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We were hoping for two peaks on the day but had to settle for just one when we found how arduous the drive would be. The worst part was just finding the turnoff from the pavement. The DPS guide is very specific, mileage-wise if coming from Vidal Junction. Coming from Needles, as we were, it merely says "or 12 miles S on US95 from Interstate 40 at Needles." We drove 12.0 miles, then another mile, then went back. We followed an unpromising road for half a mile before turning back as it dumped into a wash - not the "excellent" road we were looking for. Back to the pavement we went, driving south almost ten miles before turning around, thinking perhaps there was a typo in the guide, looking for the elusive pipeline road. An hour passed and still we were on US95 looking for the road, having gone back and forth along the highway countless times. Eventually, Matthew thought to consult Zdon's book, which gave slightly different numbers - 11.4 miles from Needles, marked by a stop sign. Driving back north again, sure enough we came across it within minutes. We had failed in our previous efforts to backtrack far enough north to find the road. Rats. So much for trusting one source.
Heading west, we found the dirt road conditions far from ideal. Sandy in places, it was heavily washboarded elsewhere, slowing our progress along this 10 mile stretch. We had further trouble finding the side road heading south, again driving back and forth along the main stretch before discovering the hard-to-find road leading south. Another 8 miles on the decidedly poorer road - a paint scraper at that - got us to the trailhead at 9:30a - about two hours later than we had planned. So much for an early start.
As we started off, our initial venture was more than three miles on a southwest tack across nearly flat desert terrain. The DPS guide suggests heading south for two miles before turning west, but this seemed to offer little advantage (the desert floor is just as easy to hike across as the poor road) and more miles. We dropped down a steep slope as we entered the main wash which was then followed west for another mile towards a low saddle. As we headed up this wash Stepladder Mountain came into full view and it began to look like quite a challenge ahead. The face we were supposed to climb, advertised as class 2, looked like a sheer face, an easy route seeming highly unlikely.
Choosing one of two gullies in the lower half of the mountain, we climbed the one to the left, a good scramble in its own right, albeit loose and brushy. This led to less brushy talus slopes above, eventually reaching the main cleft in the mountain separating the summit pinnacles above. We climbed up this cleft a short distance, an easy three-foot wall being the crux, and readily found the series of class 2 ledges leading up what had seemed like cliffs from below. The ledges were quite wide, easy to navigate, and soon led us to the higher south summit. The summit rocks themselves are class 3, but relatively tame to negotiate, and by 11:30a we were atop, making for a two hour effort. It was a fine day with little wind, and once we acknowledged there would be no second peak for the day, we had little incentive to leave the summit. One of the early entries in the summit register was a loose piece of paper from Andy Smatko and party in 1975. There were the usual peakbagging names to be found, primarily scheduled DPS outings of various sizes, sometimes quite large. Doug Mantle of course held the record with some seven or eight ascents.
Having heard that the north summit was a stronger challenge, Matthew went off to investigate with my encouragement while I hung back, being uncharacteristically lazy. Standing atop the south summit, I watched and photographed him as he made several efforts to find a way up after climbing down from the saddle on the southwest side. After some time he came back, judging the climb about class 4, but far too loose and dangerous to make it worthwhile. "Now if it had been the highest point, I'd have climbed it," he commented. Hmmm. His efforts intrigued me, and I climbed down to the saddle to give it a look. Matthew decided to give the route directly up from the saddle a go, so I watched him on this very steep face with some trepidation. The whole of the summit is a composite of rounded river rocks embedded in mud, hardened over the many geological eons. The problem is that the mud didn't cook long enough to make solid rock, and it was easy to dislodge the river rocks which were being used as holds for hands and feet. Very unnerving. I had no inclination to follow Matthew (that in itself is fairly unusual, attesting to Matthew's increasing climbing prowess). His route led up to the lower middle summit, but it was unclear whether one could traverse along the ridge to the north summit. I climbed down from the saddle to the southwest side, finding another route up to the ridge between the middle and north summits. An easier, but still worrisome effort, it got me higher than Matthew (whose progress was stopped by a cliff) and closer to the north summit. But even after scaling a crumbling knife-edge enroute, I was unable to find a safe route up the last 15 feet or so to the summit. All the options I considered were horribly loose and frightfully exposed, so I eventually gave up. Had this been the highest point on the mountain, Stepladder might be considered the second hardest ascent on the DPS list (after Little Picacho). A rope and some other gear would make it a good deal less dangerous.
Our return was mostly the same as our ascent, though we did take a different gully down from the base of the cleft. A faint use trail, occasionally ducked, led us to believe this was the regular route for the climb, though we didn't find the gully much easier. Striking out across the flat expanse of the desert floor, we pondered the possibility of losing track of one's vehicle. Rather easy to do, as we found out. We had a GPS with the coordinates we had taken at the start for just this reason, but we held off using it to see if dead reckoning alone could get us back. We were a little more than a half mile from the car when I resort to the GPS as I grew nervous we might be heading in the wrong direction. It wasn't until we were within 100 yards of the car before we could see the black roof just barely rising above the desert scrub. As we arrived back shortly after 2p, we concluded that one might spend hours looking for a car out here. Criss-crossing roads, all long abandoned since the Wilderness was created in 1994, only added to the confusion. Perhaps this was why the DPS guide suggested a right angle approach rather than the direct approach? This and other inconclusive ponderables kept us occupied for the long drive back to the highway, ending another (eventually) successful day in the desert...
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Stepladder Mountain
This page last updated: Tue Dec 18 16:59:30 2018
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