Palms BM SDC
Elder BM SDC
Collins BM SDC

Thu, Feb 18, 2010

With: Adam Jantz
Tom Becht
Karl Fieberling

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile


There were four of us parked in the Borrego Visitor Center in the wee hours, some of us getting a good nine hours of sleep, others getting as little as two. Karl had driven from his home in Santa Cruz through the night and had not had much chance to rest before the 5a wake up call. While perhaps not bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, he was enthusiastic for his first climbing experience in the Anza-Borrego desert. We took a bit of time to get our gear prepared and to eat breakfast, then left two cars where they were and drove the other two out to Coyote Valley north of Borrego Springs.

Our peaks were located in the adjacent Collins Valley, and in times past one could drive out to one of several trailheads there. Now only the hardiest of 4x4 vehicles could manage the road where it has been washed out by flooding of Coyote Creek. Though Google maps shows several ways to reach our starting point, there's only one way to get there, via DiGiorgio Rd and the dirt road that heads into the state park from its northern end (we investigated the other option at the start of the Anza Trail, but those aren't driveable). Our two 4WD vehicles managed the sandy conditions and the first two creek crossings without trouble, but we balked at the third crossing where we found ominous signs warning of increased difficulties and a deep-looking pool to ford at this third crossing.

We parked our cars next to two others that were also there, setting out on foot with headlamps ablaze. It was 5:45a when we started off, first following the wrong creek branch, but correcting this within a few minutes when the path we were following disappeared into a thicket. We did not need our headlamps long. We followed the road where it was rerouted south of Lower Willows, going over a saddle and into Collins Valley. We spent about an hour crossing east to west through the wide valley on first the road, then the Sheep Canyon Trail, then a bit of cross-country to the foot of the eastern base of Palms, our first peak.

The five peaks on the day's agenda were taken from the San Diego Sierra Club's peak list, a dubious but fun collection of summits and benchmarks heavily weighted in the eastern half of the county and the Anza-Borrego desert. From past experience I know that some of these "peaks" have little prominence and were picked for the benchmarks located there, so I had the coordinates of all five peaks loaded into my GPS which we would use for reference throughout the day.

The sun had risen about halfway across Collins Valley, and as we started the ascent up to Palms it was already getting warm. We would find pleasant enough conditions on the summits, but the ascents of the various peaks seemed to be breezeless, warm affairs that had us glad for the large quantities of liquids that made up the bulk of the packs we carried. The scrambling up to Palms was easy enough class 2, but steep and unrelenting as we climbed more than 1,500ft up boulder-strewn desert slopes, careful to avoid the cacti spread over the slopes amongst the less harmful scrub.

A rejuvenated Adam was out in front heading up this first peak, Tom and Karl taking more time in the rear as I held the middle ground and tried to keep Adam in sight. We crested a false summit, which at first seemed discouraging, but we were only 15 minutes away at that point. The views looking back to Collins Valley were impressive. Here was a vast stretch of desert lands that had little evidence of human impact, just a few dusty roads and no development for as far as the eye could see. A few flowers were starting to bloom on the slopes following the large amounts of rain that had fallen only a few weeks earlier. A few juniper trees dotted the landscape to provide color, but mostly it was the whites and rusty browns of the abundant granite rocks that we saw along with the darker green color of the desert plants.

It was not long after 8a when we reached the summit of Palms. The highest rock was an easy scramble and we found a 1982 MacLeod/Lilley register at its base. Another summit block, slightly lower, lay just to the west enticing Adam and I to climb this tougher, class 4 pinnacle while the others rested, choosing to watch instead. The second, SDC register was located at a yet lower, third location to the northeast where the benchmark had been located. It looked to have been removed from the large, flattish boulder it had been cemented into, and the only remaining evidence was the wire and wooden stakes that had been set up by the surveyors for their triangulation measurements. We signed both registers and hung about the summit for 20 minutes before starting off to the second summit.

About 3/4 mile north is Elder BM, requiring a 400ft drop before climbing back up some 600ft to its summit. At first it looked like rough intervening country, but once we started down from Palms it became evident that there is a nice, easily traversed flats between them. We dropped off the northwest side of Palms to the south end of the flats below, then traversed north the half mile across to the base of Elder. The route up the south side of Elder was characterized by some large blocks and modest brush in the lower half, changing to less brushy talus higher up. When we reached the crest of the summit ridge it was not obvious whether the highpoint was to the left or right, but we guessed right and were rewarded with the summit a minute later, about 50 minutes after leaving Palms.

The MacLeod and Lilley party had left a register here on the same day in 1982 as the one we'd found on Palms. Though we were undoubtedly at the highpoint, my GPS said we were still more than 300ft from the benchmark. Looking east, I guessed a lower bump in that direction held the benchmark and went off to investigate while the others sat about the highpoint, happy to let me go over there on my own. It took all of five minutes to cover the intervening ground where I found the benchmark and another register to boot (that Shane's name hadn't been in the first one suggested to me that I'd find another register over here on the eastern summit). I signaled to the others of my find by waving one of the wooden stakes I found over my head. Adam was the only one of the three curious enough to come over from the higher summit for a look. The other two didn't care to play the game by the same silly rules as myself - if the SDC says the benchmark is the summit, that's the one I should tag...

Back at the highpoint to join the others, I took further interest in a slightly lower summit block to the west of the saddle we'd climbed to initially. I went over to investigate, finding it unclimbable on the east and south sides. Tom called over to say it looked like it might be climbable from the north, and in fact that was the only reasonable approach I found to it. I had to drop down some 50ft or more on that side before I could find access heading up the north and northwest side. A small bit of class 4 friction got me to the tiny summit block. The others were content to let me prove the feasibility of it and were already starting off towards our next peak when I got myself back down.

The highest peak of the day was Collins, a bit more than a mile to the west. We had first to drop 700ft before reclimbing almost 2,000ft back up to Collins. This next leg took us more than an hour and a half. All the while we were descending to the South Fork of Salvador Canyon, the steep east face of Collins loomed in front of us, growing higher and more tiring-looking the further we descended. Once again it was Adam and I out in front leading the charge (that would be a gross overstatement of our actual pace) up to Collins. A false summit on this side caught us off guard, and when we thought we had reached the top we quickly found we had another 25 minutes further to go.

Once again we found the register had been placed by a MacLeod/Lilley party, but this time it was 3 weeks after their visit to Palms and Elder. At least we had this over them - combining these all in one long day. There was a short entry from Shane describing his route to the four closest peaks in this area, taking a somewhat different course around them. His route avoided the use of Sheep Canyon to the south that we planned to use for our descent. Only later did we find this was a considerable time-saver for Shane.

Karl was the last of our group to reach Collins, coming up over the lower east summit block at about a quarter to noon. Though the register was located at the higher western block the three of us were parked on, Karl discovered the benchmark just below where he was sitting. Of course I went over to investigate and snap a picture of it for posterity. I had once joked to Steve Eckert that I didn't want to be known as the guy who took pictures of all the benchmarks, but here I was, doing just that.

Our fourth summit, Knob BM, was a small bump located low on a subsidiary ridge of Collins to the south. It was only about 400ft up from our route down to Sheep Canyon, and almost trivial-looking for where we sat. The bigger nut would be Square Top, several miles to the south, nearly as high as Collins, with a big drop to Sheep Canyon between them. Further, the routes up to Square Top looked unusually brushy for a desert peak. We had a brief pow-wow to decide whether to continue to it. We took stock of the water we had remaining, finding we had less than we might have hoped - the warm sun had forced us to drink a good deal of what we'd brought with us. Karl was only interested in heading back. Tom had more energy, but not enough desire to go to Square Top. Adam and I were still interested, but not highly so. We decided to descend to Sheep Canyon and give it more thought at that time. Tom decided to head west to a higher unnamed summit about a mile in that direction before heading back down (he later reported finding a register going back 21 years with only a few signatures).

It did not take long for Adam and I to lose Karl on our descent down the south side of Collins. It was steep, blocky, and mildly tricky, making for a rather fun tad of downhill scrambling. We didn't worry about losing Karl since he wasn't heading to Square Top - he'd likely finish descending the canyon well ahead of us. We popped out of the shallow canyon we were descending when in the vicinity of Knob, making a traversing ascent to the saddle on its north side. Though brushy near the top, Adam did a fine job of finding an easy route through it and spiraling up from the saddle around to our left.

It was 12:50p when we found ourselves on the sunny, unobstructed summit rocks. There was another register as expected, but no visit by MacLeod/Lilley - even they didn't find this little bump worthy, and they seem to have standards nearly as low as my own. Somewhat surprisingly, this was the oldest of the registers we found on this trip, dating to December of 1979. Oh, and another benchmark, of course.

In the fifteen or so minutes we spent at the summit, we kept an eye out towards Collins, looking for signs of Karl making his way towards us. Nothing stirred in that direction. We left the summit, heading down the west side from the saddle, towards the north-south gully we had followed earlier. Unexpectedly, we found a trickle of water where it seemingly should have been dry. And just has unexpectedly we found Karl huddled in the shade just below. Karl had been nearly out of water but had not really let us know how pressing it had become. He had forgone the extra climb to Knob primarily for this reason, though he said he probably wouldn't have climbed it anyway. Adam, too, was happy to have the water and went about recharging several quarts into his empty containers. I drank about a pint myself - not bad for rusty-colored water. We would not have the excuse of too little water for not climbing Square Top now. After about five minutes we left Karl who was still resting, enjoying the water and washing the salt and sweat from his head. Adam and I continued down the gully, growing ever brushier, eventually leaving it as it neared Sheep Canyon. We traversed over several smaller gullies on our way to the base of Square Top, finding more water and lusher conditions than we'd found elsewhere during the day.

It was 2p when we reached the base at Sheep Canyon, pausing to consider our efforts further. The north side of Square Top looked painfully brushy, but from a distance it looked like the east side would be the way to approach it via a gully leading up to that side from Sheep Canyon. Now that we were looking at it close up, it too looked brushy. It might easily take us two hours to ascend the 2,000ft to the summit, maybe more. Could we get back to Sheep Canyon before dark? Would that be sufficient to find our way back to the car? Like the day before we were having serious doubts now that we were faced with the decision to push on for the Full Monty. This time Adam was less wavering than myself, but we struggled all the same to make a decision one way or the other. In the end Adam out-waited me and gave me the honor of wimping out. He smiled at that, and then we turned east towards Collins Valley.

Sheep Canyon had a good amount of water in it when we found ourselves in the main channel, below the convergence of the various small upstream gullies. The canyon was far more primitive than the Borrego Palm Canyon we had descended the previous day though it was not nearly the length or depth. The going was definitely slower. There was quite a bit of brush and overhanging trees and thickets pressing in on the river and very little evidence of others having traveled up or down it. The recent deluge had washed down any evidence of human travel, piling sand and debris haphazardly to slow our progress. After about 20 minutes of making our way down we quite suddenly came upon Karl resting in a sandy embankment, his back and head leaning against a fallen trunk. He had all the casualness of Stanley's meeting with Dr. Livingston in the african interior.

After a brief pause, the three of us continued together down Sheep Canyon. More surprising than running into Karl, we found Tom around 3p, having just dunked his head in the creek after arriving in the canyon from a higher route. He had managed to reach the unnamed Peak 4,695ft easily enough, but had made up time by not dropping into Sheep Canyon until forced to do so. Reunited, we traveled the remainder of the day as a group of four.

The narrower, brushier upstream portion of Sheep Canyon gave way to the wider, steeper, and rockier lower portion of the canyon, reminiscent of Borrego Palm Canyon. There were several drops along the way that caused pause. One had a large, 20-foot chockstone that we eventually descended by sliding and jumping off of, into the sandy streambed below. In the lead, Adam provided the most humorous moment by stepping squarely into an unconsolidated pile of wet sand that he thought would be more solid. At his scream I turned to see him pulling one drenched boot after the other out of the wet depression his feet had created when he'd jumped down into it. Another drop in the canyon was wet and slippery and involved an even bigger jump onto wet sand (thankfully not the quicksand variety). I had gone down first from this last section, only to see the others first hesitate, then look for alternate ways around. They traversed high around on the right side, while I struggled through the thickets in the creekbed, trying to keep them in sight.

A few minutes later I came to a huge drop in the canyon that would be impossible to downclimb. Thinking the others had gotten lucky in traversing around the previous obstacle, I scrambled out of the canyon, trying to catch up to them ahead of me. Some fifty feet higher, I turned to find the others had descended back to the canyon behind me and were looking up at me. I got another laugh in telling them they'd have to climb back out again. There was a last waterfall in the canyon, easily bypassed on the right, that we encountered around 3:30p. We took a short break below this to regroup and drink up before continuing on. Below this point we began to find portions of trail on one side or the other, eventually a pretty good trail that led back and forth across the creek as needed, speeding up our progress three-fold. Where the trail lead through a rocky section high on the north side of the canyon, we spotted a party of two ahead of us, down in the canyon. Less than ten minutes later we emerged from the mouth of the canyon to find several vehicles and parties encamped at the old trailhead, still accessible by the more ambitious four-wheelers.

It would take another hour and fifteen minutes to traverse back across Collins Valley and return to our less manly trailhead. It was 5:30p and not long before dark by the time we had gotten back. Adam and I realized we'd have been in for an epic with the descent of Sheep Canyon at least partially in the dark had we continued to Square Top, so we were quite happy with our decision to abort that effort. It would wait for another day. Showers at the campground were followed by dinner at Pablito's, one of the two mexican restaurants in town. Not a bad way to end a fun day.


Hans comments on 03/20/14:
I did a milder version of your hike yesterday (skipping Knob), being spectacularly unsuccessful with locating the actual benchmarks and registers.
Should have read your story more carefully before. But thanks for your map, and for your pictures of what I missed.
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