Around 2:30 am on a foggy October Monday, I finished dehydrating a week's worth of food, packing, and finalizing research on the trip I was about to depart on. Around 5 am, I awoke from my nap to an email from Island Packers, my ferry charter to take me to Santa Rosa Island. It was an offer for a full refund on cancellation of my trip due to exceedingly stormy conditions, and encouragement for anyone in ill health or at all capable of postponing to wait out the weather. Instead, I grabbed my bag, hopped in the car, and headed to Ventura. After all, there's very little in the world that can stop me from walking around. Smoke and storm may have deterred me from Oregon and L2H, but a bit of wind wasn't going to crash Santa Rosa.
Upon arriving in Ventura, we were informed that all day hikers had been told their trips had been postponed. After hearing more about the conditions (steady winds about 40 mph with gusts up to 65) our intrepid group of overnighters shrank and shrank. I popped a Dramamine and hoped for the best. The last 12 of us, resolute, boarded the ship, were instructed not to leave the relative stability above the engine compartment at the rear of the boat, and got underway. At first things were manageable, but the weather got worse as we went-- battling up to 10 foot swells, at times we had to shut down the engine, point into the waves, and wait for the set to pass.
Nothing can convey how brutal it was to be there-- but give this a shot.
Everyone was sick. Some people were sick immediately, some people were sick but functional the whole time, some people were waylaid, inoperable, sheltering under blankets, curled over yak bags. The crew often ran to the side of the boat, quickly puked, and immediately returned to their stations. The captain informed us over the loudspeaker that this was the worst October weather he'd seen in 30 years. It was little consolation.
Everything was soaking. The spray from breakers misted over us, at times, and at times cascaded down in a heavy pour. I held my pack off the deck with my feet, thinking of my sleeping back shoved to the bottom, protected by a nylofume liner with at least a few holes in it. By the power of dramamine, the hearty breakfast I'd had, or sheer unwillingness to further compromise my aggressive calorie plan by giving up said breakfast, I was the only person not to get sick-- that said, I suffered greatly.
The usual <2-hour crossing dragged on as our progress was hindered by the wind and waves. 2 hours. 2 and a half. 3 hours. Finally, the island came into view. I tried to clock the features-- looking for the flat expanse of Skunk Point, the broad beaches. I snuck a peek around the bow, looking for the profile of Santa Rosa, and was met with something familiar-- the rocky spine of Santa Cruz, breaking out of the ocean with bluffs on all sides. The captain informed us that the remaining crossing was too dangerous-- we'd be dropped off here today; he'd return for us tomorrow. The folks currently on Santa Rosa would have to wait to be picked up. Grateful for the prospect of solid ground and only 10 minutes more from losing my breakfast, I was happy to be anywhere at all. I stumbled off the boat, my spirits were high-- I was merely glad to be out in the world. I toured the the campsite, spotted some foxes looking for snacks, and went about making a plan. I settled on a somewhat unclear loop using the old Montanon trail.
North Bluff, looking back
I struggled up the North Bluff trail, tracing out the hazardous drop to the sea. The wind intensified as I climbed higher. The sea was all whitecaps, the birds sheltered in their nooks and crannies in the bluffs. I leaned into the wind, balancing against it, but it grew stronger, and soon I could hardly look into it. By the end of the day, my face would be red and raw and my eyes swollen from the flying dirt and sand. But I made what felt like decent time. And then, the gusts started.
Out of nowhere, a wall of wind hit me, and I was nearly knocked off my feet. Bracing, crouched, I dug my poles into the ground, soon on one knee, eyes turned away. There was nothing to be done but wait it out. Sand, pebbles, and sections of plants tore across the exposed bluffs. Looking out over the coastal chaparral, I watched the scrub brush be ripped at intervals from the ground and thrown into the air. I sheltered for a few minutes until the gust passed, then bounced back to my feet and confidently struck on. Not thirty seconds later, I heard the wind screaming up the bluff from the sea, heading my direction. A split second before it arrived, I braced, but this gust was worse than the first. Even on one knee, head down, poles dug in, I was knocked over. On the ground, I turned my back to the wind, sheltering behind my pack, and waited.
It was like this on and off as I approached the Potato Harbor overlook, where it intensified. Unwilling to bypass the overlook, I fought out along the ridgeline as the wind grew worse. The distance shrank-- fifty yards, twenty-- ten yards out I nearly called it, doubting the safety, but pushed on. The saving grace was that the wind came from essentially the same direction each time, so there was very little risk of me being knocked off a cliff, even on such a thin sliver of land. That's not to saw I wasted any time at the overlook-- I took it in, grabbed a picture, and hastened back to safer ground.
Potato Harbor from the overlook, with rough seas behind.
Hoping that heading inland and upward would provide some shelter, I turned toward the Montanon Ridge trail, an unmaintained route that links up with the only trail junction that heads further west via the High Mount Benchmark ridge. I found the route easy to follow and, though rough, exceedingly pretty, but not much better in terms of wind protection. Still, with no precarious bluffs one misstep away, I could move a little faster and risk taking a spill or two. When I was exposed to the seaward side, the wind was as bad as ever, though now familiar. The interior felt safer, more sheltered, though the less frequent gusts now pushed me directly toward the edge. But it was the crossing between the two where the danger was-- with the risk of wind at any moment, picking my way across the narrow spine on loose rock felt a bit exposed for my taste. At several points I dropped below the trail proper on the interior side to avoid a precarious stretch.
The Montanon Ridge, trail winding along the crest
I made it past the Benchmark, to the trail junction. The sign was blown over, the concrete block at the base insufficient to keep it upright. What had appeared as a single junction on the park map was in fact 2, spread over a half mile. I poked around several directions, originally having planned to head down to China Pines, further west, but after eyeing the steep descent and poor footing, decided against it. Heading out may have been fine, but the return looked miserable. I also considered continuing through El Montanon to Smuggler's Cove, but the trail seemed to peter out quickly. Playing it safe, I took the shortest and only remaining version of the loop back to Scorpion Bay.
The view west, the ridge at its best, my hair glued to my face
The trail descended slightly to a different ridge than the way I'd come up, at its narrowest a several-foot-wide section with substantial drops each way, To the left, a sheer drop like the bluffs on the north shore. To the right, a sudden slot canyon with a rocky bottom. The route across was thin and, in the wind, dizzyingly exposed. Newly minted tumbleweeds were thrown up and over the ridge from the bluff side, flying a hundred feet in the air overhead before falling into the canyon. The sand whipped itself into vortices in the wind, and the gusts suddenly grew stronger than they'd been yet that day. Midway across the spine, I could go no further. Back to the wind, I hunched over, hiding my face against a boulder as the wind got worse. Several minutes passed-- it felt like an eternity. Moving was simply not an option.
A figure appeared from the way I'd come, struggling greatly. I watched him take a few harsh looking falls on the way down, leaning into the wind, sometimes too much, sometimes not enough. The loose footing wasn't helping. His progress was slow, but since I wasn't moving, he caught up after a spell. We hunkered down and chatted for a minute, hoping the weather would subside. His name was Dave, though my journal doesn't say more and the memory has faded a month out. I do remember that he ended up staying on Santa Cruz, and returning to the mainland on Wednesday-- a shorter trip was more binding in that regard.
When the wind settled, we were able to make good time off the ridge and reach a more sheltered position. From there, the trail was smooth and the wind was manageable until we reached camp. Despite the circumstances, I thoroughly enjoyed this section as well-- the coast is laid out in front of you, the canyon slowly makes an appearance, and you get an eagle-eye view of the camp, the pier, and the bluffs from the back.
The campsite was not as protected as I'd expected it to be. Even wedged between the trees and up against a makeshift windbreak, I had to be very intentional with the setup cadence of my tent, weighing down the material with rocks and gear as I went. With the camp deeply unpleasant with the sand blowing everywhere, I spent some time walking around the beach as the afternoon wore on. I eventually cooked dinner inside the provided fox box, and had to cover the vent holes to keep the wind out. My stove finally caught and I was able to boil water. At the time I thought I'd succeeded for the day, but as I crawled into my tent seeking shelter, the wind only got worse.
Even with the storm features closed, the gusts were powerful enough to send a torrent of sand and dirt through the mesh, onto my pack, my sleeping bag, and my face. After a few breaths, my nose was completely stuffed with dirt. I put my mask on and it helped considerably, though it did nothing to keep the dirt from landing on my forehead and eyes each time. As the sun went down, the wind reached a new peak. It ripped branches off trees, and I heard them falling all around me. Moving my tent wouldn't have helped, since many branches traveled a great distance from their separation before hitting the ground, and all the sites were within striking distance. All I could do was hope. Several times my tent took a glancing blow, and several more I heard a very large near-hit. Despite my exhaustion, this was one of the worst nights of sleep I've ever had.
In the morning, the air was still. Tree branches littered the ground on all sides. A branch the length of my tent and circumference of my arm had fallen a few feet away. My tent sustained no major damage, but a thick layer of direct covered everything within. To add insult to injury, my sleeping bag had developed a tear in the footbox from a run-in with some battery acid (long story) and the down had blown all around the tent. I gathered as much as I could, stuffed it back in, and performed an emergency repair. And then I seriously thought about bailing. I'd maybe set a new record for a shitty first day, at least for myself. But as I packed up my gear, the thought of heading back to the mainland seemed worse somehow than sticking it out. So I headed to the ferry and hoped for calmer waters. In the end, I'm glad I stayed.
Stats for the day:
+2180' / -2140'