Our first goal: Notch Peak
Notch Peak is one of the hidden gems in the western United States. With a vertical cliff face of over 4,500 feet, if this peak were in Yosemite it would be mentioned in the same breath as Half Dome and El Cap, but since it is hidden away in the western desert of Utah, nobody seems to notice. I have had my eye on this peak for a while now and after talking about it with Matthew Van Horn
, we both agreed that an early spring attempt would be prime, so we decided to skip work and head for the desert.
We wanted to add in some extra flavor to the trip, so we zeroed in on a few other desert peaks and planned on climbing at the Ibex crags as well. Matt met me at my place at 7:15 am and we quickly loaded up all of our gear, practically filling my Honda with all of the necessary supplies that we would need. We were off on I-15 south in no time and just the thought of heading into the wild, while the vast majority of the other folks in traffic were heading to work put a smile on my face.
The conversation was good, while we talked about future plans and mountains and it really made the time go by quickly and it seemed like we had just left my house when we arrived in Delta, Utah. This would be our last opportunity to get fuel, so we stopped to get gas and stretch the legs and we both noticed the crisp cool air and hoped that it would warm up later in the day. Just outside of Delta, you roll through the thriving suburb of Hickley, which actually has the last gas station for several miles, so if you head to Notch keep that in mind. Now it was time for the open road with miles and miles of desert, peaks and pretty much nothing else, except for the occasional jack-rabbit or coyote (we saw both.)
I decided to take advantage of the remote road, by trying to set a new land speed record in my Honda. Last time on this stretch of highway I had it up to 115 and it has become a tradition of mine to put the pedal to the metal, so I told Matt to hold on tight and enjoy the ride. I decided to initiate Matt into the world of the Grateful Dead and thought it would be fitting to blast some “Truckin” to complete the scene. After getting the car up to about 112 mph I noticed another car coming the other way in the distance and I decided that this was as fast as we better go, so I took my foot off of the throttle and eased it back down to a comfortable speed, much to the relief of Matt I think.
Eventually Notch came into view and it definitely got my heart beating, knowing that we would be standing on top in a few hours devouring the spectacular view. We turned off onto the dirt road that leads to the trailhead and after a few minutes we turned left and headed for Miller canyon. We passed a public restroom and knew that the turn off to the trailhead was close, but someone had blasted the sign (to Sawtooth Canyon) off with what appeared to be a shotgun, so we went two miles farther than we should have before we realized our mistake. After we turned around and went back we found the broken sign off the side of the road and we both had a few choice words for the “rednecks” that had been the culprits. Maybe we were just assuming they were rednecks, but we both felt it was a pretty safe bet.
We decided to use the restroom, as we were certain that it would be the last real toilet we would see and we were amazed at how clean it was and it actually smelled quite nice for an “outhouse.”
We finally got moving again and took the left turn that leads to the trailhead. The road here actually becomes somewhat rough and we had to move a large rock that was blocking our way and I took it really slow in a few places, although it never got too severe. We reached the cabin and decided to check it out, so Matt took a quick tour and discovered that it was full of rodent droppings and since I have an inherent aversion to the hantavirus, I decided to keep my distance. We decided to keep driving after the cabin and we actually made it about a quarter of a mile closer. Eventually, the road becomes very rocky and only a 4X4 could get through, so we decided to park before it became too rough just after the road turns to the right. We got our gear ready and I slammed two slices of cold pizza that I had in the cooler, because I knew the carbs would come in handy. It was quite cool and we both debated about how many layers to put on, but I knew that I would heat up quickly, so I did not put on any of my warm gear and Matt took some layers off as well.
We set a pretty quick pace, while we took in the incredible scenery. There was a sheer rock cliff to our left and we both spied the face for climbing routes, while we watched for the turn off that would lead us into the canyon. The trail is a 4X4 road until it reaches the canyon and after that there is no trail all the way to the top. Once in the canyon we were greeted with more snow than we were expecting and what at first was rather annoying, soon became quite tedious, as we were constantly post-holing up to our knees. Matt decided to head up to the right, where there were a series of ledges, so that he could bypass the snow, while I stayed down low and tried to avoid it. Sometimes the post-holing became so bad, that I would venture up with Matt and bypass the snow below, although this required some bushwhacking and a little scrambling over ledges and rocks.
This really slowed us down and it seemed to take forever to get through the canyon and it was a lot of work. Eventually we began to wonder if we were on the right route or if we missed the optimal place to head up the ridge, but our instincts told us to stay in the canyon until it opened up all the way and we were correct.
We stopped to have some lunch on a rock ledge just before we were out of the canyon and the wind was really picking up and we could tell that we were getting close to where we would have to head up to the ridge on the left. After our break we started heading up the slope to the left and made our own switchbacks, because there was no trail to follow here. Once on top of the ridge it was a short hike to the notch and we were not prepared for the scene that opened up to us. The views from this point are absolutely amazing and they literally took my breath away and made my heart skip a beat. They also made me take a step back, because the wind was gusting and the drop off below was something that you really can’t believe until you see it. We could see the spectacular chasm on the mountains west side and the vertical drop was over 4,000 feet to the valley below. This really is something you have to see to believe, but it definitely got my heart beating that’s for sure. We snapped a few pictures and then started heading up the slope to the summit. It is a pretty easy hike from here and looks much steeper than it actually is.
As we hiked up I kept looking over the edge at the spectacular views and I just could not believe what I was seeing. The thought of reaching the summit got the adrenaline flowing and with a burst of energy we were on top. Matt reached the summit first and as I crested the top I asked if it was a false summit and he replied that it was the top and that really shocked me, because I was expecting a few hundred more feet, but I have to say I was relieved to finally be on the summit. The views from the apex are breathtaking and with the wind blowing neither of us were really excited about looking over the edge, so we hiked down the other side and looked for some good views of the face. We did get a little better look and we found a small notch that exposed the face below and just looking down the face literally made my spine tingle and I made sure my footing was good.
It was cold on top and after about 20 minutes the wind started to chill us pretty good and we wanted to go check out the bristlecone pine forest, so we decided to descend. We made really good time getting down and we quickly reached the saddle. There is a knob directly east of the saddle and we climbed to the top to find the bristlecone and to get a better view of the face of Notch, so that we could take some pictures. At the top of the knob we could see the bristlecone pines and there were a lot more than I expected. We moved through the trees and made our way down the slope to another saddle, that provided us with a spectacular view of Notch, as well as the bristlecone pine trees.
We took some pictures and then slowly made our way through the pines, where we both took our time and stood in awe at some of the oldest living things on the planet. The trees here have never been dated, but these are the oldest species of the bristlecones and we knew that some of the trees were probably over 4,000 years old. I wish we could have spent more time in the trees, but we needed to get back down so that we could set up a camp before it got dark.
The hike back seemed to be much faster and we set a fairly brisk pace, until we hit the snow. At first I stayed up on the ledges with Matt and bushwhacked, but I finally got tired of getting scraped by branches and thick brush, so I made my way to the bottom of the canyon into the snow. I post-holed, while Matt stayed up high and we both just wanted to get out of there, so we did not stop at all and both moved as quick as we could.
I was so relieved to finally be out of the canyon and more importantly to be out of the snow. The hike out was uneventful, although my boots and my pants from the knees down were soaking wet and I could not help but think about my gaiters that I had left in the car, because I did not think they would be necessary. Oh well. When we got back to the car we made phone calls home to let our loved ones know that we were ok and then we made the drive out of the canyon. On the drive out Matt put on some Van Halen and we were both satisfied with the first day of our adventure.
The drive to Ibex from Notch Peak was uneventful and we arrived at the crags with just enough time to make some dinner and set up camp. We decided to camp at the Red monster, which is one of the largest boulders in Ibex and probably the most popular for climbers. We set up camp and I decided to sleep in the car, while Matt opted for the tent. When we arrived there was a slight breeze that made things rather cool, but after we had eaten dinner the breeze died down and it was almost perfect outside. It was still somewhat cool, but comfortable, so we relaxed and checked out the view of the stars and enjoyed the peace and quiet that you can only find in a remote wilderness setting like this.
I actually slept pretty well, considering I was in the front seat of my car and I got up ate some breakfast and decided to mess around on some of the boulders, because Matt was still asleep. I climbed part of the crack on the right side of the Red Monster and climbed my favorite problem on the “choss pile” and then I thought I better get Matt up, because we wanted to climb Crystal Peak and I knew we would be pushing it if we wanted to get home at a reasonable hour.
After breaking camp the Red Monster was quickly becoming the climbing Mecca that it can be on weekends, as several other parties arrived for some climbing, so Matt and I decided that we would head for Crystal Peak and if we had time we would be back for some climbing later in the day or we might just do some climbing out by Crystal. We drove across the dry lake bed and headed for the Tule valley road. The road was in excellent condition and was much better than the many dirt roads we had been on the day before, so the 30 mile trip to Crystal would not be as bad as I thought that it might be.
It took us just under an hour to reach Crystal Peak and we had had been salivating the whole way there over the many remote desert peaks that we had passed along the way. You could spend a week out here exploring all of these unique mountains and we both decided we would be back for more. The directions we had for climbing Crystal Peak were very vague, so we had no idea where to park or where to start and after driving around for a few minutes, we decided to just park and head up. There was a faint road that looked like it headed to the peak, but it petered out rather quickly, so we just decided to park here.
The vague directions we did have said to climb the southeast side, so we started making our way over to the south side of the mountain, all the while spying possible routes up this amazingly unique pile of volcanic rock. The rock looks kind of like Swiss cheese and matt said it looks just like the inside of a “whopper” malted milk ball and he was right. We made our way around the east side, where we could see a saddle that connected the volcanic rock to the dirt saddle that went up to another bump. We headed for the saddle and without a trail it was just pick the best spot between the junipers and head up. About half way up the slope we found some “virgin” boulders that had no appearance of any climbing activity and we just couldn’t pass up messing around on them for a few minutes. We both climbed a few routes and they were easy problems and the temperature had warmed up to at least 70 degrees and it was fun just messing around on the boulder, with the view of Crystal in the background.
We decided we better get moving, so we both kept trying to find the best route possible and as we got closer to the saddle, we saw a possible route so we just decided to head up. It was a series of ramps on the volcanic rock with an occasional climbing move to get over rock ribs and before I knew it we were pretty high on the mountain. The route finding started to get more difficult and we found ourselves getting into a few precarious spots and we had to move around quite a bit to avoid anything nasty. We went over a few larger rock ribs that we thought might be the summit and one of the ribs was very frightening, because it was rather steep and the route I took did involve some high class 3 climbing and after a few of my holds broke right off, my heart really started beating. One particular move was really scary, because the drop was about 15 feet, it was exposed and I had two foot holds break off and luckily the other holds held or I would have taken a nasty tumble.
After getting to the top of the rib, Matt was down below and said that he had found a better route to the top. We had to descend a bit, but it was worth it. We took a large chute that went almost all the way to the summit. It was a little steep, but much easier than the climbing we had previously been engaged in. It did not take long and we were on top of Crystal Peak basking in the sunshine and the fantastic views, that extended to the snow covered Wheeler Peak to the West and all the way over to Delano Peak to the East. We were both happy to be on top, so we snapped a few pictures and Matt found a summit register just North of the apex with only one summit entry from almost exactly one year ago. We both signed the log and took a break to replenish fluids and have a quick snack. We were definitely in one of the most remote places in the entire country and we had not seen another soul yet again for the second day in a row. We decided we better get back down, because we wanted to get home at a reasonable hour, so we followed the chute and it actually led to two other chutes that brought us to a ramp and we were on the saddle in about 15 minutes. It had taken us about an hour to ascend the peak from the saddle and the route down was class two and was definitely easier. This is the most rotten brittle rock I have ever been on and I would not recommend climbing on anything that requires a good hold. If your route ever becomes climbing, retreat and find a better way up.
The hike back to the car was uneventful, although we were both satisfied to have two desert gems under our belts in two days. The drive back to the highway was almost uneventful, until we passed a herd of sheep on the side of the road. I slowed down and they appeared to be very docile, so I sped up to about 40 mph and we were about to pass a straggler that had become separated from the rest of his pals. At the last second, the big fella decided to dart right out in front of my car. I locked up the breaks and cranked the wheel and I am still checking my bumper for wool or mutton, but all indications are we missed it by mere inches and that received a collective jubilant yell from the both of us. We had a great time exploring these remote west desert peaks and we will definitely be back for an encore.