Rock III
Rock II
Rock I 2x

Fri, Sep 25, 2020

With: Jackie Burd
Iris Ma
Tom Grundy
Robert Wu

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile
Rock I previously climbed Sat, May 16, 2015

The California National Forest closures had been extended each of the past two weeks as fires continue to burn around the state. It had been more than three weeks since my last outing of any substance and I was feeling a little desperate. While poking around on the maps, I (re)discovered that most of the eastern Southern Sierra south of Kennedy Meadows is BLM land, not NF land. I checked various websites and found that the closures had not (yet) been extended to BLM lands. I thought perhaps a visit to Five Fingers above Indian Wells Canyon might entail some scrambling/rock climbing that would interest my daughter who was home visiting for a few weeks. Looking on PB, I noticed some additional summits in the area added recently by Bob Cable. I recalled his name as one of the few persons to have climbed Monument Peak in the Whipple Mtns. He added a number of rock climbing formations with names I didn't recognize. More sleuthing found that they derived from Moser and Vernon's Southern Sierra Rock Climbing - Domelands, a guidebook I'd been using as recently as May for climbs in the Domelands Wilderness. The book includes a number of other areas outside Domelands, including the Indian Wells Canyon area. One of the obscure summits that Tom Becht and I had climbed and named "Tomb Peak" back in 2015 is listed as "Rock I" in the guidebook. September is far from an ideal time to visit the area as it can still be quite warm and was forecasted to be in the mid-80s. But remember, I was desperate. So with fuzzy plans to spend 3 days in the area, I invited some friends along and packed up the Jeep, which has been collecting dust these last three weeks.

Jackie and I headed out from the Bay area around 2:30p, reaching our designated meeting spot in Indian Wells Canyon by 9p. It was disappointing to find that the smoke from the various fires were invading much of the Southern Sierra as we drove over Tehachapi Pass and up the east side of the range. We could see stars from our campsite, but it was more like the nighttime view from the Bay Area rather than the desert. The smell of smoke permeated the air. I was hoping for a shift in the wind and a change of luck by morning, but it would not improve. Tom and Iris had driven in from Bishop during the night while Robert drove in around 6:30a. A blood-red sun rose rose at 7a. Our plan today was to tackle oddly named Rock III/II/I on the ridgeline connecting Owens Peak and Five Fingers. We drove our three vehicles to the end of the road on the south side of the canyon. It was a nice spot with a large, shady pine that would make a nice camp spot if we stayed the night. We could see our objectives a mile to the north across the canyon, smoke doing its best to keep things hazy. The guidebook, primarily a rock climbing guide, is little help with scrambling routes for the three objectives, and is more than a little confusing. Feature names are given without labels on the pictures, making it difficult to figure out. We carried rope and climbing gear so we'd have them if needed, but hoped to find easier ways up to save us time. In addition to the smoke, we'd have warm temperatures to contend with - it would be around 85F before we returned, and lots of annoying, but thankfully non-biting, tiny flies.

Starting out by 8a, we had first to descend 300ft to the bottom of the canyon, with a mildly brushy creek crossing before traversing dry, grassy slopes across the other side of the canyon. The grass gives way to sand, rock, some oaks and brush as we aimed for the notch between Rock III on the far left and Rock II in the middle. The sand is loose and plentiful and it became a chore to make upward progress until we were close to the notch. Robert, Tom and Iris reached it first, giving them time to assess options first. We were actually just below the notch with an awkward step leading higher that none of us were too excited about soloing. So we started looking left where Tom found an easier crack system leading towards Rock III and above the notch. The rest of us followed. Five minutes of easier scrambling leads higher along the ridgeline to just below the summit where difficulties increase. While Robert explored and eventually made his way up a 20-foot dihedral, Tom and I went back and around through a narrow passageway topped with a huge chockstone to find the easiest way from the east. Iris and Jackie found yet a third route traversing left along an exposed face before climbing up to the summit more directly on the south side. In all, we spent about an hour and a half getting to the top of Rock III, with the last 30min scrambling from the notch.

Rock III is the lowest of the three summits with Owens Peak rising high along the ridgeline to the west. Rock II's pointy summit was outlined in a ghostly glow by the smoke to the east. Rock II looked quite challenging from the west with no obvious scrambling route up that side. While Tom and Robert discussed possibilities there, I saw nothing but frightfully large block and pitches I probably couldn't climb. While taking in the hazy views, we signed a new register we would leave at the summit, and after about 15min we headed back down, using the route Tom had discovered. We retraced our path back to the notch, a class 4 effort that Jackie did well on, her first real taste of obscure back-country scrambling. We were all feeling pretty good, having dispatched the first summit in decent time without needing the rope. I suggested we traverse around the south side to the Rock II/I notch and the others seemed fine with the choice. Tom led off on what turned out to be an easy class 2-3 effort that would take only about 10min, a series of ledges that went pretty directly between the notches without significant elevation gain or loss.

Tom Becht and I had tried to reach Rock II from the Rock I/II notch on our visit five years earlier, but were stopped when the scrambling grew too difficult. Since our goal that day was Rock I, we left Rock II without reaching the top. I had remembered little from that previous attempt and the guidebook only offers the East Ridge as class 3 via "any number of variations." On today's effort from the notch, we felt the climbing was more like class 4 due to high-angle slabs with friable surfaces that called for much caution, harder than the East Ridge on Rock III had been. Robert followed a route directly up the ridge while Tom went low around on the north side. Iris, Jackie and I took a line roughly between the two, getting about halfway towards the summit before it got harder than class 3. Iris went up a steep groove that neither Jackie nor I could safely follow. I decided to backtrack to what seemed an easier line with Jackie following. Jackie's confidence went downhill after trying to recross slabs she had stepped across easily a few minutes earlier. She has never liked slab climbing and this granite with crystals that rub off only made this worse. After I helped her across the short section, she decided to head back to the notch and wait for us. I went up to follow the remaining route along the ridge that the others were busy working out. From the notch, it took us 30min of scrambling to make our way to the top. The crux appeared to be a stepdown on the east side of the Gunsight Notch (which I only identified the next day) described in the guidebook. This drop is actually easier on the return when additional footholds become more obvious. We left our second register atop Rock II and again carefully retraced our steps back to the Rock I/II notch (which the book calls "Middle Saddle").

We collected Jackie and descended a short distance on the south side of Middle Saddle to the start of the route to Rock I that Tom B and I had used. Jackie decided to nap in the shade near the start of the route while the rest of us started up the class 3 scramble. The guidebook describes this route as "Oak Lane," a class 3-4 ledge system leading to "The Amphitheater." The first half of this is class 3 which ends abruptly at "The Trough" where an awkward class 4 chimney is ascended through oaks to easier ground. I had trouble getting up this with the rope on my pack, so I off-loaded it to Robert before making my way up after him. After we'd ascended this plus another 30 feet or so, we went down a short distance and travered east to the bottom of The Amphitheater, a wide, sloping slab area where more difficulties are encountered. Tom B and I had used the rope to ascend "Bottomless Chimney" in the top right corner of The Amphitheater. As the name suggests, it has a difficult start. We paused here for three of us to take a crack at soloing it, each backing off in turn. I was ready to get the rope out, but Tom went back for another look and found a way with some wide stemming to get past the difficulty. After handing his pack up to Tom, Robert went next with a modified version of the stemming move. I then handed my pack up to Robert and followed with another variation that obviated the need for the stemming which my old body was incapable of modeling. It wasn't terribly secure and Robert was more than a little concerned I was going to crater, but it worked. Finally, Iris came up in turn, using yet a different combination of moves. Another 30ft of easy scrambling up the chimney leads to a small overlook where we returned the various packs to their rightful owners.

At this point we could have continued to the summit with class 3 scrambling if we knew the correct path. Instead, I led us up about 60ft, the top of which had a yucca growing at face level as one exits another chimney. I could not make the awkward moves above this to continue to the top, but Robert managed it in style. Iris joined me at the small platform and made several attempts to follow Robert, but backed off. Meanwhile, not liking the looks of the yucca-in-the-face chimney, had gone exploring and found the class 3 route around all of this, and appearing atop the summit ridge before Robert could reach it. The two of them were kind enough to set up a belay and toss a rope 20ft down to Iris and me. I made no effort to climb it free, tying a loop in the rope above me and essentially jugging my way to the top. Iris made a better go of it, climbing the short pitch by fair means. The belay point was just below the western summit, with easy scrambling between two closely-spaced points. Thinking that the eastern summit was higher, we first visited that one but after reaching it, were still not certain as to which was actually higher. With decent cell service, Iris pulled up my old TR on her phone and read that I'd determined the western one to be highest. So we packed up the register we were about to leave on the east summit and took it and ourselves to the western point.

We used Tom's class 3 route to descend from the summit to a good-sized oak tree where I set up a rappel to avoid having to downclimb the Bottomless Chimney. The others seemed glad to avoid it as well and joined me in rapping into The Amphitheater one after another. Robert and I left Tom and Iris to pull the rope and carry it back while we returned to the starting point of Oak Lane. We found Jackie half-napping in the shade, almost exactly the hour and a half we'd told her it would take. Three of us started down the south side of the ridge, expecting Tom and Iris to catch up to us before we got back. Despite a few stops to empty sand from our shoes and check out some Indian mortars we came across, we got back to the vehicles before 3p without seeing them. We had time to change out of our boots and have a cold drink before they arrived about 20min later. We shared drinks and snacks with them in the shade of the large pine while discussing the smoke. Robert had already decided he was going to head home and Jackie and I decided likewise, even though the smoke was thinner than it had been all day. Partly I didn't want to spend another day in the heavier smoke and partly Jackie had had more of this type of adventure than she preferred. With showers and a fresh change of clothes, Jackie and I drove off after 4p for the 6hr+ ride back home. Tom and Iris decided to stay the night. In the morning they climbed Owens Peak with better conditions than we'd had the previous day. We'll have to save the other climbing objectives in the area for another time, hopefully in cooler, less smoky conditions...

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