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My favorite desert range is undoubtedly the Coxcomb Mtns in the northeast corner of Joshua Tree NP, specifically the northern half of the range. I was first introduced to the area in 2008 when Tom Becht and I went after the range highpoint and DPS summit, Spectre Point. We found the outing highly enjoyable with fine scrambling on a wonderland of giant granite boulders, slabs and other features piled up some 2,500ft from the surrounding desert. Twisty, narrow washes lead into the range's many folds with dry waterfalls and interesting flora more diverse than most of the Mojave ranges. There are numerous lower summits one can gaze upon from Spectre Point that look utterly unclimbable without climbing gear at first glance. One of these near Spectre Point is informally known as Dyadic and proved to be quite a challenge. One could spend weeks in the Coxcombs trying to reach the tops of these various blocks and pinnacles. Three miles southeast of Spectre Point is an unnamed summit with more than 900ft of prominence, the 4th highest and 3rd most prominent point in the range. On the topo map it is one of three or four closely spaced points, any one of which might be the highest, none of which look to have an obvious route to the summit. This would be an exploratory effort whose success was highly in doubt until the very end. It was probably the one summit I was most looking forward to on this 10-day desert trip and afterwards proved the most memorable.
Because the Joshua Tree Wilderness nearly abuts SR62, it's necessary to start from the pavement no matter what type of vehicle you own. The closest one can drive is about 8mi one-way, making this a long outing. I started off at sunrise, around 6:40a from the highway, initially walking some 3mi south across the desert, gradually climbing about 900ft in the process. My route took me to the base of the mountains and a small rise overlooking the confluence of several washes, either of which could be used to reach my target. I chose to ascend one and descend the other on the way back. The southern wash I ascended was narrow and rose through a mountain canyon more steeply, taking me up through some non-trivial scrambling. The second mile was consumed in covering not even a mile until the wash opened up to a high, flat valley around the 2,900-foot level. Surrounding this were high summits and broken ridgelines in a complicated topology, topped by large, difficult-looking granite blocks. My doubts about actually reaching the summit only increased though I still couldn't identify the one I was after. I continued across the high, sandy valley and entered another wash system, leading me another mile closer and some 500ft higher still. Buried in the sand along the way was a nearly full set of horns from a bighorn ram, still attached to the top half of the skull. I picked the heavy object out of the sand to examine it, eventually leaving it on a more prominent perch in the wash. This would allow it a little more time in the sun and air before becoming indistinguishable fragments among the seemingly infinite grains of granite sand.
By 10a I had finally gotten close enough to guess the whereabouts of the summit, somewhere above the left (south) side of the narrow canyon I was ascending. I could see three possible summits vying for the highpoint but could not tell which might be higher. None of them seemed to have much possibility and my confidence sank further. When I reached a point only 1/5mi from the top on the north side I began to search about for a way up, only to find that just getting out of the wash was a much bigger deal than I would have guessed. I made several false starts before making progress upwards, scrambling over huge boulders and tunneling under them when no other way through presented itself. Easier ground was gained and eventually a notch between two of the summit pinnacles was reached, consuming something like 30min for maybe a hundred yard's distance. It was a scrappy bit of class 3 scrambling, enjoyable but tempered by knowing I was not yet at the top. The eastern block was terribly difficult on all side, a towering behemoth that would not be climbed without more serious preparations (and gear and skills and someone who could actually climb such things). So naturally I assumed it simply could not be the highpoint. The western block from the notch had more possibilities and it was to these I turned my attention. I climbed a class 3-4 groove on the east side, more face climbing, tunneling and in short order was on the almost-summit block. I could look across the top of the eastern block to know I was already higher than that, and saw nothing higher looking north and west. Behind me to the south rose a block about 10ft higher still. It was smooth and vertical on the side presented to me with a single finger crack splitting the block in two at a slight angle to the vertical.
My first inclination was to admit defeat, finally, and try to console myself that I had given it a pretty good go. The outing, I had to admit, had been an exceptional one, with some of the best scrambling I'd found in the desert. I was not completely resigned, however, and went over to examine the crack. It was about as nice a finger crack as one could want, just taking my fingers past the second knuckle for most of its length. Such a crack with fingers inserted and bent could easily hold my weight. Maybe I had a chance, and to improve them, I dropped my pack. The wall was not as blank as it had first appeared and in combination with the finger locks I found small depressions which would hold enough weight to allow me to reach higher. I was not entirely oblivious to my surrounding and predicament as I stood there about to commit to a higher, more exposed position. An injury here would be a very bad thing indeed, and the remoteness and isolation of my location were foremost in my thoughts. Still, it seemed worth a try, within my capabilities and the blurry distance to the edge which we call the "margin of safety." Somewhat to my surprise, I managed to pull myself up more easily than I'd thought possible, and mantled over the top. Sitting there atop the highest block, then, I was both highly elated and terribly nervous because I still had to reverse the moves off the summit block. I took a selfie looking north and a few photos looking east and south, I arranged a few loose stones as a cairn and then carefully reversed the final moves while they were still very fresh in my head. I felt relief once off the block (I'd give it a rating around 5.4, btw), but didn't relax completely until I had reversed most of the other moves back to the notch. Here I stopped to rest and enjoy the rare lunch that I had brought with me. It would have been hard to surpass my feeling of satisfaction at this point as I reveled in my success. And of course, lunch was all the more delicious because of this.
There was still much work to do in getting myself extracted from the center of the range following lunch. I returned to the ram's horn in an hour and once back to the high valley I followed the alternate descent route. Though somewhat easier down a broader wash, it was not without it's own challenges that included a good deal of class 3 scrambling, tunneling and other fun. I found a second ram's horn in this wash, half of which had become detached. I found the missing half a short ways downstream and came back to reunite it with the other. Somehow it just seemed like the karma thing to do. I exited the wash past its last difficulty just after 1:30p where I rejoined my original route. Another hour saw me back across the desert and to the highway by 2:30p. The whole outing came in at under 8hrs, better than I had expected beforehand. There are still several dozen summits in this range with 300ft of prominence or more and I will surely make excuses to come back to attempt more of them - this much fun shouldn't be so limited...
This page last updated: Thu Jan 7 18:48:08 2016
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