Sunday, August 24, 2008
Sympathy for the Devil
With just a little more than a mile to reach the summit I stood in the middle of the Juniper Trail, leaning on my hiking poles doing my best not to throw up. Tired, nauseous, cramping badly and wondering whether to turn back I started to think maybe I picked the wrong day to hike to Mount Diablo’s summit.
My hiking partner Alice DeLaurier O’Neil left for a month of humanitarian work in Africa with the International Service Learning group. I had been wondering about a solo hike when she was gone and a crazy idea popped into my head. Why don’t I try to climb Mount Diablo from Mitchell Canyon at the park’s entrance all the way to the summit? Even better why don’t I try to do it in late August?
Somehow I talked my self into this. This is kind of along the same idea of wondering what happens when you stick your finger in a light socket? Sure you might want to know what it feels like but odds are it is going to end badly.
So my wonderful plan is to be at the Mitchell Canyon staging area bright and early on a Sunday and make my way up. The path will be Mitchell Canyon Road to Deer Flat Road to Juniper Trail to the summit trail. This was the same route I took last November with Alice. I know the route; it is pretty straightforward without a lot of twists so it sounded like a plan. The only difference would be I would be making this climb in the 90-degree plus weather of August instead of the cool day temperatures of November.
I decided to make this a real minimalist hike. I would carry daypack with all the water I could stuff in, snacks, and my hiking poles and for pictures I would bring my point and shoot digital Canon G3 camera. It is light and easy to use so I could concentrate on the hike. My plan was to make my solo trek on Sunday the 23rd of August so at 6:30 A.M. I loaded up my car and headed to Clayton for my date with the mountain.
The long and winding road
The hike is a real stinker any time of the year. Starting from Mitchell Canyon it is just under 8 miles one way with a climb close to 3,400 feet. The grade can be steep at points and the trail littered with loose gravel. Just the ticket for a Sunday stroll. So after a quick prayer asking God to keep me from dying on this stupid mountain I struck out on the trail. Mitchell Canyon Road isn’t the hardest trail I have been on. It winds up and down as it follows Mitchell Canyon Creek that barely had a gurgle of water flowing. In the first half hour the trail colors were muted in the deep shade. Reds and greens stuck out from the usual collection of yellowed grasses. But just around 8:31 the sun broke over the rim of the canyon and the canyon began to heat up.
Near the end of Mitchell Canyon Road leading to Deer Flat you are introduced to the wonderful world of switchbacks. They are series of turns at a steep grade to bring the road elevation up. This is where the sweating begins. I was making a quick pace, too quick I would later find out as I navigated the turns on the trail. I would pause at some of the sporadic shady spots to catch my wind but I was getting gassed. One and a half hours into the hike I reached the Deer Flat picnic area for a rest. I would need it because after a few more switchbacks on Deer Flat Road I would come to the worst part of the hike.
If the mountain was named after the devil, a slice of hell was waiting for me just around the bend. Heading to the Juniper Campground from Deer Flat is a stretch of trail barren and sun baked that challenges your endurance. It climbs steadily up the mountain and then drops down to the parking lot at Juniper campground. But that wasteland section of trial saps your energy as you broil on your climb. If you pause on that stretch guaranteed you would be working on your tan as there is no shade to be found. Even drinking water and Gatorade I was still getting those weak wobbly “jelly legs” heading over. The heat was more than I expected and I was dehydrating faster than I could hydrate. Just when I thought I was on a trail toward some desert I reached Juniper Campground and the big push up toward the summit.
Another brick in the wall
There’s nothing really especially hard about Juniper Trail. It winds back and forth through some rocky terrain to lead you to the lower summit parking lot where the final climb to the summit takes place. But my problem was it came at a point after a couple of hours of climbing through the 90 degree weather. I was dehydrated, my right knee was had a knife stabbing it with every step and I was tired from the pace I was pushing. The more dehydrated I felt I tried to drink more water. I was already done with my Gatorade supply so as I sipped water and climbed I began to cramp and have bouts of nausea. I had already had a few bouts of dizziness, probably from breathing to fast as my lungs tried to suck in gulps of air on my climb. Tired and feeling whipped I paused on the trail and hoped I didn’t have a Technicolor yawn in front of God and everyone.
On my first summit hike I had the same problem, I hit that wall in almost the same spot. I guess it is just after so much effort that last climb up zaps you right in your tracks. I decided to take a long break in the shade and see if I could make it up the rest of the way. I could see the cell towers on the summit so I knew I was close, no way I would turn back now. So with smaller steps and a slower pace I finished the Juniper Trail and arrived at the lower summit parking lot for the final trail that leads to the summit.
On top of the world
I had one rocky trail of a couple hundred feet that I gingerly made my way over with my sore right knee. Finally after 4 hours of pain and sweat I reached the summit. And the view was worth the effort. with good looks at Devil’s Pulpit, North Peak and the valleys surrounding the summit. I took several pictures from the observation deck and headed indoors to cool down where I found the strangest sight of the whole hike. A small mouse decided to take a nap in one of the glass wildlife scene displays. He was unfazed by the stuffed bobcat and raccoon nearby as he hung out in the dry grass, not even flinching when I took a flash picture of him through the glass. After about a half an hour to rest it was time for the return trip to Mitchell Canyon, thankfully downhill this time.
Take the long way home
The good thing about the hike back to my car is it was downhill. All those switchbacks that sapped my will on the way up fly by on the downhill leg. I took my last picture of the hike at Deer Flat as I took another break under an oak tree. I was more concerned about making it back to the car than the gorgeous scenery around me.
The afternoon heat is growing worse and the heat rising form the trail is making the return trek harder even though it is downhill. I passed a pair of hikers just heading out from Mitchell Canyon who were getting ready to abandon their summit attempt as the heat was growing worse. At the one-mile marker to Mitchell gate I was starting to fade. I had the odd sensation my face and arms were throbbing. I was dehydrated and it was getting worse. I had that same sick feeling after my first summit while I was driving back to Tracy. No matter how much water I drank I couldn’t get it to stop. I had polished off my 70 oz. hydration bladder and was working on the 50 oz. bladder but I was still fading.
I gave up trying to drink and just hoped I didn’t flop over on the trail in some kind of Kodak moment for other hikers with their cell phone cameras. The half-mile marker passed by as I just watched the ground in front of me as I trudged along. Mercifully I reached the gate and my cooler stashed with cold water and even more Gatorade. The hike had been just over seven hours for the 16-mile round trip.
The mountain doesn’t have any sympathy for the hiker. It can be a hot and harsh environment for those brave enough or in my case stupid enough to brave its trails in mid summer. It is a place of quiet beauty where visitors can experience the grandeur of nature. And in some ways it is a lonely place with its winding trails often with a lone hiker such as me. I guess I should feel a little sympathy for the mountain but most of all I have a new sense of respect for it. I will return for more hikes in the future at Diablo as continue to explore the many facets of the mountain.