Sat, Mar 8, 2008
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Peak 8,460ft is a prominent peak in the Grapevine Mountains located in the northeast portion of Death Valley National Park, at least when viewed from the highway west of the peak. From the east, it is dominated by the higher summits of the range, Grapevine and Wahguyhe peaks. The range straddles the Nevada/California border, and Peak 8,460ft has the distinction of being the highest peak in the range that lies in California. In the pursuit of all the California range highpoints, my friend Evan had a dilemma as to which peak should be climbed for such ranges. I contended the highest peak in the range should be climbed, regardless of which state it fell in, while Evan felt that the highest point inside California should be reached. A few months earlier we had approached from the east and climbed Grapevine Peak. Hoping to also reach Peak 8,460ft, Evan was confronted with the rough terrain separating the peaks along with a 3,000-foot elevation loss between them (6,000ft going both ways). It was too much we decided, and Peak 8,460ft was left unclimbed. A month later I was back in Death Valley in one of the small stores, perusing Chuck Gerhardt's book on backpacking Death Valley. One of the trips describes a route up Moonlight Canyon (unofficially named, perhaps derived from Daylight Pass located at the south end of the range) and over the same saddle we had climbed on our way to Grapevine. I reasoned this canyon must go right by Peak 8,460ft and would provide an approach route from the west. Yet another month went by and I was again back in Death Valley, or just outside it in Panamint Valley having just climbed Maturango Peak. I had originally planned to drive to Lone Pine in order to climb New York Butte the following day, but it was getting dark and I didn't feel like driving the 60 miles to get there. So I went to Stovepipe Wells instead, obtaining a shower and dinner, and in the process decided to give Peak 8,460ft a try the next day.
As described in Gerhardt's book, I parked 1.6 miles north of the emergency water tank (signed on the road as "Radiator Water"), putting me south of the canyon's mouth. It probably would have been shorter to park another quarter to half mile north on the road, but I wasn't sure how hard it might be to cut across the grain of the wash (not so hard I found out on the return). It was 6a, just before sunrise when I headed out. Temperatures were in the 50s when I started out, so I carried little extra clothing - just a light jacket. But as I found out the previous day, I would drink a lot more water than on my visits the previous months as the daytime temperatures moved into the 70s and low 80s. Thus my small pack was weighed down with two and half quarts, twice what I was used to carrying. I had no map with me since I had not planned to climb the peak beforehand, but the night prior I had gotten a list of coordinates from my TOPO! software which I loaded into my GPS. It would be perfectly fine for navigational purposes and aided me in identifying the correct peak - no easy feat once inside the twisty canyon.
I hiked for two hours up the broad wash in order to reach the mouth of the canyon, no small matter since it climbed over 2,000ft in four miles. The vegetation was sparse enough to be of no hindrance, but the rocky nature of the wash beat the soles of my feet relentlessly and they would be battered and sore before the long day was through. Much of the approach to the canyon was shaded during the early morning hours while the sun was blocked behind the range before me. Once in the canyon it was blocked by the high walls, though the sun got through in a number of places where the canyon walls gave way to more gradual slopes on the south side. I found none of the usual signs of previous visitors one finds on the DPS peaks - no beaten path, no ducks, and what footsteps I did find in the main canyon were indistiguishable from the hooveprints of sheep and deer that also used this route.
There were no serious impediments found in the canyon, much as I expected (it would be hard to describe a "backpacker's route" that went over dry waterfall obstacles and required class 3 or higher climbing), mostly just a long, pleasant hike up the canyon. I marveled at the colorations and steepness of the walls found along the way and the vegetation that clung tenaciously to the bits of soil in the cracks. Animal bones were found at intervals, including a horn from a bighorn sheep and an antler from a deer. After another hour I had finally reached the exit point in the canyon. I was happy to find that the ridgeline ascent I had picked out on the map based on contour intervals looked mostly climbable. One section high on the ridge looked to offer a challenge, but I trusted to past experience that it would prove easier once I was nearer to it. Far steeper than the wash I had been ascending, the South Ridge of Peak 8,460ft slowed my progress considerably. Toiling up the rocky slopes, I took in the views surrounding me - Grapevine Peak to the east, the snowy north-facing slopes to the south, and eventually the far-off Sierra Nevada as I climbed higher.
The rocky section I had worried about from below proved to be of little consequence as I was able to pass it using a talus chute on the right. Above that, not visible from the canyon floor, I found a surprising series of rocky obstacles as the ridge narrowed and the slopes on either side steepened. Lingering snows prevented me from bypassing much of the ridge to the right, and steep cliffs barred alternatives on the left. I picked my way along the ridge, and though the scrambling never exceeded easy class 3, I was kept nervous, wondering around each corner if I would be stymied in my effort - such is the nature of climbing an unknown route. One can only marvel at the boldness of early climbers who must have felt this way all the time when venturing to the Sierra and other high places.
It was just before 11:30a when I reached the summit of the peak. There was no register (I expected to find one placed by Gordon MacLeod and Barbara Lilley - seems they've hit up most of the obscure peaks in the state), no cairn, no sign that anyone had been there before me (though I highly suspect there has, of course). I resisted the urge to build a cairn myself, choosing instead to leave the summit just as I had found it for the next visitor. The views were far better than I had imagined. Though the eastern view was dominated by the higher peaks in the range, there was a tremendous view to the west, nearly 180 degrees looking down on 50 miles of Death Valley Wash which drains the northern half of the park towards the south. Across the broad valley rose the Cottonwood, Last Chance, Saline, Inyo, and Sierra ranges, in succession. Visibility was good, but not excellent as the wind was starting to rise. Although this has a clearing effect in most mountainous areas, in the deserts it kicks up sand and dust from below. I had to put on my jacket while at the summit, though I took it off again once I started to descend. The wind increased a good deal through the afternoon and visibility would drop to about 10 miles by the time I was done.
Rather than retrace my steps down the South Ridge, I decided to take what looked like an easier ridge just to the west of my ascent route. It was much steeper than the South Ridge, but lacked the rocky pinnacles and obstacles to slow things down, at least initially. I made swift progress heading down steep slopes, sandy in places with some fine boot skiing. Halfway down I came across a band of cliffs that brought me up short. My efforts to find a way down through the band went for naught, and I ended up bailing off the ridge through a steep chute on the west side. This went well, without cliffing out, to bring me to a side canyon below. I followed this narrow canyon, brushy in places, down to the main wash of Moonlight Canyon. There were several dry waterfalls
Once I was back in Moonlight Canyon, all my concerns about cliffs and route-finding dissolved, and I was able to make my way back with an easy mind. Several more hours went by as I had an even more pleasant descent of the canyon, and just after 3:30p I was back at the car. Not quite ten hours, but still a long day for a desert peak - with nearly 7,000ft of gain, I don't expect this one is going to become popular anytime soon.
Not more than a month later Evan had also found his way to the summit, though by a significantly easier route from the north. The approach was a bit harder over some dirt roads, but the climb itself was not nearly as strenuous, he reported.
Several years later I ran across a post on Death-Valley.net that describes the canyon I ascended as "North Moonlight Canyon". Moonlight Canyon appears to be the next large canyon to the south which eventually reaches a pass connecting to Phinney Canyon on the east side and the regular approach route for the DPS peaks in this range.
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