Sun, Mar 17, 2019
Today's main event was an incursion onto the 29 Palms Marine Base in the Mojave Desert to reach Sunshine Peak, a P1K in the Lava Bed Mountains. It rises somewhat dramatically from its surroundings, the highest object for some miles in all directions. The range highpoint, Argos Mtn, lies about 4mi to the southwest separated by a deep wash. Both Jeff and Karl had suggested we add this second P1K to the agenda, but I thought just doing the one would be enough trespassing for the day. Afterwards, we tackled some easier summits back on BLM lands in the same area.
We continued over the summit and down the southeast side, descending into the large wash draining east. The wash made for easy walking and kept us out of sight. It probably mattered little whether we followed a ridgeline instead, as there was scant chance of anyone finding us out here, but somehow it made us feel better to be tucked into the wash. About half an hour after leaving the summit we came across a curious and unsettling find - a large bomb that was partially buried in the ground with a worn parachute dangling off the tail. We couldn't figure out why they would deploy a parachute on a bomb - to give someone on the ground time to shoot it down? It seemed maybe this was a way to do practice bombing, then being able to reuse inert bombs as a cost-saving measure. Later, I found that the parachutes (more like a drag chute) were often employed in low-elevation bombing to slow the bombs and allow the plane to avoid the blast zone. We had no idea whether these things were live rounds or not, but we made the safe assumption that everything we saw was live and made no effort to pick up or touch anything that remotely looked like an unexploded ordinance. This first find was enough to spook Karl into abandoning the effort and he chose to leave us and return more directly to his car parked at the campsite. Jeff and I bade him goodbye and continued on our way towards Sunshine Peak.
This of course was only the first find we came across as we crossed the wide, shallow valley between the two summits. It was soon evident that this had been extensively used as a gunnery range for many decades, though it appears it has also been at least several decades since it was last used for this purpose. There is a dirt road running down the middle of the valley that we crossed on our way, tire tracks indicating it is still used occasionally, but probably not more than once a month or so. We came across many, many more munitions in a stretch about a mile long. Most of the stuff was fragments from the majority that exploded, but there were plenty of unexploded ones lying on the ground or partially buried. We spent more time looking at the ground to see where we were placing our feet than anywhere else during this time. As we started up the slopes out of the valley with a mile remaining, the amount of blast material tailed off and we could relax more. It would take us another 45min to make our way to the summit without anything more than class 2 to contend with. We had a small drop along the way as we had started up towards the peak a little too far to the north, but this was of little consequence.
It was 10:15a by the time we topped out. There were a few items left by military personnel at the summit including a survey marker from the 11th marines back in 1994. A few ordinances scattered about the summit area suggested it was occasionally targeted, but certainly not a regular thing. We imagined a few playful pilots having fun unloading their last bombs on the peak, perhaps against the regular rules of the exercises they were participating in. From the summit we could again see no sign of development anywhere on the base that we could see, excepting Argos Mtn's summit. In addition to what looked like an old tower design, there were a number of shipping containers parked to one side. There did not appear to be any activity on the summit. Indeed, if one looks at the satellite view, it is clear there is no road leading to the top, so it is unlikely to be manned and is probably an abandoned site now - good to know for later use. We spent maybe 15min at the summit, deciding not to leave a register since the summit seems to see occasional military visitors. No need to press our luck on this one.
We descended back down to the valley on the west side, following a similar route we'd used for the ascent. We were curious about a large open area that had no creosote near the road and went through it to investigate. It turned out to be ground zero for the aerial bombardment, what we called the "killing fields." Large pieces of metal machinery had been set up in the center of the area and nearly obliterated by repeated gunnery practice. Not sure exactly what kept the creosote from growing back over the decades, but perhaps the ground is too high in lead and other heavy metals to support it. We then turned north to hike back out on the old road in the direction of our campsite. We figured since the road had been driven on occasionally, it was probably cleared of any unexploded ordinances, and probably the safest ground to be walking on. This was probably wishful thinking as we found another killing field roadside about a mile north of the first one. There were bombs half-buried in the wash scattered about with no way of knowing whether these were inert practice bombs or potential hazards. Again, we steered clear of them, not even wanting to disturb the ground around them. Probably overkill, but no need to take chances...
After another mile on the road we got out of the gunnery zone, and eventually left the road to continue cross-country more directly towards our vehicles. It was nearly 1p by the time we got back to the transmission lines and the two cars. I had expected Karl would have gone off to climb something else instead of waiting for us, but he was half-napping in his Element, having enjoyed lunch and the fine noontime weather. We went back up the utility road to fetch the jeep and do a few other hikes while we still had plenty of daylight.
This page last updated: Wed Mar 27 09:53:58 2019
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