Spectre Peak, Coxcomb Mountains
Climb and Level Sighting
March 3-5, 2006
By Richard L. Carey
I agreed to do this peak again with my friends Edward Earl and Adam Helman of San Diego if we would do it as a backpack. The reason for this was two fold: (1.) I knew that one had to start way back at highway 62 now that the road going in to the canyon on the north side was closed by the Park Service and (2.) I wanted to take my new level sighting device and really checkout which peaks were highest. With the level I would need a tripod and these gadgets together weighed maybe four to five pounds. This extra weight would make the long climb a lot more difficult. The trip was planned for January and that was later postponed to March after Edward and Adam came back from a successful climb of Aconcagua.
I had done Spectre three times with my first ascent on a trip in February 1971 with the San Diego chapter. It was one of my first desert peaks and I was fascinated by the rugged, big boulders in this range. We did the peak from the east at that time which I later repeated and then did the peak once from the north. The eastern approach is the way early DPS trips approached the peak, but it was shut off to vehicle access by the extension of the Joshua Tree National Park boundaries in 1994.
A Little History - The first article I have found on Spectre is in the DPS Newsletter #17 of January 11, 1952. This was a trip report by Bill and Margie Henderson who led a climb on New Years weekend. This same trip was described in an article “We Climbed Coxcomb Peak...” by Louise Werner in the May 1953 issue of Desert Magazine. There is no mention of the names Spectre, Tensor or Dyadic the unofficial names given to the three highest peaks in the range at a later date. The trip leader Bill Henderson was quite aware that the maps didn’t show which peak was the highest so he had with him a hand sighting level. As best I can tell from the Desert Magazine article, which offers a lot more detail than the Newsletter, they climbed the peak farthest west which has been considered for many years to be the highest peak. Sighting through the level they thought the peak they were on “was higher though only by a hairbreadth.” They did not find any indication of a previous ascent and left a cairn and register can. They thought it odd that nothing was on top since they found evidence of a training camp from Patton’s Army at the base and felt that soldiers often climbed nearby peaks.
Map Errors - I have a Cadiz Valley 15-minute map dated 1956 and it shows Aqua benchmark at 4416 feet and with the same closed contour as several other peaks. This benchmark was placed in 1956 so the maps available to the 1952 party would not have shown this. At that time the elevation of all the peaks were thought to be 4400 feet. When 7.5-minute maps were produced the area of the summits appeared on the Cadiz Valley SW Provisional Edition dated 1985. This is the latest map available today. This map is metric with 10-meter contours and Aqua BM is shown with an elevation of 1346.5 meters, which computes to 4417.6 feet. The map does not show that the unnamed peak (DPS Spectre) to the southwest is higher, but actually shows as lower with a closed contour of 1300 meters or 4265 ft. Spectre is listed as 4400 feet in the March 1957 peak list and then as 4416 feet in new list of February 1961.
Since the elevation of Spectre was uncertain, but known to be higher than Aqua BM, the Road and Peaks Guide of 1988 by Randy Bernard listed the peak as 4400+ feet. Much later the peaks guide suggests that Spectre is about 70 feet higher than Aqua BM. Mark Adrian speculates about the errors in Sage #253 on page 14.
Name Confusion -The next report on the Coxcombs is in DPS Newsletter #45 of March 1956. Bill Henderson also led this trip on January 28-29, 1956 and the name Spectre is applied to the highest summit. Dyadic is mentioned as a more difficult 4th class climb. In Sage #241 Franklin Meyers discusses his early climbs of all these peaks and how they were named. He indicates Spectre was named on the very first trip because they saw the Spectre of the Brocken, an optical phenomenon, from the summit. Franklin along with Bill Voss and Don Anderson climbed all of the summits after the first ascent and climbed a peak with pole and wires, which they called Dyadic. (Apparently evidence of a survey party.) He says after the 15-minute map appeared the summit with Aqua BM was the one they called Dyadic.
Franklin Meyers and his group climbed another peak, one they considered the third highest, and called this Tensor Peak. A mouse-chewed remains of a hat was on top so they were not the first. He learned from Bill Henderson that this was the first peak climbed by the 1952 group before they went to Spectre. Tensor, by this description doesn’t seem to be the difficult 4th class peak southeast of Spectre, but might have been a pinnacle in the middle.
The latest Peak and Roads Guide I have says Aqua BM is Tensor and Dyadic is the harder 4th class summit. This conflicts with the early naming convention, but seems to be well established now so they are the names I will use in the following trip description. The excellent book Desert Summits by Andy Zdon uses these names for the summits. See pages 362 to 365 for descriptions of all the peaks. Andy rates Dyadic as a 5.1 to 5.4 climb.
Our Climb – I met Edward and Adam at the road junction on highway 62 near milepost 73 at 7:30 AM Saturday. For some reason the gate was wide open, but we decided not to attempt to drive in. A sign indicates “No Vehicles”, but there is nothing about a wilderness boundary. We hiked in with our packs on the old road for four miles to the base of the canyon where the steep ascent starts. Not wanting to try this with backpacks and really seeing no need to do so we set up camp there. After about an hour we headed up the steep canyon (DPS Route A) scrambling over the endless rough boulders. After about 900 feet gain we descended into a jumbled canyon and then climbed up to a higher saddle west of Aqua BM. From here the spire of Spectre comes into view.
The north side looked really nasty so we went along to the east side and found a way up… possibly 3rd class we thought. It took us about 2 ¾ hours from our camp to reach the summit with the usual sturdy ammo box nestled under the summit block.
Level Sighting – Edward and I set up the level on a tripod while Adam went back down to have lunch. Aqua BM (Tensor) was obviously much lower so we concentrated our viewing to the southeast (bearing 78 degrees true) to the peak that is Dyadic. It looked the same height as we were and nothing else came close to Spectre’s lofty position in the Coxcombs. The level was set on a small bare spot next to the summit block and was about one foot lower than the highest rock. Looking across through the 32X telescope on the level we could clearly see a stick on Dyadic and estimated it to be maybe 4 to 5 ft. lower. Most interesting!! I didn’t know Dyadic was so close, but of course the 1953 article said so. I had not read that article at the time.
We didn’t particularly want to climb Dyadic so did a check by moving the level down about three feet. A new sighting on Dyadic looked close, maybe one foot lower. Measurement off the topo using Maptech software shows Dyadic to be about 1440 feet away on a bearing of 76 degrees.
At this distance the level should be within +/- an inch so we feel fairly confident in saying that Dyadic is 4 to 5 feet lower than Spectre. It was a good confirmation of the hand level sighting on the 1952 climb. Incidentally, Aqua BM (Tensor) is 1700 feet from Spectre on a bearing of 35 degrees true. We swung the level over there and it wasn’t even in the field of view of the scope.
I ran my Garmin 12XL GPS at Spectre summit and got a reading of 4480 feet after letting it settle and average for a while. No problem getting good satellite visibility up there! I have found that the GPS usually reads a bit high on the many summits with benchmarks that I have checked. Some say it is due to the earth model the GPS uses in its calculations. We headed down and after a short lunch were over climbing Aqua BM. Sure enough the 1956 bronze disk was there and an old rusty register can, which I replaced with a better, painted one. I held the GPS about one foot above the disk and got a reading of 4419 feet which is amazing agreement with the map
which has 4418 feet. With such a reading I would have to say that the reading back on Spectre is probably close to the proper elevation. Maybe some day not too far off we’ll have a GPS that reads elevation to within a foot or so.
For now I propose the following elevations for the three summits:
Spectre Peak – 4480 feet, Coordinates: 647377E, 3766006N, Zone 11, NAD27
Dyadic Peak – 4475 feet, Not visited but about: 647800E, 3766120N, Zone 11, NAD27
Aqua BM (Tensor Peak) – 4418 feet, Coordinates: 647666E, 3766437N, Zone 11, NAD27
Information on how the typical automatic level works is at my website: www.peakbagging.com/Automatic_Level_Compensators.pdf