Sun, Mar 26, 2017
Anyone who's spent much time perusing Andy Zdon's Desert Summits guidebook can't help but notice the picture on one of the first few pages featuring Andy Zdon and the grizzled, white-haired Walt Wheelock. Walt had been Zdon's inspiration for the book, having published two volumes of his own Desert Peak Guide back in the early 1960s. Most of the peaks in Walt's small volumnes were included in Zdon's guidebook which itself expanded the area of coverage over a larger area of the Southwest desert. Walt had planned to publish additional volumes covering other areas, but for whatever reason those never made it to fruition. Perhaps the two small paperbook booklets were all his enthusiasm could muster. One of the volumes covered the Coso and Argus Ranges, half of which sit within the bounds of the China Lake Naval Weapons Center. In those days, one could easily get permission to drive onto the base which Walt did regularly. Access has been restricted a good deal more since, especially since 9/11. The peaks in Wheelock's guidebook that fell within the military base were all dropped from Zdon's version and for the most part they have been quitely forgotten by the peakbagging community. Two of these, Argus and Maturango, were on the DPS list at one time, but have been suspended or dropped in the past few years, though they still see regular visitations from the Panamint and Searles Valley sides of the range. Having gotten a copy of Walt's two volumes off Ebay, I went about locating them all on a map and systematically working to visit those I could in stealth fashion. Some of the peaks were identified only by elevation, in a number of cases with values that don't match modern maps. If the description was sufficiently vague, it was hard to pinpoint exactly where to find them. The two peaks we were after today, Peak 5,994ft and Ridge BM, were both found in Walt's guidebook. The former was my best guess since Walt had given a peak in this same area a different elevation of 6,013ft. Today's effort would visit both of these (and two bonus peaks found on LoJ), both found fairly deep within the base boundary. We picked a Sunday for the outing, figuring it would be the least busy day of the week. We were happy to not see another soul all day, not a vehicle driving a road or a plane or helicopter overhead. It was about as quiet as one could hope for.
Having spent a second night at our campsite off Nadeau Rd in Panamint Valley, we were up early, driving to Homewood Canyon and the end of the pavement, and then some before parking Brian's truck. We had little info on Homewood Canyon, aside from knowing there were year-round residents living there. We were happy to find no private property issues, the whole upper canyon part within BLM lands. It was 6:30a when we started out, about 20min before sunrise but plenty light out to forgo headlamps. The first half mile or so was on the continuing road up a canyon to where it ended at a spring. From there we traversed around slopes on burro trails to the main canyon, following that up only a short distance before starting up the slopes on our right. The cross-country travel here was typical of that in most desert ranges- fairly open with little brush to contend with. We gained a ridgeline, ill-defined at times, and followed it west towards the first summit, Peak 5,994ft. Not long after gaining our first view of the summit from about a mile away, we spotted some bright paint far ahead, just below the ridge we were following. We dropped down to pay it a visit, finding it was the wreck of a small jet plane. There were names and dates scratched onto one of the external fuel tanks lying crumpled nearby, with one message indicating the plane had gone down in the early 1970s. Debris was scattered all about and a fire had destroyed much of the plane's interior. Leaving this after a few minutes, we climbed back up to the ridge and continued to the summit of Peak 5,994ft, taking a little less than 2hrs. Here we found a little gem we didn't really expect - a register left by Walt Wheelock in 1959 while scouting for peaks for his upcoming guidebook. He had referred to it as Peak 6,013ft though I don't know the source for that elevation. There had been only one other party since then - Bob Rockwell and Walter Runkle of the OPG (Occasional Peaks Gang) out of Ridgecrest, in 2012. This was one little-visited summit.
We still had something like 5.5mi to our second summit to the northwest, but much of this would be on old roads. We had only to descend less than half a mile off the west side of Peak 5,994ft to pick up an old, no longer used mining road. The road showed some labor-intensive work to shore up the roadbed, evidently it was an important artery back in the day. Wild burros and horses have kept the road serviceable by foot traffic, making for a very pleasant hike across the desert landscape. We followed this down to the ruins of an old ranch (only some metal cattle fencing was evident, the rest having burned decades ago). The road then turned north to follow along a creek with running water, popular with the hooved-crowd, judging by the abundance of prints criss-crossing the area. Where the water ran over the road through some heavy brush, we climbed up onto the east embankment and followed an old water pipeline (using it as a handrail) past the difficulties. We followed the old road for more than two miles, passing several forks before reaching a junction with a much better dirt road showing tire tracks. This road forks off the main paved road through the base, rising to an observation post at 6,500ft about 3/4mi southwest of Ridge BM. I was worried about this road, not knowing how much traffic it sees. Though the tracks were definitely from this year, they seemed to be at least several weeks old judging by the animal tracks that have since walked over them. I would still be a bit nervous and we kept an eye out over our shoulder a number of times while we plied this road for half a mile. I was somewhat relieved when we left it for the last mile of cross-country to our summit.
It was 11a by the time we reached the top of Ridge BM, about 4.5hrs after starting out. We found the benchmark and the remains of the old wooden survey tower from 1934. Less than a mile away to the north and 1,500ft below in the canyon ran the main paved road through the base. We were happy to find all was quiet and would remain so for the half hour or so we spent there. We looked around the many possible hiding places for a register among the summit rocks but were disappointed to find none. With more than 1,000ft of prominence and a commanding view overlooking the base, we thought we'd have a better chance of finding a register here than on the first peak. Besides the base overview, one has a fine view of the snowy Sierra Nevada to the west from Walker Pass at the south end to Olancha and beyond to the north. To the east could be seen the Panamint range in profile with the snowy tops of Mt Charleston and the Spring Mtns of Nevada in the far distance. The ex-DPS summits of Maturango and Argus lay to the north and southeast, respectively.
Our route back was very similar, taking advantage again of the old roads but making two short side excursions to visit two bonus summits. The first was volcanic with old lava flows seen stretching down to the south. The second was near our first summit, and very different from the others, consisting of large, rounded granite boulders and blocks that reminded one of the Coxcomb Range in Joshua Tree. We dropped east off this second summit, eventually entering a steep drainage that offered some fun class 3 scrambling all the way back down to the original canyon we'd ascended. It was just after 3p by the time we returned, bringing our outing in at the 9hr mark. We had thought today would be more difficult than the previous day, but it ended up being half an hour shorter - nice! We had briefly considered the additional effort it would take us to tag Argus Peak, about 2mi south of our last summit. The additional drop to the intervening valley and the extra 1,500ft of climbing discouraged us - not today.
We drove back out to Panamint Valley, collected my van and moved camp to some of the dispersed camping in the Ballarat area against the western base of the Panamints. We had plans to hike up Surprise Canyon the next day to visit some obscurities there - more good times...
This page last updated: Tue Apr 4 09:35:41 2017
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