Pilot Knob (6200'), Owens Peak (8453')

10-11 May 2003 - by Mike Mcdermitt

A group of ten participants met provisional leader Mike McDermitt and assistant Ron Hudson at the Walker Pass Campground 7.30am Saturday morning to begin a dual-listed SPS/PCS car camping weekend climbing two peaks in the southern Sierra. The diverse group included hikers from both northern California (Anthony Stegman, Chris Franchuk, Pete Yamagata, Nick Pilch, Rod McCalley and Sandy & Ron Keith) and southern California (Chris Artale, Herb Buehler and Patty Rambert). The outing had been pushed back a week after unseasonably late rain and snow in the area but the weather had finally cleared.

Saturday's goal was Pilot Knob, which is usually accessed across private land (White Blanket Ranch, which has a bridge across the South Kern). The land immediately east of the ranch is now a state wildlife preserve with parking. While the preserve does provide access to the South Kern, there is as yet no bridge across the river and at this time of year fording the river is not a very attractive option (but probably would be in the fall). The unsigned gated entrance to the preserve is about 0.2 miles west of the Bloomfield Ranch Road and across from a large boulder with a red & yellow painted SC logo.

The entrance to the White Blanket Ranch itself is gated and signed no trespassing'. We caravanned from the campground and rather than opening the gate and driving in with the group, drove down the dirt road which angles off SR 178 about 0.5 miles west of Bloomfield Ranch Road and parked where the locked gates prevent further access, on land which appears to be part of the state preserve. On foot, we passed over or through the gate and walked up to the ranch. I had written previously to request permission for access. No one was home, so we left a note with a token of appreciation comprised of monetary and gustatory components and continued through the ranch and across the South Kern (2800'). From here we followed the HPS route description into the Pilot Knob east canyon', walking on a use trail to the north side of the canyon then continuing east while the trail gradually turned into a ducked route and eventually it became an exercise in pure cross-country travel. For most of the way, dense brush was easily avoidable. Somewhere above 4000' we passed through large open hillside meadows which provided a welcome change and welcome breezes. A number of the occasional pools of water in the canyon creekbed and side tributaries were noted to have tadpoles. Nearing 5000' we again followed a ducked route to and then up the floor of the now-steep canyon, crossed to the south side, and finally back to the north side as we neared the saddle on the south ridge at 5520'+. The sunny day had turned quite warm. Reaching the saddle around 11am, we took a 15-minute break before continuing up the well-ducked use trail along the south ridge and southeast face to the summit, which was reached about noon. The summit blocks entailed some careful maneuvering. Except for two climbers, new to the hiking with the SC, who signed out early on, the entire group made the peak. The group spent about an hour on the summit before heading down. The airy summit blocks provided for a feeling of accomplishment. Too, the low elevation made snowy Olancha Peak, viewed from a long distance to the northeast, look like Mount Shasta! The return went along an almost identical path, with the ducks much easier to follow from above. Again we left (or lost) the ducked route when the terrain suggested easier travel in other directions, but staying on the north side and again we enjoyed the open meadows on the descent. The last part of the return was spent on the canyon floor again following a ducked route which leads all the way back to the use trail. The group trudged back to the cars about 4pm, with everyone tired from the sun, heat and steep terrain.

Saturday evening and happy hour was spent at the Walker Pass Campground with many goodies (Patty Rambert's excellent salads deserve special mention).

Sunday morning our group now ten in total traveled to Powers Wells at the bottom of Indian Wells Canyon before carpooling in 4WD to the head of the canyon where the locked gate designates the Owens Peak trailhead (~5400'). Our route generally followed the HPS route description with some clarifications and one exception to be noted. We followed the old dirt road which gradually turns into trail. One makes a right turn at a small meadow at about 6100' and continues up the trail. Thereafter, a couloir' of white talus above and to the right becomes apparent and per the trip report this should be avoided. Rather, farther up and to the left of the white boulders is another couloir' of dark talus. The ducked route proceeds up this dark rock couloir for several hundred feet, eventually exiting to the right then proceeding up steeply on an obvious use trail. A short slab section is crossed. Soon the trail crosses Owens' SSE ridge. Views of the canyons and desert open up. After several hundred feet of gain on the southeast face, the summit is reached. The preceding description matches our group's ascent and descent routes, with one exception. On the ascent, we unknowingly detoured off-route at some point between the two rock couloirs. After encountering sufficient brush to make our error obvious, we found a duck in a sandy couloir to our left and we began to ascend. This unfortunately was the upper end of the white talus' couloir and soon our way was blocked. After maneuvering to exit to our left we came back on route almost immediately, at a point slightly above the afore-mentioned short slab section. Thus, one must be wary of false ducks' off route and be sure to look for the dark rock' couloir.

Reduced by one due to the early sign-out of a hiker spent from the prior day's exertions, our group of nine enjoyed a lunch hour on the summit from noon to 1pm after an approximate 3 1/2 hour ascent. In view were the major peaks of the southern High Sierra from the Kaweahs in the west to Whitney, Langley and Olancha in the east.

The descent required approximately 2 1/2 hours. Wildflowers were abundant this weekend, both on the entire Pilot Knob route and on sections of the Owens Peak trail, especially near the very beginning. Nearing our cars after descending from Owens Peak, several small hummingbirds were encountered, small enough to be confused with moths. Amazingly un-shy, they hovered for several seconds inches off the ground feeding on flowers while we stood literally within reach. As they hovered, their wings moved just slowly enough to be visible. The distinctive orange/ rust coloring suggests possibly rufous hummingbirds.

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