Wed, Dec 11, 2013
I was awake and eating breakfast in the van when Tom arrived on schedule at 7a. He had driven up from Palos Verde to meet me a few miles north of the small community of Hinkley in the Mojave Desert. He would be spending the next four days with me during my week in the desert, primarily around the Coso Range several hours further north. He had asked for something with a shorter drive this morning, so I had picked out a few summits from Zdon's book in the area north of Hinkley, along with a wilderness HP I had thrown in for good measure. We left my van where it was and with my gear stowed in the back of his Element, we drove north further out of town into BLM lands around Black Mountain.
Black Mountain is a large, flattish mountain built primarily of slow-moving basaltic lava flows. As the rock cools it fragments into boulders that can be tedious to walk across. Following Zdon's suggestion to minimize this tediousness, we drove up Black Canyon Rd to approach the summit from the north. The road up Black Canyon is sandy with rocks in a few places, not suitable for low clearance vehicles, but easily navigated with even modestly high clearance. We pulled off the road into a sandy spot at our designated starting point and were heading up a small canyon within a few minutes. Our route was shaded in the early morning, unfortunate with temperatures below freezing. We had jackets and gloves and hoods on to keep out the cold, hoping our bodies would soon warm with exertion. The cold would shadow us for most of the morning though Tom managed to break out into shorts around noon.
Hiking up the canyon was easy enough and though I doubt it makes much difference, I think we missed a turn somewhere at one of the forks. We ended up climbing onto the NW Ridge and following that to the summit, the last part over some of the fun basalt rock jumble we were hoping to avoid. The canyon route made it more interesting than we'd guessed it would be beforehand, and in little more than an hour we were standing on the summit. Besides a 1933 USGS benchmark, there was a MacLeod/Lilley register from 2005. While I was perusing the register, Tom happened to notice a second register hidden much better among the summit rocks. This one was not much older, dating to 2003. We decided to combine the two, keeping the second register book and its container for another summit we might find without one. Between the two registers, there were 11 pages of entries, with probably half of them recognizeable peakbaggers. Daryn Dodge had been the last visitor back in February. In an attempt to find an easier way off an already easy mountain, we headed north from the summit, taking another route that was in fact longer, but no less interesting. Not being pressed for time today, we didn't really mind the extra wandering. We eventually ended up in the same canyon we had started up and shortly after 10a we were back at Black Canyon Rd and our car.
We spent the next 30 minutes driving five miles to a saddle between Opal and Black Mtn. Zdon's directions from the south and southeast are undoubtedly easier than our route from the northwest which involved roads in poor conditions. We needed both the high clearance and 4WD to negotiate the toughest sections. A particularly burly 4WD vehicle might be able to drive to the summit of Opal, but that was beyond our capability. Not that it matters much - Opal isn't much of a mountain. Though taller than Black Mtn, it occupies a much smaller area and its rounded sides and summit are terribly unimpressive, and it isn't really obvious why it got mention in Zdon's guide. We spent barely 30 minutes climbing to the summit and back which included a side visit to the lower western summit. There was a loose pile of rock found at the top, but no register, not surprising considering the motorcyclists that vist semi-regularly.
The next two hours were spent in a leisurely drive north and northwest through the mojave on a variety of BLM roads, some in good condition, others decidedly less so. Early on in our exploration we spotted what looked like an abandoned trailer seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Upon investigation it turned out to be an RV, though unattended, certainly not abandoned. A bag of garbage had been left on the hood (perhaps to keep in out of the sun and out of reach of coyotes or other desert mammals), and some chairs were set up outside. One of these had a collection of rocks which led us to assume the owner was a rockhound and probably in one of the nearby canyons or culverts looking for specimens. How they had managed to get this full-sized RV out here over some rough roads was a small mystery. Our route took us north to the boundary with the China Lake Naval Weapons Center, then west and northwest through Grass Valley. The Grass Valley Wilderness was immediately to the north of our route and it was to its highpoint that we were heading. By 1p we had finally gotten to within a mile of the unnamed highpoint. Though not particularly difficult, our summit looked impressive, which somehow gave purpose to our long ramble over the last few hours.
The initial hike went up a gentle slope, a shallow wash rising to a saddle at the base of the peak. From there the route grew steep for the remaining 700ft to the top, taking about 40 minutes. During the hike, we discussed whether there might be a register found, which was far from certain. It did not have much prominence or a name and I doubted that Adrian or MacLeod/Lilley would have visited it, but I knew that John Vitz was interested in Wilderness HP. I guessed that if anyone had left a register it would be he. And so it was. He had visited a year earlier and his was the only entry. The peak itself appears to be the highest in a small chain of hills surrounded by miles of open desert, not unlike the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. To the east is the broad Grass Valley reaching into the Navy base, Pilot Knob the most prominent peak to the northeast. To the west is the vast Cuddleback Lake drainage stretching west for 40 miles to California City and Fremont Valley with the snow-topped Sierra rising in the background. On our way back down we investigated some twisted scraps of metal that we found at the base of the mountain. At first it looked like another plane wreck, but most of the metal was the same type, like that used to erect a tower. The metal fragments were too twisted and torn to be the work of natural forces like wind, exposure and flash floods. The best we could make out was that perhaps it was a target blown up in some sort of aerial practice exercise decades ago, but that was just a guess.
We were back to the Element by 2:15p where we called it a day and broke out the beers. We would have more than an hour of driving back to Black Canyon and Hinkley where we picked up my car. After showering in the desert sands, we drove to Ridgecrest for some errands that included dinner. We wanted Thai food, but ended up at Denny's (a disappointment). It was only upon leaving town that we spotted the Bangkok House where the main road turns west. Perhaps next time. We drove back to US395 and then north to Olancha and the North Haiwee Reservoir, part of the vast network of the LADWP's aqueduct project. Just north of the reservoir we pulled into a large dirt lot controlled by the DWP, signed for no overnight camping, but OK for day use. The reservoir itself is fenced off and one has to wonder in what way someone would take advantage of dayuse recreation here. We spent the night anyway...
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