Select Page

The Fat Cloud Escapade

It was November 2, 2023 when we had a power outage at our site in the Eastern Sierras at Cerro Gordo.  The LA Department of Water and Power is the electrical service provider in many areas of the Eastern Sierras including the Cerro Gordo tower site and when they had an equipment failure, our radio system went down causing us to loose some coverage in the Lone Pine and surrounding areas.

During the outage, I was up in the Eastern Sierras traveling through from Mammoth to Los Angeles.  Normally, we would not have been concerned about the power failure because we have solar panels at the site along with batteries which should have kept our equipment working through the anticipated time of the outage.  We had 450Ah of batteries which should have kept the system working at least over night, but the power which went out around 1PM was supposed to be out only until about 8PM.  However, before 2PM we were in trouble with our site which meant that our batteries were no good or the battery charging was broken.  We felt that it must be a battery problem so we scheduled a trip to Cerro Gordo to replace the batteries for a couple of days later.

Cerro Gordo Radio Site

It was now Thursday, November 2nd and we were on our way to Cerro Gordo.  I had too much equipment in my vehicle which meant that I did not have room for the new batteries that we planned to install, nor was it a good idea because of the weight of all of my tools and equipment in the SUV.  Therefore, it was decided to take our backup vehicle which is a 2016 Tahoe to the site so we loaded the batteries and all of our tools and other supplies into the old Tahoe for the trip to the site to replace the batteries.  I left my house around 5:20AM to pick up Mark so that we could get a decent start ahead of traffic.  I picked him up at 5:40AM and we headed to the office because I had forgotten to take a couple of items with me the previous day when we loaded the car.  We arrived at the office around 6:05AM, opened the office, grabbed the needed items, locked up the office and proceeded to head north around 6:15AM.  Although we were still ahead of most of the traffic, we were caught up in some of it, thus causing us some delays heading north on the 710 freeway and the 5 freeway.  Eventually, we passed all of the LA traffic and proceeded north on Highway 14 heading through Canyon Country, Palmdale, Lancaster, Mojave, Ridgecrest and eventually to the Olancha area.  The fastest route was to head north on Highway 190 along the eastern edge of Owens Lake, but the road was closed due to storm damage so we had to continue heading north on US395 along the west side of the lake until we reached Lone Pine where we turned southeast on Highway 136 heading towards the town of Keeler which is at the base of the mountain.

We arrived at Lone Pine to see the sign announcing that the town of Keeler was closed.  I have never seen a sign indicating that an entire town was closed unless it was a ghost town.  Keeler is an active town, small but people live there.  I was fascinated by the fact that the town was “closed” due to storm damage with people still occupying the town.  There are no markets or other commercial stores in the town.  It is strictly a bedroom community and some equipment yards for SCE and LADWP.  I am not aware of anything else in the town, so it seemed very odd.

We left Lone Pine and drove the 15 miles to Keeler then turned left onto Cerro Gordo road heading towards the abandoned silver mine which has been there for well over 100 years.  In recent years, the weather has taken a heavy toll on the dirt road that is supposed to be maintained by Inyo County up to the mine.  The new owner of the mine has been working on constructing a small hotel that would appeal to a small contingent of people who like an old rustic environment up in the mountains with the old abandoned mine buildings as a backdrop to explore.  The road condition was unknown as we had heard conflicting reports on the road condition.  The road had completely washed out this past winter and the Inyo County Road Department showed the road closed on their website.  We knew that some people had been seen on the remote cameras up at the site, so they had managed to get up there, but we did not know how.  We had also heard that the mine owner had fixed the road from the mine to the bottom of the hill, but since we had conflicting information, we were not certain what to believe.  We were also told that the road starting from the mine and ending up at the radio towers was a disaster and that we would be very lucky to be able to get our vehicles up to the site so we did not know if we would be able to make it all the way up the hill.  We had already spent over 5 hours driving to this point and we anticipated another hour to get up the mountain to the radio towers assuming that the road was passable and that the road conditions did not create extra delays.  We would soon find out what we were going to experience on the road heading up the mountain.

The road to Cerro Gordo

As we started heading up the dirt road, we were amazed to see that the bottom of the road seemed to be in good shape.  Since the road was still on the desert floor, we felt that this portion of the road had probably not been affected by the winter storms.  We continued up the road which eventually entered the mountains through a canyon.  Portions of the road were at the very bottom of the canyon, thus making the road the bottom of the water flow for the runoff from the rains and the snow.  This portion of the roadway generally suffers the worst fate, but the road seemed to be fine through this area.  We continued heading up the canyon while basking in the thought that we might get to the top of the mountain with minimal effort, but we did not want to get our hopes up and be severely disappointed after encountering some severe road damage.  Therefore, we felt that we should be cautiously optimistic that the road to the mine had been repaired by the mine keeper leaving the last part of the road from the mine to the radio towers as the big unknown.

I had driven the vehicle from Los Angeles to Lone Pine, but when we reached Lone Pine, we made a pit stop to get some water and food for the trip up the hill.  When we got back into the SUV, I turned the keys over to Mark so that he could drive the vehicle up the mountain.  This would also allow me to film the drive up the mountain and take pictures along the way in case I felt that we wanted to document that portion of the trip.  So as Mark drove up the road, I got out my cell phone camera and used it during our trek up the road.

As we continued heading up the hill towards the mine, the road continued to be in good shape.  We thought that the mine keeper put a huge effort into repairing the road and getting it to its previous standard of that produced by the road department when they grade the road which was way beyond our expectations due to the cost of the road work.  As it turned out, the road was repaired by the FAA which lost power at their site which is on a different mountain that is accessed via the same dirt road up to the mine, but branches off to their site at the Cerro Gordo mine.  (The FAA needed Edison to fix the power line, but Edison said that they could not repair the power until the road was fixed so the FAA spent the money to have the road repaired.)  The road was wide and relatively smooth for a dirt road in most places, but would have an occasional discontinuity in the road surface which could catch you off guard if you did not notice it before you encountered it with the vehicle.  Eventually, we made it up the entire road to the mine and were relieved that we were able to get this far without any serious difficulty like in past trips to the mountain where one would take their life in their hands by attempting to drive the road.  One previous time I went up the road after some serious rain damage, I put a rock through the tread of the tire.  Usually the rocks will slice the sidewall of the tire which makes the tire not repairable, but the rock through the tread offered some hope that it could be repaired.  Unfortunately, when I took the tire to the tire shop, they informed me that it was not repairable, but since I had the road hazard warranty, the tire was replaced at no charge.  That was a relief which was better than the unfortunate bodily relief that I had to do during the changing of the tire.  However, that was not in the cards this time and now we were cautiously starting our way up the mountain from the mine.

The road appeared to be in similar shape to the last time I had gone up the road which meant that the road was passable at a slow speed so that we could avoid the plethora of rocks that were randomly distributed across the road.  We continued past the DWP microwave site making the sharp turn at the switchback located at the microwave site which is the location where I had to clear a couple hundred rocks the last time I had gone to the site.  This time, the rocks were small enough and infrequent enough that I did not feel that it was necessary to stop and clear the rocks.  We continued up the road dodging the rocks to avoid eating the tires and we were able to clear the tops of the rocks because they all seemed to be smaller than the height of our ground clearance which is about 7 inches above the road surface.  Continuing up the road, we reached the next switchback making a sharp right turn which stressed the steering ability to make the turn without backing up for a 3 point turn.  The road continued in the same shape to the next switchback where there was another building with a camera and a microwave dish to send the video feed over the internet to its intended destination.  The road continued up the hill through two more switchbacks and then towards the saddle where we would transition to the other side of the mountain for the final approach to the site.  The road continued to be in a similar condition to what we had just traveled seconds earlier.

As we went through the saddle, the road became considerably less steep and wider than before.  The top of the mountain is a bit rounded without any sharp drop-offs which made the top part of the road tame compared to the lower sections of the road.  We went through the last two switchbacks and now arrived at the top of the mountain where we passed the equipment from the US Geological Survey that is used to measure the movement of the mountains due to the tectonic plates that make up the surface of the earth.  We then had to turn the car around and back into the closest parking spot that we could utilize.  We had 3 new batteries that weighed 170 pounds apiece to lug into the building from the car and 3 dead batteries that weighed about 140 pounds each to lug from the building and place into the vehicle.  Therefore, we wanted the distance to be as short as possible to move the batteries especially considering the ground was very rocky which made our footing a bit precarious while lugging the weight of the batteries.  We were finally at the site and ready to start work, or so we thought.

We got out of the car and proceeded to assess what we needed to do which included grabbing the building keys.  Now disaster struck with a vengeance.  As I reached for the keys, I realized that I had forgotten to take the keys with me from LA.  We had been driving for 6 hours to get to the site and now we were faced with the inability to get into the building.  I was fit to be tied, spitting nails, voicing numerous obscenities while accepting total responsibility for the disaster.  It was no one else’s doing.  I completely overlooked the need for the keys when we switched vehicles because the keys are normally in the vehicle when I drive to the sites with my vehicle, but this time it was different since we switched vehicles before loading the batteries for the job.  So after about 5 minutes of kicking myself, it was time to figure out if there was a way to recover from my oversight or if the entire day was wasted for the two of us.  It was not looking good as there was no way to get a key to the site from anyone who was a reasonable driving distance from the mountain.  I walked around the building assessing the possibility of getting into the building without the key by getting through the cable entrance port or using some other method.  We quickly came to the conclusion that the door was the only option.  We tried whatever we had with us which were the keys on our regular key rings but to no avail.  We then tried prying at the door, but decided that we would significantly damage the door if we proceeded with this course of action.  Now we were down to what appeared to be one option which was to pick the lock.  Mark has picked many locks as he has studied to be a locksmith.  He did own a set of lock picks, but they were in his vehicle back in Los Angeles and not in the vehicle we were driving.  So now if we wanted to pick the lock, we would need to manufacture a set of lock picks for the job.

We both hunted around the site and in the car looking for some materials that we could use to make the lock picks.  I found a key ring that has some potential to be made into the lock picks.  I had my tool box which provided the pliers that we used to reshape the ring into a rod with a hook at the end that was used to get the pin tumblers lined up so that we could turn the lock.  The key ring material was too thick so we had to flatten it out by hammering on it against the concrete and use a grinder to make the material thinner so that it could properly be inserted into the keyway.  It took us about 30 minutes to manufacture the lock picks at which time Mark proceeded to try to pick the lock.  The tools needed some fine adjustments which took another few minutes and then he tried again.  After about 5 minutes of working on the lock, he announced that he was successful and the door opened.

Mark saved the day from being a total loss and a waste of time.  A sigh of relief came over me as I was expecting the worst even though we had made a valiant effort to take care of the screw up.  Now we were able to proceed with the work that we had driven 6 hours to perform with only about 40 minutes wasted which was a considerable improvement over having a total loss for the day.

Cerro Gordo NexEdge equipment

Now it was time to start the work.  We started by checking out the site equipment and determining that the batteries indeed needed to be replaced.  We then lugged each of the new batteries one at a time over to the building and set them on the concrete floor inside the front door so that they were out of our way until we were ready to install them after removing the old batteries.  (It was interesting to note that the equipment that was at the top of our rack had been removed by the owner leaving us more space to utilize in the rack.  Had we known about this ahead of time, we would have brought more batteries because we now have room for an additional 3 batteries.)  We pulled everything loose so that we could remove the old batteries as quickly as possible to minimize the downtime on the system since the sheriff uses the site on a regular basis.  Now we turned off the system before we started to remove the old batteries one at a time while Mark made certain that we did not short any of the wiring from the solar charger.  One at a time we removed the old batteries while Mark handled the wiring and connections as I unloaded each battery from the battery tray onto the floor where I would drag the battery over to the front door and onto the concrete pad outside the door.  One at a time, we replaced the old batteries with the new one which I had to lift off the floor by myself and place into the battery tray so that Mark could secure the connections at each battery.  After all 3 batteries were replaced we then checked the performance of the battery system with a voltmeter while verifying the proper polarity.  Once everything was properly hooked up, the solar charger started charging the batteries which were substantially charged before we took them to the site.  The system appeared to be performing 100% which pleased us to no end.

Now it was time for me to get everything ready for the trip back to Los Angeles.  Mark had to assist me in carrying the dead batteries back to the car, but after that was completed, I had to work alone to clean up and secure our load.  Mark had brought the drone with him to shoot some video and used his camera to shoot some still photos leaving the cleanup to me.  I packed up my tool box and brought it back to the vehicle.  I had to move the batteries into the proper position inside the car and bind them together so that they would not tip over or get thrown around during the trip down the mountain.  This required some finesse in moving the batteries around in the back and wedging them into place with the tool box, the case with the voltmeter, the wattmeter, the dolly, etc.  After about 30 minutes, I had the car properly packed and ready to go.  Mark was still working on some of the drone video, so I got out my camera and shot a bunch of still photos in addition to the photos that Mark had taken.  After another 10 minutes, it was time to lock the building before heading down the mountain which was a simple as locking the door lock and closing the door.  However, we checked the building 3 times to make certain that we had all of our tools and equipment because we did not want to have to pick the lock a 2nd time.  Mark packed up the drone and his camera equipment and placed it in a secure place so that it would be safe as we proceeded down the mountain.

We headed down the mountain retracing our path that we had blazed during the trip up the mountain to reach the summit.  We headed back down the switchbacks over the mediocre road as we passed the saddle, the camera building and the DWP microwave site.  Soon we reached the mine where the mine owner had made considerable progress with the construction of his hotel during the past 6 months.  When we passed the hotel, the road returned to the improved dirt road that the mine owner had fixed which made the rest of the trip down the mountain a breeze.  We traversed the road without incident confident that we would get down the mountain without any serious incident heading down through the canyons and eventually to the bottom of the dirt road where we rejoined civilization as we turned onto Highway 136 heading northwest towards Lone Pine.

Highway 395

It was now close to 4PM and we decided to head over to the film and TV museum to find out about the shooting locations that had been used by so many westerns that had been filmed in the Lone Pine area back behind the Alabama Hills which separated the film locations from the main portion of the valley.  We got to the museum a few minutes before 4PM when they would close for the day.  We asked directions to the old western towns that were used for the film shoots and we were sadly informed that none of the structures still existed.  The land belonged to the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) and they would not allow the building to stay after each film shoot was completed.  This meant that the reason that we wanted to see the location for a future film shoot no longer existed so we tucked our tails between our legs and proceeded to head south towards home.  Our estimate was that we would get back to the LA area around 7PM which would place us in the middle of rush hour traffic, so when we reached Mojave, we felt that it would be prudent to stop and have dinner before proceeding south for the rest of the trip which would put us another 30-40 minutes later in the evening when we would reach LA making the traffic more tolerable.  We stopped as planned and got back to the Sylmar area around 7:30PM.  Traffic was a bit lighter than normal plus the later time worked in our favor.  We reached Mark’s place around 8:30PM where I dropped him off at his house, then proceeded home myself which took another 15 minutes.

The day started out reasonably well and hours later it attempted to turn into a disaster, but with some ingenuity, we managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat and saved the day due to Mark’s skill as a locksmith.  We had fun performing the work at Cerro Gordo (which is Spanish for Fat Clouds) at 9145 feet and were satisfied that we had fixed the problem.  We were now ready to survive winter’s wrath knowing that we had a fully operational and fortified battle station up on the mountain.

The next day, we received another load of batteries for use at our tower sites.  This sparked a greater desire to increase the capacity of the battery bank at Cerro Gordo because we are highly dependent upon the solar panels and batteries for powering the equipment.  Additionally, we now have more batteries in stock for other projects so taking our last 3 batteries that we had previously in stock for Cerro Gordo would not deplete our battery stock.  Although there is AC power at the site, the AC power is unreliable and can be out for extended periods of time.  Additionally, the site owner wanted us to be primarily powered by solar so our power system is designed to operate primarily from solar and only draw power from the AC power line when the solar is insufficient.  As a result of the various considerations, we decided to add 3 more batteries to the site to insure reliable operation.

Cerro Gordo equipment rack with added battery capacity

On Tuesday, November 14th, we headed back to the site to add more battery capacity.  We switched back to the old 2016 Tahoe but this time we felt compelled to remember to bring the keys to the site along with the new batteries and battery cables so that we did not have to pick the door lock.  I picked up Mark at 5:30AM and we headed north again repeating the same trip that we had done about 12 days earlier.  This time we were ahead of almost all of the traffic so we had minimal delays heading up the 405 freeway getting out of town.  The trip was uneventful as we repeated the same route back up to Cerro Gordo over the same road which was in the same condition as our previous trip to the site.

Upon arriving at the site, I took the keys and opened the door instead of having to manufacture lock picks to open the lock and get into the door.  (The lock picks that we manufactured last time were still in the vehicle, but fortunately, we did not have to use them.)   This saved us about 40 minutes of time at the site compared to our previous trip to the site.  Now it was time to start the work to make space for the new batteries.  This meant that we had to move all the equipment up to fill the open space in the rack so that there would be room for the batteries at the bottom of the rack just above the existing batteries.  (The batteries weigh far too much to place them at the top of the rack which could cause a huge problem during an earthquake and would strain our ability to lift the heavy batteries over our heads.)  We systematically moved all equipment up to the top of the rack   Once we had that accomplished, we proceeded to install the new battery tray.  This required assembly of the mounting brackets for the tray.  We then placed a wooden spacer over the existing batteries to make certain that we did not short out the battery terminals.  We then bolted the new tray into the rack getting all of the bolts in place and tightened.  Now that the battery tray was secure, we placed the new batteries one at a time into the rack and proceeded to wire the batteries with the jumper cables.  After the new batteries were wired together, we proceeded to wire them to the existing battery bank.  Once we were done and checked out the battery and charging system to verify proper operation, we cleaned up our tools and took the trash back to the SUV to prepare for the trip back home.

We were ready to leave when we got a visitor at the site.  A sasquatch showed up and was curious about what we had been doing and about the equipment at the site.  To read about our Sasquatch encounter, click the button below.

Another job well done and successfully completed. . . . . . . .