Canyon BM P1K DPS
Pinto Peak P2K

Sun, Mar 15, 2009

With: Matthew Holliman

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2


Canyon Point was one of the last peaks added to the DPS list, and its worthiness has been debated ever since. This officially unnamed peak in the Cottonwood Mtns of Death Valley was the last DPS peak in the park I had yet to climb, and one of the few remaining for Matthew as well. We had spent several hours in reaching our parking spot on the rough road up Cottonwood Canyon the night before, unable (more like unwilling) to negotiate the final half mile to the trailhead in the dark. So we slept just off the road and were up just after 6a.

After packing up our gear and stowing it in the car, it was just light enough to start out without headlamps shortly after 6:30a. It took only 20 minutes to reach the end of the road and the DPS TH. Judging from the old signs we found there, the road used to continue up the canyon, probably at least as far as Cottonwood Springs (later I noticed that the older 15' map shows roads/trails going well beyond that in several directions). Our route to Canyon Point heads right from the turnaround spot, up a side canyon where the crux comes right at the start, a steep class 2 pile of crud. Above this 20-foot section the narrow canyon is mildly sloped and easy hiking for a mile. It isn't particularly scenic, but at least it wasn't the "disagreeable canyon" we found the previous day on Needle Peak.

After a mile the canyon forked with a large duck marking the spot. We guessed this was the DPS marker for the junction of the "A" and "B" routes, and promptly started up the left fork. We spent the better part of an hour climbing out of the side canyon to a pleasant ridgeline with good views (with a surprising find of a young Joshua tree), and on to the summit. A small summit block was easily surmounted and - voila! Two hours to the summit. The views were muted some by a thicker layer of haze than we'd had the previous day. Snowy Olancha Peak was the only Sierra peak visible through the adjacent Inyo Mtns and Nelson Range to the west. An array of dry, desert ranges could be found in all directions as far as the eye could see, without any sign of civilization. There was a USGS benchmark dating to 1949 and a DPS register from 1989. We laughed at the entries lamenting the status of Canyon Point on the DPS list, including an unusually wordy entry from Doug Mantle.

For the descent, it was an easy decision to chose the East Face, reported to have more than a thousand feet of bootskiing that takes but a few minutes. We were skeptical at first because the top portion was somewhat rocky and firm, but as we got lower and moved further east it improved rapidly. Matthew was down ahead of me before I could even orient myself. I got confused on which of two canyons to the east was our ascent route, but soon figured it out. The slopes weren't exactly sandy, more like a combination of small pumice and dirt, but it made for great fun with huge plunge steps on our way down. We kept it up for fifteen minutes charging our way back to the large duck that marked the split in the routes. Here we paused to empty a few pounds of earth from our boots that had collected during the swift descent.

We were soon returning to the turnaround at the road's end, then down the main canyon a short ways to our car. The whole descent took just over an hour. I was happy to get back my 10a, far too early to call it a day and head home. This meant I would be able to talk Matthew into the climb to Pinto Peak, a prominence peak near Towne Pass that he had no interest in. I think he may consider me a whore to peak lists - and he'd be right - but courtesy has kept him from describing it in such graphic terms. That he was throwing me a bone on this second peak there was no doubt.

It took us nearly two hours to drive back out the picturesque Cottonwood Canyon, back out to Stovepipe Wells and then almost 5,000ft up to Towne Pass. The temperature went from 78F at Stovepipe (sea level) to 54F at the pass, much better hiking weather than down in the valley bottoms.

There was a mile of nearly flat terrain to cross to reach the base of the mountain, easy travel through sparse vegetation. I tried to make the outing sound somewhat interesting by promising that he would enjoy it more than Canyon Point, but our laughs betrayed that we both knew that wasn't hard to do since Canyon Point had been pretty hum-drum and tame. To make the point, I aimed for the nastiest-looking narrow canyon emanating from the west side of the mountain facing us. I didn't really expect the narrow, dry slot to be climbable, but it seemed it might be interesting to at least take a look. Matthew didn't say anything about my choice in leading us across, but I don't think it surprised him any.

Almost immediately upon entering the slot it looked like we'd be walking right back out. We were met by a dry waterfall some 25ft high. It took only seconds to recognize we were out of our league. But as luck would have it there was an alternate possibility to the right that hadn't been immediately obvious. Matthew walked over to check out the steeply sloped ledge that looked to get harder at the top. While he started up that route, I found a more vertical alternative immediately to the left that turned out to have really nice holds. I was up top taking pictures of Matthew as he struggled about 2/3 of the way up. I looked over at the finish and suggested it only gets worse. He wisely backed down, then came up the same way I had.

Above this, a short ways further was a second dry waterfall. This one was a show-stopper. It was more than 30ft high and overhanging in places - no way either of us was going to climb it - even if we had a rope. Fortunately there was a class 2 route to climb around to the left, then dropping back in at the top of this second waterfall. Almost immediately there was a third waterfall, maybe 15ft high. I scrambled up this stiff class 3 drop before Matthew had time to join me from the detour around the second drop. I turned to photograph him climbing it, but after looking at for a few seconds he sighed, lamenting, "I'm not in the mood for this shit. I'm tired." I suggested he didn't have to if he didn't want to, and that's what he decided - there was plenty of options off to the left to scramble around the slot canyon altogether.

I continued up the slot past half a dozen smaller drops, all class 3-4 and enjoyable. The slot suddenly ended after 200ft of elevation gain, opening up to a broad hanging valley above the initial cliffs found on the west side. I paused here to empty my shoes of debris and wait for Matthew, who was only a few minutes behind in taking the alternate route. That was pretty much the end of any sporty scrambling. Once regrouped, we continued up a wash in the valley, eventually climbing out to hike up the slopes of the lower western summit.

Knowing this wasn't the highpoint, I led us on a route around the south side of the west summit. I thought I could save us some effort by not climbing up and over the west summit, but the sidehilling turned out to be easily as much effort as it would have been to simply go over the top (which we did on the return). The east summit is just over a mile away, an arcing ridgeline connecting the two highpoints. We more or less followed this undulating ridgeline, though I don't know that it was the most efficient way to get from A to B. It was certainly the route that took less thinking about. There were scattered piles of snow more than a week old, and a scattering of brush among the rocky slopes - probably enough to support a handful of sheep, but not enough to hinder cross-country travel.

It was just after 2p when we reached the summit, located further north than indicated on the topo map. In a small pile of rocks was a large ammo box, holding registers dating as far back as 1961. It had so many of the familiar names from the DPS bunch, that I have to believe they were considering adding Pinto to the list at one point. Matthew was decidedly of the opinion that it should not be.

There was a large swath of the snowy Sierra visible far to the northwest and a host of other desert peaks all directions. Haze somewhat marred what would otherwise be an outstanding viewpoint. We hung out at the summit nearly half an hour before starting back. We followed the same ridgeline back to the west summit, then diverged from our ascent route, taking an easier, more scenic ridgline further to the north. It avoided most of the cliffy areas on the west side of Pinto. After a long hike across the wide plateau at Towne Pass, we returned to the car at 4p, ending our two-day adventure in the park. Time to head home...

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