Star Peak P5K WSC / GBP
Van Zant Peak
Thunder Mountain P300
Sacred Point

Sun, Apr 25, 2010

With: Matthew Holliman
Mike Larkin
Bill Peters

Story Photos / Slideshow Map Profile


This was kind of a "freebie" in that I was in Reno with the family while my wife was reffing a regional volleyball tournament and I was watching the kids. She had suggested that Sunday I might go out for a longer hike on my own with the only condition that I had to be back in Reno by 4p when it was time for the family to head home. Not really expecting much enthusiasm for a last minute request, I sent emails to Matthew, Bill, and Mike to see if any of them might be interested in joining me, and to my surprise all three responded in the affirmative. Since I would have an alternative ride back to San Jose, I no longer had to return by the 4p deadline. After tossing out a number of options we settled on Star Peak, an ultra prominence and the highpoint of Pershing County. It was about a two hour drive from Reno so we made plans to meet at 4a at the Reno Ramada where I was staying.

Though Nevada casinos are used to night life and odd hours, I felt awkward walking through the hotel lobby at that late hour, my pack loaded with snowshoes, axe, and ski poles. No one bothered to call security, so I was allowed to walk out unmolested and set up camp outside the entrance to wait for the others. Matthew showed up about five minutes early, the other two together in Bill's Forester about fifteen minutes after the hour. With all our gear and bodies piled into Bill's car, we headed east on I80 for the two hour plus drive to Star.

On the way we had some small discussion on which approach we should use, from the west via Eldorado Canyon (standard approach) or from the east via Star Canyon. We had no clear consensus on which might be better and it wasn't until we were within a few miles of the turnoff for the west approach that we forced the decision on our driver by saying, "You pick, Bill." Bill chose the east approach. This turned out to be the better of the two in hindsight as our planned loop to the other peaks was better done from the east where the long traverse between Star and Van Zant would not have to be repeated in the opposite direction to return to the trailhead.

It was easy to spot Star Canyon from a distance as we drove south on SR400 to get around to the east side of the range. A dirt road comes running straight out of the canyon to the highway where an historical marker for Star City is located, marking the turnoff. With the sun already up, it was 6:40a before we had driven into the canyon to a small grassy meadow where we planned to start. We did not drive in as far as possible, but rather to the junction with a road coming down from the north side of the canyon that would mark the completion of our loop. From this spot we started hiking up the canyon west towards Star Peak.

We found ourselves lost within the first ten minutes. Not horribly lost, mind you, but enough confusion that we were forced to stop and consult our maps. It looked rather comical with this seasoned group of peakbaggers. Between us we had three maps, but the one I carried showed only the approach from Eldorado Canyon where I had assumed we'd be starting. Bill's map showed more of the detail on the east side, but not all of it. Matthew's map showed the complete area, but at such a scale that it was unreadable by anyone over 40yrs of age. Our confusion came when we had reached a junction with another road heading into a side canyon to the south and we wondered if we were supposed to take this turn. After careful consideration based on decades of map reading experience and wilderness skills we concluded that we weren't altogether sure but should probably continue west on the main road. And so we did.

There was no snow in the canyon where we started, but there was plenty higher up, so we were all loaded down with our snowshoes as well as other gear. The desert was as green as it probably ever gets in these parts, the road muddy in places but not really making things difficult for us. Though a bit chilly, the weather was near ideal for hiking.

From our starting point around 5,800ft we hiked up the road for more than a mile until we were at the mouth of our ascent canyon at about 6,800ft. The snow was nearly continuous on the mostly north-facing slopes, making for a definitive boundary between boots and snowshoes. During the drive in I had noticed this canyon rises fairly smoothly to the summit (actually the north summit) and thought it would make a good ascent route. The others chose to take an initially steeper route up to the NE Ridge, so our paths diverged as soon as we had switched to snowshoes. Matthew had started to follow my route wearing crampons, but changed his mind and followed the others when he began to posthole almost immediately. The postholing didn't stop on the other route, forcing him to switch to snowshoes, regardless.

I kept a steady pace climbing up the main gully in the broad canyon, keeping the others in view behind me to the left. Bill's initial lead was soon overtaken as I found the three of them falling steadily behind me as I climbed further. What I only found out later was that the steep slope they were ascending was poorly consolidated and even with snowshoes they were punching through to the brush below, sometimes up to their waist in an entirely frustrating affair. Meanwhile I was having none of this trouble in gully. I had a few interesting finds of note, one the front snout of a marmot with his front teeth, part of the upper jaw and much of the fur still intact, lying atop the snow. There were no other signs of marmot parts and I imagine it may have been dropped by a coyote or other predator making across the snow with his meal. The other find was not far above this one, fresh-looking blood in several small patches on the snow. The marmot snout had looked rather old, perhaps weeks or a month old, while the blood appeared to have been there only days. It stopped suddenly as I climbed higher, perhaps an injured animal walking off onto the snow-free east-facing slopes? A mystery left unsolved...

Though only perhaps a mile and a half long, the snow climb went up almost 3,000ft, reminding me of a miniature version on the Snow Creek climb on San Jacinto in Southern California. The snow conditions ranged from firm with excellent traction for the snowshoes to a softer consistency with some sliding and more apprehension on my part. The softer parts appeared due to newer snow from the past week overlaying the old layer, to no great depth, but enough to cause slippage and require me to kick steps in twice or with extra force. The distance to the north summit was deceptive - where I initially thought it would take but an hour to ascend, it ended up taking almost twice that long. The others were having no better success.

When I finally pulled myself up to the north summit marked by a small antenna tower, I found a cold wind howling over the ridgeline and it immediately swept the hat from my head and carried it down several hundred feet into the next cirque to the south. Rats. Looking down the NE Ridge, I saw no sign of the others and guessed they were still a good deal further down the mountain. It took about ten minutes to climb down, retrieve my hat, and climb back up to the north summit. In the meantime I also had to put on all of my clothes including my down mittens to keep from freezing in the sudden change of temperature the strong wind brought. Still unable to see the others, I decided to continue the ten minutes to the higher south summit rather than wait for them.

At the summit I found a small rock wind screen mostly filled with snow. I dug out the benchmark in the center of this, but found no sign of the register. I really didn't feel like digging the place up while trying to keep the wind from freezing my face. Though my stay was rather short, the views were superb and I took the time to take several photographs along the spine of the range and off either side into the Nevada desert. When I got back to the north summit I spied Bill making his way up the NE Ridge, so I hunkered down on the leeward side of the antenna building to wait for him. It made for a good windblock and a fairly tolerable waiting place.

Bill arrived at 10:20a, an hour after I had first gotten there. He reported the awful conditions they had found lower on the mountain and that he had lost sight of the other two who must have been struggling even more. Bill asked if I would wait before continuing on, and headed off to tag the summit. While he was off on his errand, I started wandering down the NE Ridge in search of the others, as much concerned for their welfare as I was for my fingers and toes that were beginning to freeze up. The walk would help my circulation improve and warm my extremities, I figured.

Eventually I spotted the two of them just up the lowest portion of the ridgeline that I could see. Both were making slow, although steady progress upwards, so it seemed neither was ready to give up the effort to reach Star Peak, at least. I wasn't so sure they'd be up for the traverse around to Van Zack and the other peaks, though. Hanging out on the sunny and leeward side of the ridge, Matthew and Mike eventually caught up to me, relating a similar tale of woe and floundering in the unconsolidated snow in the lower portion of the mountain. Bill was already waiting for us back at the north summit when the three of reached it shortly after 11a.

Mike announced that he was suffering some cramps and his intentions to forgo the loop traverse and head back to the car directly. Matthew, to no great surprise, was still interested in the full loop. Bill then joined me in waiting behind the antenna building while the other two went off to tag the summit. It was 11:30a before the four of us were assembled again at the north summit. On his way back from the south summit Mike had gotten the idea of descending into Eldorado Canyon to the west and having the rest of us pick him up on our way back since it wasn't much out of the way. It seemed like such a good idea that Bill was torn between the loop and the traverse across the range, and eventually settled on joining Mike. Matthew and I then left the two of them at the north summit as we started our way down, following the main crest of the range connecting Star to Van Zack some two miles to the north.

Most of the traverse to Van Zack is an easy and delightful walk over wind-packed snow with expansive views off either side of the ridge. There were only two places where the ridge narrowed to something harder than easy. The first section comes about halfway across to Van Zack where a rocky arete replaces the snow-covered ridgeline and becomes class 3. Snow in places made this traverse a bit harder than it would otherwise be, but both Matthew and I found it quite enjoyable even though it slowed us down for its 100yd+ length. A second narrowing of the ridge happens soon after we had put our snowshoes back on. Here the ridgeline jumps in cliff-like proportions that make sticking to the ridge impractical. The east side of the crest is all cliff and practically impassable, the west side a steep snow slope that reminded me of a dicey traverse in Oregon on our way to Mt. Jefferson with slopes that were prone to wet avalanches. With some trepidation I went first across this slope and was immediately surprised to find the snow had not softened significantly in the noonday sun and made for excellent traversing conditions. This second section was thus dispatched in only a few minutes, and once back to the main crest it was a more or less easy trek to the summit of Van Zack in another 30 minutes.

Van Zack lies at the north end of the main crest, which then splits into two directions, one heading north down to Indian Ikes Point and Yana Point, the other turning east to Thunder Mtn and Sacred Point. Mostly snow covered, the summit consisted of a small pile of rocks with a few wooden stakes protruding, no benchmark or register to be found, though we didn't dig through the snow to look for either. Thunder Mtn to the east looks a bit more impressive than Van Zack, and it was in that direction that we next turned our attention.

Viewed from Star Peak, Thunder did not look like it would offer any technical difficulties from the west, but as we approached nearer from Van Zack it was definitely looking otherwise. The rocky crown of the summit looked like cliffs on the north and south sides of the ridgeline, and as we started up from the saddle with Van Zack the direct line up the West Ridge was also looking hard. There were some short, angled snow chutes that looked steep and rather thin, and with the softening conditions of the afternoon there was the concern that they might slide off while trying to ascend them. To hedge our bets I moved off the crest to the south side a bit, aiming above the cliffs and towards some dry patches on that side of the ridgeline. Here we took off our snowshoes and gingerly traversed across the mix of rock and snow to an arete dropping off the south side of the peak. This snow-covered line was thinner by far than the portion of the main crest between Star and Van Zack that we had encountered earlier, making this the spiciest portion of the whole traverse, we came to find. Fortunately we found no break or impasse in the arete and shortly after 2p we found our way to the summit of Thunder Mtn.

Though getting there was a bit exciting, the summit was less so. It wasn't so obvious which of two summits was highest, one to the west and another to the east, the whole area atop sort of flatish. We found no benchmark, no register, no cairn on either summit. As we were running a bit behind schedule, we soon turned our attention to getting down off Thunder on the east side. In contrast to the west side, the east side turned out to be easier than it had appeared from a distance. There was a short, rocky section just below the east summit, but this was followed by smooth slopes on soft snow for more than 1,000 feet. We were able to see the natural arch noted on the 7.5' topo map about a third of a mile down the NE Ridge of Thunder. It looked to be about 20' in height and would probably have made a good side trip if the snow didn't make the rocky ridge somewhat dangerous.

The snow began to give out as we dropped lower, eventually packing the snowshoes up and following the mostly snow-free ridgeline. We passed over the road we planned to descend, making a beeline for Sacred Point, the last of the four named summits on the day's tour. We took some photos looking back to Thunder and Star before continuing east over that side of Sacred Point. After another drop of 400ft, we reconnected with the road and followed it off the south side of the ridge and down towards our car in Star Canyon. Where the road switchbacked we made a more direct descent down easy slopes that were damp with moisture, but not saturated. In fact it was ideal descent conditions, making for soft steps that were very easy on the knees, and preferable to descending along the more hard-packed road. It was just after 3:30p when we got back to the meadow and our car.

It would take another hour to pack up and drive around the range to pick up Bill and Mike in Eldorado Canyon. They had walked all but the last few miles out to Interstate 80 and we found them just where the pavement changes to dirt on the frontage road. They had just begun to worry about us now that we were about an hour later than we had estimated. With a stop in Lovelock for gas and ice cream, we made the two hour drive back to Reno before sunset which was then followed with the four hour drive back to San Jose. Whew! Those last few hours were rather tiring and I had to turn the last hour's driving over to Matthew when I could no longer keep myself awake. A lot of driving, but a very enjoyable day...

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