Some Winter Climbing in the Anza Borrego Desert
(Indianhead, South Ridge, Southeast Rib Variation)

14 Dec 2002 - by Mike Zimmerman

I called up Matt Haynes, earlier in the week to see if he could get away for a day trip to climb Indianhead on Saturday. We agreed to hook up for Saturday and leave from our place in San Diego by 7:30 AM which we did. Since we are both members of the California Mountaineering Club, this was a non-CMC trip since it was not sanctioned by the Board. I also wanted to climb this peak, since I am planning to lead a CMC trip up it in March, 2003.

On Saturday we met at our place and took off. The driving directions are in Andy Zdon's book Desert Summits, the San Diego County Thomas Brothers guide and AAA maps. We drove through Ramona and eventually drove to S-22 which took us down into the Anza Borrego Desert to Borrego Springs. One can get a nice view of Indianhead at a spot on S-22 above Borrego Springs. I suppose the peak gets it's name since it is a north-south running ridge that has the profile of a person's face looking up to the sky. From Borrego Springs we took Palm Canyon Drive to the trailhead. We gathered our gear and decided to take a 30 meter 8.5 mm rope, Camalots from 0.5-3, hexes size 8-10, some slings and carabiners and our harnesses. I already had my helmet on my pack. We started from the trailhead about 10:30 AM up the Palm Canyon trail. The weather was nice and sunny with high clouds and mid 70s for the temperature.

We hiked up the trail for about twenty minutes and Matt turned off of the trail. I noticed that there were two large dark rusty brown boulders on top of a slight rise. Also we saw the descent route off of the peak which is a wash that comes down the south east side of the peak, it is the first major wash to the east of the peak. We headed for the two large boulders which brought us to a rib.

Fortunately, Matt had climbed this route before so he was kindly guiding me up it. This route up Indianhead goes up to the South ridge up this south east rib. Matt mentioned that the South ridge can be climbed, but he thought the south east rib was more direct and a better climb. We continued climbing up the rib, which was mostly class 2 with some class 3 steps and were heading up to the prominent point on the South ridge. We continued climbing towards the point and to get to it, we climbed a very short section of easy class 4 slab and a class 4 step to the point on the ridge. So far, there was not very much loose rock. I was surprised how well everything was packed down on this route, there was not even any loose dirt and rock!

We stopped at this first point on the South ridge for a half hour lunch/snack break. From this spot, it looked like we still had a long way to go, even though we had climbed half of the elevation gain for the climb. We continued going up the South ridge which was gentle in steepness for a short distance, but started to get more interesting the further we went up it. There was one spot where Matt opted to climb a 10 foot dihedral on the left which looked to be about 5.5-5.6. I decided to go to the right which was a very easy class 4 step instead of climbing solo in the dihedral. We climbed up several more class 3 steps and traversed several moderate class 4 slabs that had some pretty exposed spots. I was experiencing some pretty serious leg cramps which made climbing the slabs even harder. Strangely enough, I had been drinking an electrolyte solution and I thought this would have prevented the cramps. We climbed primarily on the top of the South ridge and stayed mainly on the right side of the ridge, even on the slab traverses.

Finally we had traversed the last 4th class slab to just below the "chin" of Indianhead. From here there is a small dirt ledge and an outside corner on the right hand side of the ledge. The outside corner was definitely the crux of the climb here. We had climbed unroped all the way to this point. Matt told me, "it is a serious penalty for failure here". So at this point, I asked for a belay, since it was very exposed here, I was mentally and physically fatigued at this point and I wanted the comfort of a belay. Also we had lugged the gear up there, so we figured we ought to use it anyway. I pulled out the rope and flaked it out while Matt slipped on his harness. I also gave Matt several Camalots, from size 1-3, a cordelette and a bunch of carabiners and several runners. While he was organizing the gear, I went ahead and tied a bowline-on-a-coil around myself in the interest of saving time instead of putting on my harness and since there were no other spots from above the crux from what Matt told me.

After getting all of his gear situated, Matt confidently climbed up the outside corner, which he felt was class 5.1-5.2. Matt climbed up about 30 feet straight up and set up a belay anchor. I started climbing and went up the outside corner. It did have a couple of moves of up to 5.2 and the rest of it was easy up to the belay anchor. I went past the belay anchor, which was a rock and crack that Matt had used including a couple of Camalots. I went along the ridge another 20 feet and stopped. Matt had taken off his harness and was putting away the equipment and I made a butterfly coil of the rope. We continued climbing up class 1-2 terrain up to the top of the "chin" of Indianhead.

From the "chin", which was a false summit, we descended a little bit downhill and climbed up again towards the true summit. This was the "head" portion of the Indianhead profile. The rest of the climb was a class 1 use trail to the top. We made it to the summit, approximately 3,960 feet, at 4:05 PM and signed the summit register. There was some wind and the clouds were increasing. We saw the town of Borrego Springs off to the south east and Whale Peak in the same direction in the distance. We stayed on the summit for 10 minutes and made our way down the east ridge and down a pretty easy class 1 use trail to the saddle above the main south east wash that was the first one east of the summit. I knew we were in for an epic going down the wash.

Fortunately, I had brought my head lamp and Matt had a flashlight too. We descended some looser terrain, as quickly and safely as possible while we still had daylight. The rest of the descent was down steep class 1-2 terrain down the wash with some spots of cat claw. Further down the middle section of the were these slick granite steps that involved some class 3 down climbing. Downclimbing these class 3 ledges in the dark was alot more challenging even with the head lamp. I do not recommend it. Some of the steps I was able to slide down on my ass since the rock was so slick and polished from the water that had gone down this wash for probably hundreds of thousands of years. I managed to sprain my left ankle during this portion of the descent. So that slowed me down even more since I had to be even more careful of where I was stepping. Folks, be especially aware of stepping in the soft grass patches.

We eventually got down to the lower portion of the wash and I met up with Matt and suggested we take a short water break. So far, I had drank a gallon of fluids and I was glad at this point that I had brought more than a gallon instead of 3 quarts. I was physically exhausted at this point. I mentioned to Matt that mountaineering was a much more physically demanding sport, compared to baseball. We were in agreement on that.

After the break we continued down the wash, which was alot easier and was getting much more flat to my relief. I was looking to my right and finally we saw the two boulders which marked the beginning of the climb. I knew the trail was very close from here which I looked very forward to getting to at this point. Finally, I saw the Palm Canyon trail with my headlamp and the moonlight which was brighter since the moon had came out from behind the clouds earlier during the descent. I wish it had come out much earlier, but it all worked out eventually. What a relief to be on the trail again!

We hiked another twenty minutes and we finally made it to the parking lot at about 8:15 PM. I saw my moss green Jeep which was an even better sight. We had gained and lost 3,200 feet in about roughly 6 miles of distance round trip. Most of the elevation gain happens when one leaves the trail all the way up to the summit of Indianhead.

We put on some comfortable shoes and took off for home at about 8:40 PM. We also stopped at Jack-in-the-Box in Ramona for some well deserved burgers and fries.

My recommendations for climbing this peak are the following. First, an early start is better, even though it was a mild day, one can lose a lot of water climbing the south east rib since a good deal of elevation is gained on this part of the climb and it is a lot better and safer to downclimb the wash during the day. Also it is better to start early to beat the heat in case it is warm. Second is to bring plenty of water with electrolytes, at least a gallon. Third, bring a rope with some protection if one plans on climbing in mountaineering boots or climb the upper slabs and the outside corner with climbing shoes and free solo the route as much as possible. We used these lighter mountaineering boots with these sticky rands which worked pretty well. Fourth, stay on the very top of the south east rib and the south ridge. One can climb below the slabs on the south ridge, which is steep class 2, but why do this when the climbing on the ridge is much more exciting?

Overall the rock on this climb I thought was very good and was some of the best I have seen climbing the desert peaks I have done. I thought this was a fun climb, but beware folks, this is a strenuous climb and descent and can be deceiving looking from the trailhead. Anyway, thank you Matt for guiding and climbing with me on this peak on for your patience and beta, especially on the tougher slabs higher up on the climb.

Photo: Mike Zimmerman climbing some class 3 rock on the SE Rib of Indianhead. Photo taken by Matthew Haynes on 12/14/02. (Click to enlarge.)

click to enlarge Indianhead-SE-Rib.jpg


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