Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Square Top

Hiked: 10/31/2016
Distance: 8.4 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 4649'
Elevation Gain: 2950'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 2.36
Round trip time: 7 hours 45 minutes
Recommended water: 92 oz.
Parking/Fees: $10 Los Coyotes Reservation day hike fee
Difficulty: Strenuous (class 5 summit block)

Square Top is #34 on the San Diego Peaks List. The trailhead is near the end of Tukwet Road in the Los Coyotes Reservation. The dirt roads leading there are relatively smooth until you reach Tukwet Road. A low clearance vehicle could probably make it, but there are some deep ruts and vegetation that will slap the underside of your vehicle. Square Top is the only San Diego Sierra Club peak with a class 5 summit block. I wanted to do this hike solo to test my novice rope skills. I don't aspire to do big walls, or even trad climbing, but I do want to be able to handle an occasional class 5 problem or canyon rappel.

Are you on the square?
Are you on the level?
Are you ready to swear right here, right now
Before the devil
-- Ghost BC, Square Hammer

I arrived before the Los Coyotes station opened, so I taped my day hike fee plus enough to cover my previous trips in an envelope to the station door. Nothing wrong with a little karma. The trail started by descending the remaining section of Tukwet Road into Cougar Canyon. Square Top was visible from the trailhead but disappeared as I descended. Once you get into Cougar Canyon, a faint use trail comes and goes, but it is generally easy to find your way even if you lose the trail. I crossed water in the canyon several times before reaching the point to leave the canyon and head toward the granite pinnacles guarding Square Top. Some of the boulders making up the pinnacles and on the slopes of Square Top are enormous. I skirted the flank of a prominent pinnacle, then followed the remnants of an old road before dropping down into the south fork of Sheep Canyon. I took a short water break there and cleared my shoes of debris. As I started up the south slope of Square Top, I had problems with my make-shift rope bag. I packed the rope, rock shoes, gloves, webbing, autoblock, and carabiners in a bag meant for snowshoes. It weighed 12 pounds and had a strap that I carried over my shoulder. While convenient for packing, it was a nightmare when I tried any kind of scrambling. Not only was the extra weight slowing me down, scrambling caused the bag to slide around and create imbalances. Square Top was steep class 2, and it was tiring to carry all that gear up to the summit area.

Sunlight starting to flow through the canyons in Los Coyotes Reservation

Square Top from the start

Entering a fork of Cougar Canyon

One of several deer I spotted

Leaving the canyon

Heading toward the pinnacles area

Boulder near one of the pinnacles

Approaching Square Top

Starting up the south slope

Looking back near the top of the south slope

Once I got to the top, I unpacked the rope and gear, then walked around the summit block to figure out the best direction to make my attempt. The west side looked like the easiest (as other reports had mentioned) so I started hunting for an anchor on the other side. I thought finding a nearby anchor might be difficult, but I found a good boulder leaning against the east side. I wrapped 1" nylon webbing under the boulder and evened it out in a basket hitch. I tied the ends in an overhand knot to create a master point. It felt solid. Next, I attached the rope to the anchor with a figure 8 follow through and two opposite and opposed carabiners. The next step was to throw the rope over the summit block. This turned out to be my biggest problem. The 40m static 9mm rope I brought ended up being too long, but better to bring one too long than too short. My first throw went over the wrong edge and I couldn't position it correctly. My next nine plus throws, I lost count, were whipped off the north side by a strong and steady 25mph wind. The wind gusted up to 40mph and it created havoc with my throws. I tried to compensate by throwing the rope south without luck. I thought seriously about giving up on the rope, but I didn't want to try an unprotected ascent with the wind howling so hard. Finally, I tied a knot to the loose end and attached three carabiners. I eventually got the rope over. The last thing to do was get my harness on and set up the two prusik knots I used to ascend. The beginning of the block is vertical with no real holds. I used the lower prusik as a foothold, and the upper as protection, alternating the load between the two to move the other one up. This was my first time to perform a prusik ascent. I had not even tried it once in a gym. Do or die, baby! It was kind of an awkward ascent, but it worked. After I got past the vertical section, I left the lower prusik behind. The rock after that was more of a class 3 friction climb and I just used the upper prusik as protection. Just over half way, a gust of wind tore my hat off and it tumbled over the side. I was too stoked to worry about it and reached the top shortly after. I had set up my camera below to record my victory or demise. Later, I discovered the wind had turned it to record a random spot on the ground. I did haul up the Ricoh Theta for a 360 shot from the summit, something that would have been impossible using my phone. I also carried my phone up and fought the wind to take a few photos and a poor attempt at a selfie. The wind was too strong to stay on the summit block for long. I had planned to rappel down with an ATC-XP, but decided to descend with the prusik instead. In all, I spent about an hour and a half on the summit.

Rope throw


West side of the summit block

Looking down from the summit on the east side (anchor side)

Looking down from the summit on the west side (ascent side)

Poor selfie taken during wind blasts

Final resting place of my hat

Back on the ground, I hunted down my hat and checked out the register. The register was in a pair of yellow cans, a variation on the normal red. There were two small registers inside, the oldest one going back to 1991. The newer one was made of strips of old computer greenbar paper and had a lot of familiar names. I found a small spot to sign and replaced everything. There was no benchmark that I noticed. Heading down Square Top, I had the same imbalance issues with my rope bag. Maybe I'll try bringing a large pack that I can stuff all the gear into next time. The return around the pinnacles went easily. As I dropped back into Cougar Canyon, something large crashed through the small trees. I am guessing it was a mule deer since I had seen four on the day, but in Cougar Canyon, who knows. Whatever it was went unseen. The canyon looked quite different going back and I had to check my GPS a couple of times to get back on track. I was quite pleased when I got back to the car. This hike was a long term goal. A transcendental object at the end of time. Getting the class 5 block and handling every aspect of the rope system was a first for me. This was one of a handful of hikes where I came back a different person.

Collins Valley and assorted benchmarks below, Toro Peak distant left

Collins Benchmark, a tough SDC hike for the future

Rock solidified in smooth, sharp perfection

More interesting jumbles

Returning to Cougar Canyon, Pike BM in the distance

Other Trip Reports:
Square Top (Peaks for Freaks)
Square Top (Benjamin Baumann)

Square Top has a middle finger profile


  1. Congrats on the rope work. Beautiful pics too.

    1. Sean,

      Thanks, man. I had been planning this one for a while as an intro to ropes in the field, and as a personal test. Still have a lot to learn. It is an exceptionally beautiful area.

  2. Memorable climb for me as it was my SDC list finish. Had the same problem with the wind and after 20 mins of trying to toss the rope over gave up on the summit boulder. Once we got to the bottom of Square Top we had the brilliant idea of tying the end of the rope around a stick, but by then it was too late. Nice solo work!

    1. Unknown,

      Thanks for the comments and congrats on the list finish. Tying a stick or rock or even a big knot on the end would be really helpful in windy conditions. I ruined the carabiners I used for that. It was a memorable hike for me as well and one of my favorites in San Diego County.