Mon, Feb 18, 2008
Driving south on US95 from Needles before dawn, we found Tom parked along side the highway near the turnoff for Havasu Lake as expected. Matthew and I had been in the area the past few days climbing other desert peaks in the region, and today we would have a third joining us. I had climbed with Tom on several occasions in the past, but this was the first time Tom and Matthew had met. Initial greetings commenced with, we quickly made a plan and piled into Tom's brand-new Honda Element for the ride east on the dirt road for our trailhead to Chemehuevi Peak. The DPS directions are easy to follow. Simply park alongside the road where the overhead powerlines cross for the second time. To the northeast lay the Chemehuevi Mountains, the easy to spot highpoint in the distance.
Starting out just before sunrise and sometime after 6a, we headed across the desert flats towards the obvious peak ahead of us. Though the peak itself was quite prominent, getting there was not as easy as we had expected, for we weren't long in finding ourselves in the wrong drainage. About the time we figured out our mistake, Matthew had the recollection from reading the trip reports that a common mistake was winding up in the next canyon to the west - a bit of information that might have helped just a tad sooner, we chided. Little matter, it seemed we could make it work from this way as well. Though the walking was fairly easy with vegetation somewhat sparse, there were a number of cholla cacti that we had to watch out for. Matthew's boots in particular were susceptible since there were split out along the sides and the needles could easily penetrate to his feet. This seemed to motivate him to switch to a better pair in the afternoon. About halfway up the side canyon we turned right and climbed to the ridge between ours and the main canyon to the east. We followed this ridge, class 2 with some contrived class 3, that turned out to be fairly nice and quite scenic. We carefully made our way through a cholla field in the upper reaches, then rejoined the DPS route at the saddle west of the peak.
Climbing the west side of the mountain, Matthew and I choose more optional class 3 while Tom took the easier way up. The whole climb took 2hrs, and by 8:15a we were all three on the summit. Thin clouds covered much of the sky around us, but the visibility was fairly good and we could see for great distances. To the southeast lay the Colorado River and Lake Havasu, the most striking features in our view, with their waters brightly reflecting the sky above. Mountains lay all around us, including the Whipple Mtns, our afternoon destination, to the south. While we sat about taking a short break, I talked the others into checking out the South Ridge as a descent route of the peak. Not listed as one of the DPS routes, it seemed it might make for a superb ridge route, at least when viewed from the side during our ascent. There was a large steep section that was the only questionable section, fortunately occurring just below the summit. It was not hard to talk them into it, though they reserved the right to blame me for any difficulties encountered.
Off we went. The intitial part was easy, but within a hundred yards the ridge began to roll off steeply, eventually ending with a vertical wall below us. While the others waited above, I climbed down to the southeast to see if I could find a way around the cliff band, but this ended in failure as well. We would have to drop well off the east side and then reclimb to the ridge to get around the cliff, the effort seeming more trouble than it was worth. At least now we know why it didn't make the DPS guide. We reclimbed to the summit, then started down the west side, but not by the same route. Again I suggested an alternate descent, this time down a dark chute east of the standard route. I had eyed this one as well during the ascent and it seemed like a more likely, if less interesting choice over the South Ridge. The others were game for this one as well. Down we went, finding it not as difficult as we might have expected. To be sure, there was no fine rock to be found, mostly a loose, partially brushy mess that was easy enough to get through if we could keep from knocking rocks down on each other. As on the ascent, we made it a bit harder than necessary by staying on a narrow arete, partly to keep it more interesting, but equally as much to avoid the looser rock in the main channel. Eventually we moved left to the ridgeline east of the main canyon which we then followed down to its terminus where we rejoined the primary DPS route in the large wash. By 10:30a we had managed to find our way back to the road and then to our vehicle, making a short but enjoyable outing.
We had planned to combine the Whipple Mtns with Chemehuevi because we were running out of DPS peaks left to climb in the area, but the combination was a good one for driving considerations as it turned out. By using route "B" for Whipple, we had only 10mi of pavement between the turnoffs for the two mountains, though the dirt road driving was a non-trivial exercise. Tom didn't have enough fuel in his car, so after parking our vehicles along paved Havasu Lake Rd we piled into Matthew's Subaru for the drive to the War Eagle Mine. With three of us keeping a vigilant eye, we had almost no trouble following the DPS directions to the abandoned mine. Mostly it was a slow drive, some 13 or so miles from the pavement, taking us almost an hour to complete the approach.
We parked on a small hill overlooking the wash below in hopes it would make the car more visible on the return. There was a good deal of rusting equipment left scattered about the place including a few old vehicles and what looked like cement mixers with most of their yellow paint intact. In starting up the wash and towards the Whipple Mountains, one of the most striking features we noticed was that compared to the nearby Chemehuevi range we'd just left, it was surprisingly green in these hills. The soil must be more conducive to plant life, as it seems unlikely the topology of the hills would bring more rain here than the other range. Along with the usual cacti that scatter the desert floor, green grasses and even some early wildflowers were sprouting up from the ground. The most prominent flower was the California poppy, something I had not yet seen in the desert. Unlike the more abundant coastal variety that grows large and bright orange, these were modest in size and all yellow, without a hint of orange. From my own experience in growing poppies at home, the yellow color is a direct result of low water conditions, and I would guess these same poppies might sprout orange flowers were they to receive more than the scant amount of rain that typically falls in this part of the state.
The DPS guide lists two routes, "B" and "C" starting from our trailhead. We had not discussed which one to follow since it seemed the peak could be climbed by either easily enough, and as a result we ended up following neither. For almost an hour we followed along a wide wash, taking branches which looked more obvious or easier to navigate through. As we started climbing the lower hills in the foreground, we began to wonder exactly where the canyons were described in the route descriptions. It was some time before we realized we were climbing an altogether different route between the other two, but with a careful study of the map it looked like we could climb up to the main ridge dividing the two canyons and join Route "B" in its upper reaches. For the most part, the ridge was an enjoyable scramble, steep in places, but much better views than we could have had in the canyons. It was never more than class 2 unless we intentionally made it harder. The only downside of the ridge was that we had to go up and over Pt. 3,292ft, losing a few hundred feet of elevation. Crossing along a saddle south of this point, the same saddle crossed by Route "B" coming up the canyon to the west, we decided not to join the DPS route and took a more direct route up to the summit ridge. This involved passing through a cliff band about 200ft above, and easily visible from the saddle. In choosing the direct route I wasn't at all sure we could actually get through the cliff band, but it seemed worth the effort to try. Upon drawing nearer, we found some sloping ledges that made all but the last 40ft or so easy enough. The last bit was definitely class 3, made spookier by the lack of holds in crucial spots and some not so pleasant exposure beneath us. I found what I thought was the easiest way up through it, turning to wait for the others. Matthew, ahead of Tom up to this point, hesitated at the short wall when he found the rock and its features decidedly not to his likings. Tom caught up and passed by, almost without hesitation. In fact, Tom didn't even bother to look around for easier options, choosing a tougher mantling move to make it up the main dihedral in the cliff. Some ten minutes of hesitation on Matthew's part followed before he eventually worked up the nerve and managed his way past this obstacle.
There were no other difficulties beyond this point, and we were soon on the main summit ridge. From there it was a short ten minute walk to the summit. The USGS marker is labeled "AXTELL" while the 7.5' map reads "AXTEL," but the name by either spelling does not appear to be in common use for the peak. We also found a moderately-sized cairn under which the familiar DPS ammo box was found (or are the boys from China Lake the ones that place these register containers?). We could see Lake Havasu and its community on the Arizona side to the northeast and many more mountains in most directions. Developing haze in the afternoon muted much of the far distance views, though it is unlikely we could have identified any of the peaks aside from the ones we had just climbed in the last few days.
To make a large loop of our outing, we decided to descend via Route "C", the more immediate canyon below us to the northwest. The slopes off the main ridge dropping to the north were steep but thankfully free of snow or any other serious hindrance. When we had finally dropped down into the canyon, we found the route more interesting than we had supposed it might be. Short, dry waterfall sections along with some moderate brush had us backtracking and picking our way through the obstacles. Towering canyon walls rose around us, encroaching as our way narrowed in places. At one point a narrow slot cut by the occasional torrent that must rush through here at times, made for a fun little scrambling exercise even though it could have been avoided altogether. Eventually the canyon opened to a broader wash further down, at which point we headed west over some intervening hills to get us into the proper wash for our return. We were surprised to find it harder than we expected to locate the car, perhaps because we were wishfully thinking we were closer to the start than we really were. Eventually the car and the cement mixer were spotted with about a quarter mile to go, and shortly before 5p we were back at the car.
Our adventure was not quite at an end as we developed a flat on the drive out over the dirt road. There had been no obvious hazard that had caused it, and it was only noticed by Tom commenting that the tire had acquired a peculiar sound and suggesting we stop and check the tires for a flat. Matthew was genuinely glad to have us along, because this was not only the first flat he'd gotten in driving more than 100,000 miles chasing peaks these last eight years or so, it was his first flat ever (and his car has almost a quarter million miles on it). He somewhat sheepishly admitted he'd never changed a flat tire in his life, though I suspect he could have figured it out after reading the owner's manual he had stowed in the glove box. There was some effort to get the spare out, buried as it was beneath a mound of gear that Matthew has let more or less permanently settle in the back of the car. Once that was done, we wasted little time in jacking the car up, swapping the wheels, lower the jack, and promptly finding that the spare was nearly out of air as well. But, as luck would have it, among all that gear piled in the back, Matthew also carried a small foot pump that was pressed into service as the last bit of daylight was fading on us. The whole effort took no more than 15 minutes, and with a bit slower driving and careful attention, we made it back to the highway without further incident.
Matthew bid us goodbye at this point, driving through the night to get back to the Bay Area for work the next day. Tom and I drove east on Havasu Lake Rd, hoping for gas, food, and a motel, in about that order. We found gas but no motel, so once we had gassed our vehicles up we drove back to Needles for the night. It was a good deal of extra driving (and more in the morning when we headed back south for Joshua Tree) that could have been alleviated with a convenient bridge over the Colorado River to Lake Havasu City. Unfortunately, as we found, you cannot get from the CA side to the AZ side without considerable backtracking (basically driving through Needles), and I should like to talk with the appropriate government officials from either state about getting such a bridge as we imagined should exist, to actually exist.
Havasu Lake is the name of the small village on the California side. There doesn't seem to be much here besides a gas station, an RV park, some scatter homes, and a marina. Maybe there's more, but it was dark and we weren't in a touring-about mood. Lake Havasu is the name of the lake formed by the Colorado River here, and Lake Havasu City is the name of the much larger town across the lake on the Arizona side. There is no easy way from one side of the lake to the other unless you have a boat. Just in case you're wondering about all that... :-)
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Chemehuevi Peak - Whipple Mountain
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