Sat, Oct 23, 2004
Having been out well past dark the previous day, we were in no shape for an early start today. We got up at the leisurely hour of 7a, stopped at a convenience store for a donut and juice breakfast, then left Ridgecrest and headed up US395 for Cartago Peak. An unofficially named peak, it lies 5 miles west of the town of Cartago, straddling the Sierra crest some 6,700ft above the floor of the Owens Valley. Our main reason to climb it was due to its inclusion on the SPS list, furthering Matthew's 2004 goal of dayhiking half the list. Whether there was snow on the summit or not we were unsure. We could see there was plenty of snow high on Olancha Peak which lies just to the south of Cartago, but Olancha is some 2,000ft higher. The views we had of Cartago from the southeast during our drive suggested there would be little or none. With the cooler temperatures, it seemed our timing might be just about right to avoid the hotter temperatures often found in the high desert area here.
Following directions from Steve Eckert found at the bottom of Aarons Schuman's trip report, we found a very easy drive to the TH from the turnoff just north of the town. We crossed over the LA aqueduct and drove along the powerline road for less than a mile before finding the prescribed side road. The main road had been recently graded leaving a sandy berm blocking the side road, so we simply parked on the main road and started from there around 8:15a. We hiked up the road to a fence with a sign marking the Wilderness boundary (though the maps show the boundary starting 3 feet west of the power lines), and followed this up until it petered out on the sandy lower slopes. Aside from the steep gradient, the travel here in the lower reaches is pretty easy. This region is doubly hexed for rainfall, falling in the rain shadow of the Sierra crest as well as being in the southern region of California's high desert. Consequently there is little growing on the mountain slopes aside from sage, a few grasses, and fewer joshua trees, at least for the first 3,000ft. Most of the growth is fairly stunted and sparse such that cross-country travel is easy and almost no bushwhacking encountered unless in one of the canyon creekbeds.
We followed a line up and diagonally to the left. Eckert reports two cliff bands on this route, but we found these are not obvious nor well defined. We kept to the left thinking the route straight up would be blocked by the aforementioned cliffs, but in hindsight that was a false presumption. The ridge is only well-defined in some locations, and climbing to the right of it offered no serious obstacles as we found on the way down. In retrospect I think the best thing to do would have been to climb straight up towards the saddle. But we didn't do this, and instead found ourselves to the left of the first rock band around the 8,200-foot level. We climbed up some class 3 here, then began a slow divergence off the ridge and onto the south facing slopes leading up to the ridge. This was our first mistake of the day, and it cost us some time. The southern exposure is steeper, and the top part of it has lots and lots of class 3-5 rock to avoid. We found ourselves traversing across the slopes, climbing upwards, but not able to get back up to the ridge. We took a break part way along, the first rest we'd had yet. It was noon now, and we'd just started to find traces of snow. We had a nice view of Olancha Peak, its northern aspect far more precipitous than the southwest and west flanks we had used to climb it previously. After some mile or so, we finally got back up to the ridge around the 9,400-foot level. I went ahead of Matthew on the steep ascent up to the ridge, and I never saw him again after that. Once I reached the ridge, I stayed more west and south trying to avoid the increasingly larger patches of snow. Matthew took a more traditional line heading for the saddle just west of Point 9,921ft. I paused at a flat spot to ponder a large pine that had been sawn down many years earlier. The now rotting log was still lying on the ground, right where it had been cut. To what purpose? With no roads for miles, and much climbing to get here, someone had carried a saw to this remote location, cut a large tree down, and left it there. Very strange.
As I found myself unable to avoid the snow any longer, I cursed myself (mildly) for forgetting to bring gaiters. It was not going to be possible to do this climb without getting my feet soaked. I had only a vague idea where the summit of Cartago was, seeming still more than a mile off. It was decidedly chillier up here, and though I had a pair of leather gloves, these were starting to get wet as well. I started to wonder just how long this climb was going to take, and whether I would be able to get back without freezing my ass off. I wondered if it wasn't a better idea to turn back before I got too wet. I was probably a third of a mile or so south of the saddle, and rather than continue traversing to the saddle I decided to climb down into the gully a couple hundred feet before heading back up for a more direct approach to Cartago. This acted as an incentive, since I figured once I started the final climb it was unlikely I would turn back. Looking across the gully I could see a dozen rocky towers atop the opposite slope. It was impossible to tell which one was Cartago, though I wanted to convince myself it was the closest one that looked to qualify. Little did I know the peak is behind the skyline from my vantage, out of view. There was a good deal more snow on the east-facing slope I found myself climbing, and it didn't take long before my boots were soaked. The ground averaged 6-12 inches of unconsolidated wet snow. I used the bushes on this slope to great advantage, using them to pull myself up boulders and to steady myself before stepping into uncertain snow piles amongst the rocks. It was sloppy climbing, but I hardly cared by this point.
I didn't realize ahead of time just how much climbing there was on the final slope - well over 1,000ft of gain remaining. Ugh. I picked out what looked to be the most southeasterly of the major towers and approached it. It was too difficult from the near side, so I climbed around to the southwest side where I found a class 3-4 route up. It was fortunate that none of the towers in the summit area had much snow on any of their faces, otherwise I may have been stymied on the class 3 rock I found in abundance. Shortly before I topped out I spotted what was probably a higher tower to the northwest (my compass got a lot of work up here and saved me from hiking even further off-route). Getting to the top of mine, I looked around for a register, but found none. I checked my compass and eyeballed the other tower - it was definitely higher - and to the northwest. This last observation came as a surprise since the trip reports (which were back with Matthew) had been consistent in claiming the summit to be the most southeast pinnacle. Surely mine was more southeast, but I guessed it probably didn't look like a contender if one came from the regular, more northly or westerly approaches. There was even yet another higher tower to the north, and it was obvious I had climbed the wrong one. Rats. It was 2:30p now and I still wasn't at the summit, heck I wasn't even at the Sierra crest yet, and I resigned myself to more hiking. I found an easier class 3 route off the northwest side of my pinnacle and headed over to the gap between two higher towers on the Sierra crest.
The remaining distance was thankfully much easier to traverse than I had thought atop the pinnacle. It took only ten minutes to reach the gap, and another ten minutes to walk around to the west side where I found a class 3 route to the top, arriving just before 3p. Almost immediately I spotted a USGS survey marker, giving an elevation of 10,539ft. Success! I had reached the correct pinnacle. I looked around but couldn't find a summit register (Matthew was able to locate it coming up some time after I had descended, so alas I left no written record of my ascent). Looking around (N - NE - SE - S - SW - W - NW), it was easy to see why the summit has a reputation for elusiveness - there are dozens of interesting rock towers and pinnacles in the square mile around the Sierra crest here, and at least half a dozen are vying for a peakbagger's attention as the highpoint. It seems almost no one climbs this peak without first climbing one of the peripheral pinnacles (Matthew climbed a false one as well, different from mine). I didn't stay at the summit long. The sky, overcast for most of the day, was growing more crowded with clouds and I didn't want to stay around to see if it start to precipitate.
After retracing my steps off the pinnacle and back through the gap, I decided to avoid the south-facing slopes we'd spent so much time on needlessly. I descended the east slope heading northwest, taking diagonal descent towards the saddle I had avoided on the way up. The snow in this area was deeper than any I had come across on the ascent, a good foot deep just about everywhere. It was a wild, wet, and slippery descent down the steep slopes over downed trees, through snow-covered boulder fields. I slipped, I fell, I crashed my way through brush and other obstacles, and it was a wonder I didn't twist an ankle somewhere in there. There were other prints in the snow, looking to be about a week old, someone having travelled through here during or just before the last snowfall. I wondered about the flurry of searches for missing climbers who were caught out in this first big snowfall unsuspecting (or uncaring, depending on if they had looked at the forecast). Just before reaching the saddle I came across fresher tracks - from today. I hadn't seen any signs of Matthew until now, evidently he passed me somewhere on the eastern slope, probably further to the north. I was glad he had decided to continue to the summit, knowing how much he wanted to climb Cartago. I followed his footprints to the saddle, then in an open area of the forest I wrote "HI MATTHEW" in the snow along with the time, 3:20p. In retracing his steps, Matthew came upon my note about an hour and a half later.
Continuing on, I climbed back up from the saddle, then down the main ridge. I was surprised by just how much snow was here. I have a feeling that if we hadn't gotten off-route on the way up I would have been quite discouraged by the amount of snow present, and without gaiters I may have been more inclined to give the effort up. It was probably a good thing then that we got off-route to the south side as we did. I trudged through another mile of snow, dropping down through the 9,000ft contour before the snow diminished to the point where it could be mostly avoided. There really isn't any tricky route-finding as I found out - one can just head east from the saddle, either following the ridge, the shallow canyon just to the north, or several other lines in between. I rejoined our ascent route when I got down below the 1st rock band, and from here on down it was very easy going. Jogging down the sandy slopes, I was able to cover the entire distance from the 1st rock band to the car in half an hour, a distance of just over two miles and a 4,000-foot drop.
It was 5p when I got back, about an 1 1/2 hours before dark. I had been a little worried that I'd be getting back in the dark again, but the descent went much faster than I'd expected. I had a spare key with me this time so I didn't have to lie on the ground while I waited for Matthew as I had the previous day. It was a good thing too since I had much longer to wait. I sat in the car studying Jenkins' map of the Southern Sierra, East Side. I hadn't had more than a cursory look at it previously, and it was good to spend quality time with it to familiarize myself with the features in this part of the range. I noticed that we were only a half mile from the TH for Olancha's NE Ridge route, first pioneered by Dick Beach in the 1960s. Jenkins describes it as by far the most difficult climb in his book: 8,200ft of gain, 10mi RT, lots of route-finding challenges - it had all the makings of a fine adventure - perhaps some other time when there is less snow. The overcast sky grew darker and then dark as nighttime came on and Matthew was still not back. I looked for his headlamp up on the slopes, but saw nary a light. Matthew was taking the canyon descent unbeknownst to me, and so I wouldn't have seen him until he was nearly back at the car. Matthew returned at 7p, looking no worse for the wear and a little night hiking. Off we went back to Ridgecrest for snacks and dinner, and to figure out what we'd do on Sunday before heading off to bed.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cartago Peak
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