Sheep Mountain, Martinez Mountain
19 February 2003
By: Karen Isaacson Leverich
A Bona fide Mars Bonfire Custom Adventure
Up until last Wednesday, I had hiked in on the Cactus Springs Trail four times, and had three peaks (one Sheep and two Martinez) to show for my troubles. While many HPSers have done Sheep and Martinez together as a day hike, that treat had so far eluded me.
Well, I've finally done it! And it "only" took just under seventeen hours. Sure, that's a bit on the slow side, but the views, the flora, the desert light, all merited appreciation. That, or I was a bit out of shape, having done essentially no hiking for about a month.
The start of this great adventure was less than auspicious. We were to meet Doris Duval and Mars at 6AM at the Pinyon Flats Campground. Doris phoned the evening before and canceled. My estimate of driving time from Palm Desert (where Wolf and I had spent the night in a rather nice little motel that unfortunately we didn't really get the opportunity to savor) must have assumed Mario Andretti at the wheel. And then Mars had the cheery news of a winter storm on the way. A brilliant time to hike in 8 miles from the cars, in terrain riddled with washes currently dry, but if they don't flow with water when it storms, then how did they get there?
But of course, having come so far, we wanted to go for it. And there wasn't a cloud in the sky! We would watch for Weather developing and scurry back as best we could if we didn't like what we saw. After double-checking that we all had enough gear if we misjudged, we decided to give it a try. (I suspect many hikers, unaware of the forecast, seeing that clear sky, knowing these to be tough desert peaks, might have been tempted to leave their rain gear behind to save weight. Not a wise choice! Read on to learn what ALMOST happened.)
If you have a sturdy 4WD vehicle, contact Mars to learn how to trim a mile or so from this hike. He has a route worked out that gets one a bit past the dolomite mine. On earlier hikes, I haven't at all minded those miles on the way in, but oh, how looooonnnnnnnngggg they seem on the way out! It's nice not to have to hike that last bit, especially when tired and racing to beat a spooky storm.
So, up and down and up and down we went. Sometime in the first half of 2002, someone did major work on this trail, and it's now substantially easier to follow. (We got muddled a few times coming out in the dark a year ago January, but now it all seems perfectly clear. Or maybe it's due to practice?) Horsethief Creek was running (unlike last July), and was just lovely. I could imagine our less peak-obsessed hiking brethren considering this beautiful stream to be an adequate hiking destination. Not us. We paused and Mars pumped water.
Next the trail goes steeply up, offering glimpses to the left of a wash that looks almost like a road. Substantially lower than the trail. "That's our wash," said Mars. We hypothesized that we were going up these steep switchbacks, rather than the gentle sandy wash, because that wash was going to have a sudden elevation change (AKA "dry waterfall" or "cliff") somewhere out of sight, shortly before we rejoined it. Early in the day, we thought we'd have the energy on our return to do lots of exploring, find out how Cactus Spring was doing (it was pretty unattractive last July), and how big of a waterfall the wash made, etc. Right.
Mars and I both remembered turning left out of the main wash into a subsidiary wash, pretty soon after rejoining the wash. The first promising wash didn't have the expected ducks, but we took it anyhow. Mars led, seldom pausing at splits to choose, seemingly having an algorithm for deciding which branch to take. Well, duh! He was always choosing the one that aimed most closely at the peak (which we couldn't see, but never mind.) Along the way, we saw the most gorgeous metallic red balloon, presumably a Valentine's Day escapee. Ingeborg, where are you when we need you? You would have loved this one!
On our exit later that evening, we saw the "right" wash, complete with ducks. Mars' assessment is that the wrong wash worked even better than the right one. Or maybe you can take any wash, and as long as you aim for the peak, it all works out?
Eventually we came out on some high ground, which if you're generous, you might call a ridge. If it isn't yet clear, we were going for Sheep first, rather than Martinez. Mars correctly guessed we'd be coming out in the dark, and prefers to do that off of Martinez (more trail) than off of Sheep (more of those fun irregularities we enjoyed during our January trip to Big Shay, Medium Shay, Little Shay, and Shay Shay, or whatever those peaks were.) At some point, Wolf was of course attacked by the vegetation. All three of us were carrying Sam splints, and have been kind of curious if we'd ever encounter a situation where three Sam splints would come in useful (obviously this would be unpleasant in Real Life). Wolf insisted his yucca stab was NOT such an event. On we went.
We found recent footprints, so theorized we'd find some very recent sign-ins in the register(s), as surely the recent rains would have obliterated older footprints. Dunno. The register on Sheep goes back to 1967, but there hadn't been anyone there for a day or two, anyhow. We paused, remembering Edith's list finish (complete with headstand), commenting (even a year later) how much better a peak this was for a list finish than her original choice, Black #3 over by Tehachapi. Better this wonderful desert terrain than being terrorized by cattle!
We looked over at Martinez. I've been reading a lot of old trip reports lately, and mentioned one hike where they made it to Sheep, looked at Martinez, and decided it looked way too challenging to bother with. That rocky gully looks as if it goes straight up. I pointed out the ridge on the skyline we'd used last July. We admired Toro, where perhaps many many people will finish the list next August, but that's another story. We looked back towards Horsethief Creek, and pondered our map: in real life, the terrain is quite a mess of gullies and ridges. On the map, it looks almost like a walk in the park. It's interesting what features don't scream out at one on the topo map, though having watched the experts at the Nav Noodles, I know really good map readers can intuit a lot from mere hints on a map. Not me, not yet anyhow.
Onwards, upwards. Well, at first, onwards, downwards. Though with good route picking, you don't lose a lot of elevation on the trip from the summit of Sheep to the base of Martinez. The intimidating gully still looked pretty intimidating, but not quite straight up. "If you like this peak," we quipped, "you'll love Pilot Knob!"
I'd done Martinez twice before, once coming down with a serious head cold, and once in July. It goes much better without the head cold, and with cooler temperatures. We still didn't exactly scamper up the gully, but it seemed less endless, and soon enough we were on the summit plateau. Shortly before that saddle, Mars had indicated a ridge on our left, and said one could go up that way, though it was a bit steep and a bit of a struggle. Two of my favorite "S" words. I demurred.
Still, Mars didn't want to wait as long as usual before turning left, so (as with Sheep) we took the first promising wash on the left, and worked our way up and over more boulders. Soon we approached a rocky monolith from the west. Could that be the summit block? No such luck. Mars: "It's not scary enough." Great. Wolf and I took a brief break while Mars shopped around for something scarier to climb. And guess what? Yes, he found something, not that far to the east, and fairly easy to get to. In fact, the whole trip from the gully to the base of the summit block was accomplished with very little rock scrambling.
We rested up at the base of the summit block, explaining to Wolf the basic approach to the remaining climb. And zoom! He was off! Mars followed after him, and was astonished to find Wolf already on top reading the register. No problem - all those bouldering skills developed during his formative years in Colorado apparently stayed with him.
Casting a concerned eye westward, we finally saw some weather starting to build. Was that a thunderhead over Gorgonio? Surely not. But it was more than time to go back, weather or no weather. Unless we were very very fast (we weren't), we'd still be descending that gully when it got dark (we were).
Mars had put in some additional ducks on our way up, just in case we ended up coming out in the dark. And while it took some time, we easily followed them down and out to our water stash, and then started hiking down the wash towards the Cactus Spring Trail. Mars: "We'll know we're there when we see the tree with the big horizontal limb." Karen: "It's a huge tree, we'll have problems not walking into it."
Well, so we walked and we walked and we walked and we walked. No tree. And we walked some more. Still no tree. Had it blown down, been logged, what? Surely we'd covered miles and miles! Wolf observed we'd been walking about ten minutes. Oh. Well then. And sure enough, a few minutes later, there was the tree.
Next problem: the trail should "soon" leave the wash. Mars recalled this as being a bit obscure, maybe looking like a temporary division but actually being a departure. So on we went, suspiciously checking out anything that looked like a branch, losing Wolf the Stubborn a few times in the brush as he made absolutely and certainly certain that the branch-appearing sandy patch wasn't our trail.
Then Mars picked out a trail sign, propped up kind of crookedly, right before something that maybe looked like a temporary division in the wash. Voila!, the trail. And on and on and ON we went. Surely the transit of Sheep, from when we left the trail to when we found the wash near Martinez, was shorter than this trip on the trail. Miles aren't longer when you're tired, that wouldn't be fair!
Off in the distance towards San Jacinto, we started seeing lightning. And more lightning. This was nervewracking, because of course we were miles and miles still from the cars. Reassuring was the fact that we weren't hearing any thunder: maybe the storm was simply sitting on San Jacinto.
It got progressively windier, so we decided to skip taking a break, holding out for that canyon at Horsethief Creek, where there'd surely be a bit of shelter. When we got to Horsethief Creek, Mars paused to pump a bit more water, sending Wolf and I on ahead. He'd of course easily catch up with us.
And now it really got weird. There wasn't a cloud in the sky (that we could see -- San Jacinto was out of sight). But was that a rain drop on my hand? No, my hand wasn't wet. And another. And another. And finally I could see them in my headlamp: tiny tiny tiny snowflakes. Where were they coming from? Mars guessed from San Jacinto, carried all those miles by the wind.
And now we got to go back up (and down) and up (and down) and UP all those hills we'd barely noticed when we started the hike, eventually passing the Wilderness Boundary sign, a hint that the cars would be coming up "soon". Not that soon is ever soon when you're as tired as we were.
Wolf and I decided to stay in a motel rather than driving home that night. But the Red Roof in Thousand Palms was full up. Ditto the Motel 6 by the freeway near Palm Springs. It started to rain, to pour. Good thing we didn't get caught in that! We decided to try the tried-and-true Super 8 in Banning. What was that weird looking white stuff on the ground and all over the cars? The clerk, while she checked us in (yes, there was a room at the inn) told us it had hailed, heavily, shortly before our arrival.
I am so glad we weren't caught out hiking in that! Though if we had been, we did at least have along rain gear, fleece, etc. So at worst we'd have been miserable. C'mon, guys, carry that stuff! Even if there's not a cloud in the sky and you're hiking in the desert. If they can get half an inch of hail in Banning, anything can happen! (I might even get both Sheep and Martinez on the same day, who knows?)
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