Fri, Dec 4, 2020
It had been a year since Ryan had done any hiking or climbing with Dad, and the first time either of my kids had joined me in the desert, so I was a little excited to have him along with the rest of us. Ryan had originally planned to do some camping in Joshua Tree with a friend, but his buddy had contracted the coronavirus (or at least believed he had and was awaiting test results), leaving Ryan stranded. So I suggested he join my party on the other side of the park and was happy that he took me up on the offer. We were climbing in the Coxcomb Mtns today, one of my favorite desert ranges. The terrain in the northern half of the range is steep, rough, and filled with grainy granite boulders, rock and an abundance of class 3 scrambling. The summits often have difficult blocks that make summiting far from assured. Today I was after a quartet of summits in a 10mi loop that would prove to be too ambitious. We would do well to get to the first two, leaving the others for another day.
We began the hike around 7:20a, starting from the north along SR62 where there are turnouts on both sides of the road for ample parking. There is a cell tower on the north side that makes navigating back to the cars at the end of the day a cinch. The hike starts with more than three miles across the desert flats to reach the base of the mountains, where "flat" is somewhat of an illusion, involving almost 1,000ft of hardly-perceptible elevation gain. Along the way we found the rusty remains of a tank mortar round, a heavy piece of steel shot from a WWII tank back when Patton was training his army for desert warfare in the early 1940s. Half-buried in the ground, we retrieved it, examined it, and left it standing in the desert for the next unsuspecting visitor to find. About an hour and a quarter after starting out, we came to the end of the easy hiking where the desert floor abuts the Coxcomb Range. We had to downclimb a steep section of loose ground in order to reach the start of a narrow wash we would follow up for much of the next hour.
Unlike gullies in other desert ranges, here there is much class 3 scrambling with large blocks crowding the route, then short breaks of flat sand, followed by more boulder fun. After weaving about through the drainage, heading west then south, we eventually started climbing out of the gully when less than half a mile from our first summit. With a myriad of closely-spaced pinnacles to choose from, it was impossible to pick out the highest one from below, relying instead on our GPSr to get us close enough to allow us to determine this for ourselves. As usual, the scrambling gets harder the higher one climbs towards a summit here, and this was no exception. We reached a notch just north of the summit by two different means, looking up and still unable to identify the highpoint only a hundred yards away now. I tried one route along the edge of a fin that might have worked if it hadn't been for a large catclaw tree directly blocking my efforts. I might have forced my way through it, painful and annoying as it would have been, if the others had not shown better progress in a trough just to my right. Karl watched from the notch as Tom made the route work, despite some terribly steep and crumbly sections to work through. While Karl decided it was too spicy for his liking, I retreated from my fin to join the trough using a connecting ledge. Ryan was just ahead of me, apologizing as he knocked several baseballs loose from their mooring. I decided to duck out of the way and let him finish his manuevers above me. In turn, Iris would wait below for me to follow through this section.
The highpoint turns out to be a 10-foot blade of rock atop a surprisingly roomy summit area. While three of us wandered around taking pictures, Tom took the first crack at the summit block, a low class 5 effort up it's East Face. With only room for one person on top at a time, we took turns, myself going second and Iris third. Ryan didn't have any strong need to do the summit block and left it untested. In all, we spent about 20min at the summit, leaving a register before starting down. While Iris and Tom went off to explore a possible descent off the west side, Ryan and I returned back down the north side trough after finding no other reasonable possibilities. I called out to Karl, but he had already left the notch. Seems he backtracked to a lower saddle on the east side of the peak and spent some time there. Iris and Tom had little luck descending off the west side, so eventually scrambled back up to return via the northside trough. We could hear their voices echoing around the canyon walls but could not tell from what direction they were coming from. Ryan and I thought they had gotten ahead of us as we we went around the west and south sides of the summit before finding our way to the deep gully leading towards the second peak to the southeast. Meanwhile, Iris and Tom had come across Karl lounging at the saddle. Karl would return back down the way we'd come to the vehicles while the other two eventually got themselves to the southeast side of the first peak and down to the sandy bottom of the drainage. Ryan and I had already started up out of the gully when we spotted them far below, giving us a big lead. The terrain continued to be challenging with plenty of class 3 scrambling and non-obvious route-finding, but none of the more difficult stuff we'd found on the first peak. Karl could have done this one. It would take Ryan and I over an hour and a half to cover the one mile distance between summits, Tom and Iris about ten minutes longer. Though slightly lower, Peak 3,251ft had better views with a nice one to the south overlooking the basin separating the two main halves of the range. We spent another twenty minutes on this second summit as well, Iris sharing summit candy again while appreciating the views. Barbara and Gordon had been to the summit in 1978 but we were unable to find the expected register. We left a second one of ours here before starting down. By now it approaching 1p and a quick tally of our progress suggested we would be returning by headlamp if we continued on to the third summit, another two miles to the east. It was time to head back.
We descended to the east, aiming for a side wash that would take us back to the main one we had initially ascended. The descent went down through more boulder jumble, some brush, a neat tunnel and general fun, taking about 45min to reach the easier going in the wash. We followed this out for another half hour to reach the wider, sandier gully. We found a small stash of climbing bolts and hangers, a battery pack for a cordless drill and several gallons of water that looked to have been lying there at least a few years, judging by the sand that hand partially washed over it. We left the water and took the other items, then continued out to the wider drainage. It would take us more than an hour to recross the 3mi of open desert, but we were in no rush - we would get back around 3p, well before sunset and leaving us plenty of time to find camp for the night.
We found Karl lounging about his Element with all the doors open. He had napped on his way back and did not get back that long before us. In fact, it was Iris' text to him that got him moving again from his desert-induced complacency. Keith Christensen had driven by on the highway sometime during the day, and recognizing my jeep (or perhaps the license plate) had left a note on the windshield. Would have been fun to meet him out here in person. We drove our vehicles east to the junction with SR177, then south along the eastern edge of Joshua Tree and the Colorado River Aqueduct. A good service road lead west from the highway for several miles to the aqueduct where it goes into a tunnel through the Coxcomb Mtns. We found a huge flat area here that made an excellent campsite for the next few nights - several fire rings, a flagpole, a port-a-potty and an inexhaustable supply of fresh water. What more could one ask for?
This page last updated: Fri Dec 11 09:04:40 2020
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