Thursday, February 21, 2013

Joshua Tree National Park: Pinto Mountain, 3,983'

Essence: The high point in voluminous Pinto Basin, itself ringed by peaks. Three routes; this is the most direct but also the most difficult and rugged. For the navigational savvy and experienced desert climber, the reward is a most handsome peak.
Travel:  From Twentynine Palms, enter the park at the North Entrance Station. Drive south 4.6 miles on Park Boulevard to the Pinto Wye. Continue south on Pinto Basin Road for 16.2 miles to Turkey Flats. You will pass the Cholla Cactus Garden and then the Ocotillo Patch. Allow one hour from Twentynine Palms. There is no water at the entrance station or the trailhead.
Fee Information.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 5:00 to 6:30
Difficulty: Off-trail; navigation challenging; Class 3 scrambling in wash; return ridge is Class 2; moderate exposure on two walls
Map: Pinto Mountain, CA 7.5 Quad; or Trails Illustrated, Joshua Tree National Park # 226
Reference: On Foot in Joshua Tree National Park: A Comprehensive Hiking Guide by Patty Furbush. Three alternative routes are briefly described.
Date Hiked: February 21, 2013
Quote: Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery why we climb. 
Greg Child
Route: Pinto Mountain is complicated, affording numerous navigational challenges, coming and going. From the Turkey Flats Trailhead, 1,791 feet, cross Pinto Basin bearing northeast, passing to the left of two hills. Climb via the southwest wash, intersecting the summit ridge at 3,200 feet. Return on the ridge southeast of the gully and rejoin the incoming route at the mouth of the wash.

In the parking lot I spent a lot of time trying to match the many gullies with my guide book map. The peak is the rounded one in the foreground and the SW drainage is just to the right of it. Finding my vehicle in the afternoon was the obvious first challenge so I took a bearing between Pinto and a craggy peak behind me. I also used that marker to find the proper SW wash since the land undulates. I ignored the tempting broad road that headed off in seemingly the wrong direction.

I'm on a sand dune looking back at the peak in the afternoon. From here the alluvial fan I aimed for in the morning is visible, keeping two small hills to my right. I stepped into a whole lot of prairie dog holes in this region.

When I got to the top of the fan, 50 minutes, 2.5 miles, I debated whether to climb the gully or take the ridge. I decided on the wash, thinking navigation would be easier. The drainage was fun in places but tedious throughout. When it narrowed, the boulders were gigantic and afforded a mile of class three scrambling. This image was taken at the bottom.

In 28 minutes I came to a ten foot wall and scaled it up the center using small holds. Next, the canyon split and I went right. In this image, I'm looking down the 25 foot, near vertical wall I just climbed. This really was not a smart place to be solo. The holds were good enough, obviously, but not generous. There is no way I could descend this route.

Weary of the gully, at the next split marked by a large cairn, I went right and made for the ridge at 3,200 feet, my first opportunity. It went a lot faster, class two, until the cliffs you can see below the summit. That was the only scary part, very steep with loose rubble. The last 400 yards are on a broad summit plateau.

It took three hours to climb to the top, 4.5 miles. The register has been there, a simple book inside an ammo can, since 2000. Perhaps people are disinclined to sign in. I was the first in a month. There were no fresh footsteps on the mountain. Clouds were heavy by the time I reached the top and stayed so the rest of the day. It was chilly with some wind but pleasant enough.

Going down the ridge on my return was not easy. The rock was chunky, loose and rolling, requiring painstaking progress. Obviously, I followed my upcoming route back to 3,200', using fragments of a use trail for encouragement. From there, it was a mystery. I followed a faint trail to a broad area with ridges going off in all directions. The trail beckoned and I'm sure it had some important business leading to a cool place. But it went south and I needed to go southwest. I wanted to hug the rim of the gully I'd come up which you can see here from the summit. So I gamely launched out down a steep ridge and sure enough, there was a reassurance cairn. 

Now I'm standing in the SW wash at the top of the alluvial fan looking back at the ridge's lowest portion.

The fan is bifurcated with seemingly endless channels; I crossed it with my eye on the craggy mountain marking my truck. The sand starts up again at 1,600 feet and I figured my morning footsteps should be about five feet to my right. Sure enough. I simply followed my own comforting tracks back to the parking lot. It was a deliberate climb up a handsome mountain and I recommend it highly.

Pinto Mountain is on the top 100 list for the Desert Peaks Section of the Sierra Club, not because of its height, but because they enjoy the peak and think it representative of desert mountains. 

The teddy-bear cholla forest off the Pinto Basin Road went on for miles and would make anyone laugh.

Water basins surround the best specimens in the Ocotillo Patch. Timing of green-up and blooming depends on moisture.