Almost anywhere in America, they would have had trouble finding a single petroglyph, but not here, among some of California's most dazzling rock art.
Squiggles, dots, stars, half-moons and big horned sheep - everywhere the climbers looked they saw images etched in stone possibly thousands of years ago. But the one petroglyph they sought eluded them.
"This is like finding a needle in a haystack," groused Gwen Hardwood, a volunteer trying to direct the climbers 20 feet above the ground.
Then 20 minutes later, Tracey Oh, a UCLA junior majoring in design, peered deep into the shadow of an overhanging boulder and let out a gasp.
"Here it is! Here it is!" she hollered when she recognized the sketchy petroglyph overlooked by an earlier crew attempting to document this rich and mysterious tapestry.
Out came 35-millimeter and digital cameras, and within moments the volunteers had recorded for posterity "rock art element 330."
Another weekend of petroglyph-hunting was off and running at Little Lake, the site of the most ambitious project ever undertaken by California's oldest and most prestigious rock art research facility - UCLA's Rock Art Archive.
For the past five years, archive volunteers have converged on this four-square-mile site beside a picturesque lake just north of Ridgecrest to map, photograph and cross-reference thousands of rock art elements, some believed to be the nation's oldest."
We have a busy intersection here, an oasis where people came together from different places and created something new," said Jo Anne Van Tilburg, a noted UCLA archaeologist and director of the archives at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. "It's very California."
The 20-odd aerospace engineers, computer programmers, teachers and other volunteers, many of them students recruited from Van Tilburg's UCLA Extension rock art classes, are racing against time and seismic fate. In 1997, they marveled at pictographs inside a cave. By the following year, a 5.2-earthquake at nearby China Lake had closed the cave's mouth. The area has been shaken by more than 8,000 temblors in a single six-month period, threatening what some archaeologists believe is the site of the nation's oldest example of rock art.
Since its founding 25 years ago, the archive has amassed the world's largest repository of information on California rock art. The collection boasts slides, sketches, videotapes, maps and - more recently - digital images of rock art from more than 10,000 sites across the state. A significant portion of these sites has now been damaged or obliterated by vandals, development and natural forms of wear and tear such as earthquakes and erosion.
Van Tilburg hopes the data collected by the archive will shed light on the site's long-standing mysteries. Is the rock art a vestige of "hunting magic" practiced by prehistoric hunters hoping for more game? Or was it created more recently by shamans in altered states of consciousness induced by fasting, water deprivation or ingestion of massive quantities of tobacco? Until the archive completes its work, there is not enough data to know.
"We have a complex and conflicting picture for this site, and our contribution will be to collect a standardized data set that all researchers can use," she said. "This place will set rock art on its ear."
The Little Lake Rock Art Complex Digital Conservation Project, as it is formally known, recently received the highest award from California's State Historic Resources Commission. The Governor's Historic Preservation Award commendation praised the project for offering "incredibly valuable insight into California's past and world heritage . . . in an innovative, modern way."