Jan 13, 2024
We'd spent a lovely evening camped in the Pinto Mountains, between SR62 and Joshua Tree National Park. The cloud cover had made for a glorious sunset and we almost had more firewood than we could recklessly burn. In the morning we moved camp to the Twentynine Palms area before carpooling in the Jeep into the park for some challenging summits in the Wonderland of Rocks. This vast area is a huge complex of granite boulders piled haphazardy in a maze of domes, outcrops and washes. There were three summits from LoJ that we'd set sights on, but we'd only have time for the first two. All three appear in Randy Vogel's Rock Climbing Joshua Tree, with routes in the 5.7-5.12 range. Scrambling routes for ascent/descent are not described, so we were going into this more as an exploratory effort. We brought two skinny ropes - one 30m and a second around 50m - and plenty of gear should we find things to be more technical. I had intended to approach the peaks from the north via Indian Cove and Rattlesnake Canyon, but the evening prior my companions convinced me it would be easier from the southwest via the Boy Scout Trail starting at the main park road. It is a longer approach at more than 3.5mi, but it would be almost all on trail. After viewing Rattlesnake Canyon from above, we suspect it would probably take about the same time via either route.
We started out on the Boy Scout Trail shortly before 9a, following this to a junction with the Willow Hole Trail, then following the latter to Willow Hole in a little over an hour - mostly flat, with easy walking on trail and sandy wash. The nearest peak was The Ivory Tower which we could see at close range about a mile before Willow Hole, but TomB decided we should tackle the furthest one first and led us towards Lime Dome. Use trails continue past Willow Hole despite the warning on a sign posted there, but one only gets maybe a quarter mile further before things devolve into rock scrambling. The only TR on PB for Lime Dome had been posted by Mike Toffey a year earlier. He described it as the hardest scrambling he'd yet done, falling short about 60-80ft below the summit. He had approached if from the east, but had not explored other possibilities after being stopped short. Coming from the west via Willow Hole, we noted a possible boulder scramble up the northwest side and decided to try that, though of course there were no guarantees that we'd do any better. As I'd found on a previous visit to the Wonderland of Rocks the previous year, all of these summits are challenging once the scrambling starts.
Our basic plan had us going up the northwest gully we'd first noticed, then turning left at the top to follow a ramp which would lead to the north side, hoping for the best. We would have enough time to try other options if things didn't work out since it was the first summit. We spent about 35min scrambling up the class 3-4 rock maze, tunneling under large boulders and slowly working our way up. We were happy to find the transition to the ramp had no serious obstacles, allowing us to make headway until shortly before 11a. Here the going became low class 5 and we paused to assess the continuing route. TomG soloed up the initial difficulty, going ahead for a few minutes before returning to report that the scrambling continues above. The other three of us then changed to rock shoes before following Tom up. Just past some yuccas guarding the top of this short segment, the route goes horizontal through a narrow gap between two large boulders. Tom had already gone through it and back before we'd started up, but when I tried it next, I got myself comically stuck in a most awkward horizonal position, struggling to get through with most of my weight on my bad leg. I inched forward, one grunting breath at a time while providing continuing hillarity to my unsympathetic friends behind me. Once through, the others came in turn, and I must admit they all did a better job of it than I.
Immediately past this obstacle is a class 4 slab, a short wall and then the smallish summit block, not trivial. The easiest way is on the south side of the block stepping from a lower one, but this is airy and a bit unnerving without good handholds. TomG and Iris went up this way while TomB and I went up a crack on the west side that felt safer. We hung about the summit for about 10min before heading back down via the same route we'd ascended. TomG tied off one of our ropes for a handline on the class 4 slab, then it was another round of challenging scrambling as we worked our way off the summit. It would be 12:30p before we'd gotten back down to the wash separating Lime Dome and Super Dome.
On the descent from Lime Dome, we'd spied what looked like a reasonable route up to Super Dome on the east side. It wouldn't get us to the top on that side, but it looked like it would take us up to the north side of the feature. Toffey had visited the summit two weeks earlier from the north, soloing up what he described as 5.5-5.6 at several cruxes, so we figured we were pretty safe if we could get to the north side with our ropes and gear. As on Lime Dome, the approach turned out to be harder than it first appeared, and much hard scrambling ensued as we worked our way up the east side and around to the north over the course of the next hour. There were huge boulders, slabs, tunneling and brush/trees, all of which combined to keep things challenging.
Once on the north side, we explored options there, finding two that might work. The righthand side had an overhanging off-width that looked scary (to me), while the lefthand option looked easier, though much of the route wasn't visible. From his track, we determined that Toffey had gone up the lefthand side to which I gave him much kudos for soloing - I certainly wouldn't have tried this one alone. We were happy to have TomG along to make things safer for the rest of us. He took only five minutes to finish the short climbing section, about 40-50ft up. The crux comes at the beginning, a very thin flake that you have to climb and trust that it won't break off. Above this, one enters a chimneys that offers more safety. Above this, one climbs out on the left edge of the chimney, another cruxy move that would have been unnerving without the toprope. Toffey's rating seemed accurate. Iris was the first to be belayed from above, after which she went ahead to scout the route to see if we still needed the rope. Myself and TomB then took our turn, about 35min for the whole crew to get up it. We heard a whoop from Iris who had found an easy way to the summit. We packed up all the gear and took only a few minutes to join her atop Super Dome. The summit has a more commanding view than the lower Lime Dome, taking in much of the Wonderland of Rocks and larger swathes of the park. It was after 2:30p now, and we knew we'd not have time for the last summit, leaving it for another time.
Following a brief stay at the large summit, we decided to take advantage of rap rings found to the northwest, at the top of the routes on the west and southwest side described in Vogel's guidebook. We used these to rap down the righthand side route on the northside we'd viewed earlier from below. This would allow us to more easily retrieve the gear we'd left at the base of the ascent route. Once we'd packed away the rope and changed out of rock shoes, we headed west to the gully found on that side of Super Dome, described as the approach route from Willow Hole in the guidebook. Once off the west side and in the gully, we paused to take off our harnesses (we'd kept them on in case we had another rappel on this side), and continued south down the gully. We found this another challenging scramble, keeping us on our toes all the way to the wash below. It was nearly 4:30p by the time we returned to Willow Hole, with another 3.5mi to return to the TH. Sunset came during our evening hike back, but it was an easy stroll, in contrast to all the scrambling we'd done over the past hours. There were more than a dozen folks we passed going the opposite direction, laden with backpacks to spend the night in the desert. It would be after 5:30p by the time we returned to the Jeep, a rather full day. We returned to our camp outside the park and the town of Joshua Tree, showered, and collected enough wood for another fine campfire that night. A most splendid evening...
This page last updated: Mon Jan 22 17:10:08 2024
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