Sun, Dec 9, 2012
Our second day at Hole-in-the-Wall found our merry band of six reduced by one. Laura was still suffering from blisters she'd gotten the previous day and decided it'd be best to give her feet a day of rest. Today's agenda was a different sort of outing from yesterday's long, 23 mile hike over four summits. Today's involved a bunch of short hikes to summits along either side of dirt Wild Horse Canyon Rd that runs through the hills west of Black Rock Canyon Rd. Most of these summits had been climbed by Matthew and Courtney (CP) back in 2010, who had in turn been inspired by an Andy Smatko TR from 1971. There were a few other points that I threw in for good measure, one a range highpoint and the other a P500.
Our first stop of the day was Wild Horse Mesa, only a few miles from our campground at Hole-in-the-Wall. We parked off the road at a junction from which we could do the first three peaks without additional driving. Wild Horse Mesa is a 4-mile long feature at the NE end of the Providence Mountains. The highpoint is located at the far northwest end of the mesa that slopes upwards in that direction. As if to confirm the name, we spotted a posse of wild horses on the east flanks of the mesa as we were driving in. The small group of perhaps half a dozen were not easy to see, missed entirely by the occupants of our second vehicle. Upon starting off to the mesa, we kept an eye out for them in the side canyons, but never spotted the shy animals again. Our route went up an arcing ridgeline starting from across a dry wash and sweeping to the summit with a few rock bands to negotiate. It was mostly an easy hike with only the upper rock band offering us a challenge. There were probably easier ways through the small cliff, but the class 3 route that Sean led us up to worked out to be a fun bit of scrambling. Once above this it was another straightforward hike over grassy slopes to the highpoint, taking all of about 50 minutes. There are two summits located about a quarter mile apart. Though a register was found at the eastern one, I wasn't convinced and told the others I would check out the western summit and measure the elevation difference with my GPS. They must have had similar doubts or didn't want to be left behind, as all of them followed me over. The GPS readings were identical so we left the register on the eastern summit where we first found it. It had been left in 1980 by a MacLeod/Lilley party. Smatko had paid a visit in 1995 with Bill Schuler and another partner. Only six pages had been filled in 32 years, with Matthew and CP the last to sign in two years earlier.
We descended the same route, made our way back towards the cars, then east to the North and South Towers, located just southeast of Barber Peak. Unofficially named, these were the titles Smatko had given them in 1971. He reported them to have fine class 3 climbing while CP gave them a ho-hum rating. We also found them to be ho-hum. Smatko seems to take poetic license and is not to be entirely trusted, I've concluded. He had gone as far as suggesting they'd make fine additions to the DPS list. Not that there isn't interesting things about the towers. On the west side is a cliff with some cool caves. I stopped at the bottom of one where a massive block had fallen out of the roof above. I scrambled about a bit on the cliff, but the rock quality wasn't good and the difficulties were mostly beyond me. I ran back to the left to catch up with the others who were heading to the North Tower. The others went to the saddle between the tower before climbing the SW Ridge to the North Tower while I went more directly up the West Face. The class 3 I found there was decent, but nothing special. The SW ridge was even easier and had almost no class 3 at all (except for an unnecessary bit that we forced at the base of the ridge).
Both summits had busy registers, both left in 1977 by large DPS parties that included MacLeod, Lilley, Barbara ad Roy Magnuson, Eric Schumacker, Dick Agnos and a few other names I didn't recognize. The peaks were at least popular. We descended the SW Ridge to the saddle and then directly up the north side of the South Tower, again mostly class 2. After signing the sister register, we scrambled down the West Ridge with a few rocky steps, but mostly easy grass slopes. An old fenceline could be found on this ridge, evidence of the grazing that still takes place in season when the grass is a little greener. It was just after 10:30a when we returned to the cars, making for three peaks in three hours.
We drove further north along the road to a junction with Macedonia Canyon Rd. A gate here is unlocked and allows one to get closer to our next summit, Columbia Mtn. This side road is sandy and not suitable for low clearance vehicles. The road goes all the way west to the paved Kelso Cima Rd, but we drove only about half a mile to where it got a bit sandy and we decided to park. Columbia Mtn was little more than half a mile to the northwest. It was not a trivial climb, entailing some 1,000ft of gain over a short but steep distance. The terrain was open and easy cross-country with little brush (as all the day's peaks proved), but we got a good workout on the class 2 SE Slope that took about half an hour to scale. Columbia Mtn is the southernmost in a collection called the Mid Hills found between the Providence Mountains to the southwest and the New York Mountains to the northeast. As the name suggests, these are lower than the ranges on either end, but interesting nonetheless. Just to the east, across Horse Canyon Rd is an evener small range dubbed the Little Thorne Mountains (our next objective). Columbia's summit held a 1935 USGS benchmark and a register dating to 1984 from MacLeod. The trio of Smatko/Schuler/Yates had visited in 2000, with a bunch of other names before and after them. We took a short break here while taking in the views. For a change of pace we started down the East Ridge, though I got separated from the others when I got distracted by an interesting gully on the SE Face. The others watched me start down it, but shrugged and continued on the intended route. The gully had some class 3 and a little brush to contend with, but overall not much slower as I was only a minute behind them in returning.
By now it was nearly noon. Ten minutes more driving had us to the northwest side of the highpoint of the Little Thorne Mtns, about a mile away. We followed a road northeast and then southeast. Cattle were found in the area, eating what little they might find in the parched hills where it has been many months since any rain has fallen. When due north of the summit we headed cross-country, Karl and I taking one route up a shallow gully while the other three took a slight variation along an adjacent ridgeline. We were just over half an hour in reaching the summit, marked by a steel pipe set standing in a cairn. Red cans held two register, one left by MacLeod in 1984, the other by Mark Adrian in 1996. The summit provides a good view looking north to Eagle Rocks, our most anticipated summit on the day. After a short break at the summit of Little Thorne we started back. I took an all cross-country, more direct route back to the start while the others followed a path similar to the ascent route. I came across more fencing and cattle on what was otherwise a pleasant enough route, managing to get back before the others by several minutes.
Another ten or fifteen minutes driving got us as close as we could manage to Eagle Rocks, about 3/4 mile to the south. Smatko had called this rocky formation "Der Tooth" (also recommending it for the DPS list), but Eagle Rocks appears to be the official name for this interesting set of rock pinnacles. There are two primary pinnacles, the northern one being the highest by a good margin. We approached it from the south, arcing around the south pinnacle to the east and then climbing through a jumble of rock on the east side of the north pinnacle to a shoulder on the north side. Up to this point the scrambling is class 3, but the upper 30-40ft are definitely tougher. We'd brought a rope as recommended by Matthew and CP, in case it proved harder than easy class 5. By the time I reached the shoulder, Sean and Jen had already soloed up the hard section on the north side and were peering down with smiles on their faces. The climbing is steep on a combination of cracks and face, but the hold were good enough that I'd give it a class 4 rating. I went up to where I'd seen Sean a minute earlier (they were now on their way to the summit over easier terrain) where I turned to photograph Tom who had paused to change into rock climbing shoes. Karl came up to the shoulder in turn, but declined to ascend the rest of the way, even with an offer of a rope belay. He was happy to turn around here and waited for us down below on a sunny rock.
Tom and I joined Sean and Jen a few minutes later where we relaxed in the afternoon sun. Finding no register, I pulled out an extra one I had "borrowed" from the Bristol Mtn HP a few days earlier (that summit sported two complete registers, the last one left because they hadn't dug deeper to find the older one). We didn't bother to change the name on the inside cover - leaving that exercise of confusion or correction to someone who might follow. After a short break we descended via the same route, though definitely a bit spicier on the descent than it had been on the way up. On our way back down the east side we talked about the southern pinnacle, which looked like it might be harder. I didn't really care to climb it myself, but I wanted to know its difficultly, so I worked on talking Sean into "having a look." With enough coersion, he was convinced to do so while we waited. After he had started off, Jen decided to have a look herself and set out to catch up. They found an ascending ledge starting up from the base of the summit rocks on the east side, getting them to the north side where easy friction allowed them to reach the top - even easier than the north pinnacle, they reported. They tried to talk me into joining them, but I had already gotten what I wanted out of it and declined.
It was 2:45p by the time we got back to the cars where everyone thought we were done for the day with our six summits. Everyone except me. I had kept the lamest one for last, embarassed almost to even suggest it unless we had extra time. We had extra time. Peak 1,791m has no name, no real claim to anything other than having 500ft of prominence. I told the others it was the highpoint of the Mid Hills, but I wasn't entirely sure of this. Turns out I was wrong, but it was enough to get them to agree. Or perhaps they were just throwing me a bone on this one. In any event, we drove to the Mid Hills CG which turned out to be pretty nice, even better than the Hole-in-the-Wall one. The sites were set amongst a modest forest of pinyons and junipers. The 2005 Hackberry Fire that swept through most of the area had left about half the campsites unburned. at over 5,000ft, they were shady and cool for much of the year. There were almost no trees left anywhere for miles around outside the campground. We saw no campers as we drove through the campground to the north end. From there the summit of Peak 1,791m is less than half a mile away, the easy hike taking us all of eleven minutes. To no surprise, there was no register or cairn found at the top. It did afford a good view of the surrounding terrain, Gold Valley to the east and the Mid Hills to the west.
We were back at our campground at Hole-in-the-Wall by 3:45p with less than an hour to go before sunset. We decided to visit the nearby Hole-in-the-Wall slot canyon (or sorts) for which the area is reknowned. Laura had visited the feature while we were out but decided to join us for a second visit rather than continue her nap in camp. Only a short hike from the CG, a trail leads down Banchee Canyon heading west, dropping through two slots lined with metal rings to make easier what might be a class 3 scramble otherwise. We followed these down to a wider open area where it becomes class 1. Laura showed us a side slot where a set of footsteps cut in a 25-foot section of vertical rock can be climbed for a closer look at the actual Hole for which the area is named. Sean, Jen and Tom all climbed this sketchy bit, Karl, Laura and myself declining. I might have joined them except that I had another agenda - I wanted to get to the top of Barber Peak on the north side of the canyon and knew that this little side adventure to the Hole would preclude that from happening.
Matthew had mentioned that there was a cool route to Barber from the south, climbing out of Banshee Canyon. I returned with Laura and Karl up the first set of rings, then started scrambling up the sculpted volcanic walls on the north side of the canyon. The rock is made of compressed ash and erosion has formed it into fantastic shapes. There are lots of good holds but the scrambling was stiff class 3 and I had to be very careful since the rock was not terribly solid. As I climbed higher I spotted Sean on the opposite side, climbing to, and then through the Hole-in-the-Wall. Tom had forgone this bit of hard scrambling and returned to the TH where Laura and Karl were. Jen was somewhere below Sean, and may have joined him on the visit to the Hole, but I didn't wait around to see. I was on a bit of a rush schedule with the sun setting shortly, and I wanted to get the class 3 part done before I had trouble seeing. The intial wall I climbed eased after a few hundred feet, but there were periodically other class 3 cliff bands that I had to find a way through before I finally reached the summit plateau shortly after sunset around 4:30p. Once at the plateau I thought I was home-free, only to find I still had more than half a mile to go to reach the highpoint located at the far west end. Twilight was upon the land and my headlamp came out to keep me from running into cacti as I reached the benchmark after 5p.
It was dark now, cold and windy at the summit. I quickly added an entry to the busy register book found in a yellow can (I didn't take the time to photograph its many pages because I was growing colder by the minute. I hiked back east across the plateau and then descended the steep SE Face where I knew I would not get stopped by a cliff band. I ended up descending the main gully down this side, a fun bit of scrambling with minimum brush. This side was more protected from the wind so I felt warmer and more relaxed while I was heading down. The lights from the CG could be seen plainly enough a short distance away. Someone at our campsite turned a bright light in my direction to help me identify the location. My headlamp had also attracted the attention of the campground host who came by our campsite to see if it was prudent to call the rangers for help. I'm not sure how they knew I was of their party, but possibly because all the other visitors were in motorhomes or trailers and we were the most likely to have a crazy hiker lost on the side of Barber Peak. The host was assured that I could find my way back on my own without difficultly. This of course was a bit of a supposition, but they did entertain themselves somewhat by watching my progress while they were enjoying dinner, with wine of course. If my light had disappeared or stopped for any length of time, they might have reconsidered the offer of assistance. Or maybe not.
I crossed the Barber Peak Trail around 5:45p and got back to camp about 15 minutes later. Bless her heart, Laura had dinner still waiting for me. Sean and Jen had already left, so we were down to just four. The others were well ahead of me with several empty wine bottles. I ate hurriedly because I was quickly growing cold again with the inactivity. Rather than try to survive another cold campfire, we moved the party to my van which was quickly warmed to allow conversation and drinking to resume in a more relaxed manner. In fact it was so cozy that we spent more than three hours inside with the engine running. Sometime after 9p a car approached, pulling up right behind us with the headlights still blazing. "Who the devil could it be?" we all wondered. It was not the host nor a ranger and soon we heard a door open and someone shouting at us. Laura admitted to being scared, but the rest of us showed little concern - we had the advantage of numbers, at least. It turned out to be Adam. He had never responded to our inquiry about joining us on the trip and had forgotten all about him. He had done a good job of taking us by surprise. He even came bearing a birthday gift - an electric hammer. It was a 1966 gag gift he had found in his dad's garage, grabbing it on his way out to the desert. At least he had wrapped it. Seeing it, Tom mentioned that he needed such a gift for his upcoming office Christmas party. Before realizing the inappropriateness of it, I had boxed it back up and given it to Tom with Adam still in the car.
"Hey! That wasn't very nice, regifting it right in front of me."
I apologized and begged his forgiveness when I realized my faux pas. Adam said it would be okay as long as I mentioned it in the forthcoming trip report. So I now consider my part of that bargain complete.
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