Lone Butte P900
Oedipus Peak P300
Rex Peak ESS

Jan 10, 2014

With: Shane Smith

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profiles: 1 2


Lone Butte

I had returned to the desert area around Ridgecrest for a second attempt to get on the China Lake navy base for a climb of Lone Butte. Shy of P1K status, Lone Butte nevertheless had been on my radar for a year because it was a P900. Shane Smith had invited me to come out to Ridgecrest to join a group of hikers who make the regular training trip to Lone Butte on selected days of the week near lunchtime. The first attempt was spoiled by a combination of myself not fully realizing the nature of the process to get on base and the fact that Mondays are the busiest times at the Visitor Center. We were still in the waiting room trying to get seen when Shane realized we would miss the 11a bus ride. Fast-forward to a month later and I had a second opportunity to join Shane and his crew, this time on a Friday which we knew would be easier.

I had spent the night west of US395 near Boulder Peak, thinking I would climb that summit before meeting with Shane at 9a. But the logistics didn't seem like they would work out. I was almost 2.5 miles from the summit with 3,600ft of gain. I would have to start at something like 5a to even have a chance, and even then I might be late to my appointment. I would have to climb almost the entire peak before sunrise, not the easiest and most pleasant of prospects. I decided to sleep in and forgo the extra workout. I could always climb it another time.

The sun rose at 7a, waking me from my slumber and getting on with the prospect of what to do for the next two hours. I spent most of it watching the rest of a movie I had started the night before, and the rest in packing up and driving to Ridgecrest. Meeting up with Shane at the appointed time, we were in and out of the Visitor Center in about 15 minutes this time. For an archaic system, it works pretty well when there are few visitors. One first signs into a log book, then sits in an array of chairs waiting to be called. Old video of base shennanigans are shown on a monitor for visual stimulation to ward of boredom. Generally they are old clips of things going either really fast, blowing up spectacularly, or both. One gets the impression that China Lake (which used to be called the Naval Ordinance Test Station, or NOTS, which was a fairly accurate description - unusual for a government bureaucracy) was a haven for geeky pyros and other degenerates (I might have fit in nicely) back in the 1950s and 60s, but has since toned done such fun things, now mostly relegated to computer simulations. Anyway, eventually someone calls your name to rouse you from your video trance, conversation or slumber, varying by individual. We then stepped up to the assigned window (anywhere from 4-8 windows available depending on staffing, though even on the busiest day they only had 4 windows open - seems the staffing is fairly constant), and stated our business. Shane, already equipped with a base permit, wanted to take his guest to the museum on base. This was a small ruse to avoid the possibility of being rejected for wanting to take me on the bus to climb Lone Butte. It would seem that museum perusing is a far safer and less terrorist-prone activity than partially unsupervised access inside the green zone. I wondered if they might do a quick search to see if I was blacklisted, possibly for unauthorized prior intrusions, but the technology at hand seemed only geared to verifying my drivers ID and perhaps checking for felony convictions (though I kinda doubt they even do that). Basically, Shane is on the hook if his guest does anything wrong. I left the building with a piece of paper giving me permission to enter for the day. We drove to the sentry gate and showed this and Shane's base permit to the guard who let us drive on in. No checking for weapons or other nasty things in our car, backpacks or on our person. It's nice to be at least partially trusted. With plenty of time before the bus would leave, Shane gave me a tour of the fitness facilities and paid someone there $6 for the two of us to ride the bus. At the designated time we received an official badge to get us on the bus - it has been more than seven years since I last wore a corporate badge that it resembles, though unfortunately this one doesn't come with a paycheck. Shane introduced me to the other ten folks who would be making the hike with us, a collection of mostly retired men and women who are part of the B Mountain Hiking Club. Only later did I realize that B Mountain and Lone Butte are one in the same - there is a "B MTN" benchmark somewhere at the summit according to the 7.5' USGS map. They were a happy bunch of folks out to do a hike they'd each done dozens of times, primarily to stay in shape. If you can still climb B Mountain, you're still doing OK, health-wise. Some of them had been at China Lake for decades, retiring in Ridgecrest after a career on the base. The rec center is only three air miles from the summit of Lone Butte, but the bus is used to make it a hike of less than half that distance. Once on the bus, we stopped at a second checkpoint (the rec center is inside the lower security town area) where our IDs were quickly checked by a guard who had boarded the bus for this purpose. It was clear he had done this hundreds of times and barely looked at any of the plastic or paper identification we presented him with as he quickly scanned up and down the aisle. Even my unusual temporary permit did not draw any additional attention. After he exited, the official badges were passed forward and collected for reuse - alas, I was not to keep mine as a souvenir.

The bus ride, all of three miles in length, dropped us off at a dirt turnaround at the base of Lone Butte on the west side. Immediately upon exiting the bus one lady took off without saying a word, others not far behind her. This was not the sort of outing where we sit around and chat while stretching before we begin. These folks were serious, had a firm purpose and were not here to waste time - my kind of people. I hiked with Shane, first following a newly graded dirt road, but switching to a multi-threaded use trail where the road makes a sharp turn to the right. There is little vegetaton on the mountain at all, really just a pile of rock and sand. The trail has eroded over the years from heavy use, but still serviceable, and we made steady progress up the hill, passing a few of the others that were starting to tire from the exertion. We took about 40 minutes to climb to the tower-topped summit, three or four of the group already there when Shane and I arrived. We sat around chatting with the others, taking in the views (brown is the dominant color in pretty much all directions) and waiting for those still behind us. Dave Brown, an old peakbagger who ran with Carl Heller and others of the China Lake gang was not long in joining us. Now in his 70s, I was impressed to see that he was still getting out for these walks and making a good show of it. The last three ladies declined to come all the way to the top, stopping about 75ft below, and after signaling us of their intentions, we all started back down. I took only a few photos because strictly speaking, they aren't allowed, or so I was told. I made sure not to get any of the alien technology bunkers or the remote desert studios where the moon landings were faked. These would surely get the boys in the black helicopters to pay me a visit at home some night.

Back in town at the rec center, I met up with two other gracefully aging peakbaggers who couldn't make the hike for one reason or another but wanted to meet me. Bob Joy and Dennis Burge were also pals of Dave, climbing together with the China Lake OPG for decades. They were slowing down now that they were in their 60s and 70s, but they seemed to have no less enthusiasm for the sport. We talked about some of the harder SPS summits we had climbed and about other people and times past and I would have enjoyed more time over beers and dinner than the 1/2 hour we had before leaving. Some of the places we talked about like the peaks around the China Lake area got me interested in Walt Wheelock and some of the publications he printed 50 years earlier. When I got home I made a purchase of his Desert Peaks Guide off Amazon and in the process found some new peaks to add to the neverending list.

Oedipus / Rex

After saying goodbye to Shane back at the Visitor Center, I headed back west on SR178, with plans to hit up two officially unnamed summits in the Southern Sierra. Shane had given me their names as Oedipus and Rex, a couple of relatively easy training hikes in the area. They are located just north of SR178, the southeastern end of a subsidiary ridge descending from the Sierra crest at Morris Peak. The higher of the two is just over 5,000ft and neither has much prominence. But they do make for a good workout, with a total gain of more than 1,600ft between them. I climbed the lower Rex Peak first, but they could be done in any order. The terrain is easy cross-country with little vegetation, but the slopes are steep and unrelenting once at the base of the peaks. A motorcycle track runs up to the summit of Rex and several entries suggest the enthusiasts were rather young. The Rex register dated to 2006 with 13 pages, most of the entries from local Ridgecrest scramblers. The higher Oedipus summit register was older and more interesting. The oldest scrap was a business card left by Shane's father Richard in 1978. Normally I disdain business cards in registers and collect them for disposal, but this one was worth preserving. Plus, he worked for the BLM which is way cooler than the Forest Service or the NPS. A handful of loose yellow sheets held entries going back several decades. Shane had taken the time to transcribe all of these into a notepad he left back in October. Since then, all the entries were from his conditioning hikes until I happened by to leave my own signature. In all I spent about 2.5 hours on a loop that came in at just under five miles. It was 4p by the time I returned to my van and after a quick rinse with a jug of water, I started the 5 1/2 hour drive back to San Jose...

Shane Smith comments on 01/28/14:
As good as could be written. Fun laughs too!
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