Wed, Feb 15, 2017
Despite being tired from the day's long outing, I slept poorly camped alongside US95 at the junction with Phinney Canyon Rd in Nevada. The highway is a major trucking lane with big rigs going by at regular intervals all night long. I was here to meet Brian in the morning for the drive up Phinney Canyon to hike some peaks in the Grapevine Mtns of Death Valley. As trucks would go by, lights shining into the van, I kept imagining Brian was just arriving and I would sit up to see I was alone under a moonlit night. Without cell reception at this lonely outpost I had no way to contact Brian if our meeting arrangment had gone awry somehow. It turns out I lost sleep and worried for naught - Brian drove up at 5:45a and promptly knocked on my window to get things going. It was a very frosty 22F when I got up, but would warm to 30F before we started hiking, and would hover around a very pleasant 50F for much of the day.
Our plan was to tag Wahguyhe, a Nevada P1K and unnamed Peak 8,100ft in California, a P900, in a 10mi effort with almost 6,000ft of gain. It was made considerably harder due to a great deal of snow found in the area. I had expected minimal snow at 8,000ft as I'd found a few days earlier in the Panamints, and had left my snowshoes in the van as we made the 20-mile drive out the Phinney Canyon Rd. Still five miles out, it was soon clear that the snow here was far more significant than I expected. To add to my troubles I left my gaiters in the van, too. Brian decided not to carry snowshoes, partly out of sympathy for me and partly because he didn't want the extra weight if we ended up carrying them most of the way. The road was in good shape but we failed to negotiate the last half mile of road due to snow, parking around the 6,300-foot mark.
Almost from the beginning we were hiking in snow as we plied the first mile up the roadway with 1-2ft of the white stuff. When we turned off to start up to Wahguyhe, the snow only got deeper as we climbed 2000ft up the northwest side of the peak. Brian had waterproof boots and gaiters that would keep his feet dry all day. To help out his ill-prepared partner, he broke trail all the way up Wahguyhe, no easy feat, and without a single complaint. I was happy to follow in his footsteps that varied from a few inches to more than foot deep, trying carefully to place and extract my boots to minimize the snow getting inside. I was feeling pretty foolish and more than a little parasitic - I was letting him do the driving, the trailbreaking, and to top it off, would drink his beer at the end of the day. Things got easier when we reached the shoulder on the NE Ridge, finding the snow more consolidated and some bare stretches on the sunnier SE side.
We spent a little over two hours to reach the summit under sunny blue skies and only the slightest of breezes. The views were stunning in all directions. Snowy ranges could be seen in the far distances - Telescope Peak 55mi to the south, the Sierra Nevada 55mi to the west, Mt. Charleston 95mi to the southeast and Mt. Jefferson/Arc Dome more than 120mi to the north. Range after range could be seen in various directions, Death Valley and Badwater almost 9,000ft lower to the south through a mild haze. A register dated to only 2011 but had more than 20 pages of entries, more than we might have expected on a non-DPS summit. While Brian snacked on a salami & cheese bagel sandwich, we looke northwest to see what we could make of the rest of the day's route. Our second major summit was 4mi away, across the crest of the range and the CA/NV border. Though it was over 8,000ft in height, there appeared to be little snow, at least on the south and southeast aspects that we could see from Wahguyhe. Maybe the snow would relent, at least for the middle of the day. About a mile northwest of Wahguyhe and more or less on our way to the P900, was an unnamed bonus Peak 8,060ft, and it was to this we headed next.
Getting off Wahguyhe and onto the connecting ridgeline with Peak 8,060ft would involve a good deal more snow. It was a very steep slope and some of the snow was hard, so I chose to wear the aluminum crampons I carried. I found them quite helpful, as even with them I could feel my feet slipping in various places. Taking a slightly different line, Brian managed with just his boots, an impressive feat, I thought. Once down more than 1,000ft to the saddle, the snow relented and I put the crampons back in my pack where they would stay for the rest of the day. We climbed about 500ft over half a mile to our bonus peak, with more snow, but better consolidated. Going over the northwest side and down another 1,000ft+, the snow again became troublesome - poorly settled, sometimes sugary, other times almost powder, and combined with a great deal of brush and trees, the going was slow and meandering. Once in the main drainage heading west, we briefly picked up the old 4WD road that decends to some old mine ruins around 6,800ft. The road was less than helpful since it seemed to hold more snow than the surrounding terrain, so we found ourselves with more meandering through brush and snow until the snow (and thankfully the brush) began to relent below about 6,600ft.
Things got pleasant quickly after this. The slope lessened as the drainage opened where another drainage from the north joins it. After descending to 6,400ft, we contoured NW across the upper slopes to start up the other drainage heading north and then northwest. This drainage separates our Peak 8,100ft to the west from Grapevine Peak to the east. We left the drainage after about half a mile to begin climbing out to the west, up and over one rib before more contouring to get around a rocky intermediate summit between Peak 8,100ftz and Grapevine Peak. At about 7,400ft we reached the saddle between Peak 8,100ft and the intermediate summit, ESE of the summit. We had less than half a mile and only 700ft to go at this point and it seemed we'd be on top in maybe 20min. What we couldn't see on the approach was all the snow that was hiding on the north side of the ridge. The ridge itself and the south side were high class 5 and not practical, leaving us to wallow in more snow mixed with class 3 scrambling. Our line just right of the ridgeline wasn't the best, but not obvious until after the fact. We ended up spending 45min on those last 700ft, finally reaching the summit by 1:15p. We would not be getting back by 3p as I had optimistically hoped during the drive in.
Still, it was a pretty good effort and we were happy to have made it to this remote summit in the middle of the range. Besides more terrific views, we were treated to a rusty tin can under a few summit rocks that held a small register with only a single entry from 1972. Two members of the Loma Prieta Chapter's PCS had left it 45yrs earlier and as far as we could tell, it had been left undisturbed since then. This was one obscure summit. We left the second register entry while taking a break at the summit and admiring the fine weather and our good fortune despite the snow troubles.
Upon leaving the summit, we followed a less direct path back to the saddle, avoiding much of the snow we'd encountered in the highest elevations. We still had lots of snow to wallow through on the traverse back to the saddle lower down, but it had none of the class 3 that had plagued us earlier. From the 7,400-foot saddle we followed our ascent route fairly closely back to the original drainage and the 4WD road we'd encountered coming off Peak 8,060ft much earlier. We had simply to follow this road up and over the pass on the crest, then down several miles to where we'd parked. Easy on paper, not so in practice. The road of course held tons of snow. The afternoon temperatures and sun had done their work to soften the snow to the point of knee-wrenching postholing. The only other option seemed to be to try and climb up the north slope of the drainage where there was little snow and traverse through the brush and trees above road level. It was hard to say which was more difficult and we went from one to other as our patience gave out. I swore particularly loudly to the Wilderness at large when the postholing was at its worse. It was 3:45p before we finally reached the pass, taking another break here to manage our clothing layers as we were about to drop down the shady east side of the crest. By this time my feet were about as wet as they were going to get and there was no use minimizing the amount of snow I was plowing through. The best course of action seemed to be to stick to the snow on the road which we did for those last 45min.
Tired, wet and a little frazzled by the time we'd finished, it was nothing that a few beers on the drive out couldn't soften. And despite the difficult conditions, I thought it was the best of four days I'd spent in Death Valley on this trip and we both agreed it was a fine adventure. How often does one get to have such a snow adventure in the desert?
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Wahguyhe Peak
This page last updated: Sat Feb 18 19:08:31 2017
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