Mon, Dec 10, 2012
Day six of the desert road trip saw our merry band reduced by one. Sean and Jen had headed back to LA after the previous day's finish while Adam had shown up unexpectedly in the evening, leaving us with five for today's adventure. I had originally planned for us to tackle Hackberry Mtn, another P1K further east, but this was going to be a lot of driving for Tom and Laura who were heading home after today. Leaving Hackberry for a future time, we settled on a couple of range highpoints, also P1Ks, with much less extra driving. We were up by sunrise at our campground at Hole-in-the-Wall, the sun nicely lighting up Barber Peak above us to the west, the sun soon peeking out from around the side of the Woods Mtns to the east. We had some packing up to do and did not get out of there too early but that seemed to matter little - it was really cold that night and we didn't mind the extra time to warm up. When all was ready, our caravan headed out south, past the entrance to the closed Mitchell Caverns, south to I-40 and then further south to the National Trails Hwy (old Route 66) where we parked about five miles NW of the Piute Mountains HP.
By myself I would have started the hike from here, but with a couple of high clearance vehicles we drove a mile and a half further along a rough dirt road. We didn't make it as far as allowed, but the road appeared to be washed out beyond the abilities of our two vehicles. Starting off around 8:30a, our route initially followed an old road that is now inside the Wilderness boundary and no longer open to vehicles. This made things a piece of cake for a few miles though the road eventually ended upstream of the same wash we parked at. We settled into the dry wash and continued hiking upstream, finding a few interesting items along the way such as a partial spine of a larger mammal, probably a cow. The wash narrowed to provide a bit of easy scrambling and by 10a we were climbing out and onto an adjacent ridge to start gaining altitude as we neared our summit. At the top of this ridge, about a mile from the highpoint, we came upon a good burro trail that we could follow along the connecting ridgeline to the top. The burros had left their usual poop piles to mark their territory but we didn't mind, seeing as they'd taken the time to make such nice trails for us.
We arrived at the top of what we thought was the highpoint only to spot a slightly higher one a few minutes to the southeast. Off we went, not bothering to look behind us where we would have seen an even higher point a few minutes in the opposite direction. Adam, Karl and I had all made the same mistake (the other two were just following me) and had gone to the SE summit before the error was noticed. Laura's slower pace paid dividends here. When we spotted her on the middle summit, we were able to wave her back to the correct highpoint where she arrived just before us, a bit under two hours for the five mile hike.
There were two registers at the summit, an older one from Smakto/Shelberg in 1979 (Smatko's second ascent) and a second one from 2000 placed by Carey/Hanna (Gordon & Barbara were there three days later). Almost every name in the dozen entries were recognizable highpointers, mostly the Angeles and San Diego Sierra Club folks. We passed the register around as we sat at the summit to take in the views. It was a very nice day by now, little wind with cool temps fueling our laziness. Ever the guy with the electric prod, I gave us about 25 minutes before getting the cattle drive moving once again.
Once started, our return took less than an hour and a half. We found the burro trails actually lead all the way back to the old road, making for a faster, more efficient route. It was just after noon when we got back to the cars. We drove back out to our other vehicles on Route 66 and said goodbye to Karl and Laura who were heading home. Tom was leaving us today as well but had a shorter drive, so he hung out with Adam and I for the Ship Mtns HP. We drove southwest on Route 66 to the town of Chambless (not much of a town any more, just a few scattered residents) where we left a couple of cars and piled into Tom's Element for a 9 mile drive south through Cadiz, across the railroad tracks and along a pipeline road to get us as close to the Ship Mountains as we could manage (directions courtesy Zdon). We were only two and a half miles northwest of the highpoint which we figured would be a breeze. It was not.
Though the Piute Mountains trek was twice the distance, it was a far more enjoyable hike. The Ship Mountains seemed determined to deplete whatever stores of good vibes we had built up during the morning. The initial part has a low but steady gradient as we hiked across the broad outlet to the canyon we were aiming for. Eons of flash floods had molded a convoluted stream channel system that seemed to have no rhyme or reason other than to confound us with ups and downs that seemed unnecessary but also unavoidable. They weren't all that bad, but it seemed to drag on for more than the two miles it took. Our party of three split up at various points, trying different variations to see if better conditions could be found between channels, in them, or some other combination. Nothing stood at as the obviously better way to cross this volcanic mess. It just had to be suffered through.
Once we reached the mouth of the canyon our hopes for improved conditions were similarly dashed. Boulders, brush and more boulders filled the canyon for much of the next half mile. We had planned to follow the canyon to its head at a saddle just north of the highpoint, but frustration with the boulders finally got me to latch onto the adjacent ridge on my right and start up it. Some class 3 at the bottom had been the impetus, but it didn't last long and it was very quickly your standard class 2 volcanic ridge climb, about 1000ft worth. It wasn't until 3p that we reached the summit, nearly two hours into it. Half the distance but the same time as the Piute Mtns hike. In addition to a 1935 benchmark, the summit held a register left in 1991 by Dave Jurasevich. Older scraps dated to 1975, including a 1979 Smatko/Shelberg entry. Like us, they had climbed both Piute and Ship on the same day. Most of the register entries were the usual collection of desert peakbaggers and highpointers.
We didn't stay five minutes on the summit. It was already 3:15p and with little more than an hour of sunlight remaining, we didn't want to be negotiating the boulder fields by headlamp. Our descent route was virtually indentical as we didn't feel adventurous enough to be trying a different way back, ugly as it was. At least it was an ugly we were familiar with. The return went much smoother, gravity making all the difference. Even the relatively flat part across the broader creek channel seemed to have fewer ups and downs. The sun turned the hills from golden to orange as it started to set around 4:30p. We still had 20 minutes to get back to the car, but it was easily managed without headlamps. Tom had a few cold beers waiting for us. Ahh.... The Mojave Red label seemed fitting. After we'd enjoyed our beverage we drove back out to Chambliss and our other cars where Adam and I bade Tom goodbye. At least his drive would only take about three hours to get him home to Palos Verde. Adam and I made plans on where to meet for the night near Twentynine Palms, after which he started off while I took a few moments for a quick rinse with a rather cool shower. Brrr. We met up again several hours later off the sandy Gold Park Road south of town. Adam had driven around Twentynine Palms looking for internet access to no success. He wanted to check in and see how some of his camera gear was selling on Ebay. The next morning we'd drive south towards the park for a go at Twentynine Palms Mtn, but for now it was time for sleep...
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