Standing on top of Mt. Diablo’s North Peak last week, the blue sky and sun did little to cut the February cold and the slight breeze made it cool enough to put on my raincoat as a windbreaker. Finally taking on their spring green, the Diablo foothills sprawled beneath us and the Central Valley lay beyond, a maze of fields and waterways. A bank of clouds blanketed the Sierra as far as we could see.
The Sacramento River from its headwaters near Mt. Shasta and the San Joaquin, pouring down from the Peaks of the Ansel Adams Wilderness, flooded in from the left and the right. Below the clouds, they swept together every major river of the Sierra Nevada and California Cascades. Beneath Diablo they joined forces and plowed their way on to the Carquinez Staits, the Bay and final freedom in the ocean. From this vantage we could see it all, one of the great vistas of the world.
I was on a training hike with two Pacific Crest Trail Thru hikers, Why Not, (Nancy) and Why Wait (Diane). Nancy is a retired dentist and Diane is an artist. Nancy sold her practice several years ago when she realized that her career and the money she was making was keeping her from living the life she dreamed of. It was not easy to take time away from the practice to allow for travel and most importantly, backpacking.
She phoned her patients personally to inform them that she was retiring but had a dentist taking her practice. Then she called Diane. Although their relationship had been one of doctor and patient, eventually Nancy mentioned that she was thinking of hiking the PCT in the future. Diane’s comment was, “Why wait? Why not go this year?” Without much coaxing, Nancy responded, “Why not?” A deep friendship was born, they both had trail names and most importantly, they had someone with whom to start a 2,600 mile, PCT summer. Both of them completed the trail that year, 2009, the year before I did.
I haven’t mentioned up to now that my intense training all winter has been in preparation for an attempt to hike the Continental Divide Trail this year beginning sometime between late March and mid April. The actual departure date will depend on snow levels in the San Juan Mountains of Southern Colorado. It’s different than the PCT which is a continuous trail from Mexico to Canada through the mountains of California, Oregon and Washington. The CDT on the other hand is a route, a 50 mile swath loosely following the Continental Divide, border to border, New Mexico to Montana. There are several “official” ways to go, and much of it is completely trail-less. It can range from just over 2,000 miles to upwards of 3,000 and more in length.
The motto for this long trail is, “Embrace the Brutality.” Good God! Not quite my speed. But the pictures I’ve seen, and the descriptions of the deserts of New Mexico, the wilderness of the Gila River, the backcountry of the San Juan Mountains, Rocky Mountain National Park, The Wind River and Sawtooth Ranges, the Great Basin, Tetons, Yellowstone and finally Glacier National Park, where the trail crosses into Canada at Waterton, have left me with an itch to get to know those places. Driving through a landscape just doesn’t come close to the intimate connection I’ve had when walking through them, day after day over a season.
I’ve only experienced this once before, and it was hiking the PCT, when the mountains and the people I hiked with, and my own inner life, became one with the adventure begun at every sunrise. Personal worries, politics, the state of the Union, devolved to simple thoughts of food, was it going to rain, and did I know where in hell I was? Along with touching a two million year old bone marrow deep rightness, a memory of our species’ nomadic beginnings, it also felt utterly American. Conestoga wagons were scaled down to pint sized backpacks, and the boots of old were now trail runners, but it was essentially the same. A westward movement of necessity was now a lifestyle of choice, but just as thrilling, just as monotonous, just as mythic in proportion. I can see why so many mountain men never came back.
I’ll be sixty this year and I don’t know how many more years I have to be traipsing off into the wilderness for months at a time, but I’m pretty much ruined since hiking the PCT and spend an inordinate amount of time dreaming of my next long trail. It’s a regular thru hiker malady.
Did I mention that I’m married to a saint? Katie stays married to me in spite of these periodic wanderings, God bless her. When she reaches retirement it may be a different story, but right now I’m planning a super hike, and I’m not planning on finding my stuff on the front porch when I get back. Hallelujah!!!
Given the nature of the CDT, and the serious problems with route finding, forming a team with other experienced thru hikers was high on my list. I didn’t spend much time alone on the PCT two years ago and I was sure I’d meet a few people online before my projected start who would also want to team up. I was surprised, however, when I led a mushroom hike (my trail name is Shroomer after all) above Auburn a few months ago, and learned that Why Not was also interested in another long hike.
She was planning to hike the Appalachian Trail this summer only because she didn’t want to start the CDT alone. I can understand that. In prior years the number of people starting the AT has been about 3,000, the PCT, 300 and the CDT, maybe 30. There’s plenty of chances to hike with others on the AT and the PCT, but for the CDT, you need to find your team before you hit trail.
Nancy and I have been training together on Diablo and in the Sierra Foothills over the winter and have a probable third starter, Hurricane from New Zealand. He’s a PCT thru hiker from 2010 who is a friend and has been the subject of this column on several occasions. I’ve also learned that Coyote and Huff-n-Puff (characters from earlier stories here as well) and all of their hiking partners known as Team Bad Wizard will also be starting about the same time. So the team aspect is coming together. I’ve been drying meats and vegetables for months now, for the food drops I’ll have mailed to little towns along the trail. Next will be maps and a GPS set up with waypoints for as many of the possible routes as possible.
Foremost, however, is training. At my age, I can’t just hit trail and expect to do OK. I need to train to give this endeavor a reasonable possibility of success, and there’s no better place than Diablo. The trails I trained on here are tougher than anything on the entire 2,600 miles of the PCT. By hiking our mountain I had been in better shape at the start of my thru hike than most people much younger than me. Many of them worked into it, but many failed to finish because it was just too hard. If the CDT is too dangerous, I’ll come running home on the first bus to the Bay Area, but if it’s just really, really hard, I’m sure I’ll be ready for it. And that’s all because of Diablo.
Mt. Diablo’s got two peaks, the Summit at just under 4,000 feet and North Peak, a bit over 3,500, and the training hikes up both are equal to any great training hikes in the world. Elsewhere you’ll get farther from civilization, training at altitude, and some them are more rugged overall, but for a place to build some uphill muscle, Diablo is simply marvelous
Last week the three of us wanted a serious training hike. Nancy and I are CDT starters, and Diane will be hiking Patagonia soon. We began at the one thousand foot level where the dirt track Burma Road crosses the North Gate Road. It was the day after a good rain and at this point we were above the mud and adobe that can add inches to your shoes when hiking lower on the mountain.
The first several miles of this route -- Burma Road to Angel Kerley Trail, to Mother’s Trail, rejoining the Burma Road, then the Deer Flat Road and up Moses Rock Ridge and on to the Summit via the Juniper Trail -- gave us a three thousand, five hundred foot climb in just over four miles. Some of the trails measure in at a forty-three percent grade.
From near the Summit we hiked down to Devil’s Elbow, a hairpin turn on the road a mile below, and struck off on the North Peak Trail. Now this is the trail for a novice hiker or someone moderately active who wants to explore Diablo, as the trail traverses the south slopes without much gain or loss of elevation until the far side where it begins to descend. Here you can decide whether to continue or not.
An even mile from the road brought us to Prospector’s Gap, the saddle between the two peaks, and the site of early mining explorations. It’s just under nine-tenths of a mile from here to the top of North Peak, most of it a good solid climb, but the last four-hundred feet are the steepest bit of trail on Mt. Diablo. Beware of attempting this without hiking poles. You might be able to do it, but you may end up riding your bottom coming down. On the exposed rock and old sections of pavement, the pebbles and gravel become ball bearings. Be careful, but the views from the top are simply magnificent.
On a hike up North Peak a month ago, Katie made it for the first time, but even my old friend, sure footed Roman, had to pick his way down carefully. On that January day, all the hills were still brown with the midwinter drought. Now they are green and on their way to looking like Ireland.
Hiking the North Peak Trail in the snow with my parents is one of my earliest memories. After thoroughly wearing myself out playing in the snow on the steep slopes above Prospector’s Gap, I remember crying my eyes out because I just couldn’t climb back up that hill. I’m still here, so somehow I made it, but the memory remains vivid. It’s a much clearer memory than what I did yesterday for that matter, and that’s scary!
But last week there were no tears, I was right where I wanted to be. When I’m outside, I’m comfortable, at peace, and I never get tired of a view. We continued, hiking back to the saddle and out on the Bald Ridge Trail then Meridian Ridge Road, Deer Flat Road and finally came full circle again to the Burma Road. From here it was all downhill, steeply so, in the sparse warmth of a late afternoon winter sun. The low angled early evening light shone through the emerging grass, turning the hills an impossible shade of chartreuse, lime green in places. I couldn’t get that hue even if I knew how to use PhotoShop.
For those wanting to begin an exploration of Mt. Diablo, the North Peak Trail from Devil’s Elbow is the place to start. It’s two miles round trip to Prospector’s Gap, add another mile and three quarters to do North Peak. If you’re a good hiker, the loop trail around the summit is seven miles, and if you add in the crazy climb we did from the North Gate Road, you can get a total of just about fourteen miles and a vertical climb of over five-thousand feet in and out of the canyons.
Not bad for a couple of old folks about to tackle the Rockies. I’ll keep you up to date on my CDT planning from here on out.
"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn."