Owlshead Mountains

Mar 2006

By: Bob Michael


A failure and a caution to possible future climbers.

Climbers don't usually bother to write up their failures for the SAGE. But a recent experience might serve to prepare other climbers for what to expect should they be interested in doing this.

George (aka "Boise Bill") Quinn, (having forsaken Vegas, his home for 21 years) and I determined to check out the high point of the mysterious Owlshead Mountains in March. I had always wanted to explore there as they seemed the remotest place in the Mojave - I do not recall any writeups on them in my many years of reading the SAGE. Flying over them last winter clinched the deal for me. From the air they really do look like a colossal owl's head with its rounded sides, central nose and beak, and two well-placed playas for eyes.

The only road access to this range goes in the south side, on an unsigned, surprisingly well-maintained dirt road that splits off to the left from the washboardy dirt road that follows the Amargosa River from Highway 127 into the southern tip of Death Valley. This junction is 12Y2 miles west of 127. Ten miles in on this road, and out of the Park in a little narrow strip of BLM land between the Park and Camp Irwin, is Owl Hole Spring, in an area of past iron mining (nice hematite specimens for rockhounds). One forlorn little palm tree grows improbably at the edge of the spring, where we camped for a VERY windy night in the company of a little band of desert deer - er, burros, right on the trace of the Garlock Fault.

Next morning, a perfect day for a climb, the road continued west in very good shape a few more miles from the spring, paralleling the north border of Camp Irwin for a short distance. Presently a short spur went left to a materiel dump just inside the military boundary, a rather bizarre stack of cargo containers in the middle of nowhere. This is why the road was maintained so well to here. The Owlshead Mountain/microwave station road branched off to the right here and immediately deteriorated. It's mostly in fairly good shape and quite drivable by a 2WD high clearance truck, except for one long stretch where the "road" is simply a route in a broad sandy wash; it would be tempting fate likely past the breaking point not to have 4WD here. There is one other short but steep and eroded pitch further west where 4WD is probably required. This is one of those places it's nice to have two vehicles - it would have been a mighty long forced march to help if anything had gone wrong with our rig.

12Y2 miles beyond Owl Hole Spring, we finally arrived at the turnoff to a 4-mile road shown on the AAA San Bernardino County map and the 7.5' topo which leads north to the south end of Lost Dry Lake, the giant owl's western "eye". I had been apprehensive about that road all along; were it to be washed out, and we couldn't drive to the playa, the climb would be a very long death march. Well, it was "washed out" all right, but by humans...the Park Service, as is its wont, had closed the road off, and it was rapidly eroding to oblivion. (I should have known...) Neither of us was in the mood to add a flat eight miles of trudging to what would have been a fairly strenuous day anyway, and we were not in a situation where we could have gotten back horribly late. So, without debate, we turned around and headed out (bagging 5152' Table Mountain near Goodsprings, Nev. as a consolation prize).

Very disappointing, for sure, but we did get into possibly the loneliest, remotest place in the Mojave accessible by a road - a place of absolute solitude which is increasingly rare in our desert. On a nice weekend in prime season we saw exactly one other vehicle in two days after we left the Amargosa River road.

The views to the north of the roadless part of the Owlsheads and beyond to the Panamints were of a pristine and terrible desolation completely devoid of any evidence of the existence of other humans. It brought back memories of my first formative impressions of the Mojave a half century ago as a little boy, a place of overwhelming beauty and mystery with an undertone of menace.

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