Wed, Feb 12, 2014
The day did not start well. Evan and I had spent the night parked near the Cima exit off Interstate 15 in the Mojave desert with plans to climb the highpoint of the Shadow Mtns the next day. We were up early, carpooling in the van north on paved Excelsior Mine Rd. Evan had climbed Shadow Mtn some years earlier, thinking it was the highpoint of the Shadow Mountains, both overlooking Shadow Valley (lots of name reuse in this area). But a closer reading of the maps suggests Shadow Mtn is a standalone formation with the Shadow Mountains lying about five miles further west. A powerline road runs south of both of these and it was this sandy road we turned off on to head west. The road has few rocks but plenty of sand. Though featured in Zdon's guidebook, he does not offer any information on the road's condition. We got only a few miles before coming across a long stretch of sand that I did not want to get stuck in. It seemed too far to try driving from this point so we turned around.
More driving got us back to I5 and then southwest to the Halloran Springs exit. Zdon describes several peaks north of the freeway including Turquoise Mtn, Squaw Mtn, and Solomons Knob. Of these, only Turquoise proved accessible in the van. The road is alternately paved and gravel, but any vehicle could navigate it nearly to the summit. The hike is perhaps 100yds up from the the end of the road where an array of communication installations are found. The highpoint is located outside the fenced-in areas at the east end of the summit. A 1934 TURQUOISE triangulation station is found there, but no register that we could find. The summit affords fine views in all directions, including a good view north to the Kingston Range. The fact that we could drive nearly to the summit did not leave us with a satisfying feeling and we were wondering if we were going to be getting any real hiking in on the day.
Driving to the trailhead was the first challenge, and following Zdon's directions we managed to get the van about eight miles from the pavement, to a serviceable dirt road running between Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mtn. We could have picked a better starting point further to the east, but unsure of the conditions ahead, I was eager to take a parking spot I found where I did, the road being narrow with few options to get off it. It was after 10a when we got started on foot, heading southeast across the desert flats towards Cowhole Mtn. We spent about 30 minutes on the desert floor before starting the climb up to the peak. We had a brief discussion on which way to climb it, both agreeing on the right skyline which turns out to be the NW Ridge. The lower half of the mountain is standard desert fare, but the upper half proved more interesting. Some cliffs on the north side forced us to traverse the bottom of this to the right. Evan chose to continue traversing across a rib to an easier chute while I chose a more direct route up some steep class 3 rock. Though somewhat loose in places, careful attention to the holds made it more secure and I found it a challenging scramble. We reconvened about five minutes later where the chute Evan climbed reached up to the main crest. From there it was another 15 minutes of good scrambling along the ridgeline to reach the summit, arriving just before 11:30a.
The summit has a commanding view of the surrounding desert despite its somewhat puny size in comparison to some of the larger mountains in the greater area. A survey tower once stood on the summit, a single pole suspended by wires still remaining. The latter was probably a reconstruction left by previous visitors. A register contained 4 different pads or booklets of entries spanning 30 years. The first was a signature Smatko register comprised of tiny scrolls of paper that served for ten years. John Vitz left another pad in 1995 with four pages over 12 years. The most recent register was left in 2011 when Mark Adrian paid the summit a second visit. It had been more than a year since the last person had signed in prior to Evan and myself.
Up to this point, Evan had thought we were on a two summit crusade, knowing nothing of Cowhole South. I wasn't really sure if we were going to be able to add it to the menu beforehand, so I had made no mention of it. But now that we were staring down at it to the south it seemed not all that far away. Before I had mentioned it, Evan suggested we might go down the south side to pick up a road going back around the east side of Cowhole. He wasn't too keen on returning the way we came and thought this alternative route would be easier, even if longer. This seemed a perfect time to concur with his assessment and mention Cowhole South only a short distance away once we went down the south side. Evan looked at me skeptically, wondering why I hadn't made mention of it earlier. "But it's right there," I implored, "can't be more than a mile and half once we get down." Evan's eyes squinted, looking at me more critically, not easily convinced. He looked again at the peak in the distance and said it looked pretty far away. "How far do you think it is?" I asked, "If it's less than three miles from here, I think we should go for it." Evan thought it might be closer to five miles, but seemed to relent at my suggestion it was less than three. I consulted the GPS and found, even to my own surprise, that it was less than two miles. "See? We can't just let it go..." And so we didn't.
We descended the broken slopes that comprised the south side, a mix of rocky gullies and talus slopes, favoring the main channel that we were happy to find had no major drops along the way. It looked more difficult looking back from the bottom than it had proved in actually doing it. We crossed the desert floor between the two formations, then started up the steep north slope of Cowhole South. It featured an interesting scramble along the summit ridge, about ten minutes' worth, but not as tricky as we'd found on the first summit. Buried under a summit cairn we found the signature small bottle of a Smatko register that didn't look to have been discovered for more than a decade, judging by the collection of mouse habitat we found surrounding it. Andy and party had placed it in the 1980s (exact date unreadable), and there had been only two parties to sign it since then, the last being another Smatko party in 1993 - more than 20 years ago. I suspect there have been others visitors to the summit during that time, but the well-hidden nature of the register kept it from being utilized.
We descended the main gully down the north side of the mountain, east of our ascent route. Back on the desert floor we made our way to the old road we had spied from Cowhole Mtn. We passed by a boundary claim made in 1987, in the runup to the Desert Protection Act that was eventually passed in 1994. I've noted many claims dating to the late 1980s and early 1990s, an effort I suspect to get claims filed before the areas became federal Wilderness and off-limits to new mining claims. This one appears to have come to nothing as we saw no significant mine efforts in the area. There had been mining efforts at other places in the area as evidence by an old sign we saw and some of the rusted trash from bygone decades (including an old Log Cabin syrup tin). We spent more than an hour hiking the roads back towards our car and Little Cowhole Mtn. As we were hiking back along the old Mojave Rd, we realized our car was about the same distance as the summit of Little Cowhole, a little over a mile. It would have made more sense to climb directly to our third summit, but the fact that I had neglected to inform Evan of the bigger plan before we started out meant he was short on water. I had more left, but the 3/4 quart wasn't going to be enough for the two of us. To the van we went.
Knowing we'd be able to reposition the van closer, we started removing the larger rocks we found in the road on our way back. This made it easier once we got the van to drive east on the Mojave Rd and eventually a side road heading north towards Little Cowhole, getting us within a mile of the summit. Little Cowhole was much easier than the other two summits. There is a good deal more sand on the slopes in places, good for descending but not so good heading up. The sand seemed to help the desert flora and we found plenty of flowers blooming on the mountain slopes, far more than we had seen in other places over the past few days. It took only 35 minutes to reach the summit, arriving just before 4p. In addition to another Smatko register from 1993 and a Mark Adrian one from 1995, Barbara and Gordon had visited this summit around 2000, leaving a register but uncharacteristically forgetting to date it. Eight additional pages were filled since then, the most recent visitor barely a month earlier. The easiest to both climb and drive to, this appeared to be the most popular of the three peaks. We had a fun descent on sand down an alternate route, passing by a myriad of more flowers before returning to the car around 4:30p.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Cowhole Mountain
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