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What's a visit to Death Valley without a climb of its highest point, Telescope Peak? The east side of the peak goes from below sea level to more than 11,000ft in fifteen miles, one the more dramatic changes in elevation that one can find in all the lower 48. While others have tackled that difficult climb in a very long day, I would be taking the easy way out, using the trail starting at over 7,000ft from the north side (which 95%+ of the others visitors do as well!). I'll save that more brutal version for another time.
Evan and I had come to Death Valley to tackle a handful of peaks that were both range highpoint (Evan's interest) and DPS peaks (my interest). Telescope qualifies for both and more, having one of the greatest prominences in the state and one of the few places in Death Valley where one can find bonafide trees. Before heading up to the trailhead we stopped at the historic charcoal kilns a few miles from the end of the road. More than a hundred years ago, trees cut from the slopes of the Panamint Range were burned inside the kilns with low oxygen levels to create charcoal, which in turn was used for high temperature smelting at another location some miles away (where you can guess they had no trees). The kilns were used for only a few years, and combined with several restoration projects since they last saw service, represent the best preserved kilns of this type.
After our short visit we continued up the road as far as we could go - not quite reaching our intended starting point at Mahogany Flat. Frozen snow on the steep road gave Evan's camper more than it could handle. After slipping a few times, Evan backed the truck down the road to the Thorndike Campground, about a mile below Mahogany Flat where we left it in relative safety.
Setting out at 8:30a, we took 20 minutes to hike up to the official start of the trail. Evan signed us into the register we found there, noting two other parties having started earlier in the morning. The trail starts at a saddle along the long, north-running ridge, then skirts the east side of the ridge as it makes its way up to a saddle south of Rogers Peak. It took us an hour to make this initial ascent, for the most part quite enjoyable with sun, great views into Death Valley, and some snow to keep things interesting. Telescope Peak came into view halfway to the saddle, and from our vantage it looked to be covered in a good deal more snow than we were prepared for - no snowshoes on this trip.
At the saddle we encountered a strong wind blowing out of the west and across the ridge, and we began to put on more clothes in an effort to keep warm. After skirting around the west side of Bennett Peak, we crossed another saddle and began the ascent of Telescope itself from the northeast side. Around 11a we caught up to the first party, a pair of gentlemen from Vermont who seemed wholey unaffected by the cold wind that had Evan and I wearing gloves and wishing they were better insulated. The pair were wearing shorts, softly laughing at us in our cold-weather gear. It would appear that Vermonters are used to this sort of thing. In another twenty minutes we caught up to the lead party, a solo hiker who had started about an hour before us. As with the others, we stopped to chat for a short while before continuing on our way.
Now in the lead, we had to break trail through about 8 inches of snow that was mostly covered in breakable, wind-packed crust. Not altogether difficult, but in a few steeper sections we exercised caution. The last section of trail was a particularly windy stretch climbing the last bit of the North Ridge directly. We reached the summit of Telescope just before noon but we couldn't stay long. The wind was howling at this point, and we could hardly stand up or talk to each other. We signed into the register in quick fashion and snapped a few hasty pictures before beating a retreat to shelter in some trees about 100 yards down the trail. The solo hiker came up as we were starting our retreat, so I stayed around a short while longer to snap some photos of him (he had brought only the camera on his cell phone) which I would email to him when I got back to town.
A short distance further down the trail we came across the Vermonters just before they were about to move up to the ridge and into the brunt of the wind. They put on windbreakers before doing so, but never put on the long pants they carried in their backpacks - these guys were tough, in my book anyway. Evan had no interest in tagging the other two subsidiary peaks, so he continued on the trail while I went up and over Bennett along the spine of the ridge, catching up to Evan again on the other side. Changing his mind, he decided to join me for Rogers, primarily to take the alternate route down along the service road. The summit of Rogers is crowned with a communications tower, probably used to provide cell phone coverage to Death Valley, Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, and a few other surrounding communities. We ducked inside the service shed we found with an unlocked door, allowing us a brief respite from the windy conditions outside.
Taking the road on the north side back required a little more than an hour's time to return to Mahogany Flat. The solo hiker had already returned to his SUV, where his father had waited while he'd hiked to the summit. The two were on a 4x4 trip through the desert, something the father (an old miner) and son had been doing for many years. They were kind enough to give us a ride back to our truck parked below, despite the cramped conditions required to manage it (they had the back seats down and the vehicle full of gear, so two of us rode haphazardly squeezed into available spaces).
Evan and I drove into Stovepipe Wells where we got showers before heading out to the end of the paved road beyond Ubehebe Crater and driving out to the trailhead for Tin and Dry Mtns. We had dinner in the camper while making plans for Tin the next day, bedding down well before 10a. The winds had died down by this time and the weather was looking up for the next few days. Who would have thought the desert could be so cold?
For more information see these SummitPost pages: Telescope Peak - Bennett Peak - Rogers Peak
This page last updated: Sat Mar 1 19:08:35 2008
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