Our fourth and final summit of the trip was a DPS peak, Old Dad Mountain. In the past I have stumbled across random photos and trip reports from Old Dad, and it always looked interesting to me. Equally parts challenging and scenic – my favorite combination!
The drive into Old Dad was a bit more challenging than the descriptions I found led us to believe. Although much of the dirt track was fine and passable, there were several sandy stretches and we were glad to be in capable 4WD vehicles. We had to run the sandy sections pretty fast to get through, especially on the way out (which was uphill). Additionally, the waypoints I had dropped on the road junctions on the topo map did not correspond well to reality in a few spots (once we started into Jackass Canyon). We pretty much made a best guess and ended up parking in the correct wash to start the hike. To see the route on a topo map check out my GPS track of our drive over here on hillmap. This is the track I recorded when off pavement, from where we turned off of the paved Kelbaker Road.
After a night at the great campsite we found between the two Cowhole Mountain ranges (and just off the Mojave Road), we backtracked to the paved Kelbaker Road and headed south to large pullout on the right side of the road. Our destination? Kelso Peak.
Why Kelso? For that matter, why the Cowhole ranges the day before? Here’s the thing: there are tons of peaks and ranges in the desert. Browsing around a topo map reveals all kinds of remote places and appealing peaks. But you have to start somewhere, and when it comes to the desert that somewhere (for me), was Andy Zdon’s Desert Summits book. I’ve gotten completely hooked on climbing desert peaks thanks to this book, and although I’ve also climbed plenty of summits not named in the book, I turn to it for inspiration and feel weirdly compelled to climb everything in it.
For New Years weekend we headed down to Mojave National Preserve for some peak bagging. Over three days we climbed four peaks and I’ll be profiling them over the next few days. This first post details the climbs of Cowhole and Little Cowhole Mountains (hee), the most and least challenging of the four peaks.
Little Cowhole and Cowhole mountains are small ranges that stand by themselves on the northwestern boundary of Mojave National Preserve, bordering the east side of the mostly dry Soda Lake. On the map they look pretty puny but together these two peaks make a full day of desert peak bagging.
I usually wrap up the year with Top Gear of the Year posts. But instead I find myself reflecting back on 2012 – goals completed, the adventures I had, and the people I had them with. Here they are, my top 10 moments, good and bad, of 2012.
10: Climbing desert peaks on New Year’s Day
We spent New Year’s weekend in the desert with friends and climbed two desert summits on New Year’s Day. I thought it was a good omen for a 2012 full of many summits.
Playing, that’s where. Much as we’ve done every Thanksgiving since moving to California, we piled the truck full of gear and supplies for a week in the desert and hit the road the Friday before Thanksgiving, hoping to get away from the holiday crowds and traffic before they’d even started. Over the next nine days we climbed eight peaks, hiked in four different parks, camped out under the clear desert sky, saw gobs and gobs of petroglyphs, watched the Bellagio fountains in Las Vegas while gnawing on an excellent steak au poivre, and shared a no-less-than incredible Thanksgiving feast with friends.
Rather than write 50 long posts detailing each and every hike, I’ll just write one, and point you towards the photos which already have a lot of details in the captions. If you want more info here’s what you can read (and see) all about:
Our original Memorial Day Weekend plans of hiking the high points of the Silver Range in western Nevada did not work out. In our effort to find warmer and drier climes, we decided to head south, but then what would we hike? It turns out we were heading south via the route I expected to originally be leaving by at the end of the weekend, so I had prepared some maps and info about some short hikes and stops we might want to make before leaving. One of these hikes was Chocolate Peak (also known as Piper Mountain), an easily accessible desert summit just outside the northern border of Death Valley.
To get to the trailhead, take highway 168 to the pullout at Gilbert Pass and look for a dirt road angling to the west. Follow this (it’s a bit rocky but nothing bad) until you see the Piper Mountain BLM Wilderness sign at 0.4 miles. Leave your vehicle here – there is room for a few cars. Chocolate Peak is the high point of the peak directly in front of you to the southwest, not visible from this angle.
Hike the old blocked off road about 200 feet until it forks. There is a small sign indicating that ‘trail’ follows the right fork, but the straight/left fork is a more direct route and no more difficult than the roundabout way. We didn’t really think about it at the time and followed the sign. On this approach, after about a mile it will start climbing up a small canyon until it eventually reaches the ridge. There is a point where the road switchbacks, so we decided to cut south and straight up a gully to to the ridge instead. The terrain is very straightforward, and once we got to the top of the ridge via our shortcut we reconnected with the road. From the ridge there is a great view towards Mt Sill and the Palisades region of the Sierra.
Turn east and stay on the road. The summit is now visible in front of you, and you have plenty of options for getting to the top. Stay on the road until you’re on the north side of the peak and start looking for the excellent use trail that switchbacks up the side of the final climb. The road continues past the peak, don’t stay on it. I did not know about the use trail and cut cross-country on my ascent. About halfway up I intersected this well-defined trail and followed it the rest of the way. I followed it all the way down to the road when I descended the peak.
The rocky summit has some incredible views into Eureka Valley and across Owens Valley to the Sierra. After enjoying yourself up here, retrace your steps back to the trailhead. When you come out of the canyon look to your right and you will see the other fork of the road – it is an easy short cross-country stretch to go back that way. If I ever hike this again I’ll take that route both up and down.
With round trip stats of approximately five miles with 1800ft of elevation gain, this is a great quick desert peak. Additionally, it doesn’t require any 4×4 or long dirt road driving. Based on the summit register, it seems to get visited fairly regularly but it was just us on this post-storm afternoon.
With several weekends of beautiful summer-like weather already behind us, we headed across (the often still closed at this time of year) Tioga Pass on the Thursday night before Memorial Day weekend. The snow has been melting fast but there was concern about a storm forecast for the Friday and Saturday – Sierra visitors were being warned of the potential for significant snow and winds. We were less concerned since we were heading two mountain ranges to the east, the Silver Range in Nevada. While the storm would most likely also hit us, according to forecasts it would be in the form of “30% chance of isolated thundershowers, with a snow level of 7800 ft (no accumulation expected)”.
Camping in the desert and hiking peaks with some cooler temperatures and refreshing rain? This sounded fine to me. When we pulled into our secret late night crash campsite along 120 the wind was howling but the skies were beautiful and clear. We snuggled up in the truck bed, toasted a beer, then fell asleep with the wind rocking the truck.
In the morning the sun was still shining and the wind was still blowing – the storm was still working its way inland. We planned on meeting up with our friends midday at our campsite in the Silver Range so we took our time exploring some rock hounding areas and picking up obsidian, agate, jasper, and apache tears. Around midday we stopped for a soak in Fish Lake Valley hot spring, enjoying the warm weather, calm breeze, and sunny skies. From here it was only about half an hour to our campsite through a gorgeous colorful desert canyon.
We arrived at camp and said hi to friends, and within a few minutes the wind kicked up again. The storm was still blowing in and we could see storm clouds off to the west. If they reached us they might drop some rain, but it was still pretty warm out. At least it was for a few minutes. Within about half an hour the temperature had plummeted and we went from shorts and tshirts to fleeces and hats. Half and hour later we saw some light snow flurries in the air. “Don’t worry, it’s not supposed to stick”, we kept repeating from the forecast we had all read.
By sunset the snow was starting to accumulate. There wasn’t much we could do besides stand around the fire to keep warm, and eventually we all just bailed to our tents and vehicles to get out the wind and snow. We were sleeping in the back of the Tundra, closing the gate and the lid like in the picture above (thankfully I’m not claustrophobic). But we learned something about our lid – you can’t get the corners latched properly from the inside (when you close it from outside you have to kind of push on each corner). We didn’t really realize it when we went to bed, but as the night went on the wind pushed snow through the gap.
When I woke up some time before sunrise I realized my sleeping bag was coated in snow. Snow was piled up around me, and as I had rolled around I had melted it and it had soaked in through the bottom of the bag. The side of my body that I was sleeping on was actually wet inside the sleeping bag. The snow on top of the bag had melted some but I still had some loft – luckily, in my I-am-always-cold paranoia I had brought along zero degree bag despite the forecasts for nighttime temps in the mid 30s.
As soon as it started to get light out we decided to make a run for the cab of the truck. When we popped the lid we were greeted by what looked like about a foot of fresh snow, with drifts even higher. Inside the cab we blasted the heater to dry off and warm up. It was 5 am, and for the next two hours we would make runs to pack up and coordinate with the group in between jumping in the truck to warm up. The snow was still coming down and I was concerned about the depth as I watched a drift reach the height of the hood of our Tundra.
Eventually we headed out, and once we pulled out of the campsite area we realized the snow wasn’t as bad as we thought. It was maybe 6-8 inches deep along the road and the cars (everyone in some kind of truck or SUV) did fine getting out. We reconvened down in Fish Lake Valley and decided to head south – weather forecasts showed that the precip was staying north of Independence, so our new destination would be the Alabama Hills outside of Lone Pine (and in the shadow of Mt Whitney).
On our way south we stopped to hike Chocolate Peak, a desert summit in the Piper Mountain wilderness. It ended up being a perfect consolation prize for the afternoon; an easy hike, great views of the clearing storms, along our new route, and just the right amount of time. Soon I’ll be writing a post specifically about this hike. We ended the day under clear warm skies in the Alabama Hills, our campsite location at the site of the Gunga Din bridge (the Alabama Hills are a very popular place for movie sets).
The storm had not come this far south so the high country was still dry. Instead of our original desert peak bagging plans, we headed up to Horseshoe Meadow trailhead at 10k and hiked Trailmaster Peak, an over 12k summit just north of Cottonwood Pass. It felt so, so good to get out and do my first Sierra peak of the season. I was actually happy our original plans didn’t work out! Like Chocolate, I’ll be doing a post on this hike since it’s a great introduction to cross-country peak bagging in the Sierra.
This was one of those trips where I’m very thankful to have friends who have their @#$% together and are smart and flexible enough to make new plans. No matter what, I know I’m going to have a good time when I’m with this group. Thanks guys!