Palm Mesa High Point
Updated: May 31
Date: May 23, 2021
Distance: 10.07 miles
Total Elapsed Time: 10h 45m
Total Moving Time: 7h 52m
Summit Elevation: 5,607 feet
Elevation Gain: 3,542 feet
Trailhead: Camino San Ignacio Road
Previous Ascent(s): N/A
Peakbagger Peaks - 3
SD Sierra Club 100 Peaks Challenge #92 & #93
Objective: Cody, Pike, and Palm Mesa HP
December 2020. I was down to the final 9 peaks on my San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge and I 'bundled' these peaks into three separate packages. Each package had its own challenges for access, either they required a backpacking trip with dispersed camping or I needed a vehicle with 4WD to reach the trailhead (or both!) I had resigned myself to the fact that bagging these peaks was going to have to wait since I didn't have a 4WD vehicle and dispersed camping had just been suspended due to the surging pandemic situation.
The"3-Pack" consisting of Cody, Pike, and Palm Mesa High Point (HP) was a double-whammy, I needed 4WD to reach the trailhead AND it was better suited for a backpacking trip. I had studied the terrain and previously recorded tracks, settling on a 15.4-mile route with over 6,890 feet of vertical gain that began from the North at the entrance to Cougar and Indian Canyons and headed South.
Fast Forward to May 2021. Imagine my excitement when I saw that some of my friends had recently completed these peaks from a Western approach that did not require 4WD! I was doubly excited to receive an invitation to hike the route with them today. We met at the guard station for the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, drove to the campground (trailhead for the Hot Springs Mountain hike), then carpooled with Gina to the location we'd start today's hike.
Gina and Chris had already hiked to the summit of Palm Mesa HP and had their sights set on exploring other peaks along the way. Alberto had bagged Cody and Pike the last time he was out here, but still needed Palm Mesa HP, and of course, I needed all three. The four of us hiked together for the first 1.5-miles or so to the saddle just below Phil and Norte, this is where we split up; Gina and Chris heading up towards Phil, while we continued down into the wash.
Since Alberto had already bagged Pike and Cody, we decided to tackle the furthest peak first, then hit the other two on the way back, so we pressed on through the wash towards Palm Mesa High Point. As we descended, the wash turned into a canyon.
The desert never disappoints, whether it's the macro views and amazing vistas, or the details of the flora and fauna, it has this wonderful calming effect that's hard to describe to someone, you really just have to experience it for yourself.
Borrego Palm Canyon North Fork
Much of the trail that we took followed Borrego Palm Canyon North Fork as it cut through the landscape. This was a cool route that included Class 2 and 3 scrambles over a mix of dry falls, some were easy to navigate, while we had to circumvent others because we didn't have the appropriate climbing gear to tackle them safely. If you've never hiked through dry falls, they are pretty amazing, the rock is polished smooth from years of water flow, most irregular, craggy handholds are gone, and even my 'sticky' Vibram soled hiking boots couldn't get traction on some of these rocks (I didn't think to bring my climbing shoes!).
We stayed in the canyon for 2.8 miles with only a couple of small diversions to avoid the steep dry falls, and descended about 1,483 feet of elevation during this two and a quarter-hour segment of our trip.
Sometimes the magic is found in the detour. The pictures above are all different sections of the canyon that we skirted on the Southern side seen from above, just before we dropped back down into the canyon, we came upon a large rock with lots of morteros or grinding holes, one was eroded all the way through!
Back in the canyon, we continued on, passing by a cairn that marked the point that we would ultimately exit the canyon on our return trip to Pike. As we rounded a bend just past that cairn, our peak came into view!
Palm Mesa High Point
The climb to Palm Mesa High Point was not terribly long (0.65 miles) and followed the ridge most of the way to the top, picking up 883 feet of vertical gain between the spot where we left the canyon to the summit area. This was really the first climb of the day and I was feeling some of the effects of yesterday's trip to WEBO as I plugged up the ridge at a slow pace, completing the short ascent in about 45 minutes. Success! As you can see from the video below, the 360º views from the summit were well worth the effort.
We reached the summit at 1135, covering 4.87 miles in just over 4 hours. I took care of the important business first: George's summit photos and setting my shirt out to dry before fixing my lunch. With the summit temperature at 88.6ºF and a slight breeze, I was quite comfortable catching some rays while my shirt dried out.☀️ 🤣 By the time I was done with lunch and ready to take my summit picture, my shirt had completely dried. 👍🏻
Palm Mesa High Point was Peak #92 on my San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge, it felt good to edge just a little bit closer to completing this challenge, but we still had two more peaks on the agenda. We packed up and descended back to the canyon with Pike next on our list.
Pike and Pike
It'd be easy to get ahead of myself and just jump right into how hard this climb was, but I should provide some background, my thought process on route selection, and walk you through the chronology. While planning for this hike last night, I had narrowed the route down to two options:
Option 1: Pike, Palm Mesa HP, Cody or,
Option 2: Palm Mesa HP, Pike Cody
On paper, option 1 made a lot of sense, there was a gradual ascent from the West, starting at the saddle and going to Pike BM Summit, from there it was a little hop over to Pike (the peak that counted for the Challenge). Then, it was a descent down the steep eastern slope to the canyon and up to Palm Mesa HP. We'd approach Cody from the canyon on the way back.
My General Rule. If I'm doing multiple peaks, I have a habit of choosing a route that tackles the furthest peak first so I know, under all circumstances, I'll at least get that one done. If for some reason I don't reach the summit of all the peaks as planned, the remaining ones will be the closer ones if I need to come back another day.
Of course, those options float around in my head until I have the opportunity to actually see what the routes look like. Today, I had the added benefit of "Trail Beta" (prior knowledge and tips gained from personal experience) from Chris and Gina.
The catch was that they had tackled Palm Mesa HP as an out-and-back by itself. They had done Pike and Cody on a separate trip last year, hitting Pike first, then dropping down to the canyon to ascend up to Cody. As we talked about the route, they recalled that their route to Pike included a fair amount of bushwhacking and bouldering, and they thought the East slope looked more open. The track from my original plan went up the East slope, so for me, that was a no-brainer. As we hiked through the canyon I had the opportunity to see the peak from both angles, and I felt okay with the East approach.
Our descent from Palm Mesa HP went well and we quickly made our way back to the cairn in the canyon that marked our exit and would lead us up to the saddle below Pike and Deering Peaks. This saddle was also the camping spot on the backpacking track that I had originally planned, it was at the "top" of the trail coming up from the Sheep Canyon Primitive Camp and provided a logical base camp.
Working our way up to the saddle, I found a mylar balloon in the weeds. 😡 Alberto had found one earlier, so now we had each one for the day, sadly, this has become the rule rather than the exception.
Once we reached the saddle and looked up I knew this was going to be a challenge. It was definitely more open, and there was no bushwhacking involved, however, it was just ridiculously steep.
I silently cursed myself realizing that the energy expenditure trade-off between bushwhacking and this climb would have favored the former. But here I was, the only real option I had was to go up. I ended up climbing the half-mile to the summit, picking up 961 feet of vertical gain, in 1 hour and 12 minutes! The average grade of the slope was 50.54% with a slope angle near the summit that reached 63-66 degrees 😳
As I caught up with Alberto at the summit, I knew in my mind that I was done. I'd gotten Pike and we'd head over to Pike BM Summit to bag that one, then it'd be down to the canyon and back to the car.
I dropped my pack, had some more food, snapped my summit photos, and considered the options. As we ate, I looked directly across to Cody and it didn't look THAT bad (looking from peak to peak), but when you factored in descending back to the canyon and going up the longest/steepest line to Cody's summit, it just didn't make sense.
Alberto had done this route before, descending from Pike and climbing Cody from the wash, he said it was a pretty rough bushwhack all the way up. I didn't have to be a mathematical wizard to realize that our approach from the canyon below would be the longest straight-line route we could take with the most vertical gain. Based on my climbing speed and current energy levels, I estimated it would add another 2 hours to our total time on the trail.
Yes, the "Challenger" part of me was saying "suck it up buttercup, just get it done" but I've learned that the mountain will always be there.
FACT: Little decisions made for the wrong reasons can lead to bad things happening. Accidents that happen in the backcountry rarely are the result of a single cataclysmic event. Stay safe and know your limits.
Sure, if climbing Cody stood between me and getting out of the backcountry, I would have done it, but today it wasn't a necessity, I was tired, and my attitude wasn't where it needed to be to tackle this last peak (and enjoy it). Additionally, I knew that our friend Gina would be waiting for us at the designated rendevous point and it wasn't fair to have her wait an additional two hours for us. By my calculations, if we descended and headed straight back, we'd be on track with my initial estimated return.
We made our way down from the Pike BM Summit to the canyon below and started retracing our steps back to the saddle and the road we came in on. I Finished the day right at 10 miles with a total vertical gain of 3,542 feet and we were right on time to meet Gina for our shuttle back to my truck. When I analyzed the routes after the fact, I found that for the climb to Pike, Option 1 (the gradual ascent), was about 40 percent less elevation gain (588 feet) spread out over twice the distance (1.3 miles) than my Option 2. In retrospect, It's very likely had I chosen that route, I would have been in a better position to have climbed Cody (both from an energy and time perspective). I opted for a clear route over one that involved bushwhacking and bouldering, and it may not have been the best play. 🤷🏻♂️Hike and learn. As we drove back to the campground parking area, Gina shared the account of their day that included six peaks summited with a little less mileage and half the elevation gain we had! I was impressed and it was exciting to hear of their trip. 😊 The key difference between our days was they stayed out of the canyon and approached each series of peaks from a higher elevation. I'll definitely be following their route to Phil, Norte, and Cody when I go back! 😉
Still, at the end of the day, I was two peaks closer to finishing my challenge with only 7 peaks left to go. As the saying goes "Two out of Three ain't bad!" Pike was Peak #93 on my San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak Challenge list. FYI, Pike BM Summit counted as a Peakbagger Summit, but it wasn't a Challenge Peak.