Tomb Peak

Sat, May 16, 2015

With: Tom Becht
Laura Molnar

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


Back in March I had come to this area on the east side of the Southern Sierra to tag a handful of peaks around Short Canyon, just north of Indian Wells Canyon. The highest of these had proved a most difficult scramble, holding me at bay for almost two hours as I looked for a way up by just about every conceivable route I could find. In the end I did some class 4 scrambling to get up a groove with a tree whose base was slung with a piece of old webbing, but found the going even harder higher up. This one would need a partner and some climbing gear, I decided. Less than two months later I was back with Tom, the outing planned to be a warmup before attempting the East Face of Whitney the next day. Late season snow squashed our plans for Whitney, but we still made time to tackle Tomb Peak. With a free day, Laura decided to drive down from Bishop to join us. She had met me late Friday afternoon at the 2WD meeting area I had arranged beforehand. Another vehicle was there when I had pulled up, a local trail runner/climber out for an afternoon workout. After he'd returned, he came over to introduce himself with, "Are you Laura?" She has friends everywhere.

The next morning we took Laura's Element higher up Indian Wells Canyon to a point almost due south of Tomb Peak. A better option would have been to continue on the road to near its conclusion at an overlook/campsite just west of Pt. 5,403ft and southwest of Tomb Peak. Our starting point was about a mile and quarter from the summit and it was necessary to first cross over three or four minor ravines to reach the base of the mountain. From the base we then began a 1,200-foot climb up tedious sand slopes to reach a notch to the west of the peak. Some crumbly slabs and vegetation broke up the sand climb, but it wasn't much fun all the same. Laura in particular found it slow and tiring and would take almost an hour longer than Tom and I to reach the top. In the meantime, I found myself terribly confused by the terrain, unable to locate the tree with the obvious sling that I had found previously. Tom and I climbed the lower peaklet to the west to kill some time, and it was only when we neared the top that I recalled having climbed this same route previously - in fact it was the one I had used to get a good picture of Tomb Peak from the west. As before, we were stopped by some class 5 terrain just below the summit, but since this lower summit wasn't our main objective, we didn't bother trying to make it work and went back to the notch. With Laura still below, her orange clothing giving away her location periodically, I climbed a groove heading up towards our summit to investigate. At the top of this I could look over and see the tree with the sling - I had simply forgotten that there was this first groove to scramble before reaching the hard part.

It was 10:45a by the time Laura had joined us, about the time I had returned to report to Tom what I'd found. Laura wasn't feeling it today and had decided a rest and nap sounded better than a backcountry rock climb. So we left Laura near the notch and proceeded up the grove to the base of the class 4 section. Leaving the rope and gear in our packs, Tom went up this short section first (thanking me for the "privilege"), after which I joined him. Above this, I showed him several options I had found, both of which were dicey starts on crumbly rock. As is often the case, Tom had a different take on things and started exploring around a blind corner I had assumed ended in big air. Tom found it actually allowed us to bypass the dicey starts I had anticipated, getting us about 50ft higher to a point where we both deemed it necessary to rope up.

Once again, I gave Tom the honor of leading the unknown pitch. It looked to go up a low class 5 dihedral to easier ground above. By the time we were ready to go 30min later, Tom quickly discovered that the crux was the first move into the dihedral. He spent almost 30min trying to make this work. I watched him from close proximity as he stretched his foot in a wide stance to the opposite wall in an effort to create some opposing force. Almost doing the splits, he struggled to get leverage to pull himself up. If it worked I would be hard pressed to follow, pointing out that my legs no longer have such flexibility. By the end of his 30min Tom's legs were spent, doing the sewing machine thing that only I found amusing. I suggested he might let me give it a go, if only to give his legs a chance to rest. Tom readily agreed.

Paying him back for finding the way around the corner I had embarassingly missed earlier, I used a completely different technique that got me up the start in a matter of seconds. We enjoy amusing each other this way. As expected, the dihedral itself was pretty easy and I climbed it without bothering to place any gear. I climbed more easy terrain higher up until we'd gone through about 2/3 of the 50m rope. Here was a good belay spot while above was harder terrain - I would let Tom have another chance to lead once he joined me. This second pitch proved even harder than it had looked, but Tom was up to the task. It wasn't exactly brilliant, taking some 45min to reach the top, involving a lot of hesitation, some poorly placed pro that caused unacceptable drag, backtracking, a rappel on lead (who does that?) to remove a cam causing a problem and other fun. But when it was my turn to climb with a belay from above, I was almost shocked to find the lead as hard as it was. On solid rock it would have been a different story, but this crumbly granite that seems to comprise most of the mountain is more than a little scary. It's possibly why no one's heard of this class 5 summit, or at least cared enough to pass it on. I had to admit that I doubted my own skills on this one and probably would have backed down. Tom, on the other hand, performed admirably, even if a little bloodied.

We found two closely spaced summits no more than a minute apart separated by easy scrambling. A small cairn was found on the eastern one, but the apparently higher west one had none. Hoping to find an interesting register, we were disappointed. It had been almost 2.5hrs since we'd left Laura after telling her we'd be back in a couple hours. I always seem to underestimate how long these rope climbs really take. We tied a cord around a rock to assist us down from the summit, making it down to the start of the climb in two rappels. From here we downclimbed back to the blind corner and made a third rappel from the tree in the groove at the class 4 section. It was 2:30p before we caught up with Laura again, having just started down from the notch after a lengthy break. We scrambled and slid our way down the south side of the mountain, making a short detour to investigate an Indian petroglyph site identified on the topo map. It was found after some searching under an overhang, various ochre-colored objects etched onto the granite wall. I've seen a few petroglyphs before, but these looked much cooler than those other rock scratchings. We took some photos and descended down a use trail that leads only part way down the mountain. Continuing cross-country, we descended past an old fenceline, barbed-wire coiled and set aside in places, to the dry creekbed. Tom and Laura decided to take a more roundabout route uphill to the TH (where we should have parked) so they could walk back down the road to where we'd parked. I opted for the shorter but all cross-country route, finding a slightly better route than our outbound one by removing a few of the ravine crossings.

It was almost 4p by the time we returned the car. Laura reminded us that the Indian Wells Brewery closes at 5p and it didn't take us long to hit the road. Yet another place where Laura is well-known, the brewery has some fine offerings available on tap and outdoor seating surrounded by one of the only green patches of lawn for 20 miles. A breeze was blowing and it was actually quite pleasant. If they had stayed open for another hour or two we might have ended up camping in the parking lot. As it was we needed dinner (and the restaurant next door, unrelated to the brewery, has generally crappy reviews), so we drove to Ridgecrest for Thai food. I don't think any of us were expecting much given the location, but it was really quite good. It might have been that we'd had a pretty full day of the outdoors and anything would taste good at that point, but I really would recommend it for someone visiting the area (Bangkok House Restaurant, near the bend in SR178 at the entrance to China Lake).


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