“There should be a stream somewhere around here,” I explained through a parched throat, meticulously studying a topographic map that I had printed on computer paper.
It was a late summer morning on the north flank of Cone Peak, the second highest mountain in Big Sur on California’s central coast. We hadn’t passed a water source in about 24 hours, and having climbed and descended thousands of feet since then in the dry summer heat did not bode well for our limited supply of water.
A multitude of other factors exacerbated the situation, like my hot, heavy jeans and our burdensome packs.
Now, we were not on the verge of death by any means, and we had even carefully mapped out the water sources on the route, but I think around that point, we realized that we had underestimated the hike that we were on a bit, or maybe just backpacking as a whole.
That three-day 27-mile loop that I completed with my friends Nate and Kai when I was 20 years old in 2012 was quite the learning experience, but also one of the coolest hikes that I have ever been on to this day.
That was the basis for which I compared all future hikes and applied the various lessons learned to improve my outdoors experiences.
“Half Dome? Well it can’t be worse than that time we did Cone Peak.”
“40+ miles over 5 days in Patagonia? Piece of cake, remember that hike we did to Cone Peak?”
I’ve referenced this trip so many times over the years and it truly was a classic struggle with some good friends, as well a fantastic beginner’s learning experience by being thrown into the lion’s den. I figured that it was a story worth telling, to not let it get lost in my distant memory, and also there are probably a few lessons that others could benefit from out of this.
Now this was seven years ago, so a few details might be fuzzy, but I will do my best to recount.
As I explained in my previous post, after visiting Yosemite for the first time in 2011, I was particularly inspired to get more in touch with the outdoors. I had seen nature in a light that I had somehow missed despite the countless hours I spent in the woods of the Santa Cruz mountains growing up. I had a sudden urge to backpack.
Now, I had been car camping and day hiking plenty of times, but I didn’t know the first thing about backpacking. It’s a whole different ballgame to carry the few necessities on your back with no car to rely on when the going gets tough.
My friends Kai and Nate had a little more experience than me in that department and they were equally excited to get in the outdoors.
After a bit of research, we homed in on a hike in Big Sur — Cone Peak.
The second highest mountain in the area at 5,155 feet (with the best views since the highest mountain, Junipero Serra Peak, doesn’t have a view of the ocean), we picked out a 27-mile loop trail that started at sea level, summited Cone Peak, and headed back down the other side to meet the trail near where we started.
27 miles, three days, 5,000 feet up and down. It seemed like a challenge, but that’s what we were looking for. Our logic was that we didn’t want to do something that was too easy and get bored, but we also, knowingly, didn’t really know what a full day of backpacking was.
So off we set for Cone Peak on a foggy, summer morning to give backpacking a shot.
Trial by error: learning how to backpack on the go
I got my first lesson of the trip pretty quick. My cumbersome, hot jeans were extremely uncomfortable to hike in.
The lower elevations of the hike were infested with ticks, so my logic was that I needed to wear pants to avoid tick bites. Back then I rarely wore pants, so my options were pretty limited, and my jeans just looked like the best of the bad options.
I did manage to keep the ticks off, as I had to brush them away every ten minutes or so of the hike, but the heat and rubbing from the heavy jean material was already uncomfortable after a mile or two.
When we reached the first water source, we discovered that our UV light pen didn’t work, at least we thought. I don’t remember how many liters we each had, maybe 3 or 4, but we were forced to fill up our water bottles and clean the water with chlorine tablets, which need at least four hours to be effective.
We weren’t too worried at the time, but that was the start of our water issues. Our next water source was not going to be until the following morning when we summited and descended the peak to the other side.
The next section of the hike was a surprisingly difficult 2-3 mile stretch of switchbacks with little-to-no shade. We moved at a painstakingly slow speed and started to reach deep into our water supply.
I got my first taste of tough hiking with a heavy pack. It makes your shoulders hurt in places that you didn’t know could hurt.
We pushed on until the trail reached a fire road, where we found a spot to camp and cook our luxurious piece of tri-tip that Nate had brought.
There were a series of lessons to be learned here, starting with the fact that tri-tip is a terrible choice for backpacking food. It is heavy, contains a lot of juice, and it doesn’t exactly keep well in the heat during a day of hiking.
What were we thinking? We were thinking about how damn good it tasted. I am sure that was a big relief to take out of Nate’s pack, which already was overflowing with items, including a bulky John Krakauer book that he had strapped to his pack.
As we cooked and then ate the tri-tip, we all found ourselves yearning for more water than we could afford to drink. The saltiness made us thirsty, but we could only take a few sips of water as we knew our next fill up wasn’t until after a good amount of hiking the next day.
We set up our sleeping bags under the stars, but we were soon thereafter awakened by a sound.
We kept hearing crawling noises. At first it sounded like it was coming from the woods, but we soon discovered that it was actually very tiny noises coming from within inches of our ears.
The ground had become infested with stink bugs as darkness overcame the mountain. They were crawling all over our bags, our sleeping bags, everywhere.
We had opted not to carry the extra weight of a tent, but looking back on it, we definitely could have left unnecessary items behind and brought one. A tent is not always necessary if you are confident that it won’t rain, but the peace of mind of being in a tent definitely helps with a relatively good night’s sleep out in the woods.
We made a blockade with our bags and tried to sleep as best we could. Eventually, we fell asleep, accepting that stink bugs were probably going to crawl on us at night.
What’s an impassable trail?
We woke up the next morning and jammed up the trail to summit Cone Peak.
Our water was still rather low, but not so dire that we would turn around or start drinking piss (does that even work?). According to our maps and research, after summiting Cone Peak, we would have to descend a couple miles until reaching a reliable stream.
I remembered using a bit of my water to brush my teeth and getting some dirty looks from the others for unnecessary water use. I don’t know why, but I guess I was confident that we’d find water in no time.
We made quick work of the mile or so to the top of Cone Peak. The views were amazing, stretching to the horizon in nearly every direction. The fog obscured the view of the ocean, but those that live in California know that fog in June is as certain as are death and taxes. It was expected.
We took a moment to enjoy the views, having climbed nearly a mile up from sea level to a peak that sits only three miles from the sea. Cone Peak’s gradient from the sea is the best of any mountain in the lower 48 states. It’s essentially the highest you can be only three miles (as the crow flies) from the ocean.
We were looking forward to our descent to quench our thirst. The only thing that stood between us and where we believed a stream to be was a trail that was labeled ‘impassable’ online.
So, what is an impassable trail?
Apparently, it’s a neglected trail that is strewn with fallen trees and landslides, making it especially strenuous and directionally difficult to follow at times.
I can recall countless obstacles, mainly fallen trees, that required climbing over or under or circumnavigation to gain the original trail.
We pushed through to what felt like the finish line, where the ‘impassable’ section ends, just above a stream that for us felt like a grand oasis.
The stream was not much more than a trickle, but it was moving just enough as to not be stagnant water. It was drinkable.
We threw down our burdensome backpacks, filled up our water and quenched our thirst that had been pestering us since the previous morning.
A mystical waterfall in the redwood forest
Water bottles full and camaraderie making a rebound, our next goal was to make it to camp for the second night. We still had quite a bit of distance to cover and altitude to descend to make it to our desired destination for camp.
There was a river, a much more reliable water source than the previous stream, about a day’s walk down the trail. We figured that this would be an excellent place to camp, avoiding the water shortage of the previous night.
Standing between us and our camp was another section of trail labeled ‘impassable’. This time not due to fallen trees, but overgrown, tall grass.
We continued down the worn trail, which I recall being unrelentingly steep. The downhill hike was hard on our knees, and the hike itself was taking a toll on our bodies. Nate and Kai had developed uncomfortable blisters, with plenty of hiking still left to go.
As we moved along the trail, we came across a trail maintenance crew. Their goal was to make the coming up impassable trail, passable. They were armed with shovels, hoes, and even some power tools if I remember correctly, which they had lugged all the way up there by themselves.
The leader of the crew looked surprised to see us, as we were coming down a section of trail that was not supposed to be possible. We probably looked like shit, a combination of exhaustion, dirt, and bloody scratches that we had acquired during the tree climbing.
He was clearly concerned for our safety, as he explained in detail how to keep the trail in order to get out of there. He even gave us his trail map and requested that we report online about the trail conditions upon returning home, probably just to clear his conscience that we didn’t disappear in the wilderness under his watch.
As we continued down the trail the rest of his crew didn’t say a word to us. They examined us head to toe, probably noting that we didn’t have much of a clue what we were doing.
The impassable trail ahead of us was basically just steep, grassy hillsides. There was not even a faint trail to be spoken of, apart from zigzagging deer tracks. As planned, we maintained our elevation until we found the trail on the other side, one step closer to the river that we were looking for.
Nate and Kai were beginning to suffer due to their blisters, especially Nate who had raw skin exposed on both of his heels. I developed a blister of my own, but I couldn’t complain comparing mine to the ragged state of Nate’s feet.
Unsure of where the river was, or if it even existed, morale began to decline again. We were losing daylight and still had not arrived at the river. Nate, understandably, wanted to call it a day and set up camp.
He dropped his bag next to a puddle of stagnant water and declared that it was the river that we were searching for.
I, being the stubborn backpacker that I am, continued to study our topographic maps, adamant that the river lied a short distance ahead.
Nate took his shoes off in protest. I decided to go ahead to scout the trail before giving in to another night short on water.
The rumbling of water started to tickle my ears. As the trail descended into a ravine, the river that we were searching for came into view, with water rushing through the gorge, cascading over rocks and fallen trees.
We yelled for Nate to get his ass down there.
The steep gorge made for a terrible place for setting up camp. The walls dropped down towards the river at impossible angles to camp on. After searching for flat ground, we were ready to give up and sleep on the trail itself, which at least provided a relatively flat area free of shrubs.
On one last search attempt, I poked my head over a hill upstream and was ecstatic to discover what to this day I consider my favorite camp site ever. There was a waterfall about 10 feet high, feeding a pool below. On the left side there was a flat, open area perfect for camping. It was clear that we were not the first hikers to discover this gem, as a fire ring was already prepared, and a clothes line was strung between the redwood trees.
We got an unexpected shower under the waterfall, scraping away layers of dirt that turned the pool below brown. Water was plentiful and we cooked our dinner over a campfire in the thick redwood grove.
We were in paradise as far as I was concerned.
The final push
We purposefully planned for the last day to be the easiest. We had just about eight or so downhill miles to make it back to our car parked on the side of highway 1.
We were on a high from the epic campsite from the night before, which included showers for all, delicious food, and no bugs to disrupt our sleep, but that didn’t make the pain from our aching bodies feel any better.
At this point our legs felt like logs and pulling shoes over our open blisters was an excruciating challenge in itself.
We hauled ourselves downhill one step at a time, trudging past peppy day hikers who had no idea what we had been through.
So, after three days, 27 miles, and 5,000+ feet of climbing, we survived our first backpacking trip. Sometimes I wonder why we didn’t pick an easier trail to warm up to sleeping in the outdoors. Backpacking is only as hard as you make it, after all.
Despite the pain, it’s safe to say I was hooked. The desolation, raw wilderness, and escape from routine was the start of a new hobby for me.
I learned a lot and my future trips definitely improved based on this experience. I learned what I needed to immediately replace, such as hiking pants, and what I could continue to be thrifty with, such as a sleeping bag and pad.
Since then I have definitely invested in better gear and my backpacking trips are becoming more comfortable. I recently got my first down sleeping bag.
I’ll always remember Cone Peak as my first stab at trying something new and unknown. I think we all came out of that trip slightly changed, with a new perspective on our physical and mental limits.
Maybe in 2022 I’ll make a 10-year anniversary trip of the climb of Cone Peak. This time, I’ll be much better prepared.