Sunday, February 4, 2018

Pyramid-Villager Loop

Hiked: 2/2/2018
Distance: 19.2 miles round trip cross country, use trail, and trail
Summit Elevation: 3480'(Pyramid), 3320'(Marble), 5000'(Rosa Point), 5320'(Mile High), 5756'(Villager)
Elevation Gain: 7107'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 5.68
Round trip time: 14 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 212 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Villager trailhead on Highway S22
Difficulty: Very Strenuous (combined)

Everybody's looking for the ladder
Everybody wants salvation of the soul
The steps you take are no easy road
But the reward is great
For those who want to go
-- Prince, The Ladder

The weather was favorable for a partial traverse of the Santa Rosa range crossing five peaks, four of them on the Sierra Club San Diego Peaks list. The plan was to start at the Villager trailhead, ascend Smoke Tree Canyon to the major ridge, then hit five peaks in this order:
  1. Pyramid Peak (SDC #62)
  2. Marble Peak (Unofficial)
  3. Rosa Point (SDC #28, DPS #67, HPS #281)
  4. Mile High Mountain (SDC #24)
  5. Villager Peak (SDC #12, HPS #208)
The descent would be down the long Villager ridge back to the open desert and the truck. Short winter days meant I had to start and finish in the dark. If things didn't go well for whatever reason, I had a bail out plan after Rosa. I decided to back load the night hiking, figuring it would be easier to follow the VIllager trail down than ascend a canyon. I started at 5:45 AM, an hour before sunrise covering the mile or so up Palo Verde Canyon to the Smoke Tree Canyon split. There was enough predawn light that finding Smoke Tree wasn't a problem. The entrance is a short class 2 scramble and the canyon itself was mostly clear of obstacles. Not far up the canyon, a use trail appeared on the south side making travel easier. I made enough upward progress when the sun rose to get some nice views during the golden hour. I made a short side trip to the Natural Rock Tanks, interesting formations that held water most of the year. Despite the lack of rain, there was water in the first tank I visited. Back on the trail, I finally got a look at Pyramid Peak. The trail hit the major ridge south of the summit and it was an easy finish. The first small victory provided a fantastic panorama of Travelers Peak below and the Salton Sea. The most recent register entry was from Gus Safar's group that did a Traveler's to Villager traverse only 5 days earlier. I would see their names in all the summits to follow. I did not find a benchmark.

Climbing out of Smoke Tree Canyon

Golden hour

One of the natural rock tanks with water

Pyramid Peak

Travelers Peak and Salton Sea from Pyramid

Rosa Point, imposing and distant

I dropped off Pyramid on the connecting ridge for the short hike to Marble Peak. Marble is an unofficial bump with marbled granite stripes. It was marked in Peakbagger but was unnamed on the topo map. It might have been a 100' diversion from the trail to climb it, where I discovered no benchmark and no register. Next was the long 1700' climb to Rosa Point, one of the toughest sections of the day. Several large bumps were in the way and it's hard to see the connecting ridges. The trail did a nice job avoiding unnecessary gain but faded in and out on the climb to the saddle below Rosa. A short cluster of summit rocks held two registers. An old register started in the mid-1980s was in the double cans. It looked fragile so I only looked at the first few pages. A more recent register was in a magnetic, waterproof pouch. I hunted around the long flat summit until I found the benchmark. It was about 100' southeast of the summit rocks in an open, flat area. I marked it as an unnamed waypoint in my GPS track for future hikers. From Rosa, great views opened up into the southern part of Clark Valley and Pyramid looked like a distant memory far below. Rabbit Peak was dominant to the northwest, but only the tip of Mile High Mountain was visible over the many large protrusions in the way. I was feeling good so far and took a break. If I had the time, I would have basked on the comfortable summit rocks, but time was not on my side. I headed due west to catch the connecting ridge toward Mile High.

Rosa Point summit rocks

Salton Sea from Rosa Point

Looking back at Pyramid Peak

After slogging over a few false summits, I spotted Mile High Mountain. The terrain above 5000' started to change. Pines and junipers grew here along with other shrubs missing from the lower desert slopes. Plants and trees were still sparse so none of it impeded forward progress. It was still desert, just a little greener. After dropping off Rosa, there was about 800' of gain to Mile High. The trail wound around and through the rocky outcrops on the final ridge. There were three registers on Mile High Mountain, but no benchmark. I sat down for a longer rest here before facing the climb to Villager's unending ridge. Rattlesnake Canyon spread out below. Beyond the Villager ridge, Coyote Mountain stood in isolation with the San Ysidro Mountains rising further behind. Rested and hydrated, I followed the use trail that led down from the summit toward the saddle below. The first half of the 1100' descent was steep but easy. The last half was a scree slide. While inconvenient, it was certainly much easier going down the scree than it would have been going up. At the saddle, the use trail faded out but it was obvious which finger of the ridge to ascend. The traverse from Mile High to the Villager ridge was the second testy section of the hike and the steepest of the day. It gains about 1000' in half a mile. The footing was mostly good with vegetation and grass keeping things in place. Most of the ascent was class 2 with some class 3 outcrops. Most of the class 3 was avoidable, but it was usually easier to climb the outcrops than navigate around them. Oddly, I stumbled over a white baseball cap someone lost on the way. I gathered it for later disposal. At some point below the ridge, I starting running low on energy and required frequent breaks. The climb started to take on a different mood and became more work than fun. 100 steps, rest 10 seconds, rinse, repeat. I was relieved to reach the main ridge and stunned by the expanse of Clark Valley.

On the way to Mile High Mountain

Pink cholla

Villager Peak from Mile High

Rattlesnake Canyon

Villager looming large

The saddle between Villager and Mile High

Ascent finger ridge

Looking back at Mile High

It had taken longer than I wanted to reach this point, but I was energized again by the scenery. I turned north to tackle the final mile and 500' gain to Villager Peak. The trail was well defined and the pines and junipers more common. It was almost lush compared to the stark terrain that came before. At the Villager summit, I quickly dug into the ammo box that held many registers and signed after the Gus Safar group again. Though Villager is only 5756', it felt ten thousand feet high. I understood why this peak was so popular. I didn't celebrate long because the sun was already far along a downward arc. I wanted to get as far down as possible since the night is dark and full of terrors. At sunset, I stopped to unpack lights (headlamp and flashlight) and take inventory. I was behind schedule, a mile in the air and 5 miles from the truck. Worse, I was dehydrated and down to 8 oz. of water. Despite drinking two bottles of water on the drive to the trailhead, I hadn't brought enough. None of the bars or food I had left was appealing, but I forced my self to eat something to power the descent. Thankfully, the trail remained clear and well defined. I was moving just under 2 mph in the dark but it seemed to drag. I kept checking the GPS as it ticked down each painful tenth of a mile. My knees, hips, and lower back all complained from accumulated minor insults, yet I shambled along. I thought I would be back at the car by 7:00 PM. When that time came, I was still 3 miles out, watching tiny car headlights below dance along the S22. I had cell service so I texted my wife to let her know I was fine, but 90 minutes behind schedule. I finished the last drops of water but couldn't force down any more food. Along the way, I became vaguely aware of cliffs on my right. A gaping abyss hid what I suspected were striking views. When I reached the car, I sat down to guzzle two bottles of water before starting the drive home. At over 14 hours, this was the second longest hike, time wise, that I've ever done. Only Mt. Whitney took me longer. It was a solid black pin hike. I arrived home at 11:00 PM to end a 20 hour day.

Everybody's looking for the answers
How the story started and how it will end
What's the use in half a story, half a dream?
You have to climb all of the steps in between
-- Prince, The Ladder

Approaching Villager Peak

Villager summit

Clark Valley

The endless ridge down

Good night, Mile High

Twilight's last gleaming


Pyramid-Villager Loop from Keith Winston on Vimeo.

Other Trip Reports:
Pyramid-Villager Loop (Ben Baumann)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Wee BM

Hiked: 1/19/2018
Distance: 1.7 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 4068'
Elevation Gain: 746'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 0.59
Round trip time: 1 hour
Recommended water: 16 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free at Culp Valley turnout
Difficulty: Easy

Wee Benchmark was a bonus hike on the way back from Travelers. It had been on my bonus list for a while, waiting to be bagged the next time I drove by it. I had energy left after Travelers so I pulled over off S22 when I got to the Culp Valley Campground dirt road. I knew there was a trail that went just below the summit but it wasn't near where I parked. I started off cross country looking for animal trails and weaving around light brush. I found a memorial rock for "Papster" not far from the turnout, probably where someone buried a pet. About half way up, I found the trail and followed it just below the summit. The top was less than 100' off trail with only loose dirt to slow me down. It was windy on top. After locating the benchmark and register, I carefully signed it making sure nothing blew away. The Thimble barely poked out behind an intervening hill, but San Ysidro Mountain was clear in the distance. I wandered down out of the wind and made it quickly to the truck. It was an unusually prolific January for me. My schedule next month is less accommodating, meaning I'll probably be limited to one or two outings.

Wee BM from the turnout

Ode to Papster


San Ysidro Mountains

Truck from Wee BM

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Travelers Peak

Hiked: 1/19/2018
Distance: 4.8 miles round trip on dirt road and use trail
Summit Elevation: 2697'
Prominence: 697'
Elevation Gain: 2326'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 1.86
Round trip time: 4 hours
Recommended water: 64 oz.
Parking/Fees: Free on Calcite Mine Road
Difficulty: Moderate

A late start got me to the Calcite Mine Road around 10 AM at the southern tip of the Santa Rosa Mountains. I was here for Travelers Peak (SDC #80). I drove up the road (4x4 recommended) about a mile to a convenient turnaround. With the right vehicle and driving skills, it might be possible to drive all the way to the mine, but I didn't want to risk it. It was about 1.1 miles to the Calcite Mine. Slot canyons and broken terrain lined both sides of the road. I didn't find any adits, just large cuts in the earth. I marveled at the rock formations before continuing on a good use trail above the mine. Brush and cactus were nowhere to be found in this barren landscape. Only a few hardy shrubs and a couple of obstinate ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens is not a true cactus).

Starting point

Slot along the side of the road

Just above the Calcite Mine

Severe erosion has taken a toll on the soft rock and everything I touched fell apart. There were a couple of major bumps to clear in the midsection of the hike. The first serious one was littered with exposed boulders requiring some route finding to keep things at class 2. To my pleasant surprise, the use trail persisted as I got higher and the views got better. It also got steeper. From the Calcite mine, it is only 1.3 miles to the summit, but over 1500' of gain in that short distance. There was one bump where I lost the use trail and followed my own imaginary switchbacks to get over it. Despite being higher up, I never got a clear unbroken view of the ridge line to the summit. I trusted the use trail would connect and it did. The crux was at a knife edge section where there was a semi-exposed class 2 scramble. Holds were large, but I had to test every one to make sure it would hold my weight. Pretty exciting.

Class 2

Beautiful and barren

Crux class 2

Final approach

Past the 45-degree crux scramble, it was only a quarter mile to the summit. The well preserved benchmark read "Palm" and was placed in 1939. I'm not sure when the it became Travelers Peak. The register cans held two books, the oldest from 1979 and started with Wes Shelburg. I took my time with the summit ceremony, then started down. It took about the same time to get down as to ascend. Travelers was a true desert gem.

Benchmark stamped "Palm"

Looking north toward Rosa Point, Coyote Mountain distant left

Salton Sea

My buddy Adam Walker was here March 2017

Heading down

A final look back from highway S22