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I confess, I am a bushwhacker, starting 40 years ago when I first had to go through brush to find new routes, and I can’t stop. Self deception facilitates my bad habit. I tell myself “It won’t be so bad” even when I know it will be all that and more.
Why do I persist? First, I’m stupid. I know this. Second, I love a good struggle, and fighting through Southern California chaparral raises “struggle” to the next level.
I have had some god-awful days in the many years that I have been exploring, but one stands out. So horrible was my experience that I wrote up the account as soon as I could use my hands again. That account has been buried in the Amick archives for many years, but was recently rediscovered by my wife as she searched for a recipe for chile relleno quiche.
On the north slope of Mount Woodson, giant boulders are piled on top of each other. Openings in the rock access a labyrinth of subterranean tunnels and passages below. More than 20 years ago some friends and I came across a chasm that looked intriguing, but we did not explore it.
About a year after that I returned to the vicinity of the chasm, and just downhill from it found a cave system that descended the entire hill underground. Another 10 years after that, I was looking for an excuse to get in the brush and remembered that chasm. Could I drop into it and find a link to the subterranean descent I’d also found? The two were so close I thought there should be a cave or tunnel between them.
I arrived to find that brush had reclaimed the entire area, and clearing the way took a good hour. I was pretty paddled by the time I got there so I kicked back on a flat rock and was quickly covered with biting ants. I shouted, stripped off my clothes and shook them out. Those ants would vex me all day.
My only beer had burst in my pack, so I got straight to work. I fixed my rope and rapped 25 free hanging feet in, finding a clean and spacious cave with a flat sandy floor. Corridors and passages branched off from the main cave in all directions, and cool air flowed from a gap in the rock. I looked around and didn’t find the passage I sought, but I was sure that I would, so I decided to return to the surface to collect my things.
Oh. I had left my ascenders in my pack, so I couldn’t jug back up my rope. Sky was visible through a slot high on one wall, and that looked to be the only way out. Directly under the slot was an eight-foot boulder, a giant egg that could gain me the slot—if I could get onto the egg. I tried climbing the flared chimney where the boulder abutted the wall. A jagged wrist lock was just out of reach, but I couldn’t get off the ground. There was a jam about three feet above my outstretched arms, but no holds to get to it.
I had an idea. If I jammed my rope into that wrist lock, I could pull up on it high enough to throw my hand into the jam. I pulled the end of my rope over to the egg, and tossed a loop at the wrist lock. After a few tries it stuck. I yanked the rope to seat it, then grabbed the rope with one hand and pulled up, my feet skating in the flare. I groveled upward until I could stuff my knee into the flare, then let go of the rope and threw my hand into the jagged crack as I fell, the skin on my wrist ripping. I fought up the flare, then grunted onto the top of the egg, where I lay exhausted for a couple minutes.
I became aware of a warm wet sensation on my elbow and saw that my shirt sleeve was soaked with blood. I crawled toward the slot above. The slot was so small that I had to put my arms through, then kick and wiggle. I pulled my body through, collapsing into a patch of poison oak.
I headed back to my pack but my way was blocked by a pair of large sumac that had grown together across a gap in the rocks. I braced my feet and began to push on a long horizontal branch. I had bent it near to the ground when it snapped, and the stub sprang back and clocked me square in the forehead.
I staggered back a few feet, seeing stars, and touched my forehead, where a bloody knot had already risen. Enraged, I found a sharp flake and chopped at the trunk until I could push the tree over. Most people would have packed it in at this point and just walked out, but my sickness is such that I didn’t even consider quitting.
Arriving back at my pack, I found my tape and patched my wounds in the standard way, by tearing off a big piece of tape, then placing it over the open cuts sticky side up. I then taped my shirt sleeve to my wrist, so I was good to go. I tried to pull up my rope, but it remained wedged in the crack below, so I pulled the anchor, tossed the rope down and headed back into the slot. I squeezed through head first and onto the loose, sloping surface of the egg. Some iffy palm friction was the only thing keeping me from sliding headlong off down the side.
Reaching my jammed rope, I held onto it as I turned around to point my feet downhill, but they skated right off. I managed to hang onto the rope, grating my knuckles raw, for approximately five seconds, until my grip failed, I burned through the grainy flare below and decked out pretty hard, gaining three deep scrapes across my belly.
Now to retrieve the jammed rope. I built a cheater stack and stood on it, then poked the rope free with my ice axe. The poke made me lose my balance and fall, bruising my tailbone. I coiled my rope and sat in front of the cold air vent to have a little cry, but was too dehydrated to bring any tears.
I explored the remaining passages and still found no tunnel that connected to the cave system I had descended years earlier. All of the downhill-facing tunnels were blocked about the same distance in. There was an opening above one of the corridors, though, and if I climbed back to the surface I might be able to bypass whatever was blocking the tunnels, then find an entrance to the cave system on the other side. The corridor was wide but I could just stem between the walls, and I worked my way to the top, then hugged a chockstone but found nothing on top of it to use. I would have to stem back down. I made one move and cut loose, falling 10 feet and landing flat footed. Yeow, that hurt the tailbone.
Feeling desperate to escape downhill, I double checked all the possibilities. One passage had a tight hole at the end, and it was facing downhill, so I went for it, crawling through. On the other side of the hole was a large cave. Thank god, I thought, I have found the descent.
Or was it? This cave didn’t look familiar at all. I dropped down into knee-deep leaves on the floor, spooking a couple moths the size of my hand. Moving downhill toward the exit of the cave, I encountered a wall of deadfall higher than my head, meaning I was back on the surface, with dirt underfoot. Bushwhacking down the north face was the worst-case scenario, though. I knew there was a cave system under my feet that would take me to the bottom.
I tried to climb up the wall of deadfall, but it kept breaking. Eventually I had broken enough dry brush to form a pile under my feet, which put my head just over the top, where I saw another 160 feet of impenetrable brush between me and the road below. One-hundred and sixty feet is like miles in this terrain. Then I spied an opening in the rock about 30 feet away, a potential entry into the intended cave system. I headed for the opening overland, breaking branches every inch of the way, arriving 30 minutes later. The opening was only about 18 inches wide but I lowered straight through it and dropped into a dank, spider-web-clogged shithole the size of a bathroom. Pulling back out through that slot shredded me good.
Battling through the worst brush I had ever seen, I investigated every opening in the rock that I could find. I entered one fetid sump after another, but found no magical passage back into the caves below. After hours of grim toil, I exited the last awful little cavern onto an unexpectedly steep dirt incline, studded with rocks. I slid down the washboard out of control, bringing a small avalanche behind me, hit a pile of debris at the bottom, and was half-buried by the following avalanche.
I lay there and thought about how good it would feel to die right now. I considered just closing my eyes when a fucking ant chomped into my gonads. I reflexively swatted the ant …. The pain had the effect of smelling salts. I pulled my raggedy, pathetic self together and tried to climb out of the ravine, but the sides were too loose.
Only one way out. I broke and clawed my way downhill like a zombie. The brush went on forever, and I was fading. Then a huge boulder blocked the gully. With my last dying gasp, I chimneyed between the boulder and the slope, and when I squeezed through I was standing on the dirt road again.
Too far gone to rejoice, I stumbled toward my truck in the dark. I could barely turn the key in the door. I got in and sat in silence for five minutes, then somehow drove home.
As I eased myself into bed, I was already planning to get back on the hill to find that descent. After all, it hadn’t been that bad.
Ron Amick is a retired engineer, a guidebook author and a longtime route and boulder developer. He lives in Poway, California.
For more by Ron Amick, see “So Sandbagged on Serpentine.”