Tue, May 13, 2008
Weldon Peak was the last of the HPS peaks I had left to climb in the Southern Sierra, and seemed an easy hike before heading for home the same day. It is located off Jawbone Canyon Road, a particularly nasty dirt road, especially where it climbs high into the mountains near the trailhead. Mike's Jeep was up to the task, whereas none of the cars I owned could have managed it. Mike sometimes wonders whether it's his charming personality or his Jeep that I'm most fond of. We left my van near the town of Weldon off SR178 and took the Jeep for the long drive south into the mountains. The road had only recently been opened to vehicles after the seasonal winter closure, and there was a great deal of erosion damage that had been inflicted upon it as the snows had melted off. Fortunately we were able to make it up the steep switchbacks without damaging our kidneys, jostled as they were while we bumped our way along.
We had intended to stop where the road comes closest to the peak, just before it tops out on the switchbacks and turns to the north, but found a locked gate and many words of warning to discourage us. Some of the words were even spelled correctly. You don't want to upset bad spellers, so we didn't even think about trespassing. If it can be avoided, that is. Unable to find the PCT nearby as we expected, Mike fired up the laptop to read the HPS approach directions more carefully. The missing key was the instruction to drive 0.3mi past the locked gate to a parking area off a side road to the right. With the parking area found easily enough, we still had some trouble finding the PCT. Eventually we found it on the other side of the ridge running parallel and just west of the road. The easiest place to find it is about a hundred yards north of the locked gate where one can easily cross over the ridge at a low point and then find the trail not far down the slope on the other side.
We followed the PCT down for about 800ft as it descends to a saddle between the starting point and Weldon Peak (the starting point is the same elevation as the peak, so one has 800ft to descend at the start, followed by 800ft up to the summit). Before reaching the saddle, the trail abruptly ends where it emerges upon a dirt road and marked by a duck. An easement along this road marked by a few stakes allows the PCT to continue down and past the Casa de Oro ranch, where it again leaves the road and becomes a real trail. We followed along the trail as it begins to contour around the west side of Weldon Peak. After about ten minutes we turned left and headed uphill at a spot marked by a small cairn. Or at least what looked like a small cairn with a small, decaying wooden stake sticking out. There was not the usual groomed use trail, heavily ducked, that one often finds on other HPS peaks, so we were unsure if we had turned off at the correct location or perhaps too early. No matter, we had a GPS with us that would lead us to the highpoint with or without a trail.
We were happy to find there was little bushwhacking needed, as we were generally able to zig-zag our way up the hillsides under the forest canopy through small, connected clearings. Some brush couldn't be avoided, but it was minimal. We knew the HPS register was located not on the highpoint, but on a subsidiary pinnacle to the northeast, and it was to this pinnacle we navigated with the help of the GPS (I would consider a GPS a near-requirement for this peak if you've never visited it before). As we neared the rocky pinnacle we began to find lots of old flagging marking the route, and just before an hour had elapsed we were standing at the base of it.
We climbed about 2/3 of the way up the class 3 boulders on the west side to where the HPS guide indicated the register was kept, but found no sign of it. Of more concern, the final distance to the summit appeared to be no easy task. Two huge blocks, separated by a gap that flared from eight inches at the bottom to several feet near the top, stood in our way. They were covered with dry lichen that rubbed off as one tried to climb the steeply slanted face on the easier one. Even with rock shoes it would have been hard for us to climb the slab using the cracks that ran diagonally up the face of the north block. After searching about the other sides for easier options, we returned to the chimney formed between the two blocks. Mike initially started up, but hesitated after only a few feet. Confused about how to proceed, I offered suggestions by way of example, squeezing myself into the chimney at the midpoint, then using opposing pressure to inch my way up the chimney. And in a somewhat easier fashion than I had imagined, I found myself up top. It was probably the hardest HPS summit block I had yet encountered, the nearby block on Lightner Peak being the previous hardest.
The wind was blowing strongly across the summit block and it was difficult to remain in a standing position for more than a few seconds. Long enough for Mike to take a picture from below, and me to take one from above, I then backtracked to the relative safety and protection of the chimney. I sat atop the lower south block, just above the chimney, to help coax Mike up to the top. He tried to recreate the moves I had used to get atop, but without much experience in chimney climbing he seemed hesitant to believe that opposing forces alone would be enough to surmount the obstacle. Unable to find sufficient holds for a more conventional ascent, he eventually gave up the attempt though only a few feet from the top.
Climbing back down the chimney, we made a last sweep of the rocks about us for the register, then descended to the base of the pinnacle on the west side. Upon reaching the base we quickly found the familiar red can amongst a small pile of rocks that we had somehow missed on the way up. Some of the register entries were amusing, expressing indignation about the register belonging on the very top to separate the men from the boys. We briefly considered carrying it back to the summit block, but in the end decided we didn't really care that much one way or the other.
Before returning, we made an attempt to reach the named highpoint of Weldon Peak, a short distance to the southwest. It had seemed easily indentifiable from the HPS pinnacle, but upon reentering the forest we suddenly couldn't tell one nearby bump from another. The GPS did not seem to match with what we saw about us, and after surmounting what I later believed was the highpoint, we continued southwest towards another bump that looked higher. This turned into some nasty, dusty bushwhacking that would probably have been better left unthrashed and unexplored. More confusion ensued as we headed up the other bump, somehow got off track, and finally we decided to abort the operation altogether.
Rather than return the way we had come, already chewing up some 20 minutes in silliness, I suggested we head west and northwest down the west slopes of Weldon Peak to intercept the PCT more directly. Mike was game, and down we went. More bushwhacking. Whack, whack. More thrashing. Thrash, thrash. It seemed we were being punished by the mountain gods for taking the peak so lightly at the start. Thorny brush all about. Poke, stab. Poor Mike is wearing a pair of shorts. Ouch, ouch. Eventually we stumble upon the PCT and our mini-ordeal is at an end. It is a simple matter to head north and follow the PCT back the way we came. We found no better duck to mark the exit point off the trail, so our route up was probably the easiest/shortest, though it is by no means as heavily visited as some of the other HPS peaks. By 12:30p we had returned to the Jeep, making for a three hour outing (where we thought it would easily be less than two hours). Weldon had proved to be one HPS peak that was not to be trifled with.
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