Mystery Island Peaks Trip Report
© November 2011 Adam Helman

Note 1: All coordinates use the WGS84 datum.
Note 2: Photographs are courtesy of Dennis Poulin.


is just off the mainland southwest of Oxnard, California and due west of Los Angeles. It's a haven for Nature, with the eastern one-third occupied by Channel Islands National Park; and the remainder by - henceforth "tree huggers".

For peakbaggers that means two goals - the national park highpoint El Montañon (1,808 feet), and the island highpoint (2,475 feet). El Montañon, on public land, is accessed by a trail system from Scorpion Harbor and campground. In contrast, (henceforth "DP") is closed to the public. The main planning task for a peakbagger, therefore, is conjuring a means of climbing it without notice.

As an island highpoint, DP's prominence equals its elevation, placing it on the California 2,000 foot prominence list. It is also, remarkably, the Santa Barbara County prominent point.

DP can be climbed legally. However the expense (hiring a private boat) and paperwork seem excessive. Thereby after a series of E-mail deliberations Bob Packard and I settle for a stealth assault. We are joined by John Hamann for just DP; and, as a separate contract with the boat company (henceforth "IP"), Dennis Poulin and "KR" as well.

Remarkably, each of us comes from a different state - and they are all connected in a giant "L" as New Mexico, Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington. It will be the November 5-6 weekend, and yet the outbound boat ride is on Friday the 4th so that I don't have to return through Los Angeles on a Monday afternoon.

group picture
At the beach Sunday morning. From viewer's left - Bob Packard,
John Hamann, "KR", Adam Helman and Dennis Poulin.

Friday, November 4 - Outbound Boat and El Montañon

Bob Packard has come from Flagstaff, and camped last night at a KOA facility 5 miles north of Santa Paula. I arrived last night too, and we occupy the same space, lot B-10. Eight topographic charts, a large food box of canned goods and a bottle of tequila are handed-over to Bob for storage until we meet again in late December for a multi-week peakbagging trip into Mexico.

We meet Dennis Poulin and KR at the boat dock, pay our fees and load backpacks onto the vessel. IP has some inconvenient rules about storing water and even empty water containers for the one hour ride - and also for cooking fuel: they must all be removed from backpacks and transported separately. Furthermore, no single item should exceed 45 pounds.

The waves are choppy as we head into the wind. I am a bit seasick, and eventually lie down to pass the time. A storm is due to pass through today, drizzling as we offload gear at the Scorpion Harbor dock.

IP has all passengers form a line just like a bucket brigade transporting water to a fire, moving everybody's gear onto the shore in this manner. I conclude that this maneuver saves energy, and is thus efficient, when campers have multiple pieces of gear that would otherwise require more than a single trip from boat to shore. As it stands I did not sign-onto this group activity and resent having to be a part of it to assist complete strangers while standing in the rain.

A Park Service staff member briefs all campers and kayakers about their leave-no-trace policy. It's all such a damn waste of time. After interminable minutes of this harangue Bob and I finally walk the roughly one-third mile to our designated #14 campsite. Outbound campers are still there despite the 11 a.m. checkout time, with a standing tent and food inside the bear box intended to thwart foxes and ravens from stealing food.

By 12:30 p.m. the four of us (all but John Hamann) head for El Montañon. It's a 2 hour 10 minute hike, and we are rewarded by nice views along the final summit ridge heading southeast.

There's a competing hilltop southeast of the benchmarked summit with communications shack. Bob hand-levels it to be perhaps three feet lower. Hence there's no need for going over there.

We return using a loop route, heading closer to the eastern shore, and are back in camp with plenty of daylight. However it's annoyingly windy, just as on the ridgelines, the campground being inside a canyon which funnels the wind like a tunnel.

We cannot usefully operate Bob's stove outside. In a bold yet dangerous move, it's used inside the tent, being most careful to not make a fire. My chili dinner is delicious, especially with some added habanero Monterey Jack cheese.

It's going to be a very long night, twelve hours in our bags before sunrise. By 9:30 p.m. the conversation has died down, and I go outside just to do something. I retrieve some food from the bear box for Bob and myself. The weather has cleared nicely for tomorrow's main effort.

summit register
El Montañon summit register after Bob Burd
gets there three weeks later.

Saturday, November 5 - Boat Transfer and DP

Our morning timeline is set by the 10:15 a.m. boat arrival. It's several minutes late, which is unfortunate for our plans. Halfway through the passenger disembarkation an unusually large wave pushes our boat away from the pier! The pilot spends several minutes maneuvering back, and eventually succeeds. We board the boat for transferring to (henceforth "PH") about 30 minutes away.

The ride is even more bouncy than before. Eating a cheeseburger helps because it gives me something to occupy my mind rather than concentrating on how miserable I feel. We disembark at about 11:30 a.m., having reservations for waterless Del Norte Campground tonight.

We never go there, of course, as that's three miles in the wrong direction (east) relative to our goal of climbing DP.

There are construction workers with heavy equipment just inland from the shore. There are naturalists with garden plots and intentions of repopulating the immediate habitat with specific species. Finally (and most disturbing) is a group of tourists led by a tree huggers staff member who are just beginning a short nature walk onto their private property ... using the same path we intend to start our climb with!

We store our overnight gear inside a quartet of bear boxes located on the south side of a public bathroom. I stuff my entire backpack inside as a means of keeping my items organized. Then we pretend to consult our maps at the start of the road leading to Del Norte. In truth we are deciding WHAT TO DO about this tour group.

One option is to bushwhack upslope, steep terrain and all, after they depart and never using the gentle trail they are taking partway to Pelican Harbor. Another option also involves waiting, yet taking the same convenient trail after they are well-distanced ahead of us - and then divert southwest to spot elevation 789 when the terrain allows for it. We use this plan, and begin at the most unfortunate time of 12:23 p.m.

As the slowest among us (at age 75!!) I know that Bob can go faster because he is talking. Time is critical, and he really should be huffing-and-puffing to the point that conversation is not possible. Later, when night threatens, he gives it his "all" and I have no complaint.

From point 789 we spy an upper, skyline ridge and a lower nearby one. We need to be on the higher ridge heading for this 1,400 foot contour. However there's a deep chasm between the two ridges that looks unappealing. We gain the lower ridge and then enter a rocky gully on it's right (north) with the aim of taking it southwest until the two ridges meet.

This plan, by John H, works until he suddenly and inexplicably decides to divert right, uphill, heading directly for the desired ridge. Bob and I follow, while Dennis P and KR continue up the gully. The route is horribly thick with trees and brush, a nightmare of tangled mass that has us covering inches rather than strides. Finally we "break out" after perhaps 100 vertical feet and continue.

Bob wants to know where we should go - north upslope or sidehill west. I explain that ultimately we must go west for DP, yet for the moment we should head north to the main ridge. Dennis and KR are spotted a few hundred yards ahead of us, on a completely different south-trending ridge, having decided to not follow Bob, John and myself into green hell.

Half an hour later all five of us rendezvous just east of Red Peak on the main east-west ridge. It's already about 2:30 and yet only one-third of the distance to DP has been covered.

The going is rough, considerably slower than anticipated based on our El Montañon experience. In fact, it's looking doubtful we'll make the summit by dark. That's potentially serious (although not life-threatening), and each of us has a personal concept of the chances we will be forced to sleep on the mountain and summit the next morning.

Such a plan would be most unfortunate: owing to predicted high winds tomorrow afternoon (and hence dangerously rough seas), there's a good chance our boat will come early, as soon as 9 a.m., rather than for the scheduled 2:45 p.m. departure. We would miss the boat and be forced to overnight at PH with meager food rations. However we do have plenty of water thanks to a 2 gallon bag of water Bob filled at Scorpion Campground.

A complication arises in that Daylight Savings ends tonight at 2 a.m. Synchronization of our timepieces with IP is important. If we fail to move back watches one hour then our "2:45 p.m." is their "1:45 p.m." and we are one hour early. However if IP fails to reset their clocks then their "2:45 p.m." is our "1:45 p.m." and we are one hour late since we will conclude that we still have one hour for getting to the dock. Thereby I called IP before the trip to verify they are aware of this time shift.

Generally it is best to remain on the main ridge. However at either spot elevation 2021 or this summit one must sidehill because the far (west) side is extremely steep. We go around the north side, a mistake, because the brush becomes intolerably thick. I recommend, therefore, trying the south side.

It's now getting dark regardless of time zone. Without direct sunlight the ridgeline wind is suddenly cold and uninviting. We put on layers, and soon headlamps in preparation for nighttime. We are only inside this kilometer-square map section, heading northwest, and still about 1 1/2 "GPS miles" from our goal.

I insist that people stay together so that John's lamp can guide us - he seems to prefer scouting ahead and then waiting for us. Although that's OK in the daylight when the route is obvious, it's alltogether insensible under the current conditions.

The two-thirds full moon considerably helps us locate the general path, while headlamps allow us to climb over rocks and avoid smashing into trees.

The final 400 vertical feet brings an end to any thought of remaining here for the night: for on the far side of DP is a real trail followed by a dirt road - easy navigation by moonlight.

We summit at 8:08 p.m. and huddle on the communications shack leeward side. I quickly enjoy a bagel with pastrami and habanero Jack cheese. To recognize the nocturnal nature of our success Dennis photographs Bob and myself at the obviously highest natural rock perhaps five yards east of the shack.

summit at night
Strong wind makes Adam lean on Bob
while at the island's highest rock.

We locate a trail on the west side and descend as smaller groups to the road's terminus (shown on satellite images). I arrive at 9:03 p.m, rearrange some stuff, and continue, disconcertingly, uphill yet once more.

The route taken is full of depressingly numerous elevation losses - so much that on the return boat Dennis, Bob and KR estimate 1,750 extra feet of gain by having passed through 35 fifty-foot contours getting to the top. Added to the net elevation gain of 2,475 feet and some 250 feet on the road-based return hike, one has some 4,500 feet of total elevation gain.

That road walk is worth noting - I dare claim almost "enjoyable" because of several issues. First, we have succeeded. Second, even though it's night there are no longer any navigation problems. Third, the moon's pale, silvery light is eerily beautiful! I only use the headlamp when it's hidden, such as inside a thick grove of trees or behind a hill slope.

Bob, John and I stick together, Dennis and KR having forged ahead. We reach this road junction before 11 p.m. Layers have been removed, and yet another (of eight!) red apples is consumed.

I have some coffee grounds because of obvious mental fatigue. We take one rest break after another hour, and then a second break at this critical road junction (shown on satellite images). Here we turn left (north) to avoid passing close-by the Stanton Ranch with possible prying eyes.

Sadly, Dennis and KR do not have this junction's coordinates and march straight past the ranch without turning north on the road leading back to PH. They overshoot by an entire mile, backtrack, and meet us at this junction (shown only on the satellite image) where our bypass road joins the main road. It is after 1 a.m.

The time change occurs as we head northeast on the obvious road, passing at some point the El Montañon prominence saddle. I return to our trailhead at 2:23 a.m., fourteen hours after leaving from there.

The weather is coming in, and Bob erects our tent. Meanwhile I have a self-heating meal of turkey and potatoes, and go to bed at 3:48 a.m. - which is 2:48 in the new time scheme.

We estimate the round-trip as 20 miles, including 8 miles to the summit and 12 miles for the return. Together with 4,500 feet of elevation gained (and nearly all off-trail), it's been a big yet rewarding day.

Sunday, November 6 - Return

It rains around 4 a.m. yet is only cloudy when Bob and I arise after 7, hedging our bet that maybe the boat will come at 9 a.m. We have a group photograph and lounge around munching on leftover food talking about assorted mountains and their stories. I have Fruit Loops with milk.

Our boat comes at 11 a.m. and we depart 40 minutes later. A pepperoni "pizza bread" costs four dollars yet I really want it - good with added garlic salt. We head with the wind to Scorpion Harbor, retrieve dozens of campers, and return to the mainland around 1:30 p.m. The drive home is uneventful.


The original plan was to backpack partway along the route towards DP and camp. Then summit on Sunday morning and return to PH before the 2:45 p.m. departure. That plan would have failed on two counts - first, it would have been quite arduous carrying all that water for a camp high onto the ridge system. Second (and more importantly), there would have NOT been enough time to make the early-departing boat.

I recommend the itinerary we executed, one that is perfectly reasonable provided one can summit before darkness. Then, it is easy to avoid detection while hiking back in the Central Valley along roads after sundown. Finally, it makes no sense to use Del Norte Campground when the goal is DP.