Monument Peak LLT

Feb 13, 2020

With: Scott Barnes
Iris Ma

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


Monument Peak is a CA desert summit near the Arizona border with a brief but rich climbing history that pre-dates even the Sierra Club's DPS. This massive pinnacle resembling Higher Cathedral Spire in Yosemite is but 170ft in diameter at a point 200ft below the summit where it attaches to the more massive Copper Mtn. It can be seen at the eastern end of the Whipple Mountains from portions of Lake Havasu City on the Arizona side, from certain locations on the CA side, and quite dramatically along sections of the Colorado River near Parker Dam. The rock quality is particularly bad, rebuffing most parties that attempt it, even though the climbing isn't all that technical. The first to visit were 1912 surveyors who intended to place a benchmark at the summit to mark it's location as one corner of the Colorado River Indian Reservation. Finding the pinnacle beyond their means, they simply placed the marker at the base of the pinnacle where it abuts Copper Mtn and called it good. The first serious attempt was made by John Mendenhall in April 1937 with Lloyd Shaffer. After a reconnaisance that demonstrated the effort would require more than just the hemp ropes they'd brought with them, they borrowed iron spikes from the MWD construction crews building nearby Copper Basin Reservoir as part of the Colorado River Aqueduct. They then managed to climb 80-100ft up what they described as moderate class 4 climbing before stopping due to the dangerous conditions of the rock and lack of equipment. In October of the same year, a stronger party consisting of Bob Brinton and Glen Dawson made a second effort with a collection of pitons and carabiners and 290ft of rope. They got about 40ft past where the Mendenhall party had stopped before deciding the risks due to rotten rock were too great, concluding, "the climbing is not difficult as climbing goes, but very dangerous." On the last day of 1939, Mendenhall came back with his wife Ruth, Arthur Johnson and Paul Estes. Armed with 400ft of rope, 30 pitons, 18 carabiners and four hammers (used to test the soundness of the rock as they climbed), this formidable party managed the first ascent in a harrowing 4hrs as described in the 1940 Sierra Club Bulletin by Mendenhall and an article in Desert Magazine the same year by Johnson. Following that, interest seems to have waned. Barbara Lilley climbed it in 1957 with a party, recently giving us her succinct, "The rock is treacherous but the climbing isn't very hard." Bob Cable reported on PB climbing it in 2001 and that's where the written records seem to end.

My own introduction to the peak was somewhat accidental. I was pursuing P1Ks and noticed the eastern part of the Whipple Mtns had an unusually dense cluster. I came to find it is an area of interesting volcanic plugs that offer fine scrambling opportunities. Patrick O'Neill was among a handful of friends that had joined me on that first visit in 2015 and came prepared with the article from Glen Dawson's 1938 attempt. It sounded scary and beyond our means. Monument Peak turns out to be attached to the higher Copper Mtn which we climbed, though we never got a view of it except from a distance. We were there for only a day and left after collecting three summits. I came back on subsequent trips in 2017 and 2018, climbing a dozen other summits in the range. Monument Peak was always in the back of my mind, but I never gave it any serious attention due to the reported difficulties. As preparation for the DPS banquet presentation I was to give in May, I asked Scott if he might like to go check it out. He jumped on the idea almost immediately, and while my expectations were mostly for a recon trip to take some nice photographs, Scott more seriously considered actually climbing the thing. Iris signed up at the last minute to make a party of three that convened at Bowmans Wash near Parker Dam on a Thursday morning. I was somewhat surprised to find just how seriously Scott was taking the climb - he had brought two 70m ropes, double sets of cams and nuts and a small collection of new pitons he'd purchased just for the occasion. He also came equipped with three hammers to test the soundness of the rock just like the Mendenhall party. I had figured we might get up the first pitch or two where Dawson and Brinton had turned around, but no further, guessing our chances at far less than 50%. Scott had much higher expectations and far greater confidence.

I considered my job in all this relatively simple - drive us up Bowmans Wash and lead us to the start of the climb. After that, I would turn the climbing duties over to Scott on lead and Iris on belay while I sat around taking pictures and following as the third after the others had done the hard work. And so we piled into the jeep with our gear shortly after 7a and spent 45min driving five and a half miles up the wash to our starting point. Iris and I each carried one of the ropes and our personal gear, leaving Scott to bear the brunt of the weight with the heavy gear (though we opted to leave one hammer, and I carried another in my pack that I had no intention of using). We had less than two miles to our destination, a pleasant enough effort that took us across several drainages as we generally headed east and northeast, gaining something over 1,000ft. It took us two hours to reach the saddle on the west side of Monument Peak where it attaches to the much larger Copper Mtn. We got our first view of the peak while still an hour away, and from that vantage it was downright frightening to look at. It got only slightly more practical by the time we'd reached the base and begun to gear up around 9:40a. There was a BLM benchmark from 1975 near us, but no sign of the iron post driven in by surveyors in 1912. We did spot what looked like a new-ish bolt hanger about 25ft up, leading us to hope, albeit briefly, that someone had retrofitted the route with good bolts and bomber belay stations. Ropes were flaked out, Scott was laden with gear, last-minute adjustments were made to his helmet GoPro, and by 10a Scott was ready to head up. This, incidently, was the exact same starting time as the successful Mendenhall party in 1939.

With Iris doing belay duties, Scott walked across a narrow neck of rock and up against the first bit of face before climbing on the monument. At the base was what looked like a large iron piton, likely the post driven in by the 1912 survey party. Later I learned this was of more recent origin, installed in the 1990s by Tim O'Connor. After clipping into this over-sized piton, Scott's first reaction with hands on the rock was, "Gee, this stuff is really loose!" acting a bit surprised at the non-surprise. He slowly but deftly made his way up and left into the alcove in the lower recess of the West Face. Aside from the bolt we'd seen (which turned out to be a spinner and not all that secure), he found two old pitons to clip into along the way. Some rocks came tumbling down periodically, but nothing too big. Scott seemed to make the most of the hammer he used to tap-tap ahead of him as he climbed. It took about 15min for him to reach a good-sized shelf up and right of the alcove, the only good belay ledge on the pinnacle. It would take another 20min to set up an anchor (there were two pitons to which Scott added a nut for a third point that would comprise the anchor), take up the rope and have Iris on belay, ready to climb. She trailed the second rope to which I was attached, with little to do other than take some photos and enjoy the nice weather and sunshine. As Iris climbed, she unclipped the top rope from each piece before clipping the lower rope behind her. This would allow me to follow roughly the same line without the concern of pendulum-ing out to the right. Iris was up in 15min, followed by a small delay before the lower rope had been pulled up and I was ready. I then went up in turn, cleaning the gear before reaching the belay ledge. I found the climbing challenging but not hard, the rock fairly decent, considering. It was a little after 11a when I joined the others at the belay ledge, and so far things were looking promising. Of course, that was the easy part.

The three of us spent some time together at the ledge going over the written descriptions provided by Dawson and Johnson in their respective reports. We couldn't quite match our belay position with theirs, nor was it obvious where to go from here. Straight up seemed out of the question, so we surmised that we had to continue upwards to the right towards the South Face. This seemed to match the fuzzy pictures from the 1930s that were digitized on Scott's phone, our reference source. We guessed that maybe we'd combined the first two pitches of the earlier parties and figured we were about 80ft up from the start with another 120ft to go. There was a collection of tattered rap slings lying in a pile on our belay ledge, having nearly disintegrated after the previous party rappeled from the anchor here. Surely they were more than a few decades old. With Iris on belay duty again, Scott started up after we'd wrapped up maybe 20min of discussion. This second pitch was the hardest and most dangerous section. The rock bulged outwards, leaving only small holds, the rock now very much more unsettling. Huge chunks came out as Scott progressed, Iris and I watching them bounce off the walls and then launch away from the pinnacle as they gathered speed, spinning and plummeting into the abyss. It was fortunate that Scott had traversed out to the right, otherwise we might be a good deal more involved than as mere spectators. Finding no more pitons, he placed protection of his own, eventually finding the rope drag was too great where he had created a Z pattern in his placements. After placing another above himself, I suggested he downclimb to remove the last piece that was creating most of the drag. This he did carefully, but there was no joy in descending such rotten rock, even if only for ten feet. Once the drag was reduced, Scott continued climbing, slowly but surely, testing the rock with his hammer and working his way upwards. He eventually gained a narrow ledge at the base of the Chimney that would comprise our third and final pitch. It was a full hour from the start of the pitch until Iris was ready to start up herself - this had been a most tricky effort and I began to realize that A) we might actually get up this thing, and B) I was going to be very uncomfortable very soon. I watched Iris follow up, knocking nearly as much rock down the face as Scott had. My hopes that the rock would be cleaned up before I had to scramble across it were dashed. Iris cleaned the gear this time, no need to leave it in for me, besides the rope drag was still very much a problem - at least Iris wouldn't have to contend with that when belaying me up. When it was my turn to start, I moved as swiftly up as I could manage, not looking down except to make foot placements, no pauses to take out a camera. I was impressed and terrified imagining what it would feel like on lead as I went. How did Scott have the nerve to continue up with such rotten holds? Nerves of steel, it seemed.

When I reached the 2nd belay, I found the others crouched along a very narrow ledge, not the roomy one we had below. I used one of the cams I'd cleaned to put in a piece behind me in addition to clipping the anchor line. It was a somewhat precarious perch, but it seemed solid enough. I looked down only briefly to take a photo - it was a long way down, perhaps 130ft now, maybe 30ft horizontally from where we started. It was after 1:20p by the time Scott was ready to head up the final pitch, a decent chimney maybe 40ft in height. Iris and I sat out of the way as Scott headed up, a few rocks coming down, but more solid than the previous pitch. Johnson had described this as a "perfect spot for 'foot and back' technique" but it seemed easier to face the chimney and use stemming techniques to push the rock back into the pinnacle. Above this, Scott found easy going and set up a 3rd belay about 30ft below the summit. Iris followed, leaving me to occupy the narrow shelf by myself. When it was my turn, it took only five minutes to climb the chimney and walk the remaining distance to the rounded summit, covered in broken talus. It was just after 2p, having taken us the same four hours as the first ascent party. We had nothing on them to be sure, and they had a fourth person as well. Iris and Scott soon scrambled up to join me and we relished our success. We weren't as strong as a Mendenhall party, but we were enough for Monument Peak.

We spent more than an hour at the summit, one of my longest summit stays in memory. The weather was just perfect as we sat around in tshirts neither too warm nor too chilled. There were two rusty bolts and a piton in the rocks to serve as an anchor. There were more sunbleached slings just downslope, having rotted over the decades they'd been here. There was also a modest cairn though at first we found no sign of a register. With some digging, Iris found one at the base on one side. It was not the original register we had hoped to recover, but a newer one from 1990. It recorded three ascents by Tim O'Connor and various pals between then and 2002. There was no record of Bob Cable's 2001 ascent, but then he might have had trouble finding the register as we did. Tim O'Connor is the president of the Leaping Lizard Tribe, a rock-climbing group based in Lake Havasu City. They have a Facebook page that sees little traffic and I've seen their business cards in several registers in the tri-state area, but otherwise not a lot of online presence regarding their exploits. We enjoyed summit cookies, Halloween candy and other snacks while atop the summit, taking in the views and catching our breath. Scott in particular was finally able to relax after four adrenaline-fueled hours on lead. Some time was spent discussing the rappel and equalizing an anchor using some new webbing I'd brought for the purpose. We tied our two ropes together in order to facilitate a single rappel which we judged would just make it with 10-20ft of extra rope to spare. From the time Scott started down, it would take a full 45min to get all three of us safely down. There were rocks knocked down in the process, but luckily these did not impact the ropes below. About half of the rappel dropped free and though I went fairly slowly, the heat build-up in my rappel device and gloves was surprising, though not quite alarming.

Once down on the ground, we still had the business of getting the ropes pulled down. Before Iris had started down last, Scott and I tried to pull using the rope on the knotted side of the rap ring, but were unable to budge it. We then asked (via walkie-talkie) Iris to push the knot through the rap ring so we could try the other rope. Not without some struggle, we managed to get the rope moving on that side. We gave Iris some instructions to better manage the ropes above her as she descended and kept our fingers crossed that we wouldn't have to leave $400 worth of rope on the pinnacle. We were happy to find that we were able to retrieve the ropes after Iris's rappel. We didn't notice it at the time, but one of the ropes suffered a core shot, probably when the rope was pulled. It was so bad that it seems unlikely that we would have missed seeing it during the rappels. We packed up our gear and started back shortly after 4p. It would take us another hour to return to the jeep as the sun was getting ready to set in the western sky. It was almost dark before we had driven the length of Bowmans Wash back to our other vehicles where we parted ways. What a day, what a climb!

Iris' photos/videos

I contacted both Tim O'Conner and Bob Cable sometime after our ascent and had several nice exchanges with both. Bob Cable shared that he had climbed it with a friend, Pat Brennan. Pat created a topo and short report from their climb that was shared with me, a fun little bit of history for this peak. The topo shows a flag at the summit, a feature that was there in 2001. Tim O'Connor had placed this on one of his earlier efforts, but removed it on his last ascent in 2002.


gimpilator comments on 03/24/20:
I have long wondered about this peak. Congratulations on a tough climb. Having seen your report, I'll probably skip it.
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