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The last of three days in Panamint Valley with Brian was spent on a hike that wasn't even on my radar a few days earlier. Peak 10,460ft, also described as "South Telescope" lies on the crest of the range a few miles from Telescope Peak. The easiest way to reach it is by going over Telescope Peak from Mahogany Flat to the north. With snow at the higher elevations, one might need to start lower from the charcoal kilns, a longer effort. While we were hiking in the Argus Range the previous two days, Brian suggested an even tougher approach, up Surprise Canyon. I had been down the canyon once before years ago, on a large loop taking in Portal and Sentinel. Brian had never visited the old mining site and was eager to pay it a visit. After checking the stats, about 16mi and 8,000ft of gain, I agreed to the bold idea, especially since it would make it easier to visit the nearby bonus, Peak 9,980ft, also called 2 O'clock Peak.
We had spent the night camped in one of the many dispersed sites just north of Ballarat, only a few miles from Surprise Canyon. The road is open to the old Novak's Camp (shown as Chris Wicht Camp on the topo map) which burned in 2006. Since then the place has been left for nature to slowly reclaim. There were two vehicles here when we pulled in around 6:30a. After some short preparations, we were on our way upcanyon about 15min later. The first hour and a half were spent negotiating several miles of the wet "narrows" that characterize the lower half of the canyon. As has been pointed out by others in TRs, it's hard to believe that there once was a road going up the canyon. Almost all traces of it have been washed away by floods, brush and time. What remains is an interesting but sometimes wet hike. One's boots remain dry in direct proportion to one's scrambling, creativity and perseverance quotient. The canyon sees a good deal of traffic which means there's no real bushwhacking - a trail can be found through all the brushy sections. More often there are several trail possibilities, the better option not always obvious. We would occasionally separate to explore various threads, always coming back together within a few minutes without any clear advantage one route over the other. Above some of the more difficult narrows sections we would find the remains of an old truck or other vehicle, reminding us that yes, one could actually drive up here at one time. Shortly before we were done with the interesting section, we came across a tent in a flat spot near some brush, its three occupants sleeping soundly. We imagined them having had quite a day carrying backpacks up Surprise Canyon and guessed they were happy to call it a day by the time they reached this spot. Soon after this the canyon opens up, the creek disappearing along with the heavy brush. An hour later we had reached Panamint City, the tall brick chimney hailing us from a distance. We spent about 15min investigating the various buildings, cabins and sights in the old mining town. There was a workshop area with a deisel Chrysler/Nissan generator, various old trucks and a cabin with mattresses and even a working flush toilet. The thought of all the hantavirus floating around kept us from spending too much time there, however.
Outside Panamint City we started up the slope on the north side of the canyon, effectively the South Ridge of Peak 9,980ft. The going is steep, about 3,700ft over the course of just under 2 miles and would take us nearly two and half hours. I had underestimated this a good deal ahead of time, thinking it would take half as much time. The route was decent enough, with good footing for much of it, becoming looser with granite talus for the last 45min or so. The brush never got heavy enough to be a burden and higher up the pinyons and junipers took over, making that aspect easier yet. Though snow was evident down to about 8,000ft on the northern slopes of Sentinel across Surprise Canyon from us, we did not encounter any of the stuff on our sunnier south-facing ridge until we reached the summit. Nearly noon by the time we topped out, we were treated to a fine view of Telescope Peak to the north, Panamint Valley and the Argus Range to the west, Sentinel Peak to the south and our final objective, Peak 10,460ft to the east. We looked around but found no register on our bonus peak.
Though only 3/4mi distance and less than 500ft higher, it would take us a full hour to traverse between the two summits. Part of this was due to the 300-foot drop to the saddle between them, but most of the extra time was used in negotiating the snow that became more prevalent on the way up from the saddle and presented some difficulties. We had carried no crampons or snowshoes, hoping to find our way around the snow sections we might encounter, and for the most part this is what we did. Still, there were a few places where we had to cross some slippery snow and these we did most cautiously. Brian was more adept at finding his way through this bit of maze and easily beat me to the summit. I found him perusing the one-page register and eating snacks when I joined him just before 1p. Where we had hoped to take 4.5hrs to reach the summit it had taken us more than six - not one of my better estimates, as it turned out. The register had been left by Keith Christensen in 2010 (though he forgot to date his entry) with an additional eight parties visiting before our own. Joining us at the summit were perhaps 10,000 ladybugs that had convened there for an orgy or sewing convention or whatever it is that they do in such large numbers. It was impossible to move about the summit area without squashing a few and luckily their brethren were not the vindictive types.
Rather than return the way we had over Peak 9,980ft, we figured it might be faster and more interesting to descend south along the crest before dropping back down into Surprise Canyon. Though there was snow along this route, it was not the steep, slippery stuff we'd found on the west side and much easier to negotiate. We had gone only about half a mile south along the crest before looking for a way down off to our right. Brian had been paying better attention during the ascent and commented that there were cliffs on this side that we'd need to avoid. Looking down, there weren't any obvious impediments and I sort of poo-pooed his concern, figuring we'd find a way down, one way or another. We did, but not without a bit of backtracking and at least half a dozen concerning sections that we just managed to get down. It turned out to be some fun downhill scrambling, including a 40-foot tunneling section at one point. Lower down things got decidedly less fun as we ran into thorny brush of the nastiest type that would grab at all manners of clothing and skin. Further down we got to the dry creekbottom of Water Canyon where we found more brush, remnants of old roads and a forgotten mining cabin at Thompson Camp as well. In all we spent about an hour and a half on the descent from the crest which didn't save us any time in the end, but the unexpected scrambling opportunities made it worthwhile.
Where we dropped onto one of the main roads in Surprise Canyon just above Panamint City, we came across a family of backpackers, the same three we had found sleeping in their tent lower down the canyon earlier in the day. They were headed a little further upcanyon to a spring where they planned to spend the night. We came across other backpackers as we descended the canyon past the ghost town, including a solo fellow just below the city and a group of three just past the narrows section who did not seem to appreciate its challenges. We scrambled back through the various obstacles of the narrows a second time, often using different trail threads that seemed better choices for keeping our feet drier this second time. It was nearly 6p by the time we returned back to the parking lot at Chris Wicht Camp, easily the longest of the past three days.
We just managed to shower back at camp before sunset, then went our separate ways - Brian needed to get back to Bishop to work on a client's house in the morning while I needed to start heading south to meet up with the family on Friday. I got as far as Ridgecrest where I gassed up, bought some groceries and responded to some late emails. I found a quiet dirt lot just outside of town along SR178 to spend the night. The rest of this trip would be on much shorter outings though still interesting. I was still wondering where all the desert wildflowers were since we'd seen almost none in Panamint Valley...
This page last updated: Sun May 16 19:20:07 2021
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