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I was awake not long after 5a, unable to sleep any further with my fate so uncertain. I was sleeping in the back of the van in the middle of BLM route P140 on the east side of Searles Lake, some seven miles from the nearest person in Trona. My front wheels were resting on two rocks which I had placed there the previous evening in an effort to get my car unstuck from the sand it was mired in. I had waited until morning because I needed the light of day to drive backwards with any chance of keeping the van in the packed tracks and not immediately getting stuck again. There were a number of things I needed to do before attempting self-extraction. First was to eat breakfast. I had been too upset the night before to eat well and was now pretty hungry. Breakfast consumed and the dawn beginning to break over the Slate Range to the east, I got out to find some suitable rocks with which to build ramps behind the front wheels to allow me to back out of the small pits the tires had dug into the sand. Luckily there were plenty of suitable rocks among the sand dunes and drifts located on both sides of the road. I built up about a footlong path behind each wheel to get me back onto slightly higher ground. This should allow the undercarriage to get off the sand and enough clearance to start backwards again. This task accomplished, I took a stroll back down the road, the purpose to find a suitable turnaround. I knew that if I had to drive backwards for any considerable distance, the odds of me driving true to stay in the tracks were low. Somehow I had to get the car turned around without any obvious turnarounds built into the roadway. The immediate area around the van was poor, heaped with windblown sand. It would be difficult for a tow truck to position itself to extract me, which would be needed if my self-rescue failed. About 30yds back I found a low spot off to one side of the road that would not require me to drive over a berm. The sand was firm to walk on, but if I dug my heels in with modest pressure I was easily into the soft sand underneath. How would this hold up with the weight of my van? It seemed it might work, at least to get the car partially turned around and allow a tow truck to better extract me. I cleared out some low bushes in this area so that I wouldn't be distracted by the sound of them being pummeled under the van as I backed over them. Finally, by 6:20a, I was ready to give it a go. I took a photo of my handiwork behind the front wheels before getting in and starting up the car.
I would be lying to say this wasn't one of my more nervous moments. It was silly, but I wondered if letting the car warm up would be beneficial. I had only one chance, I thought, and wanted to make the most of it. I shifted the car into reverse, looked over my shoulder out the back window, and started to apply pressure to the gas pedal. At first the car just stood there, building up torque against the static friction holding the van in place. Then it lurched slightly and began to move backwards. I applied more gas. I was moving at least, so far so good. As the wheels moved off the rocks and onto the sand I was thrilled to find my momentum continued, increasing even as I gained speed. Almost before I could think about it I was at the low clearing and pushed the car into a tight turn. I kept the front wheels in the road as the rest of the van was moved off to the side, then turned the wheels and shifted into drive. This was where I might have expected the wheels to get mired, churned as they were into the sand and then asked to drive out at an angle without the benefit of a well-packed track to follow. But the van responded impressively, driving right out and back into the tracks, pulling the back wheels with it and soon lumbering down the road in the proper direction. I was estatic. It had worked like a charm! I was almost hoping I had done this the night before so I could have gotten some decent sleep, but I knew the daylight was a big factor in its success. I drove to the end of the sandy section and then parked the car off to the side on firm ground next to a USGS benchmark. Time to go hiking...
The canyon appears to have a rich history of mining activity. Several mines are depicted on the topo map, but the sites I ran into don't seem to match them. One was located a short distance up the canyon from its mouth, mostly just scattered wood and rusting iron pieces. About halfway up the canyon I came across a better preserved site that had a ramshackle cabin build from plywood and sheetmetal, probably 40-60yrs old, by the looks of it. Some care had been taken to build an involved rock wall that served to hold the foundation with the collapsed mine works nearby. Inside the cabin was a heating stove made from an oil drum, but little else. Just above the site is a seasonal spring - there was no flowing water, but the ground was damp in places and the vegetation heavier, and in season it probably provided water for the prospector working nearby. As on Straw and other parts of the Slate Range, there is much evidence of wild mules thriving here. A decent trail can be followed up much of the canyon thanks to their work over decades. In one section of the canyon with a vertical southern wall, there was much mule poop suggesting they linger here in the shade to avoid the hot summer sun.
With about a mile to go I began climbing out of the canyon and onto a broad ridgeline climbing steeply to the summit. Shortly after 9a I reached the summit after about 2.5 hrs effort. There is a large cairn erected just east of the highpoint. A fresh register had been placed two years earlier by Richard Carey and Mark Adrian of San Diego (their names are regulars on prominence peaks in the southern part of the state and all over San Diego County). Theirs was the only entry. Further west can be found the remains of an old survey tower and a 1945 benchmark. Though the air quality was better than the previous day's, it was still marred by haze and the resulting pictures were poor.
In the reverse order of the previous day, I climbed up the canyon on ascent and choose a ridge to the north for the descent. This was particularly nice because it had a very good mule trail for much of the route, making things easier. Not long after starting down this ridge I came across the remains of what looked like a rocket crash site. At first I assumed it was a plane, but the only significant pieces I found were a rocket motor and the fragments of a thick aluminum shell. It had been painted yellow, but there were no other markings that I could find to distinguish it. This could be another reason for having these large military bases that are largely unpopulated - mishaps such as this do not have the same consequences they might otherwise if nearer to populated centers. And of course it may not have been a mishap at all, just a test launch of a Navy rocket.
Though I had a GPS with built-in topo maps, I did not do a great job of keeping to the intended ridgeline that would drop to the mouth of Sand Canyon. Having missed a key junction and starting down the next ridgeline to the north, I spent some time correcting the mistake by dropping into one side canyon and climbing out lower onto the adjacent ridgeline. This wasn't all bad, as I found plenty of things to keep my interest. Old cairns left by prospectors showed I was hardly the first to explore in the area. There was some interesting geology, including sea-green rock that often indicates the presence of copper, some of which appears to have been mined or at least prospected. One item of interest I found when back in Sand Canyon was an old tin can that appeared to be unopened and without holes. I shook it - it sounded like sand inside - and wondered what sort of decomposed food might be inside. When I broke it open, however, I was disappointed - only sand came out. I was back across the base fenceline and to the van by 11:30a, making for a 5hr outing.
From the satellite views, I wasn't all that sure just where I could drive to in my van. I was lucky enough to make it to the quarry despite a good deal of sand on the road leading in. Still more than five miles away, I drove through the quarry looking for an exit leading left into Wilson Canyon, but found all routes blocked. Drats. Though the quarry looked long abandoned, No Trespassing signs at the entrance had me worried about leaving a car inside, so I drove back and parked just outside. With 5.5 miles to the summit of Wilson from this point, it seemed too far to give it a go now that it was past 2p. I was regretting the decision to do Quarry BM first - if only I had left it for later, I'd have had plenty of daylight for Wilson. What to do? I decided to go for a hike and quickly grabbed my stuff and headed out so as not to waste any more daylight. I told myself I'd hike around the hills surrounding the quarry, then upon overlooking Wilson Canyon I decided I'd hike up the canyon for an hour or so "to scope out the route for tomorrow." But really, I was just trying to convince myself that I should just do Wilson today anyway. In years past, Matthew and I would have thought nothing of finishing up well after dark and had a history of many such adventures. Had I grown soft? Was watching a movie in the back of the van really preferrable to tagging another peak? I was a little disappointed with myself and I think this delay tactic was just a way to commit myself to climbing Wilson before I had a chance to make up an excuse to back off.
After two miles I had reached a BLM trailhead at the end of P138. Though I doubt I could have driven my car up this rough road, I was surprised that I hadn't noticed it when researching beforehand. With a high clearance vehicle, this would make the hike to Wilson only 3.5mi, one-way. I continued past the trailhead up the wide wash, sandy but no bushwhacking. Following this back in the dark would be a snap, I realized. By 3p I had reached a fork in the wash and the place to climb onto the ridge between them to head for the summit. This was the point I earlier convinced myself I would either continue all the way or turn back. I still had two miles to go, but reasoned I might be able to get back to the wash without needing a headlamp. Of course I didn't turn back, and up I went.
The elevation gain (I had 2,600ft to climb) combined with more vegetation and rockier ground to make things slower, but I kept up a pretty good pace and had my heart going faster than it had done all day. I kept this up for the next hour hoping it would propel me to the summit by 4p, but alas I was off by almost half an hour. It was a good climb, with views opening up the higher I went, joshua trees dotting the ridge as I rose above 4,000ft. Argus Peak rises prominently to the north across Wilson Canyon - it would be a good peak to combine with Wilson for a full day. Behind me the shadows of the Argus Range were starting to creep across Searles Valley. An hour had gone by since I started up the ridge and I was still a short distance from reaching the main crest of the range. Somewhere along the way I had entered the China Lake Weapons Center, but I had seen no fence, no signs of any kind (a perusal of the maps later showed the boundary was close to where I left the wash). By 4:12p I finally reached the crest, though still some 15 minutes from the highpoint. The sun was low on the horizon and provided little warmth as I made my way across the ridge, a cold wind now blowing and forcing me to grab my fleece from my pack.
I reached the summit just before 4:30p, less than 15 min to sunset. Oddly, there were two USGS benchmarks, both dated 1945 and stamped TWIN. Twin benchmarks - a USGS joke perhaps? I suspect the name came from the two rocky outcrops about five minutes further west that were both lower than the highpoint. I was happy enough to leave them unvisited, eager to get started down the ridge and lose as much elevation as possible before dark. I took a few quick photos before starting down, north across the military base, northeast to Argus Peak, southeast to Searles Valley, and south down the remainder of the Argus Range. I made good time heading down, not exactly jogging since the footing required more careful attention due to rocks, but quick enough. I watched the daylight fade over the Searles Valley and Slate Range to the east, though most of my focus was on the ground beneath my feet. I was about five minutes from the wash when it grew too dark and I had to pause to dig out my headlamp. Back in the wash, I slowed my pace now that I was on easy ground in the dark, plodding through sand. It would be nearly 6:30p by the time I got back to the van - not a bad showing at all.
One of the additional benefits of getting Wilson done today was that I could drive to the Volcano Peak TH this same evening. This took me through Ridgecrest where I stopped for gas, a suitable reward at the Starbucks (decaf, this time), and dinner from one of the fast food places that line the main street through town. I then headed west out of town and north on US395 for about 20 miles. I turned off on a BLM road for the Fossil Falls area, driving about three miles to the end of the drivable portion of the road where a locked gate was encountered at the China Lake boundary. It was remote and little used, and would make a perfect place to spend the night. And without all the problems of the previous evening, I would sleep just fine...
This page last updated: Sun Mar 26 20:30:22 2023
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