Monday, July 15, 2013

Ventana Wilderness: Cures for what ails you

I've had a "mid-July backpacking trip" on my mental calendar for months. I believed the timing would be good for a necessary shakedown for my big trips in August, for gear testing and to see where my conditioning stood. Since I hurt my knee, the scratch marks over these plans grew thicker with each passing week. Recovery just wasn't happened at the rate I thought it should. There were two main problems — range of motion, and stability. I couldn't bend my knee to a 90-degree angle or higher without pain, and I couldn't put much weight or force on the joint without feeling wobbly. These two problems aren't great for anything, but they're workable. After three weeks of no activity to low-impact activity, I began to wonder if the fix might require some long-term downtime. Maybe to get through the summer, I was just going to have to learn how to work with it — or at least, learn whether I could work with it. Perhaps a shakedown trip was needed to figure out just what my knee could and couldn't do.

But more than dubious self-prescribed physical therapy, I admit I needed a mental reset. Beat and I decided to embark on an overnight backpacking trip in the Ventana Wilderness, in the coastal mountains of Big Sur. We pored over the maps and found an intriguing spot at the southern end of the range — Cone Peak, a craggy marble summit that climbs from the sea to 5,155 feet in less than three miles as the gull flies. There's a questionably passable but direct route appropriately called "Sea to Sky," but we decided to take a more meandering route in and out of several drainages, starting at the Vicente Flat trailhead. If we made it to the peak, our route would likely be 15 to 16 miles with well over 6,000 feet of climbing one way. We decided we'd hike as far as we felt like, camp, and turn around to retrace our steps the following day. No big commitments.

At the trailhead, Beat and I hoisted our 25-pound packs and let out a harmonic "oof." I'm not much of an ultralight packer. I just don't like to fuss with meticulous planning and don't necessarily mind the carrying part (actually, "muling" is something I consider one of my strengths.) But there's no getting around the fact that weight makes everything harder and slower, especially on what was effectively our first loaded trip of the summer. The bulk of what we were carrying was water, because it's the height of summer and there are few guaranteed sources in these thirsty mountains.

The first steps were a struggle, but after a half mile I hit my stride and felt as light and free as I had in weeks. An unknown wilderness loomed in front of us and a thick layer of fog added an air of mystery and excitement. The pursuit of new experiences — adventure — creates such a depth of satisfaction for me that simply embarking on a wilderness hike can wipe away weeks' worth of angst that occasionally accumulates like grime on my psyche.

Yes, I was stoked to be out there. So much so that I forgot all about my wobbly knee, only to occasionally be reminded when we had to climb around deadfall or descend into a rocky drainage. Above the marine layer, the temperature rapidly increased and the sun beat down with startling intensity for our low elevation. But the canyons were deep and cool, sheltered with towering redwoods but surprisingly, at Vicente Flats at least, without water. Not even a trickle.

We walked another two miles, up and over another ridge, and descended the steep sideslope of a drainage that had water. A bow hunter was sitting in the creek with his shoes off. When we told him we planned to continue beyond that point, he warned us that "these mountains are as dry as I've ever seen them" and we weren't likely to find any water at higher elevations. We decided to fill up our carrying capacity — between us, eight liters — which we thought would be more than enough until evening. I'd pumped about a half liter when I handed my filter to Beat, who then accidentally broke the handle off the pump. Shoot. We had chlorine tablets as well, but those take four hours to purify. Still, we had about four liters of "good" water, and filled four more with water that would become okay to drink at 5:30 p.m. "Good luck," the hunter said as we started climbing out of the creek. "I doubt anyone else is headed that way. You'll be all alone up there."

After another mile we reached the intersection with the direct "Sea to Sky" ridge route and — what can I say? I am a sucker for a brutally steep climb. Beat asked if I wanted to try the "shortcut" and I didn't even hesitate. Yes! The bow hunter also told us we'd be nuts to try the ridge — "It goes straight up" — and this made it all the more enticing. Anyway, we could probably connect with the main trail for the descent, avoiding an equally steep descent that might trigger knee problems.

The ridge route was indeed brutal. It had all the steepness I expected, with the added challenge of bushwhacking through spiky brush and extremely loose dirt underfoot. Gaining 1,500 feet per mile was the easy part. In the grassy sections where there was no brush to grab, it was often difficult to gain enough purchase to take a single step. The soil would just crumble away beneath my feet, taking clumps of dry grass with it. The spiky brush tore up our arms and burrs stuck in our fingers. The heat was downright astonishing. At 4,000 feet we were now above the upper reaches of the marine layer, and the region had a different climatic feel, as though we were suddenly deep in the interior and it was a hundred degrees. I was probably not actually 100 degrees (it was likely 90) but it felt extremely hot, and both Beat and I were sucking down large amounts of heated water as we hacked our way up the ridge.

By the time we reached the summit of Twin Peak — a close neighbor to Cone Peak and just below 5,000 feet itself — we had 6 ounces of good water between us. It would be another hour before we could drink the chlorinated stream water.

The route to Cone Peak looked precarious at best — big cliffs blocked the summit and from our position, it wasn't obvious where we could skirt around, or if it was even possible. We didn't have enough spare water to go on an exploratory mission, so we decided to head down the nearest drainage to a water source — knowing we'd have to drop a few thousand feet to find it. Still, we hadn't given up on Cone Peak just yet. We could return in the morning on the known trail if we were feeling energetic.

The backside of Twin Peak had a few major problems that we were not aware of before we started our descent. A major wildfire tore up this slope in 2009, bringing down several massive redwoods and scouring the surface, leaving a layer of very loose dirt and crumbling rock. We had to leave the ridge to pick our way around the deadfall, only to find a steep surface that was so extremely loose that gaining purchase was nearly impossible. We'd take a step down and slide until enough dirt built up to stop us, and do it again. I was certain if I lost my balance, I'd start sliding and keep sliding, getting torn to shreds and probably smack into something before I stopped. The dirt had as much integrity as rotten snow, and when we tried to climb onto rocks, they broke off in our hands. At one point I slipped onto my butt and slid a foot or so, stopping shy of a really steep pitch that went right into a huge fallen tree trunk. When I tried to scramble back up, I just started sliding again. I panicked for a few minutes and Beat had to come talk me through it.

Life didn't get much easier when we regained the ridge. We still had to hack through brush and struggle down loose dirt. While trying to work our way around a wall of boulders, I lost my footing and slammed onto my butt, but my left foot remained anchored and wrenched my bad knee violently as my butt slammed into my heel. An electric flash of pain blocked out my vision and stole my breath, then washed over in a wave of nausea. It was so much more painful than the initial bashing that spurred the injury. As soon as I could collect my awareness from the white swirl of pain, my first thought was, "How am I going to get off this mountain?" Not "Oh, there goes another three weeks of training." Not, "Shoot, I just wrecked the rest of my summer plans." No, my first concern was whether or not I'd even get out of there without major intervention. It felt like I tore something clean in half.

In my initial panic to not let Beat know how frightened I was, I stood up quickly and mumbled something about being fine. Surprisingly, I was actually able to put weight on my leg. I stood still for another minute or so, absorbing the pain, until Beat climbed back to check on me. "I fell on my knee," I admitted. "It really hurts. But I think I can use it."

Stumbling down the mountain, I was surprised I could bend it, but it was still sore. Then I fell again. Owwww! I cried, but it actually came out as more of a whimper. I was still so scared. There was no way of knowing what I had done. But with pain like that, it couldn't be good.

It took us more than an hour to descend 1,500 feet. During this time, we cracked into our stream water and drank most of it. We were so dehydrated and exhausted that the two of us plowed through the better part of a gallon within the next hour. We hit the trail and I decided to stop peg-legging and see how bad it felt to bend my knee. The soreness was still there, but it was different than I expected — almost the kind of soreness you feel when you rip a bandaid away. Superficial soreness. The joint itself felt surprisingly loose, and dare I say ... strong? I was so confused, but I didn't complain.

We dropped into another narrow canyon and found a cool, flowing creek at 2,500 feet elevation, next to a beautiful camp site overlooking the sea. My knee felt ... not just not bad, but almost great in comparison to how it had felt in recent weeks. I'd almost forgotten what it felt like to have strength in both knees. It was inexplicable, but Beat speculated that perhaps I had a bunch of scar tissue from the initial injury that finally broke apart in this second blow. Or maybe some band of tissue had been out of place, and then snapped back into place. Since I never knew exactly what was wrong, I have no sense of what might have fixed it. But I felt like the sitcom character who throws out her back, only to have some unknowing friend give her a big bear hug and snap it back into place. Like accidental Rolfing for the knee. A double negative somehow makes a positive.

We'd already decided after my painful fall that we wouldn't try to return to Cone Peak, but we still had a 12-mile hike out. I did some stretches before bed and even got myself into a full squatting position, something I also haven't been able to do since I injured my knee. We drank a bunch of water, ate Mountain House meals, and the next morning I woke up completely refreshed and pain-free.

I didn't want to let optimism get the better of me just to discover something horrible had happened after all, but I couldn't help it. The stoke took over and I felt weightless the whole way back. I realize I made some questionable decisions and perhaps just got incredibly lucky, but what if my knee was actually fixed? Could a person really receive so much goodness from one simple weekend hike? Beat enjoyed the outing too, except for being terrorized by hundreds of tiny burrs that stuck to everything. I actually opted for nylon pants and hiking gaiters (which I lent to Beat for the second day) instead of running clothes, which proved to be the better choice. Boots would have been better than running shoes for a lot of this terrain. I forget that hiking is not just "slow running." Hiking can be a whole other harsh animal in the wilderness.

The fog moved away, offering us a glimpse of the Big Blue on the return. Twenty-four hours later and survival needs abated, my knee is still-pain free. Fluke that it might be, I feel indebted to the Ventana Wilderness — steep, brutal, and stunning.


  1. 25 pounds with food and water is actually pretty light, in my opinion. that is a ton of water.

  2. The whole knee thing...I can relate. I fell off a helicopter (I am a pilot) and twisted my knee (right in the middle of training for a marathon). My flight doc said I was fine since I could put weight on it, but I knew better. For almost 3 years I took everything easy and it still hurt. One day, I slipped going down my front stairs, felt my knee sort of "pop" and now I am training for an Ironman. Three years and I probably just needed to see a chiropractor and have her pop my knee in place. Three long, lost years. BTW...I actually found your site searching saddle sores from your 2012 blog. What did your doc recommend? Please e-mail me at I am at a loss with these things!

  3. It's like when my IT band was killing me during Hundred in the Hood (I'd been having problems for months) and I was crying and gimping knowing I would have to drop. Pissed I decided to just run on it and let it totally blow out and the pain went away and never came back not ever again. Not ever. You just never know. Not that it's a good strategy.

  4. Mary — that was a shot in the dark guess. Beat thinks the packs weighed more than 30. He was carrying five liters to my three, but I had the tent. He had the lunch foods and I had the dinner stuff. It probably evened out between us. I brought some warm layers and even a rain jacket because I was expecting dewey coastal conditions. Boy was I wrong! I didn't even need a sleeping bag for that scorching weather. A tent and pad would have been ideal (lots of black flies would have made cowboy camping uncomfortable.)

    Chrissie — that's a crazy story about your knee. It's interesting how we (and even medical professionals) can guess all we want at our issues, but sometimes something unexpected happens and it resolves itself. We certainly can't bank on this, but it is nice when it works out, isn't it?

    As far as saddle sores, that Stagecoach 400 ride in 2012 was honestly the only time in my life I've had to deal with open, infected saddle sores. What I concluded about those was chafing from a decent amount of hike-a-biking in hot weather in a non-breathable chamois, combined with poor hygiene for four days, contributed to the horror. And I also concluded that the blistering I had on my butt was similar to blisters I get on my feet, and can benefit from the same methods of treatment — keep the area as dry as possible, keep it clean, and keep it lubed with a disinfectant cream (most chamois creams have this.) When in doubt, as a women, I also think antifungal creams are a good preventative measure.

  5. Holy cow really had me...describing how you went down, I was thinking "that was it...the knee is gone"...and was already mentally thinking ahead to you being airlifted out. WOW, what a surprise ending (thankfully)!

  6. Looks like I need to visit here to cure my foot. I've had a dull rubbing pain since the TMB.

    Glad your knee is feeling better, if only temporary. Makes you wonder what regular chiropractor visits could have done for it, right?

    PS- I doubt those are Redwoods, they don't grow higher than about 2,500ft, especially in such dry places as that. In the photo they look more like pine or fir.

  7. Thinking like a hypochondriac - one possibility is that you had a partially torn ligament that was aggravated and inflamed by any movement that pulled on it. Then you tore it completely so it no longer had any tension on it. No tension = no aggravation, no pain, no restrictions on freedom of motion. Only symptom of a complete tear in some cases is reduced stability, which you might not notice if you're not playing basketball or something like that.

  8. I call what you experienced "blowing the pipes out". Sometimes it does wonders.


  9. It's not uncommon to have little to no pain following a high-grade ACL injury. So probably more like worse damage, not magical cure. Go to a real doctor, Jill.

  10. I know I can't rule out such possibilities. I was planning to consult my doctor.


Feedback is always appreciated!