MOUNT CHARLESTON WITH A SCOTTISH ACCENT
“Milesy” (Chris Miles) sent e-mail to the Las Vegas Mountaineers’ Club (LVMC) on Sept. 11, 2009. He wrote “Hi folks. I am coming over to Vegas on my honeymoon on the 5th of October, and would love to do some scrambling while I am over.” Milesy lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and is an enthusiastic hiker and peakbagger, in a land where timberline starts at about 1000', the highest mountain is 4400', and it rains most days.
To clarify what he meant by “scrambling”, I sent him links to Bridge Mtn. and similar trips. He replied, “I like a bit of scrambling, but just that. I just like to get to the top of high peaks, and if scrambling is involved then so be it.” He settled on Charleston.
After some muddled discussion, I asked if he could drive to meet at a common area. I found out that he didn’t drive at all… so I volunteered to pick him up at the Luxor. I hate driving downtown or to The Strip, but I figured that if I picked him up early enough, we would beat the bad traffic. Only for me, to be downtown at 7:30 AM, I must get up about 4:30 AM.
I couldn’t quite reconcile his comments on scrambling, so I sent him links to the Lee Canyon and Bristlecone approaches, which seem to me to be mainly class 2; I was interested in starting higher (Lee is 900’ higher than the normal Trail Canyon approach), as our time would be fairly short. He thought those routes looked fine. I warned him about the effects of altitude, and he seemed mainly unconcerned, noting that it was normal for him to go up several peaks in a day, for 6000’ gain. For altitude, I pointed out that there would be 2/3 as much oxygen per breath at 11000’, as he was used to where he lived (the highest mountain in the British Isles is about 4400’). He didn’t seem very concerned.
As the day approached, I got a bacterial infection in my right index toe, and it looked nasty. So my internist put me on Augmentin… which made me quite sick. But I got up nonetheless on Thursday Oct 8, to pick up Milesy at the Luxor.
Incredibly, via 215 I got to the Luxor from my house in about 25 minutes. So I circled around four times on the one-way street to the passenger pickup area, hoping that Milesy was early. Once an Eastern European fellow with a pack opened the door, plaintively uttering something incomprehensible. I thought, is that a really thick Glasgow accent? But finally I noticed that this pleading fellow had light brown hair, whereas Milesy had black hair, so I closed the door and circled around once more.
On the next circuit, I picked up Milesy. This very pleasant Scottish fellow was grateful… and also sick, and was taking some dehydrating medication.
In Glasgow, a lot of people don’t drive, and rely on trains and buses to head to the mountains; so the driving process seemed chaotic to him. He kept pointing at various mountains and asking questions, and I kept answering till I nearly rear-ended another car. I told him I was not trying to be rude, but really had to watch the road. Though I was watching with care, I somehow missed the turn to 95 North (but did see a flashing closure sign), and ended up driving to 215 and over. The extra time on the drive enabled me to chat about Christine's ancestors from the Scottish isles of Skye and Lewis; he offerred that if we wanted to visit Scotland some day (Christine was last there in 1974), we should definitely contact him.
We still got to Lee Canyon about 9AM, where it was 30F. Milesy asked if he should put on “sun cream” (never needed in Scotland), and I emphatically urged him to do so. When he was done, he put the large sunscreen bottle back in his pack. I told him that he could probably leave it in the car, but he told me that he was used to carrying 20 kilos. A chipmunk ran by, and he was fascinated by this creature; I thought chipmunks were fairly universal, but apparently they are not found in Scotland.
So we started off down the Bristlecone Trail about 9:10 AM. He was going fast, and wanted to walk beside me. This behavior seemed fine for the moment. About ½ mile along he told me that he wanted to scramble, but didn’t like cliffs. I was a bit nonplussed, but said that our trailless route would take us near some cliffs, but I would keep the travel as low-key as possible. Two deer ran up the hill; he stopped to take pictures, but there were deer in Scotland (unlike chipmunks).
We left the current Bristlecone Trail, traveled on the old trail for ¼ mile, then headed straight up and south to the ridge. That’s when the altitude, jet-lag and dehydration first hit this otherwise very strong young fellow. When we started up the stairmaster grind of the NW ridge to Lee Peak, he expressed doubts about making it all the way. I told him that the feeling of “my heart is about to explode” was normal; we would deal with it by resting every 30 steps or so, and picking places behind trees for rest, so we were on the level. He brightened up, but by 9500’, owned that he had drunk half his 3 liters of water. Ok, we would go slower; and I had cached some water near Devil’s Thumb, so if we went that way, he could use that. Otherwise, we could just drop down the same way we had ascended, after reaching Lee Peak.
At 10000’ he checked his phone and read a text message from Scotland. Half the people who attended his wedding had come down with symptoms of swine flu. This alarmed me a bit, but he said they were the people who went out partying all night after he left for his honeymoon.
When we hit the open ledges about 10200’, I just put on my calm face and he followed me around the crags, occasionally regarding me with a very doubtful look. I realized that the route probably has a few short stretches of class 3. At 11000’, we had to do one traverse with a bit of exposure, then up a talus slope. He asked me how we would go back down if we aborted the hike at Lee Peak. I said we could go back down the same way, and he said, “I don’t want to go back down this way!”
But the slower, careful progress on the ledges was actually restful. We reached the summit of Lee, and I pointed out the glint of the helicopter wreck on Charleston. I asked if he wanted to go back down to the car then, or try for Charleston. “Do you think we have enough time?” he asked. “Yes” I said, “if we take our time. If we rush we will fail. We will just turn around by 2 PM wherever we are”.
So we went down the talus on the south side of Lee, and I watched him come down. He was fairly sure on his feet, and his heavy boots cut well into the scree. This observation affected how I planned the rest of the trip.
On we went via the trail, and he brightened up. We reached Devil’s Thumb and I pointed out where the “scramble” shortcut would take us up the cliffs. He laughed, “no thanks, maybe next time”. I pulled out the cached water and gave it to Milesy, and we headed up the trail.
At near 11400’, he pulled out my cached water… and found that it was mainly frozen! So we plodded on to the top, arriving at 1:30 PM. I poured some of my warm water in with his ice, so the remainder would partially melt and he would have something to drink; this was a practice that I repeated throughout the rest of the day.
We saw just one person on the “route” all day; a fellow with his dog at the summit. He was going down the South Loop Trail, after coming up the North Loop and Trail Canyon, but had never been on either before that day. At 2 PM we all headed off the summit.
Milesy was rejuvenated by the relief of going downhill. We hit those undulations around 11000’, and slowed a bit. Finally at 10800’, we hit the place where the traditional chute drops down to Lee Canyon.
At the head of the chute, I listed the options:
1) if he didn’t like talus or downclimbing, he could take the trail by himself down to parking for Trail Canyon, while I dropped back to Lee, picked up the car and drove around to get him in Kyle Canyon;
2) we could drop down the chute, which has a fair amount of loose stuff; or
3) we could go down the ridge north of the chute.
I had been down the ridge twice before, and told Milesy I was confident he could make it; and he said he trusted my judgment. I guess I was touched by the idea that someone would actually say “I trust your judgment”; after all, I was coming off 27.5 years of managers who rarely seemed to trust my judgment (until the last few years).
We went down the slope, and Milesy did well; his heavy boots bit into the mountain scree. He taught me a new term – “Haggis-walking”, where you sidle down the mountain, one leg bent. Apparently haggis (a cooked sheep stomach, stuffed with oatmeal, onions and chopped organs) has two protuberances like legs, one longer than the other. At one point I heard him shout “Ouch!” He had put his hand down with force on the abrasive, siliceous limestone, and cut his skin; so he put on gloves. Then we went over an unusual hazard; the springs that run all year round there, had frozen, coating the rocks with ice.
We walked around the ice, and Milesy spent some time photographing icicles. He asked me how cold it was, and I took a about 10 seconds to translate to centigrade in my head – about 5 degrees C. He was shocked that it was so cold still; but with no wind, dry air, bright sun, and exertion, we had stayed relatively comfortable all day.
Finally we hit the road down to the ski area. We saw more deer, but he was more astonished with the artificial snow made by the ski area. I got to the car and pulled out one of the gallon jugs I store in the back of the car. He asked if he could drink some, and I said sure, but I wasn’t sure how it would taste; to which he said, at this point, he would drink out of a puddle.
The trip back was uneventful, except we were stuck on I-15 in rush hour. I learned his girlfriend was a vegan, for yet another eerie similarity to the last time that I guided out-of-towners up Charleston a month before. Apparently, it isn’t easy to eat vegan in Vegas, when one is on The Strip and doesn’t have a car.
Finally we pulled in front of the Luxor, and he showed yet one more final disconnect with the American system of rush-rush. We were in a no-standing zone, so the idea was for him to get out of the car fairly quickly. The crosswalk attendant glared as Milesy kept thanking me, and took his time. I felt rude, but had to keep reminding him that we could stay in touch by e-mail, and he should really get out of the car RIGHT NOW.
So I turned the corner, to have the full sun glaring in my eyes as I drove west and home.
ALTERNATE (AND WILDER) ROUTES UP MOUNT CHARLESTON
by Harlan Stockman
Undoubtedly, many of you have climbed Charleston Peak via the South or North Loop trails. These trails are marvels of civil engineering; they wind along precipitous cliffs and across talus slopes, without ever requiring the individual to do much more than simply walk. But if you have climbed Charleston by these routes more than once, you may now wince with the thought of the endless small undulations, and very slow elevation change with distance. The long distances of the loop trails make them tedious in snowy conditions, and the cliff walks become very dangerous when covered with snow and ice.
However, there are many shorter and more challenging ways to reach the summit of Charleston, other than the trail plods. This article describes eleven alternatives; but by no means is this a comprehensive guide. If you are truly curious about the routes, inquire further with the author, or the LVMC trip coordinators. Rather, this article is meant to pique interest, while giving quick comments about safety, accessibility and exertion. (Branch Whitney has authored guides that include several of these routes; those guides are available as books and in pdf format.)
ALL the routes described below have trailless portions. Reference will be made to “class” below, as per the YDS (Yosemite Decimal System), which indicates difficulty in terms of the need to scramble over rocks, climb cliffs, and deal with exposure. GPS logs are available on request (firstname.lastname@example.org); use the logs at your own risk, and be aware of accuracy limitations, especially in canyons.
Abbreviations: Chaz= Charleston; NLT = North Loop Trail, SLT= South Loop Trail;
DT= Devil’s Thumb; L= left, R= right; N,E.S,W = North, East, South, West, etc.
The upper portions of the routes are shown, numbered on the map below; the following sections describe each route according to number..
1) Lee Chute (Ski Lee; thick magenta line for ascent). This is potentially the fastest route up Charleston, with the benefit of starting at ~8650’ elevation, vs. 7750’ for Trail Canyon (the normal way to intersect the NLT). The “trailhead” is the upper parking for Bristlecone Trail, or the ski area. You actually want to park as close to the ski area as possible.
The route (1) is shown below from a northern viewpoint (Mummy’s Forehead).
The biggest navigational challenge is finding the correct combination of roads and ski slopes near a chair lift, before one heads L up a dirt road, over an avalanche debris field. It is best to climb out of the avalanche debris field early, and to walk up through the low pines and aspens to L of the stream area. Eventually the broad avalanche area reaches a steep rocky gully that cuts L.
The last gully on Ski Lee route (left). View down gully to McFarland Peak (right).
This last gully is the hardest part, and leads to the NLT. There are almost always class 2 gravelly, loose routes in the gully, but often you will wish to stay on the more solid rock on the R (SE) side during ascent. The gully tops out at 10800’ on the NLT, by a flattish campsite and windbreak. From this point, take either the NLT, or Devil’s Thumb Route to the top of Chaz.
If you are confident about your abilities on very steep scree, you may wish to descend on the ridge just to the N of the gully (thin magenta line near (1) on map). This ridge is quite steep, and you will cliff-out if you attempt a straight descent; at one point, when confronted with 30’ cliffs, you need to cut R then back L, eventually reaching the avalanche debris field. This ridge has a spring that runs year round; late in summer, the spring may be manifest as an area with thick plants and slippery rock.
The ascent route is described by Branch Whitney.
2) Devil’s Thumb Shortcut (green line on map at top of article). This route is often used in very late spring or early summer, when steep snow banks make the NLT treacherous just S of Devil’s Thumb. The start of the shortcut is shown below; the route ascends the cliff just S of Devil’s Thumb, at ~11050’. (This view is from the NLT, well N of the route.)
When the rock is dry, the crux sections are class 3, but require some upper body strength and are tough for short people. The lower crux is occasionally a waterfall, in which case it is treacherous. However, a handline can be dropped from the tree above the 1st crux. This route is described by Branch Whitney, and is also covered on Summitpost. There is one more class 3 section as one turns R and climbs to the ridge. Shortly after, it becomes a class 2 scree slog to the summit, following the route shown below.
DT as seen from the NLT; view S. The thumb has been reddened to make it stand out.
View S from behind Thumb, at hardest crux section.
View back N from crux. Note people resting on trail.
View straight down crux. The log disappeared 2 years ago, so the 1st step is harder now.
Mild 3rd-class climbing above crux.
View S from top of class 3, showing route to summit.
Hikin’ Dave showed us this particular variation. There is another class 3 chute up the same ridge, several hundred feet south on the trail, past Devil’s Thumb; I have never used this 2nd chute, but am told it is safer when the mountain is snowy.
3 and 4) Wallace Canyon (dark blue). I’ve gone up Route 4, and descended 3. Route 4 requires some class 3, and has more rocky scree; route 3 is class 2. If you are comfortable on steep soft scree, don’t take the wrong branch of the ridge (easy to do), and watch out for cliff bands, route 3 can afford an amazingly fast descent. A side trip from route 4 brings you to a very pretty waterfall that runs at least until mid summer. Nick Nelson (and probably Bob Greer) scouted this route many years back. The picture below shows the routes as seen from a NW vantage (Amargosa Overlook):
The drive to Wallace Canyon requires at least moderate clearance; 4WD or AWD are useful, especially if one strays onto the loose gravel. I drove to 7700’ in 2009 in my Subaru Outback (7.3” clearance). One takes state road 160 through Mountain Pass, toward Pahrump; from the fire station in Mountain Springs, travel 28.2 miles W on rte 160, and turn R (N) on the signed Wheeler Pass Road. After 10 miles on this road, and at the bottom of a hill, turn right on a faint, less traveled road that first heads NE, then abruptly turns SW, then heads NE again up a bank… all within about 0.1 mile! Follow the main road ~6.5 miles farther up Wallace Canyon. The road was passable up to 7700’ in my Subaru, and goes only about 100 yards more before stopping at a USFS roadblock.
I’ve used (4), the southern route for the ascent. From the parking, just follow the old road/streambed. The bed becomes a set of usually-slimy pools in a steep-sided slot; at that point. climb the bank on the left to get around the pools. Up-canyon, there is a fork; the left fork goes to a rugged waterfall, shown below:
Keep right at the fork (that is, DON’T go to the waterfall!), and climb the drainage S, up through obnoxious talus, onto a ridge. Follow the ridge (generally E) all the way up to the SLT; you will have to work around cliffs. There is almost always a class 2 work-around; but up high, you will encounter one wall (shown below) that you must descend to reach the continuation of the ridge.
View NW over steep dowclimb; McFarland in distance at R.
View N to Chaz from route 4.
Route (3) makes an excellent descent; in fact this was my fastest descent from Charleston, taking just 1h 15m to return to 7700’. One reverses the Devil’s Thumb route down to the first gentle saddle, then heads L (W) into the trees, staying close to the highline of the ridge most of the way down. However, the descent requires some care to keep from cliffing-out (in particular, one must cut R and then back L at one point), and may not be suitable for those uncomfortable with steep scree. The scree is principally in the woods, and is fairly consolidated. The descent ridge eventually runs into a peaklet with a cliff facing the hiker; at this point cut L, and follow drainages back to the old road in Wallace Canyon. In this last section, it is always safer to bias your route to the L, else you may end up being drawn into a drainage that diverges from the road.
5) Winter from Big Falls. This is the fastest Winter route, and one of the most dangerous approaches to Charleston. The route is short enough (3.6 miles each way) to reach the top of Charleston on a 10-hour winter day, provided one start early; however, it should be attempted only when the avalanche conditions are low, and by folks who are comfortable with cramponing up 40 degree slopes, can use an ice axe, and are prepared for tough mixed climbing. Nick N has been up this route many times, and portions of the route are used by very skilled backcountry skiers.
Walking S toward Big Falls in January. The bare cliffs are deceptive; below the cliffs, snow is 3-8’ deep.
The upper 40-degree chute; view ENE down Kyle Canyon.
The route starts at the parking for Mary Jane Falls, follows that trail, then heads S to Big Falls. If snow conditions are right, and you have at least 60’ of 4200 lb webbing or climbing rope, you can take the direct route up the class 3 cliffs on the L (E) side of the falls. However, it is probably much smarter to stay farther to the L, more in the trees, to gain the top of the falls. Past the top of the falls, the route largely follows the normal summer route, until 9700’ elevation, when you must descend and cross the dominant gully, and continue WNW up a shallow gully toward the ridge. If the snow is deep enough, the cliff bands will be covered; else you may spend some time wallowing around. In consolidated corn snow, the gully may be taken all the way to11050’ which is where the NLT would cross (if you could see it); from here the grade decreases and the summit is obvious. In poorly consolidated snow, you may be forced up unto the steep ridge R (N) of the gully, and may encounter tough mixed climbing.
The descent, getting down E of Big Falls, may require the use of a handline doubled over the abundant trees.
In winter, why not just take the NLT or the SLT? Well, the answer has several parts. First, here is a view of the NLT as seen from Mummy Mountain, on the last day of winter, 2009:
The magenta dots show the path of the NLT, as it passes S of Devil’s Thumb. The trail typically gets covered with a steeply-sloping bank of snow along this entire section; traversing this sloped snow is extremely dangerous, as a slip would send one onto a very long and steep avalanche chute.
The SLT, in winter, can just be an impossibly arduous snowshoe slog, very difficult to finish in the reduced hours of daylight. Particularly, the route from the parking lot to the Griffith saddle may have 6’ or more of soft snow; the normal switch-backed trail is generally buried and irrelevant.
6) Big Falls 1. There are several Big Falls variations; the route described by Branch Whitney (not included here) reaches a good compromise between safety and excitement. The route labeled (6) on the map shows my solo trip from Big Falls in 2003; it is given to show that there are many options for a Big Falls ascent. Route (6) use the same starting position as the winter route, Branch Whitney’s Route, and Peppe’s route described below). However, above 10200’, I went more westerly than the routes described by Branch Whitney and others, and avoided the worst cliffs. This route crosses a great deal of debris from the plane wreck on the SLT.
7) Big Falls 2. On the other extreme for Big Falls ascents, is the route scouted by Peppe S. This route starts in much the same way as Big Falls 1, but turns S above 10200’, and directly threads up gullies in impossible-seeming cliffs. The route is shown below:
This view looks E from the summit of Chaz.
The loose rock danger is great, as there are piles of loose stones at the top of nearly every cliff band. If you want to take this route, I would recommend following Peppe. Some highlights of the route are shown below.
One goes L (E) of Big Falls, up mild class 3 terrain.
After reaching the top of big falls, head W across the meadows (this view is S).
An example of the cliffs en route.
The top of each cliff band is covered with loose rocks, which present the greatest danger to climbers below.
8) Carpenter Canyon. This is the Carpenter Canyon Route described by Branch Whitney. This route has lots of water to nearly 10000’, effectively all year; furthermore, the dominant southern exposure means that it may be largely snow-free when the northern routes are still covered in the white stuff. Here is an overview of the canyon, as seen from a vantage point on the SLT, looking S:
However, the scenic waterfalls also mean that the route is choked with brush much of the way, and the upper parts of the canyon may be covered with extremely slippery algae. Since the starting elevation is quite low (6850’), the normal approach is to camp overnight in the canyon – which can be quite pleasant – and start up the route at daybreak. I’ve done it in one day, driving out from Vegas, and it was a long day. My advice is that if you want to do this route, follow Branch Whitney, as he knows how to get around the brush (somewhat!).
There are abundant small waterfalls in the lower parts of the canyon.
In late summer, the upper canyon becomes covered with slippery algae.
Even higher, the canyon is a jumble of rocks, roots and logs.
The road into Carpenter Canyon is definitely suitable only for high-clearance vehicles. As of 2009, it was in significantly worse shape than the road to Wallace Canyon. This canyon has also gotten fairly popular with Pahrumpians as a camping destination, so you may hit a lot of traffic coming up the one-lane road, as you try to leave at the end of the day.
9) Alternative ascent/descent route for Carpenter Canyon. This route avoids the slimiest, trickiest sections, and drops one just below the “class 5 dryfall” described by Branch Whitney. However, there are two caveats. First, you will still have to push through the nasty brush in the lower canyon. Second, there is a 10-20’ cliff band down low, near the take-off point from the “normal” route. There are places to break through the cliffband, but if you use this route as a descent, don’t begin heedlessly running down the slope. A 50’ webbing strap could add some comfort if you can’t find a convenient climb-down.
10) Via Lee Peak and Bristlecone Trail. Please do not take a large group on this route; it was lovingly cairned by someone before my time, and won’t take much foot wear in places.
This route is shown in the first photo of this article, as viewed from the N. The start for this route is the upper Bristlecone parking lot near Ski Lee. Follow the Bristlecone Trail for ~ 1 mile; when the trail cuts sharply R (NE) up a hill, continue straight (instead of taking the trail) to the top of the ridge in front of you (this is the ridge between Lee Peak and Amargosa Overlook). Once on the ridge, head SE then S, keeping to the high ground. Eventually cliffs open up to the L, above the Ski basin, and one gets a view as at L, below.
View of cliffs on N side of Lee Peak; the route stays close to this edge, but often cuts R to avoid cliffs.
At R is the true summit of Lee Peak. While the route seems deceptively easy from a distance, one must follow an intricate path around cliffs to avoid class 4 climbs.
Most cliffs and pinnacles are avoided by following small, carefully-placed cairns, usually with travel on the R side of the ridge. Finally one cuts L, into the chute pictured at L below; after traversing L of the cliff, cut R up a mostly rocky slope. Look back at the top of the chute, to make sure you will recognize the terrain for the way down, as the cairns now grow sparse. Finally one scrambles over the ridge (R, below).
An important chute.
The last ridge one must cross, viewed from near the top of Lee. The ski area is visible below.
When you descend off Lee Peak, head roughly SW till you reach the NLT.
R) Ridge. This small detour from the normal SLT puts one directly on the ridge. While this route is generally slower than the trail, it is more scenic, and a delightful alternative to the normal slog. Below is a view of Chaz from the ridge.
Well, I hope there is enough information here to whet your appetite. Again, if you want to know more about the routes, contact the author, other members of LVMC, or the specific folks mentioned in the text.
LVMC MONTHLY BIO FEATURE
Where were you born?
How long have you lived in Las Vegas?
What is your occupation?
How long have you been an LVMC member?
What is your favorite hike/climb?
Terrace Canyon/ White Rock Hills Peak
What is the most challenging hike/climb you have done?
Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim
How did you get into hiking/climbing?
I have always been interested in experiencing and seeing things that are off the beaten path and getting away from crowds.
What are your hobbies other than hiking/climbing?
My boy - Kenny, computers, Sci-Fi, movies, and gardening
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