I hadn't been doing much hiking over the last few weeks. I'd come up with every excuse not to hike - it was too hot, I didn't have a car, gas was too expensive, I was too tired - all of which were true, but as much as I missed hiking both physically and mentally, it was easier to keep not hiking than to hike.
At least by myself.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to join a group last weekend on a cave hike in the Santa Monica Mountains. Although the group leader promised it would not be a "difficult" hike, he did warn that if we were afraid of heights or not used to hiking boulders, this might not be the hike for us.
Of course, me being who I am, that meant it was exactly the hike for me. At least if I freaked out or fell, I wouldn't be alone.
Castle Peak is imposing, even from the street...
...though it's an easily graded hike through the Upper Las Virgenes Canyon Open Space Preserve to get to the Cave of Munits, which you hike through to get to the ridge trail that leads you up to the peak.
The cave still holds great significance to the Chumash Native American people, who occupied the area for 10,000 years.
It's a steep - and difficult for me - climb up into the cave, requiring fellow hikers lifting me by my upper arms as I scraped knees, shins, and elbows across the rock.
Once inside the cave, it's easy to imagine a Chumash shaman making the cave his home and never leaving.
Through the other side of the cave, the elevation gain isn't tremendous to get to Castle Peak, and the entire distance of the hike is only about three miles, but it is a tightrope walk along the ridge trail, and requires lots more climbing.
At the top, there are stunning 360 degree views of the canyon and the West Hills community below.
If I hadn't been with a group, I wouldn't have been able to complete the hike. At times, the trail seems to disappear altogether. On the rocks, you have to find just the right spot to rest your boot toe and dig in your fingers, and sometimes you need someone standing next to you to tell you where that spot is.
At one point, I had to ask Mike, our hike leader, "Am I going a normal way or a crazy way?" because it just seemed too vertical and too difficult to be right. He assured me, "That's normal way."
Sometimes, you need a hand to hold onto, or a boost from behind. Sometimes, you just need to know that hand is there if you need to use it.
But for all of the difficulty I had - with the strain of climbing, the sweating, the scraping, the vertigo - completing the hike was a satisfying personal challenge for me. At no point was I way in the back of the group, or (God forbid) left behind (see: the Bridge to Nowhere). I didn't quit, nor did I consider quitting (though a small group of fellow hikers did quit).
And thankfully, we didn't have to go back down the way we came, skipping the passage back through the cave in favor of a gentle trail through a dry, brittle prairie...
...where we laughed and smiled and congratulated each other on a job well done.
Three hours later back at my car, covered in dirt, sweat, scratches and bruises, I was ready to conquer the world.
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