Clark Mountain is a 2,418-meter (7,933-foot) peak in the Mojave Desert near the California-Nevada Border. Located just a few miles north of the Interstate-15, it is the highest point in the vast Mojave National Preserve. Because it rises 4,000 vertical feet above the desert floor, it is an ecological ‘Island in the Sky’, supporting a unique and specific assemblage of flora and fauna that is isolated to the summit area.
FRIDAY DECEMBER 7th, 2012
In the evening, I leave Los Angeles with Bean and Kah. After crossing the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, we enter the vast desert of the Mojave. Four hours east of Los Angeles along the Interstate-15, just shy of the Nevada border, we see the dark silhouette of Clark Mountain rising up from the cacti, a great heavenly plateau guarded by sheer limestone cliffs.
It’s a bit of an adventure to navigate the maze of dirt roads at the base of the mountain, but eventually we reach a picnic area that looks to be a suitable base camp. From what little information we’ve gathered, there are no trails to be found on the mountain, but rather a number of possible routes amidst the sparsely-wooded natural terrain.
We cook beans and spicy mush by the heat of a campfire. Our laughter fades into the 35*F night.
SATURDAY DECEMBER 8th, 2012
In the morning we eat a quick breakfast at camp and get our muscles warmed up. We survey our setting: an open forest of pine with bare limestone outcrops on the hillsides above. The elevation is 6,000-ft, and the weather is chilly until the sun begins beaming through the trees.
We pack down our camp, intending to spend the upcoming night camped up on the summit block, and set off on our gritty bushwhacking expedition. We scramble, climb, and crawl our way up a massive slope of limestone talus. Extra care must be taken to avoid the low-lying cacti. Not long into the climb, we catch first sight of our target: the massive limestone walls loom above us with seemingly no route of ascent. We hope to find a weakness in the cliffs.
As we scramble above 7,000 feet, we can turn our vision backwards and spot the dirt road leading from the I-15 up to the mountain. The Mojave Desert is a wide sea of rolling cactus-studded sand dunes. On the horizon we are able to spot tiny volcanic cinder cones as well as distant peaks of other ranges in the Basin & Range Province.
Two hours from camp, the three of us arrive at the base of the southern cliffs. Walking along the base of the 50-foot-tall continuous band, we scan the wall for a weakness to ascend. A little ways to the east, we locate a gully of 4th-class rock. With 70-liter backpacks, it feels more like 5.5 technical climbing. The toughest moves are at the bottom; the gully mellows out as it nears the top of the cliffs.
I know Kah’s reached the top plateau when he exclaims, “Beauty!” – I scramble up to his position, which is on a knife-edge ridge. The 50-foot cliffs that we’ve ascended are suddenly pale in comparison to the 300-foot escarpment on the northern side of the ridge. This escarpment is known for hosting top-quality climbing routes of an extreme grade, including Chris Sharma’s 5.15b line called Jumbo Love.
We see that the ridge climbs a short distance to a subsidiary peak before dipping to a saddle and then climbing again to the summit. We leave our rucksacks on this subsidiary peak and make a dash along the ridge. Looking back east we spy our backpacks sitting on the peak, framed dramatically against the Mojave Desert below.
With the wind howling, the three of us follow the sharp ridge higher. The climbing moves are committing due to the exposure, but not technically difficult. Climbing along the crest, we reach a broad flat area with a strand of persevering wind-beaten pine trees. From here it’s a short scramble over limestone boulders to the summit point.
The panorama is a full 360-degrees with absolutely no obstructions. The summit truly is an ‘Island in the Sky’, reigning 4,000 vertical feet over the empty Mojave Desert. The top plateau is fully guarded by cliffs on all sides, giving it an incredible perspective over the landscape. Our views stretch for hundreds of miles in every direction.
The three of us huddle together on the summit as the uninhibited wind howls fiercely. After some time, we clamber down the south slope of the summit block and sit on the edge of a cliff looking back down towards the Interstate-15. It’s a good spot to eat lunch and throw stones off the edge.
On the descent we use the same route that we had used on the way up, handling the exposed 4th-class section with some effort. To improve my agility to downclimb the steep bottom part, I remove the tent from my rucksack and toss it down. Overall its a nervewracking descent but we make it alright to the base of the cliffs.
The three of us ski down the limestone scree with serious speed, dodging stunted pines and high-altitude yucca plants. Searching for a place to camp, we happen upon the most picture-perfect clearing in one of the dry river valleys. Kah and I fit our lightweight tent under the canopy of a beautiful pine tree; Bean rolls out his sleeping bag just beside us.
We spend the remainder of the afternoon preparing our camp and readying a big fire. At sunset we scramble up the nearest ridgeline to look down upon the technicolour desert. When the sun has squeezed every last bit of the day, we return to camp and settle down by the fire.
SUNDAY DECEMBER 9th, 2012
Throughout the night, the wind steadily increases to about 25-mph. The air is chilly when we awake. After warming our bones by a small fire, we pack up and begin descending the lower part of the mountain to our vehicle. We navigate a maze of dry washes, taking care to avoid the sharp cacti that hide in the crevices.
In no time at all we find ourselves at the vehicle. Driving the dirt roads back to the Interstate-15 is much easier in the daylight now. As usual, we make a celebratory stop at Denny’s on the way home to Los Angeles.