Wed, Feb 17, 2010
In order to meet Adam at 5a at the Vistor Center for Anza-Borrego Desert State Park in Borrego Springs, I had planned to get up before 3a for the several hour drive required to reach it from where I was spending time with the family in San Diego. It occurred to me the night before that I'd probably sleep better if I drove out around 9p and slept in the van at the Visitor Center. Though I had planned to go to bed at 9p in San Diego according to the original plan, my wife somehow thought I was cheating and getting extra time away by heading out the night before. I went anyway, but not until after we had time to dine out, just the two of us. She still thought I was cheating.
I made it to Borrego Springs just after 11p and wasted no time in falling asleep. When I awoke around 4a I sat up to notice Adam had arrived and was sitting in his car with the light on. Of course it was pitch black outside and still quite night, so I promptly went back to sleep for another 45min, without bothering to figure out what he was doing in there. I was awaken a second time, this time by the alarm. Adam had slept somewhere off in the desert before moving his car to the Visitor Center around 4a. Unable to fall back asleep, he'd been reading quietly in his car.
I hadn't seen Adam since the previous summer during the Sierra Challenge, and this was the first time I would be hiking with Adam outside the Challenge. He had complained then about a lack of partners, but I think that is more due to his own lonesome ways than to the lack of folks to climb and hike with. I was actually a bit surprised that he had taken me up on the offer to climb out in the desert, but I was glad he made the effort to do so. He had recently gotten a copy of the DPS guide and had spent the past few days in the Mojave tagging a few peaks there.
Our goal today was an ambitious one, a circuit of four SDC peaks in a grand loop around Borrego Palm Canyon involving some 7,000ft of gain and more than 10 miles of cross-country travel. The plan was a bit more than we would choose in the end, but it was still great fun.
We started off at the trailhead for the Palm Canyon Trail, located just west of the campground. We paid the $8 day use fee via the self-registration process and left my van at the trailhead as we started off. We spent the first half hour plying the regular trail into Palm Canyon. We found a good deal of water running in the creek, but it was easily crossed, even by headlamp. Along with the somewhat lush conditions we found, a good number of frogs were making such noises as frogs are want to do, and I even found a few to photograph as we passed them clinging to creekside rocks.
We left the trail just as we no longer needed our headlamps, where we were astride the South Ridge of Indianhead. The usual routes go up either side of this ridge or the adjacent ridge to the east as described in the DPS guidebook, but this morning we were heading up the most direct route. From Borrego Springs this ridge looks impressive, a steep rock section forming the crux about 3/4 of the way up the ridge. On my first visit a few years earlier I had guessed it to be at least class 4, and so declined to attempt it without a rope. But upon closer inspection from the adjacent ridge it had not appeared so difficult. So armed with little more than my memory of what it looked like, I had decided to lead Adam and I up by this route to add some spice to our adventure.
The route was not disappointing. It was quite steep, rising almost 3,000ft in a mile, and the difficulties never more than challenging class 3. We kept it more challenging by staying about as close to the ridge as we could, finding some long stretches of class 3 friction and other fine scrambling on decent, albeit not great, granite rock. The sun came up shortly before 7a and it soon grew warm, quite warm in fact, without a shred of breeze until we reached the summit. In all we spent two hours on this ridge, taking two and a half hours from the trailhead.
A hoped-for breeze had picked up, holding aloft a pirate flag that had been planted at the summit by a previous visitor. My first effort was to dismantle the flag I thought silly and out of place, but Adam protested, thinking it helped make the place. It gave me pause to consider the two opposing views, and in the end I put it back in place. Live and let live. Adam perused the busy register and signed us in while I took in the views and scouted out our route ahead to the next summit. We had been warned that the ridgeline connecting Indianhead with Palm Mesa "looked tough" but I didn't take the warning too seriously. I figured if we could cover the intervening two miles in two hours we'd be doing pretty good, still with plenty of time for the remaining two peaks.
As we started off Indianhead to the northwest, we found the going both brushy and rocky at the start. Some large blocks had us taking a meandering route through them, at one point tunneling through a hole formed at the base by two of them. This bit of difficulty lasted only until we had reached the first saddle about 30 minutes later, after which we found the going milder and far more pleasant. Still, it took some 2.5hrs for us to reach Palm Mesa, the highpoint of the larger area known as Palm Mesa on the 7.5' topo map, having neither palms nor any sort of mesa, really, just a higher bit of ground punctuated with a series of hilly bumps.
The register we found on Palm Mesa, unlike the busy one we found on Indianhead, was the typical thin booklet placed in the early 1980s by MacLeod and Lilley that one finds on the more remote summits in this desert area. Shane Smith had been the last visitor almost two years earlier. We took a break while we spent some time contemplating our next move.
The plan had been to drop down to the North Fork of Borrego Palm Canyon before climbing back almost 2,000ft up to Pike BM another two miles further west. It was only 10:30a and we seemed to have plenty of time. The route from what we could see offered no serious obstacles. Still we hesitated. What was the problem? Neither of us really wanted to continue, though Adam more so. Adam was concerned that he would be too knackered for the next day and we'd be descending the canyon in the dark. I wasn't too worried about descending the canyon, but I did worry some about being too tired for the other long outing we had planned the next day. In particular I was worried that my knee, which had been bothering me since around Christmas, might not take to the extra exertion too well. I didn't tell Adam about my knee since it might look like I was fishing for excuses. And lastly, I was having a rather enjoyable day of it so far and I suspected the additional two peaks we had planned might rub some of the fun memory off the day. In the end I out-waited Adam, getting him to call it a day first so that I could blame the short schedule on him. But really, I was happy with the two summits we had reached. The others I knew could be approached from the west via the Indian reservation, so there was no need to force myself up Palm Canyon again in the future.
Happily decided, we headed west off Palm Mesa down to the North Fork. This was not the shortest or easiest return as it would add more miles to our outing, but with the abundance of available daylight we had it would keep us from getting back too early. When we reached the dry streambed after the straightforward descent, we found a rather pleasant stroll down the wide, sandy creekbed. For half an hour we plied this channel quite easily, with small cataracts that were almost as easily downclimbed. From the beta I had read I knew there was a deep drop-off that needed to be skirted around, but this was just before we were to reach the confluence with the Middle Fork. I had put the two major confluences into my GPS, so I had a very good idea of when we would be nearing them.
Shortly before noon we came across a large cairn built in the middle of the streambed. Adam walked by it without giving it much thought, but I paused to examine the surrounding terrain. I noted a series of ducks leading up and over the short bank of the canyon on our right, a sure sign that a waterfall was to be found up ahead. I called to Adam but he seemed to regard my observations without much concern. "It looks fine ahead," he called back. I announced my intention to follow the ducks anyway which was enough to get Adam to turn back and follow me.
When we had crossed over the hill and dropped back down to the canyon on the other side where it comes around a bend, we decided to hike back upstream to take a look at the section we'd missed. As I expected, we came to a large 20-foot dropoff that had been just around the corner from where we'd left it above. After closer inspection we decided it could have been downclimbed, though stiff class 3, but with just a little uphill travel a class 2 route could be seen bypassing it just to the east. We were still half an hour from the confluence so this additional bit of news seemed to fit with my beta that there was only one serious obstruction in this fork of the canyon.
As we continued down further we found the start of a trickle of water that cut through the sandy bottom. Heavy rains a few weeks earlier had swept through much of the park and the heavy deposits of sand were evident everywhere. All traces of human and animal traffic in the canyon had been erased in the process, and from what we could tell there had been only a lone hiker descending the canyon between those rains and today. The small trickle gained volume, though not all that much before joining the Middle Fork. Not long before 12:30p we came upon the large impasse that could clearly not be downclimbed. I had eschewed the described climb over the ridge just before we'd reached this bend because I wanted to get a look at the drop first hand. We found it easy enough to contour out of the canyon on our right only a short distance back from the precipice. We soon came upon a series of ducks that led us down the steep ridge separating the North and Middle Forks.
The Middle Fork had a good deal more water in it and from this point on we would have the constant sound and rush of water to accompany us for the rest of the descent in the canyon. We both had a grand time and enjoyed this part of the day immensely. There were numerous frogs hopping about the rocks on either side of the banks, occasional palms, willow thickets, some lush grasses and random flowers in bloom. At one location a lone sycamore, now dead, rose 30ft into the air. The scrambling was interesting but not overly challenging except in one or two locations. From the confluence we spent nearly an hour in descending before we came across a solo hiker on his way up the canyon. A few years older than myself, he was the last of a small group that had started up the canyon, the others having turned back some time ago. We thought him a kindred spirit, an adventurous sort that looked happy as could be wandering about on his own. We gave him some beta on what lay ahead, but it sounded like he was about to turn about himself and head back. It was past 1:30p and he had no interest in getting caught out in the dark.
Beyond this first encounter, we began to find evidence of trails heading down the canyon, either on one side or the other, often a branch on both sides. We encountered several more small parties as we continued to descend, taking another hour to reach the large group of palms that marks the end of the regularly maintained trail. Past emerald pools, tall palms, and clear-running water we followed to emerge upon the trail where perhaps a half dozen parties were investigating the large stand of palms that clumped together in this part of the canyon south of Indianhead. It took only half an hour to follow the trail back to the parking lot, once more in the warm sun of the afternoon.
We had finished up a bit earlier than we might have liked and spent much of the remaining daylight getting showers at the campground (best deal in town, 2 minutes for a quarter) and scouting about town for places to eat. This latter effort was somewhat of a bust because Adam wasn't interested in mexican food, and besides the two mexican restaurants, there was only one pricey establishment that we could find. There was a grocery store however, and combined with food that we had brought with us, we had a nice dirtbag dinner at the picnic table among the palms just south of the Visitor Center. A good finish to a fine day in the desert.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Indianhead
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