Pacific marine layer filling Matilija Creek watershed at sunrise, as seen on the drive to the trailhead. (Sunset marine layer view from same location 2010)
There is no trail and we had no knowledge of other people having done it. We had no idea what to expect. Is it possible to descend Haddock Mountain into the Potrero John Creek watershed and make it to Sespe Creek with a only a pair of boots and trekking poles, no ropes, harnesses or other such mountaineering gear?
Stillman thought it worth a try (DavidStillman.blogspot.com). I agreed. Sometimes strolling along the well-beaten path of local trails becomes too routine and of too little consequence. It amounts more to glorified walking rather than hiking. This venture, on the other hand, promised to bring us to the borderline separating hiking and canyoneering.
Reaching the west end of Haddock Mountain, we left the official U.S. Forest Service trail, walked up a few yards across the bare soil of the ridgeline and dropped into the canyon. We began the slow and deliberate switchback zigzaggery necessary to avoid slipping off our feet while descending the steep slope covered in loose rocks.
Picking our way through the talus, Stillman leading, while I tried to avoid kicking boulders on his head, we quickly reached a section requiring a few minutes of thoughtful analysis to determine the most effective route.
Stillman disappeared around a small protrusion of weathered, gritty bedrock and, emerging on its east side, advised me on a route between a wiry manzanita bush growing up against the sandstone mass he was working his way around from below. I trust it looked far better from his perspective, because from my view above I wanted nothing to do with it. I found a way down a few yards to the east. We continued down through the stone rubble field, and were soon funneled into a bedrock throat between towering formations covered in neon green lichen, which can be seen thousands of feet below from Highway 33.
This upper section wasn’t hairy, but I’m not sure that the photos accurately convey the steepness of the slope. I would sum it up as enough to raise my heartbeat in at least one place, for sure, perhaps more, but good fun nonetheless. If you’re an experienced climber or mountaineer then it rates as easy.
At a certain place a point is crossed and there is no going back. Or at the very least you really, really hope you aren’t forced to attempt a return due to unfavorable geography which makes continuing impossible. It’s a point at which commitment to the end goal, the bottom of the canyon thousands of feet below, is resolutely affirmed and accepted once and for all as unalterable fact, because the difficulty of returning up slope is unthinkable.
And so you slip, slide and scramble your way down the barren mountain and over the weathered sandstone outcrops clinging precariously to tree stumps and branches and what little stability there exists on the side of a crumbly, ragged and highly eroded 7400′ mountain.
The body is burdened with the physical strain of resisting gravity when lowering oneself down walls of bedrock and trying to maintain traction while walking down steep slopes covered in loose rocks and sand. The mind is burdened with the intense concentration necessary to cross sketchy sections that threaten great bodily harm or death, and when that wanes, it’s nagged with a lingering thought: Will we be able to make it to the bottom where the car is parked or will we come up on a sheer rock face that is impassible? And if so then what? Will we have to bushwhack up steep sun-blasted hillsides of dense chaparral and if so for how long? Or will be forced to return the way we came and some how pull ourselves up out of the notch of the canyon and claw our way up the unstable crumbly slope for several thousand feet?
We sat for a few minutes resting in the cool, shady creek bed listening to the sound of trickling spring water and discussing the nature of the route we had thus far taken. My head heated from the effort, a slight headache coming on, I swept chilly creek water over my face, forehead and hair. I swallowed some Advil with plenty of water and got some food down, and felt refreshed and ready to ramble.
It had been, for the most part, relatively easy going. Steep? Yes. Requiring decent physical effort? Certainly. A few sections where a slip or fall could have meant possibly serious consequences? Absolutely. But, based on the nature of the mountain, it was nothing too bad. I was feeling very good about it all. And we made mention of it; how smoothly the day was playing out.
Then within probably like fifty yards or less after resuming our hike, as if the mountain was mocking us in response to our discussion a few minutes before, we came across the first real obstacle. It was precisely what I had been concerned about; a substantial waterfall impossible to descend and with no apparent route around it upon first glance. This sucker was tall and hemmed in by steep rocky cliffs and crags on either side. And at this point we were deep into our hike. Returning back to the top of the peak would have been ass-kickingly miserable! We had to locate a route by which to continue down canyon.
Stillman decided to chart a course to the east, to his left in the above photo, through some pine trees and up a very steep slope of exposed knobby bedrock. I didn’t like this one bit. It was pushing my limits, which I made known when asked, but still, I reasoned and felt mentally, very much doable for me. My heart beat picked up and beads of sweat began percolating above my brow. But after a few minutes I felt calmer as I acclimated to the situation. At one point I asked myself why I drag my body into these situations, rather than staying in town in perfect safety lounging around on the sofa surrounded by the comfort and convenience of home.
Unlike Stillman, I’m not a rock climber, and have no mountaineering experience. I was really hoping not to be the weak link in this situation, as we picked our way up the bedrock blanketed with pockets of pine needles and sandy dirt, kicking loose small boulders along the way, which bounced down the crag and plummeted over the edge of the cliff. The loose rocks slammed into the stone lined canyon out of sight far below us. The hammering sound resonated through the high mountain air with an unsettling emphasis that made it plainly evident, should one of us slip and fall, we’d be lucky to end up in the hospital, but perhaps more likely to end up in the morgue.
Stillman removed his pack and set his trekking poles aside and proceeded to climb up a pine tree jutting out of the rock, and then, trying another course, began a scramble up a flat slope of stone. I sat in nervous amusement watching him make it look carefree and easy. After starting to look at a third option, he called it off.
We hiked a short distance back up the creek and then found an open route up a slope of deep gravel. Leaving the slope of loose rocks we penetrated through a section of heavy brush, our only bushwhacking of the day, and popped out atop a ridgeline overlooking a huge section of scree.
After the previous aborted attempt up the sketchy rock section the steep pebbly slope looked inviting. But rather than being covered in a thick layer of gravel into which we could sink our feet and gain traction, it was essentially a sheet of rock covered in ball bearings. We slid slowly down it on our butts digging our heals into what little loose rock existed and in some places skidding the soles of our boots on bare rock, while bracing against out trekking poles, and trying as best we could to not break into an unstoppable free slide. It wasn’t easy to keep from breaking free. By about halfway down I was wondering just how far up my rear my pants were going to be shoved.
I busted the top off one of my poles and ripped one pocket off the butt of my nylon pants and Stillman scratched up his leg pretty good. There were two trees on the slope, the second one rooted just above a short ledge of a few feet and we both used it to break our slide. Stillman broke loose several yards above and to the side of tree and skillfully snatched its trunk with one hand as he slid by. I was a little more squarely line up to the tree, and as I came sliding toward it a bit faster than planned, I was able to stop myself by jamming my foot straight against the trunk. From that point we were able to walk-slide down the remainder of the slope which had a far deeper coverage of gravel.
The scree slide allowing our return to the creek, the toughest part of the hike was then behind us. Boulder hoping on down the canyon, with several short detours out of the creek bed to get around waterfalls, we made swift time at a leisurely pace. We came across a long line of black half-inch irrigation tubing some boneheaded guerrilla marijuana farmer had run down the creek bed in plain sight. The irrigation line seemed to go on forever running over boulders, across open soil and drooping along the sheer bedrock faces lining the creek’s edge. For as much work was required to haul the heavy spool of plastic tubing up the far reaches of the canyon, and then unroll it back down the creek, there was no effort to conceal it. It was a pretty pathetic looking operation.
We made our way down numerous unnamed good-sized, respectable waterfalls or cascades before arriving at the largest one, Potrero John Falls. Potrero John Falls was the last obstacle to get around and once we were there I finally breathed a sigh of relief; there was no longer any question that we had made it down the canyon; there was no longer the possibility that we would walk up to a sheer rock face we couldn’t get down or around. The rest of the route then followed the frequently traveled trail down to Potrero John Camp and then the well-beaten US Forest Service trail down to Highway 33. The descent was done.
A log jam in lower Potrero John Creek showing the high level of water and tremendous force that rips through the canyon during heavy winter rains. The wood was jumbled up in a dry channel, while the creek was flowing a short distance away.