Kelso Dunes HP
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Kelso Dunes HP previously climbed Nov 13, 2012
Day 2 of our Bristol Mountains tour in the Mojave Desert was the only one that all four of us were together. We had spent the night comfortably camped just off Crucero Rd outside Ludlow, sleeping in our vehicles as has become the norm. Our primary goal today was the most prominent point in the Bristol Mountains Wilderness, unnamed Peak 3,622ft with 981ft of prominence. It was not expected to be a long hike, allowing us to do another P900 in the afternoon. We ended up doing some extra bonus peaks on the first hike and left the second one for the following day due to lack of time. The few extra hours it gave us we spent visiting Kelso Dunes just before sunset. It turned out to be an enjoyable time for all of us.
Our driving approach took avantage of a pipeline service road that also parallels a tranmission line east to west across the desert, splitting the Bristol Wilderness to the south from the Kelso Dunes Wilderness to the north. The roads are in good condition but can be quite sandy in places due to the preponderance of blowing sand. We were glad to have 4WD vehicles to make this a cinch, both Patrick's Grand Cherokee and Tom's Jeep Wrangler. About 13mi along the service road there is a lesser road heading south and southwest about 2mi to an old mine that is as close as one can drive. In hindsight, it appears that this section of road is within the Wilderness boundary and no longer legal to drive, so best to park under one of the transmission tower spurs. The mine site has a lone cabin still standing and not much else. The inside is your typically unkempt desert hantavirus haven. An old wood-burning stove still stands in the middle surrounded by rat feces, junk and other stuff that kept me from exploring further. Our hiking route covered about 8.5mi with about 2,300ft of gain in a large loop. The summit is not visible from our start and it was necessary follow to a meandering route through several washes systems, basically following the GPSr to keep from adding extra mileage. It wasn't until almost an hour and a half had passed before we could see our prominence point, standing almost alone at the edge of the hills we had just wandered through. The north side that was closest to us was also the steepest, with a small cliff band found in the upper third. Though it looked somewhat imposing from a distance, the slope proved no serious difficulty. Near the cliff band where it grew steepest, we found loose material covering the class 2-3 terrain and requiring some caution, but the whole thing was climbed in less than 20min, almost exactly 2hrs after starting out.
From the summit, one immediately notices Interstate 40 cutting across the desert to the south only 2mi distance. The peak would be faster and easier to climb from that direction, but it requires the somewhat illegal parking of one's vehicle along the roadway (which I had planned to do if I had only my van for a vehicular resource). There is a good-sized cairn found at the top, inside of which John Vitz had tucked a register in 2003. Evan Rasmussen was the only other visitor, climbing the peak in 2009, mistakenly thinking he had climbed the Bristol Mtns HP (located 14mi to the NW). Oops. He came back to correct that mistake a year later. We sat atop the summit taking in the brown desert views for almost half an hour, giving the others a chance to snack and me enough time to formulate a plan to take us to a few bonus peaks and sell it to the team, or most it. Patrick was feeling pretty tired from the previous day's effort and decided to follow the outbound track back. Planning for the contingency ahead of time was what prompted him to take his car as well when we could easily have fit all four of us in Tom's Jeep.
We descended the north side by two different routes, Karl and Patrick returning the way we'd ascended, Tom following me down a steeper route about 100yds to the east that I took for no other reason than to do something different. I turned to watch Tom navigate through the cliff band that marked the end of the tricky upper section, after which we waited a few more minutes for Karl to catch up with us. Waving goodbye to Patrick, we headed off to the north along a mildly undulating ridgeline to the first of two bonus peaks less than a mile to the north. A small cairn along the way highlighted a township survey marker left by the GLO in 1910. Peak 3,425ft itself was hardly remarkable, requiring a modest effort of 300-400ft worth of easy class 2 climbing. We took another break here, albeit shorter, noting the fine view of the prominence peak to the south. We dropped north off the summit down crumbly slopes, trying to work out by committee the best option to reach the second peak about 1.2mi to the northeast. Finding that a consensus wasn't going to be reached anytime soon, I suggested we simply follow whoever happened to be out in front when we got off the peak. Conveniently, that turned out to be me and I led us into the drainage that Karl had picked out from above. This would be the most interesting part of the hike, finding a pair of ram horns in the gravelly wash and then some fun scrambling as the canyon narrowed considerably with several class 3-4 downclimbs. Karl bypassed the first of these, but joined in the fun a few minutes later at another drop. There was even a neat little tunnel formed by a giant bolder that had lodged across the opposing walls. After about 15 minutes' worth of such fun we emerged into the wider canyon downstream that fortuitously ran up against the base of Peak 3,392ft on its south side.
It was 12:30p by the time we had climbed the second bonus, a more worthy objective with more than 500ft of climbing to reach the top. Here we were treated to a register left by Gordon MacLeod in 1983, ours making the first visit in more than 33 years. Like us, Gordon had started from the same mine, going by way of the same prominence peak we'd visited. We took another short break here, relaxing out of the cold wind on the sunny leeward side of the summit. By now it seemed we'd probably not have time for the other P900 north of the service road, so we didn't have any need to hurry. We descended the west side of our peak, down steep, rocky class 3 terrain that had some good scrambling as well as easier options that Karl availed himself of when he didn't feel like following Tom and I. It took about an hour to cover the 1.7mi back to the Jeep via a very easy wash, a small climb out over a low saddle, and then some traversing across the gently sloping desert flats to find our way back. The winds had all but died before we got back, leaving the last few hours of the afternoon very pleasant.
Tom had mentioned wanting to visit Kelso Dunes earlier in the day, another reason to skip the other P900 - it would provide a good excuse to come back to a region we were finding quite enjoyable. So after driving back out to the service road, we headed east about 15mi into the Mojave NP to pay a visit to Kelso Dunes. It was 3p by the time we got to the dunes, one of the most popular spots in the preserve with perhaps a dozen vehicles. Our timing was good to catch the sunset patterns on the sand and the more colorful scenes of the magic hour. It also turned out to be Happy Hour as we decided to start the hike with a beer in tow. It seemed like a very redneck-y thing to do, but at least we didn't toss the empties aside to complete the character. We followed animal and people tracks to the southeast side of the highpoint, intending to follow the oft-used route up from the east. When I was almost directly under the highpoint I suddenly veered off the planned route to tackle the ridiculously steep slope above us. The angle was very nearly the theoretical angle of repose on the leeward side of the ridgeline over which immense amounts of sand are blown. Each step would set off a small avalanche underfoot and if one stood too long in one place the sand would erode to pull one downhill. It was a thigh-burning workout that had us all sweating before reaching the top, some of us more than others. At the top we found a gentleman sitting in a chair facing the sun, preparing to enjoy a fine sunset. We conversed briefly with him, apologized for interrupting his Wilderness moment, then began bombing down the SW Ridge in giant plunge steps. It was great fun to wreak havoc on the pristine, windblown ridge that had left a finely crafted line that we destroyed until the winds rebuilt it again another day. Shoes half-filled with sand, we made our way back to the parking lot where we'd left our vehicle an hour and a quarter earlier. A large group of people next door caught our attention as we walked over to see what was going on. A couple were being filmed dancing before the setting sun in front of a car with a dozen other others looking on, a surprising amount of gear piled around in the sands. When prompted at a break, one of the cameramen told us they were filming a music video. We suspected it was a bunch of film students looking for an excuse to party. Not that one needs one out here in this fine desert scenery...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Kelso Dunes HP
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