Edgar Peak, Mitchell Point
By: Gary Craig
I had forgotten how tough these two peaks are. The subconscious mind shuts out the difficult memories, I guess. Sue and I put this trip in the schedule last summer, and it seemed for a while that we two would be the only participants. The peaks' reputation for rough, prickly travel preceded them, it seemed. But in the last few weeks before the trip I got a few RSVP's, from Dave Perkins, Ron Eckelmann, and Gene Mauk. Just a few days prior Ed Herrman joined the group, with Edna Erspamer coming along for the camp. I was also chatting with Garnet Roehm about the trip; he had a group of friends coincidentally in the area and perhaps would join us for one day or the other.
We climbed Edgar on Saturday and Mitchell on Sunday. We met at the Mitchell Caverns parking area at 7 AM on Saturday, signed in, and hit the trail about 7:20. To my surprise, Garnet was there with his group also. His last message said that they were going to try to access the Winding Stair cave route, but they didn't make arrangements for the key to the locked gate (unclear if .this is even available; the rules change from time to time), and they were unable to find alternate access to the trailhead. Garnet and the others started ahead of us, and we did not see them again until we reached Edgar's summit. There were just four in the official DPS group: myself, Sue, Ron, and Gene. We had quite an adventure, due mostly to some inept routefinding on my part. My first mistake was to believe the written directions in the Peaks Guide rather than following the line drawn on the map. The words say to follow the Mary Beal Nature Trail "NW about 0.5 miles to its end". This is completely wrong. One should indeed find the start of the Mary Beal Trail, at the north end of the upper parking lot (the lot adjacent to the visitor center, not the lower, campground parking lot). Then, follow the trail along a few constructed switchbacks downhill (just a minute or two) to a trail junction with a signpost with an arrow pointing left. You should be a rebel and turn right here instead. This seems wrong as you'll continue downhill and away from the peak. Trust me. The trail soon bends left and traverses north across rolling terrain. When you get to an interpretive display describing "Birds of Prey", it is time to leave the trail and head NW across gradually uphill terrain toward the mouth of the canyon marked on the map in the Peaks Guide. This display is only a few minutes from the aforementioned trail junction. The line drawn on The Peaks Guide map is accurate; it is only the words that are misleading.
Unfortunately for us, I followed the signed trail and distances mentioned in the guide to the upper end and continued up the canyon. This didn't look too different from my previous ascent (10 years ago in a large group), and the terrain in the bottom of the canyon was reasonable. Before too long we found a decent trail heading up; this wasn't familiar to me but was welcome, easy, walking. Unfortunately, this is the trail to Crystal Spring. Find it on your map; it is one drainage too far south! Aarrrrgh, what a mess. To further confound matters, the trail continues uphill beyond Crystal Spring, further sucking you in to the error in your ways. Eventually the trail peters out on the ridge northwest of the peak. At this point it was obvious that we had been off-route almost since the very start. Following the ridge from here up in a broad arc leading across Fountain Peak to Edgar did not look promising due to numerous gendarmes. Another option was to punt and return to the start, but that was unpalatable to everyone. So we decided to "bite the bullet" and descend the northwest side of the ridge, across uncertain terrain, into the correct canyon. This went as well as could be expected, although we had to throw away about 500 feet of elevation en route.
Once in the correct canyon (UTM 347680) our progress went according to plan for quite a while. There's quite a bit of bouldery terrain and cacti, necessitating numerous diversions from the bottom of the drainage. At the 1800m level (UTM 341684), I was still looking for the "bear right" point mentioned in the Peaks Guide and went too far right into the gully leading NW more or less directly toward the peak. This went OK for a while but got quite steep and narrow for a short bit through a wooded gully. After tackling this section we were able to proceed NW across easier terrain to the main south ridge leading to Edgar's summit. I suppose one benefit of this misdirection was that we avoided some of the up-and-down-and-around along the S ridge. We popped up at the last saddle south of the summit.
We hiked up the final easy slopes for a few minutes to the top where we met Garnet's group; they had reached the top about 45 minutes ahead of us. We exchanged greetings and took a few photos before they headed back to the start. What a beautiful day we had on the summit! Skies were quite clear and we could see quite a ways in all directions.
For our descent we dropped back down the S ridge to the point where we hit it coming up. I wanted to follow the Guide route down, and so tried to find the route from there along the ridge to the saddle where the A route turns east toward the trailhead. But, I couldn't. We wasted 20 minutes or so on various dead-ends when I decided to punt and return to our ascent route. It wasn't the official track, but I knew it would work on the way down. This was a bit slow through the steep section near the top with some minor route-finding problems and some rockfall. Once we made it into the main "A" route canyon leading home, we had only minimal difficulties and were back at the cars around sundown, 4:45 or so.
We spent a few minutes in the Caverns parking lot cleaning up and refreshing ourselves before heading down the road for the Mitchell Peak trailhead. We planned on hiking, on Sunday, via the "D" route, the driving route which leaves the paved road 10.6 miles N of 1-40. At the paved road turnoff we met Dave Perkins, Edna Erspamer, and Ed Herrmann, all of whom were joining our camp and hiking with us on Sunday. From this point we drove 4.2 miles north along the dirt road to a nice campsite on the left side of the road. Note that this road is one lane with a high berm on each side so it is basically impossible to pass for long stretches if one meets a vehicle coming in the opposite direction, as happened to us on this occasion. For the record there is another fine campsite about 1/4 mile farther (past 4.2) along the "D" route road, on the left side. The spot we chose had been used by Sue on a prior excursion. It is flat, open, and there is an old fire ring here. The last shreds of twilight faded as we set up camp with wood for the fire and folding tables for our hors' d'oeuvres, dinner, and dessert. A fine board of fare was served to willing takers, and was followed with a fine campfire under clear, calm skies. The Leonid meteor shower was peaking this weekend, and there was no moon to interfere. But, most everybody was more of a mind to sleep this evening rather than to stay up late to more fully appreciate the show. There were a few comments the next morning of seeing some meteors during waking moments overnight.
We drove to the Stone Cabins early Sunday morning for the "D" route on Mitchell. Beyond the turn at 4.9 miles from the pavement, at the "8 foot metal pole", the road is NOT good. It is very rough from here to the Stone Cabins, and I would not take a standard car beyond this point. High clearance 2WD is probably sufficient. We started hiking a bit after 7.
The executive summary version of Sunday's hike is that it was longer, with more difficult rocky terrain, but with fewer cacti. Sue wasn't feeling up to snuff so Dave Perkins agreed to serve as co-leader for the Mitchell hike. We (myself, Dave, Gene, Ron, and Ed) drove to the Stone Cabins and starting hiking shortly after 7 AM. We first traversed southwest across rolling terrain to a broad ridge and then up to the main west ridge towards the summit, basically following the line drawn on the map in the Peaks Guide. It was warmer than the day before, and I felt a bit worried about our chances for success given the mileage, temperature, and other challenges. But everybody did really well up the first haul to the point where we met the main ridge (roughly UTM 354715). Good! From here the route is obvious for a while ascending the E ridge. From point 2024m, we tackled the first bump or two directly along the crest of the ridge. Shortly thereafter we met a large distinctive slab of smooth gray limestone. We proceeded across and down and found a use trail at its lower W side. It is pretty easy to cross the slab via friction. From the far side of the slab we followed the indistinct route along the left (5) side of the main ridge towards the peak. There are occasional ducks along this "path" but it is not easy to follow. It gradually ascends towards the peak, but does not closely approach the E ridge before the final summit mass. Finally when you feel like you are getting close, there is a sharply uphill section, straight up toward the ridge at first then generally trending back away from the peak as you finally gain the east ridge. Once on top of the east ridge walking and route-finding are easy leading to a short steep (class 2.9) pitch just below the top.
Our group made the summit not long before our turnaround time, and enjoyed panoramic views from the top despite the early afternoon hour. But, we didn't have long to enjoy the summit before we had to head down. We followed the ascent route without major issues to the top of the final wide slope (roughly 1650m, 5500'). At this point darkness got the better of us, and we had to use headlamps for the final 1500' descent to the cars. Thanks to Dave for ably "taking the point" for most of this last section. We suffered through a bit of a "final insult" with some difficulty finding the cars in the dark at the end of the hike along the road, but we eventually made our way successfully across a few broad drainages northward to the Stone Cabins where our vehicles waited.
We wasted no time driving back to our campsite from the night before, where Edna awaited our return. Everybody had a nice break cleaning up and relaxing a bit before hitting the road back to L.A. Edna had a nice campfire set up as she and Ed were spending Sunday night here before heading home the next day. We had actually been able to see Edna's fire during the last portion of our descent: a comforting beacon in the wild. Thanks to everyone who participated for making this a successful trip.
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