Sun, Mar 18, 2012
Saddle Peak Hills HP
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Day 4 of my solo Death Valley trip had me again in the southern part of the Black Hills between Jubilee and Salsberry Passes. Whereas the previous day I had visited Ibex and several other unnamed peak south of the highway, today I was venturing to the north side of SR178 for Epaulet and Salsberry Peaks. Though both are probably more easily reached from the Greenwater Valley Rd, a high clearance vehicle is recommended on that route, leaving me with a somewhat longer approach from SR178. The two peaks together would entail about 15 miles and 4,000ft of gain, all cross-country, but the roadless travel was not expected to be difficult - as it proved.
Sunrise came just before 7a, with the first light striking the fresh snows on the eastern escarpment of the Panamints to the west. I parked along SR178 at the 2,500-foot level to allow me to traverse relatively level across the three mile expanse of the combined Bradbury and Rhodes Washes to reach the base of Epaulet. The cross-country was not difficult, but there were plenty of ups and downs along they way, dropping into and then climbing out off many branches of the two major washes. Along the way I passed to the east of Rhodes Hill which I had climbed on the previous trip to the area. After an hour I had crossed most of the flattish terrain, with one last large wash before starting up to Epaulet. It took another two hours to climb the southeast flanks leading to the South Ridge that I followed to the large sloping summit plateau and eventually to the summit.
Along with a 1949 benchmark, there was a register in the semi-standard red cans left in 1995 by the San Diego trio of Adrian, Hanna and Carey (and a few assorted additional friends in their party). In all there were 12 pages used in the last 17 years. Bob Sumner had visited in 2003, Shane Smith in 2009, Courtney Purcell in 2010, Sue & Vic Henney and Don Palmer only a few months ago. There is a fine view of the Black Mtns from the summit, looking northwest towards the highpoint of Funeral Peak, west to Smith, Desert Hound and Ashford, and south to Ibex, Jubilee and others. to the east are the lower and less significant Calico Peaks, and southeast to Salsberry Peak, my next destination.
It had taken three hours to reach the summit of Epaulet and would take another three hours to travel the nearly five miles between Epaulet and Salsberry. I dropped off Epaulet to the southeast as the most direct way to Salsberry, finding the route down uncomplicated and relatively easy. There was much up and down in traversing the upper part of the Rhodes Wash, aiming for the northwest side of Salsberry from which I intended to climb it. I scrambled up gullies I found on this side of the mountain, an interesting area geologically with colorful limestone rock, yellow sedimentary deposits and some navigational challenges. Just below the summit I found some steeper cliffs of loose aggregate that tended to crumble under my feet and made for a modest hazard.
It was 1p before I topped out on the summit of Salsberry to excellent views. The terrain to the southeast is equally colorful with shades of yellow and orange, along with views to Sheephead and Ibex. The broad Greenwater Valley stretches north towards Furnace Creek, the sloping plains of the Bradbury and Rhodes Washes to the southwest and west. A fairly recent register dating to 2008 was found at the summit, nine pages of entries over the course of the last four years. Sue & Vic had been the last to visit, only a month prior.
I descended the main drainage on the south side of the mountain, first traveling northeast over the slightly lower north summit and around to a saddle where entry into the gully looked easiest. This drainage held no unwanted surprises in the way of dry waterfalls and made for a most efficient way off the mountain. Undoubtedly it would make a good ascent route, too. The gully drained into the Bradbury Wash where I spent most of an hour returning to the car parked along the highway.
If I'd been heading home today, this would have been the end of the peakbagging, but since I still had another day to play in the desert and there was plenty of daylight remaining, I decided to hit up the highpoint of the Saddle Peak Hills, located about an hour's drive to the south and just outside the park boundary. As the name suggests, there is a prominent saddle with a drop of about 300ft between a lower northeast summit and the slightly higher southwest one. The closest parking is found northeast of the mountain, just off SR127. A dirt road heads west here and can shave off a quarter mile or so from the hike, but there are some deep ruts requiring high clearance and the benefit is not all that great.
Only the northeast summit is visible from the start, and without realizing the mountain had two distinct summits I did the obvious thing one does in ignorance by simply hiking up whatever was in front of me. It is not a difficult or long hike to the summit, about one and a half miles with 1,200ft of gain (1,500ft of gain if you tag both summits), and I managed it in just under an hour. The volcanic mountain has two distinct rock types, a rather plain light brown rock and a more interesting reddish type. The latter has pieces cleaved smoothly across the surface, showing circular patterns of different colors that I spent some time examining. I kept a small sample that I put in my pocket to add to my small rock collection. Not being even an amateur geologist, I have no idea what the technical terms are for various rocks, but I like to keep them as keepsakes for some of the interesting places I've visited.
It was only upon reaching the broad plateau of the northeast summit that I realized there was a second one to the southwest. It was impossible to visually determine which was highest without a level. A register found amongst the rocks had been left by Sue & Vic a few months prior, though there was another paper scrap left by John Vitz in 2001. While there was also a 1955 BLM benchmark, a closer perusal of the map showed the USGS benchmark to be on the other summit and most likely the highpoint. Off I went to visit it.
Though it had looked a bit daunting after a long day, it took less than 20 minutes to drop to the saddle and climb to the southwest summit. In addition to the IBEX benchmark, there was a nested set of cans with a 1997 register left by Mark Adrian. On the second page it acknowledged an earlier scrap of paper left by the dynamic trio of Smatko, Schuler and Yates way back in 1970. Only ten pages were used in the 15 years since the register had been placed. With just over 1,000ft of prominence it has some interest to highpointers. The topo map shows the eastern point with an extra contour but most folks seem to climb to the benchmark. Hedge your bets and climb both.
I descended to the northwest from the summit, following along a ridgeline that borders the main drainage on the north side of the mountain. It made for a pleasant alternative and eventually provided me with a decent view of the two summits from the north. It was 6p before I returned to the van, leaving me with just under an hour before sunset. I spent the next hour driving south to Baker where I bought gas (not a lot - it's expensive there) and debated whether to eat at the Greek restaurant. I decided to pay a visit to Kelso Peak in the morning, about 20 miles south of Baker, so I drove out there and had canned soup for dinner instead. Kelbaker Rd sees little traffic and though I was not far off the highway I cannot recall being disturbed at all by passing cars or trucks. It might have been that there were simply no cars driving by on a Sunday night, or perhaps I was just too tired to wake up when they did...
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