead of scree, it might be necessary to rope up.
The point is, we knew what lay ahead in the Window. It's more or less well protected and the Sierra Club folks had cached emergency supplies there. As we slogged through the snow I entertained the fantasy --a clear symptom of frozen brain--that we might find some Sierra Clubbers there with a fire going, or a tent among the emergency supplies, or some dry firewood under cover.
The Window was as empty as death. The only things in the cache were a couple of full water bottles, which we didn't need, and some dried food. The snow was now full force and piling up ever higher. It had not drifted as deep in the Window as it had in the lee of the ridge, but there at least a foot here. We were soaked and when we stopped hiking we began to get icy cold. The wind shot through the sawtooth gap with a fury worse than on the ridge. The chill factor: ass freezing.
Without hardly speaking we instinctively began to rig a shelter with our water repellent --not impervious--tarp and soon found ourselves crawling into our sleeping bags under the tarp. I wrapped the rope around my legs -- a la Ward Allison--for more insulation. George declined to share it with me. He was right. The rope didn't help much. (Under less severe conditions I recommend the technique. Wrapping the rope around my body would help me keep warm on several Yosemite bivouacs.)
It wasn't dark yet, and we began to talk about our predicament. We were bone cold, had no dry clothes and if this snow kept up we'd be buried by morning. We reasoned that as cold as we were, susceptible to hypothermia, we'd be better off if we could just keep walking, even in the dark, and at least stay warm by exercise. Keep the body moving, keep generating body heat. But where to? Back the way we came? Not a chance.
The original plan was to leave our gear here the next morning, climb the east wall of the Window and skirt the ridge over to the Double Cone and back. Lying under the tarp we briefly considered whether we could make it to the Double Cone with our packs, then break into the lookout tower, which still stood in those days, for a dry protected place to spend the night. More frozen brain. Not in this snow, not with this wind, not with darkness descending quickly. Climbing the east wall of the Window was tough Class 4, which is one reason we had brought the rope. One slip in the snow and we'd have a catastrophe on our hands.
Jackson Creek watershed taken from the top of the Window.
The only option was to pack up and head down the Jackson Creek side into the Little Sur basin. We knew the route, and it wouldn't be long before we were below the snow line. We relished sleeping in the rain at a lower elevation where presumably it would be warmer than staying in the wind, cold and snow at 4,000 feet.
The sky was that eerie opaque it gets just before dark under storm conditions. We quietly packed and began the steep descent down the north side of the Window, realizing that our planned goal of hiking over to the Double Cone, then descending out the south side of the Window and following the Ventana Creek back to the Big Sur River would have to wait for another time.
As we dropped below the snow line we found ourselves in a controlled slide down the scree slope. Somewhere near the bottom of the talus we picked up the yellow flags that marked the way over to Jackson Creek. It was black as night now--hell, it was night--and we needed flashlights. After less than an hour of brush crashing in darkness we reached Jackson Creek. In this rain, the creek was much more than the trickle I'd seen on previous trips.
It was too dark to continue down the creek to Fox Camp on the Little Sur, a trek of two or three hours in daylight. The rain was pouring, even harder than when we left the Window. We had guessed right, though. It was warmer. We erected the tarp and slipped into our sleeping bags. We cranked up the stove to brew some tea and soup before sleeping fitfully.
It rained hard most of the night and was drizzling when we rose the next morning. We quickly ate breakfast, packed and began the trek to Fox Camp then west along the Little Sur River to Pico Blanco Scout Camp. We reached the deserted camp at midday, and used a pay phone to call one of our parents to come meet us in Boucher's Gap late that afternoon.
We hiked up the road to Boucher's. By the time we reached the gap the storm was lifting and we could see the Double Cone, the Window and the ridge we had traversed the day before. From the end of the ridge on the west to the Double Cone on the east everything was solid white. It had been one of the worst storms either of us could remember. Although dejected at our failure we were happy not to be in the Window under all that snow.
The ridge that leads east from the top of the Window to the Double Cone.
That wasn't our last Window adventure. In better weather we returned with a friend, Terry Trotter, to complete what we had set out to do on the aborted trip: Climb the east wall of the Window, cross the ridge to the Double Cone, return to the Window by rappel and descend the south side to Ventana Creek. We started at Pico Blanco Scout Camp and did not repeat the Doolans Hole segment. As exhilarating as it was to climb out of and rappel into the Window, it didn't come close to matching the adventure of seeing the albino redwood and slogging through the snow.
Bill Roberts (red shirt) and George St. Clair (beret) on the Double Cone lookout tower.
As for the albino redwood, it took years before my encounter with it assumed any larger meaning in my life. About 25 years, to be exact. In the midst of a severe mid-life crisis, when I was simultaneously very depressed and very creative, I penned a few words that gave the episode a mytho-poetic importance for me.
George and I already had been best friends for several years. I taught him to swim; we worked together in the Scout camp. For better or worse, the snowbound trip into the Window was one of those defining moments in our lives that bonded us forever. Having survived that perilous adventure together, we trust each other implicitly. Over the years, our life paths took us in different directions, but we never lost touch and whenever we reconnected we would pick up right where the conversation left off the last time.
Today we live in the same county and get together frequently. George is a public school teacher and administrator who spends most of his free time hiking in the Ventana and other wilderness areas. I'm a writer and spend most of my time wandering through the wilderness of words. As much as I enjoyed my youthful adventures then, I like telling good yarns now. Especially when, like this one, they are mostly true.
Copyright, 1999, William C. Roberts
Looking north from the southern summit of the Double Cone.