Porter Peak P500 DPS / DS / DPG
Peak 8,900ft
Sentinel Peak P1K DPS / DS / DPG

Thu, Apr 26, 2007
Sentinel Peak
Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 3 4 Profile
Porter Peak later climbed Fri, Jan 9, 2015

The California desert peaks would be far more attractive to me if they weren't so darned far away. A typical drive from San Jose is seven hours, about the same amount of time it takes to reach San Diego. If I left at the usual 2a time, I wouldn't reach the trailhead until 9a, which seems much too late in the morning, and leaving at 12a or 11p seems to border on the absurd. On my last desert outing with Evan Rasmussen I decided to try a new tactic: take a nap in the afternoon, leave at 8p after the kids have gone to bed, drive through the night, arrive in the wee hours (maybe take another short nap), start hiking. I used the same plan on this outing, cruising down and across the Central Valley while flipping through radio stations looking for something to keep me awake, supplementing with caffeine when the radio just wasn't enough. I passed through Bakersfield and Ridgecrest on my way to Ballarat, a nearly dead remnant of what was once a thriving mining town located on the west side of the Panamint Range, just outside Death Valley National Park. My goals for the day were Porter and Sentinel Peaks, two DPS peaks on the crest of the range just south of Telescope Peak. On separate, recent occasions, Matthew H. and Rick K. had dayhiked this pair (Rick had made it even harder by adding Telescope to the mix), and has become a bit of ritual, I find myself now following in their footsteps.

It was just after 3a when I reached Ballarat, having little trouble finding the starting point for Porter Peak via Pleasant Canyon. Not sure where I might park legally, I pulled over in a clearing already partially occupied by a rusting truck that didn't look to have moved in the last 80 years. I had been watching the temperature closely during the drive, noting a warmer than usual evening. It was 67F in Ballarat, suggesting it was going to be a rather hot day ahead. I decided to forgo additional napping and start on the trail right away, hoping to gain as much altitude as possible before sunrise.

For several hours I plodded my way up Pleasant Canon on the old road with only a modest amount of excitement. My first obstacle came about an hour into the hike when the road became inundated with water and mud, evidently from a spring somewhere ahead. The water ran across the entire width of the road, not very deep, but hard to judge by headlamp. With heavy brush sprouting on either side of the road, the only practical route was through the water. My one effort to circumvent the mess got me into small cliffs and thick brush, basically a huge time sink. I was concerned that my choice of footwear (tennis shoes) was going to prove a poor one, but aside from a little mud, there wasn't much problem just keeping to the road. For the most part the water was running thinly, and it was easy enough to dance around the deeper sections and keep my feet, if not my shoes, dry.

Somewhere before the end of the wet section I heard an awful noise off to the side that made me jump. My first thought was that it was the screech of a cougar unhappy with my intrusion on his hunting grounds. I stopped dead in my tracks and listened, but all was silent save for the usual crickets. It is easy to paralyze yourself when confronted with the possibility of something that can eat you. A few minutes later I heard it again, though not quite as frightening and not so cougar-like. It was something large, a mammal, but I couldn't place it. After a third or fourth time, it dawned on me that it was a mule braying. Being a city boy, it might be understandable that I can't tell a wild animal from a barnyard one, but I still felt foolish. I had disturbed the mule's peaceful slumber most likely, and he was letting me know it. Instead of letting me pass, he kept ahead of me in the canyon, moving out in front where I couldn't see him, but letting me know with his verbal assaults that he wasn't at all happy. This kept up for another hour, all through the last darkness of the night. As night began to wane towards the day and the surrounding hills were just becoming visible, I managed to get a quick glimpse of the mule before he was gone for good, finally keeping silent. I wondered if I had inadvertently driven someone's beast of burden several miles from camp and would catch a reprimand back in Ballarat at the end of the day.

It was 6a as I walked through Clair Camp, an abandoned mining post halfway up the canyon. Several old vehicles stood as sentinels outside the opened gate to the camp. There was no sign of people to be found anywhere. There was also no water in the canyon anymore, only slightly problematic. I had two liters of liquid with me which ought to be enough, but a nice spring or two along the way would make things a good deal easier. Shortly before entering the National Park boundary at 7a, the hoped-for spring was found, complete with a sign showing the way to the piped refreshment found a short distance off the road. Slaking my thirst, I continued up the last part of the canyon where it opened up more broadly and the sun was now making itself known. I was above 6,000ft by this time and the sun would not be a problem until late in the day when I was returning to Ballarat - starting earlier than planned was paying off nicely.

I found the road leading up to the Cooper Mine easily enough, following it as it rose, gradually growing steeper. Around 7,600ft I left the road and began traversing to the saddle west of Porter Peak. I found no ducks or use trail marking the usual DPS route, but the route-finding was easy enough. From the saddle I still had more than a thousand feet to climb up the broad SW Ridge, finally reaching the summit of Porter just before 9a. It was a bit windy and chilly at the top, but not too cold - at least the sun was shining with hardly a cloud in the sky. The views were somewhat muted, due most likely to dust kicked up in the desert by the windy conditions. I found Matthew's and Rick's names on the last page of the register, much as I expected. I have to say the peaks sees more visitors than I would have guessed beforehand. The significant elevation gain (more than 7,000ft from Ballarat) doesn't seem much of a deterrent. True, the usual DPS route involves a good deal less effort on foot (more in driving), so perhaps a majority do it in that fashion.

The traverse between Porter and Sentinel is pretty straightforward, little bushwhacking and a moderate stroll along the crest of the Panamints. One has fine views looking down the deep canyons on either side (Happy Canyon to the west, Johnson Canyon to the east). It took just about 2 hours to reach the higher Sentinel Peak, a bit less than 4 miles to the north. Sentinel Peak has two summits, the register found at NE summit, the easier of the two to reach. It wasn't at all obvious which of the two might be higher, but since the SE summit was a good half hour away, I didn't wander over to check it out for myself. Sentinel turns out to be even more popular than Porter, probably because it is higher and not too far from the abandoned (put still popular) mining town of Panamint City, located below in Surprise Canyon to the NW.

From the summit of Sentinel, I followed the standard ridge route down to the Wyoming Mine located high above and south of Panamint City. An old tractor can be found here along with several open mine shafts and a few dilapidated buildings. The main shaft has an old ventilation system still strapped along the walls of the mine shaft, suggesting it goes back pretty far. I walked in only as far as I could see without a headlamp, leaving it to others for further exploration (I'm a little nervous about finding bad air in such places). The cross-country portion of the trek now ended, I followed the road down the canyon walls to Panamint City. It was getting warmer, uncomfortably so, and I eagerly sought out the shade on the porch of one of the buildings where I took a short break. Among the abandoned works, there is a 30-foot furnace chimney that looks like it may survive only another 10 years or so - damage to the lower part looks like it will give way to vandals at some point in the future. This was the largest abandoned city I'd encountered yet, with around a dozen buildings still standing and several vehicles left in various states of slow decay.

Leaving Panamint City, I continued down Surprise Canyon. This might have been more interesting if it weren't for the combination of uncomfortably warm temperatures with tedious washbed walking along the road. It has been years since anyone had driven on this road and nature has slowly reclaimed much of it through creek action and flash floods. Like in Pleasant Canyon, springs flow over portions of the road in the middle of the canyon and I managed to lose the route several times. Some surprisingly fierce bushwhacking was encountered before I'd find the road/trail again. Still lower in the canyon, the roadbed had been completely washed out (a huge flash flood in 1991, I believe), leaving a tricky descent through a narrow, bedrock-exposed portion of the canyon. This was actually the most interesting climbing of the day, and it was surprising to find that a use trail had developed over the years through this section.

The lowest part of the canyon was pure grind as the air heated up to over 90F before I reached the driveable portion of the route at Chris Wicht Camp. Several dozen vehicles and remnants of heavy machinery were sequestered in a flat area here, cordoned off with "Hazardous Site" signs. All of it was crap left over from the mining boom, and it looked like it was here to sit and rot for another hundred years or more. A recent burn had swept through the area giving it an even more desolate feel than usual.

The hike back to Ballarat was several more hours of stroke-inducing heat. It was 100F when I got back to the van at 5:30p, making for a 14hr outing. I was immediately greeted by two snarling, yapping dogs, one of which I could have dropkicked over the Ballrat store, the other a far more serious matter. I tried calming them (and myself) by talking nicely to them, but they wanted none of my friendship - only my hide it would seem. After a minute of rigid paralysis, wondering which flank of my hind quarters was to be attacked first, an older woman came by to shoo them away. Thankfully they obeyed, leaving me to some peace. She was a nice enough lady (all the more so for saving my skin), telling me they wouldn't hurt anybody. Maybe so, but that drooling, foaming mouth agape in a snarling grimace and barring sharp, yellowed teeth had me fooled. Needless to say, it didn't take me long to get the heck out of there. I'd had enough of desert and the heat and dogs. I was now looking forward to the Sierra, which had been visible to the NW from the summits. Recent snows had left a surprisingly bright crown of white at the higher elevations, and this cool, delicious snow was now beckoning - and so I went, heading north and west on SR190 in search of the Owens Valley and the eastern flanks of the Sierra.


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