Lightner Peak P500 HPS / ESS
Black Mountain P1K HPS / ESS
Split Mountain P1K HPS / ESS

Fri, Dec 10, 2004

With: Matthew Holliman

Lightner Peak
Black Mountain
Split Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profiles: 1 2

Having given up on his quest to climb half the SPS list in a year due to an early winter, Matthew and I turned our attention to the HPS list on a free weekend in December. In particular, we were interested in the peaks around the Lake Isabella area that we had visited a few months earlier. Armed with all the maps and directions nicely provided by the HPS website, we left San Jose at 2a for an early morning cruise down the Central Valley, through Bakersfield, and up SR178 into the Southern Sierra region. Our list of peaks included some as high as 8,000ft, but a recent storm had dumped some snow at the higher elevations and we would have to restrict ourselves to the lower ones if we didn't want to get bogged down in the unconsolidated white stuff.

Our first peak was Lighter, south of SR178 and the towns of Bodfish and Havilah. It was well after sunup as we drove up the winding road to Lightner Flat south of the peak. It seemed like cheating to start the hike off at the top of the ridge, and in fact we even drove closer by heading along the dirt road that follows the ridge towards our peak. We didn't get too far before the road was too rough for our liking and we pulled over and parked. Less than two miles from the summit, we had an easy time negotiating the ridgeline, at first on the road, but mostly cross-country through the understory of the pine and oak-covered ridgeline. Starting at 7:30a, it took us just about an hour to cover the two miles to the summit of Lightner. The summit is a rounded top about an acre in size, with poor views due to the trees. The HPS register was at the base of a rock finger that stood up perhaps twenty feet above the ground. Climbing to the top of the finger was tricky, and I spent some time exploring all the possibilites before settling on an adrenaline-inducing friction climb on the southeast side. It was somewhere in the class 4-5.easy range, on par with the Milk Bottle atop Starlight Peak. Later I found only one mention of this in the HPS archives, so we guessed they were less stringent on what defines a summit than say the SPS or PCS groups. Matthew went up part way to give the summit block a try, but backed down - we hadn't come prepared with our rock shoes.

The HPS register had been visited by a decidedly anti-Sierra Club outdoorsman, as evidenced by the stickers he had placed on the outside of the can and the cover of the register, calling the Sierra Clubbers hypocritical for despoiling the wilderness they claim to love with their plastic ribbons and summit registers. The stickers further espoused the joys of hunting and dirt biking. It was pretty funny when we first saw it, but as we came to find out over the next several days the same person had visited most of the other HPS peaks and plastered similar stickers over the registers on those as well. Most of these peaks fall outside the Wilderness boundaries, so as we were to find it was prime motorcycle and ATV country - not really surprising that the Sierra Club might not be so welcomed here.

It took us about 45min to retrace our steps back to our car by 9:30a, after which we headed back down the road. We considered two options, either Heald-Nicolls or Black-Split, eventually settling on the latter. There was some risk since Black Mtn is at 7,400ft, and we might have some significant snow to contend with. From below and the south it looked snow-free to us, and Matthew used this to suggest we'd have no problem. We drove to Lake Isabella, north to Wofford Heights, and then up SR155 to Alta Sierra and Greenhorn Summit. There we were greeted by a locked gate on the Forest Service road we'd planned to drive in on. And just like that, we added six miles to the afternoon outing. There was snow on the dirt road, but not much, perhaps a few inches. So we left our snowshoes in the car and headed out in boots around 10:45a.

The road contours around the north side of the long ridge that runs from Greenhorn Summit out to Black Mtn and further still to Split Mtn. The snow is pretty continuous on this shady side of the mountain, anywhere from two to four inches remaining from a storm a few days earlier. It was already starting to consolidate, but we'd still sink in about an inch as we hiked along. Enough to be slightly annoying, but not to make us wish we'd brought the snowshoes. After three miles we reached Black Mtn Saddle (where we'd intended to park), then set off up a steep jeep trail towards the summit. We left the trail where it was marked by a duck and followed a generous series of them to the summit of Black Mtn where we arrived at 12:20p. As we were finding out, the HPS peak climbers are a prolific group of duck builders. The general idea seems to be if you don't see a duck ahead of you somewhere, there is a duck missing and a new one should be furnished. On some routes I can be as appreciative as anyone for these guiding beacons, but in this case it seemed wholey unnecessary since there is little bushwhacking in the forest understory and little route-finding challenges.

The summit is a large blocky thing, almost (but not quite) qualifying for class 3. We found the register, signed in, and noted that Mars Bonfire had been the previous visitor on this peak as well as Lightner. We had never heard of Mars before this since we weren't familiar with the HPS trip report archives at the time, but we came to find that Mars is well-known in HPS circles and a determined peak-bagger. He's climbed all the peaks we visited this weekend at least eight times, some more than a dozen times, most of them at least twice in 2004 alone. And yet I don't recall seeing his name in any of the SPS registers found further north (I just may not have been looking very well). Later I found that Mars is one of only three persons to have completed the HPS list 8 times (why one would aspire to this is a bit of a mystery, but it's still impressive) and is probably the most active HPS climber today. He has numerous climbs in the SPS peaks as well as evidenced by the SPS trip archives.

The weather was delightful at the summit, almost warm, though the views marginal. The best view was to the southeast where we could see Lake Isabella 5,000ft below in the distance along with the surrounding peaks. Split Mtn lay to the east, our next destination. Leaving the summit, we followed down the vague Northeast Ridge, aiming for the saddle at it's base. The snow was deeper on this section and by the time we'd made our way to the bottom my feet and boots were thoroughly soaked. There would be no surviving the sub-freezing night were that somehow necessary. As we descended the ridgeline, Matthew's pace slowed noticeably, enough that the possibility of hiking by headlamp was becoming a probability. Just before the base of the ridge we had some ugly whacking down a slope littered with the downed trees of a forest beset by fire some years earlier. The combination of snow over logs and brushy regrowth made for some sloppy descending. I picked up a few sticks to work as hiking poles to help me through the mess, and I must say they performed admirably. Of course I abandoned them as soon as we were through the worst of it lest someone might think I'd taken an affection for the girly devices.

Once off Black Mtn, we started along the ridge to Split and soon found the duck/ribbon-marked use trail. The snow petered out as our elevation lowered, but the going was still rough with lots of brushy growth that often obscured the trail. We probably lost it a dozen times on the two mile traverse, but generally found it again without much trouble. Split had looked deceptively close, and we were finding it taking us much longer than expected. Before we had started, we though five hours would be plenty for the 10 or so miles to be covered (this casual guestimate of the distance was wrong to begin with - the total distance covered was closer to 15 miles), but that was now obviously wrong. I eventually asked Matthew if he was worried at all about the time and our getting back, to which he replied "A little." I was resigned that there was no way we could get back before dark. Not wanting to go up and over Black Mtn on the way back, we were planning on finding the Forest Service road that ends somewhere north of Black Mtn. We couldn't see the road at any time on our hike to Split Mtn, but had a good idea where to find it. If it grew dark before we could locate it, we might be in big trouble. Our goal then became to find the road before it grew dark around 5p.

From the saddle just west of Split Mtn, we started up the west slopes following another large collection of ducks. The ducks in this case didn't follow one route, but several as we were to find. Certainly whoever had constructed them had a lot more daylight than we had, and far more inclination besides. We arrived at the summit (another almost-class 3 block) at 3p, much relieved, but not yet out of the woods, so to speak. Split Mtn was the only peak this weekend that wasn't visited by the anti-Sierra Clubber we'd noted on Lightner earlier, presumeably because it was the most difficult to reach. Perhaps his mountain bike couldn't reach within a few miles of the peak, or else it was too far to go while toting a gun around. We didn't stay very long at all, and I was particularly anxious to get back and find our road. Standing out on a much larger rock outcrop, Split offered us much better views than Black Mtn had, so we at least had to take a few minutes to enjoy that hard-earned reward.

We made good time returning along the ridge, but found our use trail petered out (most likely we just lost it as we got back to the more snow-covered areas) before reaching the road. We set off on an upward traverse around the northeast side of Black Mtn in search of our return ticket. Just after one little nasty bushwhack into and out of a small gully, I stumbled upon what looked like a beaten use trail. Our success was complete when this shortly led to the road around 4:30p, about ten minutes before sunset. I was finally able to relax knowing our return was secured, and we hunkered down to a steady pace for the six mile walk back to the highway. Though we were tired, it was somewhat relaxing without the uneven terrain, mild bushwhacking, and route-finding challenges. The sky grew steadily darker, and it was really beautiful and serene watching the day move to a closure and the stars as they out. There was no moon to help see by, but the snow cover on the road made it possible to safely navigate the road even while it was fully night. Matthew had switched on his headlamp sometime after 5p, but I left mine off, leading some 50 yards or so ahead of him. The bobbing of his headlamp would throw faint shadows around in front of me, adding to the magic of the evening. The snow started to give out in the last mile to the trailhead, replaced by more difficult-to-see earth and in some places, ice. The serenity was abruptly broken then when Matthew slipped on the ice, falling sideways, and released the curses that generally accompany such unexpected misfortune. I stopped, turned to watch the erratic bobbing of the headlamp as Matthew struggled to get up (I couldn't see anything of Matthew), and resisted all temptation to yell out "Are you all right?!!" when it was clear from his verbal expressions that he wasn't. He eventually got back to his feet and his regular pace (though perhaps a bit more cautious about the ice lurking about), and we continued on. It was 6:30p when we got back to the car, tired and relieved. We had let ourselves underestimate the effort for these HPS peaks, but it had been a fun adventure. It took well over an hour to drive out to Ridgecrest where we spent the night at the Motel 6 there (after stops at Albertson's and Jack in the Box). We got to bed by 9p for an early 6a meeting with two others for a climb of Five Fingers the next day.

Btw, like a bonehead I forgot my camera this weekend. All pictures courtesy Matthew.


Tom Becht comments on 11/14/10:
I suppose I need to read your stories a lot more carefully -- in this case the first two sentences in the last paragraph. Being completely unprepared (HPS peak, right?) without GPS, altimeter, or fresh headlamp batteries, Jon and I ignored Erin's caution to turn-around at the last saddle before Split. I told her that we'd make it back before dark to the good use trail which then turns into our road. Famous last words -- at least she had brought matches for our long night on the flanks of Black Mtn. Of course, the road was 150' below us...
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