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Ascent of El Cajon Mountain on 2019-06-02

Climber: Jake Weeks

Others in Party:Tom Weeks
William Wood
Date:Sunday, June 2, 2019
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:El Cajon Mountain
    Location:USA-California
    Elevation:3675 ft / 1120 m

Ascent Trip Report

Climbed via the South Arete route and descended via the hiker's (Wildcat Canyon) trail. I'll start out by saying that this turned into a bit of an epic for all the wrong reasons. Primarily I blame sandbagging bloggers for underestimating the difficulty of the climbing and the regularity of severe exposure on this route, but I'll get into that in due time.

I began packing at around 7:00 AM. The plan was to tackle the climb at around 8:00AM with my dad, Tom, and my friend Billy. June Gloom meant we had a weather window to tackle the notoriously hot mountain thanks to overcast skies and 71F air. I figured this would be a good opportunity to test out my new backpack, breaking my rule of not experimenting on a difficult climb. I packed 120oz of liquids (some water, some Gatorade), all in heavy yeti-style aluminium bottles, along with 3 PB&J sandwiches, 6 assorted bars, a couple gels, and a first aid kit. My pack was around 21 pounds fully loaded. When my mom asked my dad if he'd be carrying a backpack too to take some of the weight, he said "nope, Jake's my Sherpa." I guess when you reach a certain age you also inherit certain liberties, and making your son carry almost the entirety of the supplies for three people on a dangerous climb is apparently one of them. By the end of the day literally all of our supplies would be expended.

We left slightly later than planned, picking up Billy at 8:00. Thankfully he brought along plenty of water for himself in a lightweight pack. As we arrived at the trailhead we encountered what looked to be other climbers attempting the same route. We asked where the start of the use trail was, and they said they didn't know and they were waiting for a friend to arrive. They seemed exceptionally ambivalent. As we headed out to where we expected the trail to be, they called to us to beware of poison oak. I never saw any on the route, but the warning was appreciated. We never saw them leave the parking area, and we assume they left without trying the route.

At 8:30 AM we set off on the trail. On literally my first step onto the trail, I tread on what looked like a normal sandy patch right next to the road, and my foot sunk in to what I can only describe as quicksand about 6 inches. Not a good start. We quickly found the creek crossing. A nicely fallen tree makes for a dry route across. The route-finding even this early on is non-trivial. In the jungle we found a T-junction; go right here. After leaving the jungle, it was a relatively easy crash through brush on a thin use trail heading towards the nearest power line tower. Beyond that, we found a sign describing the open space preserve and a followed dirt road heading past two abandoned rock mines. The trail to the South Arete actually goes past the second mine, not on the dirt road leading into the mine as we first anticipated. Look for a rusted out water tank, it marks the trail.

Due to the overcast conditions and low clouds, we could only see up to Lunch Rock from the ground. The rest of the arete and El Cajon were completely obscured, giving us a false impression of the steepness of the route. From the bottom of the arete proper to the top of the ridge, the route climbs 2000 feet in less than 0.8 miles. Above Lunch Rock, the slope is almost always greater than 50%, sometimes 70%, over and around huge granite boulders.

A use trail follows a pretty obvious, if steep, path up towards Lunch Rock. Due to heavy rainfall conditions this year, there is dense brush which has overgrown the trail in many places, primarily foxtails. They are easy enough to crash through, but completely obscure any rattlesnakes, loose rocks, slippery terrain, or deep holes that may be present any time you plant your foot down. Even before Lunch Rock, we encountered sections of the trail which were about 12 inches wide with no available handholds and 500 feet of exposure to the right, which required stepping through these foxtail bushes. If an unseen rock or section of softly packed dirt gave way under your weight, certain death. It was here that I begin to resent the blogs and trip reports that describe this route in such casual language with no heed paid to the extreme consequences of a minor mistake. Even before the scrambling and rock climbing really begins, this route is lethally unforgiving. I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a novice climber, nor would I call my partners novices either, but we were all mislead by these trip reports to believe that this route was not as dangerous as it really is.

Arriving at Lunch Rock, we did not consider it prudent to stop for any sort of nominal reset, as we wanted to be off the arete before the hottest part of the day. We could hear peacocks and roosters from a residence near the bottom of the arete for the entire climb up. I wanted to climb through the top of the cave, which required taking off my pack and handing it up. Several sketchy sections followed. When we arrived at the infamous "Brushy Gully," we investigated the gully just to confirm what we had read in trip reports before tackling the rock wall alternative. Perhaps the most dangerous section of the day is on this rock formation. After a climb halfway up the right side of a slightly-less-than-vertical slab, you are faced with an 8' sheer, smooth rock wall. The only way up or around it is to traverse 12' along a ledge which runs the width of the slab. This ledge juts only 4" from the sheer wall, just enough for the ball of your foot, and runs about 50' of exposure onto granite before another sharp drop of 250' down the arete. So here you are, leaning your weight into this wall for dear life, traversing along a tiny ledge with a class 3 move at the end to get off the ledge and over the wall. Images of the National Geographic cover of Alex Honnold traversing a similar feature on Half Dome came to mind. Strange how triumphant images sometimes flash through your mind in moments of extreme peril - the human brain trying to goad you through a terrifying situation rather than just freezing in fear. Thankfully we all made it across with all our vital organs in their proper location (with the exception of our hearts having leaped into our throats).

Maybe you think I'm being overly dramatic or that I lack a sense of adventure, but I assure you that I'm not the kind of individual who seeks recognition for my own shortcomings. I just have a strong sense of self-preservation, and something about this route shook me to the core. Voluminous, creeping uncertainties caused a stressful dynamic in our team. My dad kept verbalizing the danger that we all implicitly recognized, which caused unnecessary psychological strain on Billy and I. There's an old adage that you should never climb anything that you don't think you can downclimb, and my dad had either never heard this or chose to ignore it, because he continually muttered about how we were past the point of no return and couldn't turn back now. I told him he just lacked confidence, to which he replied "I do." I knew at this point that downclimbing the arete was not an option, and that we'd have to return via the hiker's trail, adding on a significant distance

Billy led most of the way, wearing Vans at that - how he climbs in those things I'll never know. The trail disappeared completely after this point, and the only recognizable traces of the route were the geography of the arete itself and the occasional trampled foxtail or snapped twig indicating human presence. Billy led most of the way and despite not having studied the route, managed to keep us on track the whole way. I trust his navigation instincts immensely. Whenever he suggested a path and my dad or I suggested an alternative, Billy was usually right. We lost about 15 minutes exploring a possible bushwhack before the headwall, when Billy's suggestion of climbing an easy class 4 slab turned out to be the correct route all along. However, close to the top of the headwall we became stuck. To the right was a sheer cliff, and to the left was a rugged looking chockstone and more granite cliffs. We were afraid we might have to give up and brave the arete back down, until a lone local came up the arete. We hadn't seen him climbing up when we had looked back for the other climbers, so he must have been moving fast. He seemed surprised to see us, which meant that either this route is not very popular, or we looked completely unprepared. The fact that he had come up the same way we did at least gave us some hope that we were still on the correct route. He filled us in on our options: to the right was a class 4 move with one section that he said was "very exposed," and to the left was a non-exposed 5.8-5.9 boulder problem - technically more difficult but safer. We later learned that the "very exposed" section had 2000' of exposure. Falling off that would be like falling off El Capitan. Even without this info we all decided upon the boulder problem. It is essentially a flat, downsloping chockstone over a drainage gully with a few very awkward and small holds. Billy and I boosted each other up, not concerned with the machismo of bouldering with packs after 2500' of climbing. It required a hearty lunge and planting your hips on the stone while clambering for a hold. Unburdened by a pack, my dad solved the problem alone with sheer upper body strength.

There was hardly any room on top of the chockstone for 2 people, so I began leading. The gully was extremely steep, and as I stepped up I dislodged a ~40 pound rock about 2" thick with the radius of a dinner plate hidden in foxtails, and caught it from crashing downhill into my partners. I said "woah" aloud, at what could have been a really bad situation. My dad just yelled up saying "Just step around it and keep going." His impatience in the face of danger was unappreciated, but I could tell that the stress and fear had gotten to us all. Thankfully, the gully leveled out into easy, flat cross country bushwhacking and we realized that we had topped out on the arete. A high rushed over us and we started chatting, laughing, and applying sunscreen. We had to break out the first aid kit and use antiseptic swabs on several of our wounds. Billy had opened up a large gash on his knee against a rock. I had nearly torn off a fingernail when I slipped climbing a finger crack. We were all cut up from various manzanita bushes and prickly plants. Soon we were moving quickly towards the trail intersection. The sense of relief was intense. I've heard it is not normal to make it up this route on the first try. I can only claim that we got lucky and managed to squeak out the ascent through sheer chance.

The trail towards the four-way intersection (South Arete trail, El Capitan Trail, Summit Trail, Fire road) is easy to spot after a little simple bushwhacking. On the way back down, we met the local who had helped us on our way up on his descent. He was running down from the summit. He told us that he had done the South Arete seven weekends in a row and that it normally took him three hours round trip (it had taken us three and a half hours just to top out on the arete). He also said that he had previously done the South Arete to Wildcat Canyon and back again in 6-7 hours. Maybe this is the character of the individuals this route deserves, not punters like us.

The trail to the intersection was relatively flat, and once at the intersection we decided we had come too far not to reach the summit. But as soon as we started climbing again, Billy's back started to give him trouble. He suspected had injured something mantling onto the boulder problem. We paused at the summit for a rest to eat our sandwiches and call to let our ride know we'd need to be picked up at Wildcat Canyon. We found a benchmark on a low rock near the summit. I'm not sure when the new summit marker was placed, but it's pretty neat.

Once we started descending from the summit, I began to notice problems with Billy. He started to fall behind pretty significantly and his back was becoming increasingly problematic. We were well hydrated enough, but it was only on the descent after the adrenaline from the arete had worn off that we realized how much energy we had lost. Buckling knees, sewing machine leg, etcetera, but Billy also had to contend with an injured back. Descending via the fire road, we knew we had a 5 mile hike back to civilization, which did not sound so daunting. However, the El Cajon fire road is one of the worst hiking trails I have ever seen. It is up and down the entire way, with nary a flat section to be seen, and the surface quality is very poor. Much of it is loose sand, necessitating baby steps down steep downhill slopes and causing unstable footing on the ascents. Besides the loose sand, you get deep, eroded gulches and softball sized jagged rocks covering the trail, too small to be stepped on but large enough to roll an ankle with one bad step. My dad, forever impatient, refused to move at Billy's pace and insisted on rocketing ahead and going alone. I nodded in approval, but in reality I couldn't disagree with his choice more. What if Billy's condition deteriorated further and I needed help? What if my dad got in trouble and we had no idea where he was because he was off on his own? Splitting up is just fundamentally idiotic, and his inability to sense that we were in a precarious situation, especially given Billy's glacial pace, was a dangerous error in judgement.

I felt strong enough to keep going at full speed, but I stayed behind and let Billy set the pace. He was moving very slowly, and taking frequent two minute breaks to relieve his back pain. I felt like a Sherpa guiding a Western climber up Everest. The trail seemed to drag on forever. I knew Billy was failing mentally when he stopped laughing at my quips and eventually stopped responding to anything I said. I played up my own exhaustion a little bit - a questionable tactic psychologically as it could cause him to worry a bit more, but I felt like he'd feel a little better if he thought we were both suffering, instead of me just pushing him along. Luckily, the sky was still mostly overcast. Adding scorching heat to this equation might have been the tipping point. On the frequent uphill sections of this torturous trail, Billy would have to sit down and rest every 100 feet or so. I began to grow seriously worried that he would need to be rescued. At one point he even began to fall asleep while resting. The issue was that he needed to stop and sit down to rest his back, but any time spent stopped caused our legs to tighten up and made walking harder. At the 2.5 mile marker a bench provided him a merciful rest. My dad had stopped there and we all rested a while before my dad set off ahead again.

After a brief switchback descent, the trail started to climb again (of course) and Billy continued to worsen. I tried to let him lead as much as possible, but sometimes I'd start walking ahead at my standard pace and he'd be out of sight behind me in less than a minute. We slowly heaved our way over a series of three more steep climbs which skirt various minor peaks on the way back to the trailhead. Billy would occasionally see something like "I think I'm at my wit's end" which made me worried. I gave him an energy gel which seemed to perk him up a bit. I didn't want to give him one earlier because I felt if he had a sugar crash it might have been game over. Right before the second such hill was the 1.5 mile mark we stopped again. My dad called and told me it was about 40 minutes from the end. Billy and I discussed the Parappa the Rapper rerelease, and started to feel the end approaching. After two more difficult hills and plenty of stops, I felt that Billy was going to make it. Shortly after a sign for the Pata Ranch Trail, there's a shortcut to the parking lot through continuously downhill switchbacks, indicated by a sign. We raced down to find my dad sitting at a bench by some restrooms at the trailhead. We still had to walk another half mile on semi-paved roads to reach the parking lot and our ride back to our car way over on the South Arete.

All told, we made it back without any severe injuries, but as the person who suggested this trip, the experience left me feeling bitter. I felt bad for asking Billy to go with me on such a grueling climb (although we didn't anticipate it at the time) and I think my dad had a few too many reminders of his own mortality. We all agreed that if we had known how crazy the route would be, we never would have tried it. Still, I couldn't shake the sense of guilt that I had ushered us forward many times and put our group in danger when we should have turned back long before the most treacherous sections. We all said we'd never do it again, and I probably lost my two climbing partners by suggesting a route that was beyond our limits, but we shall see.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
The view climbing upward from the base of the South Arete. Low clouds obscure the headwall, and the summit is not visible until you reach the top of the arete (2019-06-02). Photo by Jake Weeks.
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Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3719 ft / 1133 m
    Total Elevation Loss:2721 ft / 828 m
    Round-Trip Distance:8.8 mi / 14.1 km
    Grade/Class:4
    Quality:6 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Open Country, Bushwhack, Stream Ford, Scramble, Exposed Scramble, Rock Climb
    Weather:Hot, Breezy, Overcast
Ascent Statistics
    Gain on way in:3269 ft / 996 m
        Gain Breakdown:Net: 3129 ft / 954 m; Extra: 140 ft / 42m
    Loss on way in:140 ft / 42 m
    Distance:3.3 mi / 5.3 km
    Route:South Arete
    Start Trailhead:South Arete Trailhead  546 ft / 166 m
    Time:4 Hours 20 Minutes
Descent Statistics
    Loss on way out:2581 ft / 786 m
        Loss Breakdown:Net: 2131 ft / 650 m; Extra: 450 ft / 137m
    Gain on way out:450 ft / 137 m
    Distance:5.5 mi / 8.9 km
    Route:El Cajon Mountain Trail
    End Trailhead:El Cajon Mountain Trail  1544 ft / 470 m
    Time:3 Hours 10 Minutes



Other Photos

Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Climbing through the Lunch Rock cave. The face may seem excited, but the eyes are hiding true terror (2019-06-02). Photo by Jake Weeks.
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Click on photo for original larger-size version.
Climbing past Lunch Rock towards the headwall on the South Arete. Don't let the photos deceive you. Nothing can prepare you for how steep this route is unless you go up and see for yourself - which I can't say I recommend (2019-06-02). Photo by Jake Weeks.
Click here for larger-size photo.





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