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Climbing the Nine

One man’s half-crazy 72-hour quest to hike, run, drive, and, if necessary, crawl to the highest summits in nine counties.

SLIDESHOW

A hiker soaks in Marin from an outcropping at the top of Mount Tamalpais.

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The south(ish)-facing view at sunrise from the top of Borel Hill in San Mateo County.

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Lick Observatory, atop Mount Hamilton.

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A runner tackles rugged Rose Peak.

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A compass marker at the top of Mount Diablo.

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Visitors to the mountain’s vista point scan the Sierras, to the east.

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After a false summit, the author’s friend Will Chadwick makes it to the real top of Mount Vaca in Solano County.

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The foothills near Napa’s Lake Berryessa.

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The author’s wife, Valerie Tower, gazes down on Mill Valley from the top of Mount Tam.

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Hikers descending Mount Saint Helena.

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San Francisco from its highest point, Mount Davidson.

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Editor’s Note: This is one of many stories about our relationship with the natural world, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the May 2018 Great Outdoors Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.


“WHOA WHOA WHOA! That is definitely a rattlesnake.”

In one fluid motion, my friend Will pushes me and my wife back a few feet before scooching himself backward up the trail. I peek down the path from the spot he so unceremoniously vacated to see the tail end of a western rattlesnake the width of my wrist slithering around the bend. I stare down the trail, a seven-miler that leads to Berryessa Peak—my sixth Bay Area mountain summit in the last 36 hours. We’re 2.8 miles from the top, and my three-day Iron Man challenge to bag the highest publicly accessible summit in each of the nine Bay Area counties has come to a rattling halt. Should we risk tiptoeing past the snake’s new hiding spot, or should we just call it a hike and double back?

This was not a problem I foresaw when I devised the rules of engagement for this mission. Over a bottle of wine and an evening of Internet research, I had come up with a Bay Area twist on the Seven Summits challenge, the mountaineering feat that involves climbing the highest peak on all seven continents. My accelerated, mini-mountain version was not going to require weeks of altitude acclimation or a team of sherpas or massive packs strapped with ice picks and crampons, but it would still be a test of endurance, one marked by more than 12 hours of driving and nearly 50 miles of hiking, including a 19-mile uphill run that would make most marathoners shudder.

To save time, I would take the shortest approach to each of the summits. I’d be able to drive nearly to the very top of three of the peaks (Mounts Hamilton, Diablo, and Tamalpais). But where there were only trails, I would hike them. I would not knowingly trespass on summits that lie on private land, a concession that would cut out Alameda County’s Discovery Peak and Santa Clara County’s Kepler and Copernicus Peaks on Mount Hamilton, all of which are closed to the public. Instead I would top the next-highest peaks in their respective counties. Though I’d have friends and family members along to keep me company, I alone would drive the nearly 500 miles that separated the hikes. And I alone would decide whether to tempt mortal danger—in this case a rattlesnake—or to hike away defeated. 

FRIDAY

1. Borel Hill, San Mateo County
Height: 2,572 feet • Hike Distance: 1.9 miles • Elevation Gain: 293 feet

My journey starts at the highest peak in San Mateo County, which sits just a mile into the 3,000-plus-acre Russian Ridge Preserve, a bit more than 15 miles west of Cupertino. The preserve is splashed with color each spring from the native wildflowers, poppies, and lupine, but as it’s only mid-February, I’ll have to settle for a stunning sunrise view of San Francisco Bay from the summit.

I arrive at the entrance to the preserve around 6:30 a.m. on the Friday of Presidents’ Day weekend. My car is packed with my camera bags, four liters of water, jackets for the cold morning, an extra change of clothes for the afternoon heat, and one massive thermos of coffee. The trail starts right from the parking lot. It toggles from narrow path to fire road and back again as I follow it up and down gentle hills on the way to the summit. The early-morning air is still, with only the sound of my huffing spoiling the silence. I lock eyes with a couple of curious coyotes trotting in the dawn light, but they are too preoccupied with their morning hunt to pay me much mind.

Within 10 minutes, I’m at the bald hilltop that is the summit of Borel Hill. I take in the view, which serves as a window to the rest of my day: To the east, in Santa Clara County, there’s Mount Hamilton, giving way to Alameda County’s Rose Peak to the north and to Mount Diablo, to the northeast, in Contra Costa. I pause in the breaking light, thankful for this easy, early peak. I head back to the car energized, hungry for the next hike and, well, just hungry in general.

2. Mount Hamilton, Santa Clara County
Height: 4,209 feet • Hike Distance: 0.2 miles • Elevation Gain: 0 feet

Mount Hamilton is only 25 miles dead east of downtown San Jose, but the hour-plus drive up winding Highway 130 makes it feel incredibly remote. It’s composed of three major summits: Copernicus Peak, the Bay’s second highest, at 4,360 feet; Kepler Peak; and a third summit (and the only one that’s publicly accessible), Observatory Peak.

The foothills on the way to the summit are speckled with expansive ranch-style homes that become less numerous the farther I drive. As San Jose disappears behind me, the residential streets turn rural, and then I’m on the final 20 minutes of switchbacks up to Lick Observatory, which serves the University of California’s astronomy programs. The road I’m taking was built in the 1870s in anticipation of the observatory’s construction.

Observatory Peak’s summit is basically the parking lot. I soak up the sights in the warming sunlight. The white domes that house the observatory’s biggest telescopes are visible from the Peninsula, all the way across the bay; at night, the Nickel telescope searches for evidence of extraterrestrial life (no luck so far). From the parking lot, I eye the two taller summits, Copernicus and Kepler. Looking out, I can see Borel Hill, where I was at dawn. I turn north toward my next stop, Rose Peak, with the sinking knowledge that the first real test is just around the corner.

3. Rose Peak, Alameda County
Height: 3,817 feet Hike Distance: 19.6 miles • Elevation Gain: 5,080 feet

Situated just northeast of the Calaveras Reservoir in the Ohlone Regional Wilderness, Rose Peak is in one of the Bay Area’s rare no-man’s-lands. No roads go anywhere near the top. In fact, Rose Peak is so remote that the near-20-mile trail passes through two separate wilderness areas on the way to the summit (which is technically the second-highest point in the county, behind the privately owned Discovery Peak). To make it through this hike with enough time to spare, my friend Mark and I decided, with a logic that is now coming back to bite me, to run the beast. I know it is going to be painful, but I don’t understand just how painful. Mark meets me in the parking lot, having scoped out the trail a couple weeks prior. “You have to log in and out of a little notebook to let the rangers know if you’re going to the top,” he says, “so they can come find you if you don’t make it back.”

We start strong at around 11 a.m. on some of the most perfect trails I’ve ever been on. We wind our way through grazing cattle herds, hopping now and then across creeks that spill over bends in our path. Mark, who’s training for a Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim, can climb all day without breaking stride. I, on the other hand, know I’m in trouble by mile three. With every step my legs are losing power. As Mark zips ahead, I keep faking a need to stop and take pictures. I resign myself to the pain, hoping that sheer desperation will get me to the summit and back.

After all that hurting, the summit is, in a word, underwhelming. There’s not even a marker—just a rocky pile of dirt with a few trees surrounding the opening of the trail. The view, though, is breathtaking. Many of the familiar landmarks jump out—the bridges and San Francisco’s skyline to the west, Mount Hamilton to the south—but what’s most striking is how very alone we are. We haven’t seen a single person since our first mile. A more rested individual might appreciate getting to hog this view, but I just want to get home and collapse.

On the return run, my back and shoulders ache, I’m running out of water, and I...can’t pick my feet up. By the last mile, we’ve cleared all the uphill sections and I finally let gravity take over. I must look like James Franco in 127 Hours. Mark lets me know that our four-hour, 19-minute run time is slower than when he went alone. I’m just glad to have survived. It’s a tick past 3 p.m. With plenty of daylight left, I turn my car north to the final peak of the day: Mount Diablo State Park.

4. Mount Diablo, Contra Costa County
Height: 3,849 feet • Hike Distance: 0 miles • Elevation Gain: 19 feet

On a clear day, from the top of Mount Diablo you can catch a glimpse of Yosemite’s Sentinel Dome. Hikers with an afternoon to spare can wend their way up and around the mountain on innumerable trails that rise along lush green hills and dip through forested canyons. But today, I’m toast. I’m driving straight to the top. I get to the gate around 4:30 p.m. and pay the $10 entrance fee. A friendly but stern park ranger warns that if I’m not out by sunset, they’ll lock me in. The parking lot at the summit is nearly empty. It’s only about 15 stairsteps to the lookout area, but after clocking close to 22 miles, I want to be carried. The sun is beginning to droop over the San Francisco skyline, the Golden Gate Bridge glowing orange. As dusk falls, I trudge back down the stairs, praying that those rangers haven’t locked the gates. They haven’t: The quest continues

SATURDAY

5. Mount Vaca, Solano County
Height: 2,819 feet • Hike Distance: 2.6 miles • Elevation Gain: 359 feet

Heading out of Vacaville, Mix Canyon Road winds precipitously up to Mount Vaca. I’m joined by my wife, Valerie, and a three-car caravan of friends. Despite our party size, this isn’t exactly a group-hiking destination. There aren’t proper trails to the top. The trailhead, if you can call it that, is a huge steel gate across a fire road flanked by a massive sign that says PRIVATE ROAD. NO TRESPASSING. That alone probably keeps the curious from venturing too far, but a public easement gives hikers the freedom to find the summit so long as they stay out of gated areas.

It’s just after 8:30 a.m. when we park on the dirt pullout by the gate. The only person we see is a fiftysomething man in his car, his shoulder being drooled on by an enormous dog. “Whoa, I feel like I’m being invaded,” he says out the window. “We don’t see a lot of people up this far.”

With under half a mile to the summit, we walk slowly up a gravel road lined with dense shrubs and small trees. Ducking a gate, my friend Rohit and I jog to what we think is the summit to take pictures. It’s nothing but a closed-off dirt parking lot with a fenced-in radio tower. As we descend, we laugh about how lame this hike is. But back in the car, I’m certain I’ve made a mistake. That couldn’t have been the summit I’d read about, with its supposedly tremendous views to the north. I hit the brakes about halfway down Mix Canyon Road and haul everyone back to the parking area to do the hike again, apologizing profusely. Now, at the fake-out summit, where the road winds down to the left, I see what I missed before: Just around another bend, it rises again, and the real summit reveals itself. This time we all run to the top. The summit is covered in radio towers and antennae, and even though it is barely 70 feet higher, it somehow offers a view the other didn’t. Below, the entire North Bay opens up to us, full of verdant valleys, vineyards, and hills heavy with oak woodlands. After a quick look around, we bound back for the cars, this time without so much scoffing.

6. Berryessa Peak, Napa County
Height: 3,057 feet • Hike Distance: 8.8 miles* • Elevation Gain: 1,895 feet

Although there is a higher point in Napa County—a sub-peak on the way up Mount Saint Helena—and although Berryessa’s peak is technically just over the county line in Yolo, the majority of the trail is in Napa, making it (spiritually, at least) the highest point in the county. The trail itself features some of the steepest hiking I’ve ever encountered. Some of the sections are just silly, as if someone got tired of making switchbacks and instead just rolled a boulder down the hill, clearing trees and shrubs.

We wind through dense chaparral as the terrain grows steeper. After a few hours, we’re just under three miles from the top. As we begin to drop into the saddle that stands between us and the summit, we’re all feeling strong. That’s when we see the snake. Rather, it sees us, and begins slithering down the hillside. We wait. After a few moments, I make my way slowly down the trail, keeping a sharp eye on the bushes. But after one step too many, a rattle, at once fascinating and petrifying, rings out. We retreat. My wife fidgets nervously, hopping from foot to foot next to me. “I think maybe we need to wait a little bit longer?” I suggest.

We wait. I toss rocks in an attempt to coerce it to move on, but with each stone, the rattle starts right back up. Until it doesn’t. The trail bends sharply around a bush, through which we can see the snake’s body curled, its head aimed right at where we’d be walking. Continuing on the trail is out of the question. I google how to get rid of a rattlesnake. The consensus: Let it go on its own. Don’t agitate it. Don’t try to move it yourself. Don’t engage with it. Keep your distance. Great. We look for a way around. Both sides of the trail are too steep to traverse. I can see the summit. I can taste it, but I can’t move. My friends are restless. “Hey, man, this is your thing, not ours,” Will offers. “I don’t need to see the top. Up to you.” I look at my watch. We’ve been entertaining this snake for an hour. The clock is ticking. I hang my head, knowing that we have to turn around. We can’t wait out a snake that isn’t planning on moving. I bend down, staring through the gap in the bush. The speckled scales stare back, unmoving, unforgiving, uncaring. Natura non contristatur. Nature is not sentimental.

I lead the team back to the cars, dejected that such a small animal torpedoed the entire mission. I won’t have time to retry this hike in the morning: I have three summits to hit tomorrow. I spend the entire drive to dinner in Santa Rosa second-guessing myself. What’s the point of finishing the challenge after bungling Berryessa? Valerie is having none of it. “Andrew, nobody got bit by a rattlesnake,” she says. “I think that’s a good thing.” She’s right. I’m going to finish this thing with dignity.

*Hike was cut short by 5.9 miles because of the run-in with the rattler.

SUNDAY

7. Mount Saint Helena, Sonoma County
Height: 4,343 feet • Hike Distance: 10.5 miles • Elevation Gain: 2,203 feet

Mount Saint Helena sits far enough north that it’s one of the few mountains in the Bay Area that retain a little snowfall throughout the winter. It’s the highest mountain I’ll top on this adventure (though not, technically, the highest in Sonoma: Strictly speaking, Southwest Peak on Cobb Mountain, which sits mostly within Lake County, is in Sonoma), and it’s pretty much the best place around for hikers craving the satisfaction of standing at the top of a big peak. Only a 15-minute drive north from Calistoga, the southern face still shows scars from the wildfires that ripped through Sonoma last year; the trail to the summit, through Robert Louis Stevenson State Park, has only recently been reopened to the public.

Valerie and I meet up with our friends Max and Alice at the trailhead, a noisy dirt parking lot split by Highway 29. Even at 9:30 a.m. it’s already full, and cars are arriving every second. The five-mile trail starts in a dense forest before rising through switchbacks to a fire road that carries us up. Here, the hiking finally feels casual. The grade is soft, the view open. The trail is busy with groups of hikers and Boy Scout troops. Up close, the damage from the fires is much clearer: Burned skeletons of trees jut out of the black soil like pins on a brush.

Helena’s summit is cold and dotted with radio towers. We head to a small rocky outcropping at the perimeter to take in the scenery. Low clouds obscure much of the view in every direction. But the sheer drop from where we stand creates a sharp contrast between the fire damage enveloping us and the spots of char in the valleys and towns below. Down there, much of the vegetation is already regrowing, green with life.

8. Mount Tamalpais, Marin County
Height: 2,571 feet • Hike Distance: 0.5 miles • Elevation Gain: 193 feet

I wouldn’t normally go near Mount Tam on a holiday weekend, when it’s a veritable hikers’ Disneyland. But the mountain’s glories remain the same, with some 6,300 acres and more than 60 miles of hiking, taking you from wet and wooded paths to fir-needle-covered trails to golden rolling hills and back again. The four of us fight the midafternoon traffic to the lot just a quarter mile from East Peak. From the parking area, we follow a rocky, boulder-studded trail to the summit. The trail deposits us underneath a fire lookout station ringed with razor wire and security cameras. Without exactly being hospitable, it does block the wind and give us some reprieve from the cold. The entire curve of San Francisco spreads out below us. You can even make out the waves crashing into the sand at Ocean Beach and the specks of surfers hunting for lines. Holiday or not, the view is breathtaking.

9. Mount Davidson, San Francisco County
Height: 928 feet • Hike Distance: 0.7 miles • Elevation Gain: 96 feet

My last summit! Sitting a mere five feet higher than Twin Peaks, Mount Davidson is the sly high point of San Francisco. But it’s far from an intimidating hike, with a sometimes steep but mercifully short dirt trail winding up from the residential streets of Sherwood Forest. We park on the south side of the hill. As we hike up, the wind whips the treetops of the eucalyptus forest and the glow of the fading sun pours through the branches. At the top stands a 103-foot concrete cross erected in 1934, a permanent version of a smaller cross that was burned by arsonists in 1931. Below, rows of colorful houses coat the rolling hills in every direction. To the north, Sutro Tower looms, a sentry guarding the seven by seven.

We did the damn thing. Well, almost. There was the rattlesnake. But they say the joy is in the journey, not the destination. It’s true, mostly. Three days, 12 hours of driving, 45 miles on foot, 10,138 feet of elevation gain, eight hiking partners, and just one barely missed summit. If there was going to be any reason I didn’t officially finish, at least I can say it was something that could have killed me.

 

Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco

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