Wed, Apr 20, 2011
A glorious predawn sky greeted us as we prepared to set out for Stage BM in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Evan and I were on the third day of our five day venture in San Diego County chasing SDC peaks. Evan didn't really care if they were on a list or not, he was just looking for something fun to do while his wife was back East visiting the grandkids this week. Stage BM lies in the middle of the small range called the Tierra Blanca Mtns just west of S-2 in the state park. It is notable for the abundance of cholla cactus on many of its slopes, a particularly nasty little variety that has small nodules of needles that break off easily and tiny fishhook tips that are difficult to extract. Chuck Ramm and Brian Browning had hiked this summit not too long ago and had commented that the backside towards the Inner Pasture was relatively free of cholla as compared to the direct route from the east. It was on this recommendation that we decided to take the longer way around, first following a dry wash canyon on the north side, then doubling back up the Northwest Slope once we reached the Inner Pasture. Getting to the wash was not difficult, first following a use trail out of our cul-de-sac up to the broader alluvial plain, then easy cross-country to an old road leading into the canyon.
The route choice was a good one. It was a fairly easy hike up the wash all the way to the Inner Pasture without any serious impediments, basically a walk in the park. On top of that we were shaded for much of the way which helped to keep us cooler than we'd have otherwise been climbing the East Ridge in the sun. Best of all was the herd of bighorn sheep that we were privileged to see shortly after starting up the canyon. It was the largest herd either of us had seen, several dozen members comprising ewes and kids. They were startled when we rounded a bend and found them foraging in the wash, half of them immediately starting up the north side of the canyon. They gained about 200ft of elevation and then traversed east over us and around a ridgeline out of sight. The terrain was terribly loose and the rocks showered down in profusion as they scampered up and across, though not a one appeared to slip or go off-balance. We noted one ewe that started a small landslide under her as she shot up out of the canyon, several hundred-pound boulders just missing another ewe coming up behind her. Evidently their legendary skills on rocky terrain do not extend to courtesy shown to each other in times of stress. Once on the high ridgeline, the first in line waited for the others to catch up before they all slowly disappeared out of view.
We passed by an old barbed-wire fence and watched the moon set shortly before we exited the canyon and entered the Inner Pasture. Though large and flat and very pasture-like from a physical layout, the Inner Pasture is very dry and covered in very coarse scrub. No cattle or horse could find this a terribly inviting location. Evan had nothing but scorn for the place, having crossed it on his previous visit when going between the highpoint of the Tierra Blanca Mtns on one side to the highpoint of the Sawtooth Mtns on the other. His recollections of the visit were primarily unpleasant ones.
Still in the shade, we climbed upwards now on the Northwest Slopes for half an hour before encountering the sun as it crested the summit above us. It was very rocky and not an unpleasant ascent at all, with few cholla and only modest amounts of agave to watch out for. About halfway up and just ahead of me, Evan stepped on a large balanced rock that shifted, throwing him backwards. I watched in sudden horror as he tumbled onto his back and started falling into the only large cholla that was to be found on our path to the summit. In a split second he managed to arrest his fall and stop with his face only inches from the evil needles. I moved around the cactus to help him up. It was the worst tumble he could remember taking but luckily seemed to come out with only minor injuries. Some of the cholla nodules had stuck to his pants and he had some trouble extracting these as they got transfered to his gloved hand and fingers, and some time was spent removing the tiny, pesky needles from his knee and shin. We both commented that it certainly could have been a lot worse. After this short diversion, we were only another twenty minutes in reaching the summit with no further incidents to delay us.
The top is large and flat and not all that summit-like. In the middle of this we found the usual collection of items: a cairn with a register, a benchmark, and the wooden remains of an old survey tower. The register dated to 1984, placed by Wes Shelberg. The first four pages are almost exclusively filled with Wes's signature, having climbed the peak nearly a dozen times. It must have been one of his favorites as there was a one-page memorial left in 2003, a year after his death at the age of 83. It mentions that he spent his career working for the US Navy in chemical warfare testing while spending his free time supporting the Sierra Club and other environmental causes - a strange juxtapostion indeed.
It was just after 8a and the desert air was still clear before the usual haze develops with the heat and wind that the day brings. There is a fine view of both north and south halves of the Inner Pasture to the northwest and southwest, respectively. To the west is the Sawtooth Mtns that effectively split the Inner Pasture with the higher Laguna Mtns in the background. To the north rises Granite Mtn with Whale Peak and the Vallecito Mtns to the northeast. To the east lie the plains of the Carrizo Valley and the Carrizo Badlands. To the south rise the convoluted ridges of the In-Ko-Pah and Jacumba Mtns.
Despite his earlier encounter with the cholla, Evan chose to lead us off the East Ridge that we had been warned contained a large number of these villains. We strode over the slightly lower NE summit on our way down the zigzagging ridgeline, descending sections of large boulders and the booby-trapped cholla gardens. We followed this all the way out to the mouth of the canyon, not far from our vehicles parked near S-2. We spent about an hour and half on the descent, four hours in all. This marked the end of our desert excursions as we headed for the higher elevations of the Laguna Mtns.
We drove north again on S-2, west on SR78 to Julian where we stopped to make belated phone calls to our wives, then south on the Sunrise Hwy (S-1). It took some time to pick the best starting point for Oriflamme and Roost, our next two peaks. I had not collected any internet beta on these obscurities and the lack of adequate preparation resulted in much extra driving as we drove first one way, then back again, then back the original direction before settling on what looked like the shortest route to Oriflamme Mtn. The topo map shows a closer dirt road starting from a higher elevation further south, but our scouting for it turned up nothing and we concluded it had been returned to nature through disuse.
Oriflamme Canyon is a modestly popular hiking, biking and riding route down to the desert floor to the east. The canyon descends in a northerly direction initially, eventually curving around to the northeast and finally emptying into Mason Valley nearly 5,000ft lower. Oriflamme Mtn is a long ridgeline on the east side of Oriflamme Canyon, connecting to S-1 at the southern end. Roost BM is at the far northern end of Oriflamme Mtn, marking the point where Oriflamme canyon turns from north to northeast. Along the western edge of Oriflamme Canyon, just below S-1 runs the Pacific Crest Trail.
Our route would traverse Oriflamme Canyon west to east, crossing the Pacific Crest Trail and the main trail descending the canyon's center. Because the distance was about five miles one way, Evan decided to use his mountain bike rather than hike. While he took some time to eat lunch in his camper, I set out alone just after noon, expecting him to catch up shortly. The dirt road was in decent shape, clear of brush and with only modest erosion. I crossed a small creek just before reaching the PCT junction where I saw the only other hikers in the area during the outing. Fire had swept through here in 2003, taking out most of the trees and the decimating the mature brush. But as usual, nature is quick to recover and already new growth has reclaimed most of the land. I followed the road down to the low point in the canyon, then followed another road up as it passes within a quarter mile or so of Oriflamme's summit. I left the road and headed cross-country up the west slopes, reaching the highpoint about 45 minutes after starting out.
There was a set of nested red cans found in the summit rocks. It dated only to 2007, placed by Gabriel Rau, a notable member of the Angeles Chapter's Lower Peaks Committee. There was an entry in 2008 and the last one in 2010 by Avery Wear, who I'd climbed with on the Sierra Challenge in years past. This summit had once been on the SDC list but had been long delisted, resulting in some neglect. The views were grand, particularly east to Mason Valley and south to the higher summits of the Laguna Mtns. The hillsides were all very green with the help of spring rains and the higher elevations. Flowers were in bloom in shades of white, yellow, and purple. Even some of the yucca were beginning an early bloom. As I returned to the road via the same western slopes off Oriflamme, I expected to see Evan pop up at any moment but all was still except for the breeze.
Back on the road I continued north for more than a mile until it gave out in a high, dry pasture area. The roads depicted on the topo approximately matched what I found on the ground, but there were several key sections that I found missing that would not allow me an easier approach to Roost BM. The 4WD trail depicted on the ridgeline did not exist (nor did I see evidence that it once did) and I found myself doing some moderate bushwhacking along it, slowing considerably. It was 2p before I had reached the final pile of rock that comprises Roost and reached its smallish summit. No register was found here despite a thorough search, but there were a benchmark and the remains of a survey tower that I spent a few minutes refurbishing. As an SDC peak I was expecting to find a register of some kind, so this was a mild disappointment. The views were similar to those on Oriflamme, with the exception of a superior vantage to the north for Granite Mtn and Chariot Mtn (another delisted SDC peak). I swept the ridgeline I had taken to reach the summit but still found no sign of Evan or his bike.
I found a better return route that utilized an old road found lower on the west side of the ridge. The area is still used for grazing cattle as evidenced by watering troughs and some fencing that is still kept in a relative state of repair. In following the road down towards Oriflamme Creek, I noticed there was a single set of fresh bike tracks that I guessed were likely Evan's though I'd still not spotted him. I wondered if he'd gotten lost in finding the peaks and given up on them. I'd given him the map beforehand since I already had the summit waypoints loaded in my GPSr, so I couldn't understand how he could get lost or confused.
On my way back up from Oriflamme Creek I initially followed an older, less-used road that made for a shortcut back to the start. Where the road started another switchback heading south, I decided the brush in the area wasn't too egregious and headed off cross-country on a more direct line back to the start. This went on for about a third of a mile, hiking steeply up a drainage that first crossed the PCT before emerging onto the original dirt road I'd started down from S-1. A few minutes later I was back at the vehicles, Evan's bike strapped to the back of the camper in the same position that it had been when I'd left. Did he even leave the camper, I wondered?
Seems Evan had in fact gone out on his bike, but failed in reaching the peaks because he didn't feel like doing the cross-country parts. If you don't have an obsession with reaching the summit, your outings can be far more flexible. Since this was a foreign concept to me, it didn't occur to me that he might simply choose not to head for the top.
It was after 3:30p now, but the next TH was but a short distance away, and before 4p we had parked at the Pioneer Mail picnic area and started on our way. We were headed for Pine Mtn, another SDC peak, this one an embarassingly short distance of about a mile from the trailhead. Though there is no trail or road going over the summit, a dirt road does get one close as it circles around the summit area on the east, north and west sides. We found a maintained trail on the east side that traversed up and across the East Slope, but it soon became obvious it wasn't heading for the summit. We bushwhacked our way through a short, mild section of brush before finding more open grass slopes the rest of the way to the summit.
Not surprisingly, given the peak's name, the summit is covered in pine trees and one of the few places in the area to avoid the deadly fires of 2007. This renders the rather flat summit devoid of any views and our search for something resembling a highpoint a bust. We looked under logs and in tree nooks for signs of a summit register, but came up empty. There is also a second, broader summit to the west that shows the same number of contours on the map, but because of the proliferation of trees, it was impossible to sight the other summit and would be impossible to tell which was higher. Because the map shows the peak label on the east summit, I decided that was good enough. Evan of course, cared little. We found the dirt road between the two summits and followed this back for a slightly longer, but entirely brush-free route back to the start. Back just after 5p, we were gone a little more than an hour.
And just when you think you've tackled the easiest peak on the SDC list, a short distance further south is one that's twice as easy, Wooded Hill. Everything about the peak is easy, including the name. The topo map shows a Nature Trail going around the base of the summit, but in fact the trail goes to the top in a series of switchbacks that defy explanation other than the person in charge had a whole team at their disposal and couldn't let them go before their 8hrs of court-ordered community service had elapsed. The summit rises barely 200ft from the trailhead and like Pine Mtn, is covered with trees. To its credit, the summit has some large summit blocks that at least offer a bit of class 2 scrambling, perhaps class 3 for those under 10yrs of age. We climbed three of these just to make sure all bases were covered. Just south of the highpoint is a steel pole with an ammo box bolted to it in way of a register. We checked it out, but didn't bother to peruse or sign it. Much like the Mt. Whitney register, it's popularity seemed to negate its attractiveness.
There was still one more SDC peak left in the area, one of the trickier ones on the list, Manza BM. It was now almost 6p and there was less than two hours of daylight left. The trailhead was luckily only a few minutes further down the road. Also fortuitous was that the distance to the summit was less than two miles, but half of this was cross-country through an area with extremely heavy brush. Others had reported spending hours toiling to gain half a mile on this peak and it would have been impossible to get done before dark under ordinary circumstances. To my advantage I was armed with beta as to how to find a use trail that was cut through the brush starting off the aptly named Sunset Trail. Evan was through for the day, so just after 6p I set off alone from S-1, following the start of the Sunset Trail.
I knew that time was of the essence lest I get caught out in a bushwhacking quagmire in the dark. Where the trail has several forks I kept left, going over a small rise before dropping down the other side. Keeping an eye on the GPSr, I started looking for flagging when I was just north of due east from Manza's summit. Unfortunately there was no flagging along the trail and I ended up scouting further north than necessary. To the left of where the trail turns north is a shallow drainage in the woods that drops to the southwest. I followed this drainage through the tall grass in the forest understory, thinking it was probably the best bet to find the use trail. Where the shallow part of the drainage ends and begins to drop more steeply off to the southwest, I found the first of many orange flags that I'd been looking for. I was probably about a hundred and fifty yards from the trail at this point. The use trail went immediately through the dense brush dropping to the deeper drainage between the Sunset Trail and Manza, but it appears to have been groomed relatively recently. There were a few downed trees in sections that made for a limbo maze exercise, but for the most part it was fairly clear and quick going. It was difficult to get lost for most of it. Only at the bottom of the drainage did I find a lack of flags or ducks or otherwise obvious trail, and I spent a few minutes in here making sure I was on the right track before proceeding. Finding the trail starting up to Manza, I followed it initially along an old barbed-wire fence, then crossed to the other side and continued up steep slopes through forest before emerging back into chaparral near the summit ridge. The brush was generally well over head level, but the trail was well-marked and easy to follow for the quarter mile stretch north along the summit ridgeline, up and over several intermediate bumps. Often the trail would go over large boulders or slabs along the ridge, likely chosen to save stretches of hard chopping through the brush when creating the trail. It was almost 7p before I finally emerged on the highest block marking the summit. It conveniently provided a high point above the brush, affording views in all directions. The views themselves weren't all that impressive - they were composed of rolling hills covered in forest of chaparral in all directions, none of it very dramatic. But I had to admit that the folks who had created and maintained the use trail had made it one of the most impressive ones I've ever been on.
There was a benchmark with a register located nearby. The register dated to 1991. It had a surprising number of entries considering the obscurity of the peak. I stayed at the summit less than a minute. The sun would set soon and it was already growning chilly. I beat a hasty retreat, wanting to at least get back to the Sunset Trail before darkness overtook me. The return went faster thanks to the familiarity I now had with the use trail and I managed to get back on the Sunset Trail just after sunset, appropriately. The sky was alight with shades of orange reflecting off thin, high clouds. At the highpoint of the trail I got a last view of Manza BM with the sun having set behind it - a much better picture than the drab green it portrays in the daytime. To the southwest coastal clouds had moved in more than 50 miles from the ocean and began pushing up against the mountains only a few miles to the west of me. Tomorrow's agenda was looking like it was going to include overcast. I got back to the TH by 7:40p. Evan had left a note on my van directing me to a nearby location in the National Forest where he had found a secluded spot for us to spend the night. Having finished four days' worth of peakbagging in three days, we would spend some time over dinner making plans for additional peaks for the next day. Luckily I had come prepared with a host of options and we were not lacking in further choices.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Stage BM
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