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Malapai Hill later climbed Sun, Dec 7, 2014|
There were seven of us gathered at the Cottonwood Visitor Center in Joshua Tree at the wee hour of 6a. The agenda for the weekend was an admittedly weak one, tagging a handful of third string peaks that included some currently on the LPC list, a number of delisted HPS peaks, and a couple of minor range highpoints. If someone else had offered me a similar opportunity I would probably have passed, but not my companions today, bless their hearts. Turns out there are plenty of outdoor types who are happy to get out on a beautiful fall weekend without minding so much what the agenda is. I just don't happen to be one of those folks, so I'm happy when people oblige me and let me choose where to go.
Monument Peak is an LPC peak located in the southern part of Joshua Tree NP. It is also the possible highpoint of the Hexie Mtns, depending on who you ask since the boundary of this smallish range is not easy to establish. By some reckoning, Monument Peak is not part of the range, making the slightly lower Peak 4,780ft about 7mi to the northwest the highpoint. I planned to cover my bases by tagging both peaks today using two different approaches. To reach Monument Peak we would the LPC guide's suggestion, which is undoubtedly the shortest approach, via Pinkham Canyon Rd starting from the Visitor Center. This dirt road starts off easy enough such that any car can navigate the first mile, but then it becomes a much bumpier, sandier affair that requires high clearance to negotiate. Leaving most of our cars at the Visitor Center, we piled into two qualified vehicles and started off. We'd gone perhaps half of the five miles on this dusty dirt road when a white SUV caught up behind us. Sean had been driving from Los Angeles for the last several hours and had just missed us at the Visitor Center by a few minutes. Seems he is as fleet of car as he was on foot.
So now there were eight of us as we started hiking shortly before 7a, heading north, just after daybreak. There is no trail, but the cross-country travel is easy here (as in most of Joshua Tree) and there was nothing tricky about the navigation. We simply aimed for the SE Ridge across the flats before us, and followed it up to the summit. No one was setting a fast pace as might be expected during the Challenge (we had five veterans among us), but we still broke into smaller groups at varying rates, chatting most of the way. It took about an hour for Adam and Sean to reach the summit, the rest coming in shortly behind, Laura coming up last about fifteen minutes later, her knee not cooperating too nicely. It looked like a typical Sierra Club or Sierra Challenge party on the summit when we all had gathered. The register we found was very recent, less than a year old, our entries taking up most of the second page. One could see a great many ranges in all directions with San Jacinto standing out most distinctly off to the southwest. It was breezy and cold at the summit itself, but just to the south on the leeward side we found calmer, warmer conditions and we lazed about for most of half an hour.
The return via the same route took almost exactly the same amount of time as the ascent. Clearly there was no sense of urgency today and I think we were all good with that. The schedule for the day wasn't very aggressive and the idea was mostly just to have a good time as we looked forward to the evening's BBQ that Laura had planned for us. Back at the cars Erin had a large bag of homemade cookies that she broke out as reward for completing the first peak of the day. They were quite delicious and would likely have been consumed completely in no time if we weren't all trying to be polite and restricting ourselves to just a couple.
On the drive back to the Visitor Center it was my turn to ride in the back of Adam's SUV. The amount of gear he carries in the back includes two full-sided spares among a great many other things, so sitting back there is no easy feat. In fact sitting is pretty much impossible and the best one can manage is a reclining position and the hopes that the vehicle doesn't roll over. Back at the Visitor Center we got the rest of our cars (six cars for eight people is not a very environmentally friendly way to cruise around the backcountry) and continued north. Our next stop was the Belle Campground at the northern end of the park.
We weren't planning to camp here, just use it as a staging area for the ascent of Belle 2 BM, the highpoint of the Pinto Mtns. Evan Rasmussen had climbed nearby Twenty Nine Palms Mtn thinking it was the range highpoint, but in perusing the maps a bit myself, I came to this alternate conclusion. The campground provides close access (little more than a mile to the summit) and a high starting point at over 3,800ft, making for a relatively easy outing. The summit is crowned by a couple of radio towers and did not appear to be impressive by any measure. Still recovering from a knee injury, Laura decided to take it easy, reading a book while the rest of us went off to the summit.
The tower-topped summit is easily visible from the start, making navigation a snap. After a half mile jaunt across an open flat we started the steep climb to the summit, taking all of 30 minutes to reach it. The highpoint seems to be a rocky outcrop at the northwest end of the gated installation, where we found a benchmark and a MacLeod/Lilley register dating to 1981. Prodded by my email to him concerning the discrepancy, Evan had been the last visitor to the summit just four days earlier. The views weren't bad, aside from the nearby towers. We could see north into the community of Twenty Nine Palms, and to the northeast is the mountain named for the community. The Pinto Mtns spread out to the east. To the south are the Hexie Mtns and to the west the higher areas of Joshua Tree, blending into the San Bernardino Mtns with San Gorgonio visible in the distance.
We returned via the same route, finding Laura relaxing at a picnic bench with her book. She reported that a ranger had come by to check on things, but did not have a problem with our temporary parking in the campground as we had feared. Gathering up our cars once more, we left the CG and headed north, then southwest to the Jumbo Rocks CG. We staked out a couple of campsites here, then six of us drove south on Geology Tour Rd, a good dirt road leading to our last two peaks of the day. Laura stayed in camp to prepare our BBQ feast while Brian decided to head home, having only the one day to join us. The challenge for our next peak was going to be in getting back before darkness overcame us. There was no trail, and without a GPS we might be challenged to find the cars again on the way back should darkness overtake us. So I was somewhat anxious to get started and was actively shepherding folks to load up in the cars and get going.
There is no obvious starting point for Peak 4,780ft. The road passes about 3.5mi to the west of the summit on its way up a gradual slope to a 4,100-foot pass before it drops into Berdoo Canyon and out to the Coachella Valley. We found a turnout for several cars when we were approximately due west of our target and started from there. More than half the distance to the summit is across the flats of Pleasant Valley, about two miles that we managed in about 40 minutes of easy hiking. From there we started up the first of several rises to reach the highpoint whose location is not obvious once we were off the flats, but it was not hard to guess its location and pick an appropriate route without too much loss of elevation in between.
Sean was the first to reach the summit around 2:50p, about an hour and fifteen minutes after we'd started. The terrain had been easy to navigate and we made excellent time, much better than I had expected. There was no longer any worry about getting back before dark though Erin was not easily convinced and was nervous that we shouldn't spend so much time at the summit. Our stay was somewhat abbreviated on this account. There was no register to be found, so I pulled out the glass jar I had confiscated from East Butte the day before, Tom contributed a notepad he had in his pack and someone provided a pencil to complete the register that we left there.
On our way back via substantially the same route (because of the rolling nature of the terrain, it's hard to take the same route even trying hard to do so) the sun set around 4p, going behind the Little Berdoo Mtns to the west. There was still substantial light out when we returned to the vehicles 20 minutes later. It would not last long however, perhaps 30 minutes, which was about how long it took us to pack up and drive north to Malapais Hill. Though it was a very short hike from the road, there was no question that it would be dark before reaching the summit. Interest in joining me was waning with the day.
Luckily we had two vehicles. Adam was the only one still interested in Malpais, but neither car was one of ours. Sean was kind enough to leave his truck with us while he went back with the others in Tom's Element. Starting just before 5p, we made quick work of the last peak, taking less than 40 minutes roundtrip. We were treated to fine display of glowing clouds along the way as the sun dipped down below the horizon. The NE Slope that we used to both ascend and descend was rather rocky, but easy enough to negotiate in failing light or by headlamp. We found a register easily enough, with some sort of odd gourd inside, about the size of a tennis ball. It was a fine end to a surprisingly good day of easy peakbagging.
Back at Jumbo Rocks CG, the BBQ was nearly ready when we arrived around 6p, excellent timing on our part. Laura's spread was pretty impressive for a campground situation. She had brought her own grill on which to cook steak and chicken, along with baked potatoes and bread cooked around the campfire. There was even a Christmas tree for the table. Tom provided wine and salad, while Adam and I contributed healthy appetites. It was a grand feast and we all ate and drank heartily. While Sean stoked the campfire afterwards (we had been warned of his pyro tendencies), I grew restless and started climbing up some of the rather large boulders immediately behind our campground. Sean soon joined in this amusement, both of us using special caution since the wine had affected both our coordination and judgement. The others at first discouraged us for just this reason, but after I had descended at least three others joined in the after-dinner scrambling. All good fun. Even Adam was enjoying himself despite the fact that he doesn't imbibe - he had discovered Laura's stash of chocolate milk and was happily sipping away with the little straw like he'd done back in second grade.
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