Ascent of Collins Benchmark on 2015-03-07

Climber: John Isakson

Date:Saturday, March 7, 2015
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Collins Benchmark
    Elevation:4559 ft / 1389 m

Ascent Trip Report


I have a T-shirt that reads: "I climbed Mt. Whitney 14,500'....everything else
is downhill." After Saturday's adventure, I'm not so sure about that. We
battled raging waters, wild snakes, sheer rock cliffs, jumping cholla cactus,
incredibly steep inclines...and magnificent views from the top of each
benchmark. By the way, mixing a bit of exaggeration with some fact makes the
story more interesting. The good news is, we finished what we set out to do,
albeit not unscathed.

Side note: These mountain tops are not called peaks,
rather BM's. A BM is a point whose position is known to a high degree of
accuracy and normally marked with a metal disk on top of select peaks. BM's are
used by surveyors and map makers who need an accurate answer to the question:
"Where?" These markers are part of the geodetic control network created and
maintained by NOAA's National Geodetic Survey (NGS).

Back to the
adventure...the plan was to meet in Borrego Springs at 1630 and drive to the
camp site together. Jack and Uwe made it...I didn't. I harvested 1,000 pounds
of avocados and didn't finish until nearly 1700 so decided I'd drive out and
meet them in the morning. I left my place Sat at 0330 and drove to Borrego
Springs, turned left onto DiGiorgio Rd just past Christmas Circle and continued
for about 12 miles on reasonable roads, with sand, rocks, two stream crossings,
and a couple really narrow passages. They camped at the base of Coyote Canyon
Bypass Road called "Boulder Alley." I found them there at 0545. It turned out
that Boulder Alley was passable with 4x4 and would cut 3 miles each way off our
planned hike. After eating breakfast, we piled into Uwe's Tacoma, put the
transfer case in 4L and started climbing Boulder Alley. It was incredibly
rough. Check out this UTube video: Once through the alley, the road
was pretty nice all the way across Collins Valley to the base of Palms. We
parked, saddled up and took off. I was carrying 7.5 liters of water/Gatorade.
There was no breeze and even at 0700, the sun was getting warm. The incline was
steep and rock scrambling on such an incline took much effort but we made the
1,500 ascent without problem. On top, we wrung sweat out of our shirts and
looked at the remains of 1940's survey stuff. We found lots of wire and wood
that was used to build structures to hold lights that engineers used for their
surveys. We also found the register and signed in.

From there we headed for
Elder which was only about a mile away however, we had to scramble down 400 feet
before beginning the 600 foot ascent. The sandstone rock was abrasive on our
hands. We all forgot gloves. While cactus wasn't a big deal yet, the yuccas,
chollas, and cat's claw were still ever present. More difficult was negotiating
around all the chaparral and mesquite bushes. They grow in the most inopportune
places...exactly where we need to pass the boulders. So it becomes a balancing
act and very slow going. But, we gained the top of Elder, took another break
and appreciated the sweeping vistas. How beautiful!! I remember sitting on top
of Square Top with Jack a few weeks ago as we discussed how to accomplish these
4 peaks.

Next, the huge imposing Collins thrusting itself 2,000 feet above
us with near vertical approaches. First we had to descend 700 feet off Elder,
cross the south fork of Salvador Canyon and go up. The descent was treacherous
and Jack became the first casualty. I was leading the way down a narrow slot
between boulders and I loosened the foothold rock because when he stepped on it,
it gave way and put his knees into an unwanted/unexpected workout. Us old guys
don't have a lot of flexibility and when your knee is suddenly up by your know something's wrong. Fortunately, it wasn't too bad and after some
heavy panting to get over the pain, he was able to continue. There were places
where we had to exercise some class 4 rock climbing, that is, dropping the
poles, gripping the rock, carefully sliding around an edge seeking footholds,
then lowering ourselves down. Not bad as long as there were handholds. We also
had many instances of descending a crevasse by placing hands and feet on
opposite sides and slowly carefully lowering the body. The bottom of the canyon
was nearly impassable. Brush/talus was so dense I needed my chainsaw to get
through it. But, Jack wouldn't let me bring it so we searched for passage. I
found an 18" tunnel that required removing the pack for a bit of low crawl but
made it through. Then, to cross the dry wash, I actually laid atop the brush
and rolled rather than stepping. Stepping put me in brush to my hip with no way
to make forward progress. Rolling on top was effective for awhile. Climbing
out of that mess was probably the worst part of the day for me. Negotiating an
almost vertical ascent through brush was exhausting and painful. My shins look
like rats have been feasting on them. Second casualty of the day. Eventually I
made my way to a little plateau where I found Jack and Uwe waiting for me. How
the hell did they get there? They didn't follow me and took another path.
That's the beauty of this type of trekking...there's always a better way!! We
took a little break and decided it would take us 2 hours to negotiate the last
1,700 feet to the top as it got steeper as we ascended. It took much effort but
not too bad until just before the top. Leaning forward you could kiss the
ground and always had to keep one pole firmly planted while seeking the next
step. After 2 hours 17 min we summited and OH WHAT A RELIEF IT WAS! Again,
spectacular views and a cool breeze. We inventoried our water and we were all
getting low but fortunately we had a long descent before the climb up Knob.

When we left the top of Collins, we continued over the top to a long steep
descent but rather easy. Lots of deep sand so you could control slide a little.
Thank goodness for gaiters...kept the sand out of the boots. On the way down
Uwe ran across a big black snake. As usual, he was leading the charge and it
was a surprise to see this critter racing across in front of him. Not a rattler
thank goodness. Near the bottom we entered a wash and started seeing all kinds
of debris, food containers, clothes, rubber tubing, connectors??? Looked like
someone had camped there for quite awhile and maybe got caught in a flash
flood...or was growing dope, or hiding out? Let your imagination run wild. No
body there so we kept going. The climb up Knob was steep, rocky, but not long
and we were soon on top contemplating the return trip. Sheep Canyon was our
goal but looking at it from the top...all we could see was brush.

So, down
off Knob we went, making good time, crossing gully after gully enroute to the
water we could hear rushing below. Near the creek, Uwe became our third
casualty. Trying to maintain balance on a ridge of rock above a gully, he
thrust his hand into a cholla cactus. Worse, a couple spines went straight
under his fingernail. While not life threatening, incredible painful. Having
learned from our Webo experience where Kevin had a cholla encounter, I started
carrying tweezers. We sat while Uwe did minor surgery on his hand. He got all
the offending spines out and we continued. At this point, the sun was behind
the mountains, air was cooling, and we were out of water with two miles to go.
When we got to the water, our fears of rough passage were confirmed. Brush,
overhanging trees, thickets, debris, and ROCKS ROCKS ROCKS. After negotiating
the rough sand stone up high, the rock near the water was smooth as silk and
slick as if it were coated in grease. Wet boots became skis so we slowed even
more. There were places above and alongside to creek to pass but not always, so
it was up & down, cross and recross, looking for passage. As normal in these
desert washes, there were waterfalls...some huge, some small, and mostly
impassable by foot. We saw a slot canyon that was about 5' across and 15' deep
with water raging below. Couldn't get too close with all the brush but it was
neat. A couple times at the base of smaller falls, we saw little caves deep in
the rock. At one point, we couldn't go up and faced a long sloping boulder
about 20' down to the sandy creek bed. Jack took the plunge and slid on that
smooth rock landing nicely in the sand. It was like an amusement park ride.
Way cool!! At 1815, we had to put on our lights. We dreaded it because it
limits your line of sight and often caused us to backtrack. About 1/2 mile from
the truck we began to see signs of a path that came and went. It crossed the
stream a few times and we lost it in the rocks a few times but eventually we
broke into wide sandy beaches with lights in the distance. Campers were near
Uwe's truck and we knew we were almost there.

In the end, distance varied
by device as always. It was between 6 & 10 miles with about 4,700 feet of
climbing in 12 hours. Having surmounted all the obstacles the mountains threw
at us...we didn't care about the time. This hike brought together many of our
previous hiking experiences. Jack is now approaching his 100th peak on the
Peakbagger list and this one will probably be the most epic. While rough, the
drive back to our vehicles and on to Borrego Springs was uneventful. I
eventually got home about 2230. It was a great experience!! Thanks
guys....let's do it again.

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