South Palen Peak P1K
Peak 3,441ft P500
Middle Palen Peak P1K
Peak 3,008ft P300

Mar 17, 2018

With: Tom Becht
Scott Barnes
Iris Ma
Karl Fieberling
Matt Yaussi

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profile


There were a pair of P1Ks in the southern part of the Palen Mountains only a few miles apart that I've been eyeing for a number of years now. They are what I'd call "deep peaks" with no easy way to get to them. The roads to get close are rough and require more than just high-clearance. Tom's Jeep would work nicely, so I scheduled these during March when he was available for the weekend. The planned hike was ambitious, about 14mi of cross-country travel with more than 5,000ft of gain, a strong outing for the desert. Tom was just coming off the Catalina Marathon and his already injured foot would be questionable, but he was willing to give it a go. Joining us were more of our usual desert rats, a good team for the challenging outing. We met up at the Palen Dunes exit off Interstate 10 around 7a for the 12mi drive to the trailhead on the south side of the range. The roads were decent, but there was significant sand the Jeep had to swim through in 4WD and a few brushy places that probably left a few scratches. Overall, the Jeep did a perfectly fine job delivering us in modern comfort to the end of a cherry stem cutting into the Palen-McCoy Wilderness. We parked on the broad shoulder between two washes upon our arrival just after 8a.

Almost immediately, Scott announced he was going to head off to tag two additional bonus peaks (in addition to the two I already had planned) because "They're right there!" They weren't, of course. In fact, the first was 2.5mi as the crow flies in a direction orthogonal to our planned route, and the other was another mile beyond that. But this didn't really surprise us. Scott hadn't been with us the day before, having just driven in from Orange County this morning, and he was like a puppy who hadn't had his daily exercise yet. We all had no doubt he would catch up to us during the day, it was just a matter of when. We shared a wave before sending him off at a jog.

For the rest of us, the first 45min were an easy walk up a wide wash system heading north. Things then became more serious as we got on to what would become the SW Ridge of our first stop, Peak 3,441ft, in line with our route to the first P1K, South Palen. This was the hardest part of the day, climbing 2,000ft in 1.75mi, which took us about an hour and a half. We found the first of five registers we'd come across today, most left by MacLeod & Lilley back in the mid-1980s. Scott sent us a text from his first summit, Peak 1,656ft which had the second such register. Their dates were all different, spread over two years, though two (the last ones we visited) were on consecutive days. As noted by Gordon in our register, there is an interesting scratching on the summit cairn from a Reynolds in 1939 - well before desert peakbagging ever became "a thing." While Scott continued on to his other bonus, Peak 1,450ft, we headed north along the crest of the range towards South Palen, only a mile away but with more than 600ft of loss to a saddle. This was a fun, but by no means easy traverse, taking us an hour. One feels pretty remote from civilization out here, though to be fair, there are two huge solar power generation arrays to the southeast which one can't help but see from a great distance. It was after 11:30a by the time we reached South Palen, a name bestowed by Wes Shelberg when he left the register in 1977. There were six other parties to sign since, including Gordon & Barbara in 1984 and a large DPS party in 1994. The last party was back in 2010. The views from this, the highest summit of the day, were commanding, and it was easy to sit there and marvel at the desert scenes stretching more than 100mi in most directions. While we were hanging out, we got an update from Scott, reporting he was a summit behind us. We could just make out his silhouette next to the summit cairn on Peak 3,441ft to the south. He was rapidly gaining, no doubt.

Our next leg was a nearly 3mi effort to the other P1K, Middle Palen, to the northeast, and looked to be a good deal of work. Tom and Karl decided to call it a day from South Palen. Karl's back was bothering him and Tom's foot was now causing him distress and in no mood for an epic of suffering and more lasting damage. The shortest and possibly easiest return might have been to go back over the first summit, but since they would have plenty of time to wait for the rest of us, they chose to drop into the wash to the east which would be longer but less elevation gain. While Iris and I headed off towards Middle Palen, Karl and Tom hung out on the summit until Scott had arrived before starting their descent. I had guessed it would take Iris and I two hours to reach Middle Palen but it turned out to be nearly three. We had forgone following the involved ridgeline for a more direct drop to the intervening wash, probably faster but still not easy. Lots of rocks and boulders to negotiate and not much in the way of fun scrambling, at least until we had reached the upper half of the ridge to Middle Palen. I was a few hundred yards ahead of Iris as I reached the summit, only to hear her shouting loudly through the strong wind now blowing across the crest. Guessing she had spotted Scott, I looked back to see him on the ridge not far behind. We reconvened our group atop Palen Middle where we signed another register and contemplated further efforts. It was 2:45p by now and we were a long, long way from the car, almost six air miles and more than three hours away. I worried that we might be returning in the dark and weakly suggested we might consider skipping the last summit. Scott and Iris would have none of this talk and I was not unhappy that they didn't agree ( that might be the first time I've used four negatives in one sentence). And it was a good choice, too. Not only did we have headlamps which would have worked nicely, but the last summit, only a mile to the south, was sort of on our way and probably only cost us an additional half hour of time. We made the traverse along the connecting ridgeline in just under an hour, far better than the previous leg. We wasted little time at the last summit since it was closing in on 4p, starting our descent a few minutes after signing the last register. I texted Tom and Karl that we were at the last summit, estimating a return time of 7p. They replied that they were still 3mi+ from the car and finding lots of tough going. Tom had little faith that we could get back that soon.

We descended a wash to the southwest directly from summit, finding the going loose in places, fun scrambling in others, and generally a good route. Once in the wash below, the same Tom and Karl had descended to, we still had five miles of cross-country as we traversed around the southern edge of the range. Almost all of it was "across the grain," meaning we had to go in and out of countless washes as we continued south and southwest, but it was better than I had surmised from Tom's texts and we made good progress. I would send additional texts with each mile we got closer to give Tom and Karl updates as they waited those last two hours at the Jeep, chilled by the afternoon wind that swept across the desert. The three of us spread out for the last several miles, myself in front, Iris occasionally rejoining me, Scott keeping in the rear a few hundred yards behind. I thought he was doing this to allow him to enjoy the podcast he was listening to uninterupted, but he claimed later being too tired to keep up. He would also report being dissatisfied with the day's performance, but the rest of us were nonetheless quite impressed. We first spotted the Jeep while still a mile and a half out, but had another half dozen or so washes to cross, some of them rather deep. We made it back twenty minutes before 7p, just before sunset - most excellent timing. Even better were the cold beers Tom had waiting for us. Two hours were not enough for him to consume all he'd brought, fortunately. The drive back was enhanced by the Jeep's floodlights as we re-swam the sandy road sections back the interstate. My feet had taken a beating in those last few hours and would be sore for several day but no matter - it was definitely worth the effort. The only regret on the day was that Iris and now Tom would be leaving us. We would not have the lively happy hour we'd had the day before, the rest of us heading off to well-earned sleep soon after we'd eaten our supper...


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