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I had driven for nine hours from San Jose to reach this desolate spot on the far east side of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and managed about 4 hours of sleep before the assigned meeting time. Evan's truck had been there at the junction with Fish Creek Rd since the early evening, Chuck arriving at 6a after a short drive from his friend's place at Ocotillo Wells where he had spent the night (it's quite remarkable given the low population that anyone would actually have a friend in this small desert community, but Chuck managed it). We unloaded Evan's camper from the back of the truck in preparation for the bumpy ride up Fish Creek Canyon, leaving it with the other two cars as we headed up the sandy dirt road. It was 6:45a by the time we had driven the four miles up the canyon to our starting point near the Wind Caves trailhead. I had been up this road only four months earlier in December with Adam, aiming for the same peak, Split Mtn West. On that first visit we had started from what we thought was Oyster Shell Wash, but somehow managed to overshoot the peak by a long shot and eventually found our way to the northwest summit of Split Mtn West. Though the topo maps shows this point as definitely lower, it was sighted by Wes Shelberg and others and declared the higher of the two points. At the time Adam and I were pressed for daylight and still wanted to get to Split Mtn East, so we decided the northwest summit must be the correct one. Back in San Jose I began to think maybe we had cheated things and decided I should make an effort to reach the other summit as well. And so I was back again a few months later. There was a second, lower summit labeled "Split Mtn" on the topo map, identified by the USGS as the point for which the area is known, and to this we were headed first since it was on the way.
Our route followed the ridgeline from the south fairly directly, starting up a steep sand slope that had developed a use trail over time. It had only gotten to about 65F during the night and was already starting to warm up. We would be happy to stay in the shade as much as possible, somewhat regretting that we hadn't started an hour earlier. It had been reported to be very windy in the park over the last week and though it had died down some, we would find windy conditions fairly consistently over the next two days. Within a few minutes of leaving the truck we were high enough for a swell view of the Elephant Knees formation in the early morning sun, behind us. One has to use some imagination to place the name with the eroded slopes that were given the colorful moniker. To the northwest rose the much higher Whale Peak with the smaller hump of Diablo BM (our later target) identifiable to the west. It's an easy hike up to Split Mtn, taking just under 45 minutes in all. There was a small cairn to mark the summit, but little else. The top has a fine view of the Fish Creek Mtns to the southeast and the deep Fish Creek Canyon that we had driven up this morning. It is easy to see how the name Split Mtn came about - it looks like the range was cleaved in two by Fish Creek over the eons.
We spent about half an hour traversing between Split Mtn and the higher Split Mtn West to the north. At the end there was some easy class 2-3 scrambling up the southeast side of the summit, about 100ft or so. Here we found several registers, really just collections of scrap paper stuffed into a couple of plastic bottles. It was such a mess that none of us bothered to open them to add our names or even look at them. Of more interest was whether the other Split Mtn West (which I've since dubbed Split Mtn Northwest) was in fact higher. Others before us were confused enough to bring to bear handheld surveying levels, so I didn't expect we'd have much to add to the discourse. It was impossible to tell from a cursory look in that direction because the higher Vallecito Mtns behind it offered no horizon with which to compare. I felt satisfied having visited both, but I don't think Chuck cared much one way or the other and certainly Evan didn't - he was just out for the exercise, fresh air and my charming companionship.
On the descent we dropped southwest into a wash that offered a bit of shade and a change of scenery. Though the initial descent at the start offered what looked like a bit of fun scrambling, it quickly mellowed to a very easy descent route with none of the dry waterfall obstacles we'd found in the canyons on the first visit to the area. It was just past 9:30a when we returned to Evan's truck - less than three hours total for the effort.
Next up was a visit to Diablo BM, almost ten miles further west along Fish Creek Wash. This part we expected to make for a more challenging drive (and why we had Evan's truck) but an easier hike. We followed the wash south initially, turning southwest and west in a serpentine manner. After several miles I grew uneasy that we were heading in the wrong direction, more southwest when we could see Diablo BM to the northwest. When the road failed to turn in the proper direction after more time, I had Evan stop so that we could check the GPSr that I had inconveniently left in the back of the truck. After several minutes, it was confirmed that the wash turned northwest not a hundred yards further ahead. Evan gave me the knowing smile, but failed to take full advantage of his see-I-told-you-so opportunity. More miles went by in the soft washbed serving for a road, and it wasn't until we had just passed the turnoff to Sandstone Canyon that we noticed it. We chose an unfortunate place to stop the truck as it proved to be a deep sandbed that we quickly bogged down in. We took the tire pressure down from 80psi to 50psi, shoveled out some sand, and tried to push the truck out while giving it some gas, to no avail. Eventually we took the pressure down further to 30psi and with more shoveling and pushing managed to extract it. We drove about a mile and a half up Sandstone Canyon before the road became impassable to non-4WD vehicles, a good place to park and start our hike.
We were fairly close, about a mile and a half from the summit, though it wasn't visible from our position deep in the canyon. Sandstone Canyon turned out to be an interestingly narrow canyon with high, near-vertical walls and cool geologic processes in evidence. A mile up the canyon we came to the sign indicating the motor vehicle limit, and it was here that we chose to climb out of the main canyon through a narrow slot rising up on the left side. In less than five minutes this led to the more open terrain on the slopes east of Diablo BM. The "peak" is little more than a side bump on the southeast side of the much higher Whale Peak, though somewhat more interesting (because of Sandstone Canyon) than we had anticipated. It took just under an hour to reach the highpoint of the summit ridge, finding the summit register nearer to the (slightly lower) south end where the benchmark is located. Chuck managed to locate a geocache that had been well hidden nearer to the highpoint.
Our views took in the Vallecito Mtns to the north and east, the Fish Creek Mtns to the southeast, the Carrizo Valley and Badlands to the south, the Tierra Blanca Mtns to the southwest and the Laguna Mtns further west behind them. We followed a descent route more directly off the east side of the summit, more for the adventure of making it a loop route than in finding a better way back. The descent canyon we used to drop into the main Sandstone Canyon proved to be a trivial exercise, without any of the cliffs or dry waterfalls we half-expected to encounter. Our only problem was in trusting Evan when we rejoined Sandstone Canyon as he led us upstream in search of the truck. Though I had reservations, I failed to do a simple check of the GPSr which would have easily confirmed we were heading in the wrong direction. It wasn't until we encountered the No Vehicles sign we'd passed on the way in that it was obvious to all of us. Turning around, we got back to the truck by 1:15p.
After a short break to rehydrate, we drove back out to Split Mtn Road and the other vehicles. Chuck left us at this point, heading back to San Diego and civilization while Evan and I discussed what to do with the rest of the afternoon. We paid a visit to the Elephant Trees area, home of these rare (in California, more common further south in Mexico) trees. We hiked the length of the Elephant Trees Trail, disappointed to find only a single live tree along its one-mile length. Later we learned that the larger collection of trees can be found further east up the broad wash several more miles. Conveniently, this is on the way to Vallecito East (another SDC peak) and I hope to use this route to reach the peak at a future date. We drove back out to SR78 and then west to the turnoff for Sunset Mtn which we planned to tackle in the morning. It was 6:40p by the time we'd found a suitable place to camp for the night, but I was not yet done.
A last minute perusal of the maps revealed that Perpendicular Bluff, a delisted SDC peak, was a short distance north of the highway, barely a mile from where we'd parked. Evan had had enough by this time, content to let me run off on my own. I made good time in the fading light of the late afternoon. The sun was setting on the Vallecito Mtns behind me, with some high clouds overhead providing some nice lighting as the sun faded shortly after 7p. It was 7:20p when I reached the benchmark whose coordinate I had entered in the GPSr (it may have taken considerably more time to locate it otherwise). This proved fortuitous because I'd found the wind had picked up to gale force by the time I reached the top and it was all I could do to keep from being blown off the top. It was bloody cold, too, as I scrambled into my pack for my fleece and gloves and hat. Without the GPSr, I probably would have lacked the patience to continue a search for the benchmark and register in such conditions. The register had been been placed in 1995 by Mark Adrian and contained few other entries, most of those by Wes Shelberg at later dates. The most recent entry, dating back only a few months to January, had been by Chuck Ramm. We hadn't ever spoken about this delisted peak before so it was somewhat surprising to find his name once again in such a seemingly random fashion. Chuck gets out to this area more than he lets on.
It was 7:45p before I returned to the highway following a very quick descent in an effort to avoid needing a headlamp. A hasty outdoor shower in windy conditions (no longer gale force, thank heaven) was followed by dinner in Evan's camper before bedding down for the night in the back of the van. It had been a full, but enjoyable day. With plans for more of the same to follow, and tired from both the day and little sleep the previous night, I had no trouble falling asleep despite the blowing winds. Evan fared a bit worse as his high profile camper shell was rocked irratically during the night, far worse than the van. Score one for the van...
This page last updated: Wed May 11 18:04:19 2011
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