Palen Mountain P2K DPS / DS

Mon, Nov 17, 2008

With: Evan Rasmussen

Etymology Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


Red Top BM is the highpoint of the Palen Mtns, one of the more remote desert ranges in the California desert. Though not far north of Interstate 10, access is via one of two long drives from the west or east. Evan and I drove in from the west side at Midland Rd where we had spent the night after climbing in the Granite Mtns. We managed an earlier start than we had the previous day, in part because the drive was a bit shorter, but also because we had already pruned the brush alongside the road. Following the DPS guide for the eastern approach, we had little trouble finding our way through the various junctions and along the bumpy roads to the trailhead atop a plateau overlooking a wash in front of the Palen Mtns. The sun had risen on the mountains only minutes before our arrival, and the range was aglow in orange light. Minutes later the sun came up over the Big Maria Mtns to the east, bathing us in the morning light as we started off shortly after 6:30a.

From the plateau southeast of the summit we followed a road not shown on the topo that dropped down to the wash and mostly disappeared in a sea of shifting boulders characterizing many desert drainages. We headed up the wash for half a mile or so, climbing out on the right side to take a fork heading steeply up to the north (DPS route "C"). The side canyon was shaded and chilly, rising steadily up to a significant constriction. At first glance it looked like it might be tricky to get through it, perhaps class 3, but upon closer inspection it had a convenient series of steps that kept it to class 2 scrambling.

We chose not to follow the canyon to its terminus NE of Red Top at the summit ridgeline as suggested in the DPS guide, choosing instead to climb out of the canyon to the left on a more direct line. This was steep and loose, but more interesting than our route up the rocky canyon. About 60 feet out of the canyon I paused to wait for Evan. I took off my pack and pulled out the skull of a bighorn sheep that I had brought along. The skull had been picked up by Evan a few days earlier when he was out on his own in an obscure desert range. Spying it in the back of his truck, I had been giving him a steady dose of ribbing about the bad karma he was drawing upon himself over the past two days, which evidently worked. He agreed to allow its return to the wilderness. Not wanting to leave it in an obvious location for the next random hiker to pick up and take home, I had been looking for an off-the-beaten-track location to deposit it. Placing it on a large, flat rock, I used a few smaller rocks to steady it, allowing it to peer down into the canyon and keep a vigilant eye on others who are sure to pass below it.

We continued up the very steep slope towards the summit, the space separating us growing as Evan slowed down and I had the smell of the summit to keep me going at a steady clip. I reached the summit ridge at a small saddle between the two closely spaced summits. It was difficult to guess which was the higher one, and the map offered no clue as it showed incorrect detail concerning this point. By chance I picked the higher north summit, arriving just before 8:30a after nearly two hours of hiking. Evan's route up the slope was a bit further left as he came up, landing him atop the lower south summit a few minutes later. He climbed back down and over to the true summit where we commenced to take an extended break at the warm, sunny top.

The DPS register dated to 1985 and the summit benchmark to 1942. This was not a place to get casual visitors, and as one might expect the book was filled with the usual DPSers. After our long break taking in the sweeping views, we decided to take an alternative route back, along the SW Ridge, up and over the lower south summit. This was an enjoyable scramble along a rocky ridgeline, with a few short class 3 segments to keep it interesting. After about half an hour we reached a saddle requiring about 200ft of climbing to continue along the ridge. Evan chose to head down at this point, following the DPS route "B" off the peak while I continued up to the subsidiary highpoint.

It was a surprise to find a small register in a glass jar tucked inside a cairn, but it was no surprise who had left it there. The register had only one entry, dating to 1986, from MacLeod and Lilley. That they would leave one on this rather insignificant bump seemed a stretch, and I had to chuckle at the comment they added, "No indication of previous ascent." I added my own commentary below theirs before adding my name to the next page. Perhaps it would be another 22 years for the next person to find it.

I continued over the bump to the much lower saddle to the south, the pass separating the two main regions of the Palen Mountains. A future visit would certainly be warranted to the other, unnamed highpoint of the southern half of the range. I took a picture looking west and east from the pass before starting down to the east. I was mildly worried that the wash heading back down might be too brushy, but this turned out to not be the case. I started off on the barren left side of the canyon, soon dropping into the wash when it was wide enough to have a rocky streambed, for the most part easily negotiated. There were some modest drops and constrictions, but nothing harder than class 2. After half an hour I popped out of the wash on the right to the old road that was in much better shape a short distance above the streambed. There were the remains of an old gate here, leading up to a prospect I had seen in the southern half of the range. The gleaming white paint on an old trailer had caught my attention while high on the ridgeline, but since Evan was likely to be waiting for me I did not take the extra half hour to hike back up the road to investigate whether it was still occupied. But 11:15a I had returned to the truck, Evan relaxing in the back.

During the hour-long drive back to Midland Rd I tried to talk Evan into a second peak, Chuckwalla, another DPS peak. This did not fit his criteria of interest as a range highpoint, even though there was some slight uncertainty as to whether it was in the Chuckwalla Mtns (where Black Butte was the highpoint) or the adjacent Little Chuckwall Mtns (in which case Chuckwalla would be the highpoint). But since we both concurred that it was probably in the former range, he decided against it. Rats. It was a long, 15 mile drive on a dirt road and I didn't really want to take the van on it, so I left if for another visit.

We took outdoor showers back at the camper at Midland Rd, where I helped Evan reattach it to his truck bed. After saying our goodbyes we went separate ways. I was hoping I might get another peak or two in on the very long drive back to the bay area, and had chosen the HPS peaks of Buck Point and San Sevine Lookout in the San Gabriels. Evan had even helped out with his laptop and printer he keeps in the van, and we were able to pring out a map from TOPO! Reaching San Sevine turned out to be a lost cause as the gate was locked at the bottom of the road when I arrived there around 5p, just after sunset. It would have taken too much time to hike the eight miles or more up the road for a couple of mediocre peaks, so I nixed that idea. Maybe it was for the better, as it would still be after midnight before I got back home in San Jose. I could use the sleep...

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