Thu, Dec 12, 2013
The Coso Range is a high desert range found just south of Owens Lake and east of the Southern Sierra. Much of it lies within the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, though the western and northern portions are found on BLM land. It was to one of these areas, described in Andy Zdon's guidebook, that Tom and I were heading this morning. Cactus Flat lies at about 4,500ft, and appears misnamed as there are almost no cacti to be found. The name may have been derived from the joshua trees that are abundantly scattered about, comprising a healthy forest of these Mojave desert natives. There were four peaks that we were interested in, two on either side of the southern stretch of Cactus Flat. Haiwee Ridge and Scattered Bone Peak are located on the western ridgeline while Whitecap and Boulder Peaks are found to the east. We had spent the night parked on DWP property just north of North Haiwee Reservoir, mobilizing and reparking the van out of the way just as the first contractors were arriving on the site. Seems they were going to be doing some drilling in the spot we had been parked overnight.
About 40 minutes of driving brought us up to Cactus Flat and halfway up the old mining road leading to a saddle on Haiwee Ridge. We might have been able to get the Element all the way to the top, but the extra time and effort it saved did not seem worth whatever additional damage the underside of Tom's car might take. Of the four peaks, Haiwee Ridge is the most interesting with a class 3 rating for the traverse along the ridgeline. From our start it took less than fifteen minutes to reach the ridge with a fine view to the west of the Haiwee reservoirs and snow-capped Olancha Peak behind it. Once again we were decked out in most of our clothing due to the cold. It was 14F when we woke up, but with an extra hour since and the morning sunshine, the temperature had risen closer to freezing. The hiking along the ridge is intially easy, but soon becomes class 2 and then a fun mix of rock scrambling with some class 3, though none of it exposed or difficult. The fine, clear views we enjoyed the whole way was a bonus that made this the best hike of the week. Finding the summit was not as obvious as it had first appeared, with several false summits after which we spied the summit cairn, or what we thought would be it. We looked around for a register in the cairn and the surrounding rocks, but found none. Eventually I happened to look behind us to notice that we'd gone right past the blocky highpoint, fooled by the cairn at the wrong location.
We found the expected register, including an old strip of paper rolled up in a film cannister, a classic Smatko giveaway. He had visited the summit in 1994 with long-time pal Bill Schuler and another friend, only five years before his death. This guy had longevity, if nothing else. There was a larger register from 1999 with 15 pages of entries. The most recent entry was nearly two years earlier in Jan of 2012. The summit offers a swell view of the Southern Sierra in profile to the west and the Owens Lake and Valley to the north. Cactus Flat and the lower, drier portions of the Coso Range lay to the northeast while the higher, snowier summits could be seen to the east. Luckily, the nearer ridgeline with Boulder and Whitecap was mostly snow-free. We returned south along the ridge to the saddle, then continued in that direction to the summit of Scattered Bone Peak. This was a much easier effort, all class 1. At a lower north summit we found a bone fragment, perhaps once part of a larger collection that led to the odd name of the summit. Five minutes further south lay the actual highpoint, a flat-topped stretch of the ridge at its southern end. The register found here was newer, dating only to 2010 and had five pages of entries. Ours was the first in more than two years.
Our car was back north below the saddle with Haiwee Ridge, but directly east was Boulder Peak and down below was a white water tank near the starting point for the other two peaks. It would be easier and probably faster to hike back to the car, but the thought of dropping off Scattered Bone's East Face somehow got stuck in my head. "Hey Tom, mind if I meet you down there?" I asked, pointing to the water tank. This wasn't the first time I'd made such a request and Tom was his usual obliging self. I felt a little bad for abandoning him, but I couldn't help it. Down I went. It wasn't exactly a cliff face, but it was steep, and with a loose collection of sand, gravel and scree in the mix, it made for a pretty swift descent. I was able to reach the water tank more than ten minutes before Tom could get back to the Element and drive out to meet me. There was a large fire ring at what would make a good camp site. Near the water tank was an empty trough with an automatic fill valve to keep thirsty cattle well-watered during their desert grazing. It was unclear if the arrangement was still used as I don't recall seeing much, if any, cow poop in the immediate area, but it was a testament to the ingenuity required to ranch in such inhospitable conditions.
Tom drove up, parked the car, and we began the second leg of the day, starting up to Whitecap. Driving further south up the road could have gotten us closer but it offered no advantage since we were doing Boulder Peak with it. We took a diagonal tack up and to the right across the western flank of the crest, eventually climbing onto one of several subsidiary ridges leading upwards. There was some snow on this side but not enough to be a hindrance and most if not all of it could be avoided. It took us about 50 minutes to cover the distance from the water tank to Whitecap's summit. The names appears to be derived from the whitish rock found near the lower north summit, but the formation is not striking and the naming seems somewhat weak. The oldest entry in the two registers we found, dating to 1994, suggested the name "Biphase Peak", but it appears Walt Wheelock has had this as Whitecap since well before then. Between the older and newer book from 2007, there were about a dozen pages of entries. After adding our own names, we turned back to the north to follow the ridgeline to Boulder. Because this ridge averages about 500ft higher than the one we had traversed earlier, one can see over the lower Haiwee Ridge to the west, offering a splendid view of the Sierra. It continued to be cold, though by now Tom had changed into shorts (I really don't know how he manages this), and we found the hiking easy between the two summits, primarily class 1. There are some nice joshua tree specimens growing on the ridge near 6,000ft, but little else. As the name suggests, Boulder Peak finishes with a pile of rocky rubble, though not enough to make things difficult. The benchmark found here is labeled "BOULDER", placed by the USGS in 1947. Finding no register, we left the extra one we'd been carrying since yesterday and turned our attention to the descent.
This last part turned out to be easier than expected. Though steep, the southwest slope we dropped down had plenty of sand holding a bunch of rocks and desert plants loosely in place. We lost most of the 1,000ft of elevation in short order, slowing down only near the bottom where the slope lessens and the route becomes rockier. It was just before 1p when we got back to the car, reaching it via a short, rock-lined path that we hadn't noticed earlier. It doesn't really go anywhere, more just showing the direction to head up to Boulder. We drove back to where we'd left my van and found a crew of DWP workers drilling a well right where we had parked the night before - good thing we had moved out before they showed up in the morning or we might have gotten an earful. The road back out to US395 was dusty and Tom got the brunt of it as we left.
With a few more hours of daylight, we decided to check out another summit in Zdon's book, near the small mining community of Darwin. We left the van along SR190 and headed for Ophir Mountain, the highpoint of the Darwin Hills on the edge of town. We managed to drive higher than Zdon's directions, making an easy hike even easier, less than 3/4 mile. It took less than 20 minutes to reach the summit, partly along the remaining portion of the rough road we had driven and partly along a use trail that has developed over the years. The summit provides a fine vantage point from which to take in the high desert region around the Darwin Hills. To the southeast is the northern portion of the Argus Range including the highpoint, Maturango Peak. to the southwest is the Coso Range with its own highpoint, Coso Peak. Both highpoints lie just inside the China Lake Naval Weapons Center and both ranges looked more picturesque with partial snow coverage from the recent snowfall a few days earlier. To the north stretches out the dry Darwin Hills with the much higher Inyo and Cottonwood Ranges in the distance. To the east was a clear view of snowy Telescope Peak behind the northern tip of the Argus Range. It was quite pleasant up there in the late afternoon. Richard Carey had left a small register in 2004, with 17 pages filled over the past nine years.
On our way back along the crest of the hills, Tom spotted a burro watching us from about 100yds distance, below us to the north. Rather than turn and head off in the opposite direction, the burro headed up towards the crest ahead of us, going down the other side and then curving back again towards the crest. It wasn't very clear on our plans and would stop periodically to watch us before moving again. It had come over a rise in the hills a second time and was suddenly startled by the orange Element parked there. This had it running off at a faster clip than our presence alone had managed so far. Our burro buddy was soon out of sight and we were back to the car less than an hour after leaving it. We noted two other highpoints within the range and made a weak attempt to reach Darwin BM two miles to the north of Ophir. Tom had already declared that he was done for the day and wanted to get a shower while the sun was still out, but when we reached a junction halfway down from Ophir, I not-so-subtly pointed out that a road goes most of the way to the other summit. To my surprise, Tom relented and we went off up the other fork, only to get stopped half a mile from the summit. It would have been less than half an hour's work to hike the remaining distance and return, but I had to admit it would be after sunset before we got back. Tom's showering comfort took precedence and we left that for another time. Before leaving we made a quick driving tour through Darwin which appears to be split in two sections. One is the corporate mining town with dozens of identical-looking housing units in disrepair and some larger buildings that appear to still be in use (a flag was flying and there were vehicles parked at one of them). At the end of the road a short distance away is the remnants of the remaining community which claims a population of 50 but looks to hold much less. Most of the town has been abandoned and those homesteads that have not are in barely improved condition. Junk can be found everywhere and squatters would probably be welcomed as an asset to the community.
We drove back to where we'd left the van at Lower Centennial Flat off SR190, and spent the rest of the night there. Shower, dinner, movie and wine kept us from going to bed too early. Still, we planned a bigger day on the morrow and needed to rest up. Luckily, our drive would be a short one...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Haiwee Ridge
This page last updated: Tue Dec 31 09:56:52 2013
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