Joined: 12 Oct 2006
Posts: 1682 | TRs | Pics
Location: Edmonds, WA
There is perhaps nowhere more pleasant to spend January days than the mountains of the Cabeza Prieta. The afternoons are warm, the weather usually flawless and perfect camping opportunities abound. Rumors of lawless and scary “illegals” keep most visitors away, and the fact that you have to drive about 30 miles of deep-sand roads from any direction to get into the area. A permit is also required to cross through the Barry Goldwater base, but that is easily obtained online, and also free.
The truth of the matter is that it is in the best interest of the “illegals” to hide from anyone and everyone. I have never seen a single one of the night walkers. But you do find their black water jugs and carpet-bottomed slippers which hide their tracks in the sand. Tuna packets and sports drinks bottles are also found in their hidden camps in the canyons. Sometimes abandoned blankets, sleeping bags, or backpacks with broken straps. The border patrol, which you are likely to encounter, drag strings of tires back and forth, behind their trucks, to make a clean pallet, from which they can read fresh tracks. They call these the “drag-roads”.
When Matthias invited me to join a group he was assembling in the Cabeza Prieta, I jumped at the opportunity.
We started in the Gila Mountains. I was excited to me some desert hiking legends, Mark Adrian, Andy Bates and Scott Casterlin. In particular, I have seen Mark’s name in many hundreds of registers over the years. At first my name didn’t jog his memory, but several days later after I signed a register, he saw the “gimpilator” and all of a sudden he was jubilant with recognition, which was very amusing to me.
On this first peak we ascended the primary northwest canyon, which had some minor class 3 moves near the top. It was a quad-finish for Mark, one of three quads he would complete with us in 3 days.
Baker Peaks High Point – 1415’
Matthias and I wanted to make use of the afternoon, so we stopped for a peak on the way to the next camp. We walked a closed road and then went directly over a small saddle to get to the south side of the peak. As we ascended the drainage, we started to doubt this route choice. Big cliffs appeared to guard the upper portion. But we found a nice key ledge/ramp passing through the cliff and there were a few cairns there.
Mark, Matthias, Andy, gimpilator
In the northern Cabeza Prieta Mountains Matthias and I did the first peak with Mark. It appeared to be steep and rugged on all sides. I suggested a direct north side route, but Mark wanted to look at the east side, so we went over there. The gully he had in mind looked tricky on my map and also appeared so from the below. We ended up ascending a southeast gully which split in two near the top. Traversing climbers right on a very exposed ledge we finished with a few class 3 moves.
vultures hoped we wouldn't make it
start of the key ledge
Looking down that west side gully Mark had considered, it did look to be the easiest way on the peak. The top was just hidden from the bottom. Mark would descend that way whilw e Matthias and I went on to complete a 3 peak loop.
East drainage and upper southeast ridge. This higher peak is a great viewpoint!
Sweet Benchmark - 1662’
This peak is covered with black volcanic rock, which made for a tiresome ordeal in the afternoon heat.
We moved further to the southeast, the northern end of the Sierra Pinta. We found an unmarked road which enabled us to start from a strategic spot near east of Isla Pinta. Peak 1900 had some very steep gullies on the north side, but one of them appeared to go nicely, topping out on the west ridge.
The upper west ridge was just complicated enough to be a fun puzzle of route finding. The granitic rock was solid enough to earn our trust wherever a bit of scrambling presented itself.
Peak 2258 at right
The next peak appeared to be the hardest in the group, with no easy way. When he was here, Andy Bates had gone directly up some class 4 variation, above the connecting saddle on east side. We didn’t like the look of that. There was a ledge system we could see on the north side. According to the map, if we could follow that around to the west, it might be easier from there.
Buck group over there (headed there in a few days)
Traversing over to the saddle and then to the start of the ledge was unpleasant, with plenty of loose rock and ups and downs. The ledge itself went well and we wrapped around to the southwest corner until we could get up onto to the western crest. The final scramble was narrow and exhilerating.
Matthias on the ledge traverse
With the first two peaks done, Mark headed back, while Matthias and I went on to get some others. Peak 2101 had been ascended on it’s northwest side, but we wanted to explore the southwest canyon, which seemed more inviting on the map. There were some large “illegal” group camps in this canyon with a bunch of discarded items. We encountered no major difficulty and only a few class 3 moves.
nice upper crest
Isla Pinta Peak - 2007’
Matthias headed further south for a small peak while I went to try a new route on the east side of Isla Pinta. The east gully was steeper than the standard west side route, but it terminates at the same saddle just underneath the summit. Fantastic views on this peak looking west towards some of the larger Cabeza Prieta peaks and also east into the most remote areas where the Granite Mountains and Bryan Mountains locate.
first two peaks on left, Isla Pinta on right
Matthias and I went north to the Mohawk Mountains, so I could check out one he had spoken very highly of. He would go solo to do some other ones in the area. Peak 1894 has a complicated scramble route with hundreds of feet of scrambling on the southwest ridge. Probably there is no other way up the peak which makes any sense.
Peaks 1900 and 1894
Sierra Pinta highpoint and Peak 1900
I ascended the southern canyon and climbed a chimney up to the first notch between two large gendarmes. Crossing to another notch, I left the gendarmes behind and climbed a series of steep slabs and ledges with exposure. I passed one large rappel sling along the way. Higher up I climbed one class 4 chute, but was able to avoid that on the descent. This is a fantastic scramble peak!
Peak 1894 (Mohawk range)
route goes up left skyline
Point of the Pintas – 1272’
In the afternoon I returned to the Sierra Pinta for some solo days. The northernmost peak is a short hike with western approach.
Heart Benchmark – 2415’
I ascended the standard western canyon and then northwest draw, but I found all the boulder-hopping to be tedious. On the summit I decided to descend a more direct southwest ridge, which appeared ok from the top. My hope was to not encounter any show-stopper cliff bands.
below the first chimney which is not yet visible
some of the slabs
Peak 1894 north face
Peak 1894 west aspect
Peak 1894 southwest aspect
The ridge went nicely with only a couple minor cliffs which were mostly easy to bypass. Near the bottom I could have dropped off the side easily, back to the desert floor, but the toe of the ridge was so pleasant and solid, I followed it all the way.
Cabeza Benchmark and Cabeza Prieta Peak, (both very nice hikes)
Isla Pinta on right
After ascending the obvious west canyon, I followed the southeast ridge to the summit. The ridge crest is narrow and exposed in part, and extremely fun. Matthias told me that the west ridge is also very good, so it would be possible to make a loop of it. While I was sitting near the summit a golden eagle flew in and landed about 50 feet below me. I was astounded to see it up close.
down this way
Buck Peak – 2629’
After filling the tank in Tacna, I headed back south into the northern Cabeza Prieta Mountains. The Buck group is very steep and rugged, in general.
I followed the canyon north of Buck Peak to a northwest draw and upper north ridge. In general, this could be considered the standard approach for Buck, the highest in the group, but very few people visit this area, so there’s little consensus.
obvious west canyon
From Buck, I descended the north ridge towards peak 2460 which appeared to have no easy way. On satellite images, I found what looked like a hidden southeast chute. This was quite steep, with some class 3, but went all the way to a notch which divides the highest summit from the main crest. More class 3 from the notch to the top. I was pleased to find that this was only the 3rd ascend of this peak, the first ascent having taken place 30 years ago.
Back in the notch, I was tempted to descend more directly down another hidden chute to the southwest. As it turned out, this chute is loaded with loose rocks and precarious boulders. I sent a big one moving. There’s also one 30 foot rock step, which borders on 4th class. This route is not recommended.
3rd ascent in 30 years
Ascended the east side making use of gullies and broad ledges. Some minor route finding scramble puzzles near the top.
below a vertical rock step
Starting in the largest east gully, I couldn’t tell if the upper half would workout, because I could see several cliffs spanning the upper gully. A hidden chute exited the gully to the left under the first cliff. I found some cairns on ledges to get back into the gully above the cliff.
a fine morning in the mountains
Peak 2364 (up next)
Around this area there were rock fragments, fresh dirt and unstable boulders all over the place. Desert cactus plants were half covered in debris and elephant-tree limbs (Bursera microphylla) were sheared off in piles. Clearly there had been some big event recently, a cascade of falling rock in this gully.
I stepped gingerly on the loose debris and continued up and to the right, leaving the gully for ledges under southeast ridge. The upper portion of the peak was less steep. A southern sub-peak 2302’ was very striking. This looks to be a good climbing objective for those who don’t care about prominence.
Pinhole Peak – 2015’
A large multi-day rain system was moving in to cover the entire desert. It would unfortunately cut my trip short, but there was one clear day remaining. I met Matthias down in the Sawtooth range south of Casa Grande. He had tried to climb Pinhole Peak solo recently, but got shut down on some class 4. We brought a rope and some trad gear this time. I’ve protected a number of class 4 routes before, because I am not a brave scrambler.
Peak 2553 and Buck
Peak 2364 with ascent gully visible
Peak 2364 north face
After these first 8 tacos, I ate 5 more
This is a tiny desert peak with a namesake cannon hole. Matthias led to the bottom of the climb on the northwest side. It appeared to have some down-sloping class 3 steps on the left and a 5th class chute on the right. Higher up there was a ledge which might make for an easy traverse into a class 2 gully, but to get to the ledge there was an exposed class 4 section.
I didn’t like the look of the rope drag potential, so I led up the left side to an upper north ridge. I used 2 cams and a nut in good solid cracks and then climbed a loose class 4 crux with real exposure. Above that I scrambled unto the upper gully and belayed Matthias from a palo verde tree.
For the descent we found another palo verde with an old sling on it, at the top of the class 5 chute. I placed a new sling and an old retired locking carabiner there.
The peak was one I noticed last time in the area, but I didn’t want to try it solo because it looked scary. I was very happy to return with a reliable partner. On the south face of the summit nipple, there’s an obvious chimney and we both assumed that it must be the only way up, but as we got closer to it, doubt set in.
Matthias rappelling from the gully over the class 5 chute
The top of the chimney was overhanging and overall it looked like a technical route, hard to protect. There must be another way, we thought. Scrambling to the right of the chimney we got to the upper-most notch. What was above that looked very promising, but also very steep and exposed. Matthias led up to check it out and I had him trail the rope.
chimney on the left
At the top he found a couple old fixed lines and also some piton anchors. With some detailed instructions from me, he set up a belay for me. I think this route can be kept at class 3, but I was very happy to have the belay, which made the big difference between scary and fun. Matthias went up and down without belay, but did comment that there was a big pucker-factor coming down.
Matthias exploring above the notch
nearing the top
Our last peak was sort of trivial compared to the first two, but we were in the area, so why not? The weather was clearly destabilizing. We could see it in the clouds and feel it in the air becoming more humid. Time to head home and return another day.
pucker-factor (old fixed line visible)
weather moving in
"Submarine Rock" soloed in January 2022