One day a year, they open the path to El Toro. Straight up the spine of the signature peak that glowers at the edge of Morgan Hill, California, a bedroom community where Silicon Valley techies rest from their hard-coding duties.
I’m at the Morgan Hill Library with one Russ Beebe, a trekker, a wine taster, an adventurer, a man who once pulled his head from the jaws of a Yosemite black bear. He laughs about the bear but he’s not laughing about the Bull. He’s hiked every trail in Northern California a half-dozen times, but one has escaped him till today — the harrowing mile and a half to the 1,420.3-foot peak of El Toro. It’s Summit Day and he’s all business.
We find our climbing companions from the crowd milling about at the library lot — David, who cuts his firewood with a knife because it’s lighter than an ax, and his wife, Rebecca, who haunts canyons across the Southwest and proudly Twitters her conquests via Blackberry to her deskbound pals back in the Valley.
From the crowd emerges Ann, one of my hiking blog’s 1.2 million readers, whose tanned face tells the story of the miles she’s logged in these hills. She smiles, introduces me to her friends, disappears into the crowd to register for the rigors to come.
Russ, never far from his Camelback Hydration System, assesses the crowd. Most of them have no business on a mountain of this magnitude, he suspects.
David and Rebecca sign the register, leaving word of who gets their closetful of backpacking gear if things go badly.
The mountain awaits.
Our cheerful hostess reminds us to watch out for poison oak. “If you get lost, just follow somebody.” I scribble her advice in my notepad. You never know when it might come in handy.
The crowd psyches itself up for the adventure ahead.
Rocks of 150 million years’ vintage are not to be trifled with, a local geologist tells us.
Finally, we’re on our way. Through a neighborhood barely rising from its slumbers, and onto the peak’s base.
The first dirt appears about 15 minutes into the trek.
Climbers have waited a year to take in a panoramic view unavailable anywhere else, save here.
A rare shade tree … the fates have smiled upon us and provided an overcast morning, shielding us from the sun’s blistering rays.
And now, straight up the face of El Toro.
Scouts have been here ahead of us to dig these steps in the hillside.
I pause and rest along the trail, shielding my fellow trekkers from the tendrils of a poison oak bush. Russ, Rebecca and Dave have long since hiked ahead and are already celebrating at the peak. I’m fighting to keep my breath, my heart’s racing. I have to make it to the top, though, because I bought one of those “I Hiked the Peak” T-shirts before the peak had actually been hiked. I could never my show my face on trails in these parts if I failed. The shame would be too great.
Scrambling, clinging to ropes installed by the Boy Scouts (man, those kids know their knots!), they make their way upward.
Oh, to have four paws about now.
At last, the summit. All of Northern California is sprawled out before us. Nine hundred and ninety-eight feet of vertical ascent in a mile and a half. Our shared sensation of victory is palpable.
Rebecca, triumphant, trained for this moment for months.
The couple share a tender moment, as Russ digs deep into his pack in search of a bottle of Pinot he usually stashes for such moments. Left it on Denali. Damn.
Rare, exotic species of wildflowers found only in this corner of the world dot the hillsides.
Beyond, the peaks of the beguiling Santa Cruz Range beckon.
Dave, left, another blog reader, compares notes with the other Dave. Both agree the climb reminds them of the time they made a hammock from the hides of rattlesnakes they’d killed with their bare hands because weapons were not sporting. Russ recommended a red that pairs well with pan-seared rattlesnake flesh.
Dave and Ann recall the time they barely got out of Borneo with the clothes on their backs and 10 cents to hail a pedi-cab back to civilization.
Poison Oak, scourge of the El Toro ascent.
A Scout calmly mans his post.
And now, back the way we came. Ahead, a young child will have the experience of a lifetime, perfect preparation for a lifetime in therapy.
One last look at the climbers making their way skyward.
Rebecca accepts her certificate confirming the ascent. Another fourteener for her life list.
El Toro taunts us a second time.
(Calipidder’s pictures here).
(David’s pictures here.)
(Ann’s pictures here.)
(Wine Hiker Russ’s write-up here)