Sun, Feb 27, 2005
We'd spent the previous two days climbing peaks right from the pavement, which doesn't require much in the way of 4x4 vehicles with stiff suspensions. Wanting to get somewhere that we could take advantage of Mike's Jeep, we chose Skinner Peak for the day's morning peak. In order to make sure we had time for Pinyon Peak in the afternoon, we got up at 4:30a and were off in the cars by 5a. We left Matthew's Subaru at the junction of SR178 and Kelso Creek Rd, then piled into the Jeep for the drive to Bird Spring Pass. The 5.5mi FS road (FS120) that leads from paved Kelso Creek Rd. to the pass was about as exciting as we'd have hoped. The first mile was pretty easy and Mike commented that the Subaru would have had no trouble. Then we came to a deep washout in the sandy road that left a gash at least a foot deep. Mike was nervous enough that Matthew and I got of the car to watch him drive over the small chasm. The Jeep plunged into the gap, the other side rising to meet the bumper, then a little horsepower lurched the vehicle over successfully. We were now driving beyond the hopes and dreams of the Subaru. As we made our way up the to the pass we came across a few other minor obstacles, but nothing so unnerving. Parts of the road on the downhill side were washed away and Mike made sure to keep the Jeep hugging the uphill side as much as possible, jolting us over smaller gaps along the way.
It was just before sunrise when we reached the pass and pulled over to park. Not surprisingly, there was no one else here, though we had passed a few motorhome/dirtbike encampments in the lower parts of the canyon on the drive in. The Pacific Crest Trail crosses the road at the pass here, marked by a fairly new sign courtesy of the BLM. We spent some few minutes packing up, the biggest question was whether to bring the snowshoes or not. There was no snow at the TH, but higher up there was solid coverage, but to what depth and hardness we could only guess at. Matthew and I decided to bring the snowshoes, Mike decided to go without. It was just after 6:30a when we started out, heading NE on the PCT. Matthew was out in front and quickly putting distance between us. At the first turn in the trail, about half a mile from the TH, I decided to leave the PCT and take a more direct cross-country route to the summit. Mike followed Matthew up the trail, so I had the whole hillside to myself. I had the only map with our group, but I assumed the others could find the summit from the trail - there didn't appear to be any route-finding difficulties with this hike.
The route I chose looked to be mostly a sand/scree slope for most of the year, and I had about 400 feet worth as I started up from the trail. But I soon encountered snow, and within another 200 feet the snow coverage on the ground was complete. As the slope steepened I used my poles for balance and additional traction, leaving the snowshoes still tied to my pack. I found lots of class 2-3 rock to entertain myself on as a way of getting a break between long runs of snow. It was quite an enjoyable morning workout. As I neared the ridgeline I came across what I mistook for an abandoned trail, only to realize as I hiked along that it was the PCT. Duh. I'd have liked to blame this on the altitude, but at only 6,600ft it would be a pretty weak argument. There were no tracks on the hard snow which meant that I was now ahead of the others. Following the trail was easier than I would have guessed. Though covered by a uniform layer of snow, there were clues like rock walls and paths through the brush that kept me on the right path. As the trail leveled off and started skirting the east side of the summit plateau, I left the trail and headed through the stunted forest growth in search of the summit.
There was no obvious peak to aim for, just a gently rising plateau that I followed upwards covered with these short trees. Nearing the end of the journey I was stopped short when I came across some fresh tracks in the snow. A black bear had apparently wandered by the summit area less than 24hrs ago, possibly as early as this morning - they were that fresh. I decided it wouldn't be prudent to search out the tracks - what if a hibernating bear had just gotten up for a short stretch? I didn't know if bears hibernate this far south in the Sierra, but it didn't seem a good way to find out. He wouldn't be too happy being disturbed, I imagined. I continued on towards the summit area, finding the bear tracks periodically as I wandered among the trees. At 8a I reached the first of three possible summit pinnacles to be found near top. This one, the most easterly of the three was about as high as the middle one and seemed a likely possibility. I spent some five minutes digging out the snow around the summit rocks in search of a register, but like the previous efforts on Sunday Peak and Double Mtn, my efforts were for naught. I then wandered about 100 yards over to the middle summit, confirmed it was about the same height as the first, but this time only scratched around for a register - I was losing interest quickly. To the west was a lower, but more interesting looking pinnacle. It was about 20 feet in height (as opposed to the 6 feet of the east and middle ones) and from a distanced looked to be class 3. I went over to climb it, impressed with its position overlooking the steep escarpment to the west. The rock was barely class 3, but made spicier with the partial snow coverage on it. At the top I found a large wooden post that looked to be embedded in the rocks - a crude monument perhaps? The thing wouldn't budge when I pushed it, and upon closer inspection I couldn't tell if it had been placed there or it was the remains of a tree that had died and left just the trunk standing. No register at this rocky tower either. From atop the westmost summit, I heard Mike off to the east. He and Matthew had found the first two towers and we waved to each other. I descended and headed back to the middle summit while Matthew traded places with me. I could see more snow removed around the middle summit, Mike having given it a go himself but finding nothing. I took a few pictures of Matthew over at the west summit and waited for him to return to the middle summit for another hero pose.
I saw no sign of Mike. I thought he'd gone to visit the western summit, but never saw him over there. I guessed that maybe he'd started back, afraid to be stuck in the softening snow without snowshoes. It was getting warmer now and we were breaking 4-8 inches into the snow crust. Matthew and I decided to use the snowshoes since we had them, and started back down following Mike's retreating tracks. We never did catch up to him on the way down, and later we found that he had thought we had left the summit first. Returning along the trail, I cut the snow-covered switchbacks in places in order to have more fun with the snowshoes on the steeper slopes. At one point I was going a little too fast and I got caught up in and wiped out on a yucca plant. My boots and snowshoes protected me from the sharp needle-like leaves, otherwise it would not have amused me as much as it did. We followed the PCT until we got to the scree descent shown on the HPS map. We laughed at the duck we found alongside the trail marking the spot. It was completely unnecessary since the wide slope could be descended anywhere, all class 2. Sort of the Wilderness version of marking the broad side of a barn. We jogged, skidded and skied down the slope in our snowshoes, the snow with an excellent consistency for good traction. As the snow began to dwindle in the lower parts of the slope I weaved and danced from one patch to another, connecting as many snow threads as I could until it was time to remove the snowshoes. Once back down the PCT, it was a short 15 minutes back to the TH. The whole descent had been fairly quick, taking less than an hour, and it was only 9:30a. Matthew was a few minutes behind me, and we were both back well before Mike who'd taken the PCT all the way down from the summit.
After packing up we drove back down to Kelso Valley Rd and out to SR178 where we'd left Matthew's car. Mike decided to forgo the second peak in order to have lunch with his folks in Wofford Heights and get back to the Bay Area earlier. Matthew and I bid Mike good-bye and then took the Subaru east towards the Pinyon Peak TH. We passed by the spot marked on the HPS map - the dirt road is pretty well hidden from the highway and is slowly returning to Wilderness, but the school bus sign is right where it was supposed to be. It was just after 10:45a when we were ready to head out again, this time leaving the snowshoes in the car. We could see there was snow at the summit but not very much, and the peak was some 300 feet lower than Skinner.
The route indicated on the HPS map heads generally west through a saddle before dropping down to Jacks Creek and then climbing the East Ridge of Pinyon Peak. From the map the saddle we were to aim for looked obvious, as it did from the summit of Pinyon as well. But from the road the view of the saddle is blocked by lower intervening hills, and the forest cover makes it more difficult still. What we expected to be the usual over-ducked route you couldn't possibly get lost on, turned out to be slightly more challenging. We wandered through the Kiviah Wilderness in search of our saddle but missed it. We ended up north of the saddle, sidehilling through open brush and forest, following barbed-wire fencing marking the boundary between private property and the Wilderness. When we reached Jacks Creek we recognized our error and headed south a short ways to correct it, having some trouble crossing the creek through the tangle of thick brush we found there. Once planted on the other side, we started up the hillside angling to the left, expecting to intersect the regular route once we reached the ridgeline.
We were not disappointed, and where expected, the line of ducks stretching out along the route appeared almost as if on cue. The ridge isn't exactly bare, but there was no bushwhacking or difficulties of any kind. As we hiked upwards, we noted fresh tracks, two persons from the looks of it. When we reached the snow higher up we guessed the tracks were from the previous day from the look of the melting/freezing pattern of the prints. The snow was deeper and softer than we had expected, and in places we were postholing up to a foot in depth now that the snow was warmed by the noonday sun. We found the views on the ascent better than those at the summit, particularly of the snow-covered peaks to the east including Owens, Jenkins, and Morris. It took us about 1hr45m to reach the summit where we arrived at 12:30p. Just past noon and we were atop our second peak of the day - life was good. Disappointed in the tree-blocked views at the summit, we stayed only long enough to sign the register and have a quick snack. In the register we found our judging of the tracks to be correct, a pair of hikers had been up the day before. One of them was Mars Bonfire, the prolific HPS peakbagger whose numerous ascents (#11 for Pinyon Peak) can be found in all the HPS registers. This was the closest we'd gotten to meeting him yet, and we fully expect to meet up with him somewhere on the trail before we are done with the HPS list of 275 peaks.
Our descent followed the same route down the East Ridge, only this time we could see the saddle we had missed and followed the easy use trail back that way. We returned to the TH by 2p. Having finished the two primary objectives in quicker fashion than expected, I wondered if we wouldn't have time to head north to climb Lamont Peak. Matthew, having already climbed it the previous year, had little interest in wallowing through the snow that the hike would entail, but graciously offered to drive to the TH and let me have a go at it. Though I wanted to, I declined. It would have been more enjoyable to have Matthew join me, but primarily I didn't want to make him sit around in the car for 2-3hrs. I would be back in the area again in the future, so I didn't mind letting it wait for the time being. It was a long drive back home, over five hours, and though it would be dark before we reached the Bay Area, at least we would get back at a reasonable time for once. One nice benefit of the early finish was our drive though the lower Kern Canyon in the afternoon sunlight. The hills were an astonishing green and the wildflowers were abundant alongside the road. We pulled over for some 15-20 minutes to admire and photograph them, allowing us a short time longer to linger in the Sierra before heading home.
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