Sat, Dec 15, 2018
Owlhead BM is the most prominent peak in the Owlshead Mountains of Southern Death Valley, only 3ft shy of the coveted P2K status. It can be approached from the south or north, but is a fairly long hike from either direction. Of the two, the south side is shorter and made more sense since I was already in that area the previous two days for other peaks. Matt had hiked with me the previous day, so the two of us had camped out at the trailhead that night. Tom and Iris drove in early the next morning to join us, but because it's such a long drive, we didn't get started until 7:30a. The outing would cover a total of 17mi with under 3,000ft of gain, making it a modest climb in the middle of a really long walk.
Following an overcast day of cold temperatures, today dawned with bright blue skies and hardly a cloud to be seen. There is an old road that runs north from the NPS road to Lost Lake, about five miles in that direction. We started off on this road but left it after a few minutes, the cross-country really little different than the old road. The highpoint is found atop a long ridgeline at the north end and can be approached from valleys on either side. We chose to ascend from the eastside valley and descend to the west, though the latter plan wasn't worked out until later in the day. We had hours to converse and while away the morning as we made our up the eastern valley, some of it easy going with burro trails, other places littered with volcanic rock. The first hour was quite easy, then the rocks began to appear to slow us down. Easier going was found in the lighter-colored terrain further east and it did not take Matt long to figure this out. He drifted away from us towards the east but we figured it was shorter to hug the base of the mountain more closely. Three of us were lost in conversation for some time before noticing that Matt had gotten some distance ahead of us by finding this easier terrain. We were probably 2/3 of the way up the valley by that point, Iris and Tom choosing to move east and follow Matt's example. I decided to double-down on stupid and stayed close to the mountain, in and out of countless small and medium-sized washes, over vast tracts of varnish-colored rocks. I periodically saw the others to the east, becoming northeast as they gained over easier ground. Had this kept up for a few more hours I most certainly have been left behind, but I got lucky in that we were nearing our goal. This allowed me to start up earlier as I ascended a wash to the left of Pt. 1,083m shown on the topo map. Where the wash ended just above this point, I turned left to begin the steep face ascent up to the main crest. The others were about 1/5mi to the north going up a steep ridgeline, climbing more directly towards the highpoint. This side of the mountain is quite steep over terribly loose rock with very poor footing, not dangerously unsafe, but unsafe nonetheless. After much effort on all fours, slipping and sliding as I struggled to gain ground, I eventually reached the crest. After being out of cell range for the past two days, my phone had begun to go off with a dozen waiting messages. I paused to catch my breath at the crest and go through the messages to make sure there were no serious issues needing to be addressed. A few minutes later I got up and resumed my efforts, now easier, following the crest to the north towards the highpoint. I reached it just after 11a, with Tom and Iris only a few minutes behind me, Matt joining about five minutes after them. We joked about the extra effort I had to put out to beat them to the summit via the route I'd taken, my additional energy coming when I no longer had anyone to talk to.
It was a lovely day with fine views from our remote summit. One can see north into Death Valley proper, east into Nevada and the snowy massif of Mt. Charleston, south across a great expanse of desert real estate covering two military reservations. The snowy crest of the Sierra can just be seen to the west. Nowhere among all this space are there signs of civilization - not a town, a house, a road, another person. A Sierra Club party had left a register here in 2008, with four pages of entries and the most recent visitors from last March. We snacked and rested after more than 3.5hrs of effort, spending about 30min before continuing on. Peak 4,104ft lies 2mi SSW along the crest from the highpoint and would make our second and last summit for the day. There are no technical difficulties enroute, but the going is slowed by the surplus of volcanic rock scattered everywhere, requiring vigilance with most foot placements to keep from tripping. It took us about an hour and a half to get from one summit to the other. We found no register, not even a small cairn at the second summit, no love shown for this minor summit despite 315ft of prominence. We sat about logging ascents on our phones (or at least those of us with cell service), more halloween candy provided by Iris, and eventually back on our feet for the descent.
Having little interest in the crud slopes and cliffs found on the east side of the crest, we looked to find a reasonable route off the west side instead. There were some steep faces on that side too, so we had to travel a bit further south along the crest before finding a decent way down. Matt had expressed an interest in visiting the dry lakebed of Lost Lake to the west so we were angling for the southern end of the lake in the middle of the large valley. Tom and I got into a discussion about whether one could land a jet on the 2mi-long lake. I thought you could land pretty much any plane on it, but Tom thought otherwise, thinking the surface too soft to support the weight. When we eventually got down to the lakebed and found it hardpack mud, Tom came up with another objection - the many rocks scattered about the surface would be a hazard to the engines. More interesting was how these smaller volcanic rocks had come to be spread about the surface - seems there must be periodic water events that wash these from the surrounding areas onto the lakebed. The rocks aren't embedded in the mud at all and it looks like someone just scattered them about from a bucket. Looking around for Matt, we spied him in the very middle of the lakebed more than half a mile from the three of us. He was filming the views around him as he walked across the lake, eventually rejoining us as we turned south to start making our way back towards our vehicles, another four miles away. We followed the old road for much of this distance, leaving it on a few occasions when it didn't go as straight as one might hope. It would take us until after 4p before we had returned to our starting point, leaving us less than half an hour until sunset. We hadn't used all the available daylight on the outing, but pretty close.
After showering, we began the hour+ drive back out to SR127. The last 23mi from the Ft. Irwin gate to SR127 are in excellent condition and could be driven at speeds up to 45mph. It didn't feel safe going beyond that at night, and much of the time was slower due to curves in the road. Three burros were unceremoniously scattered from the roadway in the effort - another reason not to go too fast...
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