SENTINEL & PORTER IN THE PANAMINTS
I first climbed Telescope Peak with LVMC in 2005. Telescope Peak (11049’) is on the western side of Death Valley (DV), and looks directly down to Badwater, which is 283’ below sea level. Telescope is the highest summit in the Panamint Range. Most people on top ooh and ahh over the view of DV to the east, and the snow-covered Sierra to the west. But you can also look south from the summit, and see the lonely, remote peaks of Sentinel (9634’) and Porter (9101’), in the same range.
I knew right then and there that I had absolutely no desire to climb Sentinel and Porter. The ridge between was rocky and serrated, and one would have to lose and gain a lot of elevation from Telescope, to hit the southern peaks. I couldn’t imagine a less-appealing prospect. As we were hiking back to the Mahogany Flats campground at 8200’, someone pointed out the route people used for a dayhike from 253’ below sea level, at Shorty’s Well, to the top of Telescope (11049’). Why would people do such an insane thing? Now I had found something less appealing than Sentinel and Porter.
Two and a half years later, in November 2007, I climbed Telescope from Shorty’s Well, for 11500’ of accumulated elevation gain in 10 hours. I won’t lie; I did this hike (that had previously seemed insane) mainly because it was a challenge, because someone had said, “do you think you can do it?” I also had great companions, and a wonderful sense of camaraderie that warmed me for weeks to come. But there was something else; on the way up, I saw a different aspect of the Panamints. We passed a spring at 3700’; a stream roaring with life, here in this harsh desert; a stream that gave rise to an oasis of luxuriant growth, before diving, hidden and lifeless, into the gravel just 100’ away. I was used to the springs marked on Nevada topo maps; often these springs were just dreams, wishes, running only in good years. Here, the water source was undeniable.
In November 2007, we cheated a bit; we had a support team, and shuttle car, so we got a ride back down from Mahogany Flats at 8200’. Thus we didn’t have to descend all the way back to Shorty’s Well by foot. Such an enterprise requires cooperation and selflessness beyond the normal hike. On the hike back to our shuttle, I met some women who were nervously going to meet some friends on the Telescope trail; by great coincidence, their friends were hiking the same route that day. It was just a few hours before sunset, and these women had no headlamp, so I gave them mine. I thought little of this act (after all, I had bought the headlamp for $20 on sale, which was trivial compared to other expenses of the trip); but the women were truly touched, and later e-mailed their amazement at my kindness. I was embarrassed; but I concluded that harsh conditions must be the source of human bonds beyond the mundane. To this day, I often carry two headlamps. The Panamints had been kind to me, letting me bathe in human friendship and good karma.
On the summit of Telescope in 2007, I once again peered south to Sentinel and Porter, which now looked softer and warmer than I remembered. After the trip, I perused the Desert Peaks Section (DPS) guide, and found there were abundant springs in the canyons east and west of these lower summits. I looked at the DPS routes, and more recent trip reports. Overwhelmingly, people tried Sentinel and Porter from the west, and used burly 4x4 trucks to travel the terrible, oft-washed-out roads to above 7000’; one picture showed a jeep being winched up over a cliff. Or, they did the hikes from low (~1000’) and used excellent physical conditioning to achieve the summits. I read a report from Matthew Holliman, an exceptional endurance hiker; he felt that the loop over both peaks, starting low on the west side, was “tougher than expected.” If Matthew felt that way, the hike must be Hellish. Furthermore, the drive to the west side of the Panamints, from Las Vegas, was also quite long. Now the peaks were again unappealing, and I put them out of my mind.
Until two years later, when I found myself camped on the east side of the Panamints, at 2300’, by a sketchy road in Johnson Canyon. How did I get to this point?
2. How? Why?
The seed was sown when Ali Haghi and I hiked Brown Peak in DV in early 2009.
The DPS instructions are always given as if you lived in coastal California, and the DPS folk may pick the worst route as the default, as long as the drive from CA is shorter. After Ali and I took the convoluted DPS road route to Brown, climbed the peak and returned, we decided to check an extension of the road that headed towards Las Vegas. Son-of-a-gun, this undescribed road was actually shorter and in better condition.
So I thought: maybe it would be easier for me to approach Sentinel and Porter from the east. Certainly the drive would be much easier, and there was a purportedly decent road up Johnson Canyon. I asked about that road on Death-Valley.net, and got the usual warnings about bringing two spare tires, driving slowly, and so forth. Eventually the consensus emerged: I should be able to drive to 2000’ without a burly 4x4. Further reading of old DPS reports showed that some groups had climbed either Sentinel or Porter via a backpack starting in Johnson Canyon, leaving 2WD vehicles around 2000’, and ferrying people to the starting point at 3400’. The descriptions of each person lugging 2 gallons of water for an overnight seemed unappealing; but the old reports wakened me to the more interesting aspects of Johnson Canyon, one described below.
As I said, the Panamints have a surprising number of springs – very local, but often with reliable, year-round water. In 1873, Swiss farmers planted orchards of figs, apples, pears, pomegranates, grapes and nut trees up by the springs in Johnson Canyon. This produce was sold to the miners on the other side of the ridge, who lived high up in “Panamint City” at 6300’ elevation. When a huge storm wiped out Panamint City in 1878, the Swiss abandoned the orchards. The eponymous William Johnson bought the ranch. Later, an enterprising Paiute, nick-named “Hungry Bill” took over, and with his brother, tended the orchards and grew crops for some time. The grapes still form a rather nasty barrier to negotiate up the wash, and the fig trees still produce – although with the less reliable irrigation, they look a little peaked.
So a plan emerged; I would camp near 2000’, picking a night with a “gibbous waning moon,” so a nearly-full moon would be high in the sky in the wee hours. Then I would get up at 3AM, and begin hiking up the old road to 3400’, then fill up water bottles at the stream, still in the cooler hours. The trip would have to be in October or November, to escape the Death Valley heat; but could not be too late in the year, because I wanted to avoid the snows and extremely short days of December. I perused topo maps with software, drew hypothetical routes, then imported the routes into Google Earth, so I could look for two important markings: 1) cliffs on the ridges, and 2) bright green wet spots in the canyons. I generally wanted to avoid both of these (more on that later), so I adjusted the routes and loaded the tracks into my GPS. I would use my own route to reach the main ridge, would cache water on the ridge, then head north to Sentinel. Then I would descend Sentinel, head south on the ridge, climb Porter and head down another ridge, back to the car. The DPS guide recommended descent from Porter on an old mule trail, which was called “route B.” So I figured I could depend on this recommendation, and didn’t have to spend much time planning the descent; and as I will describe later, this belief in the DPS guide was nearly my undoing.
I figured that I could allow myself no more than 14-15 hours for this hike. I was OK with traveling on roads under moonlight, but didn’t want to spend much time off-trail in the dark; in November, the days were only about 10 hours long. Because of brain damage, I can’t balance well in the dark, and my right foot begins to go spastic after too many hours. Since I was starting under a waning moon, that meant there would be no moon in the evening, and the setting sun would be blocked by the mountain range as I descended, so darkness would come early. Conventional wisdom for trail-less, desert terrain is to allow 0.5 hours for each mile, and 1 hour for each 1000’ of gain, plus time for breaks. I anticipated at least 20 miles and 9000’ accumulated gain; that’s a minimum of 19 hours by conventional wisdom. So I would have to go a bit faster than most folks. I tend to make up time by jogging downhill when terrain allows. Certainly I would be able to do the many miles of 4x4 road at a decent clip. I have done a lot of hikes like this, in very similar conditions, and have developed a virtual spreadsheet in my head that balances the “what-ifs.”
4. Gear Considerations.
Since I anticipated 9000’ accumulated gain and at least 20 miles, over largely road-less and trail-less terrain, I wanted to keep down weight. Yet it was terra incognita, and I wasn’t absolutely sure I could rule out class 4 cliffs, especially if I got off-route. I took the ten essentials, plus 50’ of 9/16”, 2600-lb test webbing with a nano wire-gate carabiner. I augmented the essentials with extra first-aid gear, an extra headlamp, and so on. For clothes I had a small silnylon poncho, a hooded windshirt specifically sewn to fit me with no frills, a fleece sweater, light gloves and balaclava, extra socks, and zip-off pants with the leggings in the pack. I also packed a mylar rescue sack, and a small can of pepper spray (more on that later). And I had a SPOT GPS/satellite receiver/transmitter, plus my normal GPS. However, I ended up wearing no clothes other than shorts and T-shirt throughout the day.
For boots, I chose simple, light Merrill Ventilators. This was a good choice; they would deal with soakings to come, simply by draining rapidly; and they had the wide toe box I need. They aren’t sticky-soled, but the soles actually do better on scree than the soles of many approach shoes. Of course they were worn a lot and thoroughly broken-in before the trip. I had urethane-coated the seams months ago, simply to keep the seams from unraveling if cut by rocks.
And water! I had bottles for about 3 liters. That’s a lot for me; I don’t normally drink much. My plan was to drink 1 liter when I got up at 3AM, drink another liter when I stopped at the stream at 4000’, then refill all 3 liters for the most of the day. I would cache extra water on the ridge whenever I made a side foray to a peak. Finally, I would hit water again about 4 miles from the end of the trip, and knew other spring locations in case I needed to drop to water sooner.
5. The Real Thing: a Shaky Start.
The trip almost ended before it really started. After driving about 60 miles, I stopped in Pahrump to gas up. I pulled out my wallet, and noticed that I was missing my driver’s license and my Parks Pass. I was almost relieved; well this must be a sign, I’ll just drive back to Vegas at the speed limit, and scuttle this chancy plan. Then I found the license and pass in the top pocket of my pack. I had been driving around town for several days, without the cards in my wallet. The sign was now positive, and I headed west.
My plan was to get to Death Valley after 2 PM, so I wouldn’t spend hours in the heat and sun. I drove down the Badwater Road, passed over to the Westside Road, and eventually started up Johnson Canyon Road. The road was rocky, but the Soob, with just 7.3” clearance, never bottomed out. I drove slowly to avoid a sidewall blowout. After about 6 or 7 miles, I started looking for a place to camp, and reached the disturbing realization that the terrain was covered with fist-sized rocks; not prime tenting territory. I drove on, remembering that 7 miles would be about the limit of my Soob. I reached the point where the road drops down into the wash, a spot that had been described as fearsome; but I easily descended. The road at the bottom was extremely rocky, but with careful wheel placement, I crossed. I decided I better not push my luck, and when I hit the first alcove with a pea-gravel stream bed, I stopped and set up the tent. The sun was already setting behind the mountains; soon it was downright cool. I was careful to note when the sky actually got dark enough to make seeing difficult – after 5:20 PM, well after sunset. By 6 PM I was asleep.
6. Hike Day Arrives.
My alarm was set for 3 AM, but I awoke suddenly at 2:45. I forced down as much food as I could, drank a pint of coffee and a pint of grapefruit juice/water; and hit the road at 3:40 AM, walking.
As I trudged up the 4x4 road, I realized that had I arrived a bit earlier on the previous day, I could have continued in the Soob for another 3 miles and more than a thousand feet of elevation gain; not that the road was good, but it got better than it had been anywhere on the previous day (driving in). Oh well. The moon was at least 60% of full, and seemed pretty bright; but I kept passing by cliffs close to the road. I had a small can of pepper spray in my hands, and I began roaring loudly, so I wouldn’t seem like prey to any mountain lions who happened to be on the crags. The road – somewhat over 3 miles – went by quickly, and at 4:40 AM, abruptly ended in a confusion of washouts, washes, and herd paths. Good-bye road, hello faint trail.
Finding the trail in the moonlight was a lot harder than finding the road. The “trail” to Hungry Bill’s Ranch was really a herd path, and moved across the canyon often, climbing up the steep sides to avoid the thick growth by the springs. At times it would come to the edge of water, and I would try to guess if I were supposed to cross, or look for an obscure path along the rocky walls. Usually I was supposed to cross, and got soakers, as there were no stepping stones, and the vegetation quickly gave way underfoot. In fact, much of the ground consisted of a mat of reeds and grapevines; you could hear the water moving underneath, and the ground was springy and insubstantial.
Finally I got to a good rocky crossing, drank deeply of my existing water stores, and filled up all my bottles. The sun had yet to rise. I crossed the stream, and the next 30 minutes, I was mainly off-trail and was often mired in the vegetation, often getting soakers; I probably made ridiculously slow progress. The sky lightened, and actually cast some warm light on the fig trees as I crossed the remnants of Hungry Bill’s. I tried taking photos of the ruined stone cabins near the ranch, but the sun was still too low in the sky, so I hurried up the north branch of Johnson Creek, looking for the first opportunity to cut west to the ridge, at about 5000’ elevation.
I had plotted a rough route for the GPS, but was willing to improvise, once I saw how the terrain really looked. With some care, I kept everything at class 2. The sun was now up, and as I climbed into the light, a coyote on the other side of the canyon began barking furiously. I stopped and roared very loudly, twice. All was silent, then the coyote began barking and howling faster and with greater urgency, soon joined by a second coyote on my side of the canyon. I figured the first was warning the second. They kept it up till I disappeared behind a rocky cleft.
Finally I reached the ridge. I kept looking at the GPS, hoping that somehow I had miraculously gained more elevation than I realized. No dice, I had intersected the ridgeline at 6550’. I looked south, and realized I been wise to avoid the next ridge, as it was rimmed by cliffs and deep gullies.
There were a few cliffs on my chosen ridge, but only one didn’t have a climb-around, and I found an easy class 3 route through hard, stable quartzite. I looked back, and now felt well above DV; I looked across the salt flats near Badwater, and could see the distinctive cliffs of Bat Mountain beyond. Somehow these familiar landmarks gave me comfort, by the fact that I was far above them.
The junipers and pinions were becoming more common, and I casually noticed that some were burned; I wish I had the foresight to realize how that would affect the rest of the day. For now, it just meant that it was easy to pick a path up the gently-sloped upper ridge, till I finally crested the main spine of the Panamints at 8850’, and for the first time, could look west into the Panamint Valley, and across to the Sierra.
I cached a liter of water on the ridge, along with a few other items that were adding weight to my pack; I’d be back this way in a bit. I headed NW, knowing that I was about to lose elevation.
Sentinel is a “class 2+” summit according to old DPS reports. The gentle Panamint ridge gradually became rougher, and I dropped to near 8600’. Sentinel was a rocky, talus-covered 1000’ vertical above me, and I can’t say I really enjoyed the climb; I did enjoy stopping and looking N at the rugged ridge to Telescope; I was very glad I was not going that way. The register was a who’s-who of desert peak-baggers, with tragic tones (one an attempted murderer, and one the barely-surviving victim). The last signature, just two weeks earlier, was from a woman “DM” who had quite a fiery introduction into the Summitpost on-line forum; she had announced that she wanted to do really hard trips, and people were just not up for the conditioning. She and a partner had come from Porter Peak, from very low in Pleasant Canyon, and were going out Surprise Canyon; that effort would be similar to my plans, but would use the better roads that went up high to the old mines. That west-side route was done often; I would later piece together the grander plans she intended.
I had reached the top on schedule, at 10:30 AM; accounting for the loss to the saddle, I had gained about 7600’ in a little under 7 hours, exactly the pace I had planned; much faster and I would have burned out. I had paid for the confusion in the marshes with lost time and undue exhaustion, but that was all “planning for the flat tire.” I now found myself staring into space, and knew I had to make tracks to reach Porter, my next destination to the south. I eased my way down the unstable talus, climbed back to the ridge crest, and retrieved my cache.
The connecting ridge happens to be a park boundary, so I saw lots of survey marks and tree branches chopped for line-of-sight surveying; I found these signs of human fussiness amusing out here in the middle of nowhere. The ridge was pleasant, but kept gaining and losing elevation. Just as I hit the saddle before Porter, there was an increase in the number of burned trees; some of the surveying cuts were burned. This situation dimly intruded my consciousness. I cached more supplies and quickly made my way to Porter, up a pleasant, easy class 1 ridge.
The views on Porter were nice, not dramatic, and the glow was warmer now that the sun was overhead. It was a pleasant 55F; excellent shorts and T-shirt weather.
I scanned the register, again seeing a list of folks I knew mainly from e-mail. I now realized that DM and her partner had started off the day with grander plans; they intended to go over Porter and Sentinel, and then over Telescope. They were trying to duplicate a feat done by the very nice, but very fit Rick Kent, two years before. They post-scripted their intentions with the note, “running low on water.” No wonder they had bailed down Surprise Canyon.
I had a pleasant jog back down to my cache. I was ahead of schedule, so I anticipated an easy, pleasant trip back to the car, following the tried-and-true DPS route B on the old mule trail. I dropped east off the main Panamint ridge, again noting the burned trees; I had just a smidgen of curiosity.
After descending 200’ from the edge of the ridge, I began to notice troubling signs. This was a recent forest fire; as I later confirmed, the forest fire happened after the DPS instructions were written for Porter route B. Denuded of trees and mature understory, the steep slopes had eroded with landslides of angular, nasty talus. The gradual herd path, described in the DPS guide, was completely gone. I kept gaining and losing elevation to avoid the worst slides. I contemplated going back to the ridge, but surely this miserable side-hilling would quickly end.
It didn’t; in fact it got worse, as the pre-fire grassy slopes had been replaces by thorny scrub. I tried running and jumping over the bushes, an activity that proved to be extremely tiring. My legs were very scratched. I was going through water much faster than planned. Finally after descending 2000’, I was ready for a change. I looked at the long descent ridge planned for DPS B, with more of the same, and made a change of plans..
Let’s Be Flexible.
To my left was a steep drop off the ridge. I studied the map, and realized this slope would take me (eventually) to where I had gotten water this morning. I sent off a SPOT message then, and partway down the slope, to alert my wife that I had changed direction. Even the blocky, enervating talus seemed like a welcome relief.
Finally, after what seemed like a very long time, I was on the cliffs above my watering spot. Now in the daylight, and from above, I could see a convoluted path that delicately avoided the very thick stream growth. I sat by the stream and drank a liter of water right then and there.
The Trudge Home.
I still had about a mile of canyon to negotiate, and there was a lot of travel up and down the walls; the trail was hard to follow, but much easier now in daylight. I realized that the trail did indeed cross the marsh in several places; I had thought these crossing must be mistakes in the moonlight, but now I just accepted them with wet feet. The great irony of the route – that one must avoid descending into the thick wet brush, except when absolutely necessary – gave an unworldly beauty in the reddish, dimming light.
Finally, I spilled back onto the remnants of the old road, and realized that some folks had been camping 200’ to the side, as I had been walking through in the morning dark, while I roared to scare off hypothetical mountain lions. They eyed me suspiciously. I wanted to ask them if they had heard anything unusual last night, but thought better of it.
Now I had just three miles of gradual downhill to my car. I watched the wonderful glow on the Black Mountains as the sun set behind me; the shadow of the Panamints gradually worked its way up the east side of Death Valley, till it eclipsed the 6500’-high mountains. I arrived back at my car after sunset, but still in twilight. My first order of business was to remove my shoes, wash my feet, take a sponge bath and put on clean(er), dry clothes. Next I ate and had a glass of wine. And next I slept deeply.
7. Epilogue: What I would do differently.
First, I would have driven up Johnson Canyon earlier in the day, so I could have driven farther up the road. But I was working on the best information I had, and the experts told me that the road was in terrible shape past 2000’.
Of course, I wouldn’t take the DPS “B” route. Either I’d go back to the nice ridge I used for ascent, or drop down the dotted route on the Google Earth map at top.
I might bring more water. I still ended the day OK, and without that miserable route B, I would have used less.
Now that I know the route, I’d leave the webbing behind. But if I had chosen a quick descent, I might have ended up on the cliffs above the springs, and the webbing would have added a measure of comfort.
8. Hiking Alone.
I know, I know; we’re not supposed to hike alone. I really did try to get other people on this trip; all bailed in the last week. Most of my hikes are solo; partly that’s because I have brain damage (I’m not kidding), and have a hard time listening to people, at the same time as I watch my feet. It’s actually quite a dangerous situation, when I get distracted. In addition, I need more sleep than most people, to recharge the neurotransmitters in my damaged brain. When I’m by myself, I simply go to bed early, but virtually no one else agrees to that plan.
I try to make up for my solo habits, by carrying a GPS-satellite transmitter. This “SPOT” device sends my location to my wife. I still must be diligent and send signals whenever I am about to change plans. I also give my wife maps and electronic files displaying my intended routes, along with bail plans and the phone numbers of local ranger stations.
SNOWY RED ROCK
As most of you probably know, in one week this month, we got more rain in Las Vegas than we did in the entire year of 2009. While it was too warm in the valley to snow, everything above 4000' feet was completely snow-covered.
Now it just happened that I had Indecision Peak scheduled as an LVMC hike for January 23rd. Needless to say, we aborted that plan as we would have been hiking through snow and ice the entire hike. Our group of eight needed a good backup plan.
We opted for something at lower elevation to try to avoid the most snow we could. Harlan suggested Kraft Mountain, a sandstone peak in Calico Basin. It turned out to be a great suggestion.
The hike only took us just over 3.5 hours, but felt longer since we encountered so many different types of terrain. We hiked up a steep trail to a saddle, then dropped down into a snow-covered wash (Gateway Canyon). As we descended further in the wash, the snow disappeared, replaced by flowing water. We came to a few brief, but interesting class 3 sections. The deep pools made the penalty for a misstep very cold! We found one pool that was 5-6 feet deep where several members of the group took a short break to skip rocks.
Even though we did not reach the true summit of Kraft Mountain, we still got a sense of accomplishment. As we reached a high point on the eastern side of the summit ridge, the snow and ice began to be a safety issue, so we called it a day, and headed down. We descended down a steep chute to the south to rejoin the trail leading to our vehicles.
It was a pleasant hike with some unbelievable views of Red Rock. Thanks to all participants and a special thank you to Harlan who blazed the trail!
While going after county high points or county prominence points (points with the highest prominence, distance one needs to descend before reaching a higher point, in each county) may not be of interest to everyone, it can sometimes lead to finding interesting mountains. Harquahala Mountain, highest and most prominent point in La Paz county, Arizona is one such mountain.
The mountain was used by the Smithsonian as a solar observatory from 1920-1925. This building and several nice interpretive signs are at the summit. There is also a microwave repeater station used by the Central Arizona Water Project. More importantly, there is still a fairly nice trail that was used to haul gear up to the observatory 90 years ago - it gains about 3,400', but since it takes 5.4 miles each way, it's not that steep.
Since it's about 50 miles to a higher peak, the view from the top is breath-taking. Yet looking at the trail register, this peak appears to be surprisingly neglected. It's strange that the trailhead was in such nice condition (had an outhouse, a good map with trail information, and even free trail pamphlets), and yet the road off the highway was unmarked (almost hidden).
How to get there: Take US 60 about 35 miles west from Wickenburg, and look for a lone palm tree on the north side of the road between mile markers 70 and 71. There is a gate on the south side of the road across from it. Go through the gate (closing it behind you) and follow the dirt road for about 2.5 miles to the trailhead. If you don't have a high clearance vehicle (as I didn't), you will need to be careful, and may want to stop at the horse trailer parking, about 0.4 miles before the trailhead.
If one is going straight from Las Vegas, one can bypass Wickenburg and take highway 71 south from US 93 to reach US 60, saving about 25 miles. The distance and driving time from Las Vegas is about 250 miles / 4 hours. While that may be too far for a day trip for some, if one is driving to Phoenix anyway, it's a great diversion (about 100 miles from Phoenix).
Since it is south of Las Vegas, and the summit is only 5,681 ft above sea level, I would not expect it to keep the occasional snow it may get for long. I'd much rather hike there in winter than in summer, though cool fall or spring days might be best.
If anyone is interested in discovering more county high points and/or prominence points, peakbagger.com has many lists of them.
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