Tue, Dec 7, 2010
With temperatures hovering just above freezing, three of us met in Warner Springs along SR79 at the junction with San Ignacio Rd, the primary entrance to the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. There were a handful of SDC peaks located on the periphery of the reservation that were most easily approached from within the reservation. Hearing that the reservation was once again open to the public after being closed for several years, we made plans to give it go. Somehow I had lost track of Adam the previous night after we'd made plans to rendevous at Sunshine Summit along SR79 to spend the night. The summit location was broad and non-obvious so we ended up sleeping on our own, but regrouped in the morning at Warner Springs. Joining us was Chuck Ramm, his first time hiking with either of us. After introductions we quickly made plans to take two vehicles onto the reservation. That would allow Chuck to ditch us after Square Top if he didn't feel like doing the other two peaks, as we didn't have adequate knowledge of just how much of our foolishness Chuck could manage. He would do just fine as it turned out and had no trouble hiking with us the entire day.
At the entrance to the reservation we stopped to read the signs. "Public Welcome" with a list of reasonably forbidden activities following, but no request for use fees. It took us most of an hour to drive to the east side of the reservation in the vicinity of San Ignacio where a few remote homesteads were located. The mostly dirt road was in excellent shape and could have been driven by any vehicle. We left Chuck's car where the route worsened, piled into Adam's more nimble Escape, and drove another mile north along an increasingly rough road to our starting point above Cougar Canyon. The road continues further, dropping into the canyon, but only the burliest of 4WD drive vehicles would be able to manage it.
Square Top was just visible from our parking spot, somewhat less than three miles due north. Adam and I had gotten close to it on a previous trip approaching from the east through Collins Valley, but the lateness of the day and our tired condition had us wait for another day. Our route today would take us down through Cougar Canyon and then on a traverse of sorts across several smaller canyons to Square Top. An old road, if we could find it, would help us with the traversing section according to reports we'd heard from others. We brought along a 30m rope and a couple of harnesses for the summit block, reported to be class 5.
Starting down the road to Cougar Canyon, we followed a well-worn boot path into the dry streambed. In less than a mile the foot prints turned east to climb over a small saddle and then drop into Indian Canyon, a route shown on our topo but not otherwise well-described in the guidebooks. We turned left to continue down the canyon following the streambed, but no longer had the aid of any sort of trail. We avoided brush where we could by moving to one side of the creekbed or the other as seemed best suited, but it was impossible to avoid some bushwhacking altogether. With the aid of a coordinate loaded into our GPSr, we had little trouble locating the start of the old road as it climbs out of the canyon and heads northwest.
For almost an hour we followed this road, thickly overgrown in a few places but otherwise much better than traveling without it. We lost it several times in the process but with three of us to fan out upon such occasions, it did not take more than a few minutes to find it again. There is another lower hill just south of Square Top, Peak 4,480ft+, where the road forks going around the summit both left and right. Our best guess had us following the fork to the left around the south and west side of the peak, but as we came to find this was not the best choice, requiring extra elevation gain as well as additional time. Once we were near to the west side of this summit we had to leave the road and navigate around the summit before we once again could see Square Top. It was then quite obvious that we had a moderate drop down to the South Fork of Sheep Canyon before we could start up Square Top's South Face. During this descent we managed to lose contact with Chuck as we were sticking together only loosely. Adam and I waited for him atop a rock outcrop where we figured we would best be able to spot him and from where he was more likely to hear our shouts. Nothing came of our wait or shouts after ten minutes, so we decided to continue down, thinking he must have gotten ahead of us somehow. That, or he had knocked himself unconscious and was lying in a pool of blood while we ran off. Luckily, not the latter.
It was Chuck who first spotted us while Adam and I were just reaching the canyon bottom. He was some distance up Square Top where he had paused to rest when he saw us thrashing through some tall brush. All that time he had thought Adam and I were well ahead of him. Regrouping, we continued together up Square Top, the slope rather steep but not too brushy otherwise. There were larger rocks and boulders to scramble over as we neared the summit ridge, though nothing more difficult than easy class 3. We landed at the east end of the summit ridge before determining the highpoint to be at the west end, and it was just before 10a when we managed to find the summit register in a cairn below the southeast side of the summit block. At this point we all took slightly different directions - Adam dived into the summit register like it was going to contain pornography or something equally interesting, I went over to the summit block to figure out how to get up it, and Chuck pulled out a snack and started a well-deserved break.
The lower block on the southeast side of the main block was soon enough mastered, but the higher block was a bigger problem. Though the top was less than ten feet from the top of the lower block, it was nearly vertical to start and featured poor holds. It was soon clear that the rope was going to be necessary to protect any attempt. I tried to chastise Adam for signing the register before he had been to the summit proper, but this had no effect on him, and it was only after this duty had been completed that I managed to get him interested in the problem at hand that seemed of far greater consequence to my narrow thinking. I watched, or rather listened as Adam made his way around the west side of the summit block to retrieve the end of the rope I had tossed over it. Much of what I heard was a series of groans and sharp interjections as though he were being interviewed by the Inquisition but in fact was the result of his close association with the chaparral that lined portions of the summit block on all sides. My impatience with his slow progress allowed me no empathy with his plight - "C'mon! What's taking so long? Do you think we have all day here? Do I need to send Chuck over there to do this for you?"
Eventually Adam retrieved the rope and in no small measure of time had tied it into his harness and the nearby shrubs and possibly other things for all I know. He took in the slack going over the summit block and I was happy to finally get off the perch I'd been standing on for the last ten or fifteen minutes. The move onto the larger block was a delicate one, Adam nicely taking up the slack and holding it taunt as I commited my weight to some fingertip holds and dubious boot placements. A short struggle later I pulled up on the top of the block and hauled myself up. Voila. I pulled up the slack and waited for Adam to undo all the peripheral things he'd tied the rope to ("for back up", he says), though his extra 30 pounds on me and the rope friction over the rock was more than adequate to hold me. He was new at this so of course I needed to take that into account, but it didn't stop me from good-humored ribbing.
As it turns out, the southeast side that I ascended is the steepest face on the summit block, the west and north sides inclined less aggressively. The west side appeared to be the easiest way up, with a tricky start from the ground, and it was this way that Adam prepared to climb. In opposition to Adam, I had nothing to tie the rope to other than myself and there were few places at the summit by which I could brace myself. Should Adam take a significant fall it would undoubtedly pull me off with him quite easily, but I let this little tidbit of info go unnoticed in order to not shake Adam's confidence. Perhaps I was compensating for his previous over-cautiousness, ignoring the far greater safety issue with my own strategy. As expected, it was slabby class 3 once Adam made the initial moves off the deck and in a few minutes we were both standing atop the summit block. We called over to Chuck to come join us but he declined, happy to sit in the seat he'd made for himself while he perused the register and watched us from a safe distance. Goading and guilt weren't working as they often do - darn these mature partners! I lowered Adam down from the summit block via the same route, then had him return to the SE side so that he could lower me down the west side as well. With climbing shoes the west side appears to be a fairly easy ascent, though with boots it would have entailed a bit more concern and risk to do so without a rope.
There were 11 pages in two registers dating to 1991 averaging perhaps one party a year. After signing in, I tucked the register back where we found it, and with the climbing gear loaded back in the pack we started off. We paid a visit to the east summit, a short class 3+ effort that we climbed for no other reason that it looked like fun. No need for the rope on this. In descending the SE side to Sheep Canyon, we noted the old road going around the east side of Peak 4,480ft+ that looked to make a quicker return route. This in fact worked quite nicely and saved us probably 30 minutes. It took only 45 minutes to make the traverse from Sheep Canyon to Cougar Canyon along the old road, losing it now and then as we'd done on the way in but now finding it much quicker thanks to the track logged on Chuck's GPSr. It was 1:10p when we had returned to the car following the warm, slow climb back out of the canyon.
We retrieved Chuck's car and drove both vehicles a few miles to the east end of San Ignacio, less than two miles west of our other two peaks, Pike and Cody. These two unofficially named summits appear to have been selected for the SDC list based on the existence of USGS benchmarks on or near their highpoint. They sit in similar vantage points overlooking the Borrego Desert. We had seen them on a trip up Borrego Palm Canyon to Palms BM earlier in the year, but like that first trip near Square Top, we decided they were too far to make it that day. From the Los Coyotes reservoir they are a much easier jaunt.
From the cars, we hiked up a short gully to the east and traversed further across several gullies before dropping down into the main wash leading to the two peaks, never finding the old trail indicated on the topo map, though we were fairly certain we crossed paths with it should it have still existed. We followed the wash north and east over a low saddle, then struck off southeast to Cody BM, the nearer of the two. There were some ducks that appeared helpful at first but these soon gave out, possibly because we were on a more direct tack to the summit than the ducks would have preferred. We saw other random ducks from time to time, but they seemed to have no certain purpose. An hour after starting out we had reached the summit of Cody where we found a register and some great views. Looking east we could see down most of Borrego Palms Canyon and into the wide open flats of Borrego Valley and the community of Borrego Springs. The Salton Sea could be seen behind them in the distance. The San Ysidro Mtns rose up higher to the south, their rugged ridges and canyons covered in thicker chaparral than found elsewhere in the area. The register dated back almost 30 years with only 13 pages in use. Most of the usual San Diego desert rats were represented including Wes Shelberg, Paul Freiman, Mark Adrian, Terry Flood, Shane Smith, and others.
Next on our agenda was the continuation to Pike BM located less than a mile to the north. Between them was a drop of about 500ft that wasn't too bad thanks to the modest amount of brush cover. We covered the distance easily enough in about 40 minutes, arriving at the lower summit to the east where we knew the benchmark to be located according to our map. We found another Wes Shelberg register, this one dating to 1979. Ours was the first entry in five years, leading me to believe that others may have forgone this location and simply visited the higher point to the west, designated Peak 5,600ft. After concluding our business at the benchmark location (we found no benchmark, but noted the wooden scraps from the old survey tower) we headed up to the higher point where we found still another register. This one had been placed by Wes Shelberg on the same day as the previous one - covering his bases, we presumed. It had more visitors than the previous register, but not by much. Shane Smith had been the last visitor 4 years prior. We signed into this one as well before heading back.
On our return over the small saddle before reaching the dry streambed, I paused to climb a short class 3-4 pinnacle that stood sentinel there, overlooking the pass both east and west. It was a fun little problem before the end of the day. We headed west into the dry wash, following it south past the point where we'd made the undulating traverse to reach it on the way in. The map showed the wash emptying out near the end of the road, about half a mile down from where we had parked the car. Not long before the wash would have emptied out into the Middle Fork of Borrego Palm Canyon, I led us out and over the westside bank of the wash, a short but steep exit where we landed among a very shady flat area under some large oaks. This turned out to be a camp area of sorts at the end of the road and we simply followed this back up to our cars less than ten minutes away.
It was just before 5p by the time we returned to our cars. The sun had set almost half an hour earlier and it was soon to be growing dark. Adam wanted to pay a visit to the nearby San Diego County highpoint atop Hot Springs Mtn, whereas neither Chuck nor I were as enthusiastic. I might have been interested if there were still daylight available since my first visit was somewhat rushed, but going there in the dark held no appeal. I decided to drive back out of the reservation with Chuck, leaving Adam to pursue this last peak on his own. We made arrangements to meet later at the Anza-Borrego Visitor Center in Borrego Springs while Chuck had to head back to San Diego for work the next day. It would be well after 9p before I saw Adam again at the Visitor Center. He could not find the back side route from San Ignacio shown on the older topo (newer topos don't show a way up via that side) and ended up driving back down to the entrance station and up the main route from there - all for a nighttime thrashing in the brush to reach a concrete slab and no views. He did not seem very happy about it upon his return other than being glad to cross that one off his list.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Square Top
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