Malpais Mesa P500 DS
Conglomerate Mesa P300 DS

Sat, Dec 14, 2013

With: Tom Becht
Laura Molnar

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

Continued... It was the last day of a seven day desert trip and the agenda had us heading to Coso Peak, the highpoint of the Coso Range and a P2K. But the previous day's adventure to lower parts of the range convinced us the snow would only be worse on Coso and we decided against it. Instead, I picked out a few peaks from Zdon's guidebook that are located north of SR190, essentially the southernmost part of the Inyo Range. Neither was particularly difficult but together they made for an enjoyable day burning up most of the available daylight. Laura had driven down from Bishop the night before to join Tom and I for the day. As per her usual, she expressed no regrets over the change in plans and little interest in what the plan was changing to - any day in the hills was a good day in her book.

We piled into Tom's Element and headed north across SR190 onto one of the two access roads leading into Saline Valley from the south. Following Zdon's directions, we drove almost 11 miles to the Santa Rosa Mines high on the east side of Malpais Mesa. Though 4WD proved unnecessary, the high clearance was a must on the rough road which took us more than half an hour. Zdon mentions that this site was one of the most productive lead mines in the country at one time, but oddly almost nothing remains. All the buildings and equipment that must have crowded the area back in the day were gone. Just some tailings, open pits and a few odd bits of material remain. Starting just before 8a, we made our way up the deteriorating road to its end in about a quarter mile, then struck off cross-country almost straight up to the plateau above. We landed further north than we might have liked, which necessitated us either dropping into and back out of a ravine or a longer route around the drainage in order to reach the plateau proper. We chose the shorter route with more elevation gain. Zdon describes the hike to Malpais Mesa as one of his favorites in his guidebook. The views and joshua tree forest are among the highlights. While it was enjoyable, none of us thought it qualified anywhere near the top of a Best Hikes list. The joshua trees are scant, struggling to survive above 7,000ft, well above their usual range. The volcanic rock that we walked over was not particularly difficult, much of it firmly packed in gravel-sized chunks. The Mesa is far too broad to offer what I'd consider outstanding views, of the type one might normally associate with a ridge hike.

It took us about an hour to cover the three miles across the mesa to the rocky highpoint where the ROSA benchmark is located. Some 40 pages of a register dating back 25 years were filled with entries with several dozen recognizable desert rats. There is an outstanding view to the west of Owens Lake with the snowy Sierra crest in the background. On our return we took the more circuitous route and were rewarded by the happy find of a use trail that descends the steepest part back to the mines. One by one we each lost the trail near the end until there was nothing discernable for the last 100yds or so back to the road - probably why we didn't notice it on the way up.

Back before 10:30a, we spent the next 45 minutes driving another 11 miles looking for the trailhead described by Zdon for Conglomerate Mesa, the next significant point north of Malpais Mesa. Much of what Zdon wrote in his description made no sense to us and we ended up winging it. Later, I figured out that Zdon's description was for a very different route, traveling through Lee Flat and approaching the peak from the northeast. We took a shorter route through Santa Rosa Flat and approached it from the southeast. Without snow, the two routes can be connected and we'd have probably ended up at Zdon's trailhead, but with a significant stretch of snow and Tom's reluctance to chance getting stuck, we chose to make a six mile hike out of a five mile one.

Half of the hike is over open, low-gradient desert terrain, where the biggest difficulty was avoiding the snow which by now was starting to get mushy and prone to boot and feet soaking. The terrain steepens appreciably at the 7,000-foot level where a steep wall is encountered leading up to the mesa. From a distance this wall looks more cliff-like than it really is, and where at first we thought only one or two reasonable routes could be found on this side, in fact almost any line would do. I chose a more rocky scramble while Tom and Laura found different chutes to my right, and independently we all made our way to the mesa. A forest of juniper and pine atop the mesa made spotting each other somewhat problematic, but by finding a nice overview spot I was able to pick out Tom in a few minutes. We headed west across the mesa to a rocky outcrop that we thought would make a good place to watch out for Laura. Taking less than fifteen minutes to reach, we were surprised to find it was the summit we were looking for - without having planned this ahead of time, we had guessed that the summit was another 3/4 mile further west. The register we found confirmed what seemed obvious from a visual survey. Barbara and Gordon had left the register in 1981, with 9 pages filled over the past 32 years.

Laura was not as easy to find as the summit. Shortly after we had reached the top we had called out. Almost immediately we heard a whooping off in the distance, but didn't spot her. We assumed she had seen us from our obvious perch and we waved in her direction to make it clear, then settled down out of the wind on the leeward side to await her joining us. But she was not soon in arriving. Seems she had not heard our call at all, but had coincidently called out to us at the same time as we were expecting her to answer. Hearing nothing in return, she continued to what she thought was the summit about half a mile to the northeast. This was not the first time she'd gone missing close to the summit and ended up at an alternate point. Meanwhile, we started to worry after about 20 minutes and I wandered north along the crest to see if perhaps she didn't go to the other point further west, bypassing the highpoint altogether. As I was returning to Tom I spotted Laura a few minutes off making her way in our direction. Crisis averted. We gave her only enough time to sign her name in the register and perhaps a few minutes to catch her breath - Tom and I were already cooled off and starting to get cold. Beers were beckoning us back to the car.

We headed back by nearly the same route, but utilizing the dirt road for the last mile and half. We realized that most of the road was quite clear past the initial 50yds of snow and it probably would have been possible to shave a few miles off an already short hike. As promised, Tom had a small selection of beers in a cooler which made for a fine ending to the hike. Chauffeur and bartender - who knew he had so many talents? More driving got us back to the turnout where we'd spent the night just south of SR190. We decided to spend the night at Gill Corral about a mile and a half to the southwest. Tom and I had driven through there the day prior and noted that it would make a good campsite. Laura drove down to start a campfire and get things ready for dinner. Tom and I took showers as the sun was setting and the moon was rising before joining Laura. From a mile away I could see the campfire flames rising four feet in the air. She had brought last year's Christmas tree to burn and it was quite the incendiary. Chef Laura had already prepared two main courses (turkey chili and chicken fajitas) for my birthday celebration (it mattered little that it was more than a week earlier) and came prepared with just about every available piece of camping cuisine gear that Coleman makes. With the weather having been so bitterly cold at night over the past week, I had my doubts that this was going to work, but the weather helped out by keeping the temperature above freezing and we had enough wood and alcohol (for consumption, not burning) to make our campfire last until 8p. Thanks Laura, it was a fine meal, as usual!

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