Bald Mountain LVMC
Wheeler Peak P5K DPS / WSC / GBP / LVMC
Baker Peak GBP / LVMC
Jeff Davis Peak GBP / LVMC

Sun, Sep 25, 2011
Etymology
Bald Mountain
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile

The family schedule permitted me two full days off for hiking instead of the usual one, opening up some additional options. It was now reasonable to consider a visit to the East Side of the Sierra for example, and I looked around at dozens of projects I've had in mind. On a whim I checked Google Maps to see how long a drive it is to Great Basin National Park, coming up with 11.5hrs, more than twice as long as my usual drive. Having done Mt. Grant earlier in the month, I had only a single summit remaining to complete the NV County highpoints - Wheeler Peak. The second highest summit in the state, Wheeler lands on half a dozen different peak lists, but so far it had eluded my efforts to reach it. I had been within about ten miles of it the previous year when Adam and I had done Mt. Grafton, but since he had already done Wheeler we skipped it on that trip. This year we had returned to the Ruby Mtns, but again I could not figure out a way to drive south to tag Wheeler. The hike itself is almost trivial as there is a trail leading all the way to the summit, less than five miles one way. I decided to give it a go, in what would be the longest single drive I'd ever done.

The route Google chose as the fastest is also the most scenic option, driving through Yosemite and then across Nevada on US6. If US50 can be billed as the "Lonliest Road in America", US6 could be described as "Even Lonlier than US50." The only downside on the drive out was that it would be done entirely at night and I would miss most of the scenery. Luckily I would be able to see most of it for the drive back. Leaving San Jose at 7:30p, I reached the Yosemite entrance on SR120 at 1:40p and Tioga Pass just before midnight. I passed through sleeping Benton near the CA/NV border, gassing up in Tonopah and then Ely, the only two towns of any size across the entire state on US6. It was growing light as I left Ely, continuing east to Baker and then up the winding road to the trailheads at over 10,000ft of elevation. It was 6:30a when pulled into the small Wheeler Peak Trail parking lot, not another car to be seen. There was no entrance station as one would normally find in a National Park, none of the trapping of tour busses and gift shops (although there was a Visitor Center in Baker), just a lonely paved road with a couple of trailheads and a campground at the end. The stark difference with Yosemite Valley on a Sunday morning could hardly be greater.

Sunrise had just come to this alpine island in the desert, with aspen trees lighting up in golden shades of autumn. I had managed to drive the route in 11hrs without once consulting a map, but now seemed a good time to look at the trail map that I had similarly neglected ahead of time. There was a good map at the TH kiosk that showed the current TH would be fine for a hike to Wheeler and back, but since I wanted to do more of a loop, the other TH at the end of the road would be better suited. So I got back in the car and took off again, just as several cars were arriving from the campground. Less than a mile away is the larger Bristlecone-Alpine Lakes TH complete with restrooms and picnic area. It's a few hundred feet lower in elevation, but would save some in distance with the loop I planned. It was 6:40a when I started up the trail, another hiker having started a few minutes earlier.

Both Wheeler Peak and Jeff Davis Peak, the highest summits in the park, are plainly visible from the parking lot, rising 3,000ft above the forest towards the south. I signed into the trail register at the start, following the right fork of the Alpine Lakes Trail to its intersection with the Wheeler Peak Trail. A dozen wild turkeys were found along the way and a bit later a good-sized buck with a nice rack of antlers that might not last long in hunting season outside the park. The trail starts off under forest cover but soon opens to alpine meadows whose grasses were now brown with the coming of fall.

I left the trail where it makes a sharp turn towards the south, heading north over easy cross-country to the first objective of the day, Bald Mtn. Bald and the other peaks today were all above 11,000ft in elevation, making the list of Nevada "11ers" much like the "13ers" list in CA. From the trail, it is only 30 minutes to the rounded, talus-strewn summit of Bald Mtn. There is a small telecom tower (possibly a solar-powered weather station) at the summit along with a pile of rocks marking the highpoint. One gets a quick feeling of this alpine island, views of the surrounding desert in all directions, with Spring Valley to the west and Snake Valley to the east. To the north is Sacramento Pass and the northern portion of the Snake Range with Mt. Moriah topping out at over 12,000ft. I looked about the summit cairn for a register, eventually finding one in a broken glass jar tucked in a hole. The contents were mostly shredded by mice or similarly nesting animals and didn't seem worth the bother to try to open, so I put back where I had found it.

It was just past 7:30a, having taken less than an hour to reach the first summit. Things were looking pretty easy. I headed south down the broad ridgeline connecting Bald to Wheeler, reconnecting with the trail just after 8a following class 1 walking down the talus slopes. The wind had picked up, blowing in from the west, though not as bad as some reports I've heard of very strong winds that often course the range. Still, I put on my fleece and wool gloves to make things more comfortable. There were other folks now along the trail, about four or five that I passed enroute to the summit and others that arrived not long before. Though the trail is nothing special, it makes the job of climbing this talus heap much more palatable, not unlike the trail up Mt. Dana in Yosemite. The views of course are spectacular, reaching out across the desert expanses for many miles. There was some hard, crusty snow from fairly recent storms found alongside the trail, but it hampered the effort to climb it in no way at all.

It was 9:15a when I reached the summit, less than three hours from the start and with a bonus peak to boot. This really was about as easy as Mt. Dana. There were two guys at the summit when I arrived and several more soon joined us. The summit area has been polluted by a number of elaborate rock walls that have been erected over the years from the talus abundantly strewn about the place. A mailbox served as the register holder, built into the side of one of these rock shelters. The book dated back less than a year and would soon fill up, testament to the popularity of this summit despite its remoteness. Not feeling all that social, I didn't stay around the summit very long and after taking some photos (N - E - S - W) I started heading south along the ridgeline to the next summit, Baker Peak.

There is nothing technical about the traverse between the two peaks, about one air mile apart. The ridge is nothing more than easy class 3 and this can be reduced to class 2 by moving just a short distance off the west side of the crest. The east side drops precipitously to the cirque on that side and I stayed on the crest the whole way to keep this impressive sight in view. In addition there are fine views to the Snake and Spring Valleys to the east and west, respectively. Though there is no use trail along the crest, travel is not difficult and the cross-country trek is rather enjoyable. There is little of the loose talus/boulders that one might expect from the looks of it.

It was 10:15a when I reached the summit of Baker, though I wasn't aware of it immediately. A little less than half a mile to the east, off the main crest, is another summit that looked obviously higher and I mistook it for Baker itself. It took about 20 minutes to cover the distance, dropping down only a short ways to two saddles before climbing back up to the highpoint. This summit, Peak 12,305ft is only 7ft higher than Baker Peak it turns out, and is just shy of having 500ft of prominence. There was no register to be found on either summit. The view east into the Baker Creek drainage was worth the extra hike.

The next named summit to the south is Pyramid Peak and originally I'd hoped to make it to this one as well. After hiking back to Baker Peak, I contemplated the pros and cons of continuing on the traverse. If I'd had a car shuttle arranged it would have been a no-brainer, though I'd have had to do Jeff Davis Peak earlier. Pyramid is about 2 air miles from Baker so the effort to reach it is about twice that of going from Wheeler to Baker, probably adding 4-5 hours onto the day. Much hemming and hawing ensued, but in the end I decided that I'd need to come back again anyway in order to tag the other two 11,000-foot summits to the south of Pyramid, namely Washington and Lincoln. Back I went to Wheeler's summit.

When I arrived just after noon for my second visit to Wheeler there were half a dozen individuals milling about, a different set from those I'd left nearly three hours earlier. One gentleman greeted me with "Welcome to the summit!" to which I smiled and mumbled, "Yeah..." Not knowing that I had traversed back from Baker, they probably thought it strange that I didn't even look around the summit or sign the register but instead continued east on my way to Jeff Davis Peak. Like the other summits I visited, Jeff Davis has one impressive facet, in this case the NW Face, the rest being class 2 talus slopes. It took about 45 minutes to traverse between the two peaks, all class 2, but of all the peaks Jeff Davis was the lamest from a scrambling point of view. The talus is not as consolidated as on the other summits and along the crest, and there was some tedium in the final slope to the summit. A register left by some firefighters dated back a few years and was found tucked away under some rocks that took some exploring to discover.

Looking north, one can easily spot the Wheeler Peak Campground only a mile and a half away. I decided to take the direct route down the northside talus slopes which proved to be the most serious bit of tedium on the day. There was some lingering snow in the shadier chutes of the north side, but this really was not much of a hindrance. The talus and boulders that carpet the slopes were somewhat loose and made for slow going for the several thousand feet of descent off the peak. And then when you reach the base, you realize there are hundreds of acres of awful morraine in all directions. I spied the Glacier Trail to the west and though it was not on the direct line back to the TH, I decided the extra mileage it would entail must certainly be better than more of the morraine that spread out to the north. It took another twenty minutes to traverse across the morraine slopes, but by 2p I had found my way to the ease of the trail.

A sign found near the end of the trail where I picked it up described the glacier found in the cirque to the south, between Jeff Davis and Wheeler peaks. There is really nothing much to see as most of the glacier is buried under tons of rock and looks much like the rest of the morraine acreage that spreads out around you. If someone had come out there hoping to find a living glacier with crevases and ice and a large snowfield, they'd be sorely disappointed. The trail led back towards the campground, first through the morraine field and then through forest, some of it almost lush. The main creek was but a small stream at this time of year, yet it provided sustenance to some tender green plants that might otherwise have no chance of surviving in this ocean of desert that is the Great Basin.

Back at the TH at 2:30p, I checked in at the register to find the page full where there had only been two entries when I started. It was interesting that of 14 parties listed, only three were from Nevada. States as far away as Alaska and Ohio were represented among the entries. Only three of them were heading to the summit of Wheeler, the rest out to do the Lakes Loop or Glacier Trail.

The outing had taken only 8hrs and there was plenty of daylight left in the afternoon. I decided to use it to drive back across Nevada as far as I could before the need for sleep caught up with me. It was a beautiful drive through a dozen huge valleys surrounded by peaks everywhere one looked. Many of them caught my attention as I noted so many possibilities, so many places I'd like to come back to explore. It was dark by the time I got to the CA border and I was fairly exhausted as I neared Mono Lake. I found a place on the east side of Mono Craters off SR120 to spend the night, intending to climb Crater Mtn the next morning. I don't think I was two minutes in bed in the back of the van before I fell asleep that night. If I dreamed anything at all, I had no recollection - just the sound sleep of the dog-tired...


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Lou Holscher comments on 06/05/12:
Nice description of the hike/climb; enjoyed the photos.
More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: Bald Mountain - Wheeler Peak - Baker Peak - Jeff Davis Peak

This page last updated: Tue Jun 5 16:07:27 2012
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