Local Ecology

The Hornwort Hike on San Bruno Mountain

By David Nelson | June 15, 2018 | 1 Comment

The Hornwort Hike on San Bruno Mountain

by David Nelson

Doug Allshouse and I are writing a book, The Natural History of the San Bruno Mountains. We are describing and photographing all of the plants on the Mountain, as the principle but not exclusive focus of the book. We are also discovering, measuring and counting the rare and endangered plants, some of which were thought to be lost. 100% of the rare plants that we have discovered (Mt. Diablo Sunflower, San Francisco Campion, Choris’s Popcorn Flower, etc), as well as newly discovered plants (San Bruno dwarf huckleberry, this new species has been submitted for publication) and an unnamed species of paintbrush (samples have been submitted for DNA analysis) have been located by hiking off the established trails. The established trails cover only about 1% of the area of San Bruno Mountain.

We are currently focused on the bryophytes (mosses, liverworts, and hornworts), working with James Shevock of the California Academy of Sciences. He and Ken Kellman of UCSC had found a hornwort last year in February, Phymatoceros bulbiculosus. Most bryophytes have no common name, so it is just Phymatoceros bulbiculosus. What is a hornwort? It looks very much like a drop of green paint, about 3/8 of an inch in diameter and about as thick as two pieces of paper. Hornworts favor moist places, just like a moss. They produce spores, not seeds, have no roots, and they may have been one of first plants to be established on dry land. So that is a hornwort, and what I was looking for. A drop of green paint in a haystack.

They had found it just off the Dairy Ravine Trail, in a canyon that connects at the bottom with The Devil’s Arroyo, the steepest canyon on the Mountain, and just choked with brush. I needed a photograph of the hornwort if our chapter on bryophytes was going to be complete, so I asked Shevock and Kellman for the exact location. They sent me the GPS coordinates of the plant as well as GPS coordinates of their path, where they started and where they ended. I studied the path on Google Earth. I knew that the hike would involve bushwhacking, going cross country without a trail, but it was only about 500 yards. James Shevock and Ken Kellman (both botanists about my age) had hiked it last year and did not feel it was a particularly tough hike, so I did not anticipate it would be difficult. Doug does not like bushwhacking, so I arranged for him to pick me up at the bottom of the hike, at about noon. I posted maps of the hike on our Dropbox account.

Map of the course of the hike. The green dot is where I left the Dairy Ravine Trail, the blue dot is where I expected to link up with the Devil Arroyo Trail or the Old Horse Trail; the red dot is the location where Shevock and Kellman found the hornwort and its coordinates. The distance, as the crow flies, was about 500 yards

I started at 7:45 am on Saturday, June 30, 2018. I dropped off the Dairy Ravine Trail at the point that Shevock and Kellman did, and headed for the rock identified in their description and that I had seen on Google Earth. The brush was quite thick and I moved basically by leaning against the brush and pushing my way through. It was not as if I could pass around the brush: the branches were interlaced and stiff, so I had to push hard to get the branches to break free of each other and allow me through. It was very tough going, a bit more than I anticipated based on their description, but at first no worse than many other hikes. I found that the rock I was aiming for on the opposite side of the ravine was a bit above my level as I pushed my way through the brush, inevitably descending. I decided I was too tired to try to work my way uphill to the rock, and gave up on that goal. I wanted to get down the canyon to the hornwort and conserve my energy.

I crossed the dry creek bed, to an area that looked more passable. I could move along that hillside, but due to the steepness, I had to hold onto the vegetation above me to avoid falling into the ravine. My path ended in a cliff. I did my best to descend under control, but had to slide down on my rear part of the way. Good thing I was wearing double layer, duck-cloth Carhardt pants. I needed to cross back to the original side, my way forward on this side was blocked by vegetation. I looked up at the ridgeline above me, wondering if it was clearer, as the ridges sometimes are rockier and therefore less thickly covered. No way. I had to cross back.

Getting up the far side was difficult and strenuous, and I had to create footholds in the dirt with my boot. I felt like I was cutting steps in a glacier, as in ice climbing. The most secure footholds were just above stems of Cytisus striatus, Portuguese broom. The steepness would make the stem press painfully on the side of my boot, but the broom had good roots and I could trust that my foot was secure. I pressed on, always looking for the least dense brush.

I never found it. Wall after wall of brush, and a sizeable amount was poison oak. Normally I would avoid poison oak, but here there was no choice. I could see below, at the end of the ravine, the building in the Crocker Industrial Park that was my goal. It was only 8:30 am, I had just under three hours before I was to meet Doug. No problem, I could make it, and besides, there was nothing to do but press on. I could not get back up through the brush, due to the steepness of the slope, the lousy footing, and the thickness of the brush.

The view down to the end, the Crocker Industrial Park

The brush was always pressing hard against me, and I kept checking to make sure it had not stolen my beeper. Then I thought, at this rate, all I will do by intermittently checking is find that I lost it. I took it off my belt and put it in my right front pants pocket. It would be safe there.

I could see an area ahead of me that seemed less dense, but when I got there, it was solid as Gibraltar: Toxicodendron diversiloba to botanists, poison oak to reasonable people. No reasonable person could be on a hillside so vile, only nutty botanists. Artemisia californica, California sage, waist-high to block your path and Rubus ursinus, California blackberry, to trip your feet and make you fall. If you are lucky, it won’t trip you, it will just stab you with prickles. Prickles are like thorns, only smaller and more painful.

I came across some Lepechinia calycina, white pitcher sage, a whole hillside of it in bloom. This was a significant find. Previously we only knew of one place on the whole Mountain where this grew. I picked a sample to show Doug and stuffed it in my pocket. Holding onto vegetation to avoid falling, I moved on. Within a few steps, some branch brushed it from my pocket. I grabbed another specimen, stuffed it in my pocket, and push my way through the brush. Again, within a few steps, it was gone. Same with the third. I am not sure that the Mountain wanted me there. Finally, I stuffed the fourth sample deep enough into my pocket that it stayed there.

Lepechinia calycina

What was different about this hike was mainly the absolutely uninterrupted, energy-draining difficulty of progress. This was amplified by the steepness of the canyon, which required a lot of muscular effort to avoid falling. I kept hoping to find a clearing, and peered through the brush in front of me searching for such a divine gift. It was as beckoning as El Dorado and just as illusory. I would head to the “shorter” brush ahead of me, only to find that I was continually fooled: the brush was not shorter there, it only appeared shorter because the hill was steeper and fell away at that point. Jim had warned me that the only way to move was to go downhill, as the combination of the brush thickness and steepness of the hillside would prevent you from going back uphill. He was completely correct. There was no going back. But I was not worried. I could clearly see the exit point (I had explored the area before and knew it) and had GPS satellite views of the terrain on my cellphone. I felt that the hike would not be that different from the many hikes we had done before, just harder going. Again, it was clear I could not go back: going uphill was impossible in that brush. As I proceeded, the brush became thicker and harder to push through. I was getting tired and more, but not unreasonably so, and the end was so near. If Shevock and Kellman could do it, I could.

After 3 hours of hard fighting, I found that the brush was thicker and I needed to rest after about 50 feet, then after about 20 feet. My legs were shaking and I was exhausted. I checked my pocket for my beeper: gone. Safe in my pocket? Right.

I could rest in shade, had water and food, and was not worried. I knew I was closer than ever to the meeting point, it was only 11:00 am. If I could just keep pushing my way through the brush. I was beginning to get to the trees that I could see on my GPS satellite view, and hoped that the brush would be less thick under them. I headed for the nearest tree, pressing again the poison oak that was now taller than I was.

But the trees were another El Dorado: the brush was so thick under them that it was impassible. I had to fight my way out of there, and the hillside gave me only one way to do that: go downhill. I did not learn my lesson, and the next tree seemed to beckon. Worse than the first tree.

As I dropped into the bottom of the hike, the brush got so thick that I could not push through it, but had to cut branches to proceed. I was getting exhausted and had to rest frequently, but the end was so close.  I was a bit worried, as I was so exhausted, but the meeting place was so close. I alternately rested and proceeded, seeking the path of least resistance. It got to a point where I was at the creek bottom, which was about 100 yards from the end.  But I was faced with a wall of vegetation 30 feet tall that I could not push through but would have to cut through, and still make almost no progress. In addition, although I could tell by GPS where I was, it was not clear if the vegetation would be any less in 10 feet, about the distance I could see. Consulting the map and considering the vegetation ahead of me, it appeared that the best course would be to go back up the hill way I had come, and go a bit west.

The wall of brush.

     The green leaves in the foreground are stinging nettle, in the background are poison oak

I tried to climb the hill, but the combination of the steepness, lack of footing, and the need to push the brush aside made it impossible to retreat, as exhausted as I was. Even when I tried to go back the way that I had come, it was no use. When I first passed, I had pressed the branches to point downhill. Now the branches pointed toward me, not towards the direction I needed to go. I would have to press them in the opposite direction, and that took more effort than was required the first time. I sat in some shade and contacted Doug at 11:30 am. Texting takes the least amount of power, so I was only using text.

I needed help. I did not like to admit it, but I needed help. I was too weak to do it on my own.

Doug came to the pickup point, and I directed him via texting towards where I was, hoping that he might be able to discern an exit path that might have less dense vegetation from his side. I again looked at Google Maps, in the satellite view. I could see where I was. I described my location: I was in a dry creek bottom, just up from the mouth of the Devil’s Arroyo, where three creeks came together. I directed him to look just up from the place where the Old Horse Trail branches off from the Devil’s Arroyo trail on the map and he should be able to see the creeks.

                          Google map in terrain view; I am at the red dot

From my text log: “Open up Google Map. Go to terrain. Look uphill of the junction of the Arroyo Trail and the Old Horse Trail.”

If he hiked up the Old Horse Trail for 4 minutes, then headed toward my ravine, he would be approaching me. I hoped he could see some clearing that might help him to get closer. I sent him my GPS coordinates, but that did not help him.

Doug texted: “I’m in the trees now” and sent me a photo of what he was facing: a solid wall of brush. He could not go up further. I also recognized from the photo where on the Old Horse Trail he was: he was too far up that trail.

I replied (all errors are in the original): “Look uphill and slightly east. There are three dry creek beds. I am on the middle one. I am trying to fight my way north to what looks like a clearer area. So tired that I mostly rested.

“Listen for my whistle. I am going to try to move again. You wait and rest. Don’t sent pictures. They are killing my battery. Can you see the 3 dry creeks? You are too far up the trail. Go back”

Doug replied: “I can’t see 10 feet in front of me.”

“I am in nettles and alder. Too close to creek bottom. I am backtracking.”

I tried again to go back the way I had come.

Shortly: “OK. Now I must admit it. I can’t move. I am too tired to go up and can’t go forward. I took a long rest and am still too tired to move.”

After about an hour of working with him, he was no closer to me than before and could not find any way to hike towards my location. He could not hear my yelling or my whistling. It turns out that he had hiked up the Old Horse Trail too far. The battery on my cellphone was rapidly decreasing. It was now 12:30.  Due to the steepness of the canyons, the cell phone has to put out maximum power to reach a cell tower, and drains battery power rapidly.  I had gone from 60% to 51% in a short time. We started a program to conserve power: I would shut off my phone for 15 min, and turn it on to communicate with Doug at the hour and every quarter hour. Power down.

I powered up. When my phone was on, I discovered that my wife Brenda and our daughter Mary Primm were sending each other photos of kittens, and including me in their texting. I am stuck in a canyon, trying to conserve battery power, and they are sending pictures of cute kittens? I texted them to not send any photos to me, and I would explain later. I did not want to worry Brenda, so said nothing of the situation. Power down.

My situation was that I was exhausted from trying so hard to get out on my own. I could not move forward, backward, or sideways. By about 1:00 pm Doug could not locate me via GPS coordinates or hike toward me. We had worked on this problem together for an hour and a half, with absolutely no progress at all. We were at a stalemate, with falling battery power. I thought about all alternatives. I was prepared to spend a night out, no problem: I had a coat, water, and food. But I did not think that would be a solution. I still could not move in the morning.

Power up. I sent a screenshot of Theodolite, an app that puts your GPS location in the photo. “This is my location. I am afraid I need help.”

Pause. With great regret, I suggested to Doug that he call search and rescue. I did not think a ground crew would be able to penetrate the wall of brush. I couldn’t, and Doug couldn’t. A helo airlift might be the only way to get me out.

“I think you will have to call search and rescue. I can’t move. My power will die if I do not shut it off. What do you think? Did you get my coordinates?”

Doug: “I not even close enough to hear your whistle. I don’t hear you. If I’m on the trail it is washed out.”

“Power is 51. Confirm going for search and rescue and I will shut down.”

“OK, I will call.”

“Did you get my coordinates?”

“No, I don’t have coordinates.”

“They are in the picture takes with theodolite that I sent”

“They’re almost impossible to read. I’ll have to get shade.”

I looked at the Theodolite photo and took out the pencil and paper in my pocket, copied them down.

“037.692372, -122.428008”

“I got it.”

“Will now shut down. Will power on the hour.” Power down.

Doug called Priscilla Alvarez, who is a Ranger IV and the head of San Bruno Mountain Park and several others. She is the one who should be contacted first, and she would decide what should be done.

I rested in the shade, shifting as needed to stay out of the sun. Considered drinking some water, decided against it. It might be a long day. Or a long night.

Power up. Doug texted: “Imerting Priscilla on the lot below”

What the heck does that mean?

Doug: “I’ll”

Not any clearer.

Doug: “Waiting for Priscilla”

Power down. 36 % power, dropping fast. Priscilla had not returned his call. More time to think.

How did I get in this predicament? I was searching for hornwort, a relative of liverwort, which was a relative of moss. There was only one hornwort that had been discovered on the Mountain, by Ken Kellman, a bryophyte specialist at UC Santa Cruz. It was in February of 2017, just last year. That was why I was there. I was exhausted, but my eyes worked fine. I noted a liverwort growing on the elderberry that was shading me. With some effort, I forced myself to collect the liverwort and place it in a plastic bag in my left front shirt pocket. I was too tired to try to open my pack, so I just stuffed it in my pocket.

Power up. Contact had been made with Priscilla, things were developing. Power down.

Most likely she had alerted the other rangers and came to the scene to start evaluating the situation. Nothing for me to do but to conserve energy and water, and contemplate nature. There was nettle near me, but I found a safe place away from it. My left middle finger on the ulnar side was numb with nettle stings, and my right forearm burned. I thought it was most likely nettle stings superimposed on poison oak scratches. Nothing unusual or dangerous, so I kept looking around. There was some nice Stachys ajugoides, woodmint, growing next to me. Quite nice, all things considered.

Power up. No reply. Power down. Wait.

At the time, I did not know what I was waiting for, but Doug later told me.  Priscilla is so senior that she knows all of the paperwork aspect of running the Park but does not get much of a chance to actually explore it on foot. Therefore she was not familiar with the name of the location, the Devil’s Arroyo, and instead ended up on the nearby Quarry Road, at the bottom of Owl Canyon.  This is understandable in that many parties go up Owl Canyon each weekend, but there is probably less than one party a year who go up Devil’s Arroyo: it is almost impassable due to poison oak and stinging nettle. Doug was in contact with her by phone and guided her to the bottom of the Devil’s Arroyo. She quickly sized up the problem and initiated a call for help to the Brisbane Fire Department. Soon they were there as well as a few CHP (they have shared responsibility for the Park).

I passed the time in the shade of an elderberry, periodically moving to keep out of the sun. I was exhausted, but not injured. I took a sip of water. After that sip, I had about half a cup left, but was not sweating and not terribly thirsty. That might come later, so I conserved. Once I ate a bit of chocolate to keep my blood sugar up, but due to the fact that the sugar in the chocolate makes you thirsty, did not eat again. A hummingbird flew within 4 feet of me, wondering what this yellow thing was and what it was doing here in its back yard. I was wondering, too. I had planned the hike pretty well: I knew it was hikeable only last year by two guys my age, I had the GPS coordinates of their hike, I had studied Google Earth for a possible pathway, it was only 500 yards. I had been in the adjacent Devil’s Arroyo canyon several times, and even more times in the area where I expected to come out.

But I had always traveled on trails. Even if they had not been hiked in years, there was still a way to press along through the growth. This bushwhacking was quite different. You could move only by pressing body weight against the brush and pushing downhill. It took a lot of energy, and often you had to raise your foot as high as you could, to press some poison oak branch or California sage branch out of the way. I had fallen to my knees three times and onto my back three times, only once hard. But each fall, each desperate grab for a branch for support, each maximum effort to keep from falling, each forcing your foot up to your maximum ability in order to step over a branch blocking your way, each struggling to free your foot so that you don’t fall, all of it takes a lot out of you. Three hours of it can drain you.

I could hear a helicopter, and got alert. But it was only the sound of an airplane, from the nearby San Francisco Airport. Relax again.

Power up. Text Doug. His reply: “The Cal very is here.” I think he meant, The cavalry is here. Damn autocorrect. Not what we need now. I learned later that Doug said that I was thirsty, and they interpreted this as I was dehydrated and unable to move. This error was passed along the chain of command and persisted all the way to the end. Everyone thought I was dehydrated.

I texted: “Tell me more. I am safe. I have 1/2 cup water. I am hiding in shade. I can’t go up or down from here.”

He called me on the cell phone and handed the phone to the Fire Chief. I told him I was OK medically, just exhausted and boxed in by the steep hill behind me and the wall of vegetation in front of me. He again asked about my health, and I said I was fine, I had water and food, and was resting in shade.  I made sure he knew that Doug had given him my coordinates, and he said that they would locate me on a map and try to reach me by land. The CHP was sending a chopper in case they could not get to me by land. I powered down: 29%. You can see the nonlinear decrease in power: the lower the power, the faster it drops. I needed to conserve power, if I was to help with the rescue coordination. Power down.

I heard a helicopter fly over me, and I waved. At first I thought that they saw me, as they circled once. But then it flew over the ridge to the next canyon.

I presume that the Fire Chief located me by my coordinates, because next Doug led a party of fire personnel up the Devil’s Arroyo Trail. It was the closest trail to me, but separated from me by an absolute wall of mature willow, stinging nettle, and poison oak. I had been up that trail several times, and we considered it unreasonable even to try to penetrate into that disaster of vegetation.

Craig Briscoe and Jim Hart, of the Brisbane Fire Department, both in their late 30’s or so, tall and muscular, were not of the same opinion. With incredible ambition and no idea of what they were getting into, they dove into the maze of tangles, branches, trunks, and roots. Into stinging nettle and poison oak. I guess this was less risky than running into burning buildings. They later told me that they had to military-crawl part of the way, thrash part of the way, and bull part of the way. Doug and I were both amazed at what they could accomplish.

I heard a yell in the distance, not sure what it was, but it was from downhill. I answered it with a yell.

Power and spirits up: “I heard a voice.” I was hoping Doug was with them and could tell them that I heard them. He was not. I heard another yell, closer and more recognizeable, but still just a yell, no words. I again replied with a yell. I texted: “I am in contact with the team.” I drank my last water, as there seemed to be no overnight on the Mountain in store for me.

“Are we getting closer?” I could hear the hope in his voice that his torment in the nettles and poison oak was ending. I yelled, “I think so.” I called out now and again to guide them. I started to move back downhill, to my lowest point, to meet them. I found a specimen I had collected and that had fallen out of my pocket, and I was so exhausted that I failed to notice. I picked it up and stuffed it into my pocket. I was too tired to put it in my pack.

“If you come to a thicket of tall poison oak, I am just on the other side of it.” Just then, I could see a head appear in the brush.

Craig and Jim are monsters when it comes to conquering brush. The wall that I was in no shape to fight, and that both Doug and I thought was impassable, they just powered through. It did not hurt that they were 6 feet tall, young and muscular, and had not fought the brush for 3 hours. They smiled and greeted me, asking if I was OK. I replied that I was, and asked if they had water. “No, we just jumped into the brush when we heard your voice and didn’t bring anything with us.” No matter, I was not that dry and it would be short. They told me that although they just got through the brush, they did not think that I could, and honestly, they did not want to go back through it, either. The CHP helicopter was on the ground out of our sight, waiting. Craig was in charge, and made the decision that since the chopper was on site, and the way back was going to be a workout, that I should go out with the chopper. I said that it would be safer for the chopper crew and for me if I just walked/crawled out. Craig insisted that I fly out. Jim asked if he could fly out, too, as the trek back was going to be no picnic. Craig declined, and radioed to the chopper.


 Craig was in charge            Jim had lead the charge into the brush

It flew back over us and started to lower a cable with a cage made of nylon. As the chopper descended, its rotor wash showered all three of us with poison oak leaves. I got into the cage, watched the ground recede, and made sure I did not fall out of the open cage. I was hoisted up alongside the chopper, and we flew all of about 300 yards, and set down in a cul-de-sac. I waited, scrunched in the cage, to let the rotor wash decrease, then I got out, crouched over and moved away from the chopper. Then I was forced against my will to go into an ambulance, where Lucio Vera and Quinn Washburn of AME ambulance company took my BP, a 12 lead EKG was run, and a blood sugar sample was taken. All was fine, and they let me go after having me sign a release (in three different places!) that they were letting me go against their advice. They wanted to take me to a hospital.

And I never found the Phymatoceros bulbiculosus.  Should I go back again?

Illustration by John Nelson, the brother of David Nelson

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