Fish Creek Mountains HP P1K
Split Mountain Northwest
Split Mountain East SDC

Wed, Dec 8, 2010

With: Adam Jantz

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2 3


Evan had first pointed out to me the merits of climbing the Fish Creek Mtns HP as part of his promotion to get others to follow his footsteps in climbing the range highpoints of California. On this road trip I was mostly interested in the SDC summits around the Anza Borrego area, but had also stumbled across another obscure merit for Fish Creek - it is the most prominent peak located in Imperial County. And so Adam and I decided to include it with two nearby SDC peaks, Split Mtn East & West on a fine December morning. To reach our starting point, we had followed Evan's directions from Ocotillo Wells, driving south on Split Mtn Rd, then about six miles southeast along a decent dirt road that follows along a narrow gauge railroad leading to a nearby mine. Arriving around 7a, Adam was still finishing his breakfast, a can of cold soup, no easy feat considering he'd been at the helm driving as well.

We parked alongside the railroad tracks a bit further that Evan had done, in order to take better advantage of a use trail that he had found by accident on his return from the highpoint. Our starting point was at or just below sea level, part of a large, sandy flat extending southwest from the Salton Sea about 17 miles. Seashells could be found in abundance scattered about the area, sure evidence that the Salton Sea had once been far large, extending south as far as the Mexican border. We walked southwest about a mile across this ancient lakebed to reach the abrupt start of the Fish Creek Mtns. We were hiking up a steep, bouldery ridge for only about fifteen minutes before we came across the old trail that Evan had briefly described in his write-up.

We spent almost an hour on this trail, quite good in places where it was evident that someone had spent considerable time making improvements with rock linings and other efforts to make it easier to follow. It was a pleasant hike climbing more than 1,600ft up the northeast escarpement, past ocotillo and other cacti. This range is one of the driest in the state, with very little vegetation at all, far less than we had found the previous day on the east side of Anza-Borrego. Despite this, the cross-country travel is not as easy as it would otherwise be due to the large amount of rock covering the terrain - the trail was a big help even with the mild annoyance of switchbacks.

The trail ended just below the 1,800-foot level at the west end of a high flat area about a mile north of the summit. There is a mine located here, a small clearing for a tent, and lots of rusting tins. The mine hole was hardly more than five or ten feet deep and seemed to have incurred far less labor to dig than all the maintenance that went into the trail to reach it. It's likely there were other nearby digs that went along with the one we found, but we did not take the time to look around for such evidence. We crossed the flat and turned south, dropping down to a larger flat area at the head of Red Rock Canyon flowing west. Crossing this second flat led us to the start of the North Ridge leading up to the highpoint. There was no trail to be found past the mine, but none was needed. We climbed up to one false summit about a quarter mile north of the highpoint, down to the saddle between them, then onto the final summit which we reached around 9:15a, a little more than two hours from the car.

As expected, there are fine views in all directions (N, NE, E, S, W) given more than 1,600ft of prominence. There was a register in the familiar red tins dating to 1979, placed by San Diego peakbagger Wes Shelberg. There were fourteen used pages in the register with the most recent entry by Chuck Ramm - who we'd just happened to be hiking with the previous day. Turns out there is a geocache near the summit (which we didn't visit) that had been the draw to get Chuck up here 11 months earlier. Evan's name was in the register from 2008, a MacLeod/Lilley party in 1981, as well as a number of other peakbaggers from the San Diego area.

We took a slightly different descent route, choosing to scramble down the steep chute on the east side from the saddle between the highpoint and the false summit. We then headed north across the flat area of Red Rock Canyon to reconnect with our ascent route and take advantage of the use trail for the return. As we were heading down the NE escarpment we spied a train far below crossing paths with our SUV, heading south from the mine, undoubtedly with a load of white-colored ore (we never did ascertain what they were mining there). It was 11:30a before returned to the RR tracks and our car parked on the other side.

We drove back out to the pavement of Split Mtn Rd, had some trouble locating the turnoff for Split Mtn (it was easy enough to find, we just happened to drive right past it while not paying attention), eventually finding our way south on the sandy road through Fish Creek. It seems improbable that a road could be maintained through this very sandy river channel, but it not only appears to have been managed for many years, but looks to be quite popular as well (popular for a rather remote corner of Anza-Borrego SP, anyway). We followed the road through the very impressive canyon for which Split Mtn is named, fantastically-shaped walls rising to near vertical in places and justifying its popularity. Emerging from the main canyon we turned west at the first fork to take us up the North Fork of Fish Creek and then another right turn to what we thought was the Jeep trail heading up Oyster Shell Wash on our topo map. Only much later did I conclude we were not in Oyster Shell Wash at all, but the next unnamed wash to the west, judging by the route we must have hiked. I'm not sure if a jeep road really does go up Oyster Shell Wash at all as I believe we took all the right forks available. In any case, we drove as far as Adam's able SUV would take us where a dry waterfall impasse blocked all further vehicle traffic. We parked in the shade here for the start of our hike to Split Mtn West.

While Adam was busy getting his pack in readiness for the hike, I scrambled up the dry waterfall and onto the sandstone canyon wall to get a picture of him. He shortly joined me for the enjoyable hike up the sandy canyon, marveling at the rocky formations, the interesting stones we found and the general impressiveness of the geology. There were several dry waterfalls much tougher than the first we'd encountered, requiring us to find bypasses, but these we managed by steep side chutes or other solutions. From our map we had expected this to be a relatively easy few miles, save for the steep climb out of the wash at the end, but after almost an hour hiking up our wash we began to think we might not be where we'd thought we were. We left the canyon, climbing to the higher ridges above, eventually ascertaining that we'd passed our Split Mtn West by almost half a mile. We followed the crest of the mountain around a deep chasm just to the east, aiming for what seemed like the highest point in the area. This took us to a narrow portion of the ridge overlooking the steep eastern escarpment where we'd spotted a large duck that we expected to mark the highpoint.

Not so. Turns out the point just to the west that we'd bypassed on our way over was higher, so we turned about, retraced the last five minutes' effort, and climbed to the highpoint. A cairn and a register here gave us the initial impression that we were on Split Mtn West, but a careful reading of the first page of the register cast some uncertainty over this. It seems that Wes Shelberg and others had ascertained by means of a leveling instrument that ours was the highest point in the area by some 20ft or more. But there is a second point about 1/2 mile to the southeast that it shown on the topo to be higher with the addition of an extra contour. It was this second point that I had thought we were climbing to, indeed it was the point I'd marked on my map as Split Mtn West. Clearly the current point was higher (by my own observation, the distant horizon was higher than this other point), but which should be considered the SDC peak?

It was already past 2p by now and we still had plans to ascend Split Mtn East, giving us only about three hours of daylight remaining. Had it been earlier I'd have been keener to visit the other location, but instead we let Wes's survey determination conclude we were at the "true" Split Mtn West, whatever that might construe. After signing the register and taking a short break, it was time to head back. Properly oriented to our map, we dropped south into the correct Oyster Shell Wash, following this most of the way back. This canyon was as interesting as our ascent route, with fantastically carved sandstone and tricky little problems whenever we encountered a short dry waterfall. There is ample evidence of geologic forces at work with the wind and water-carved features found in abundance. Before hiking the full extent of the canyon back to the road we climbed up the western bank where we judged it most appropriate to scramble into the adjacent canyon where we knew our car would be found. Not long after 3p we were back at our car.

We drove back out to the main road and found a suitable starting point for Split Mtn East at the start of a trail leading to a feature called, Wind Caves. In retrospect it wasn't the easiest or shortest route to the summit, but it gave us a chance to visit this feature. We followed the trail for about a mile in a southeasterly direction, not really taking us any closer to Split Mtn East. The Wind Caves were predictably sandstone features that had been eroded through the forces of wind, but it was interesting to walk around them and observe the various caves, windows, and modest-sized rooms that had been carved from the rock.

Leaving the network of trails through this area, we started up on a northeast heading, following a ridgeline that we expected would take us to the summit in about a mile or so. We followed this up as the sun was dropping lower to the horizon, coloring the hillsides in warmer shades of yellow and orange. When we arrived at a local highpoint around 4:15p, we had our first opportunity to re-orient ourselves to our map with the highpoint indicated. From our vantage it looked like the highest point was still a good distance to the east, perhaps another half mile or so. Another point to the north seemed similarly probable, this one closer but with a 200-foot drop into an intervening wash. After studying the map more carefully in the fading light, it seemed the northern one was most probably the correct point. Down we went on loose but easy slopes into the wash with a surprisingly narrow floor, only around 10 feet across in places. Further, the walls were rather steep, so getting in was kinda tricky and getting out across the other side even trickier. The north slope leading up to our summit was of an unusual composition, almost entirely made up of weathered limestone covered with some sort of porous mud-mineral layer like one might find in a limestone cave. Though steep, the footing was quite secure with sharp rocks that hurt the fingers if used to aid the ascent.

It was after 4:30p when we arrived at the highpoint where we found a modest cairn and the red register cans. We had guessed right, judging by the contents of the register that indicated this spot had been chosen despite it not being the highpoint. We had only enough time to take some hasty photographs of the register pages and the surrounding terrain as the evening sky was soon changing to twilight. It was improbable that we would be able to get back to the car without breaking out the headlamps, but I felt it would be best if we could at least see our way off the steepest portions before darkeness fell. I started off at a good clip, following a ridgeline westward that looked to offer the shortest route back to the car. Adam seemed to be following at a much more relaxed pace that served to fuel my anxiety. When I explained why I thought we should "pick it up" he got with the program as we made good time down the rocky slopes.

We eventually dropped off the ridgeline and down to a canyon on our left. This side canyon looked destined to empty into the main Fish Creek drainage and seemed a safe bet. We pulled out our headlamps about time we were in the channel of the side canyon. A rusty tin was a hopeful sign that our route was navigable to the end. I began to relax the further we descended, telling Adam it looked like we were home-free unless we met an unexpected dropoff. It was only a few minutes later before we reached just the dropoff I feared. It was less than fifteen feet, or so it looked, but there was no way we could see to descend past it, and we were probably only a short distance from Fish Creek. Evidently the main canyon had eroded faster than this side canyon, creating the abrupt drop where they meet. We'd have to backtrack and find another way out.

We hiked back up, examining the steep walls on the south side for any means of extracting ourselves from the canyon that had narrowed and deepened considerably as we neared its end. I found a possible escape route a short distance back from the dropoff that was both steep and narrow. The narrowness worked in our favor, allow me to chimney my way up the steepest part of it at the bottom, then moving up lower angled, but less secure terrain above. The ground was like hard-baked mud with a loose coating of gravel that tumbled down to the funnel below as I tried to gain footing. I advised Adam to wait until I had completed the 30-foot scramble before trying to follow. It was spooky and difficult and sort of fun all at the same time, reminding me of my oft-used saying, "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt." Luckily I got myself out to the rim of the canyon without falling as did Adam in turn behind me. We found the Wind Caves Trail only about 50yds from our extraction point, and within a few more minutes we were back at the start of the trail and our car.

Almost six o'clock now, it was quite dark as we drove back out the main canyon and back to the Visitor Center at Borrego Springs, almost an hour away. We got showers for a few quarters at the nearby campground, then came back to the Visitor Center where we made dinner of soup and whatever else we could find to eat in our vehicles. It had been a fairly long day, more so than we had expected for what seemed like three short peaks - we always seem to underestimate the effort these desert peaks involve...


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Anonymous comments on 01/11/11:
They were probably mining Gypsum.
Chuck Ramm comments on 01/12/11:
Hey Bob the train Adam and you saw was the gypsum train taking a load of gypsum south down to Plaster City just north of I-8 from the mine just south of the Split Mt road turnoff you took to head through Split Mt. They use it to make wallboard or sheetrock. I believe the picture you had of weathered limestone is actually gypsum I think. Chuck
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