Of Desert Peaks Not Normally Climbed in Summer

  • Posted on 29 March 2021
  • By Wynne Benti
DPS Group Tin Mountain Trip, 1985

DPS Group hikes Tin Mountain, 1985 (Wynne Benti pictured third from right)

Brief History of the Desert Peaks Section

The year Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympics, I was a designer and working on an ad for Hansen’s Naturals (now Monster Beverage) for the Olympic program. I had never hiked a trail of note or climbed a mountain. In our family, mountains were landscapes to be admired from afar. Then a friend called and said the Sierra Club held evening hikes in Griffith Park and invited me to go. It was a wonderful experience, hiking along trails illuminated by the city’s glow. I joined as a regular member and soon received my first copy of the Angeles Chapter Schedule of Activities, a printed paperback-sized booklet thick with hikes and trips, every imaginable adventure one could do in Los Angeles and to points outward. 
In 1985, I went on a day hike to Lamont Peak above the Kern River Valley, one of the easier peaks on the Sierra Peaks Section list. It was R. J. Secor’s first SPS list finish. He hadn’t yet written, Peaks, Passes, and Trails of the High Sierra. While eating lunch on the summit and taking in the view out across the Mojave Desert, Ron Jones, a trip leader with the Desert Peaks Section (DPS) overheard me say that Lamont was the first mountain I’d ever climbed. He invited me to join a DPS overnight car-camping trip to Death Valley that he was leading with another hardy desert soul, Maris Valkass. It was the first in a series of trips they were planning that involved climbing desert peaks in the summer, not often climbed in summer.  Tin Mountain was first on their list. I didn’t have a four-wheel-drive so rode with two other hikers in a pretty sky blue Chevy Blazer. 
We car-camped at the Racetrack near Ubehebe Crater, the only people there. We didn’t have handheld GPS units or cell phones, just a paper map and compass, but Ron knew the route. It was ninety-five degrees at five o’clock in the morning when we started up the alluvial fan to the base of the mountain, weaving our way through low brush and uneven pebbly terrain. Maris carried five gallons of water, just in case. Of note, we saw a bighorn sheep clattering across the rugged exposed cliffs.
By four in the afternoon, the group was off the summit, down canyon, far ahead and out of sight. I just kept walking down the uneven rocky talus in between steep canyon walls, the straggler. With each step, the Vibram soles of my heavy leather hiking boots stuck to the rocks. I stopped to take a drink from my heavy plastic screw-cap water bottle. The water was hot. By the time I stumbled into camp, everyone was comfortably seated in their chairs, sipping cold drinks and chatting. Maris handed me a 7-Up from his cooler and offered the bed of his pickup truck if I needed to take a nap. I drank the cold 7-Up, climbed into the truck, and fell asleep. When I awoke about eight o’clock, it was 105 degrees. Undeterred by the heat, the group had built a blazing campfire, so hot that their lawn chairs were positioned in a ten-foot perimeter around the fire. 
After that trip, I bought a Coleman cooler, filled it with ice and cold drinks, and wrapped the cooler in a sleeping bag for insulation during the day.. 7-Up became my go-to drink. I never again wore a dark tee-shirt on a desert hike. I packed as light as the equipment and gear allowed at the time. I still have that Coleman cooler.
Desert climbers are independent spirits, rugged and untraditional mountaineers, bonded by their love of the desert, its mountains, and lifestyle. When I hiked up Tin Mountain in 1985, only forty-two people had finished the DPS list. Of those, six were women:  Barbara Magnusen (#12), Shirley Akawie (#14), Barbara Reber (#15), Barbara Lilley (#26), Theresa Parker-Sweeney (#32), and Mary Bihl (#37). The third list finisher, Gordon MacLeod, with Barbara Lilley, also summited a vast number of previously unclimbed desert mountains in California and Nevada, leaving “DPS Section” registers on those summits. In desert hiking circles, they were well known for that venture. When the distinguished mountaineer, Barbara Lilley met geologist and fellow club member, Andy Zdon at a Desert Peaks banquet in the early 1990s, recognizing his name, she grabbed the front of his shirt with both hands and called to Gordon, smiling, “Gordon, come here. This is that guy! The guy whose name we saw in the registers.” She was referring to the registers Andy had placed on obscure Nevada highpoints before Barbara and Gordon got there first, a rare accomplishment.
Of its history, the Desert Peaks Section is perhaps the oldest desert climbing in California, founded in 1941 by Chester Vesteeg, an insurance agent from Los Angeles and a Sierra mountaineer. Born in South Dakota in 1887, Versteeg climbed his first Sierra peak in 1909 when most access was by unpaved roads, and succeeded in summiting over two hundred and fifty. It is said, he looked at the high peaks of the Inyo and White Mountains across the Owens Valley, from a climb in the Sierra, and wondered why peak-bagging should end with winter snow when desert ranges were snow-free and provided a great opportunity for further exploration. 
The first Desert Peaks list was comprised of seven mountains—New York Butte, White Mountain Peak, Telescope Peak, Maturango Peak, Coso Peak, Waucoba Mountain Peak, and Cerro Gordo. Any Sierra Club member could join the section after successfully “negotiating” each of the seven. There wasn’t an official section guidebook to the list until the late 1980s, so it took some route-finding skills to find the trailheads and summits. In 1964, former Desert Peaks Chair Walt Wheelock of La Siesta Press, published the basic guides, Desert Peaks Part 1 and Part 2, which sold for a few dollars. Thirty-six years later, Andy Zdon’s comprehensive guide, Desert Summits: A Climbing & Hiking Guide to California and Southern Nevada, was published.
In November 1941, Versteeg led the first official DPS hike to New York Butte in the Inyo Mountains, assisted by Niles Werner. Like the High Sierra Trips led by the Sierra Club’s main chapter in San Francisco, they had a reservationist—Marilyn Mohr. Maturango and Coso were eventually removed from the list because of their location within or near China Lake Naval Weapons Center (now Naval Air Weapons Station). Cerro Gordo was removed due to private property issues. As people populated rural areas, private property became one of the main reasons peaks were dropped from lists.  The current DPS list numbers ninety-five mountains of varying technical difficulty in California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and Baja California. The Desert Peak’s list and other information about the section can be found at desertpeaks.org.
As to climbing desert peaks not normally climbed in the summer, Ron Jones later relayed the story of their next summer climb, of Schwab Peak out of Furnace Creek in Death Valley—in July. At 118 degrees, it was too hot to climb during the day, so they decided to wait until after sunset and make it a night hike. There wasn’t much of a temperature change. About fifteen minutes from cars, they realized they would never survive the heat and turned back. They returned to Furnace Creek Campground and enjoyed the rest of the evening relaxing in their lawn chairs and talking about the desert. As the late mountaineer and Angeles Chapter leader, Bill T. Russell once said, “Camaraderie is the glue that keeps us hiking,” which is what it’s all about. 

Wynne Benti is Editor of the Desert Sage (Desert Peaks Section, Angeles Chapter), a member of the CNRCC Desert Committee, Military Expansions (NTTR, FRTC) and has been a Sierra Club Life Member since 1985 


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