Five Fingers P750 HPS / ESS
Black Mountain P1K HPS / DS / DPG
Red Mountain P2K HPS / DS / DPG

Sat, Dec 11, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman
Glenn Gookin

Five Fingers
Black Mountain
Red Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 Profiles: 1 2 3


Five Fingers is an HPS peak in the Southern Sierra, east of the Sierra crest near Owens Peak. Our climb of Owens a month and a half earlier had piqued our interest in this peak, composed of five main summit towers rated class 3-5. Not yet ready to put on the snowshoes, we decided to head back to the area for three days to see how many of the HPS peaks we could cover in that time. The day before we had climbed three in the area around Lake Isabella, today we would hit some this side of the crest.

Matthew and I awoke at 6a in the Motel 6 in Ridgecrest. It was dark outside, but would start growing light soon enough. I used to bring cereal and milk for early morning breakfast, but lately have dispensed with that. Instead, Matthew and I drive to the nearby gasmart and look for the most calorie-dense breakfast foods we can find. Our favorite of late is the Apple Fritter - a deep fried donut with the maximum possible surface area for a given size. This surface area feature allows a maximum amount of oil to be absorbed into the donut as well as the maximum amount of sugar glaze any single donut can hold. The apple flavor gives it a hint of respectability, but we know this monster for what it is - a fat & sugar-induced coronary waiting to happen. Many of the gasmarts get a single box of donuts delivered in the early morning hours, and almost always the box contains two of these delectable treats. And since few donut-eaters are out there before the two of us eccentric peakbaggers, we're rarely disappointed - unless we get there before the donuts are delivered, which has happened more than a few times. In this case we have to fall back on the cheese danishes or other pre-packaged food items, but we've yet to find a combination as enjoyable as the fritter.

After our breakfast stop, we drove out to SR14 to meet up with Glenn and Mike. At the wheel and unfamiliar with the Indian Wells TH, I turned left while heading north on SR14 a bit too early. Glenn was in his truck a hundred yards further north and flashed his lights at us. I momentarily considered driving north in the southbound lanes for the short distance, but I didn't know if that would be more dangerous due to unseen traffic on that side or from Matthew who was sure to brain me for doing something so stupid in his car. The best course seemed to be to keep that idea to myself and I dutifully drove back on the northbound side, went north to the next turnoff, and came back to join Glenn.

Glenn had slept off the side of the road the night before after a drive up from Orange County. Mike was nowhere to be found. We gave him a complimentary 15-minutes past our meeting time before giving up on him. Glenn climbed into our car and we headed up Indian Wells Rd, heading for Five Fingers. The road is fairly well-graded and we had no trouble negotiating it. There's no well-defined trailhead for the peak, so when we looked to be abreast the south side of it, we pulled over, parked, and headed out across the desert terrain. The distance is embarassingly short, so we'd planned to climb Backus and Russell, two other nearby HPS peaks afterwards. Most of the south slopes of Five Fingers is little more than a 1,000-foot plus slog up sand and talus. Once one reaches the base of the rocky towers, the more interesting part actually begins.

The three of us were heading for the standard approach to the highpoint (finger #5) via the saddle between #4 and #5. But as we reached the base 4th tower, some several hundred feet below the saddle, Glenn and I decided to head off to the more interesting-looking scrambling to be found on this side of #4. There wasn't any discussion of such a plan before or during, and as we were spread out on the way up we just sort of migrated towards our own preferred routes. There were two prominent crack systems that we could see as possible ways up, and where I chose the left route, Glenn chose the right side. I was doing fairly well as long as the route stayed class 3-4 and I could keep myself wedged in the cracks or nearby with good holds. I paused to put on my rock shoes when things got a bit stiffer, but even that wasn't enough to get me past one obstacle. I decided to abort even as I watched Glenn off to the side get around a particularly nasty bulge on his route. It was evident that he was a much better rock climber than myself, and there was no way I was going to follow his lead.

Backing down, I climbed further to the left up towards the saddle which Matthew had already reached and had started around the other side. I found a class 3 route to the summit of #4 without first reaching the saddle, and though short it was pretty enjoyable. Glenn had already summited #4 in the meantime and was now climbing #5 more or less directly from the saddle. Matthew was somewhere around on the north side looking for the class 3 route. At the summit of #4 I looked to the southeast to the first three towers, but #3 looked to be particularly difficult. I had hoped to climb all five on this visit, but my hopes were fading. I climbed back down to the saddle and then up towards #5 on a class 4 route rather different than that taken by Glenn (of similar difficulty). We were finding that there were all sorts of interesting scrambling opportunities on these towers. I met up with Glenn at the summit, and we took a break while signing the summit register and taking in the views. Even with our diversion on #4, it had taken only an hour and a half to reach the summit.

Matthew was below on the north side, struggling to find a way up. The night before he'd injured one of his wrists when he slipped on the ice, and he was now finding it difficult to make it up the class 3 terrain with only one good hand. I climbed back down towards him in order to offer encouragement and perhaps help him find an easier way to the top. Several suggestions were rebuffed. Matthew was unhappy and decided to come back and climb it another day. Back I went to retrieve my daypack and Glenn, and then the two of us climbed back down towards Matthew. In the short absence, Matthew had gained a renewed vigor and was making progress towards the summit again. He had found the way a bit easier further to his right, even with only using one hand. The route he stumbled upon was in fact what we came to believe was the "standard" HPS route up. In about a dozen places, steps had been carved in the rock surfaces to aid the ascent of the peak. The three of us found this quite humorous for a class 3 peak - each of the places where steps were cut were easily bypassed on the side. On the other hand, the HPS has been known to lead very large parties to the summit on official outings, and with a wide range of abilities, the steps may have been seen as a practical and expedient way to get them all to the top in reasonable order. Matthew made it to the top and then back down without incident. I decided to forgo the other three towers after finding out from Matthew that two of them were class 5 (and at least tower #3 wasn't in the easy class 5 category). If I couldn't climb all 5, then the other ones didn't seem so interesting to me anymore either. Down we went, returning to the car around 10a.

Still no sign of Mike. We thought he might have been late and decided to head directly to Backus and Russell. Only problem there was that Matthew was interested in a class 3 route on Russell, but with his injured hand he wanted to save it for another day. So we changed plans and decided to head southeast to Black Mtn #6 (This would be our second Black Mtn in two days, having climbed Black Mtn #5 the previous day). Back on SR14, Glenn retrieved his car and we drove south, then east on Randburg Rd towards the trailhead. We again left Glenn's truck where the pavement ends and Mesquite Canyon begins, and we had an adventurous drive reaching the start for the peak. In fact this particular drive turned out to be the crux for the entire day. Though it was little more than 5 miles, it took us over half an hour on the bumpy road to get there. After the first few miles we thought we had the peak dialed in before us, and I was able to match the route on our map with the view in front of us. In fact I would have bet good money on my route-identifying skills here, but in fact we came to find that not only was the route wrong, but it wasn't even the right mountain. The road took us around the west side of this first peak (later we identified it as Peak 5121ft, southeast of Black Mtn), and on to the correct mountain. Again I was able to exactly match the route depiction on our map to the view in front of us, though I was perhaps a little less willing to bet money on it.

We parked the car and headed out around 11a. The rough 4x4 road we followed took us up to the top of Pt. 4283ft. Just before reaching it, the road ended at a man-made quail refuge. It was a small plot, about an eighth of an acre, surrounded by a fence. In the center was an asphalt catch basin to collect water and to one side was a shady shelter made by crossing layers of branches upon one another, presumeably under which the birds could take shelter from the summer heat or for nesting purposes. It was all a very touching tribute made by hunters for the animals they hunt, all except for the shotgun blast through one of the signs asking visitors to kindly keep their distance.

We came upon the top of Pt. 4283ft a bit unexectantly, and suddenly I was disoriented and wondering if we'd missed our mountain again. Below us was a drop of over 200ft, something we hadn't expected at all. Consulting our map again, we noted the dip to a saddle we hadn't noticed before, and once again all was right with the world, with USGS cartography, and with our (lame) orienteering skills. Without further incident, we made the final 1.5mi cross-country trek to the summit of Black Mtn, arriving around 12:30p. Photos, sign the register, and soon afterwards we were heading back down - one more peak to go while we still had daylight.

The drive to the trailhead of Red Mtn was easier than Black, lying only a short distance off the paved road near the town of Red Mountain. The town and peak are named for the reddish rock found high on a ridge east of the TH. But this reddish rock wasn't the highpoint, and the name Red Mountain is attached to the higher summit over a mile to the southeast. To be fair, the HPS attaches the name to the highpoint, whereas the USGS considers the whole ridge to be named Red Mountain. This is actually an interesting little mountain, as it shows up on the select list of California peaks with 2,000ft or more of prominence. A trivia fact for most, another list of peaks to climb to an obsessed peakbagger.

It was already 2:30p when we headed out, and we knew we had little more than 2 hours left before sunset. No problem. It took us an hour to reach the summit, located beyond a false summit that had had us fooled (we weren't very good at studying our maps beforehand). The summit used to have some sort of tower or building, all that remained was the concrete slab and half a dozen large gas cylinders that had been abandoned there. To what purpose they might have served we never discovered. On the ascent we had more or less followed the route described in the HPS guide, heading east to the reddish rock, then south along the ridgeline. For the descent I proposed a different route, an almost direct beeline back towards the car. It wasn't really a proposition as much a statement of which way I intended to go, since I started down before waiting to see if the others thought it was a good idea or not. They followed, and fortunately it didn't lead to cliffs or impenetrable brush. We made jokes about eligibility for the HPS "Pathfinder" award, given to those who blaze new routes on HPS peaks (we didn't have the definition correct I found out later - the award is for climbing a certain number of peaks by two distinctly different routes, but no mention is made that they have to first ascents/descents). We blazed our way back to the car without incidence, arriving just as the sun was starting to set at 4:30p.

Driving back to Ridgecrest for the night we felt a bit silly chasing HPS peaks that seemed to involve more driving than actual climbing or hiking, but still it was a fun day. Matthew was even beginning to think of relocating to the southern part of the state in order to allow him to chase the entire HPS and DPS lists with considerably less driving than he would have to do from the Bay Area. Ridgecrest seemed to be located very close to the Triple Divide point, where the SPS, HPS, and DPS peaks lists converge (and even have some overlap). Hopefully Matthew wouldn't choose to relocate to Ridgecrest. Nice as the weather was this weekend, and conveniently as it may be located for a peakbagger, it gets pretty darn hot here come summertime.

Back in town, Glenn checked his cell phone and found a message from Mike. He'd gotten in late to Lake Isabella (where his folks live) the night before and had not been able to get up so early. We contacted him and made plans to meet the next day along SR178 for a climb of Onyx. The three of us then went to Denny's for a gourmet Ridgecrest feast before turning in for the night...

Btw, like a bonehead I forgot my camera this weekend. All pictures courtesy Matthew.


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