Square Top

I knew the attempt to summit Square Top was going to be hard, but this turned out to be the hardest hike I have ever done to date.

Ted Markus and I pulled into the parking lot in Borrego Springs just before sunrise to meet with Greg Gerlach who was accompanying us on this hike and providing the needed 4×4 to the trailhead. Greg is working on his third pass through the San Diego 100, which is slightly different from the 100 Peak Challenge, so teaming up made perfect sense. Greg’s hiking resume is inspiring and it was a great thrill to spend some time in the mountains with him.

Heading north from Borrego Springs, we began our off-road adventure. After a couple of water crossings, the road turns rocky for a bit. This is why we took Greg’s truck and not my Subaru Outback. After about an hour of driving, we reached the Sheephead Canyon Primitive Campground, just past it was the trailhead. We quickly geared up and set off.

Square Top used to be done from a route from the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation, but it appears the road to that trailhead is permanently closed to non-reservation residents. So we need to summit this peak from the east. The trail followed the dry stream bed for a short distance. This would be the only flat section of the entire day.  We had a route loaded on our devices, plus a paper map, and left the stream bed and began scrambling up and over the boulders along the ridgeline. In addition to the boulders, the steepness of the ridgeline can not be understated. It would range between 30-50% grade throughout most of the hike.

While we could see Square Top off in the distance when we started the hike, it was now fully hidden behind P3360. After about two hours of hiking, we finally reached this intermediate summit and a well-earned break. There was a register tucked away, so we added our names. Square Top now loomed before us. We scanned its rocky and steep slopes for a possible route up. We agreed on a basic plan of attack, but first, we had to drop down some 300 feet of elevation. Climbing back up that on our return was going to suck.

We found a manageable route down to the saddle and then began to push up. The steepness remained about the same, but toward the base, the boulder field was pretty intense to work through. Some very large rocks served as our intermediate landmarks to aim for as we work our way upward.

At this point, I started to have some real trouble. The effort was really getting me and I had to take a lot of breaks as we slogged forward. Both Ted and Greg were very supportive and accommodating as I sat and caught my breath. I really considered turning back several times; this was harder than any summit I had previously done. But I knew if I did turn back I would probably never have another chance, and my 100 Peak Challenge would be over. I dug deep and found the will and energy to push on.

Soon we started to encounter the denser brush that surrounded the summit. I knew the summit was close, we had agreed that if our descent was in the dark, it was ok with all of us. Greg really knew what this summit meant to me. Slipping past the brush, the summit plateau was reached, and we soon found ourselves at the summit block. We had done it!

We signed the registers and took a short break. Without climbing gear, the actual summit block is unreachable. All this work and we don’t actually get to stand on the actual top… We did not stay too long, as we all knew the effort that still lay ahead of us to get back to the trailhead.

We began our careful and slow descent, doubling checking our tracks so as not to get off course. As we approached the boulders near the base of the summit, working through this section again sapped my energy. Greg and Ted continued to lead the way, and I plodded slowly along behind. I dug deep once again and began the ascent up P3360. But I knew once I crossed the summit, it would be all ‘downhill’ from there.

The sun was setting, casting a rosy light on the Santa Rosa Mountains to the east, meaning our last mile was going to be in the dark. Obviously, this was going to slow our pace even further, but we had prepared for this in case this happened. As we carefully picked our way back down, the steepness was a constant issue. I could not believe that we had gone up this! I missed seeing deer go prancing by, but Ted and Greg saw them. I was too focused on the descent and not injuring myself and missed them.

Finally, we reached the stream bed and began heading back to Greg’s truck. I ran out of my water with about a quarter-mile to go, so I was looking forward to the cool drinks in my cooler.

All told, this hike was a mere 5.3 miles on my device. Ted and Greg had different mileage from their devices. Our elevation gain was 3,617 feet and I had us on the trail for 11 hours, 10 of it actually hiking. We all agreed that this was one beast of a summit. While we were proud of making it but were certain we would never do it again. 

I am an avid peak bagger, sometimes backpacker, and former sea kayaker living in San Diego. In 2019, I became the third person to complete the San Diego 100 Peak Challenge. Not stopping with that accomplishment, I set my sights on the harder San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list, which I completed in 2021. In addition, I have conquered several Six-Pack of Peaks challenges (SoCal, San Diego, and Arizona-Winter). Beyond attempting the San Diego Sierra Club 100 Peak list a second time, I am looking forward to exploring new summits and new adventures across the southwest. 

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