Stepstool Peak P300
Conical BM P500
Stepladder Mountain 2x P500 DPS / DS
Big Chief BM P750

Apr 10, 2020

With: Tom Becht

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 GPX Profiles: 1 2
Stepladder Mountain previously climbed Feb 17, 2008
Stepladder Mountain later climbed Nov 8, 2022


Tom and I had camped about a mile west of US95 on the utility road heading towards the Stepladder Mtns. We drove in two vehicles to keep with social distancing guidelines, part our effort to continue peakbagging in the era of COVID19. I had been to the DPS Stepladder Mtn 12yrs earlier and had agreed to repeat it for Tom's sake as one of the bones I would occasional toss him for following me around on the more obscure desert summits. We would do some other summits in the area to make a full day of it. A late-season storm had stalled over Southern California bringing moisture and cool temps to the desert in early April. This had the unpleasant effect of wetting the brush and grasses we walked through, leaving our boots and feet soaked for most of the day. The occasional light rain would mean tossing our rain jackets on one moment, removing them the next. This was more than compensated by the greening of the desert landscape and profusion of wildflowers that delighted us all day. Our main outing covered 12.5mi and more than 2,000ft of prominence, keeping us busy for 7.5hrs. On our drive back out we stopped to tackle a last summit just off the roadway that had almost 800ft of prominence.

Stepstool - Conical BM - Stepladder

The drive to the Stepladder Mtns is fairly long, about 9mi on a good gasline road heading west from Lobecks Pass, then 5.5mi south on a lesser road. The gasline road had ongoing work being done on several sections of the buried pipeline, though there were no workers present when we passed through the fenced sections erected to keep endangered desert tortoises from invading the worksites. The lesser road heading south is a little hard to find (though signed with a BLM roadmarker if one looks carefully), so it helped to have the GPSr to nail down the location. The road is less brushy than I remember from 12yrs earlier, but it is somewhat slow and bumpy as it goes against the grain of the land, in and out of countless small washes. The road is closed at the Wilderness boundary about 4mi from Stepladder Mtn, leaving a long, though not unpleasant walk across the desert to reach the base of the mountain. We made Stepladder the last stop of our loop, visiting a closer and lower summit to the SE first. Most of the route was the usual class 2, save for some class 3 scrambing at the top. With overcast skies and precipitation seen in most directions, it would not be a good day for pictures or views. From the summit, Stepladder stood out as the highest summit around, less than mile to the WNW. We left a register atop this first peak, dubbing it Stepstool Peak, a play on the range's namesake.

After descending the class 3 section, we moved southeast and then descended the southwest side of the peak on our way to Conical BM which could be seen as the highest point in the southern part of the range. It would have also been possible to descend directly off the west or southwest side of Stepstool, but we couldn't see the breaks in the cliffs there until we had viewed them during our descent. We landed in a wash, following this south for a quarter mile or so before exiting to begin our climb up Conical BM. The terrain on this second peak was more rugged than the first, requiring a bit more effort. We ascended a wide gully northeast of the summit as it seemed to offer the most straightforward way up. The gully became steeper and more class 3 as we got higher, eventually leading to a small saddle on the north side of the peak. The last stretch up the North Ridge was more standard class 2 fare, getting us to the top shortly after 11a. The wooden survey tower still stood at the summit, rusty guywires holding it up over what must be many decades now. We knew that Gordon McLeod had climbed Conical BM back in 1971, but alas we were unable to find the hoped-for register hidden in the summit cairn. We left a new one, adding Gordon's name at the top, before starting back down. There were several other rugged peaks between Conical and Stepladder that appear on LoJ, but these would not be easy objectives on the way to Stepladder, so we decided to leave them for a future visit.

After descending back to the high saddle north of Conical BM, we chose an alternate descent line down a narrower gully to the north. This proved to be a more enjoyable way than our ascent line. It led down to the same wash system we'd used earlier, this time heading north and following it for more than a mile as it turns northwest to bring us to the east side of Stepladder Mtn. We followed the standard DPS route up that side, what looks like a stiff little scramble from a distance but is really much easier. There is some short class 3 moves on the lower parts of the cliffs but quickly leads to some long ledges that are easy class 2, almost like they were designed for the purposed. The route has been amply ducked and by 1p we had found our way to the top. Though the topo map shows a spot elevation at the northern of two summits, the southern one is clearly higher. The DPS register is found at the base of the highest point which requires some modest class 3 scrambling to surmount. The register in the ammo box had been left in 1999 by a large DPS party (there's a TR in their archives describing the debauchery that accompanied them). Oddly, I could find no sign of my previous 2008 ascent. Later, I noted from my earlier TR that there had been an older summit register, now gone. I had probably signed into that one rather than the newer book from 1999. Before heading back down, Tom watched while I spent about 15min exploring route options for the north summit. Matthew and I had failed on the previous visit and I wondered if I had any better skills than I possessed then. I did a much better job of exploring options, but all of them ended in extremely dicey sections of crappy rock - apparently my skills were no better than 12yrs ago. We descended back down the regular route, then made our way back across the flats to our jeeps parked miles away. It was now 3:40p, but I still had one more idea for the day that Tom was easily talked into.

Big Chief BM

This last summit is a short distance north of the pipeline road, 2.5mi west of the junction with the road leading to Stepladder. Barbara and Gordon had been to the summit in 1984. It took us less than 30min to reach the top via class 2 slopes on the south side, about half of it through a large cholla garden. We found a cairn and the remains of a survey tower, but no sign of a register. We added both their names to a new register we left before heading back down via a slight variation of the ascent route. We finished up shortly after 5:30p, calling it a day. We showered, put on some fresh clothes and opened a few cold ones before driving off to the Turtle Mtns where we would spent the next few days. We spent the night camped off Turtle Mtn Rd a few miles from US95 where we would still have cell coverage. It was a lonely stretch of road and we would not be bothered by other vehicles the rest of the evening and night...


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