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Home » Adventures » Santa Monica Mountains » Succumbing to the Weather

Day 4 — I Cry Uncle

The Morning After

Map of this day’s hike

Route I Hiked This Day

Somehow though, the night did eventually come to and end. After that extremely long evening of almost constant rain, strong winds, and little sleep I was more than ready to get anywhere that was not the side of this mountain. Water had seeped through the bottom of my tent, saturating the entire interior. Somehow, the inside of my sleeping bag remained dry though. My little tent also managed to stand the entire night against the mighty force of the weather. Someone designed and built it pretty darn well. All the stakes even stayed in the ground. In any case the rain once again acted like a vampire as the sun rose, so I stuck my head out at first light ready to leave this forsaken place. A nice river which was not there the night before waited outside to greet me. I had heard the gushing water for a while, but figured it was coming from a nearby valley. Instead, the Backbone Trail had transformed into a small river flowing adjacent to my tent. It was kind enough though, to turn at the foot of my tent so it missed running underneath it by mere inches.

After being slightly amused (or at least entertained enough to snap a picture) I made haste in breaking camp. The food I had secured the night before was still hanging from the tree — my giant, non-boy scout knot holding against the wind. I hurriedly took down my tent even as it started to gently rain, just shoving the dripping wet fabric in its case. After gathering all my gear into my pack I cautiously started down the wet, slippery trail. My only goal for this day was to find shelter at Malibu Creek State Park (my previous night’s goal), try to dry off myself and equipment, and worry about everything else later.

A River Runs Through It

The river that formed outside my tent

The river outside my tent

My trek was quickly halted though, as the trail crossed a flooded mountain stream. Normally, I am sure hikers could cross this unnamed river without even getting their feet wet, but after last night’s rain it had swelled to a mighty force with which to be reckoned. It had grown to at least ten feet wide, an unknown depth, and rushing past rapidly. I knew how powerful moving water can be, even a relatively small amount, so I did not want to risk crossing it, especially alone. I searched up and down the bank, but between the steep shores and vegetation there was not a safe site to cross. Turning around did not seem promising since it would have been a long uphill climb back to the trailhead. Plus there was nowhere to go anyway, unless I retreated all the way back to Musch camp, my first night’s stay. I made the executive decision to wait for the river to recede some.

During the time I was exploring the banks and waiting for the water to recede, the rain had lost its fear of the light and had commenced again. So I was standing in the middle of the woods getting even wetter, trying vainly to stay dry under a tree, all the while waiting for the water level to go down when in fact the clouds were dumping more water into the system. I became bored, impatient and tired of being in this weather, so being the smart person that I am, I decided to try and cross the river anyway, knowing the dangers. WARNING: Crossing rushing rivers by yourself (or with other people) is dangerous and stupid. DO NOT ATTEMPT! On my first try across I left my pack at shore, knowing that my task would be perilous enough without the added challenge of a top heavy backpack. Plus if I did fall over, it would be easier to recover without a pack and my supplies would only be wet on the shore, not soaked floating down the river. So I very carefully and cautiously started across. After only one failed start and some careful steps, I managed to ford the river without too much difficulty. The water was about shin high, deep enough to spill over the top of my boots but below my knees. After proving I could cross the river at least once without my pack, I was now on the opposite side of the river as all my supplies. I went back to retrieve my supplies, and was able to safely cross back over the river for a third time, but the first one with my pack.

Rain map for December 28, 2004Rain map for December 29, 2004

Weather maps from the 28th and 29th, respectively. I camped directly where the dark red dot is over southern California.
Images courtesy of the NWS.

Even though I had an absolutely miserable night where I camped, I was very lucky I stopped before I found this river. I can almost guarantee that with its water source and slight clearing, I would have setup camp next to the river. The gushing and rising stream would have forced me to move camp in the middle of the night at the height of the storm. Mountains streams like this can rise extremely quickly, and I sure could not take the risk of being swept away inside my tent in a flash flood. I would not have been able to sleep over its roar either. So my exposed spot on the side of the mountain was not the worst place to camp, but it was pretty close.

Water, Water Everywhere…

After fording the river there was only a short distance till the trail dropped me onto Piuma Road. Once again, I saw no obvious indications to where the trail continued, and my vague map was again no assistance. Being tired and wet with the rain still falling steadily, the disappointment over not following the trail faded before it even arrived, and I started down the side of the road heading in the direction I pretty sure was Malibu Creek State Park.

As I followed Piuma Road in the steady rain, I began to grasp just how much rain had fallen. I did not meet Noah, but there was mud and flooding all around me. One man was on a tractor clearing mud from a driveway, in other parts cars had to slow down to negotiate the slippery muddy road, and along the entire length the runoff ditches were about filled to capacity. An entire large field next to the road was completely submerged. As I pondered the quagmire further (there was not much else to do while walking in the rain), it occurred to me that the Backbone Trail which I was supposed to be following ran somewhere through the middle of the torrent. I was sure glad I did not bother trying to track down the trailhead since the trail would have been completely impassable without a boat. A slight change in luck. The rain, however, continued throughout my entire march. It was no Nor’easter (especially being on the west coast), but after a couple hours the steady precipitation eventually soaked through my layers of clothing. My disdain for life giving rain was growing.

Hiking through the cool rain with only a couple hours of sleep, blister covered feet, and sore legs makes you not enjoy a vacation a whole lot. To try and keep myself sane, I had tunnel vision on reaching Malibu Creek State Park, where I would be able to rest and warm up in a hot shower. Of course, I was not totally sure if the state park would have hot water, but I kept convincing myself it would anyway. As I turned onto Malibu Canyon Road, Malibu Creek ran underneath a bridge near the intersection. There was no creek under this bridge today though. Any trolls which may have been hiding there would have been swept away by the river which rushed underneath (picture on next page). The banks had swelled to reach each side of the bridge’s span. The flooded field I had observed early was actually caused by this river overflowing its banks. The Backbone Trail even passed underneath this viaduct (to avoid crossing a semi-busy road), but was now under drowning under several feet of water.


Climbing a hill up Malibu Canyon Road, I wearily reached the entrance to Malibu Creek State Park. I had not quite arrived at my salvation though because the campground was about another half mile, back in the direction I had just come from. Through slowly and very careful waddling, my fragile feet eventually delivered me to the campground. I dropped my stuff at a campsite near the bathroom, and rested on an extremely comfortable picnic table. At least by this time the rain had stopped, and after a short recovery I started spreading all my wet things (basically everything I had, including some of my food) to try and dry them. The bathroom did have my hot shower although they charged $0.50 to use it) which went a long way to breaking the damp chill that had enveloped me.

California’s limited blue sky

The only blue sky I saw the entire time

With almost all my belongings spread over the ground drying, the only clothes I had left to wear was my long underwear, kept relatively dry by the brave sacrifice of my outer layers. I was probably lucky the campground was nearly empty because I could have easily been mistaken for a roustabout squatting in the park. The police did not arrive to drag my away (although two did take their lunch break there), and the weather actually cooperated in assisting me dry my clothes. Despite the storm last night, the sky slightly cleared in the afternoon and I even barely glimpsed the sun, its first appearance since I had arrived in California. The blue sky was a nice reminder of what could have been. The hiatus in cloud cover did not last long though, and the sun once again hid from view. After leaving my clothes distributed across the pavement all afternoon they did actually dry some. They were no longer dripping wet, but were just damp enough to make me cold.

The Sojourn Ends

As I rested around my campsite a couple of state park’s maintenance workers were making their rounds and in this sparsely populated campground struck up a conversation with me which naturally gravitated towards the weather. I learned that the previous night had been pretty bad (duh, I suffered through it on the side of a mountain), and more of the same was expected. It would be several days before a predicted let up in the precipitation. This was not the news I wanted to hear.

My clothes were slowly drying, although they would never totally dry in the wilderness; some of my food had been ruined by the rain; and I was fairly miserable from the weather. I now faced the dilemma of what I should do with the remainder of my week. I could: 1) Blatantly disregard reality and try to salvage my original itinerary 2) Flea the wilderness and do something normal in the city or 3) Give up and go home early (assuming I could change my plane ticket). With all that had transpired, I was pretty sure I would not be able to enjoy the rest of the week backpacking, and I did not want to try to explore L.A. without any prior research. About the only reason for me to stay in California would not wanting to feel like a wimp for giving up or because I was pretty sure the airline would charge me to alter my ticket. After some battling, I swallowed my pride and used the campground’s payphone to transfer my ticket to the next day. American did charge me $100 for the change, but it is silly to keep vacationing when you would not have any fun. Now, I only had one more night to survive in California before I got to sleep in a warm, dry bed with a solid roof over my head.

Of course, I still had to get to LAX in order to leave California. On this point, I actually got lucky. My original itinerary had called for riding the 434 bus, which pretty much follows the coastline, from Point Dume to LAX. To determine where exactly its bus stops were, before I ever left on this adventure I marked all its stops on my map. If I actually had a decent map of the metro bus system I would never had done that. Therefore I would of had no idea of the bus routes and would pretty much had been stuck. One of the stops I had indicated happened to be on Malibu Canyon Road, about a five mile march down that road towards the ocean. In theory, I would be able to walk there in the morning, ride the bus, and catch my flight. Of course, with my map reading skills and questionable intelligence sources, I was not totally sure if the dot on my map corresponded to an actual bus stop. I decided to try for it anyway, and if there was not a bus stop, I would cross that river if I came to it (hopefully not like I crossed the river this morning).

I did not do a whole lot the rest of the day. My legs and feet were too sore to do any real hiking around the park, and I did not trust the weather to leave my belongings laying out anyway. I wandered around the developed areas some and discovered that my feet had actually become accustomed to suffering with the additional stress of my pack. Without the extra force pushing up from the ground, my raw feet were distorted into different nooks within my boots to which they had not been forcibly conformed over the past several days. They rebelled to this compelled relocation by actually hurting more than when the extra load of my pack weighed on them.

As night began its daily approach, I started preparing myself mentally for another duel with nature. I relocated my tent next to a large evergreen, which I hoped would block at least some wind. I also tried picking a spot where it did not appear a river would form in a downpour. I crawled into my tent for the last time this trip and the nightly rain began on schedule. It was not hard at the beginning, so I tried to catch some sleep incase the weather had different plans later.