Sat, Nov 28, 2009
Our car troubles finally behind us, we were itching for a full day to stretch our legs. I was still hoping to get the remaining four DPS peaks in the area before I had to leave in a few days, so we put Moapa and Virgin peaks on the day's agenda. Neither peak is a difficult dayhike but the two together along with the non-trivial driving required between them would keep us busy from sunup to sundown (and a bit beyond).
We left Las Vegas (Henderson, more precisely) before 5:30a, taking almost an hour to drive to our turnoff for Moapa Peak, then more driving on nearly 9 miles of dirt road to the trailhead. Using the DPS guide for directions, we were able to drive a short distance past their parking location and just short of Jacks Pockets. A last steep uphill thwarted or initial efforts and rather than tempt fate a second time (we'd had enough flat tires for this trip), we rolled back downhill and simply parked off to the side.
The sun was shining warmly on the broad South Face of Moapa Peak as we started off just before 7a. It certainly looked impressive, at least for a desert peak. We wandered across Jacks Pockets and followed cross-country up a wash towards the peak that soon curved to the left as the slope began to steepen. At a constriction in the canyon Bill chose to tackle the class 3 headwall directly while Tom and I took the ducked use trail off to the left side. By 7:40a we had climbed out of the small canyon to reach a broad saddle, now out of the shade and into the morning sun.
We turned right and headed north up more steep slopes for another 20 minutes or so until we had reached the main crest running southwest to northeast. We followed an ever-present line of ducks up more desert talus slopes to an unusually large duck at the base of the cliff face below Moapa's summit. Here we traversed along the base of the cliff for several hundred yards following more ducks and use trails, then up more slopes to the final summit ridgeline, positioning ourselves at it's northeast end.
This was the part that has defined this as a "classic" desert peak in the literature. The crux was a short steep section at the very beginning that might be termed stiff class 3. None of us had any trouble scrambling up it. Later, we found this section could be bypassed by traversing a short distance around and down on the north side of the ridge to an easier ramp system. Once atop the ridge, it was a somewhat long, airy walk that took us 10 minutes to complete. There were knife-edge sections, a few short hops, and an assortment of fun scrambling tricks to make it all interesting. It was 9a when we found ourselves at the highpoint, having run out of scrambling opportunities.
The first page of the oldest register we found was from 1979 by Andy Smatko and party. There were many entries in several books since then, evidence of the peak's popularity. Once again, Daryn Dodge had beaten us to the summit by just over two weeks. As had been the case for the last several days, views were hazy. The summit would offer exceptional views on a clear day.
We returned to the start via the same route we had taken, getting back to the car just after 11a. While we were unstrapping our packs and otherwise getting ready to leave, a Jeep with an older couple in their fifties drove up. They were trying to reach a place unreachable from where they were, and after a quick reorientation with their map I showed them the True Path (which meant going back to I-15). They took off while we were still loading our car, but we caught up with them a short while later. They were nice to pull over and let us pass, garnering a friendly wave from Bill. Next up, Virgin Peak.
We spent an hour and a half driving between the two trailheads described in the DPS guide. The road into Virgin was long but paved or excellent dirt for most of the way. The last mile of road heading north into the main canyon was a bit rough, but manageable. We were stopped at the narrow entrance to the canyon where the old road had been irretrievably washed out (in the sense that the BLM is no longer planning to maintain such roads going forward). We parked here and made a plan to hide the car key in case Tom and I returned ahead of Bill. Bill made a bigger production of this than necessary, taking a photograph of Tom pointing to the hiding location in case we had trouble finding it upon our return. While this was going on I paused to take a leak and while relaxing in the moment, I spotted a piece of paper just visible from under a rock. When I'd finished nourishing the parched landscape, I move the rock and dusted off a handful of insurance bills that had been buried there. Someone had apparently thought this the best way to deal with mounting debt. Perhaps they needed to be hidden from a spouse? Odd country, Nevada is.
It was 1p when we started up the old roadbed towards Virgin Peak. We followed this for more than an hour until we had gone some distance past the turnoff point described in the DPS guide. Seems I misunderstood Tom's directions and was trying to follow the road to some end. It was not a crucial mistake by any means as the main South Ridge has many ways to reach it. We pushed through some initial brush towards the steep hillside leading up to the main ridgeline. Though slow-going due to steepness and some loose talus, we did fairly well at finding a mostly brush-free path up the slope.
Taking about 20 minutes to reach the South Ridge, it was now almost 3p. The sky had steadily worsened through the afternoon and with the additional views allowed atop the ridge, we could see rain falling in several places around the area. We were currently staying dry, but it seemed this might not hold out for very long. We spent the next 40 minutes climbing the ridge up and over one false summit after another, much as described in the guide: "As usual, the summit is the last bump on this ridge." I had gotten ahead of the other two upon reaching the ridge and had continued on without waiting, figuring I'd see them again at the summit. But with about 15 minutes yet to go I was surprised to find Bill cruising along at a fairly quick pace and go by me with a smile. He was the one we had expected to bring up the rear but here he was showing surprising energy. He wasn't able to keep up the pace after we went over one false summit as he admitted he had pushed hard thinking this was the end, but still he did not fall back. The two of us reached the top together not long after 3:30p.
Clouds continued to swirl about us and a few snow flurries had begun to fall. We dug in our packs for some gloves and warm clothes while we waited about five minutes for Tom to arrive. A register at the summit dated to 1978. Some of the earlier entries included Andy Smatko and Greg Vernon. Matthew happened to be the last person to climb the peak back in May. Our views were unfortunately limited by the weather now enveloping us and we quickly turned our attention to getting off the peak before something more serious started coming down.
Looking down to the east side of the summit we could clearly see the road in the main canyon snaking it's way to within a mile of the summit. This seemed like a possibly quicker route back to the relative safety of the road where foul weather would be more an inconvenience than a safety issue. The unknown of course was whether we could safely reach the road via this side. It certainly seemed plausible from where we stood, but there was a cliff section somewhere below us that we could not adequately survey. In discussing this with the others I was clearly in favor of giving the unknown route a go. It seemed the worst we might find is a gaping cliff we would have to climb back up from, but this looked like it would only cost us about 15 minutes. The others agreed and we started down.
There was indeed a cliff that we had to negotiate, but without too much trouble we were able to find a route through it utilizing a few convenient chutes. From below the cliff looked far more difficult than the actuality we had found. Below the cliff band we traversed left out towards a lower subsidiary ridge that we could see leading down to the road. The problem was that the traverse was horrendously brushy by desert standards. It was somewhat comical as our party split up to tunnel through the brush, hearing the voices of each other indistinguishably off in the distance. "What?" "Did you say something?" "Where are you?" "Huh?" "That you Tom?" More snow was falling by this time, adding a thin layer of the fluffy stuff to the ground and brush. We thought it was more interesting than dangerous, welcoming the unusual desert weather as a nice change. I was the first to reach the lower ridge where I dusted myself off and waited for the others to arrive a few minutes later. The route down the ridgeline started off well enough, but soon devolved into more brush and small cliffs, forcing us off to one side into a gully. More brushy wackiness ensued, Tom and Bill making there way down the dry drainage, myself a short distance up the other side looking for openings through the stuff. My route won out only because I managed to stumble upon one of the road branches, quite by accident. I called over to the others and we were soon heading down the main canyon. Luckily the precipation had stopped by this time. We spent almost an hour and a half hiking back down the road. Darkness had come upon us shortly after starting on the road. Though the nearly full moon was doing its best to break through the dissipating clouds, it was not entirely possible to keep from stumbling about without using our headlamps. It was 6p by time the we found our way back to the car. The key was retrieved without having to resort to Bill's camera to find where we'd left it.
I had one last idea that I went to work on as we started the drive back out towards Interstate 15. West of Virgin Peak, about a mile west of the paved road we were traveling, was another named peak, Little Virgin. The name alone had me interested in climbing it. Neither Tom nor Bill showed any initial interest, but as we neared the small saddle between the two peaks Bill suddenly warmed to the idea. The aches in his legs may have subsided or perhaps he was taking it as a dare. Tom was still firmly against further efforts and preferred to wait in the car. I promised to have us back in half an hour but it took a bit longer.
We took neither pack nor water, just a light jacket and off we scampered across the road. It was chilly and dark, the moon playing hide and seek with the clouds overhead doing its best to illuminate the terrain. Our headlamps were sufficient for the easy cruising across open terrain, but the presence of cacti kept us ever alert with eyes keenly focused on the ground to avoid running into them with our boots. Bill was setting a fairly fast pace that soon turned into a jog, even as the slopes increased. Though only 700ft of gain and little more than a mile, it felt like a good workout.
We reached the summit in 23 minutes, a bit behind schedule. We found a wooden stick among some piled rocks, but no register from Gordon MacLeod like I half-expected to find. We stayed only a few minutes to take a picture or two in the moonlight before heading back. The moon was out more definitively and we started down with our headlamps turned off. Bill was again leading at a jogging pace while I was certain that I was going to take an unseen cactus in the foot in trying to keep up with him. This fear overcame me and I switched on the headlamp after a few minutes. This allowed me to pick up the pace and soon thereafter Bill switched on his as well. In the last quarter mile we ended up on two different descent routes, but as we spied the faint light from the car (Tom had seen our headlamps and turned on the inside light to aid us in the return) our trajectories started to converge. Our little jaunt became a full-on sprint in the last 100yds as we vied to be the first to reach the car. I thought one of us was bound to take a spill as we sped over the uneven ground towards the road, but we both managed to get back without a serious misstep. I got the priviledge of touching the car only a few seconds before Bill arrived. It had taken him those same few seconds earlier to realize I was in a full sprint before he had followed suit. The descent took just under 20 minutes.
We found Tom bundled up as best as he could manage in the back seat of the car. It might have helped if we'd left him the car keys to keep the engine running to keep warm. We piled into the car and started off towards Interstate 15 and Henderson where we had been staying the last few nights. After the two previous days dealing with flat tires and not enough hiking, we'd finally felt like we'd gotten our money's worth today. We would sleep well.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Moapa Peak - Virgin Peak - Little Virgin Peak
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