Fri, Dec 13, 2013
Tom had come to join me in the high desert around the Coso Range for a few days of peakbagging that we didn't expect to include snow. A small storm system had come through the area earlier in the week leaving the white stuff unevenly distributed around this portion of California. For whatever reason, the Southern Sierra around Tehachapi got the brunt of it as did the higher elevations of the Coso Range. Having come unprepared, we were without snowshoes or gaiters that might have made things easier. Today I had planned an ambitious outing to a collection of peaks described in Andy Zdon's guidebook, but we would manage only half of these, thanks to the snow.
We did not get a particularly early start due to the cold temperatures that pervaded the region. The sun had been up for half an hour before we had breakfasted and gotten on our way. From where we had spent the night in Lower Centennnial Flat, we drove another half hour to the TH at Lower Centennial Spring and started up the shady canyon. Following Zdon's route, we had planned to hike three miles up the sandy canyon wash to reach Joshua Flat 1,200ft higher up. Instead of sand, we found ourselves getting mired in snow that was poorly consolidated and not all that easy to walk on with the constant postholing. So after only 3/4 of the first mile, we made a new plan and started up the very steep, but sunny and snow-free slope on the north side of the canyon. This had us warmed up very quickly and for a short while we had very little to complain about.
But complaining while having fun is something we enjoy more than we'd like to admit, and as we climbed higher we were able to fulfill this most basic need. Once we had reached above 6,800ft, the snow became more pervasive even on the south facing exposures. It was better consolidated than what we'd found in the shady canyon, and the amount of punch-through we experienced was not all that bad. The ground was somewhat uneven and the terrain required some navigating until we finally reached Joshua Flat sometime after 9a. Here we could see our goals for the day across two miles of snowy wonderland. Silver, Joshua, Apex and Bpex peaks were all easy enough to identify (Lakeview and Cpex, less so as they were out of view). Being the highest, Silver Peak had far more snow than either of us would care for, and Joshua Peak was not much better. I think if Tom had expressed even the suggestion that we turn back and call it a day I would have been on board immediately. All this snow without snowshoes did not look like much fun to me. But he never made the slightest of hints in this direction and I kept my wimpy thoughts to myself. We altered our plan considerably at this point, deciding to leave Silver and Joshua for another time and concentrate on the Pexes (Apex, Bpex, Cpex) and Lakeview. Bpex would be the first stop on our tour.
We started across Joshua Flat, now starting to sink in more as the sun began to warm things up. The old road that Zdon described and we planned to use was easily identifiable under the snow layer. As we crossed it I looked longingly down its length, wishing I had some easy hiking instead of the postholing. But as the road offered no advantage in such conditions, we cut a much straighter path towards Bpex. We found that the joshua trees that dotted the area had left dry oases amid the snowy plain. By traveling from one collection to the next we could at least add these short sections of dry sand in way of relief to our trek. Occasionally we would stop on one of these islands to retie our shoes or attend to some other excuse in the way of taking a break. Though the snow softened some, the temperatures stayed below freezing for the entire day which at least kept our boots from getting soaked. They were certainly wet on the outside, but inside they were merely damp.
Once across Joshua Flat and starting up the southeast slope of Bpex, the snow finally relented and we enjoyed the short rock scramble up the slope. Bpex has two summits shown with the same number of contours on the map. The highpoint is to the north, but it was the southern summit that we reached first. Looking north, I confused the other point with Cpex and we just assumed there was no register atop Bpex. Windy and cold at the summits, we didn't stay and immediately started down the west side for Apex Peak. The hike between the two involved some snow, though not much, and was open to fine views to the Sierra, Owens Valley, and the surrounding Coso Range. Half an hour later we were at the summit of Apex, marked by a good-sized cairn and a generic benchmark. A register found here contains an old scrap from 1960 that has the summit as "Apex Peak" although the peak is officially unnamed. A MacLeod/Lilley register from 1978 had sixteen pages filled with entries, about half of which bore familiar names.
At this point we weren't exactly sure where our remaining peaks were, but I'd guessed that we'd missed Bpex. Luckily it wasn't really out of our way as we needed to go over it to reach the other two, Cpex and Lakeview, or so I thought. Lakeview is probably the hardest peak to pin down as there are at least three different elevations given in the online TRs, varying by more than 300ft. Much as I could determine later, Lakeview is somewhere north of Apex, but it has little prominence and we failed to locate it. We took 40 minutes to return to the northern, higher summit of Bpex where we found the remains of an older register from 1962 and a newer one placed by the MacLeod/Lilley party in 1978. Looking around, we saw lower summits to the northwest and northeast a short distance away and surmised the former was Lakeview and the later Cpex. So we dropped down the snowy north side of Bpex to the northwest summit, only to find this was Cpex acording to another MacLeod/Lilley register from 1978. At this point we had no idea really where to find Lakeview so we decided to call it a day.
It was not long before 1p when we started down from Cpex. Our ever-evolving plan was to follow the ridgeline east and south in a curving arc around Joshua Flat to avoid the snow we expected to be softer and more difficult. Along the way we explored some of the other unnamed summits east of Cpex. As we started to turn south along the ridge, we came up with an alternate plan that would cut the remaining portion of our return almost in half. Rather than continue south along the crest to meet up with our ascent route, we spotted a low pass that looked to make a convenient route. What lay beyond the small pass could not be seen and might get us in trouble, but the GPS showed decent topography and it seemed worth taking a chance. Besides, there appeared to be less snow and the lower we got, the sooner the majority of it would disappear.
The route worked out quite nicely. We were able to avoid most of the snow on the way to the pass, and once we reached it and could see over the other side, we found that the snow diminished and the slopes weren't fraught with cliffs or other obstacles as we might have discovered. Even better, the snow became less of a problem once over the pass. We still had some 45 minutes of work to get us back to the car, most of this a descending traverse across the eastern slopes and several small, intervening ravines, but compared to the earlier efforts, it was a breeze. It was nearly 3:15p by the time we got back to the Element, which gave us enough time to get back and shower before the sun would set. Once again we ate dinner in van while watching one of the movies Tom had brought with him. We watched the infrequent cars going by on SR190, keeping an eye out for Laura who was planning to join us for the hike the next day. We spotted the Christmas lights on the wreath mounted to the front her car before she had pulled off the highway sometime around 9p. Christmas had arrived early...
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