Manly Peak P2K DPS
Needle Peak P1K DPS

Sat, Mar 14, 2009

With: Matthew Holliman

Etymology
Manly Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile

Manly and Needle are two DPS peaks at the southern end of the Panamint Range in Death Valley NP. The peaks themselves are not very difficult, but the drive in to reach them can be anywhere from treacherous to impossible depending on the condition of the road up Goler Wash. It was with some trepidation that Matthew and I set out on Friday night to give the wash our best effort (and the best effort of Matthew's Suburu Forester). Our back up strategy would be to drive as far as we could and hike the peaks from wherever we stopped, a highly variable proposition. Manly Peak, for instance, can be less than 3,000ft of gain from the end of the road at Russell Camp, or more than 6,000ft if we have to start at the entrance to Goler Wash. There is another road into the area from the east, but it would involve hours more driving and our beta gave the same poor conditions to the roads from that direction (further reading later suggests this may not be the case and could be much easier, though still a long drive).

Leaving San Jose shortly before 6p, we took more than nine hours to reach our destination. After gassing up in Ridgecrest, we drove on to Trona and Ballarat before heading south on the excellent dirt road to Goler Wash. As expected, things deteriorated at the wash. The canyon is extremely narrow in sections and it seemed almost fantastical to hope that a road could be maintained up it. Any sort of flash flood must certainly wipe out huge sections of the rocky road where the wash narrows so. Driving it at night added additional challenges as well as giving it an other-worldly appearance. We had no idea how high the rocks walls enclosing us were, and no idea what would come up around the next bend in this ever-twisting road. We came to the first of several forks after a few miles, staying left until a second fork was reached. We paused here while considering what to do. Matthew suggested we take the better looking right fork. I felt the crummier left fork was heading in the prefered direction. Since I was driving we headed left without much debate, fortunately finding it the correct choice. We stopped momentarily at the National Park boundary sign where the road seemed to end. We found a sharp left turn which took us down and across a shallow creek, then continued north into the park. Things grew progressively rougher, but we managed to get the Forester and ourselves over or around the obstacles in our way. We came across several more forks, and using the stars to guide us in a generally northward direction, we made the correct choices, though not without a few small hitches. It was fairly slow going as both the size of the boulders and the number of undercarraige "incidences" increased. Several times we had to get out to examine the route before deciding to continue on. We were about half a mile from Mengel Pass, having just banged and bumped our way over a few nasty spots, when we came across a larger problem that had us crying uncle. It was after 3a and I was worn out from the driving. A convenient pull-out made the choice easy and we stopped here for the night. Matthew slept outside next to the car while I slept on a flat spot in the middle of the road. I was happy to find in the morning that I had not been run over during what little remained of the night.

We awoke after 7a, already quite light out and sunrise imminent. Matthew might have preferred more than three and half hours sleep, but I was quickly up and about making noise. We packed up our sleeping gear and ate a quick breakfast before heading out not long after 7:30a. The morning was chilly but ideal for hiking, and the weather would be fine for most of the day, neither too hot nor too cold.

It was less than ten minutes to reach Mengel Pass where we paused to take in the view of Butte Valley to the north and the small commemorative plaque to Carl Mengel placed more than sixty years ago. We followed the road north as it drops party way into Butte Valley, and stashed some unneeded Gatorade off the side of the road before heading cross-country for a shortcut to Russell Camp. There were several flags flying and a couple of guys hanging out at the camp as we walked by, a simple wave our only contact with them. We continued up the side canyon past the end of the road, hiking up until we reached a saddle low on Manly's East Ridge (route "A" in the DPS guide). It was 8:30a by this time, and time for the elevation gain to begin in earnest.

The ridge follows the old National Monument boundary, marked by a handful of fading signs. A faint use trail was found in places with ducks scattered along the route, not always helpful. We spent an hour climbing the ridge to the main crest of the Panamints, then another 20 minutes south along the crest to reach the summit blocks of Manly Peak. The DPS register box was located at the base of these blocks.

I had no inkling that Manly possessed a challenging summit block, unlike Matthew who had carried a short rope for just this purpose. There appeared to be two options for surmounting the block. One involved an airy step across a two-foot gap followed by a steep climb for ten feet on granite with minimal holds. It seemed dicey at best. The other option was a 20-foot crack/chimney arrangement that looked somewhat easier and far less exposed. After Matthew spent a minute to size up the easier option he gave way and let me shimmy my way up chimney-fashion. It wasn't pretty, but it worked. From the top of the chimney it's and easy climb to the summit along a ledge exposed on one side. The views were pretty fine, including some of the snow-covered peaks in the Sierra and many of the other summits in the Panamints, the Argus Range, and the Black Mountains.

While I took some pictures from the top of the surrounding views and the summit benchmark, Matthew got out his rope and gear for a belay assist up the chimney. Voices announcing the approach of another party could be heard off to the north. Matthew spent some time unraveling the rope while we debated the best way to get him up safely with a belay device and one carabiner, our only gear. While trying to toss the rope and belay device to me, Matthew threw short and got both wedged in the hole below. I laughed as he crawled around trying to free it, both of us obviously rusty in our ropework. After several abortive efforts to rig up something to belay him from above (his carabiner was needed to hold his simple web harness together), I downclimbed the chimney and gave him a fireman's belay from below. It worked nicely. I went back up a second time in order to descend the alternate route with a short jump across the gap. The psychology behind why I would bother to do this might be complex, but the simple answer was "because it was fun."

Meanwhile, the other party appeared, three adults, one teenager, and a seven year-old. They were all members of the Inskeep clan, a family of climbers going back to the 1960s. The elder Jon Inskeep, who's climbs are recorded in the older DPS archives, was not present but waiting back at the truck where they had started from. Two of his sons and a son-in-law were present, all around 50 years of age. The other two were grandsons, including 7yr-old Reid who had the same eagerness for climbing as his dad and granddad. Dad told us that he had first climbed Manly in 1969 at the age of twelve and this was his second visit, now forty years later. They had brought their own rope but were happy to use the one we had in place. Reid made it up in fine form. The others all went up without using the rope which was packed away after Reid descended. They were still playing around at the summit when Matthew and I left them around 10:40a.

There was some lingering snow on the north slope of Manly, but nothing to hinder easy progress up or down. We followed the same route down to Russell Camp, stopping only briefly for a few pictures of the desert flowers emerging on the slopes. We took a short tour of the camp, the flags and visitors now gone. This is a public use facility, larger and more charming than a few of the others I've come across in the park. There are many rooms, including a kitchen/dining room, a honeymoon suite (just a small, empty room), a workshop, an outhouse, a doghouse, and even an indoor shower. The shower and kitchen tap were plumbed from an external tank filled by a trickling spring. The site is wired for electricity, but I didn't see any evidence of a working generator to power the few appliances. The walls were covered in postcards and reading materials going back many decades. Rat droppings were evident in most of the rooms, but not overwhelmingly so as I've seen elsewhere.

After leaving Russell Camp we descended back to the main road, picking up our stash of Gatorade and continuing east down into Butte Valley. Next up was Needle Peak, lower but no less effort to reach with the extra walking required because we couldn't reach the usual trailhead in our car. We chose route "A" from the DPS guide as it seemed the most direct route. The lower part from Butte Valley to a low saddle above Willow Spring was pleasant and easy. There was more easy traversing to get to the main SSE-heading canyon, but here the fun stopped for a while. The climb up this rocky wash is simply nasty. Not "hard" nasty, but sloggy, disagreeable crud kinda nasty. We didn't speak much for the 40 minutes we spent hiking up it, only to comment with the simple but descriptive, "This sucks."

Once on the West Ridge the nastiness was left behind, but the scrambling did not improve to anything memorable. At least we had find views. We spent an additional 40 minutes climbing up and over a false summit to the highpoint where we arrived just before 2p. There is a good view of the Panamints from this point and many other peaks and ranges in the surrounding area. Many of those to the north we were familiar with, but there seemed to be range upon range of peaks looking south that we could not identify. There was a USGS benchmark along with a register dating back to 1981. Ours was the first entry in almost a year.

We spent a short time debating which route to take back, deciding our ascent route would probably be the fastest way back to the car. When we were about halfway down the West Ridge my ongoing internal struggle with the decision reached the vocalization point when I announced, "I think I want to vote we go back the other way." Matthew had no objection, probably because he relished the idea of the disagreeable canyon as little as I did.

Our uncharted course was off the south side of the saddle we had climbed to in reaching the West Ridge. Much of the route could be seen from Needle's summit and it had the obvious advantage of looking less disagreeable. It would also involve about 200ft less gain though longer by a mile or two.

For the most part it was an easy and pleasant return route. The ground was smoother traveling, and the broad valley we hiked through felt refreshingly remote and isolated. We found that burros had made an entire network of trails through these valleys around the Panamint and Argus ranges, many of them more efficient that the typical human use trail. A lone burro was found in the bottom of the valley, unnerved by our presence. It would trot ahead for 40-50 yards before turning to watch us, then repeating the manuever as we got closer. This went on for ten or fifteen minutes before it finally veered away from our intended route. We used the burro trails to traverse around a buttress, out of our broad valley and into the adjacent Goler Wash. During the traverse I was startled out of my hiking stupor by the sound of hissing in front of me. A large rattler had felt our feet pounding the trail and started up with his alarming rattle to warn us away. It worked quite well. I suspect it works equally well on burros, too. We took a few pictures before leaving the rattlesnake in peace and continuing on. Once in Goler Wash there were long stretches of burro trail running parallel to the road that were preferable to hiking on the road, and we took to the road only for the last mile or so when the trail struck off in another direction.

It was 4:45p before we returned to the car, still plenty of daylight remaining. We set up the Sunshower atop a large boulder off the side of the road and took turns at a hot shower, followed by a few cold Mikes and corned beef sandwiches. Yum. The drive out was not as harrowing as the drive in the night before in the dark, but we still managed to take at least one wrong turn that highlighted the luck we'd had in finding our way in. Back in Panamint Valley we stopped to take a photo of Manly Peak from the west. As Matthew stepped out of the car he said rather casually, "Hey, there's a snake here." This second rattlesnake made no noise, no movement initially, just lying there fat and lazy, playing possum. It eventually moved away when we got too close for its comfort. (Famous last words: "So, just how far can these things jump to strike you?")

Our day was far from over. We drove on to Stovepipe Wells for a short break before heading into Cottonwood/Marble Canyons for the trailhead to Canyon Point. It was dark when we entered the mouth of the canyon where the road begins to deteriorate. For ten miles the road plies its way up the canyon, almost all of it directly in the wash bed. The DPS guide points out that the condition of the road is highly variable depending on the timing of the last flooding. We were surprised to see almost a dozen cars in the canyon, most of them in the first mile before Marble Canyon splits off from Cottonwood Canyon. A number of folks had set up tents in the wash up against the steep canyon walls, evidently this canyon is a popular attraction. We managed to drive in past all of these other vehicles and within a mile of the trailhead at the south end of the canyon, though not without a great deal of stressful driving, very much like the previous evening. It was 10p before we called it quits and set up our sleeping bags under the stars once again. There was no doubt that the driving to some of these DPS peaks is a much tougher prospect than actually climbing them.

Continued...


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