Trip Report: A nice winter excursion in the Ojai backcountry with plenty of cold temperatures, snow and memories. Hiking buddy Nick and I began by ascending the Ortega Trail onwards to the Sespe, up over Ridge Rd. and down the Gridley Trail over a period of three days.
Distance: ~42 miles
Duration: 3 days
When: Friday, Dec 28 - Sunday, Dec 30 2012
With: Nick "Nico" Bobroff
Weather: Sunny into Snow. High 70*, Low 19*
Nick and I thought it would be neat to approach an incoming storm (that was forecast to drop over a foot of snow) via a series of lower elevation trails and then loop down back into town - a fun way to "walk out the front door onto the trail".
We started in cool but sunny conditions wearing shorts and t-shirts and over the course of the next couple of days traversed high ridges in near white-out conditions with temperatures dipping into the high teens at night.
Nick had a new GoLite SL2 shelter he was itching to try in snow and I was excited try out some new cold weather layering clothing such as the Patagonia Capilene 4 EW 1/4-Zip Hoody; one of my favorite pieces of gear.
Elevation: 2232 ft min, 5347 ft max, 4,535 ft largest gain
Mileage: 16.3, 18.6, 7.1 = 42.0
0.0 Ortega Trail
We arrived at the TH at 11:00am and began our hike up the frontcountry ridge. Shortly after cresting a small rise, we looked ahead to find two bored teenagers pointing a shotgun with us directly in the cross-hairs. Rogue target shooters litter this area and don't know the trail from a shooting range. We were now fully awake!
In terms of equipment, I carried my MLD Exodus customized thru-hiker style with no hip-belt, minimal attachment points and small chest pockets, while Nico carried his trusted HMG Porter with a few modular pockets and a ZPacks chest pack for camera gear.
6.3 Ortega Camp
Temps began to drop and crusty ice-ridden mud puddles began to pop up. Always on the cold side, I swung my pack over one shoulder and grabbed my Dri-Ducks jacket and PossumDown gloves out of the back mesh pocket to regulate my temperature. Nico is a living furnace, so he was probably thinking it was Cancun.
11.8 Cherry Creek Rd
After passing numerous other target shooters, we were running low on water and anticipated a source up ahead. As we arrived at the creeklet, a clean clear pool looked ideal. We filtered (I used Aquamira and Nico used the Sawyer Squeeze). We both swung our vessels back and took a big gulp only to spew it right back out in disgust - contaminated with sulfur beyond safe consumption levels. Flag on the play.
We were both very thirsty and worried about the greater issue of the distance to our next water source which was unconfirmed. Pushing on, the thick adobe brick like mud caked our shoes and made every step sound like a bad case of Montezuma's Revenge.
13.4 Chorro Grande Trail
Upon reaching the Chorro TH, is was getting dark. We scouted the Sespe and nearby creeks for water, only to find them bone dry. We did, however, find plenty of black plastic irrigation tubing from illegal marijuana camps.
Thirsty, oh so thirsty. We began to have serious doubts that the first Chorro Grande trail water source would have any water, as this part of the Sespe - well, we've never seen it dry. If we got skunked there, the next source would not be until the springs at the top of the Chorro trail and that was a big climb away.
After some serious deliberation and night fall well underway, we decided to begin road walking along HWY 33 towards the Middle Sespe trail, over 9 miles away. Opportunistic as any hiker must be, we put out the thumbs around 9pm and unbelievably (think: dark and two smelly scruffy dudes) a young couple from Los Angeles on a weekend drive picked us up! After a short drive, we were kindly dropped off at Lion's Camp near the Piedra Blanca TH. Thank you friends!
13.4 Piedra Blanca Trail
We really wanted to reach the high-country in order to meet the eye of the storm up on Pine Mountain, so we decided to head in that direction. Around 10pm we began heading north up the Piedra Blanca trail.
16.3 Piedra Blanca Camp
Day 1 Camp. The 2.9 miles to Piedra Blanca Camp seemed to take forever and we were very happy to unload the packs.
Day 2 Hike. Upon waking up in the morning, conditions had changed drastically. Temperatures had dropped and it was beginning to snow. We decided to have breakfast in camp before setting out in order to study the maps and determine our route. Due to our re-route the day before, in order to reach the high-country and be home in time for work on Monday, we would have had to cover too many miles on Sunday, so we decided to head south and onto the Lion Canyon trail as an alternate route. This would put us on top of Ridge Rd. approx. 5500 ft. in elevation for our second night's camp. A good bet for catching some good snowy weather.
20.5 Middle Lion Trail
By the time we reached the Middle Lion trail it was snowing well. Middle Lion Creek had even begun to freeze over, a very rare event for our neck of the woods.
Nico was wearing an Integral Designs eVent jacket with Patagonia rock climbing scrambler pants, while I wore thin silk tights under my shorts with Montbell windpants and a Dri-Ducks jacket over the Cap4 Hoody. We both felt comfortable and well equiped for the weather.
26.4 Nordhoff Ridge Rd
Upon reaching Nordhoff Ridge Rd., the weather was increasing and we hiked the 9 miles across the ridge in near whiteout conditions.
Both Nico and I had happy feet this entire trip. I can thank Will Rietveld for my comfort, as I learned the techniques from his excellent 3-part article on lightweight footwear systems for snow travel on BPL. Thank you Will and Janet!
Nico wore neoprene socks lined with Injinjis and Altra Lone Peak trail runners, while I wore Rocky Goretex socks lined with PossumDown sleeping socks and Altra Superior trail runners. We each carried microspikes but never used them.
34.9 Howard Creek Camp
Day 2 Camp. Around sunset we reached our camp for the night. Directly upon stepping foot into the area it started to dump snow. We scrambled to set up our shelters as large snowflakes piled upon the ground.
Nico pitched his GoLite SL2 on a nice flat bench overlooking the Ventura County coastline, while I snugged up tight to a line of shrubs in order to gain extra protection due to the fact that I was using a poncho tarp in full winter conditions! I was a little nervous about how the night would go. Winds can be very strong up on this ridge and over six inches of snow had fell while we were setting up our shelters.
I took a few extra precautions when setting up the Gatewood Cape due to the conditions, such as propping the foot end wall up with my Golite Chrome Dome umbrella and guying out the sidewalls with some LiteTrail G-Line onto the shrubbery. Satisfied with my prospects for weathering the storm I preparred some dinner using the LiteTrail Titanium Solid Fuel Cook System, obviously not a snow camping setup, but it worked!
In true fashion for this trip, we both went dry on water after dinner! Dooh. If you ever want a good laugh, watch two guys with frozen hands and feet collect and attempt to melt snow into water using solid fuel and half-liter cookpots. Too much fun!
NB: We did our next winter trip a bit differently, I brought my Kovea Spider inverted canister stove and Nico used alcohol with a Caldera Cone and a 1.3L Evernew cookpot.
Day 3 Hike. In the morning we awoke to spectacular views over the coastline. Literally amazing! The storm had passed and the skys were clear.
We repeated our snow melting comedy of errors from the night before and eventually cooked up breakfast on the snow covered picnic table. I was stoked having slept surprisingly well and warm through the night with my ultralight winter gear.
36.2 Gridley Trail
Upon reaching the Gridley Trail turnoff the sun was shining and the adrenaline accelerating weather of the day before put a smile on our faces as we hiked in shorts warmed by the morning sun.
Soon enough we arrived at the terminus of our route and began talking about (and salivating) the post-hike grinds we were about to devour. Ah yes, Jim & Rob's burritos - like there was ever any other choice!
Winter hiking in the Los Padres is not something that you get to experience very often, we don't exactly have a real winter anyway. However, the consistently empty trails indicate most people avoid the snowy backcountry. As an ultralight backpacking enthusiast interested in applying UL techniques in colder weather, this trip was very rewarding as it was challenging.
Having a successful and safe winter hike using UL equipment requires switching out a few key items and adding in a few more. A full-length insulated pad (Exped Synmat UL) to keep you warm, a 15 degree quilt (Katabatic Alsek), a stove with higher BTUs that can handle sub-freezing temps (Kovea Spider), a 1L or larger cookpot for melting snow (LiteTrail 1600mL) and waterproof socks (Rocky Goretex) to keep your feet dry. Snowshoes and microspikes should be added where conditions require. (Not a complete list).
As always, be safe and hike with a buddy when possible.
Do you have any UL cold weather backpacking tips? Please share them in the comments or socially!