Skiing Cuyamaca Peak — Cougar Tracks

A year or so after the Good-X and I moved to San Diego (1984) we bought a 1972 VW camper van with a pop top. It was an awesome vehicle (until the block cracked) and we had a lot of fun with it. We also had moved our skis with us from Colorado. We had heard — though we wondered how it could be true — that the mountains east of San Diego sometimes got enough snow to X-country ski.

Sure enough.

The first time we went up there was with a couple with whom we were friends and from whom we rented an apartment. We went to the Laguna Mountains. Of course I had no idea at that time that the valley in which we skied that day (on 8 measly inches of snow!) would someday become as familiar to me as my hand, or that I would learn to regard those 6000 foot “hills” as mountains. I was, I admit it, a Colorado snob. Now I know.

From my high valley even the highest 14er rises only 7000 feet from the valley floor, no greater gain in elevation than the top of Cuyamaca Peak from San Diego. In fact, it’s just the same. I learned that a mountain is a mountain in relation to the land from which it rises, regardless of how a mountain is defined by geologists or geological surveys or Alpinists. I’m not a mountain snob any more. The Colorado fetish with 14ers now seems a little silly. If you want oxygen deprivation hold your breath. 😉 I’m joking. I know there’s a lot more to it than that.

Today when I look at Windy Mountain or Pintada from the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge I see snowcapped hills that rise 5000 feet from where I stand. Mountains, but…

There are two ranges outside San Diego, separated by one of the innumerable fault lines that criss-cross California. Between the two is a narrow valley with a fissure and a spring that, in time, I got to know well. The ranges are the Cuyamacas — in which I lived for eleven years, and, just 10 miles further east, the Lagunas, in which I hiked and skied. The Cuyamacas have a leash law. The Lagunas do not.

Sometimes you see photos of San Diego looking east from Coronado Island. You see ocean, town, bay, city and, behind everything, a snowy mountain. That mountain is Cuyamaca Peak.

Cuyamaca Peak with snow on it

The second time the Good X and I skied in San Diego County we headed to a trail head at Green Valley Falls (fantastic falls in spring and in a wet summer, idyllic with pools and slides to play in, drop down, swim in, wade). We parked, paid our $5 day use fee, strapped on our skis, and headed up a trail we knew nothing about. It wound around the north side of the mountain to the west where it looked down on San Diego and the Pacific Ocean. We climbed, and climbed and climbed until we got to where we could see San Diego, but that wasn’t all we saw. We also saw fresh cougar tracks.

I didn’t know anything about mountain lions then except that they are dangerous. I had no knowledge of that world yet and little curiosity. We high-tailed it down and headed home, stopping on the way to watch a movie and have dinner.

Twenty years later, I would live at the base of that mountain and see it on fire. Later, I would see that far western slope with fire weed blooming. I would hike the trails in the Laguna Mountains in all weather, and ski to the top of Garnet Peak against all sanity and all odds. I would see a mountain lion.

Garnet Peak (a fun hike in the Laguna Mountains) in the winter of 2003/2004 after the Cedar Fire, oil on canvas.

The skis in the featured photo are just like the skis I took with me in 1984 from Denver to San Diego. They are — were — wonderful back country skis. They needed to be waxed which I liked because I could control the “slide” depending on my adventure. I found these old skis three years ago in a thrift store here in Monte Vista. They aren’t my very skis, but when I saw them they seemed to call out, “Get us OUT of here!” I had not had my hip replacement (second one, different hip) yet and I wasn’t moving very well. I was with my friends. We’d gone for lunch but weren’t ready to go home, so we visited a new thrift store in town. Without thinking, I reached for those old skis and cradled them in my arms. Elizabeth said in a soft voice “Are you going to ski, Martha?” There was so much pity in her eyes that I set the skis back where they were and went back to shopping. I returned to the store alone a few days later, forked over $30, and brought them home. They stand in my studio along with many other very personal treasures from my life. In a way, that room is my “medicine bundle,” my little trove of talismans.

Looking back on my first forays into the San Diego mountains, it’s funny to realize all the things I didn’t know yet. Makes me wonder what else I don’t know yet.


P.S. I’m writing my ski stories because writing the stories is how I figure things out. Now that it seems I’ve reached the end of this moment in my life, I want to see it more clearly and understand it better. I hope it’s not too tedious. ❤

8 thoughts on “Skiing Cuyamaca Peak — Cougar Tracks

  1. I’ve seen one cougar in my life. It was by the side of the road near a Boy Scout camp. I stopped my car in the hope of a better view but it disappeared, almost literally like smoke drifting into the brush. I reported it to the ranger station and they said it was good ole’ followed by a number I don’t remember. She’d been haunting that area for years and they’d never had a problem.

    You are quite right that there’d been no video if the cat had decided to have him for dinner. They are ambush predators who only attack from above and/or the rear. In almost every attack I’ve read about, the victim was face down on the ground and being chewed on before they knew what happened.

    I once saw a female moose with calf. I was hiking on Isle Royale with my wife and daughter, it was getting dark, and there it was. Maybe 40 feet away. Wife and daughter retreated immediately but I stood perfectly still, slowly got my camera up and took a picture. Then I backed away.

    My experience with the deer species is that if you freeze and don’t move, soon the animal forgets about you and goes back to browsing. If you move again, the deer will look up and you have to repeat the cycle again. I figured a moose would be no different and in this case I was correct. When I started to back away, the moose and calf ran off.

    It was so dark it took a half hour in my photo editor to get a grainy somewhat visible moose picture.

    A bull moose in rut is more dangerous than any cougar or bear. Fortunately it was entirely the wrong season for that.

  2. It’s not too tedious at all — it’s part of who you are, and those experiences all add up to your current decisions! I grew up with Santa Barbara’s mountains — the pass is about 1,000 feet high, and the tops may be another 300 feet. They are still mountains! I graduated to San Bernardino Mountains — Lake Arrowhead is at 5,000 feet — it, too, is a mountain, but doesn’t compare either to Santa Barbara’s mountains or to the 14 footers! They all have their incomparable beauty!

    • Mt. San Jacinto is DEFINITELY a mountain by any standards, and San Gorgonio (sp). I used to LOVE climbing up Garnet Peak in the winter so I could see the snow on the San Bernardinos. I keep quiet out here about my enlightenment. It wouldn’t float well with these altitude fascists. 😉

      • And there’s the ever-present mantra that it’s possible to go surfing in the morning and skiing in the afternoon — I’ve known people who have done that!

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