Surviving the Sespe Wilderness

Nine Men Endure Brutal Six-Day, Boulder-Hopping Trek Deep Inside Los Padres National Forest

Matt Kettmann

There’s allure to the idea of a six-day backpack trek through the wilderness, particularly the chance to trade my unending barrage of emails and deadlines for the simple-sounding goal of walking from quaint camp to quaint camp through unspoiled nature.

But then ​— ​at least when joining eight friends on a brutal expedition down the ferociously wild, nearly impassable Sespe Gorge ​— ​there’s the reality: leaping from wet boulder to wet boulder with 60 pounds on your back, scaling crumbling cliffs where one slip would spell disaster, hunching along game trails through jungle-like foliage, scrambling over landslides of sharp rocks, swimming fully clothed into head-high pools with your pack getting drenched.

Matt Kettmann

You move at the maddeningly slow pace of a half mile per hour, careful not to twist an ankle or break your leg so far from civilization, and relish those five- or 10-foot stretches of flat sand where you can ever-so-briefly move your legs in the normal fashion. Your feet get chapped and blistered, your bones and muscles ache to the point of immobility, your limbs are devoured by small black flies, your knees get scraped, your chin might split, and your mind ​— ​which must constantly scan the landscape for the most doable route because there is no trail whatsoever and be on the lookout for rattlesnakes, black bears, and hornets ​— ​gets exasperated, confused, and even angry at the utter exhaustion.

“Just a mile, mile and a half more,” says your friend Coyote Dave, a leader of the trek, some of which he undertook when 7 years old, which doesn’t seem possible. “It gets easier around this bend, I think.” But it always seems longer, and it never does ease up, and you realize that, more than enjoying the great outdoors, this trip is about the excitement of exploration, about battling nature, about surviving. This is the 11th year in a row that my friends have embarked on what they call the Death March, which is always through the Los Padres National Forest and always on Memorial Day weekend. But never before had it been so difficult, never before coming so close to its name.

Matt Kettmann

No Fun at D’oh! Flat

Though in the planning stages for months, this year’s trip got thrown a surprise screwball just a few days out, when the Forest Service announced that the road to Dough Flat would be closed for retaining-wall repairs. “How far out?” we asked of multiple rangers. “About two miles,” they all said. “No big deal,” we reasoned, as trading the usual car-camping, beer-drinking Wednesday night for a brief evening hike seemed fine.

The Forest Service was completely, almost dangerously wrong ​— ​the road was closed much farther than two miles from what we were now calling D’oh! Flat. After a quick session of considering alternatives, we decided to brave it anyway, throwing packs on our backs around 6:45 p.m. More than four hours and what must have been about eight miles later ​— ​much of which was past the oil-drilling operations that were probably the primary cause or beneficiaries of the closed public road ​— ​we made it to the empty Dough Flat parking lot around midnight and crashed pretty quickly. Though mostly uphill with full packs in the pitch-black night, that turned out to be the easiest hike of the trip.

Matt Kettmann

Going Gourmet and Doing Nothing

Our first “real” day of hiking started off easy enough. There was a trail lined with ready-to-chomp chia seeds, fragrant purple sage, and blooming yucca; a bit of water at Cow Spring, where curious sandstone outcrops would be worth a day of climbing; and then a steep downhill past yellow-purple mariposa lilies toward Alder Creek. But struggle ensued on the last few miles, when we ventured off-trail toward a hidden meadow shaded by black oaks known only to lifelong backcountry wizards like Coyote Dave, who grew up in nearby Fillmore.

Matt Kettmann

Such knowledge is key when exploring the remote and unforgiving Sespe Wilderness, where ancient Chumash spirits flow strongly if you know where to look, and so is the Death Marchers’ commitment to the finer things in life, no matter what weight it adds to your pack. That first night in the meadow, while sipping on red wine, scotch, and creek-chilled ale, we ate seaweed-wrapped hand rolls of seared albacore and salmon, with wasabi, Sriracha mayo, crisp cucumber, avocado, carrots, kale sprouts, and rice. The next morning, which was our one day off from moving camp, we had fried bacon, scrambled eggs, copious cups of coffee, and strawberry pancakes with real maple syrup.

Some followed that with a day hike, but I decided to do absolutely nothing, content to rest my already weary body and let the hours pass. Rain came for a brief spell, and while others took shelter in a nearby cave, I kept right on doing nothing, other than to wrap my sleeping bag and pack in a tarp. That night, we stewed up a bunch of dehydrated vegetables and citrus ​— ​all three of the Death March’s executive committee, or “ex com,” now own dehydrators ​— ​with canned chicken, threw it in pitas, and called it shawarma. Along with hot tea of just-picked yerba santa and rose hips, we ate the roasted flesh of a young yucca stalk, which was a delicious treat somewhere between artichoke, asparagus, and hearts of palm, with the consistency of sea scallop.

<b>HELLUVA HIKE:</b> One intrepid hiker opted to swim his pack down the Sespe Creek rather than scale a crumbling cliff.

Into the Gorge

Though the delicacies continued on the last two nights of the trip ​— ​duck egg burritos with fresh salsa at a place we called Exploding Rock Camp and smoked trout in miso soup on rice at Grassy Flats, both locations surrounded by strikingly steep canyon walls and busy bats ​— ​our days grew difficult as we hiked past Shady Camp and dropped slowly into the Sespe Gorge. I’d start each day with the quicker half of the group, hares whose speed allowed for longer rests and better wildlife sightings, from bear and bird to catfish and bullfrog. But by lunchtime my stamina waned, depositing me with the tortoises, which granted more time to snap wildflower photos, enjoy the sights when I could lift my head up, and take care with each step.

Without a trail, there isn’t really one right way to go ​— ​when some opted for climbing, others swam ​— ​but we often found ourselves following the messy brown tracks of a recent hiker we called Mud Man, who must have passed through when Sespe Creek was flowing even higher. The tracks led us into small cracks and holes in the purple, house-sized boulders, down fallen logs lined with ropes, and through dense reeds that spilled choky pollen and fluff as we trounced along. The drudgery cost Goldy both of his hiking shoes, which duct tape couldn’t fix; luckily, Jones wore the same size and offered his camp shoes as replacements.

Matt Kettmann

Aside from a search-and-rescue helicopter that buzzed by us one afternoon, we hadn’t seen another soul by our last day, when we started trudging along at 8 a.m. Six hours later, we came upon three men sitting upon a rock, one with a rifle of some sort slung on his shoulder. My first suspicion was weed farmers, so when a sharp hissing emerged from the reeds to my right, my delirious brain thought, “Oh, just a marijuana sprinkler.” Then my eyes caught the surprised black and yellow rattlesnake a few feet from my leg, slinking away into the darkness of the reeds.

Behind me was Jared, who split his chin (later requiring five stitches in a Hollywood emergency room) and then got stung by a trio of hornets a few minutes later. “What should I do? Can I pass?” he called out frantically, and I assured him it was fine. “Thanks,” he said upon clearing the rattler. “It’s been kind of a bad-luck day.”

The three guys informed us we were almost there, only two or so hours to go, and on we trudged, through the pond at Devil’s Gate down into the rocky riverbed toward Fillmore. The hares made it out around 4 p.m., but we tortoises took until 5 p.m., a few hours past the noon exit that we anticipated. We were broken, bitten, and bewildered but alive ​— ​and overjoyed to sip on cold beer and chow hot chili casserole cooked by Coyote Dave’s mom at his childhood home.


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