Sat, Dec 10, 2005
We were up at 5a. The Wills Fargo Motel in Baker where we stayed offered a complimentary breakfast at the Mad Greek restaurant down the street. Because it's a 24hr establishment, we were actually able to take advantage of it - eggs, pancakes, bacon - yummy. The restaurant is really just an over-hyped diner, a landmark of sorts in these desert parts. It's a pretty wacky place with an ecclectic assortment of foods mixed with gaudy decor - worth at least one visit, even if you swear never to go back again. The town of Baker touts itself as the Gateway to Death Valley. The highest thing in town is the neon-lit, world's tallest thermometer, towering something like four stories. It looks like it's a monument to summer temperatures in the 120's, but this December morning it was registering its lowest setting - 32F.
Leaving Baker, we retraced the previous day's route south on Kelbaker Rd, all the way back to US40, then headed east. The sun had just come up as we drove along the highway, looking for our turnoff to Mitchell Caverns State Recreation Area. Our destination today was the Providence Range, looking to climb three peaks within a few miles of each other. The TH starts at Mitchell Caverns Visitor's Center, 16mi from the highway, and thanks to the existence of the nearby caverns, the access road is paved the entire way. We were a bit late in getting there at the 7a meeting time. We were supposed to meet Mike Larkin and a friend or two here, but when we arrived around 7:20a they were nowhere to be found. We waited until about 7:50a before deciding they weren't going to show, and perhaps a little later than we'd hoped, we set out.
We followed the nature trail north out of the parking lot and took it for about a quarter mile before we left it to continue up the gully towards Fountain. Without any beta on climbing this non-DPS peak, we sort of made it up as we went along, first climbing up one gully, then making our way left onto a ridge which had some very enjoyable scrambling. Somewhere in the gully above the visitor center we came across a group of six bighorn sheep. We paused to take their picture, but they didn't give us much time before they headed for quieter slopes. The ridge was lined with rocky sections that offered an abundance of class 3 scrambling. These could have been bypassed on either the left or right but it was much more fun to climb them directly. We considered our luck very good in the morning because each time we climbed one of these rocky towers it had the fortunate habit of having a very easy escape off the backside. Up we went for several hours, sometimes traversing around the left or right side of a wall we came against, but eventually finding our way back to the ridge.
The only real nuisance was the great abundance of cacti we had to contend with in this range. Though the desert is popularly characterized by the presence of cacti, most of the ranges have only enough to make for interesting scenery. Here they made one watch where one stepped - constantly. We both wore leather gloves, but while mine were insulated (and thus padded), Matthew's were not and he reported that the needles would go through the gloves and into his hands nearly as easily as without gloves. I found this hard to believe, but of course Matthew wasn't going to try going without gloves to judge the difference and I had no interest in trading gloves to do likewise. We both wore long pants and long-sleeve shirts, but the needles would find their mark whenever a hand or foot was carelessly placed. The ridgeline proved to have less cacti than the gullies and faces, but only because there was more rock there to displace the cacti.
We climbed a lower summit about a third of a mile SE of Fountain Peak primarily because that was the easiest way to make it over to the main ridge of the range along which our three peaks lay. Going over this subsidiary point and down the NW side, I spotted an odd-looking squarish object atop Fountain's lower south summit. I pointed it out to Matthew who had no better idea than myself. Man-made? A rock? Certainly an unusual one if it was. I decided to go check it out, taking a 15-minute detour to do so. Matthew decided to forgo this little side trip and waited in a clearing at the saddle between it and the main summit further north. The object turned out to be a dilapidated weather station about 7ft high. Nothing was left but parts of the wooden housing, and this looked like it could have been pushed over with very little effort. Underneath I found a glass jar with a small register left by Barbara Lilly in 1978. Her entry showed she was unclear if this was the summit. Knowing that the highpoint further north is clearly marked on the 7.5' map, I guessed this map wasn't available to Barbara nearly 30 years earlier. There were four other entries since 1978, and along with my own entry, I took the minor trouble to answer Barbara's question. I replaced the register and headed towards the highpoint.
Picking up Matthew along the way, it took us another 1/2hr to reach the summit of Fountain Peak. It had taken nearly 4hrs to reach the summit and neither of us was really sure why it had taken so long, but it had been an enjoyable climb. There was no register at the summit, but the views were quite nice. We could see our car parked down below at Mitchell Cavern to the east, Edgar Peak to the north, desert views all around.
Getting from Fountain to Edgar along the ridge looked to be no easy feat. The north side of Fountain was primarily cliffs - and quite serious ones at that. I wandered down a short ways to see if I could find a narrow gully or arete that we could downclimb, but came up short. Just after I gave the bad news to Matthew and he started retreating back up (we'd have to backtrack and drop down a good distance on the east side as the alternative), I called to him that we might have an option off the NE side from the summit. We got lucky, finding a way down to the ridge without having to lose the hundreds of feet of elevation, but the downclimbing was pretty spicy, up to class 4. Thinking we were home-free after the initial descent, we came to find that the entire ridge to Edgar was fraught with mini-cliffs and tricky route-finding. The rock quality wasn't terrible, but it had certainly deteriorated since the ridge climb earlier. On one of the short, vertical sections of rock to downclimb, I was just about down when two of my assumed bomber holds gave way. Three large sections of rock, each about 50lbs came off with we as I peeled from the face. I dropped only about two feet to the ground below, but even as I was falling I imagined the large rocks crushing my toes as they came down. I was staring at the rocks as they came to rest a few inches from my boots - I escaped a close one there. In all it took 2hrs to traverse half a mile along the ridge to Edgar - a testament to the difficulties we found along the short distance.
It was now after 1:30p. We took a short break here, signing into the register atop the highpoint of the Providence Mtns. Fountain was not that great a distance to the south of us, but Mitchell lay nearly three times that distance to the northwest. We debated the merits of continuing to Mitchell or simply returning. I very much wanted to continue, but I was worried our slow progress to date wasn't going to be enough to get us to Mitchell before sunset. It seemed unwise to be descending the steeper parts of the mountain by headlamp, considering all the cacti we'd have to avoid. By now Matthew had had his fill of pulling needles out of his gloves, hands, and lower legs. Our conversation went something like this:
Matthew: Mitchell looks like it's easy enough, but a slog from here. I'm not sure if it's worth it.
Bob: Boy, we've only got 2 1/2 hours until sunset (the sun sets at 4:37p, so I'm a bit off). Seems like we ought to be able to get there in two hours. Do you think we can move faster?
Matthew: It took 2hrs to go 1/2mi from Fountain. Looks like we've got 1 1/2mi to get to Mitchell according to the map.
Bob: Do you think we can move faster? If it takes 2hrs, we'll have 1/2hr of daylight to start down. If it takes 3hrs it'll be dark atop Mitchell and we'll be in for it.
Much hemming and hawing.
Matthew: I guess I don't really care if we go to Mitchell.
I note that Matthew hasn't actually said "no".
Bob: So do you think it's ill-advised if we go to Mitchell?
Matthew: There's no question it's ill-advised.
More hemming and hawing.
Matthew: I vote we head back.
I look at Mitchell once more.
Bob: Ok, let's go to Mitchell.
And so we did. We wasted no time reshouldering our packs and starting down the NW side of Edgar. This looked to be the toughest section, a steep boulderish slope down through the trees that grow at the highest elevations (we were over 7,000ft and it was a bit non-desert like in the highest reaches of the range). I waited a few times for Matthew to catch up but eventually just continued on at a steady pace, losing sight of him after the first 15 minutes or so. While it looked like an easy traverse when viewed from the south, a view from the north would have revealed the various north-facing cliff sections and might have discouraged us from continuing. Keeping up a good pace, I was just able to make the entire distance to the summit of Mitchell in 2hrs. I could see Matthew south above the intervening saddle maybe 30min behind, still making his way towards Mitchell. It was just before 4p, chilly at the summit, and after signing in the register and taking a few pictures, I wasted little time getting off the summit. I came upon Matthew again just above the saddle, and asked if he'd like me to wait below at the saddle for him. There didn't seem to be any serious navigational issues on the descent so Matthew declined, and after a few more words over the descent route I left him to finish the climb up to Mitchell.
Matthew had planned to head down the gully east of the saddle, but I convinced him the DPS route went back up over the next bump south on the ridge and down the next gully. This turned out to be somewhat of a mistake. Going down it, I found the cactus particularly ferocious and the slopes steep and slabby. It was tricky enough to descend in the failing light now that the sun had set, and I was feeling guilty imagining the "fun" Matthew was going to have doing the same by headlamp. As the light grew dimmer I decided to bail off the ridge I was descending in favor of the gully below, thinking I was less likely to run into cliffs there. This turned out to be true, but the brush and cacti were thickest in the dry creekbed in the gully's center. The sky had grown overcast with a thin layer of clouds, making it difficult for the moon overhead to provide ample light as it had the night before. Out came the headlamp. For a good while the descent was no fun at all - simply too many cacti. Eventually I got low enough where the cacti were no longer in the creekbed. Evidently it was wet enough during parts of the year to discourage their growth, and it was far easier now to negotiate the route.
Once I came out of the canyon and into the lower, gentler slopes on the east side of the range, I turned south and headed across rolling terrain towards our car at Mitchell Caverns. There must have been a dozen dry washes to traverse over the mile or so of the return, along with a moderately high ridge of some 200-300ft to climb back over. But shortly after 7p I managed to stumble back on the nature trail we had started out on in the morning, and followed it up to the parking lot and Matthew's car.
The first thing I did was to look for a note from Mike on our car, but there was no sign that he had been by. I figured Matthew would be about an hour behind given the extra delay due to nightfall, so I hunkered down in the car and tried to nap. As one hour turned into two and still not able to sleep, I debated getting out the sleeping bag and setting up camp outside the car. The small hassle didn't seem worth it and I continued to toss and turn uncomfortably in the front passenger seat. Finally, just after 10:30p, Matthew returned. The cacti had won the day's battle out on the mountain. Matthew took his glove off and picked out needles. He took his boots off and picked needles out of his ankles. On the drive to Needles (the irony of the town's name did not escape us) he picked more out from various parts of his body. At the motel he was picking needles out of his rear, and was finding still more after taking a shower around midnight. I didn't dare ask him if he was glad that we went to Mitchell now that it was over.
Later we found that Mike had driven out to the range early that morning, but knew he would miss the 7a start time at Mitchell Canyon. His friends had cancelled on him, so driving solo he decided to find a route to Mitchell from the north and catch up with us in the opposite direction. A good plan, but without good beta he found himself too far north of the peak by the time he'd climbed up to the main ridge and never made it to Mitchell. Thinking we'd be long gone from Mitchell Caverns, he never bothered to drive around and check for us (he'd have easily found us), and so turned around and drove home - 900mi and no peaks.
Although my pride hurt quite a bit by missing the Fountain summit, it was quickly replaced by the pain of a sustained ~200 foot downclimb on 4th and 5th class moves. This got me to the lowest saddle with snow beginning to fall. I decided to take a lower route (the west face below the ridge) the rest of the way to Edgar. While this was fairly fast I now think I missed more interesting climbing on the ridge proper and I still had to deal with nasty loose 3-400 pound chunks of rock trying to kill me, brutal bushwhacking, and serious exposure.
In retrospect I would pass the first outcrop (after the lowest saddle between Fountain and Edgar) on the west side, but then switch back to the east face and the ridge proper after the first outcrop and remain on the ridge the rest of the way to Edgar. From the Edgar summit, this seemed like the best way to go. But you should note, if you try to repeat this route, that the landscape is very deceiving. Unlike Tuolumne, the most serious hazards are hidden by vegetation and the fact that the exposure is less dramatic. What looks like a straightforward ridge hike is really a maze of 10-80 foot 3rd, 4th, and 5th class with all kinds of questionable rock quality in some places (balanced rocks ready to trundle at the top of gullies you want to move through, chock-stones in chimneys you *have* to down climb, and big flakes lurking under a veneer of dirt).
Don't underestimate this route. For me it was, and remains, a serious testpiece. It also remains as unfinished business. But I would also say this, if you are a serious alpinist, this route is worth your time. It was a definet highlight of 2014 for me and a route that I will attack again, but this time with a partner who is up for 1) obscure climbing, 2) a brutal traverse, and 3) hanging out in an other-worldly environment unique to tall desert peaks. While I've written about the difficulties of this route, it is also transformative, both because of the difficulty and also because of the beauty.
Other beta to consider: Although it will make Bob cringe, I would also considering raping (7-10 m rappels) in at least two places as this would greatly increase speed by avoiding some of the downclimbing. Also, as it was sustained snow by the time I gained the summit of Edgar, I skipped Mitchell and went straight down the North-west branch of Gilroy Canyon; this is a very good decent option. The Edgar summit log suggested some of the other ~3-5 parties that climbed Edgar in 2014 also attempted to reach Fountain. I'm curious how the reverse route (Edgar to Fountain) is in comparison... although its the 'desert triple crown' that I'll be going after next time...
Wouldn't make me cringe - if you're more comfortable rapping, you should - but I would highly doubt that it would 'greatly increase speed'. All my experience with rapping suggests it is just the opposite. My rule of thumb is, once you pull out the rope, you just burned an hour's time.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Fountain Peak - Edgar Peak - Mitchell Peak
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