Mon, Oct 15, 2012
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Following the previous day's long outing to Hockett Peak, the next two days' agendas included more modest objectives, other named summits and points in the area and unnamed peaks with prominences over 500ft. First up were Fish BM and Hermit Rock, both located on the 8,500-foot ridge just south of Lewis Camp where I had spent the night. I was up early, before light, eating breakfast and then relocating the car less than a mile down the road (I had thought I might be able to drive closer, but the road was not in sufficient shape to do so). Where I parked was only about a mile from the summit of Fish BM, so the extra driving distance was of little concern.
Leaving the van at 6a, I spent 40 minutes hiking up the remaining 1/3 mile of road and then making my way cross-country to the top. There was some modest bushwhacking through buckthorn to contend with, but little else in the way of bother. I found the rocky summit above treeline, offering good views for about 240 degrees facing south. Someone had made use of the old survey tower boards to fashion a crude cross at the summit. The 1954 benchmark was unusual, placed by the Forest Service rather than the USGS. There was no register. It was still about half an hour before sunrise though the high clouds were taking on shades of pink in the early predawn sky. Rather than wait for sunrise here, I decided to see if I could reach Hermit Rock to the east before the first rays of sunlight came over the Sierra Crest. It took about half an hour to cover the half mile distance. A sign I came across marks the ridgeline as the upper boundary for the Freeman Creek Grove of giant sequoias found to the south (there were no giant sequoias on the ridge that I could find, probably too high an elevation).
Hermit Rock proved to be a tougher scramble than I had expected. Slabby class 3-4 climbing on the north side where it connects to the ridge was the only reasonable route to the summit without employing a rope. Some rappel slings I found near the top were evidence the formation has been used for roped climbing, though perhaps infrequently. The South Face in particular drops almost 600ft, where I suspect that most of the rock climbing takes place. The West Face is not as high and less vertical. The East Face is even less so, probably around 45 degrees of incline. I made it to the top only a few minutes before the sun first peeked above the eastern horizon. Jutting out as it does, Hermit Rock has a commanding view looking down on the Freeman Creek drainage, Lloyd Meadows and across to The Needles (where I planned to end the day).
Retracing my route off Hermit Rock, I made my way back through the forest to my car in about 20 minutes. The next pair of summits to visit were to the northwest, Peak 9,236ft (>1,000ft prominence) and Jordan Peak, featuring a manned fire lookout. I found Forest Route 21S50 in good condition, easy to drive my low clearance van on for the three miles it took to reach the fork with Forest Route 20S71. The latter traverses west for about a mile to the Jordan Peak TH, but I hesitated when I found a muddy puddle at the beginning (I think I gave up too easily on this) and decided to park at the junction. It is still a fairly short outing starting from this point.
I hiked the road towards the trailhead, taking an uphill fork in the road just before reaching the TH. This fork turned out to be the rough 4WD access road to the lookout used by the Forest Service personnel, but I was using it to get closer to the higher Peak 9,236ft found to the northeast of Jordan Peak. I followed this road until it began to curve to the southwest, then leaving it to head cross-country to the forested saddle between the two peaks. With almost no views, I followed the broad, tree-covered SW ridge up to the summit, taking about 45 minutes from the start. If there was a summit register I didn't find it among several likely spots at the small rock outcroppings scattered about the flattish summits. Trees precluded almost all views, but I did find a nice one looking north to the southern boundary of Sequoia NP by wandering north from the highpoint. The lookout atop Jordan Peak could be seen if one looked around to find a small viewing portal through the trees. It took only 15 minutes to hike back down the ridge through the forest to the base of the lookout. Visiting hours were posted as starting at 9:30a, which as luck would have it, had just arrived. An SUV parked here was the obvious sign of the lookout's habitation. I hiked the short trail up to the lookout where I started climbing the stairs. About halfway up a woman around my age poked her head out the cabin door and asked if I would remain on the stairs for a moment. It was not hard to guess that she was unprepared for visitors at this early hour. I was three or four minutes on the stairway with no further word when I decided I didn't really need to go up to the top. The views were pretty good even from the base and I didn't really like waiting as long as I did when initially asked for "a moment." So I took a few pictures of the views, south to Slate Mtn, northwest to Mountain Home, north towards Mineral King and east across the Southern Sierra, before heading back down along the Jordan Peak Trail. There was no additional word from the caretaker during the time the lookout was still in sight.
I got back to the car at 10a, then spent the next 45 minutes driving back out to SR190 and part way along the access road to The Needles. The road was rutted too badly for my vehicle's liking and I ended up parking after only driving perhaps half a mile up the dirt road. All of today's outings came in pairs, including this one. While the lookout site is the highpoint of the Needles formation, Eye BM is the highpoint of the longer ridgeline with the Needles at the easternmost end and also exceeds 1,000ft in prominence. I hiked the road for 40 minutes, passing by the campground at Needle Spring (one party was here with a van) to the end of the road at the Needles TH. I took pictures of the TH signs but did not hike the trail, instead heading cross-country up from the saddle to Eye BM, taking about 15 minutes. A stake in the rocks marked the highpoint along with a register left by John Vitz two years earlier. There was also another USFS benchmark from 1954. The best view is to the north, once again overlooking the Freeman Creek Grove, with Fish BM and The Hermit rising behind it and the higher still summits of the Mineral King area in the far distance.
I continued east across the highpoint and the lower eastern summit, then down the east side to join the lookout trail. I followed this pleasant trail for more than a mile to the base of the lookout pinnacle, whose burned remains were only recently removed (I heard that the lookout was accidently burned by the caretaker - talk about ironic). It was a fantastically built lookout, perched on the top of the highest crag that would have been a class 3 scramble with significant exposure by its easiest route. The stairway leading to the summit is largely intact with only a handful of the last steps missing. Access is permanently gated off and surrounded with barbed-wire, but I found this only a minor obstacle to overcome. There is a class 3 rock route found just to the left of the gate that allows one to get around it. Alternatively, surmounting the barbed-wire around the gate I judged to be a harder task.
Though the summit tower is gone, the views from the top are just as fine as before, overlooking a huge stretch of the Southern Sierra, as far north as Mt. Whitney and south to the Greenhorn, Piute and Scodie Mtns. Another USFS benchmark, again from 1954, is found on the summit rock. It seemed unfortunate that the tower stairway was left in place. The uppermost part is barely attached to a anything, making sqeaking noises as it swings in the wind. Surely it will not last long before it collapses, probably with the help of a mischievious visitor or two. The rest of the stairway will likely last much longer, but makes for more of an eyesore now. Wouldn't it be nice to see the pinnacle returned to a more pristine condition? That would likely take more work and more money and therefore unlikely to happen in the near future. The Needles itself is a popular climbing bastion, but at the moment I had the place to myself. It was only after I had descended the stairway and rock scramble and was back on the trail that I came across the couple who had camped at Needle Spring. They were getting a rather late start for climbing, almost 1p by now.
I followed the trail back to the TH, then retraced my route on the road to the car, arriving just before 2p. I had expected that these six summits would be all I might get to for the day, but found myself with another 4hrs of usable daylight. Time to head into the Greenhorn Mtns. I was back on SR190 once again, this time driving south to the junction with the Parker Pass Rd/Kern River Hwy, then east towards Johnsondale. A few miles before reaching the small mountain community I turned south again and followed the nicely paved road into the mountains. I soon came across a sign indicating the road was closed some three miles ahead, much to my dismay. Ignoring this and hoping for a small miracle (like maybe the sign was out of date?), I continued up to where I found the road closed as advertised, blocked but not looking undrivable. Could I move the heavy steel and wood gate? I could. I dragged it to one side, drove through the opening, then replaced the gate. Now it was a question of what had closed the road and could it be bypassed. The road, traversing the east side of the crest for a number of miles, had been washed out but the repairs were almost complete. I was able to drive through to the Road Closed sign at the southern end and repeat the sign-bypassing manuever I'd used earlier. Success. Normally this road runs for 30-50 miles, one branch following the crest south to Greenhorn Summit, the other going west through the range into the Sierra foothills and eventually the Central Valley. I had been on none of these road previously, so it was all new. They appear to be used primarily by hunters in season. With the through road officially closed, there was probably less traffic than there might otherwise be at this time of year. It was fairly lonely driving to the start for the final two summits of the day, Baker Peak and Baker Point.
Baker Peak is the fourth highest summit in the range and features just over 1,200ft of prominence. Baker Point is a promontory peaklet on the Southeast Ridge of Baker Peak, home to a decomissioned fire lookout high above the Kern River drainage to the east. I did not have any of the approach route information found in Jenkins' Southern Sierra guidebook, nor other sources which were readily available had I taken the time to look (a better dirt road is available starting at a junction another three miles south along the paved road). Consequently, I started from a rough dirt road that skirts Baker Ridge northwest of Baker Peak, getting little more than a mile before running into trouble. A truck with 2-3 hunters was coming the other way, warning me the road soon grows rough. I parked at the nearest clearing, near a small quartz mine, starting from there around 3:30p. The road did indeed, become impassable by my car within a few hundred yards, so I was thankful for the helpful advice. Turning around at the difficulties would have been another difficulty in and of itself. I followed the deriorating road for little over a mile to a saddle west of the Baker Peak, where it starts to head downhill. From here I turned east and headed up moderate, forested slopes to the summit less than half a mile away.
The views from Baker Peak are poor due to forest cover. A rock outcrop at least provides an unambiguous summit location. Among the rocks here I found a MacLeod/Lilley register dating to 1986. Andy Smatko and pals had visited two years later. Ruby Jenkins had been to the summit in 1992 and again eleven years later, to fill in some details for her guidebook. There were other notable names including the Gossett brothers from Trona, Shane Smith, Reiner Steinzel and John Vitz, about nine pages in all over 26 years. I followed the ridgeline south, avoiding pinnacles and other difficulties mostly on the east side, eventually making my way down to the better road that leads to the Baker Point TH at a saddle between the two summits. Though unsigned, it was not hard to find the trail leading through the manzanita and along the north side of the ridge continuing out to Baker Point. It appears to be no longer maintained, but continued use and occasional clipping has kept it quite servicable. It was 5p by the time I reached the lookout perched at the end of the trail. The highpoint, benchmark and register are found a short distance behind the lookout to the north. The register was placed on the same day by the same dynamic duo back in 1986, but has proven far more popular with almost 40 pages of two booklets filled. I climbed the stairs of the lookout expecting the cabin to be locked tight, but this was not the case. There is a stove, chair and cabinets inside, looking unmessy, if not exactly tidy. Someone or some group has managed to keep vandals from destroying the place even though it is no longer manned or locked. The view is pretty impressive, taking in all the views provided by the Needles lookout, and then some.
I returned to the Baker Point TH and then followed the series of roads back to the van where I arrived around 6:30p with sufficient daylight to make my shower pleasant. Freshly clothed and back on the pavement, I drove southwest, nearly up to Portuguese Pass where I spent the night at a dirt road junction just southeast of Bull Run Peak. I had more easy summits planned for the following day and was now in position to get an early start on these...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Jordan Peak - The Needles - Baker Peak - Baker Point
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