Piloting the River: Pilot Knob (S)

29 Mar 1997 - by Steve Eckert

Saturday (29 Mar 97) a bunch of PCSers tried to do an overnight private trip including Rockhouse, Siretta, and Taylor, but the South Fork of the Kern was raging mad. We spent about an hour with a 50m climbing rope tied to various trees trying to find a sand bar. I was chest deep and never made the center of the channel! Those heading in to Rockhouse Basin from the east should know that there is a brand new gate standing open but several miles and about 800' elevation from the old trailhead (TH31 if you have Jenkins' "Exploring the Southern Sierra East Side"). Next to the shiny new gate is a map showing the wilderness boundary just where it used to be, so it's not clear whether the gate is "for real" right now. It's a 2WD road if you're careful.

Anyway, we bailed out rather than jump in and swim with overnight packs. Bad enough to have numb feet from wading. No one wanted to have a numb body. Off we went to seek the fabled Pilot Knob which is supposedly surrounded by snakes, private land, angry ranchers, and rabid lawmen.

The HPS route description says to drive up Bloomfield Ranch Rd and be nice to a certain lady who might let you pass... last year I mailed her a request for permission to cross her land, and the local post office returned the mail several months later as "unclaimed". The road is not signed, and has a closed gate with a no trespassing sign. Oh, well. Somebody needs to update that route!

So we drove further west (past Pilot Knob on 178) and turned north on the first road that was NOT marked "we hate you", which would be Doyle Ranch Road. This paved public road crosses the river (yep, the same South Fork Kern we failed to cross earlier and higher) and abruptly turns left. Right at the turn was a nice family who did not understand why we would want to go to Pilot Knob, but allowed as how their 40 acres did go right clear through to the wilderness (between Onyx and Smith ranchlands). If we could not get permission from one of the big guys, perhaps Benny would let us climb his hill and skirt around the private land in Stormy Canyon. Not sure what to make of a guy in shorts and bad hat hair with glacier glasses...

So we drove further west on Doyle and found some boot-and-hats cowpeople (not all boys) who allowed as how their ranch DID have a key to that dirt road right there next to Benny's place. But they did not have it TODAY. Not too sure who owned the land, either. Suggested we mosey on over and talk to the Smith Ranch boys just up the road a piece there in Onyx. Nice folks, but in a hurry to go rope some horses. In fact, the guy who spent the most time talking to me had to hand over the keys to his truck to the more exigent cowpeople. He kept his pliers, however, to point out features on the topo map.

So we drove right back to Benny's place, waved, and jumped over the fence onto the dirt road that runs east-northeast along the aqueduct into Stormy Canyon (left the cars at 2700'). If not for the family of 50 inbred yapping dogs (Benny had warned us about them) and cows that jumped up and stomped around like they were bulls drinking espresso, the road would have been pretty mellow. We angled off the road toward Pilot Knob as soon as we could see a clear shot across the bowl south (NOT southwest) of the peak. It turns out we should have stayed lower, but the route worked with minimal brush and cactus.

We hit the southeast ridge at about 4800' after one sleep-deprived climber decided to turn back in the heat, tiny flies, and yuccas. (I was wishing for the icy stream by this point.) The ridge works well if you are willing to hunt around a little. If you try to bull your way through, you'll want gloves and heavy canvas clothes for the brush! Soon we came to a very shallow saddle where the old HPS route meets the ridge from the other side (5500'), and started seeing one-rock "ducklings" (hardly cairns, and quite widely spaced in places). It's worth following the ducked route because the brush and yuccas are both quite significant up there!

The summit itself (6200+) is rated class 2, but it and one or two places further down could be called class 3 without too much argument (we especially liked the rock/tree chimney). Only three groups summitted last year, and there's plenty of room in the register. It's a nice view, but it was also 5pm! Remember that we started off at a different trailhead, walked several miles, and wasted lots of time trying to cross a river before starting THIS climb at 1pm. The downgoing was faster than the upgoing, but we needed flashlights to look after the 2x8 across the aqueduct, the yapping dogs, and the gate.

Future parties definitely should try contacting Smith Ranch in Onyx before planning your trip. They may unlock the gate and take at least 5 miles off the round trip (4WD may be required to cross one stream). Don't bother bringing food to bribe the pack of dogs - they ignored the bits I tried to toss them - but bring a soft voice to put out front and practice walking backwards.

Thanks go to Pat Ibbetson for motivating the trip and providing the Dome Land Wilderness map. Congrats go to the summit party of David Harris, Bob Suzuki, Rich Leiker, and your [humble] scribe.

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