Granite Peak P2K DPS / DS
Old Dad Mountain P1K DPS / DS / RS

Fri, Dec 9, 2005

With: Matthew Holliman

Granite Peak
Old Dad Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

Until this weekend, I had climbed very few desert peaks, primarily a couple around the San Diego area. It was Matthew's idea to head out to the Mojave Desert (now dressed up with the name Mojave National Preserve) to climb some DPS peaks. The DPS (Desert Peak Section) of the Sierra Club had seemed a bit obscure to me - who goes out to climb peaks in the desert? I knew it was founded by Chester Versteeg, an avid Sierra climber back in the years following WWII, but I'd figured the desert climbing was just a way to while away time until the Sierra snows had stopped falling and the roads were reopened. But there must be more to it I came to realize - The DPS climbers seemed a hardier bunch than their HPS brethren, and there must be something to draw one to such parched lands. Matthew had spent 12 days over Thanksgiving climbing desert peaks across four states and declared it one of his best outings of the year. Despite the horrendous drive, it seemed worth a try.

And make no mistake, the drive was horrendous. Leaving San Jose around 1:30a, we drove for more than 7hrs, only stopping for gas. Down the Central Valley, through Bakersfield (oh, I almost forgot - after getting gas there, we hopped across the street to perk up on sugar and caffeine at the Starbucks), across the Southern Sierra via SR58, through the towns of Mojave and Barstow, and yet further east on US40. 7hrs brought us to the western boundary of the Mojave Preserve, and the closest of the DPS peaks found in San Bernardino County. The driving directions provided by the DPS guide are excellent, and we had no trouble finding the trailhead at the end of several miles of dirt road along the boundary of the Mojave Wilderness. Granite Peak is the highpoint of the Granite Mountains, a small range about 75mi southeast of Barstow. It is typical of the mountains found in the desert - a small range rising several thousand feet out of the flattened desert surroundings, consisting of one or two major ridges and a small clustering of peaks.

The hiking to Granite Peak was typical too - the peak was visible from the start, offering little navigational challenges, but the cross-country nature of most of the route gave some non-trivial challenges. We hiked along the wash northeast of the peak for several miles before starting up the broad gully. The flora was lush for a desert, but not so thick to qualify as a bushwhack. Halfway up the gully the face steepened some, and I moved right to gain a ridge I hoped would make for easier climbing. I lost Matthew here as he continued up the gully/face and I plied my way through the boulders and rock features along the ridge.

It took a little over 2hrs to reach the summit. The skies continued to be overcast, and the temperture was chilly, likely around 40F. Aside from the swell views down to the desert floor and across to other small ranges on all sides, a lower summit pinnacle to the SE caught my attention. Even before Matthew had arrived I went over to see about climbing the interesting feature. It was about 30 feet above the connecting ridgeline, and turned out to be a fun little class 3 exercise. I found a register at the top (there was another one back at the highpoint) that gave its unofficial name as Granite Pinnacle. Matthew was halfway over to the pinnacle when I first spotted him - instinctively he'd known where I'd wandered off to. I passed Matthew on the way back down the pinnacle and then I hiked along the ridge back towards the highpoint to get a picture of him standing atop the pinnacle. We met back up at the highpoint and then headed back down together, taking another two hours for the return.

Once at the car, we headed back to paved Kelbaker Rd and turned north. We passed by Kelso Junction, a middle-of-nowhere rest stop for the railroad that used to bring passengers through here. The trains still run through the preserve, but the passengers no longer rest here, the mission-style building now a park attraction. Continuing north, we followed our DPS guide to an unmarked dirt road that we followed for some 7 miles or so, much of it in a sandy wash, to the trailhead southeast of Old Dad Mtn. We couldn't find the last short road heading up the side wash from Jackass Canyon (the main wash we drove down), but we found a utility road for the power lines that run through the area that did just as nicely. The end of the road brought us to the base of one of the towers on a small overlook at the toe of Old Dad's SE Ridge.

The drive had taken 1 1/2hrs, and it was now 2:40p. We hiked down a short ways from the road into the wash below, and followed it north for a mile or so to the base of the east face. Again following our guide, we gained a ridge just right of a main gully on the face, and to our surprise we found the rock surprisingly solid and enjoyable. Though not really able to qualify for class 3, it was a very enjoyable scramble to the summit, rising almost 1,500ft in half a mile. It was 3:50p when we reached the top, the early overcast skies having given way to mostly blue skies in the late afternoon. The weather was cool but comfortable, and we enjoyed the short time we spent at the summit. As on Granite, we were the first to sign into the register since the previous spring. Spring, with the appearance of desert blooms, is undoubtedly the most popular time to visit these peaks.

For the descent, I suggested to Matthew that we might return along the ridgeline south of us, then dropping down the SE Ridge to our car. Matthew easily concurred and off we went. We had a fine scramble along the ridge, class 3 in places, made a little spicier by our trying to stay along the spine as much as possible. We knew we were up against a setting sun and had to hurry along a bit quicker than we might have otherwise - the desert views made one want to tarry longer as we took them in. Thinking sunset would be around 5p, we were a bit surprised to find ourselves still on the ridge as the sun was setting - before 4:40p. We hadn't reckoned that all our driving east had nearly driven us into the next time zone, and the sun sets quite early here in eastern California. We continued along the ridge as long as the light held out, but we decided to drop down into a gully on the east side rather than push down the SE Ridge by headlamp since we didn't know how steep or dangerous the route might be (turns out it would have been fine, but at the time I was unsure). Nighttime overtook us, but a waxing moon high in the sky provided light to navigate the descent by. I got ahead of Matthew in the gully, enjoying the stillness of the desert night, the rocks illuminated by moonlight, and the cooling temperatures. I was enjoying myself so much I had to pause and call back to Matthew, "Hey, this is fun!"

Halfway down the gully I came across the skull of a bighorn sheep. This was cool, the first I'd ever seen in the mountains. My first reaction was to try and stuff it in my pack to take back to the car and show Matthew. But I paused, taking it back out. I recalled a story published by Dingus Milktoast about a skull that had been taken from the mountains only to sit in a garage until years later when it was returned to the wild. Aside from the illegal aspects of taking it, it was just bad karma. I set the skull on a rock to give it a better view out from the gully and took a few bad photos of it (moonlight was too dim, the camera flash too bright on the white skull). I hoped Matthew would find it on his way down (he did). That find alone seemed to make the whole day worthwhile. I was really loving desert peakbagging. It was 7p before I returned to the car under the transmission tower. I had half an hour to change out of my boots, put on a jacket against the chill, and munch snacks before Matthew returned.

Back out on Kelbaker Rd, we headed north again, driving to the town of Baker where we got dinner and a motel room. We were out of touch with the desert and among the blander civilized world, but were ready to dive back into it again early the next morning...


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