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It was cold and dark shortly before 5a as I sat in my car at Mountain Home, a small community on the west side of the Desert Divide. I was to meet Tom and Ryan here for what was going to be a very demanding day, a north to south traverse of the Desert Divide. Despite having the longest drive of nearly two hours, Tom timed it to the minute, arriving right on schedule. He informed me that Ryan had sent an email the night before to cancel - car trouble. We had to laugh, as it wouldn't be Ryan otherwise. It would just be the two of us today.
After driving some 7mi in one direction to drop off Tom's car, we drove back to Idyllwild and Humber Park for the start of our planned one-way epic. The idea was to tag more than a dozen HPS peaks along the Desert Divide from Lily Rock at the north end to Ken Point far to the south. We didn't know if anybody had actually done this previously, but then I didn't really look into it with much detail. It really just sort of materialized out of looking at the list of peaks on this stretch of real estate a few weeks earlier. From the topo map it seemed straightforward - climb up to Lily Rock and then Tahquitz Peak, then follow the gentle-looking ridgeline south tagging all the peaks in succession. All the elevation gain seemed to come at the start. We decided to leave Sam Fink Peak off the agenda since it was far off the divide and would mean another ten miles of hiking, where we already had about 25 or 30 miles to manage as it was.
By headlamp we had some trouble finding the start at Humber Park, but eventually stumbled upon a trail sign below the parking lot that led us on a traverse around the base of Lily Rock on the west side. The HPS directions we had were somewhat vague on the exit point from this trail, and failing to see any ducks in the dark we went some distance past the described gully and started up another one further along the trail.
It was a steep, jungle-like gully we scrambled up, towering trees, deep mattings of decaying material on the ground, a small stream flowing down the center. Though it was much work and some bushwhacking, it was good fun too, and we both enjoyed the scramble. It went on much longer than either of us expected. As we started to climb out of the forest we found large sections of slabby class 3. Tom didn't know whether to put his poles away or keep them out, often holding them in one hand where things got steeper, balancing with the other hand, and trusting his foot placements.
We watched the western sky grow pink then orange as daylight approached, with sunrise over the LA Basin coming another half hour later. Our route was wholely in the shade and it would be some hours before we saw the sun. It was quite chilly, but the upward climb kept us warm. We reached the saddle with Tahquitz Peak shortly after 7a, from where it was less than ten minutes to the summit of Lilly Rock.
San Jacinto was in the sun by this time as was the fog-shrouded basin to the west, while we shivered in the cold morning shade as our bodies began to cool. There was a register at the summit in a PVC tube chained to the summit rocks, filled with scraps of paper from the many visitors (mostly rock climbers, it would seem) that frequent the summit. We did not linger long at the summit, knowing we still had a long way to go. At this point I thought we had the hardest climbing behind us and it would be a series of minor elevation gains, but I was very wrong.
Just getting to nearby Tahquitz turned out to be more than we bargained for. Who would have guessed that half a mile and 600ft of gain could take us over an hour? The HPS description made it seem benign - a traverse over to Tahquitz's SW Ridge, then follow the trail to the summit. We failed to heed warnings to avoid traversing too high along the route which can lead to difficulties and big air. No surprise then that we found difficulties and big air. But we did manage to find a way through it all with some stiff class 3 sections and holding of breath and that sort of thing. There was even a duck placed in one unlikely spot left there by some other hapless party in similar straights.
We were relieved when we finally crossed paths with the trail, and by 8:30a were atop Tahquitz, the highpoint for the day. Three hours for two peaks. 15 peaks was starting to look a bit ridiculous, but we didn't yet discuss scaling back our plans since it seemed we still had plenty of daylight - and it was all downhill, right?
The summit is crowned with a fire lookout from those bygone days before satellite surveilance. It seems to be stuck in the middle of a renovation, the outside sporting a facelift of sorts but the insides unfinished and probably waiting for funds to become available. From the observation deck we had a splendid view of the Desert Divide to the south, though we were as yet uncertain which peaks were which, with the exception of Red Tahquitz to the east (our next stop). A benchmark alongside the lookout is stamped "LOIS", though it was unclear what the connection might be to Tahquitz Peak. Maybe the surveyor's wife?
After our brief stay we headed back down the trail, following along as it descended the north side of the peak. There was snow and ice on the trail, with a steep dropoff on our left that had us nervous without crampons. At one point Tom slipped on the ice, dropping a pole in the fall. Luckily it didn't go very far and he was able to retrieve it with the help of the other one. We turned right at the next two trail junctions, taking the first towards Tahquitz Valley and the second picking up the PCT heading east. We followed the PCT for a bit over a mile until we topped out at a rise in the trail north of the peak. We spotted a use trail on our right and followed this up to the summit of Red Tahquitz.
The summit wasn't very satisfying, with no obvious highpoint, but we managed to find the register in a white PVC tube without any trouble. The remaining peaks were all lined up along the ridgeline before us to the south, a zigzag pattern stretching out for more than fifteen miles. It was just before 10a at this point and it still seemed like our dream was within reach. Little did we realize what lay in store for us. Rather than retrace our route back down the north side, we headed east off the summit down a rather steep and sometimes brushy slope in an effort to intersect the PCT and save some time and mileage. It worked beautifully, taking only about ten minutes to land ourselves on the PCT once again.
This next section of the PCT continuing south to South Peak (or Southwell Peak as called by the HPS) was one of the best I've seen anywhere in the state. It was a marvel of engineering, traversing the steep slopes on the east side of the ridge, under and around some near-vertical sections. Later I read that Sam Fink was responsible for pioneering this trail that he almost single-handedly forged over numerous years of effort. My respect for him after traveling this section is immense. The trail does not actually reach to the summit of South Peak, bypassing it on the east side. We found a use trail, somewhat inconveniently located well past the summit on the SE side, that we used to take us to the top. There was a register in a small cairn atop the summit rocks whose views were partially blocked by surrounding folliage. There was a nice view of Tahquitz's and Red Tahquitz's South Face, as well as a good look at the next peak on our route south, Antsell Rock.
There was no disagreement between Tom and I that Antsell is where our plan fell apart, though it would take another two hours for this to become obvious. We were primarily armed with the HPS online guides for the peaks and there was little indication found there that Antsell Rock was in a different category from the others along the divide. It was not a simple detour off the PCT.
To start, the PCT does not connect South Peak to Antsell Rock in a straightforward manner. It makes a number of long switchbacks descending the southwest and south side of South Peak, and goes on to make even more switchbacks enroute to Antsell, some descending, some ascending, all with what appears to be little rhyme or reason. It stood in stark contrast to the Sam Fink section we'd just traveled and we found it frustrating, joking at first, but eventually cursing the trail and its many turns. The actual trail distance was twice as long as we had mapped out beforehand, and it took us nearly an hour to cover this distance along the PCT.
We thought we were watching the trail closely for ducks or other signs of a use trail, but were unable to find the start of the North Ridge route depicted in the HPS guide. The alternative was a steep chute on the east side of the peak and when we felt we had traversed far enough along that side of the peak and spotted a likely chute, we started up from the PCT. We were a bit premature, it turned out. Our chute was steep and narrow, filled with a foot of pine needles and other forest detritus that made progress difficult. The chute ended in a slabby cliff section only a third of the way up, becoming more technical. There was plenty of class 3, a few class 4 moves, and some exposed positions that convinced us we were on the wrong route, but we continued anyway. We were not going to be beaten by an HPS peak, so help us.
Half an hour after leaving the PCT we finally pulled up onto the summit ridge, or what we thought might be near the summit. But in fact we were on the North Ridge and the summit was still a good deal higher to the south. A series of ducks offered us hope, having found the usual HPS route for the peak. We followed these along the ridge and onto the easier west side until we came to a very narrow notch up against the big wall on the North Ridge. The ducks led us back over to the east side, starting down another chute found there. Ahead of Tom, I followed this down for a hundred feet with no sign of a turn back towards the summit. The ducks had disappeared, but there were definite signs of human traffic, though probably just others that had fallen into the same trap.
Somewhere we had taken a wrong turn on the North Ridge route, but neither of us could guess where. I was frustrated more than I've been in a long time by now and I took it out on Tom. When he asked if I wanted to take a look at the map again, I retorted, "I'm tired of looking at the map. We need to do more climbing." The topo map was indeed useless, showing almost no detail of the intricasies found on the route, but that was hardly Tom's fault.
Climbing back halfway to where Tom was waiting, I turned up a side chute that I had initially rejected as too brushy. I told Tom I'd check it out and call down to him to join me if it looked good. It was one of those routes that you could never see more than about 50-100ft ahead, and before getting out of earshot of Tom I had to call down to have him join me on this uncertain venture. There were no signs of previous use, and parts were so brushy that we had to climb over the top of the brush in places, and sometimes so steep that we had to use the branches to pull ourselves up by. It was a messy bit of uncertain class 3 bushwhacking, but we got lucky and it worked. It was 1p when we finally pulled out of the narrow chute and into the afternoon sun near the summit. We were just above the class 3 crux of the regular east side approach that was now obvious to us on our left, looking south. A minute later we were finally on the summit.
The register dated to 1998 and had many entries, surely indicative that there must be easier routes than the one we took. There were entries from many familiar folks, Tina Bowman, Kathy Wing, Rick Kent, Rick Graham, Dave Daly and Deb Castro, and many others. On one page Dave lamented finding the register below the crux, evidently this is one of those peaks where opposing viewpoints carry the register from one point to another, and then back again. Dave had a point on this one since the bottom of the crux was almost 100ft below the summit. We had a longer break here and finally discussed and assented to a change in plans - it was unrealistic to continue on to our end goal without turning this into a true epic. We had brought considerable water resources with us, but these were starting to diminish. It would be many hours after dark before got to the end, and likely to be well below freezing (it had been in the mid-20's the night before). I don't think I had enough warm clothes to continue along the breezy ridge if the temperatures dropped as far as expected. Consulting our map, we decided to exit via Fobes Canyon back out to SR74, then hitchhike from there to retrieve our car. We had no idea how successful we might be at hitchhiking in the dark, but it was the best plan we could devise.
It was 1:15p when we started down the south side. Tom climbed down the class three "standard" route with an exposed crack in a rocky enclave, while I chose to descend a class 3 ridge immediately west of this trough. I thought I might run into trouble as the rocky slope grew steeper, maybe have to climb back up and follow Tom, but I was able to pick a way down with careful foot placements and by taking my time. I was rewarded with the find of an old survey marker stuck atop a pole secured to the rock below, dating to 1917. It was similar to one I had found on the NW Ridge Mt. Morrison from 1924 some years before. Meanwhile, Tom had decided the crack was a bit too exposed, bypassing it to the east before finding his way down. Seems there was more than a few ways to reach the summit on this side.
Together we descended to a saddle below this crux, then down the wooded chute off the east side. Though steep and loose, it was very straightforward and posed little danger, and we made quick work of getting back to the PCT in only 15 minutes. This was undoubtedly the second route described in the HPS guide, and from the looks of it, the most commonly used route, at least nowadays.
Back on the trail once again, most of the annoying switchbacks behind us along with all the difficult scrambling, we switched to cruising mode for the rest of the day. Our next stop was Apache Peak, about half an hour along the trail. The PCT bypasses the twin summits on the east side, but a use trail led up to the easy saddle between the two and we were soon enough on the higher west summit. In the Apache register we found a 2006 entry from Rick Kent who had apparently done the same or similar route in reverse. Seems he'd accidently lost most of his water, commenting that 16oz would have to do to get him back to Idyllwild. The man is a camel, we both agreed. Though perhaps not a very smart camel. :-)
Back to the saddle between the summits, we dropped off the south side to intersect the PCT again. Our last peak of the day would be Spitler, a 40 minute hike from Apache's summit and another easy excursion. It was another 45 minutes after Spitler's summit to reach Fobes Saddle, by which time it was nearly 4p. We'd have less than an hour of daylight, so we made haste down the Fobes Trail, jogging in places where we were less likely to trip ourselves.
By 5p darkness had just about settled upon the land and we were still half an hour from the highway, the cold coming on quickly as we expected. Hiking down the trail and commiserating with each other over our plight, a saviour appeared behind us in the form of headlights. Could this be our ticket out? It could. A pickup truck loaded with gear was leading a much bigger truck hauling a large construction compactor. That this large truck could negotiate a road that would have been impossible in my van was impressive. We got a ride on the back of the pickup atop the piles of gear. I was freezing my butt off as we bumped and rode our way down the hill, but I was happy to have gotten the ride. We stopped near the highway where everyone got out. They had 30-60 minutes to transfer the compactor to another truck before continuing on the highway, so rather than wait we tried our hand at hitchhiking again.
With cars zooming by at speeds near 70mph, it was impossible to get anyone to slow down, let alone stop, despite the surprising amount of traffic along the road. The construction crew came rumbling out the gate at the highway after thirty minutes, and we were happy to grab a ride SE with them to retrieve Tom's vehicle. Along the way we learned a good deal about their business (soil stabilization achieved by mixing it with a biodegradable poly resin that sets up in a few hours like concrete). They had just closed a big order from a customer in Argentina with the demonstration they had done back in the hills alongside the Fobes Trail, and were in a decidedly good mood. They were gracious enough to go an extra mile and a half off the highway to deliver us to our car directly. We thanked them immensely and they drove off. We couldn't have wished for better luck than that. Must have been all the positive karma we'd saved up.
Tom drove us back to Idyllwild where we retrieved my van, then inquired in town about where we might get a shower. More good luck, as we were pointed to the nearby campground at Idyllwild Park. The park was open, but no one was at the entrance kiosk. We parked outside the shower building, conveniently located near the entrance, and availed ourselves of the coin-operated showers. I would never have guessed we'd find a hot shower in Idyllwild for $1. We went back to town for dinner afterwards (need to help support the local economy and besides, we were hungry), coming back to the campground afterwards once again to sleep for the night. Though we had not reached all the peaks we'd started out for, it had been a good day. And the ones we had left south of Spitler Peak would make a good dayhike at some future date.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Lily Rock - Tahquitz Peak - Red Tahquitz - Apache Peak - Spitler Peak
This page last updated: Wed Nov 24 10:38:04 2010
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