Signal Peak


By: Penelope May


Via the Rusty Bailey Route
Kofa Wildlife Refuge, Arizona

Taking a spontaneous hiatus from work, inspired by the fantastic display of wildflowers in our local deserts, we headed out to Signal Peak in Arizona on Sunday, March 20, 2005. In 2000, I was rained off the peak at the headwall, and almost run over by a bighorn sheep on the descent. Hurtling down, he missed me by inches; he was scared and so was I. Inspired to complete the job in better (safer) style, Alois and I arrived at the end of the road in the quiet of the afternoon, and made camp at a secluded spot a walk-in away from the car. A pleasant Italian dinner, complete with a good zin, was enjoyed during the panoramic sunset and alpenglow on the peak, before we turned in for an early start.

The whole day's climb took about 9 hours round trip. The canyon approach is beautiful, wild, lush and overgrown and steep and slow-going. We saw no sheep, but plenty of flowers and blooming cactus and even streams.

After about 3 hours of scrambling up the canyon with only one clothing rip (fortunately, on Alois), we successfully found the 2-pitch rock face.

I lead the route; it is only 5.4 but the first piton on the second pitch is about 30 feet up, which provides for a little concern. It was grand to travel this steep rocky mountain and enjoy its wilderness in this solitary way.

By the looks of the slings in the bolted anchor at the top, there had been no one else passing by in at least a season or two.

We then struggled up the Class 4 scramble to the saddle and from there walked to the summit. The view from the top is splendid: pinnacles of the Kofa and the vast open desert spaces all the way to Mexico.

Finding the anchor from which to rap down was the key to the descent! After that, the return journey was uneventful as we descended the steep, overgrown canyon. Alois was complaining about the terrain (and his knees) and crying out, "I need a trail"! I assured him (for several hours) that I was looking for one.

As we approached the bottom of the canyon, we looked at the rare Palms located high in a slot on the north wall and realized the only time when there was light to photo them was mid-day. A few people walk up the little trail to this point, in the mornings and afternoons, disappointed (camera in hand). . . .beyond that, not a soul in sight: just what we like! From the town of Quartzsite, Arizona, drive south on US Highway 95 for more or less 20 miles to "KOFA National Wildlife Refuge, Palm Canyon" sign. The sign is located a little over 0.5 mile south of milepost 86. Turn left (E) and drive some 7 miles on excellent dirt road to its end in the Palm Canyon trailhead parking lot. Camping is permitted anywhere along this road and almost anywhere in the Kofa National Wildlife Refuge. No permits are required.

From the Palm Canyon trailhead parking lot, follow the trail (E) up Palm Canyon for about 0.5 miles to its end at a viewing point for the Fan Palm grove high up on the north wall of the canyon. Continue up the narrow canyon (no trail) to where it opens up into wide slope at about 3,000 foot elevation level. Make a sharp right turn (to about 3 o'clock or South) and hike up the steep slope. After several hundreds of feet are gained, move (E) to gain the large canyon which leads to the summit plateau. Follow this canyon to its end, where trees, brush and a steep headwall seemingly block all progress. The Rusty Bailey route starts here on the left side at the very end of the canyon behind a scrub oak tree.

The 1st pitch consists of about 20 feet of easy 5th class climbing, protected by a fixed piton to reach a small bowl, or cave, up above. Just inside the left side of the bowllcave are two fixed pitons for a belay anchor. Belay your second from these pins. The 2nd pitch is a bit more demanding and starts from the left edge of the cave. Climb up a 5.4 face/depression for about 30 feet to reach a cemented piton and after an additional 15-20 feet, you'll reach another fixed (cemented) piton. The route continues for some 20-30 feet to a 2-bolt belay/rappel anchor. Since this makes for a short pitch, we climbed past the belay/rappel anchor (we used it for a running belay) and climbed an additional 40-50 feet to almost the end of the gully.

We coiled our ropes, crossed the top of the gully to the right and scrambled upward, first on 4th class rock, later easing to loose 3rd class.

After a couple of hundred feet of scrambling, a broad bowl is reached. From here the summit can be seen as a large "sandy" colored round top 0.25 miles to the NE. It's an easy walk from here to the summit (4877 feet). The view of the Kofa pinnacles and vast empty desert in all directions is not to be forgotten.

Retrace your route down to the belay/rappel bolts. From there single rap on two 60 meter ropes gets you down to the base of the headwall. We left our packs at the base of the headwall so we would not have to carry them up the technical scramble. That was a good idea.

From the base of the headwall, retrace your steps (and brace your knees) all the way down to the desert floor. 2800 feet elevation gain, 4-5 miles. Average time for a party of two is 8-10 hours RT. The route was put up some years ago (late 80s or early 90s) by Prescott Arizona climber Rusty Bailey, hence the name.

Two 60 meter ropes (we carried 8mm twins), harness, rock shoes, couple of quick draws with biners, a few slings with biners, extra over the shoulder knotted slings to replace the old ones at the rap station, a few extra biners, rap/belay device. Helmet would not be a bad idea and headlamp might prove useful. We carried 2 quarts of water each for the mild March temperatures. The terrain in the Kofa mountains is very rugged, hikes are steep, vegetation is mostly cactus and such, so be prepared with good clothing.

Detailed information for visiting one or more peaks mentioned in this article can be found in the
Desert Peak Section Road and Peak Guides

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