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Backus Peak

28 February 1999

By: Erik Siering

We hiked HPS-proposed Backus Point and its adjoining western highpoint via a road leading southwest from the Powers Well. [Note: I'm told that John Backus was a remarkable fellow, and the worthy summit does seem apt for his moniker.] Unfortunately, we also earned a citation for inadvertently straying into the poorly marked Owens Peak Wilderness. We'd never driven across a wilderness boundary in all our years of backcountry exploring, so this was distressing. It was a chastening confrontation with the lauded 1995 Desert Protection Act in practice.

The citation seemed particularly ironic after our long prior day in the desolate Coso Range Wilderness, where we were scrupulous in observing the new red stakes (Wilderness road closure markers). There we'd sauntered a five-peak loop in a rugged and remote desert area, spying no footprints or tire tracks amongst the pinyons, Joshua trees, and quartz monzonite boulders. We negotiated undulating ridges and were treated to breathtaking views of the Sierra. We basked in the winter sun and crunched through melting snow. Our only encounter was with a herd of beautiful wild horses, led by an aggressively territorial stallion that was unhappy to see us. We camped that night at Fossil Falls, a bright moon complementing our modest campfire, good grub and drink.

The next morning we opted to climb the peaks from the north side. We left one vehicle near Hwy 395. Near the Powers Well we discerned a fine high-clearance dirt road heading southwest up towards the peaks. It was a well-traveled track that led around a couple of 6-inch wood posts, with no boundary or closure signs in evidence. Our topo and NFS maps made no mention of a wilderness designation. Heeding an old, shot-up no-vehicle-entry posted spur, we stopped along the track near its end at 4000'. We'd gained about a mile and 700' elevation from the well. This would be an expensive mile.

We naively parked in open sight, and were thus later spotted by a BLM ranger from the highway.

It was warm as we hiked southward. The slopes were mixed with sage, low brush, and scattered Joshua trees. Several routes up to the ridge were available, all of them sandy and highly aerobic. We moved left into a shaded gully to rocks that provided better footing. There were a few welcome snow patches before we intercepted at the ridge at 6400'. Now accompanied by a cool breeze and shady pinyons, we turned left to the 6561' summit.

It provides one of the best panoramic views in the Southern Sierra, despite being lower than nearby Morris, Jenkins, and Owens Pks. There are peaks and ranges in all directions, with broad vistas of Indian Wells Valley. We continued our adventure by following the connecting ridge northwest a mile to Point 6661', which we pronounced "West Dead Dude Pk." This ridge was entertaining, with outcrops that provided some easy rock scrambling which can mostly be avoided on either side. The summit views are limited, but it was the nearby highpoint. We placed a register in the barren cairn. A rapid direct descent soon had us downing brews at Bob's truck.

But as we drove downhill, the said BLM Ranger Stan Kerlin suddenly appeared afoot and ordered us to a halt. He was in a disagreeably heavy puffing (sucking?) mood, as he'd had to scramble up from the well and first gone clear over to School Rock looking for us. With hand on his holstered gun, he ordered us to step out. After determining that we were unarmed and nonthreatening, he confiscated Bob's license and registration and directed us to drive to a ranger waiting at the well. Ranger Kerlin seemed downright relieved that we were wimp hikers, rather than armed, menacing, Bud-swilling 4x4ers. But he still walked down behind us after refusing the ride we graciously offered him.

We had a lively and heated discussion at the well. Ranger Kerlin was adamant in his belief that we knowingly and deliberately drove into the Owens Peak Wilderness. We were just as firm that we had seen no signs or indications of any type that we had encroached on a wilderness area, or that there was even one in the vicinity. He insisted on citing us ("Motorized Equipment in Wilderness Area"), despite our avowed intentions. He pointed out two tiny signs on similar short posts at road junctions to the east (corral) that we had neither approached nor seen. We were informed that the earlier carsonite signs had been removed by vandals. Hence we had no idea that we were crossing a wilderness boundary. But it appears that ignorance is no defense. Ranger Reed Hopkins was in attendance; he sympathized with our plight but to no avail. [By the way, the two BLM rangers preoccupied with our weighty transgression represented fully a third of the six-member SoCal field deployment. Silly and sad.] Neither of us have the time to drive to Bakersfield to confer with the court magistrate, so we mailed in the $150 fine. BLM wins the contest by default. So, lets now throw another red stake on the barbee...

Statistics (via the legal way from Powers Well corral): 7 miles r.t., 3700' gain, class 2.

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