Joaquin Ridge P500
Joaquin Rocks CC

Fri, Dec 31, 2010

With: Steve Sywyk
David Alexander

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

I had been slowly collecting CC-listed peaks in the Diablo Range, primarily those in San Benito County during October and November. The CCMA (Clear Creek Management Area) contains a number of these and has been closed to the public for several years due to asbestos exposure, primarily due to the OHV traffic that was apt to kick up a lot of dust containing the naturally occurring asbestos particles found in the soil there. I had found that the access roads were not gated, allowing one to drive into the area, though at some risk of drawing a citation for violating the closure. I was interested in a handful of CC peaks in the southeast corner of the CCMA, just across the San Benito County line in southwestern Fresno County. The most interesting of the three was Joaquin Rocks, a rocky formation unusual to the Diablo Range. Its three primary pinnacles can be seen along a 12-mile stretch of Interstate 5, but are otherwise obscure and hardly known. Many people believe that this was the hideout for one of California's most famous bandits, Joaquin Murrieta, and that his camp was located at the base of these cliffs. David had tried to reach the rocks on a previous visit but had misjudged the distance and location (climbing nearby Joaquin 2 BM by accident) and run out of time. Steve was simply along for the adventure, knew nothing of the area to where we were heading, and was happy to trust us to provide him with exercise and recreation with a minimal of mental preparation on his part. David and I were there to deliver.

Just getting to New Idria, population 1, is a non-trivial exercise. Though only 112 miles from San Jose, it takes fully three hours to get there even though the route is entirely paved. Once there, the pavement ends and the real excitement begins. Knowing the road out of New Idria to be long and rough, we had enlisted David's father's truck for the trip, particularly for this last 15-mile haul on the dirt roads. Not only was the truck physically up for the punishing roads, it was able to do so in great comfort, a valuable feature, especially for the guy stuck in the back seat (Steve, in this case). The weather was unusually cold even for this time of year, with freezing temperatures in the early morning hours. It was 27F as we drove into New Idria and this didn't improve any as we drove higher into the mountains. This had the effect of freezing the muddy roads and making them much easier to negotiate in the morning. The only real issues were the rather large, icy puddles and the occasional downfall that needed some attending to. My own approach to large puddles (really more like small ponds, some of them) is to get out and test the depth, then drive slowly through them. But then this is with low-clearance vehicles I own. David had a bolder approach that involved trusting there was no large sinkhole in which to get bogged down, and just barreling through them. This was highly amusing to Steve and I, unused to such driving. Chunks of ice would fly up as the truck set off a tidal wave across the ponds, falling back in a pile of slush behind us after we'd plowed through. We'd neglected to bring clippers with us to handle the few fallen trees we encountered, but with leather gloves we were able to manhandle them enough to allow a passage for the truck without damaging the finish. It wasn't until after 8a that we reached the end of the road near Wright Mtn, more than four hours after we had left San Jose. There was going to be several hours more driving today than hiking.

Wright Mtn was one of the CC peaks I was interested in, but it seemed easy enough to leave it until we returned from Joaquin Rocks. There was no road or trail leading the short distance to the summit, but it seemed more of a distraction at this point so we left it for later. We had on all our clothes we'd brought with us, plus hats and gloves for the chilly start, and these seemed just adequate. Luckily the sun was starting to beat back the fog and clouds and it was looking like a warmer morning ahead of us. Soon enough we could start removing our outer layers. We had parked just before the first of two gates that block vehicle access along the otherwise good dirt road that winds along Joaquin Ridge heading east. There were no large puddles to deal with but there was lots of ice covering the road, some of it a quarter-inch thick. We slipped and crunched over this, picking it up and tossing it down like California kids unused to such winter offerings so common in many other parts of the country. By 9a the sun had assumed full control of the skies and our frosty dirt road had turned to mud. Not so much fun, then.

I was interesting in first paying a visit to Joaquin 2 BM because it had some 660ft of prominence. David was kind enough to acquiece, and served as our guide. He did not impress us in this role initially, confusing Pt. 3,651ft some distance to the north on a subsidiary ridge with our goal. This other summit looked pretty nice in its own right and would not be a bad excuse to come back for a future visit. We eventually got the proper Joaquin 2 BM in our sights ahead of us after about an hour of walking on the road. Forty minutes further along we had reached the southwest face of it and were ready to head off cross-country for the summit, a scramble of some 300ft or so. David pointed out a a reasonable ascent gully that he had used on his first visit and it was to this we headed. The upper reaches were surprisingly rocky (for the Diablo Range, that is) and our gully required some bit of struggle up loose dirt and uncertain rock before we reached the upper plateau. From there is was an easier affair, ducking under some low branches and minor bushwhacking to reach the highest summit rock.

There was no benchmark as we expected, but scattered about were pieces of old wood and steel guy wires from a small survey tower. A 1939 reference mark was found that pointed to the benchmark, but the latter has gone missing. The views were pretty fine from the highpoint of Joaquin Ridge where we stood (it's arguable that the higher Wright Mtn to the west is also part of Joaquin Ridge, but that's a technicality). One could see the three Joaquin Rocks about half a mile to the east, and layers of mountain ridges in most directions. There was another rocky pinnacle just to the west that looked like it might be of similar height, so I went over to check it out (class 3), but from there it was obvious that we had picked the highpoint on the first try.

I had thought we could go cross-country more directly to Joaquin Rocks from our highpoint, but the initial effort showed this to be too brushy. It would be easier to go back to the road, follow it along, and then climb back up to the ridgeline where Joaquin Rocks would be found. Now just after 10a, we went down an alternate chute on the south-facing side, starting just east of the highpoint. I was dubious that David's suggestion was going to work out, but it was much easier than the ascent chute and came out upon steep grass slopes that led back to the road. We were only ten minutes along the road when we came across a use trail heading up that David said looked like the one he had seen online. He had done a better job of researching the peak than myself, as this was the first I even knew about a use trail existing. Good job, David. On my own I would probably have continued another half mile or so east before climbng the ridge and wasting some time in the process. The use trail climbed steeply up the grassy slope for a couple hundred feet before crossing over a saddle where the Joaquin Rocks were nicely displayed before us.

The three main rock formations run roughly northwest to southeast in a line. The highest is the middle one called La Centinela (The Sentinel). The one on the left is known as La Piedra del Oeste (The Stone of the West) and the other is called La Catedral Grande (The Large Cathedral). They are all more than 100ft in height and quite impressive to view. There was no obvious way up any of them from our first vantage point. David assured us the opposite sides were sloped and our ticket to the top. We continued following the trail across Joaquin Flats and around the northwest corner of La Centinela. It took only a few minutes to find our way to the northeast side where the backside slope was apparent. All three are similarly sloped with a very uniform gradient just at our comfort level for climbing in boots, heavily dished and pocketed with wear to provide footing and some measure of security. Many parts were covered in lichen, but as it had not rained in several days, both lichen and rock were dry and straightforward to climb. Had the rock been slick we would likely have abandoned the final effort.

Though it seemed a long haul to the top, the actual time on the huge slab amounted to all of four minutes. The top featured some large holes whose bottoms were filled with solid ice. Names and dates etched into the sandstone around the largest hole dated to 1900, though of course it would be difficult to determine the authenticity of such grafitti without old photographs to compare. The slope does not ease off at the top but drops rather abruptly on the southwest side, making us somewhat timid along the edge. We stayed perhaps 20 minutes, taking in the views as far east as the snowy Sierra across the Central Valley. Once down, we turned left to climb La Catedral Grande, and then La Piedre del Oeste, in turn. The two outside rocks were clearly lower than the middle one by as much as 20 feet. The topo map seems to indicate that La Piedre del Oeste is highest, but that is clearly not the case. This last rock took more effort to climb since the approach to the base was down a somewhat steep and wooded gully before we could get onto the rock slope. We spent some time near the top breaking up the slabs of ice in the various holes and sliding them down the slopes, watching them shatter and break into a myriad of pieces, much like any 10-yr old would do given the opportunity. A few we tossed over the precipice on the southwest side to see if that offered any better effect (it didn't). Ice that held no liquid water underneath was as solid as the rock itself and there was no way to disturb those. When our ice trundling fun was over (most of the ice had been disturbed by this point), we went back down (more carefully now that we had left portions of the slabs wet and covered in small ice pieces), then found our way back to the use trail across Joaquin Flats and back to the road.

By now it was clear that we would not have time for Loma Atravesada which would probably take another 3-4hrs, and in order to get Steve home for a 7p New Year's Eve party it was going to be necessary to pass on Wright Mtn as well. This didn't bother me as much as it might otherwise - the area is sufficiently interesting that I really don't mind coming back another time for these other summits.

We had another hour and a half to get back to the truck, the return trip along the road decidedly less fun as the ice on the road had all melted and we found ourselves walking in a sticky mess for much of the way. Our drive back out was similarly made more difficult by the mud. There was no more ice or frozen portions of mud, just a slippery bit of mess that we found challenging. Far more challenging for David actually, since he was driving and it was his father's vehicle at stake. Portions of the road contour along very steep sections of the hillsides, with one edge dropping off quickly. It would not take much of a slip to head over the side where no guardrails or berms were found to keep one on the road. Most of this we had driven in the fog on the way up and had been mostly oblivious to the dangers. David was doing a fine job of driving and Steve and I gave him regular praise, as much to encourage him as to thank our stars we weren't driving ourselves. We were unable to escape the adventure unscathed, as the back end of the truck slid down into a downed tree as we tried to drive high around it. A minor dent, but a dent nonetheless. It was almost a shame the truck was in such excellent shape when we had borrowed it. The four inches of mud we collected could be washed off, but the dent would not go unnoticed.

We managed to get back to San Jose with just enough time for Steve to get cleaned up and off to the party with his wife. Keeping this contractual arrangement was important for domestic tranquility and ensuring we don't run into future resistence for such outings. Having left my car at David's place in the early AM, Steve and I had to leave David's home rather abruptly in order to get Steve home. Even as we pulled away, David was coming back out of the house with his father to review the damage to the truck. We were impressed that David wasted no time in getting this bit of business taken care of, and we felt bad in having to leave so quickly. We heard later that his father took the news well and declined our offer to pay for the damages. Some time later a few bottles of wine were left on their doorstep as a token of our appreciation. We wanted to make sure that not only did David have continued access to the truck, but that Steve and I would be welcomed to join him on future excursions. :-)

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