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Mt. Grant is the highest point in Nevada's Mineral County, making it of interest to county highpointers. At over 11,000ft it towers high above the west side of Walker Lake, the town of Hawthorne, and US95. It lies inside the Hawthorne Army Depot grounds (as does most of the land around Hawthorne, it would seem) and has been closed to the public since 9/11. In the days prior, one could obtain the key or combination to a gate and drive 16 miles to just below the rocky summit. A demand has built up over the years with various folks working with the Army colonel to gain access, to little avail. A number of peakbaggers have gone to the summit illegally, usually via Lapon Canyon from the west. I would have used this route myself if I'd had a vehicle capable of driving the road to reach it, and was waiting patiently for the opportunity when someone else might have such a vehcicle and be interested in doing it with me. A better option presented itself when I got an email in the beginning of summer telling me about the Mt. Grant Challenge that had been organized, a 4-person team relay event from Walker Lake to the summit. The Army negotiations had paid off. I signed up immediately, asking if it was Ok to do the entire distance by myself. The reply was to the affirmative, so I saved the weekend date on my calendar and waited for the end of summer.
As the weekend neared, the weather forecasts were decidedly negative. A low pressure system of unstable air was moving in from the southeast, bringing thunderstorms, lightning and wet weather to the Sierra and Western Nevada. Chances of precipitation was running 50-60% for both days on the weekend. I had gotten lucky on Saturday, finishing a 10hr hike before noon in Yosemite less than half an hour before the rain started. East of US395 the weather was drier, but there were thunderstorm cells all over the horizon and it looked ominous. Things were slightly better in Hawthorne in the late afternoon and I went to sleep a bit tentatively at my bivy site near the shores of Walker Lake. It was a bit warm to sleep comfortably in my bivy sack (my van was in the shop getting a new transmission, so I was relegated to the Miata and sleeping outside) so I just slept in the open in my sleeping bag. Sure enough it started to rain after an hour or so and I hurriedly got the bivy sack set up before everything got wet. Luckily the rain didn't last long nor come down very hard and things even cleared up in the middle of the night.
Morning came at 5:20a with the sound of the alarm buzzer. It was still dark outside but I could see that some clouds had returned. It would be an on again, off again thing with the weather threatening during the day, but for the most part the morning was quite nice. I packed up my sleeping gear and motored over to the dirt parking lot at the corner of US95 and Cottonwood Canyon Rd in the small town of Walker Lake. There were more than a dozen participants already there and a small army of volunteers, many of them from the Hawthorne Fire Department and Mineral County Search and Rescue. A steady stream of cars followed me into the lot and it quickly began to fill with the anticipated 100 participants. The plan was to have the "ironmen" (those doing the hike solo) start at 6:30a, the relay teams driving up at 7:30a and then starting from their respective stations when they arrive. There would be no hand-off from one team member to the next, instead they would be shuttled up to the finish line where everyone would meet up again, tag the summit, receive a medal and then get bussed back down to the parking lot. At least that was the way it was supposed to happen, and for the most part it did.
I had met more than a dozen of the highpointer participants at the BBQ the previous evening in Hawthorne and saw most of them again in the predawn light and more besides. Though I was long familiar with many of their names, my retention of matching faces to names did not get enough reinforcement and I'd forgotten all but maybe a half dozen by morning. Basically I suck at being social. What I did recall was that though 50yrs old, I was on the younger side of the average participant's age. Many were 55-65yrs of age and a few in their seventies. There was a smattering of folks in their 30s and 40s, but the youngest ones were the local firemen joining in the event. It wasn't called a "race" but a "challenge" probably because there wasn't expected to be much running or competitiveness. It was really a thinly masked way for a bunch of highpointers to get permission to visit the summit of Mt. Grant. Making it a memorial for 9/11 was probably a calculated feature designed to maximize the liklihood of getting the colonel on board with the project. Most of the highpointers would probably have preferred to just drive vehicles to the top and call it a day but that probably wouldn't have gone over well in the proposal stage. Making it a "relay" meant that participants could get away with hiking only five miles or less and get the rest done as a vehicle passenger.
Shortly before 6:30a they sent a small fleet of vehicles up the road loaded with volunteers that would be manning the various stations. At 6:30a there was no gun to mark the start, just the race director's "Ok, you guys can start up now." There were twenty of us in the ironman category starting up the pavement through the middle of town. The cheering crowds consisted of two dogs barking furiously and their owner trying to corral them back into the house. The rest of the town was still asleep although a few were among the participants. Most of the participants were geared up with extra clothing, food and drink in backpacks or fanny packs as for a hike, not a race. I had decided to leave my pack in the car and took a fanny pack containing my fleece, some gloves, a balaclava, a rain poncho and 20oz of Gatorade. It would be enough if the weather didn't hold up and I could still jog with it comfortably. It wasn't clear if anybody was going to be doing any running - with 7,000ft of gain it seemed as if the route was going to be all uphill over the 16 miles. One gentleman decked out in red did in fact take off running withing the first few minutes, though it wasn't very fast and not very sustained as he went back to walking after getting a few hundred yards' lead. The rest of us hiked up the pavement until it ended after half a mile and became a graded dirt road.
Sunrise came around 6:50a at mile 1, most of us still together in a larger group with two rabbits out in front. Just past the mile marker was the gate onto the Army property, a fairly new information kiosk about Mt. Grant located not far past it. Somewhere between miles 1 and 2 I was done with the morning socializing and started hiking at my usual clip to get on with the business of getting to the summit. By mile 2 I had the second leader in my sights and had caught up with him around mile 3. His name was likewise Bob (always easy to remember), and he was fireman from platoon "C" of the Hawthorne Fire Dept. His goal was to finish ahead of the other two firemen entered from "A" and "B" platoons, and he seemed the only one of the three interested in making a race of it. We jogged together on a few short stretches where the grade wasn't too steep, but for the most part the first four miles were the steepest part, rising nearly 2,000ft in that distance. He was considerably younger than I, probably around 30yrs of age and in fairly good shape physically. He commented that he dayhikes in the Sierra and does some long distance running. When I asked him what distances, I expected to be hearing he was an ultra runner, but he replied, "half marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks." I was pretty sure at that point he wasn't going to beat me to the summit.
Around 7:20a the vehicle caravan carrying the relay participants for legs 2,3 and 4 came driving by. They kept the speed down to reduce the dust, which was a very kind gesture. Around mile three there was a vehicle parked alongside the road. A mother black bear and her two cinnamon cubs were across the creek huddled under a tree. They had parked the vehicle there to make sure the bears didn't cause a problem for the participants, but for the most part they just sat there looking cute and a little befuddled by the attention.
The first aid/relay station was located just past the mile 4 marker. The second relay leg had headed out from there, the last stragglers just leaving as I was approaching. I had just about caught up with the lead ironman dressed in red at this point. He looked like he was going to go past the food/aid station, but I decided to stop for another 20oz bottle of Gatorade. They had the less sugary G2 that I prefer these days, so I polished off the one I had started with and put another in the fanny pack. The lead runner changed his mind and decided to stop at the aid station as well, but as Bob and I started off he had just returned to the table and it was the last I saw of him during the day.
The next five miles to station 2 was a much easier grade overall with some stretches almost approaching flat. Bob and I would jog these together, reverting to a fast walk when the grade got to much. He was short on breath and having a hard time keeping up before we had gotten to mile 5, and eventually he said goodbye, fell back to a slower pace and left me with the lead.
There were of course still 50-60 relay participants ahead of me so I was by no means left alone on the road. Between miles 5 and 9 I passed by all but one of the relay participants doing the second leg. I could tell by the footprints in the dust how many were still ahead of me when it got down to the last few. Because the grade was easier here, I could jog about 1/3 to 1/2 of the distances between the first and second relay stations. Just past mile 9 I caught up to the lead from Group 2, and was the first one to reach the second aid station around 9.5 miles. I had a banana, chatted for a few minutes with the crew and the lead relay runner, then started off again. By now I had done 4,000ft of gain and more than half the distance and was feeling quite good. This was going to be easier than I had anticipated, it seemed.
The road from the start heads west up Cottonwood Canyon. If there are cottonwood trees somewhere in the canyon I think I missed them. I saw some aspens, but mostly low scrub and lots of dirt and rock. The road curves towards the south past the first aid station as it circles Mt. Grant counterclockwise. The summit can first be viewed around mile 10 off to the left, still 3,000ft above but not looking all that far away. The road continues at a steady grade to gain a saddle just before mile 12 called Turkey Tracks. Another half dozen volunteers were here with 4-5 vehicles including one for EMT response, but no aid or relay station - it was more of a logisitics location, good for staging vehicles going up or down the mountain. After I left station 2 I saw no one until I had gotten past mile 12 where the route turns east. Here I could see a set of switchbacks climbing up the hillside before me and saw a few pairs of hikers from the 3rd relay group. Only the slowest two of these I would pass before I reached the third aid station somewhere between miles 14 and 15. I wanted very much to simply bypass some of the switchbacks by heading straight up the hill, but I was under the impression this was highly discouraged - they wanted us to keep to the road primarily so it would be easier to keep track of us.
It was 9:50a when I reached the third aid station. I had been keeping a good pace of about 4mph with the help of more jogging where I could. I peeled another banana and slathered on some peanut butter that was in a jar adjacent to the bananas. One of the volunteers thought that was amusing, apparently it was the first time she'd seen someone do that. "I'm learning all sorts of interesting things that highpointers and runners do for nutrition!" she commented. I just thought it tasted pretty good. I also finished off the second Gatorade and took on a third before starting off again.
The altitude was not bothering me in the least. The weather had been nearly ideal, the warming of the coming day being offset by the higher altitude to keep the temperature nearly constant through the morning hours. Starting off on the final leg, I was feeling quite good, much better than I would have guessed by the peak's stats. Why was this? Several reasons came to mind. I was carrying very little compared to my usual daypack that often has three quarts of Gatorade and a whole lot more gear for contingencies. Secondly there was really no cross-country travel, at least until the very end, and this is often where things slow down and the energy expenditure increases. But mostly I think it was due to the anticipation that there was no descent involved since we were getting shuttled back down the mountain. In this case, the top pretty much was the end of it.
The final leg was the easiest of all despite being at the highest altitude. The distance was only about three miles and the elevation gain just over 1,000ft. There were a few additional pairs of participants that I passed along the way, but these appeared to be some from the third relay group that had decided to do the last leg for an additional workout. A few vehicles started coming up the road with participants who'd finished one of the earlier legs. Most of those that had done the fourth leg of the relay were already at the summit or nearly there even before I had left the 3rd aid station. Lower clouds were starting to form off to the south while I was on the final leg. There was some urgency in getting to the top as it appeared it might start clouding over at any time.
Only ten minutes past mile 16 I rounded the last turn of the road before the finish banner at just over 11,000ft of elevation. There were a couple of trucks and a handful of volunteers milling about the edge of the ridge overlooking Walker Lake. There was no one standing there to record any time or take any names or note a bib number. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to continue on to the summit or stop and be counted. Someone noted my confusion and called out, "It's Ok, we've got your bib number!" They were apparently more on the ball than I had reckoned. Off to the summit I went.
The fine hiking weather had turned decisively cooler and would only grow colder over the next hour. The sun was all but gone as clouds overhead conspired with others developing from below. The remaining distance involved about 1/2 mile on the road up several switchbacks where it abruptly ends at the base of the final talus pile making up the summit. I could see dozens of folks ahead of me on the road or on their way the summit pile. Most of these folks were from the 3rd and 4th legs of the relay race, the first having reached the summit shortly after 9a. I passed by a dozen folks taking a leisurely stroll to the end of the road. Clouds were coming up from the east and were nearing the summit. It did not look like there would remain a view for much longer. From the road's end there was perhaps a hundred yards further to the top, less than 100ft of gain remaining. The lower talus slope was noisy with the sound of dinner plates and with five or six of us on them at the same time it sounded like a Greek wedding with the smashing of plates. The last 50 yards involved more difficult class 2 over larger boulders and rocks leading up to the summit. I met Bob Sumner just below the summit wrapped in his wet weather parka and acting as volunteer guide for those getting to the top. He had been there several hours already and was growing colder the longer he had to wait.
It was just before 11a when I arrived at the top where a group of about eight were milling about the summit. The views had gone from the east side, but there were still views to the west and I hastily snapped a few photos before these closed up about five minutes later. The register, placed in 2010 had about a dozen names over the last year, about half of them from military personnel and the others highpointers poaching the peak. By the time I had signed in there were about 16 names in the register from the Challenge participants. Several dozen others were at various points between the finish line and the summit and would be here shortly. There is room enough for maybe a dozen folks before it grows crowded at the top. The benchmark is located at a lower point about a quarter mile further north along the crest. One of those at the summit suggested going over to visit it, but there wasn't much enthusiasm from any of the others nor myself. I wanted to get back down before I started growing cold.
As I turned to leave someone asked me if I was going to go back down the mountain on foot. I had given it some thought over the last hour and replied, "I'm thinking about it." 34 miles would certainly be a very different outing than the relatively easy 17 I had just done. The good part would be that it was mostly downhill and had the added bonus that it might not be much slower than waiting for everyone to make it to the top and the start of the shuttling of folks back down. I jogged back down to the finish line and asked around if it would be Ok if I started back on the road, maybe getting a ride when the shuttles started to go by. None of the folks I asked seemed to have an answer, nor where I might get one. They seemed to think this might be a recipe for losing track of folks and confusing an already confusing shuttling scheme. I decided not to press it.
I put on my fleece and gloves and ate the remains of a bag of potato chips I found lying on the ground. I drank more Gatorade and though soon sated and hydrated, it did not take long for my heart rate to drop and my body starting to grow cold. The summit was barely visible through the clouds now and a cold wind was starting to blow up from the east. The volunteers who had been sitting and standing around for hours were equally cold and most of us were driven into the half dozen or so vehicles that were now parked around the finish area. There was supposed to be a general distribution of finisher medals to everyone after most of the participants had returned from the summit but it seemed most of the folks were thinking more about getting back down rather than a medal ceremony. Personally I thought the idea of getting medals for a hike somewhat silly.
The driver of the car I was sitting in had come back from somewhere and announced to the general audience outside that he was heading back if anyone wanted a ride. There were soon seven of us in the spacious Suburban ready to head back. The small bus they had used in the morning had become incapacitated with a dead battery. Another battery was taken from a truck and loaded in our vehicle to transport back down the mountain to the disabled vehicle. This item we passed on to an ATV around mile 15, whose driver had come up the mountain to retrieve it more quickly. We stopped at several of the aid station, allowing the driver to catch up with friends along the way. There was no general hurry and I was good with that - I was just happy to have gotten lucky to be in the first vehicle heading back.
After leaving Turkey Tracks it occurred to our two volunteers in the front that they didn't have the key to open the gate at the end. Around mile 8 another vehicle approached from the opposite direction and it was flagged down in passing. "Is the gate open?" our driver asked, though he already knew the answer. "No," came the reply, "guess I'll have to come back down and open it for you." I would have thought they might pass the key across the open windows, but it appears security is tighter than this and only certain persons are allowed possession. And so the other driver turned around and followed us back down the last seven miles or so to the gate. Along the way we paused one last time when a herd of 7 or 8 bighorn sheep were sighted just off the road on the north side of the canyon. There were both rams and ewes in the mix, suggesting it was getting near breeding time when the sexes come together to be social. We watched them for three or four minutes and snapping photos before continuing on.
It was just past 1p when we drove through the gate and returned to the parking lot at Walker Lake. Without much ceremony we thanked our drivers and went off in different directions. There of the passengers were locals from the town and they had only to walk a short ways back up the road. Another participant was heading to Vegas to catch a plane while I was heading west to San Jose. Just down the road towards Hawthorne there had been a head-on collison around 7:30a involving at least three vehicles and one fatality. The highway had been closed ever since and was not expected to reopen for another 2-3 hours, awaiting a special investigator who was driving down from Reno. Traffic was halted in both directions and the only way out of town without waiting was to head north.
I decided to go back out through Yerington and Wellington, going over the Sierra at Monitor and Ebbetts passes. This was less than an hour longer than the route I had taken in over Tioga Pass. The weather that had held off for the most part over Nevada was unleashing its pent-up fury over the Sierra for which I was ill-equipped. Up to half an inch of hail had fallen at Monitor Pass making the road slick and difficult for my lightweight Miata. I found myself swerving and sliding and having a tough time getting traction on the steepest parts. I expected Ebbetts to be even worse and thought I might get stuck waiting out the storm somewhere between the two passes, but heavy rains at Ebbetts helped alleviate much of the icy conditions there. The rain came fast and furious as I was passing Alpine Lake just east of Bear Valley, forcing me to stop the car until I could once again see through the windshield. Undoubtedly this drive back over the Sierra had become the crux of the day.
I was finally home in San Jose at 7:30p, having completed a full but enjoyable two days of peakbagging. It was nice to get Mt. Grant finally done, but the better day was the obscure peaks in Yosemite the previous day. On the other hand it was nice to have finally met a number of highpointers whose names I've seen in so many registers over the years. The sad part is that I will remember only a few of those faces the next time we meet up!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Mt. Grant
This page last updated: Sun Oct 2 02:00:24 2011
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