I just returned from a trip to Joshua Tree National Park, where I climbed my first desert peaks: Pinto Mountain and Eagle Mountain. At first sight, the desert looks barren and the peaks desolate and unaccessible. There are no trails. Nevertheless, it is an exhilarating experience I would like to share with you.
November 5th: Eagle Mountain
Eagle Mountain (5351 feet/1630 m) is the highest point in the Eagle Mountain Range bordering Joshua Tree NP on the southeast. It is the big mountain due east of Cottonwood Campground. My friend, trail name Otter, and I camped at Cottonwood. We were tired from the conference and hot day before, getting a late start. Sunrise woke us up at 6:45 am. By about 8 am, we had had breakfast, got our hiking gear together and were ready to start out. The trip description said to head across the desert toward the rock outcropping at the base of the mountain. Easier said than done, because the sun was in our eyes and the west side of the mountain in deep shade. No outcropping visible. So I just aimed toward the northeast to avoid the rock outcroppings near the campground, mostly following washes with lots of coyote paw prints. Once past the outcroppings, I could make out the short alluvial fan of the wash we were to ascend. The trip to the base of the fan crossed relatively flat desert terrain covered sparsely with creosote, jumping cholla and other plants typical of the Sonoran Desert. We reached the base in 1.5 hours.
From there, we headed up the fan, which quickly narrowed after 500 feet of ascend into a small canyon. Thankfully, the brush was still relatively sparse, and the catclaw bushes easy to circumvent. The canyon splits into two sections at about 4200 feet. We took the left canyon, but the right one looks about the same. Shortly after the split, I noticed something moving at a rock at eye-height about a yard in front of me. A rattlesnake was resting there in the cool shade under a rock, starting to stir at our approach. I backed off a bit, it settled down again. After taking a picture, we circumvented its resting place and continued on. The ascent is a nice combination of scrambling over smooth boulders and some moderately steep terrain. Because of the heat, I had taken my pant legs off, which meant some blood sacrifice to the mountain gods in the form of scrapes and scratches. Toward the top of the canyon, we headed slightly south to crest the ridge at about 3100 feet at 11:15 am. We found a cairn there, I assume to mark the descent spot.
From the ridge, the true peak of Eagle Mountain is visible about 1 mile to the East. We descended through some moderate terrain and boulder outcroppings to a ridge at 5040 feet, then continued up the ridge to a false summit at 5200 feet and attained the true summit at exactly noon. It was a hazy day, but we still had a good view down to I-10, the Salton Sea, and north across the Pinto basin to Pinto Mountain. We spend about an hour at the summit, having lunch while enjoying the views.
And I was relaxing quite a bit. I had done Class 2 peaks in the Sierra Nevada on my own, but this was my first time climbing a peak, and traveling off-trail with sparse descriptions, in the desert. I did not quite know what to expect. I feel somewhat more comfortable on solo trips, because it is only myself taking a beating if I were to get in trouble. Having another person around, even if it is a trusted hiking companion like Otter, adds a whole lot more responsibility. The remote desert peaks are not backyard hikes.
The return trip was relatively uneventful. The rattler had moved, which was nice and at the same time unsettling (where had it moved to?). On the way back across the flat desert, we found the back half of a desert tortoise carapace, bleached white in the sun. Otter joked about me headed straight back to camp while his GPS needed more batteries. We even ran across some of the same small plant landmarks on the return trip, which is quite remarkable given the expanse of land! All in all, it was a 15-mile round trip with 2400 feet (730 m) elevation gain and 8 hours hiking time.
November 6th: Pinto Mountain
This morning, we got an earlier start and were off by 7:15 am, our car parked at a pullout near Turkey Flats. Pinto Mountain was clearly visible about 5 miles to the northeast. I had decided on the northeast approach, which according to the route descriptions was the most straightforward and of medium length. So what does one of these route descriptions look like? Deceptively simple:
“Hike in a direct line toward the mountain. Ascend the alluvial fan leading to a canyon until the canyon gets bisected by a ridge. Ascend either this ridge, or take the canyon up until you meet the south ridge to the summit.”
Piece of cake, right? Only it describes a mountain looming 2400 feet (730 m) above you, with ridges folded ever which way, winding canyons in between. If you take the wrong canyon or ridge, will you cliff out? End up on a side peak with not enough time to get over to the real one? Have to backtrack?
Well, the approach to the base of the fan was easy. Six miles of trekking slightly downhill over the floor of Pinto basin for 2.5 hours. We crossed a dirt road and saw a building which is not marked on the Tom Harrison Map. Another two rear ends of tortoise carapaces were found. Is the rear end more solid than the front? We also found a very rusted, oval flask-style can. We reached the base of the fan at 9:45, having serious doubts about being able to make the summit. The mountain looked impressive from this view. The Ocotillos were shining green with new leaves, indicating a recent rain. We passed the sand dunes on the eastern end. It was very hot by now, definitely in the upper 80s.
Hiking up a moderately sized alluvial fan is not my favorite part of a desert hike. As flash floods come down the mountain, larger rocks get deposited at the top of the fan, with smaller rocks getting deposited toward the bottom. The fan is also criss-crossed by small sandy washes, various 2-3 feet high walls of rocky deposits, and best described as “ankle-break alley”. Higher up, the canyon narrowed and became windy. Several side canyons entered, and I was not sure which one was the ticket up to the peak. We consulted the GPS and finally decided on one. It turned out to be one too early (remember the “bisecting” the canyon? Duh!), but it worked anyway. at about 1200 feet below the summit, we attained a north-south facing ridge where we could get a good look at the route ahead and the summit looming above us. The winds had finally picked up, and we enjoyed the cool breeze. Clouds had moved in as well, which mellowed the glare of the sun somewhat. I was glad I remembered at the parking spot the summit to the left was the high point. The ridge looked like it was a go, the few rocky outcroppings easily circumvented on either side.
It was about 11 am, 1500 feet to go, and I started calculating the turnaround time. Turnaround time to get back to the car by daylight would have been 12:30 pm, which meant no peak. On the other hand, hiking across the flat desert at night with flashlight did not sound too daunting, especially since we had a GPS as well. Therefore, I decided getting back to the base of the mountain before sunset was ok, and set the turn-around at 2 pm.
From here on, we navigated ridge to ridge over rock bands changing color from grey to red, black, green, and white, giving the mountain its name. “Pinto” is from the spanish word pintada, painted. My landmarks were alternately unique rocks and tall cacti. The goal for the day? Whatever you do, don’t fall into a cactus. There were lots of opportunities for that! Finally, we were 300 feet below the summit ridge, scrambling over smooth, white boulders. I heard the cry of a hawk, looked up and saw a red-tailed hawk soaring 500 feet above me, checking out the intruders to his world. At this point, I did have doubts agin if the other summit was not the correct one. It looked certainly higher … But then I crested to the flat summit ridge, and saw the summit cairn with the register a bit higher ahead. Leaving through the register, I saw some familiar names. We summited at 1:15 pm, 5 1/2 hours after leaving our car. We stayed for half an hour, enjoying the views over the vast empty space of the desert. Empty of humans; there is plenty of life around. Meanwhile, the wind had picked up and gusts almost blew me over.
I picked a slightly different descent route, down the wash we should have come up. Should have, would have – it worked. There are no rules in cross-country peak climbs other than to be safe and enjoy the exploration. I think this is what makes it so much fun: oral lore from other climbers, your own exploration, combining into a unique experience few people ever enjoy. It is hard to imagine a silence so immense that the only thing you hear is the wind blowing over rocks and the blood pulsing in your ears. The beauty of this stark landscape is difficult to capture in words. One needs to experience it on foot, through hard work, to fall in love with it.
Halfway down the canyon I saw something move close to me and instinctively jumped back with an alarm cry to Otter. There are not many animals about in the desert in daylight, and those that are are usually not the friendliest creatures when encountered too closely. This one turned out to be harmless, though. It was a male tarantula wandering about in search of a mate. No surprise during tarantula mating season, but still a nice encounter. Otter had not yet seen a tarantula in the wild.
We got to the base of the mountain at 4:15 pm. Down-hiking a fan is better, it is easier to follow the main washes. We were pretty tired at this point, with 6 miles uphill to go, sunset at 6:15 pm. On the other hand, we had enough water, the wind was blowing steadily, the sun lower in the sky and not baking us as much. So off we went on our walking meditation! Around 5:45 pm we could see the first cars on the road. Also at the time I got a bit on the cranky side. It seems that around the 11th hour of a hike, I get a bit on the tired side. My energy stores are exhausted, only regular supplies of electrolyte drinks keep my fuel supplies up to continue. Having a run-in with a jumping cholla did not help. Lucky for me only one of the barbed hooks stuck in my upper leg, but ripping it out was still painful. I think part of the barbs are still in there and will eventually come out the natural way – right now, it is a small sting and a bruise. Otter also needs to learn to speak up when wind blows away any sound! I needed to ask him to repeat everything he said 🙂
The last half hour we needed to use our headlamps. It was pitch-black dark, a moonless night with only the myriad of stars above us. We got back to the car at 6:45 pm, very tired but incredible happy to actually have made both peaks! I was not so sure all would go as well as it did. Back at camp, we re-hydrated, washed up, had dinner and then visited all the hobby astronomers with their telescopes who had joined us in camp. We got to see Jupiter and his moons, the Andromeda and Dumbbell galaxies, the ring nebula, and later on a red-glowing meteorite crossing almost the complete night sky. I love my bivy, where I can snuggle into my sleeping back, be comfy and enjoy the stars at the same time.
My legs are scratched, stairs down are a challenge, sore muscles all over my body. I am happily paying those dues for two lovely days exploring the desert. Blessed be.