Old Woman Statue
By: Mark Adrian
Neither a range highpoint, nor a mountain top. Not even adorned with a benchmark. Despite these "normal" peakbagging objectives, The Old Woman Statue, at 5,105', situated in the heart of the Old Woman Mountains Wilderness, is an awe-inspiring monolithic structure of naturally sculpted granite. The name comes from the Indian word "No-mop-wits" or "Nomopeoits" which means "old woman" because the granite pillar (Statue) resembles an old woman with a shawl on her head when viewed from the east.
From a distance, this unassuming, craggy Old Woman (Nomopeoits) sits alone, looming over the seemingly endless alluvials that grace Her Pinyon strewn flanks. Up close, She is a foreboding testament to the erosive powers of wind, rain, ice and sun. She IS The Mother of All Crags.
The first ascent was allegedly by a group led by the late Arkle M. Erb. As a legacy, "his" original bolts and hangers still adorn the massive summit block.
There are no "simple" routes to Her summit and the approach hike demands a determined attitude. Nevertheless, the attraction to Her beauty is seductive and compelling. It's not hard to understand why, then, this was my third attempt on this magnificent piece of rock. Two previous attempts, ending after ascending the first of two technical pitches, were aborted due to time and technical difficulties.
We departed the Painted Rock trailhead at 7:10 AM, heading WNW up a gentle wash to a ridgeline. It was about 8:15 AM when we crested the ridge and got our first glance of the Old Woman basking in the morning sun. A cool breeze sent a chill down my spine as Her curves and blank walls taunted me for the third time. As we contoured around a crescent-shaped ridgeline, tangling with catclaw, heading first away then towards the base of the Statue, Her immenseness became overwhelming. We arrived at the bottom of the Statue by 10:30 AM, where we scrambled up class 2-3 rocks Just below the W side of the saddle. At 11 AM, my Aconcagua tentmate and aspiring rock climber Bill Hill took the technical lead with a phenomenally quick climb up the first pitch, taking about three minutes total for the near-vertical 25 foot high flake/crack. Bill commented the final move "was a little dicey". He must have been practicing a LOT since I last saw him in Argentina and it showed. Then, Fred and Dave climbed the first pitch where they established belay anchors for Bill Hill's lead up the bolt-and-hanger ladder.
A cold wind and an overcast sky chilled those of us below as we watched in awe as Bill Hill aid climbed the near-blank high-5th class 40 foot vertical S face of the summit block -- this being the easiest (and possibly only?) route. Using a collection of quick-draws and four etriers, Bill skillfully negotiated each move, repeating the clip-in-and-step-up cycle at each hanger, despite a relentless breeze which annoyingly swirled his etriers. Without incident, except maybe a few adrenaline rushes in Bill, he topped out at 12:53 PM with applause from the audience below.
After Bill established a fixed top rope and belay anchor via two sturdy summit bolts, Dave was the first to jumar up the final 40' to the top where he joined Bill. Dave then rappelled down and we began an "assembly line" for the remainder of the climbing party. I was next and proceeded, for the third time, up the first (5.7/8) pitch. To expedite the jumar effort, Fred had developed an ingenious technique for each of us to use to perform the jumaring process. Suffice it to say it was an elegant variation of what is known as a Texas prussic (re: "Mountaineering : Freedom of the Hills") that's typically used for crevasse rescue. We each had custom-cut a piece of sling/prussik rope per our individual body dimensions. This alleviated the need to shuttle etriers, a sometimes time-consumptive process. Using the customized sling/prussik, a climber "connected" onto the fixed rope via two ascenders. Then, it was a "simple" matter of jugging (on top belay for safety) up the fixed rope to the final free move to the top. Not that this was all that easy; it still took an average of ten minutes for climbers to work up the rope. Fortunately, during my ascent, the cold breeze had receded and the sun shone through the wispy overcast. After the first few perplexing juggles, got my rhythm down and was on my way! It was startling to see just how frail the old quarter-inch bolts and aged hangers were as I dangled about. Each juggle yielded, at best, eight or ten inches of progress, necessitating several rest stops from which you have time to enjoy the view, your adrenaline rush, and to ponder "what am I doing up here?" Soon, however, the excitement climaxes as you approach the gentler southern edge of the Old Woman's head where the final move onto the summit can be made free on belay. The small summit area (maybe four square feet) accommodates only two or three bodies. A small pile of rocks housed an empty register can. We left a new tablet and pencil.
After a brief stay on top, there's only one way down. Two "healthy" bolts provided a secure anchor for a very enjoyable rappel back to the belay ledge, where Dave and Fred were waiting with the rap rope for the first pitch. I passed Bill Stevens on my way down as he was staged for the second pitch in our "assembly line" operation. Back down at the first pitch, Debra tied in as I collected my gear. The process repeated with her and then finally Richard Carey. Fred had led and summited on a previous trip and Glenn, our resident photo journalist, declined an attempt. All who wanted the summit got it.
Finally, Bill Hill rappelled all the way down while Dave cleaned off the anchors between the first and second pitches before he rappelled all the way down. We were packed and hiking back to camp by 4:15 PM, marveling at the glowing sun on the Statue's sheer northern face. The Old Woman had been hospitable this day, maybe grateful for our rare visit to a very remote and lonely summit. We arrived back at the trailhead at 6:33 PM, hiking an hour in the dark under mostly clear skies and a half-moon. Needless to say, we had a much deserved happy hour and roaring fire complemented with the talk of plans to more remote and lonely destinations throughout the desert southwest.
Sunday morning, we casually broke camp. Bill Hill and Glenn headed back to catch a flight out of Palm Springs, Fred and Debra took a northern exit while the rest of us headed south to climb the imposing and infamous Bartlett Mountains highpoint just outside Joshua Tree before returning home to LA and/or SD.
Many thanks to Bill Hill who flew down from San Francisco to lead the technical climb, to Fred and Dave for their technical assistance, and to everyone for their good company.
(provided by Richard Carey)
Drive highway 62 east from Twentynine Palms to its junction with highway 177. From this junction continue east on hwy. 62 for 7.3 miles and turn north onto the paved Iron Mountain Road. After 3.9 miles turn right onto a graded dirt road. Reset your odometer. At 0.4 miles go left at a "Y" junction and continue over a low pass just north of the pumping facility. Follow the good powerline road across Danby Dry Lake (which can be VERY muddy after rain) as it heads NORTH-NORTHEAST through Ward Valley. At 7.9 miles make a jog left/west about 30 feet and then right/east along power lines. After 8.6 miles there is a STOP sign at a railroad crossing. Continue straight ahead on the generally good dirt road. Go straight at ajunction at 19.4 miles and then turn left (NW) onto a poorer dirt road at 25.2 miles. The UTM here is 679330E, 3818700N. Reset your odometer again and go NW on this road. At 4.8 miles continue straight when another road comes in on the right (from the east). After about 50 feet, stay to the left when the road splits and then at 5.0 miles turn left (S) at a junction. At 6.5 miles turn right (W) at the Painted Rock area (several red stakes block a road to the SE) and continue west to a windmill/tank at 7.9 miles. The UTM here is 671130E, 3821100N. Park here; room for at least six vehicles and it's a more than adequate campsite after the long day ahead.
From the parking/camping area (UTM 671130E, 3821100N), hike WNW 0.8 miles to a saddle just north of point 1754m. The Old Woman Statue can now be seen at a bearing of 225 degrees. Contour north BELOW the ridge top, then curve west to south paralleling the ridgeline until you're below the Statue's eastern wall. From here, make a "sharp" turn to the west and hike up slopes to the Statue's north side, now straddling the ridgeline at a quasi-saddle. From here walk south over a few boulders and climb up easy 2nd/3rd class ledges (via a chockstone) to a large slanting slab where there is room to prepare for the technical portion of the climb. Climb a 25 foot flake/crack rated 5.7 to a belay ledge where there is a row of about twelve bolts up the face of the large summit boulder to the top. Aid climb the bolt ladder to the summit. The approach hike to the Statue is 1.8 miles one-way with a gain of 1400 feet and takes about 2.5 hours. Allow several hours for the rock and aid climb of the Statue depending on your skills and the number of climbers.
Recommended technical gear
Two full-length ropes of 10.5 or 11 mm diameter; several medium-sized friends/stoppers; four etriers and at least a dozen quick-draws; various anchor slings.
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