Lost and Found: Sea to Summit on Big Sur’s Cone Peak

Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters
It is Christmas Day, 2014. The sun will set in less than an hour. The temperature has plummeted into the thirties. Crouched on a parapet of treacherous, rotten stone, I am surrounded by potentially ugly, fatal falls in three of the four cardinal directions. Frigid gusts of wind swirl up the deliriously steep cliffs of crumbling rock, down from the wide sky, across this preposterously beautiful, dangerous and exposed ridge in Big Sur. I rock back and forth like a punch-drunk prizefighter as the wind buffets my backpack.

To the west, the mountain tumbles more than 5,000 feet down to the Pacific Ocean where I began my climb eight hours earlier. The winter sun blazes coldly on the horizon; it ticks like a clock in my head. To the east, miles of Ventana Wilderness are already drowned in shadow. Back the way I came, the jagged ridge leers toothily. My goal—a fire lookout tower perched on the summit of Cone Peak—looms several hundred yards to the south. Unfortunately, a daunting necklace of stark cliffs and precarious footholds is strung between there and here.

I am dehydrated, hungry and cold. And tired—so very, very tired. As I sway in the wind on this ridge, the sun sinks closer to the dazzling ocean. It throws long angles of shadow across the landscape below me at gargantuan scale, making the whole of Big Sur appear strangely intimate and small. This beautiful mountain range seems to be folding in on itself like origami from day into night. I am running out of time.

Rotating awkwardly on my perch, I prepare to descend back down this misbegotten route. I must recover the faint trail as soon as possible. Yet the sharp flume of eroding rock I have just climbed looks scary and severe. Did I really just climb this? Woozily, I glance sideways, hundreds of feet down to the shadowy scree slope below. My head swims. It is not an altogether unpleasant sensation. At once, a disembodied voice echoes inside my head. It cries, “Alone!” It does not sound like me, this distant voice. It is completely panicked. Dreamily, it occurs to me that I am moving beyond exhaustion, beyond fear and into something else. This does not alter the fact that I have to do something—either hunker down on this dangerously exposed ridge through one of the longest and coldest nights of the year or risk my neck traversing Cone Peak’s jagged northern ridge in dwindling light.

# # #

Big Sur is a liberation. A weight lifts every time I drive south past Soberanes Point, my cell phone’s pulsing eye goes blind, and I toss it on the back seat. The highway is as empty as the blue sky as I slide down the coast. The spouts of migrating gray whales punctuate the trackless blue ocean and vultures warble on gusts of wind over the steep marine terraces.

It’s a beautiful Christmas morning. At roughly 8:30 am, I park my car across Highway 1 from the Kirk Creek Campground, 45 miles south of Big Sur Valley. High overhead lurks the hidden marble summit of Cone Peak. At 5,155 feet, it is the second highest mountain in the Santa Lucia Range. Situated less than three miles as the crow flies from the Pacific Ocean, it has the honor of being the steepest climb in the continental United States—the average gradient from where I stand to the summit is about 33 percent. My plan is to climb the roughly 12 miles of trail in one day and sleep on the peak. With a naïve and optimistic bounce in my step, I shoulder my backpack and hike to a trailhead situated about 100 feet north of Nacimiento Road.

On fresh legs, I grind up the first section from Kirk Creek. The trail traverses north towards Limekiln Creek before ascending in rapier-stroke switchbacks. Like all climbs from the ocean side of Big Sur, the payoffs are immediate and breathtaking. The ocean shines like a gemstone. The land dives headlong into its surface of azure and aquamarine.

The beauty of hiking alone is how simple it is just being. Thoughts become abstract and recede into the backroom of consciousness. I operate from an underived source. As the hours pass, I am periodically startled back into my mind and it takes half a tick to remember who and where I am or what I am doing. These temporary lapses of self are at once exhilarating and a bit concerning. Maybe I need to drink more water.

Why am I hiking alone on Christmas morning? The details are unimportant. Suffice to say my thoughts, when I do have them, tend towards the nature of loss. Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of life is to teach us how to let go little by little—or occasionally in big, unmanageable ways. My theory is that the more we lose over the course of life, the better prepared we are to let go of it all. Regardless of why, these periods of mindlessness…this simple being…is like a salve on my burnt heart today. All that matters is now—this step, this step, this step. There is no next step. There is only this step.

Like this, the trail weaves in and out of canyons, past cool grottos and sun-drenched vistas; across Oz-green slopes of tall grass. Yucca plumes stand like Seussian headdresses and lithic monuments squat, their impassive faces turned toward the sea. After roughly five miles and 1,600 feet of elevation, the trail dips into the shady canyon of Vicente Flat. Hare Creek gushes through a grove of massive, fire-blackened redwoods, its waters crystal clear and cold. I pick my way through the empty campsites and half-consider spending the night in this stunning thicket of old growth, but continue on.

At the back of the flat, I eat lunch beside the rushing waters of the creek. A large redwood has fallen across the canyon here. Giant white stones are embedded in its exposed underfoot. Its mass of curling roots has held these stones for hundreds of years, hidden in the dark earth. Did the stones anchor the tree or inhibit its growth? As I chew my apple, I wonder what will be revealed beneath me when I fall. What is embedded in my roots? If anything.

The ascent out of the redwood gully is brutal. My legs are beginning to feel like sandbags. As I emerge onto the spine of the ridge above Vicente Flat, I am shocked by what looms overhead. Cone Peak is visible. At its arrowhead summit, the fire lookout tower shines distantly in the sun like a coin. It seems impossibly far away. As I stare up at this remote fortress, a cold gust of December wind blows down the canyon, surprising the sweat on my neck and back. I keep moving.

At roughly 2:15 pm, I emerge from a dense maze of chaparral on to the Coast Ridge Road, a wide, dirt track that runs south down to where Nacimiento Road crosses over the mountains. Closed during the winter, it is entirely devoid of human activity. I am now at roughly 3,000 feet, yet to the northeast, Cone Peak and the fire lookout tower still look dauntingly far away. Sunset is at roughly 5pm. I am not yet concerned. The trailhead for the Cone Peak summit is a mile up this road. After I reach that, I will only have to contend with the final, three-mile ascent up the face of the peak. No problem.

My hips and knees ache. My calves and butt and thighs burn. After an undetermined amount of time, the road reverts to a narrow trail just as it passes into shadow behind the peak. The temperature immediately drops another ten or 15 degrees. My ears and hands begin to smart from cold. I have stepped from the sun-dappled chaparral into another world—from bright Narnia into gloomy Mordor. Back here, the eroding mountain is a harsh, white slope of leprous cliff and loose scree. Slowing considerably, I carefully pick my way across washed-out sections of trail. Thin plates of broken stone skitter morosely down the slope below me. I hazard a look up. The backside of Cone Peak is foreboding—a 1,000-foot sheer drop. At its very top squats the tower, mocking me. I am reminded of the castle in that old Clint Eastwood movie, Where Eagles Dare. I feel like I’m staging some kind of audacious raid on this place. How in the hell am I going to get up there? Time has become a serious factor. Hidden in the late-afternoon shadows, I can no longer see the sun. Where is this trail to the summit?

Chunks of time pass as I make my way around the back of the mountain. By the time I realize I have gone the wrong way, it is far too late. Desperate to regain my bearings, I scramble up the slope to the ridge. Cone Peak lays far to the south of me now. In my exhausted stupor, I walked right past the cutoff to the summit trail. I swear to myself and gauge the sun’s position in the sky. I will have to retrace my steps through the Stygian wastelands behind the peak. I return to the trail and begin hurrying back down it, quiet alarms ringing in my head.

That’s when I see it—a rusted length of wire dangling from a tree branch. It looks old, perhaps a hundred years or more. I examine its sagging trajectory across the sheer slope. It appears to run up to the ridge in the direction of the summit. A ceramic disk hangs from a section of the wire. It must have been an old telegraph line connecting the fire lookout tower to civilization. If someone was able to string it from here to the summit, I surmise, then there must be a traversable route along that ridge. Without a second thought, I follow this questionable line of reasoning off the trail and on to the steep slope. The next 30 minutes are a manic scramble across a nearly vertical terrain of trees and scree and perilously unstable earth. Each step is a struggle and I must use branches and rocks to pull myself up the backside of the ridge and on to its spine. The summit remains an alarming number of promontories away, yet the sight of the telegraph wire and the sun in the sky buoy my spirits. I may just make it in time.

# # #

One more mistake like this and I am sleeping out here on the ridge. I carefully descend the precipitous dead end and retrace my steps back to where I last saw anything resembling a distinct trail. The telegraph wire has disappeared, but that is not uncommon. I believe parts of it have been buried over time. I circumvent this dangerous promontory by struggling down the west side of the ridge and picking my way across seemingly impassable sections of rock. Green spots swim in my eyes and I seem to be talking to myself a lot without saying anything.

Another half hour passes. The sun hovers just above the horizon. I am almost out of time. The world around me is lit up in a surreal blend of art nouveau colors. The ridge seems to shimmer and deconstruct like a Gustav Klimt painting. But I am close. I can sense it. Maybe this promontory is the last. I stagger through a copse of Manzanita bushes, their sharp branches are the color of dried blood and they tear at my legs with devilish claws as I pass. I do not care. I do not feel pain. I am standing on what looks like a very distinct trail, it leads me up through a few boulders and then, wonder upon wonders, I am approaching the fire lookout tower. I am here. I have reached the summit of Cone Peak. I look back the way I have come in disbelief.

As I stand there, drinking in 360 degrees of absolute joy and beauty and gratitude for being alive on this miraculous planet, the sun sinks down behind the Pacific Ocean and disappears.

# # #

Once the sun is gone, I realize how astoundingly cold it is on this summit. I also notice that the wind is howling. Despite my hard-won victory, I am now in danger of hypothermia.

I stumble up to the lookout tower. There is a protected space between its southern wall and some kind of long, metal box. The floor of this refuge is concrete, but it is almost completely dark now and I am out of options. I pull out my sleeping bag and bivvy sack, climb in and change out of my wet clothes. It takes a good 45 minutes before I stop shivering and regain feeling in my hands. Only 14 hours until sunrise.

# # #

Inside my moist cocoon, I crack open a copy of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake considered imagination the “body of God,” his poetry is timelessly inspired and totally unclassifiable, and he also had one hell of a sense of humor—so I tend to seek him out when life tends to the grim. Plus, it was the lightest book at hand on my way out the door. By flashlight, I flip through the illuminated pages to Plates 7-10, otherwise known as the “Proverbs of Hell,” and read through the list. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” Boy, has that little chestnut gotten me in a lot trouble over the years. “The lust of the goat is the bounty of God.” I wonder if that line would work on women? “Expect poison from the standing water.” Words to live by in the backcountry. “The cut worm forgives the plow.” The fuck does that mean? My eyes are having a hard time focusing on the page. I close the book and slip it under my ass. Tonight, the great mystic William Blake is insulation against the cold seeping up from the concrete.

The wind gusts over Cone Peak with the sound and rhythm of breaking waves. It plays the fire lookout tower like some kind of weird, metal percussion instrument. The waxing crescent moon hangs in the sky like a pale Warholian banana. Its reflection on the ocean is astounding—like a massive silver tongue unrolling for miles across its surface. A dense tapestry of stars is draped over the world. Out here, the distant constellations reveal themselves in the spaces between their familiar cousins.

To the east, I see a few lights from Fort Hunter-Liggett. Further to the southeast, King City glimmers. Far to the south I can make out the Piedras Blancas Light Station. To the north, a faint glow—possibly indirect light from the Monterey Peninsula.

Exhaustion softens my concrete bed and I drift off to sleep, no longer thinking about the nature of loss.

# # #

I awake 45 minutes before dawn and sit up in my sleeping bag to watch the subtle light fill in the thousands of valleys and basins and gorges between Cone Peak and the eastern horizon. It’s as if someone has turned on a tap and begun filling the world with light. To the northeast, the profile of Junipero Serra Peak emerges. This is the only point in this range of mountains higher than where I now sit. I expectantly await the sun. When it bursts over the ridge, I can’t help but laugh with joy.

As the sun rises higher, it warms the landscape around me. I venture out of my sleeping bag and walk around the fire lookout tower, soaking in the views. The banister that rings the tower is adorned with eternal proclamations of love, band names, dates, pithy mottos, the indecipherable code of people who have come before me. Someone has written, “To love Jesus Christ is why I live.” Someone else has come along and changed the word ‘love’ to ‘bang.’ I consider adding, “The cut worm forgives the plow” to the banister but it’s too damn cold for metal work.

To the west, Cone Peak casts a magnificent pyramid shadow against the ephemeral coastal mist. It is a giant ghost mountain and on top of that ghost mountain is a ghost fire lookout tower and in that tower is a ghost me looking back at a silhouette of me backlit by the rising sun.

# # #

As I reemerge on to Highway 1, limping a bit, I glance back up the way I came and once again feel that familiar pang of loss. It is a powerful emotion. For a moment, I think I might cry. But I am no longer feeling loss. It is something else—it is love and hope and an overwhelming sense of awe.

In the end, there is nothing to lose. And that is what I found up there among the wind and stone and sky.

For those unable or unwilling to complete the entirety of the sea-to-summit trail, an alternate route to the Coast Ridge Road section is accessible from Nacimiento Road. Before heading into the backcountry, always check the trail conditions report from the Ventana Wilderness Alliance.

Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.


Goat Trails

by Ryan Masters:
The Horrors of the Summit Tunnel
Rain Sorcery: A Wyrd Hike with Newts
Bodysurfing: The Ecstatic Motion