Monday, May 09, 2005

Las Trampas Ridge Adventures

It rained most of the day yesterday, cancelling the planned hike at Lafayette Reservoir; it rained again this morning; but I’m tired of being holed up at home. I was heading down to Danville anyway, so I decided to brave the rain and fit in a hike at Las Trampas.

I went for a circular hike on Las Trampas Ridge, based on one from East Bay Trails. And it turned out to be quite an adventure.

From the staging area, I head uphill on the Chamise Trail. And here’s where I start thinking “uh-oh”. It’s muddy and extremely slippery, making every step a tricky operation. But I can see woods ahead: it’ll get better, right? It does. I turn right onto the Mahogany Trail, diverging from the book. It’s very pretty: the woods are green, and the trail swings down to cross the creek on a wooden bridge.

And then I decide to extend the hike further by turning left again onto the Trapline Trail. It rapidly gets steep and muddy. I stop to watch a large California newt crossing the trail: groggy and slow-moving after the rain and cold, and rather ungainly. On the top, it’s warty and lizardy brown, but occasionally I get a flash of its bright yellow belly.

The Trapline Trail breaks out into open ground, crossing a meadow of wildflowers. The second “uh-oh” moment: the trail gets very indistinct in places and I find myself having to plough forward and hope it’ll reappear. And then it heads uphill. Steeply uphill. There’s been a lot of water running down the trail: “uh-oh”. I'm walking in a deep muddy rut carved out of the hillside: tough sweaty going, uneven and overgrown. And it keeps going, up and up and up. Probably the hardest, definitely the worst trail I’ve been on. Getting to the top, the junction with Las Trampas Ridge Trail, feels like quite an accomplishment; also quite a relief.

After Trapline, Las Trampas Ridge is easy going. After the junction with Chamise Trail it gets steeper and muddier. Uh-oh: what are those big tracks on the trail? Some of them look awfully fresh…

Yep. Mountain lion tracks. I’m not inclined to turn back, but I do mentally run through the mountain lion checklist: be noisy, be big, don’t crouch, don’t run. Fight back. Yikes. I start treading a lot more heavily, and I start talking out loud rather than thinking to myself.

And then it happens. Noises in the brush fifty yards to the right. A few brief and incomplete glimpses. A large orange-brown shape, the size of a large dog, but moving like no dog does. Running fast, in the opposite direction to me. And then it’s gone.

I have just seen my first wild mountain lion.

It’s exciting, but also terrifying: this is a large, powerful predator and it is — or was — close by. What to do? I decide the best thing is to continue on the trail, putting more distance between us. I hustle a little faster, trying not to slip and fall in the mud. And I keep making noise: I talk to myself, I sing a nervous nonsense song (“you’re a mountain lion / I’m not scared of you / leave me be, I’ll leave you be”), I whistle Beatles tunes. And I feel deeply uneasy until the trail breaks out into open grassland.

From the ridge, I drop down into the valley on the Bollinger Canyon Trail. Uh-oh. It’s getting colder by the minute; black clouds are scudding over Rocky Ridge towards me; it’s going to chuck it down.

And it does. I take shelter under a scrub oak and wait it out. Thunder; I tell myself that if lightning’s going to strike, it’ll strike on the ridge and not here. (I later read that “there is a far greater risk of being struck by lightning than of being attacked by a mountain lion”. I’m not sure if this is reassuring or not.)

The rain gets heavier, louder… whiter? Hail. Hailstones the size of light gravel; light enough not to hurt, heavy enough to bounce, big enough to be unpleasantly chilly and wet if they find their way down your collar.

Ten minutes later, it’s over as suddenly as it began. The sky clears; sunlight lights up the valley; it warms up. The fresh rain smells good.

I trek out of the valley on the Bollinger Canyon Trail, which rapidly turns into a muddy cow-track. I take back everything I said about California mud: Las Trampas clay matches anything Essex has to offer. This mud is heavy and sticky, clinging to my boots in huge clods. It’s like wading through treacle.

Back to the car, wet and muddy but exhilarated. Glad I brought a change of clothes. I've been out two and a half hours and walked three and a half miles, according to the map: unbelievable. It felt like twice that.

Would I do it again? Well… I won’t worry too much about mountain lions. But I wouldn’t hike the Trapline Trail again: too rough. And I wouldn’t do any of it again in conditions this muddy. It takes too much of your attention off your surroundings and onto placing your feet and maintaining your balance. And what’s the fun in that?

Categories: Hiking