Tue, Jan 12, 2016
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The Funeral Mountains are a range on the eastern edge of Death Valley, mostly in California but partially running into Nevada. Aligned roughly NW-SE along the CA/NV border, the northwestern end is at Daylight Pass while the southern terminus is more than 40mi to the southeast at Death Valley Junction. It's a big range with 8 P1Ks including the DPS summit of Pyramid Peak with more than 3,000ft of prominence. I had visited only half of these, intending to climb the remaining four on this roadtrip. I would run out of time to complete this goal, but today I would tackle two of them in a long, enjoyable looping route.
Today's peaks are far from the state highways in CA and NV. The closest approach from SR190 to the southwest is 7mi for one peak and more than 10mi for the other. I had expected to require tackling these one at a time in very long hikes across the range over a period of several days. While perusing a number of maps and satellite views, I came across the paved Amargosa Farm Rd and Valley View Rd on the Nevada side of the range that can be used to get fairly close to the Funeral Mtns. These roads stretch across the vast Amargosa Valley (labeled Amargosa Desert on the topo maps), servicing a handful of isolated homes and ranches, a few small communities and some patches of irrigated farmland used to eke out a living on this desolate landscape. Combined with the N-S running Diablo Rd, I was able to drive within 100yds of the CA and Death Valley boundaries, less than 5mi from both of the P1Ks. It was a fine discovery and allowed me to tackle both of these on the same day with a few bonus peaks thrown in.
Having spent the night at the end of the not-so-lonely Diablo Rd (there are two residences on either side at the end), I was careful to park off the road in an adjacent empty lot where I spent the night. I was up before 7a, around sunrise, but did not start out until nearly 7:30a, giving the 28F landscape a headstart in warming up. I crossed west through the vacant lot and past the last property, entering CA and Death Valley NP on my way to the Funeral Mtns and Peak 5,980ft, where I headed first. Easy hiking characterized the first two miles with a low gradient climb of about 1,000ft. I picked out one of several possible ridgelines to ascend, which looked to head most directly to the summit. This P1K has a fairly benign approach from pretty much any direction, without the cliffs or other challenges that the second P1K would pose later in the day. I spent just over two hours covering the 4mi and 3,700ft of gain required to reach the summit. Some lingering snow patches from the previous week's storms could be found on the shadier aspects near the summit, but nothing that would be of any concern.
From the summit, one can see west into Death Valley and southeast along the length of the range, with Peak 6,015ft and Schwaub Peak (both P1Ks) the most prominent. Matthew and I had climbed Schwaub four years earlier, accessing it from the Echo Canyon Rd to the west, a somewhat rough, high-clearance route off SR190. I had considered reclimbing Schwaub on this outing but now that I was looking at it I lost the motivation to do so - it seemed to be more than a bit out of the way and would require almost 2,000ft more climbing. The summit I sat upon had a MacLeod/Lilley register dating to 1978. There were only five pages filled since that time, not surprising given its obscurity. The most recent visitors were Sue & Vic Henney, just over a year earlier.
I dropped southeast off the summit, into a high, shallow valley between Peak 5,980ft and Schwaub Peak, aiming for a saddle between the two at the edge of the range's crest. The hiking to this point is fairly easy but the east side of the saddle drops precipitously back to the Amargosa Valley, more than 1,000ft in just half a mile. I took this section slow as it required some route-finding to keep it reasonable, choosing to traverse into the next gully to the south where difficulties were encountered. The bottom part of this gully system levels as it rejoins the gentler terrain in the broader valley. I turned right (south) where reasonable and contoured along the base of the range over the next hour, dropping into and out of numerous small washes descending from the west and crossing my path. I eventually entered a sinuous gully that rises to a saddle between Peak 6,015ft and Peak 5,340ft. This was long and somewhat arduous, but nothing more than class 2. A full two hours was spent in getting from the first summit to the saddle east of Peak 5,340ft.
As I'd been climbing the long gully, my energy was starting to flag and I was thinking I'd give up on the two bonus peaks I had planned. From the north, Peak 5,340ft looks to be terribly castellated on all sides, though really more tedious than terrible looking. Upon reaching the saddle and finding the south side of the East Ridge far milder, my enthusiasm returned, especially since it was only a quarter mile away at this point. It seemed a shame to miss it. It took barely ten minutes to reach the summit which has a good view of Schwaub's SE aspect as well as a good view east to the remaining two peaks which looked to be nearly the same height (I hadn't realized their was only 25ft difference between them). Luckily they shared a high saddle so getting from one to the other wouldn't be such a big deal. I returned to the low saddle I'd initially climbed to, then continued east up loose slopes leading to the higher saddle, taking about half an hour. The rock changed composition, switching from volcanic to metamorphic limestone. The last several hundred feet became more interesting as I began to notice spiraled shell fossils embedded in the rock. These could be found in the hundreds, varying in size from an inch to almost four times that. They were quite fascinating to me and I spent some time picking up one or another, examining the large clusters in rocks and marveling at the geologic forces that brought them to such lofty heights above their ancient seabed.
It was 1:30p before I reached the second Peak 5,980ft, about half a mile south of the higher P1K to the north. Bob Sumner had left a single piece of paper with his nam in 2012, though why he had climbed this was a bit of mystery (he's usually more precision-focused in his peakbagging and I knew the P1K to the north was his target). Interestingly, a second entry which I later determined was from Sue & Vic was apparently written in blood because Bob had left no pencil in his makeshift register. I dug into my pack for a spare one, signed my name, and left the pencil on the summit with the register before heading down.
Though it looks like a formidable traverse between the two peaks, it took only about 45min and turned out to be no more than class 2. The SE Face of Peak 6,015ft has some impressive cliffs, but from the saddle between the two summits the SW Ridge proved fairly benign. Sumner had left another poorly contrived register on this summit on the same day, but luckily it was supplemented by a better notebook by a pair of adventurers who had spotted the peak from the summit of Schwaub and decided to climb it on a whim. And of course Sue & Vic had come to this one as well, only this time a pen had been left so no need for another bloodletting. There are fairly far-reaching views from the summit across the vast Amargosa Valley. To the north I could make out the whitewashed homes at the end of Diablo Rd where I'd parked, about 5mi distance. 35mi to the east could be seen the snow-topped summit of Mt. Stirling at the north end of the Spring Mountains. By now it was nearly 2:30p and time be heading back.
The descent off Peak 6,015ft I expected to be a little tricky. There are numerous cliff sections on the north and west sides of the peak that could be problematic, these I had seen while traversing from the first Peak 5,980ft earlier in the day. I could have simply returned to the low saddle and back down the wash, but that might have added an extra hour to the return that I had little enthusiasm for. Instead, I had noted a series of subsidiary ridges I could follow off the north and northwest side of the summit to get me back to Amargosa Valley more in line with my return. This proved to have only short, easy class 3 sections, with the remainder your standard class 2 desert stuff. A first hour was spent getting off the mountain and back down to the bottom, followed by another hour and a quarter to cover the remaining 3mi back to the van. Much of this last hour was not particularly pleasant as the desert here was not the smooth, easy-walking stuff, but a jumble of alluvial material tossed about by various flood events that made for crappy hiking. The final half mile was across more stable soils like I'd started on in the morning, leaving me feeling happy again by the time I returned to the van around 4:30p.
It had been a rather full day using up most of the available daylight. After showering I spent the next hour driving north to Beatty (I could have saved 15mi of driving had I known paved Valley View Rd was a shortcut heading north). There isn't much to Beatty, but it's a quaint little town. It has a Denny's buried in the back of a casino on the north edge of town and it was here I headed for dinner. Once satiated, I headed west to Rhyolite where I spent the night just outside the special BLM zone (day use only in the old ghost town). I planned to spend the next day hiking around Rhyolite so I would have very little driving to do in the morning...
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