Peak 6,980ft P1K
Peak 6,900ft P300
Eureka Dunes P500

Fri, Jan 20, 2017

With: Brian French

Eureka Dunes
Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


What a difference a day makes. A Pacific storm rolling across the state seemed to have broken up yesterday, leaving us with sunny blue skies and a night full of stars that you can only get in such remote places as Eureka Valley. Today started off as overcast, much as the previous day, but the weather only deteriorated as the day wore on. Snow, fierce wind, rain - a little bit of everything except sun. We were climbing two unnamed summits in the Last Chance Range on the east side of the valley. It was fairly short at only six miles roundtrip and 4,500ft of gain, but would take us more than 5hrs. A second, 5mi outing we had planned for the afternoon would have to wait for the following day.

Having spent a third night at the Eureka Valley Campground, we drove about 4mi up the road towards Dedeckera Canyon before parking a little more than half a mile from the mouth of the canyon to the east that we planned to circumnavigate, going up the ridge to the south, tagging the two summits with a short traverse across the range crest, then down the ridge to the north of the canyon. It worked nicely, but took longer than expected due to the weather conditions we encountered enroute. Clouds obscured the upper half of the range the entire day, but we had no trouble finding our way onto the ridge just south of the canyon's mouth. We climbed several thousand feet of mostly class 2 rock with a few short, easy class 3 sections. The rock was damp but otherwise good footing, comprised mostly of metamorphic rocks of various colors. As we were making our way up the steep slopes it began to drizzle ever so lightly, soon turning to small flakes of snow. So far so good, since snow is generally better than rain for staying warm and dry(er). With another 1,400ft to go to the first summit, the wind began to pick up, sending us rummaging through our packs for warmer layers. Shirt, fleece, rain jacket, balaclava, wool gloves and overmittens would complete my ensemble even before we were done with the climb to Peak 6,980ft. Brian was similarly attired as the snow came down heavier, eventually leaving us with several inches on the ground.

It was 11a when we reached the first summit in near-whiteout conditions. We found a cairn that held a register left by Wes Shelberg (a prolific San Diego climber) in 1979, scouting the summit for the Sierra Club's DPS group. Seems he found a rare one not first visited by MacLeod and Lilley. Not as popular as yesterday's Marble Mtn, the small book had seven pages of entries. Sue and Vic Henney were the last to visit a year earlier. The wind was cold but not yet fierce, so we struck off north along the crest to our second summit less than a mile away. With visibility so poor, I had to check the GPSr regularly to make sure we were heading in the right direction and not down some subsidiary ridge off one side or the other. A map and compass would have been difficult to manage with the blowing snow and wind, and I was happy to be able to navigate without taking my mittens off. Our second summit, Peak 6,900ft was about 1/4mi off the main crest to the west and when we turned left to leave the crest and drop to a saddle, the wind began to pick up considerably. The poor desert shrubs that managed to occupy the harsh, rocky soil had become crusted with snow and ice and the scene looked more like something from the High Sierra rather than one of the driest places in the state. We reached the second summit by 11:45a, finding a small cairn encased in the white stuff, but no register. Brian had brought up a pasta jar with a small pad of paper and pen, so we left these on the modest, forlorn summit before starting down. The wind began to intensify with a roar that began to resemble the summit of Mt. Shasta in a tempest. It seemed crazy that we could run into such weather in the desert but there was no getting around that it was approaching a blizzard. The saving grace was the two great mountain ranges to the west, the Sierra Nevada and the Inyo Mtns, that had wrung much of the storm's moisture already, so the accumulation wasn't that great and never amounted to more than a few inches. Still, it was enough that all was white and we needed to get down.

After about half an hour things started to improve with a decrease in the wind and less snowfall as we lost elevation. The terrain was easy enough that the snow was not much of a hindrance. Brian could be heard behind me whooping and laughing as though he hadn't a care in the world. It was infectious and had me singing Christmas carols into the roar of the wind blowing over our descent ridge. By the time an hour had passed from the second summit the snow had vanished as we found ourselves back in a light drizzle with hardly a breeze anymore. The rock was all wet but much of it was limestone which maintains its excellent traction wet or dry. The hardest sections of the ridge with some mild class 3 were all in the lower half, much easier to manage while wet instead of icy with snow. There was some partial clearing to the west as we descended the last third of the ridge, giving us intermittent views to the valley and dunes below. It was 1:20p by the time we had reached the bottom of the ridge and started across the flats to our truck which was easily visible now about 3/4mi away. I was surprised to find it was as late as it was, realizing we'd not have enough daylight to do the second hike we'd planned for the day. After a brief discussion, I decided to head directly to the Eureka Dunes to climb the highpoint while Brian chose to head back to the truck and return to the campground. He'd climbed it already a few days earlier and preferred to get out of his wet shoes and damp clothes than repeat the sand climb.

It was about two miles across the valley to the dunes, an easy walk despite the light drizzle still falling. When I reached the dunes, I was happy to find that they'd received enough moisture to wet the sand at least 4-5 inches which I gauged by digging into it with the heel of my boot. The moisture gave the sand far better cohesion than when it is dry, making the ascent quite a bit easier than it would have been otherwise. The sand gave way only on the very steepest slopes, not more than about 20yds in two different sections. Though it was still pretty cold out, I enjoyed walking along the crest of the dunes from one end to the other, taking in the limited views of the dry (though now damp) lakebed to the west and the Saline and Last Chance ranges on either side. After reaching the highest point nearer the northeast end of the dunes, I turned left and descended steeply down the slope to the northwest, following the lower ridgeline in that direction back to the campground before 3p.

My first order of business was to start the van to get it warm inside, then logistics with Brian for beer & dinner plans, then a shower. The water that had been set out on the dash had done nothing but stay cold all day, so I resorted to heating water on the stove so I could take a warm shower in the light rain still falling before changing into fresh clothes. The day hadn't worked out as planned but we both considered it a good one with the rather interesting weather to spice up the outing. We would get to bed early so as to facilitate rising early the next morning since we had ambitious plans, but of course the weather might once again get a say in the matter...


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