Sat, Feb 23, 2008
This was to be my first foray into Arizona climbing. I had been to the fine state a few years earlier on a motorhome trip with the family, but there was no climbing or hiking aside from the touristy walks. In driving through the state I had gazed and gawked at many a fine peak, but with July temperatures well over 100F, I didn't really feel too compelled to try anything seriously. Matthew had talked me into joining him for a few DPS peaks off US95 and I readily accepted. His idea was an ambitious double-header of Signal Peak and Castle Dome. Though there was not a great deal of physical distance between the two, each on its own could be enough for one day, and trying to get to both of them might be a bit tough. It could have been easier had we chosen one of the non-technical routes for Signal Mtn, but Matthew insisted on the "classic" approach up Palm Canyon, rated Class 4 by the DPS guide, or 5.4 by the Rusty Baily route nearby.
Matthew and I had been hiking DPS peaks in Nevada the previous weekend, but he had to head back to the Bay Area and work while I continued climbing through the week. He'd flown to San Diego and rented a car to drive out to meet up with me for two more days. I met Matthew at the turnoff for the Kofa NWR in the early morning hours before sunrise. Technically we were in a different time zone, but I didn't bother to change my watch - outdoor activities are rather indifferent to time zones. Together we drove the seven miles east to the end of the excellent dirt road at the entrance to Palm Canyon. Signal Peak is striking from the west, though less so from other directions, prompting us to stop for pictures on the way in and on the way out as well. Ours was the only car in the lot when we arrived there. Shortly before 7a we had started out and within ten minutes had come to the end of the trail. It ends at a small "underlook" where one can see north up a side canyon to a stand of palms hidden deep in the cleft of the canyon, the namesake for the main canyon. This is the only stand of palms in the whole area, and apparently a rare treat.
We continued past the trail, following the canyon upstream over large boulders and modest bushwhacking, a use trail making an appearance now and then. For half an hour we toiled up the canyon, then transistioned right into another canyon which we followed for another half hour, climbing about 1,500ft altogether. This brought us to the narrow end of the canyon and the start of the technical section shortly before 8a.
Deciding on the Rusty Bailey Route due to the safety of belay anchors and favorable trip reports that we had read beforehand, we set up shop behind a small oak tree that served as belay anchor and the start of the route. The route is neither difficult nor long, only two short pitches in length. Still, never one to take the sharp end of the rope if it can be craftily avoided, I pointed out to Matthew that since he was the only one with rock shoes, he'd have to lead. It was checkmate in seconds. Matthew, unable to assail my flawless argument, had no choice but to capitulate.
The first pitch is the easiest, with the only difficulty being a short, slabby traverse up and left out of the pocket. With only minor hesitation, Matthew did this quite nicely and was soon some 30 to 40 feet above me and already at the belay anchor. I followed on second, having some trouble with my clunkier hiking shoes. My excuse was looking not only unassailable, but somewhat valid. The second pitch was a tougher bird, and Matthew rightly took more time on it. There is a first bolt not far from the belay station, but the next one is some 30 feet or so above that, up a steep slab with no place to put in protection and precious little to call holds. Despite a few choice words describing his predicament (ok, not actually describing the predicament, but rather how he felt in his predicament), Matthew managed the second pitch as well. I found myself sweating a good deal when following a few minutes later, whereupon I heartily congratulated him on a fine lead and thanked the Maker I didn't have to, all after I had reached the relative safety of that second bolt, of course. Above that, it was almost trivial. Though some TRs described it as class 4, we found nothing but class 3 above the second pitch. With the rope and other gear stored away, we had an enjoyable time scrambling up the remainder of the gully, another 500 feet up.
It was 9:15a when we topped out to the mildly brushy slopes above, leading to the summit ridgeline. The angle eased off considerably, and not twenty minutes later we were atop the summit. The views were a bit hazy, but we could still see for great distances. Huge expanses of desert flats ran out from the base of our mountain on three sides, broken by countless small ranges in the distance, none of whose names we knew. It was fairly terra incognito to us. East of us the small Kofa Range spread out, some impressive spires looking far more formidable than the summit we'd just climbed. It was easy to imagine spending days climbing around here. There was a summit register that we dutifully signed into, but it didn't go back in time more than a few years. The peak appears to be wildly popular judging by the large number of entries, but the registers seem to disappear at regular intervals as lamented by several of the entries I read.
We decided to descend via the DPS Route "B", thinking it would save time sans rope and gear. In the end we concluded - probably not. The going starts off easy enough, heading northeast with the help of a use trail towards Pt 4,720ft. Somewhere along the traverse we lost the trail, making our way with moderate sidehilling to the top of Four Palms Canyon on the north side of this intermediate highpoint. We dropped down into the canyon, finding an interesting mix of class 2-3 scrambling with moderate bushwhacking. The latter took some of the fun out of things, but it went ok. There were occasional ducks along the route, but they seemed to offer no real clues for finding the easiest way down. An hour after starting down the canyon, we emerged in the broad, flat wash area, easy albeit sandy in places. We followed the wash west out of the range, around a few interesting features (on one pinnacle we found particularly interesting, we made bold claims about how best to climb it, though the actual attempt didn't last more than about thirty seconds). Around to the west side of the range we crossed over several intervening washes, eventually picking up a very good use trail that took us back to the parking lot.
It was just after noon, and so far we were making good time on our schedule. Castle Dome should be easier by comparison, we reckoned. The climbing turned out to be easier, but the driving anything but. In fact, not five minutes after getting out to the pavement and reuniting with the van, we got split up and lost for almost an hour. The DPS guide needs updating we concurred. The sign indicated in the guide no longer exists, replaced by a similar one that makes mention of Castle Dome, but not the military proving grounds (no need to point out our military targets to terrorists with big road signs these days). Further, the dirt road is now paved for the first two miles and it is only once past the gate for the proving grounds that the dirt starts. Thoroughly confused by these changes, I drove back and forth on this side road as well as much further south on US95 than needed (I went past the immigration checkpoint), before finally pulling over and parking along the side road where the dirt portion begins. I was convinced that this must be the right road, but I had no idea if Matthew knew this, would figure it out, or whether he had done so ahead of me and already started down the dirt road. The dirt section as far too washboarded for the van to manage, particularly since I had told my wife I would keep her van clean on this expedition. For thirty minutes I sat there, mildy bored. Meanwhile, Matthew had driven back north from the highway in order to get a cell phone signal to make a needed call. He had done some of the same driving back and forth as myself, though somehow we didn't cross paths until the hour had nearly elapsed. I was going to give him another 15 minutes to find me before giving up altogether and driving to Yuma, when Matthew pulled up. A few brief explanatory comments passed back and forth, then we once again piled into the rental car and headed off to Castle Dome.
The dirt road was long and arduous, taking almost another hour before we had to stop more than a mile short of the 2WD parking spot indicated on the DPS map. A dry gully crossing the road proved too much for the rental, but we figured we could just hoof it on foot from this point. It was nearly 2:30p before we started off, resigned to the liklihood that we would be finishing this hike in the dark.
Like Signal Peak, Castle Dome is impressive from a distance, in this case from most directions as it stands as the highest point with the largest bulk for many miles around. In fact the obviousness of the peak had helped assure me I had found the correct turnoff despite the missteps from following the guide. We hiked up the dirt road for about a mile and half. We concluded that we could have driven the remaining distance were it not for that small gully across the road that stopped us. We left the road where indicated, heading east up a broad wash. This sandy wash was nearly flat for almost two miles, easy to follow, with a brush-free path along the sandy bottom that seemed like a freeway.
It was 3:30p when we started the climb out of the wash, heading southeast towards our peak. Castle Dome was even more striking up close and from the direction we approached it. We followed a set of ducks up an easy-angled ridge towards the west side of the monolith, somewhat brushy at the bottom and lots of loose talus near the top, but decent despite these mild shortcomings. Once at the base of the West Face we followed it counterclockwise around to the southwest side, then followed a series of zigzagging ledges up the massive pinnacle. There were some sections of class 3, generally slabby but with huge holds in the pitted volcanic rock, but most of it was class 2. Ducks were helpful to keep the route-finding to a minimum on what otherwise might be a confusing face. Eventually the interconnected ledges gave way to easier talus slopes above, and by 4:30p we were on top the summit. The register box was cemented in place among the summit rocks, evidently to foil the dreaded Arizona register snatcher.
The views from atop were more sublime than those on Signal Peak, both because more terrain was visible on almost all sides and because the lateness of the day cast a more alluring glow on the rocky terrain and the surrounding desert. Due to the late hour, we didn't stay long. We decided to descend the North Face, the alternate route described in the DPS "Sidelines." In opposition to the guide's description, we found the North Face route both faster and easier. There was almost nothing that could be described as class 3, and a regular series of ducks marked the easiest path. We scrambled down to the notch between Castle Dome and the impressive detached pinnacle on this side, then climbed down from the notch to the easier slopes below. We found a better route for the descent following yet another series of ducks, taking us all the way back to the main wash without any of the bushwhacking and almost none of the talus that we'd found on the ascent.
We were happy to get back to the wash before sunset, knowing that we could easily navigate the return by headlamp from there. The sun set while we were on the hike back out to the road, and we were treated to a wonderful desert sunset with high clouds to help color the sky. Though it was more than an hour after sunset before we got back to the car and there was no moon to help light the way, we managed to get back without resorting to our headlamps thanks to the wide roadbed and the whitish-brown gravel and sand it was lined with.
It would be nearly 9p before we got to Yuma City on the AZ/CA border for a motel, but it had been a remarkable day with two fine DPS peaks in the bargain. The other Arizona DPS peaks would have to wait for another trip as our last day would have us chasing down another peak back in California...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Signal Peak
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