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Day 3 found me off SR178 in the southern portion of Death Valley NP between Jubilee and Salsberry Passes. The weather was decidedly iffy today, possible rain forecast as a cold front began sweeping across most of the state. It was 43F in the morning at an elevation of 2,500ft where I'd spent the night alongside the highway, much colder than it had been the day before. The sky was overcast and threatening - I would pack rain gear in case I was to be treated to my first rain in Death Valley. My first order of business was to check out the approach road for Ibex. Zdon describes a road reaching almost three miles south from SR178 to near Ibex. I didn't have much hope of driving the van the whole distance, but it seemed worth seeing if some of it was negotiable.
I found the road somewhat different from that shown on the topo map. The map shows an east and west entrance to a frontage road that has a junction heading southeast. The west entrance to the frontage road no longer exists, but the east one did and I found it driveable in my low clearance vehicle. I got about a mile along the road before finding it closed at a second junction. The right fork is open for another half mile to the southwest, but the one described by Zdon is no longer open to motor vehicles. I parked here out of the way after turning around and set out on foot around 7:20a.
The plan for the day was ambitious, including two summits with more 1,000ft of prominence and two others with more than 600ft. All of them are located in the southern part of the Black Mountains, also more locally referred to as the Ibex and Talc Hills. Ibex Peak was the highest and most prominent of the four and it was to this summit that I started out. I followed the old road for several miles as it climbs up the Bradbury Wash, gaining about 800ft. Behind me were the prominent peaks of Epaulet and Salsberry which were on the following day's agenda, to my left was Sheephead which I'd climbed back in December. Along the way I found a 56yr-old penny lying in the road, with a dark coating of oxidation from many years of exposure. I'd often wondered how I'd never found an old coin lying among the trash heaps of so many abandoned mines and homesteads in the wild - this made for my first such find.
Just after 8a I'd reached the saddle (the road continues to the American Mine on the southwest side of Ibex Peak). To the southwest could now be seen the highpoint of the Talc Hills, my second objective. I left the road here to head east towards the higher ground around Ibex. It took another 30 minutes to climb about 1,000ft over 3/4 mile, following the ridgeline as it arcs eastward before turning southwest to the summit. There was a set of nested cans, painted the familiar red, found at the center of a small pile of rocks. It was cold and gloomy-looking from the summit, precipitation could be seen to the northwest over the Panamints, soon to be heading across Death Valley to the Black Mountains. The register held a few scraps of paper dating to 1978 and 1983 before MacLeod and Lilley left a proper notepad in 1985. The peak appears to be fairly popular with parties filling 21 pages of the notepad over 27 years. Popular by Death Valley standards, anyway.
I next turned my attention to the Talc Hills HP to the southwest. I had initially imagined using the old road into the Confidence Wash, starting at the junction where I'd left the car. Now at the summit of Ibex, it occurred to me that this would involve a lot of backtracking that might be unnecessary. I could see the Talc Hills HP four miles to the southwest, the intervening terrain not looking too bad at all. In fact it seemed I could drop off the west side of Ibex into the Buckwheat Wash and follow that nearly to the base of the highpoint. And this is what I did. I hadn't realized that the two peaks were at either end of an ill-defined ridgeline separating the Buckwheat and Confidence Washes. The ridgeline itself would have had too much up and down to make it worthwhile to follow, but the Buckwheat Wash follows nicely along the south edge of this nearly to the Talc Hills HP before turning south and dropping into the southern reaches of Death Valley.
Getting off Ibex posed no difficulties and the hike along the sandy wash bottom was easy and quite pleasant. I passed by the American Mine without realizing it was the terminus of the road I had initially followed. There was some dilapidated structures and the usual collection of rusted tins. The wash narrowed some about a mile past the mine, but there were no dry waterfalls to navigate around. It soon opened once again. I found a tortoise shell in the dry creekbed, a baseball-sized hole in the top of it. It was the first time I'd seen any evidence of a tortoise in the desert, a rare find indeed. What might have killed it I could only speculate. It may have been human or animal looking for food, or the hole may have occurred when the shell washed down the creek and slammed into a rock.
As I got closer to the Talc Hills HP, a more careful study of the topo map I carried showed the wash turns south away from the highpoint a bit sooner than I might have liked. So I climbed the right embankment out of the wash at a point where the adjoining ridgeline was low and began following the ridgeline instead. The ground on the ridgeline was much firmer than the softer sand and gravel of the wash, with better views too. I followed this modestly undulating route westward, as it was now clearer to me that I was on the divide between the two washes. Every hundred yards or so I would come across a good-sized rock cairn, composed of heavy rocks that someone probably spent 15 minutes to collect and stack. As I was to find out over the course of the day, every ridgeline I hiked had plenty of these cairns. Whether they were to mark claim boundaries or perhaps just to remind someone the ridge had already been prospected, I never knew, but it was obvious that folks had scrambled all over every facet of these hills long before my arrival. It seemed somewhat odd because this was almost as remote a place as one could find in Death Valley I'd thought, and I wouldn't have expected so much prior activity. Possibly it could be accounted for because this portion of the park was annexed only in 1994 with the California Desert Act, leaving many more decades for individual rock hounds and miners to forage the hillsides as compared to the older parts of the park which were first set aside as a National Monument in 1933.
It was 10:50a before I reached the highpoint of a north-south crest that forms the highest point in the Talc Hills. With only 600ft of prominence, the summit did not attract the usual desert peakbaggers who might have felt it worthy of a register. There was nothing to mark it, cairn, old survey stake, or otherwise. Though I enjoy finding a register as much as the next peakbagger, I kinda liked the idea of finding a summit untrammeled, and left it the same way when I left. The summit provides a fine view of the Ibex Hills to the east and Death Valley to the south and west. Looking northwest I could make out the other two summits of the day, roughly in a line with Desert Hound Peak rising high behind them. I was now at the southernmost summit of the Black Mountains, or at least those summits with 500ft of prominence. The sky was growing ever darker, but so far any precipitation had held off, much to my liking.
Next up was Peak 935m, almost three miles to the northwest. A ridgeline connects it to the Talc Hills HP, most of this easy-to-follow route visible as I started down. To the right of the ridgeline is the Confidence Wash, at one point only 40-50ft below the height of the ridgeline. This contrasts with the left side of the ridge that drops steeply to a smaller, unnamed wash, more than 2,000ft down to Death Valley to the west. It is a very marked difference that strikes one as almost unnatural. It appears that as the ridgeline is worn away through erosion, this upper part of the Confidence Wash will eventually wear through the ridge and begin draining more directly to the west down the steeper side of the crest. Of course there is only occasional torrential rains in the desert, so this process will naturally take much longer than it might in places with more substantial precipitation. Speaking of which, it began to slowly drizzle on me as I made my way along the ridgeline, the wind picking up significantly as the front began to sweep over the range. As the rain became more pronounced with time, I had to eventually don my rain parka to keep my shirt from getting too wet and my upper body from growing chilled. Luckily there was no threat from lightning or flooding. Over the next several hours the rain would remain light, but fairly constant with high winds. There was enough falling on the ground to puddle in the rocks, but never enough to start flowing in any of the creek channels.
The most interesting item I came across on the way to Peak 935m was a small rattlesnake I found coiled up on the ridgeline, exposed to the elements. At first I thought it was dead as it was almostly completely flattened, its body looking like a flattened inner tube rather than the rounded shape one is used to. I touched it lightly with my gloved hand, but it moved not. I then lifted one side up and flipped it over gently to see if it was dead or alive. The snake came slowly to life, inflating its body to the normal shape and eventually lifting its head and testing the air with a few flicks of its tongue. It struck me that it had been in some sort of hibernating state that it had slowly awakened from. Sensing the snake needed to conserve its energy reserves in the cold temperatures, I didn't want to taunt it further and let it be. I was surprised that it hadn't crawled into a rock crevice to get out of the wind - it was the first time I recalled seeing one lying in the open like that.
It was 12:30p by the time I reached the summit of Peak 935m. There was an old survey stake and a small rock cairn found here, but no register. Like the previous one, this summit had 600ft+ of prominence, not enough to garner the attention of the usual peakbaggers. Because of the wet conditions outside, I kept my camera buried in my pack to keep it as dry as possible, not bothering to take the usual set of view shots from the summit. Two and a half miles further to the northwest was the last peak in the area, Peak 948m. Though a shorter distance than the previous summits, this would be the hardest one since there is a significant drop of nearly 2,000ft to the Confidence Wash that drains to the west between the two summits. It looked like a lot of work and with the poor weather enveloping me I was of half a mind to call it a day and head back to the van. I also knew that the peak was more easily approached from SR178 to the north of Peak 948m, the route being less than two miles and less elevation gain, too. But as it was just past noon and I had almost seven hours of daylight remaining, I decided to press on. I was quite happy in the end that I did.
It took nearly two and a half hours to cover the two and half miles - not a very blistering pace by any measure. But the descent off Peak 935m was interesting, following mainly in one of the ravines dropping into the Confidence Wash. It had some fun scrambling down short, dry waterfalls (not exactly dry now with all the terrain wet). I also noticed that the drab lichens that clung to rocks in the shadier parts of the ravine had come to life with the rain, soaking in the life-giving liquid like a sponge and turning a more brilliant green in a short period of time. Other plants in the ravine took on a fresh look with wet leaves glistening, their younger green leaves looking that much healthier for it.
By the time I had reached the bottom and begun the hike across the Confidence Wash, the rain had let up for the day and the rocks began to dry out though the sandy portions remained damp. The wash, leading down to Death Valley through a gap in the range, was half a mile wide and filled with loose rock and gravel. Peak 948m rose steeply across the other side and I looked for what seemed the most direct route to the summit. It probably didn't matter much which way I went, as most routes either up ridges or ravines looked similarly feasible. I chose a steep ridge just to the left of the summit, taking about an hour to climb it. Like other places I'd visited during the day, the ridge was lined with cairns every 50 to 100 yards. One had a small tobacco tin tucked inside, but the contents were little more than dust when I opened it.
When I reached the summit just after 3p I found a register in a small glass jar inside the summit cairn. Labeling the peak LongRidge Peak, a loose page had been placed in 1978 by Andy Smatko and Frank Yates. The register was left a year later by a MacLeod/Lilley party with only six pages used since that time. Sumner, Vitz, and Sue & Vic Henney were the recognizable names. There is a great view of most of the Confidence Wash drainage from the summit, with multiple branches starting high in the southern part of the Black Mountains, sweeping down between Peaks 935m and 948m, and then draining into Death Valley to the south. To the northwest is Jubilee Mtn with the Rhodes Wash draining between it and the summit I stood on. To the north rose the higher summits of the range with the highpoint, Funeral Mtn, hidden by clouds.
I considered several options for the return. The easiest would probably have been to head north to the highway and then thumb a ride back to near where I'd parked. That seemed like cheating though, and I didn't want to disturb the wonderful feeling of solitude I'd had throughout the day. I settled on what turned out to be a fairly direct return, dropping back to the Confidence Wash, following it up to a mine that was indicated on the map and then picking up a road back to the start from there. The mine was visible from the summit, though from a distance it was impossible to tell if it was a large shaft opening or some other structure. Upon getting closer it turned out to be a large wooden rampart at one of the mine entrances. It took more than two hours to cover the distance from the summit to the mine. I spent some time while I was there to explore several of the horizontal mine shafts. None of them went in more than about 20 yards and it didn't appear that much of any value was ever removed, despite the apparent expense in organizing and supplying the effort.
It was after 6p when I reached the saddle between the Confidence and Bradbury drainages where I found the end of the driveable portion of the road I had parked along. From there it was only half a mile to the car. Around the time that I arrived the sun reappeared low on the horizon, having ducked under the clouds and lit up the landscape for the last twenty minutes before sunset. It made for an unusual view of the landscape with the bright hillsides contrasting with the dark clouds that remained overhead. I took pictures of Ibex, Salsberry, Sheephead, and Epaulet Peak before turning the camera to the last rays on the underside of the cloud layer after the sun had gone down.
In a most unusual move, I ended up driving nowhere following my hike. I showered, ate dinner and slept the night where I had parked in the morning. This had the advantage of giving me lots of sleep which was most welcome following the long day. The next day's plan was to hike to Epaulet and Salsberry Peaks on the north side of the highway, so I would only have a few miles to drive in the morning. More than a mile from the highway, I would hear none of the light traffic to travel the road in the night and slept quite soundly.
This page last updated: Fri Apr 13 09:30:49 2012
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