Mon, May 12, 2008
With half a dozen options the night before, we narrowed it down to two main possibilities: Keynot/Inyo or Sandy/Last Chance. The latter was my preference primarily because Mike's Jeep would make the drive in far more tolerable fashion than most any other vehicle, given that there were miles upon miles of dirt roads to negotiate. Mike was indifferent for the most part, so Sandy Point and its neighbor in the remote Last Chance Range won the day.
Though neither peak would rank high for the quality of their scrambling, we enjoyed both peaks and the outing overall. We had no route-finding issues, no injuries (serious ones, anyway), no trouble finding the trailheads or approach roads, and everything went pretty much as planned. Maybe that's why it was enjoyable - it's nice to have outings now and then that don't put the fear of God in you and simply allow you to enjoy the time outdoors.
It took us about two hours to drive from Lone Pine north to Big Pine and east through the desert ranges. SR168 to Death Valley Road, past the Waucoba turnoff, over numerous small ranges, into Eureka Valley, and on up into the Last Chance Range. We had expected the weather to warm up considerably as it had the previous day, but it remained in the comfortable range most of the day. We noted a strange 15 degree drop in temperature as we drove across Eureka Valley, apparently passing through some sort of thermal sheer zone. Odd changes of more than ten degrees in a few miles happened several other times through the day as well. Aside from the well-graded road we were cruising along on, there seemed to be almost no evidence of human development. There was a large mining operation (soda, borax, or similar) in the middle of Eureka Valley, but almost nothing else. Joshua trees dominated much of the landscape in places, with a surprising number of wildflowers still in bloom, particularly along the margins of the road. Mike was able to average more than 50mph on most of Death Valley Road, a moderately washboarded grade that would have had me crawling along at a third that speed had I taken my van out to these peaks. I was almost ready to run out and buy a Jeep by the end of the day.
Our first peak was Sandy Point located about five and a half miles south of Death Valley Road. There's no well-defined trailhead, and finding a place to park off the side of the road without violating NPS rules is challenging - you aren't allowed to park on the road, and you can't drive off-road. This leaves you at the mercy of developed turnouts which are almost non-existent on many of the roads in Death Valley. We found a sort of quasi-turnout, more like parking on a high berm alongside the road. I doubt it was legal in the strict sense. But we weren't too worried about NPS personnel driving out to this very remote section of the park.
We started across the almost-flat basin southeast of the road, heading for a gap in the adjacent hillside about a mile from the road. The ground was surprisingly soft, leaving well-defined boot prints with almost every step - almost like walking on the moon. The soft, dry earth was partially covered with small, gravel-sized volcanic debris in an unexpectedly uniform pattern. It was easy to navigate across the low-cropped brush, though we were unable to find any semblence of a use-trail anywhere in this part of the route. We turned east when we reached our side canyon, hiking this for another mile before heading up to gain the main north-south ridge running across the crest of the range. There were no steep sections of the route anywhere, only one small section of rocky outcroppings along the ridge, a pleasant stroll for the most part. As for the past several days, the views were hazy throughout the region, moderate winds kicking up dust and sand and obscuring views beyond about ten miles. Under clearer conditions the views must be quite impressive with Death Valley off to the east side and Eureka Valley in the opposite direction.
We found vestiges of a use trail along the crest though never for more than about fifty yards at a time. There were only two ducks that I noticed the whole time, indicicating the easier route around the east side of the single rocky outcrop. Mike missed even these two ducks, but had little trouble negotiating the class 3 outcrop more directly. We paused periodically to photograph wildflowers that caught our fancy, often one of several colorful cactus varieties in bloom, or particularly bright or abundant specimens. There was very little wildlife seen the entire day, only a scant few of the lizards that had been seen the previous day in the Inyo Mountains. We did find a rare (to us) horned lizard, the only one I've seen in the wild to date. I'm sure they are quite common through the desert landscape and it may only be their shyness that keeps them from being seen more often.
It took about two and half hours to reach the summit at a leisurely pace, where we arrived just after 10a. There were several benchmarks and the usual DPS ammo box with registers. The oldest register was dated to 1976, but for some reason all the completed pages were torn out of it. A second register dating to 1988 remained unmolested through the present date. As usual, Doug Mantle scored the most entries (six or seven), and there was the usual populating of DPS characters throughout the pages.
We returned by much the same route we had taken, making a slight diversion in dropping off the ridge into the basin below. It had the advantage of allowing better views as we stayed longer on the ridge, but on the downside it involved some sidehilling which is rarely a pleasant experience. My overall rating of the alternative is neutral and I can't recommend it over the standard DPS route.
Back at the Jeep by 12:30p, it did not take long to drive to the second trailhead for Last Chance Mountain. Driving down a particularly bad stretch of washboarded road, we reached Crankshaft Junction where we found, of all things, a bunch of old crankshafts marking the location. One can imagine that it started out as a single crankshaft lost by some luckless soul when his car broke down in the middle of nowhere, and over the years has grown into a historical joke of sorts. You can google up a half dozen pictures of the place and notice that the crankshafts are arranged differently in each of them. Had I noticed this ahead of time I might have been inspired to make my own bit of desert artwork, but alas we left undisturbed, instead heading north to Last Chance Spring.
The DPS guide describes a cabin at Last Chance Spring, but it was burnt to the ground some years earlier as we found upon arriving at the end of the road. The road condition for the last several miles was suitable for only high clearance vehicles and the addition of 4WD was certainly a plus, if not a requirement. High on a hillside north of the trailhead was a fenced pasture of several acres. Mike mentioned that it was that last grazing easement inside Death Valley NP, but I reminded him of the cows we had seen inside the park just the day prior on the west side of the Nelson Range. One might expect the small pasture to support the grazing of a cow or two, but not much more. There looked to be no active grazing at the moment, but we found enough cow poop later on our hike to assure us that the site hasn't been abandoned altogether. How it could be economical to truck cattle back into this remote site for marginal grazing is beyond me.
We started up the canyon shortly after 1p, passing by the spring in the first quarter mile. There was only a trickle of running water at the time, not enough to fill a water bottle if we had needed to. The large steel trough built into the hillside to catch the spring was heavily overgrown with brush, grass, moss, and other organic matter that I would not have dared to dip in for a drink unless desperately pressed to do so. We continued past the spring, turning left where directed. We came to a fork in the wash where we weren't sure if we were supposed to go left or right as described by the DPS guide. A short class 3 waterfall was supposed to be lurking upstream not far from where we stood. Rather than pick one way or the other, we climbed onto the start of the ridge that makes up the majority of the DPS route. For good or bad, it bypassed the dry waterfall altogether.
Unlike the route this morning, this one was steep, albeit short (only half the distance for Sandy Point). It also had a good use trail for most of the route which we made good use of wherever we could. It took us just under two hours to reach the summit along the ridgeline, punctuated in a few places with rocky outcrops to lend some diversion to the otherwise easy ascent. Mike had begun to slow down on the second half of the climb and I reached the summit some ten or fifteen minutes before him. I found a stiff, cold wind blowing over the summit from the northwest, forcing me to hunker down on the south side of the summit among some trees as best I could while I waited for Mike to join me. I put on my jacket and spent some time perusing the summit register. It dated back to 1976, and among the many entries was one from the prolific peakbagger Andy Smatko from 1985. Andy spent almost four decades scouring the hills of California, doing his most ambitious ascents in the High Sierra during the 1960s and 1970s. His list of first ascents in the Sierra is second only to Norman Clyde.
By the time Mike joined me it began to look like the weather was going to take a nasty turn for the worst. A huge wall of dark clouds and misty skies was moving in from the same direction as the wind, and it looked like we might be getting wet within the half hour. After signing ourselves into the register, we beat a hasty retreat, jogging on and off for about half of the descent. By that time the weather started looking less threatening, with the bulk of whatever rain it was carrying passing off to the east. I went from jacket and numb, gloved hands at the summit to t-shirt and renewed sweating in a short time frame. The weather was proving to be unusually changeable today.
It was after 4:30p when we finally returned to the Jeep, drinking the last of our water, cracking open the Mike's Lemonade we had chilling in the cooler, and starting off on the long drive back to Lone Pine. It had been a fine day out in Death Valley, and Mother's Day to boot. Which reminds me - Thank you to all the Moms out there!
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Sandy Point - Last Chance Mountain
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