Sun, Jan 20, 2008
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The easiest route up Death Valley's Smith Mtn approaches from the east via a somewhat arduous drive on dirt roads. Or so I've heard. Not wanting to subject the van to crappy roads, I decided on the tougher approach from the west where I could start from the pavement. With some 6,000ft of gain it would be a lot of uphill work, but the mileage was fairly low, less than four miles one way. And since the first mile across the desert is relatively flat, that meant the route would be quite steep. Without any beta on the approach beforehand, I simply picked out a reasonable-looking ridge from the topo map, marked a coordinate for the nearest point along the road, then drove the road the night before until my GPS indicated I had arrived. I pulled to the side of the road at a turnout, crawled into the back of the van, and slept snuggly through the rest of the night.
I was up around 7a when the sun was first lighting the eastern slopes of Telescope Peak and the Panamint Range across the vast expanse of Death Valley. It was not as cold as it had been the previous two mornings, mostly owing to my much lower starting elevation - nearly 200ft below sea level. Before 7:30a I had left the van and started across the desert for the mountain. Shaded by the vast bulk of the mountain I was climbing, it would take nearly an hour before I would be able to take in the warming rays of the sun. The ridge I chose to ascend turned out to be a fairly good one, mostly class 2 with a small bit of class 3 to keep it sporting. Most of the other ridges around me looked like they would also have been climbable. The deep canyon on my right side was another story with towering dry waterfalls that would have been impossible to surmount. I imagine it would make for a very sporting bit of canyoneering - Rick Kent and his 200m ropes came to mind as I stared into the chasm below me.
The ascent from the west was steep and quite sustained, far more than I had expected. This was probably because I had really failed to do the mental math ahead of time to calculate the average slope: 6,000ft in 3 miles tranlates to 6,000ft up with 15,000ft horizontal, making for a 40% grade (roughly a 20 degree angle). That's a lot of uphill. I toiled away for nearly four hours with hardly a rest, taking in the sweeping views of Death Valley and the Panamint Range behind, growing more vast and more surreal the higher I climbed. I had found a few ducks on my ridge from the start (and several on the ridge across the deep canyon), serving no real purpose in navigation, but letting me know I wasn't the first with the idea. My ridge trended generally northeast until I was above 4,600ft where it joined with another ridge heading east-west towards the summit. A larger than usual duck marked the junction. The angle of the ascent eased as I moved onto this ridge heading east, and with a few minor bumps to climb up and over along the way, I was at the summit just before 11:30a.
The register I found at the summit dated back more than 40 years, still plenty of room left in the book for this not-so-often visited peak. Perusing the register revealed many of the usual DPS names. Most of them had come up from the east, though it was not uncommon to find entries with western approaches - perhaps I wasn't the only climber worried for the sake of his vehicle. One climber had made it even more difficult by first ascending to Peak 5,805ft to the north before tackling Smith Mtn - with a nearly 800-foot drop between them. He then returned the same way, making for 7,600ft of gain. The DPS register and USGS marker were both located on the western summit, but it was obvious that the higher point was the eastern summit a short ten minute's walk away. The western summit had been chosen by the DPS because of its superior views to Death Valley which was hard to argue with. Still, I made the short hike up to the eastern summit to satisfy my purist fanaticism before starting my descent.
Rather than descend the same route, I chose to follow the ridge to the south, the same one I had espied across the deep canyon. This turned out to be a little trickier than I had expected. More than once I had begun to worry I had descended the wrong way. But with only some minor corrections along the way, I found my way down the intended route, finding the climbing to be much the same as the ascent route. The descent took less than three hours, and by 2:45p I was back at the van. Not enough time to climb another peak, but plenty of time to rest up for the next day.
I drove east on SR178 over Jubilee and Salsberry passes, an enjoyable drive through some scenic areas of the park (Ok, they're pretty much all scenic drives). I drove into Shoshone to spend the night, but after failing to get my laptop hooked up to the WiFi touted there (though extremely friendly, the hostess was fairly useless at helping with the problem), I got a refund (and a free shower), had dinner across the street at the only diner for many miles, then spent the night up north from there in order to tackle Brown Peak the following morning.
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Smith Mountain
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