Monday, May 15, 2006
Moonlight Hike in the Pinnacles
I've never thought of myself as an extreme adventure sports type of person... not even close! Imagine my surprise to find myself inadvertently becoming one for a few crazy hours this past weekend?! To celebrate my dear friend Johna's birthday we signed up for a moonlight hike in the Pinnacles National Monument, a couple of hours away from here. I paid no attention at all to the details, and had this gauzy picture in my mind of us out in some beautiful meadow, walking around in the moonlight for an hour or so, looking at the rock formations (I'd never been there), and then going home. My first clue that something might be amiss was arriving to meet the rest of the hikers and noticing that all of them, except for the three of us, were wearing serious hiking boots. We were in our sneakers. Hmmmmm.....
After a one hour drive on a dirt road, up some mountains, across a spectacular old cattle ranch, and down into the Pinnacles Monument, we arrived at about 8:45 pm, and the hike started at 9pm. Our guide gave us little information (it turns out that everyone else had hiked this trail before and knew what was ahead, except for us). She told us to use flashlights as little as possible, to stay quiet, and she assigned somebody to bring up the end of the group. Oh, and she mentioned that we would be walking 5 miles. Five miles??!! Holy smokes! Off we went, in the deep darkness, up a trail - yes, up, for the next 3 hours we went UP. The first hour or more was very dark. The moon didn't rise until about 10. It soon became apparent that this was much more than a hike - it was also a climb. We started walking along cliff faces, inching around narrow ledges, and eventually climbing up vertical rocks using toe-holds and hand rails to keep us from hurtling off into the deep canyons below us. It was steep and narrow. I have a fair amount of vertigo, fear of heights, and my hands were sweating, heart pounding, legs shaking like bands of cooked spaghetti. I've never had panic attacks, but I think I got a sense of how one might happen. My pals Rosemary and Johna were fantastic, encouraging me and comforting me every step of the way. I think we climbed 1500-1800 feet that night, in the dark, slipping and sliding along the cliff faces. Breathe, I kept telling myself, breathe - but it wasn't a naturally occuring process at that moment!
I'll have to admit, when I had the courage to look anywhere but at my feet, it was gorgeous. If you want to see spectacular geological formations, Pinnacles National Monument may be the place for you. Millions of years ago east of Salinas, an ancient volcano rumbled and spewed, earthquakes split and moved the tortured terrain, and erosion further carved or smoothed its features. The result was a wild landscape sculpted with spires and steep canyons, marked with caves, and traversed by talus passages. The Civilian Conservation Corps built many miles of trails during the 1930s. They constructed “pigeon hole” steps to ascend the dramatic escarpments and installed handrails (but didn’t overdo it) along high ledges. Here's a quote from a web site that I should have considered reading before going on this hike: "While walkers wary of heights might want to hike elsewhere, those not predisposed to acrophobia will relish the adventure of hiking into the High Peaks area".
A highlight of the "hike" was seeing a group of about five giant California condors roosting in a tree near the top of the High Peaks. One was close enough that his glistening pink scalp was clearly visible in the moonlight. A hiker who had night-scope binoculars could read the tattooed number on the condor's shoulder (these have all been born in captivity and then released to the wild, since they are so endangered).
But best of all was getting to the end of the hike, at 2 am, when we stumbled into the parking lot and prepared for our 2 hour ride home (thanks Johna for heroic driving after all that!). We were so pumped with adrenaline that it took hours to feel tired. We laughed so much on the way home, exhilirated at having survived this wild adventure. We did it! WOW! So many times I thought of just giving up, collapsing into a sobbing pile of trembling protoplasm beside the trail, and letting whatever wild animals come along and just eat me up. Better that than inching along another cliff face in the dark. It was a loop trail, so there was no turning around and going back to the car. But we kept going - what a rush!
Today my legs ache with every step, all those stretched muscles screaming out "what were you thinking?" But I feel terrific, nonetheless. I have a memory that will last forever, and I have a new appreciation for my strength and endurance. That is priceless!
California Condor in flight - wing span can reach 9-10 feet!