Telescope Peak

6-Apr-96 (Private Trip)

By: John McCully


Overview Bagging Telescope Peak (11,049) from Shorty's Well (-250) on the floor of Death Valley is a Southern California classic that provides 11,300 feet of absolute elevation gain in 21 miles, perhaps the greatest such gain in North America that can plausibly be done in a day by a fit hiker. There are always such things as Denali that get knocked off as day hikes by superman types, but Telescope from the floor of Death Valley is done by people you and I know. Last October 28 (SAGE 240) Erik Siering and Bob Sumner got to the top in 10 hours and to the car at Mahogany Flat in 12 hours. Amazing what thirty-somethings can do, especially at the end of the season. On May 20, 1984 Ron Hudson led a group of seven, including yours truly (who cheated by walking up to Hanaupah Springs the evening before), Igor Mamedalin, Mitch Miller, Bob Anglin, and Don Tidwell. Several in this group headed south at 8,000 feet and found water at 9,000 and topped out on a ridge just north of the summit. The rest followed the normal route described below. Other folks in the DPS that I've heard have done this hike are Gorden MacLeod, Mary Motherall and Rich Henke.

Trip Report

Since it was the beginning of the season forty-something Asher Waxman and fifty-something yours truly decided to allow for a max of 17 1/2 hours car to car. We left Shorty's Well at 1.30 AM and asked my wife Carol to wait at Mahogany flat until 7 PM. If we hadn't shown up by then she was to drive back around to Shorty's Well and hope to find us there. Carol planned on attempting the peak by herself from Mahogany Flat, and with luck we would all meet on the trail.

Things went smoothly until about 8 AM and 6,000 feet where Asher began to get nauseous. He was on a restricted diet because of Passover and had skipped dinner the night before and breakfast that morning. His body decided to get his attention in the usual manner with dry heaves. Feeling committed Asher ignored these signals and kept going, and noon found us at about 9,000 feet, 1000 feet short of the trail coming up from Mahogany Flats. Asher was feeling better and decided that he would be able to make it to the trail (at 10,000' a good bail out point that knocks about 2 hours off the hike) and told me to go ahead and bag the peak. We arranged that I would drop my pack as soon as I got to the trail and Asher would write a message in the snow near my pack when he got to the trail so I would know he was ok.

I made it to the trail about 1 PM and almost immediately ran into Carol, who had turned back 400 feet short of the peak because of snow and an ear infection that was keeping her from clearing her ears. She decided to wait for me to come back from the peak so we could walk out together. I got to the top at 2:15, for an ascent time of 12:45. When I retrieved my pack Asher's initials were written in the snow beside it so we knew he was ahead of us on the trail out. Carol and I got to the car at 5:40, for a time car to car of 16:10. Asher had been there about an hour. When he had arrived at the trail at 10,000' he had felt much better, and briefly considered doing the peak but had decided against it. All in all it was a good day, a new personal day hike altitude record for both of us, 11,300 in my case and 10,000 in Asher's.

Logistical Details

The two best times to do this hike are probably April and October. These periods might be extended by a few weeks in either direction but the extreme differences in conditions between the top of the peak and the floor of Death Valley cause difficulties. From mid May until mid September the desert floor and halfway up the mountain can be extremely hot. This might be dealt with by taking along large amounts of water. From sometime in November until late March the weather on top of the peak is likely to be bad (requiring extra foul weather gear) and snow on the top of the peak may require ice ax and crampons. Thus during the summer one is loaded down with water and during the winter with cold weather and snow gear. The shorter days in October may be a problem for slower groups, but the trail from Mahogany flat to the peak is excellent and could be easily done with a flashlight. All in all I think that late October is probably the optimum time to do the peak as it'll probably be cool at the bottom and snow or bad weather are not very likely at the top. The ranger at Death Valley (619-786-2331) can provide information about snow conditions and it's also possible to see the peak during the drive to Shorty's Well. Asher and I carried ice axes but didn't need them as there were quite a few footsteps in the snow from other hikers.

Most people from the LA area would probably come through Trona (the last place to get gas at a reasonable price) so it makes sense to meet at Wildrose Campground to set up the shuttle if a non climber is willing to drive around to Shorty's Well and everyone can fit into one Most people from the LA area would probably come through Trona (the last place to get gas at a reasonable price) so it makes sense to meet at Wildrose Campground to set up the shuttle if a non climber is willing to drive around to Shorty's Well and everyone can fit into one vehicle. This makes it possible to avoid having to unwind the shuttle, thus saving the 75 miles and 1 3/4 hour drive (each way) from Mahogany Flat to Shorty's Well.

And of course if the entire party drives up from LA in one vehicle and includes a non-climber then it can go straight to Shorty's Well. Currently all of the roads involved in the shuttle are suitable for 2WD. Care should be taken to avoid getting stuck in the sand when camping at Shorty's well in a 2WD. Camping with a 4WD at Shorty's Well is excellent and secluded. If there is no wind then Shorty's Well tends to be cooler than the rest of Death Valley, apparently because it is a sink that the cooler air settles into. Gas at Furnace Creek was recently $1.85. We've always found dinner at the coffee shop at Furnace Creek to be fairly good.

The hike from Shorty's Well to the top of Telescope is about 14 miles, about 8 of which are on the road to Hanaupah Springs. As recently as 10 years ago the 4WD road went all the way up to the lower spring, but the last portion of this road is now completely washed out and unpassable to any vehicle. The AAA and the topo map both show the road going further than it does. The first five or six miles of this road are currently in excellent condition and can be done with a 2WD. The last couple of miles (where the canyon narrows) require 4WD. If one is worried about running out of water along the road a secondary drop of some water could be made at three miles. Hanaupah Springs gives every appearance of flowing year round.

In order to facilitate walking along the road it might make some sense to time the day of the hike with the moon being out in the early morning hours, say the first weekend after a full moon. It is probably also a good idea to set out at a time that will put one at the end of the road just as the sun starts to come up. Once the road ends the going would be a bit difficult in the dark.

Asher and I pushed quite a way through the brush at Hanaupah Spring before heading up to the ridge on the right. Bob and Erik left the canyon just opposite the mining road the goes off to the left (3680'), heading up a prominent ridge to the NW (see map). They found a faint trail near the top of the ridge that passed around some of the bumps. The ridge heading toward the summit looks confusing on the topo but once on top of this ridge it is easy to follow all the way up to the trail. There are probably 3 or 4 hundred feet of extra gain in following the top of this ridge but the way is always clear and there is very little brush or other obstructions on it.

A variation on doing Telescope from the east is to skip the shuttle by driving as far as possible up the road toward Hanaupah Spring (about 3,000') and going up and back in the same day, about 8,000' of gain. Bill Oliver and Mark Persons did this last President's day (mid February), throwing in a variation by going up to the 6,000 feet level via the Class IV pinnacle ridge that lies just to the south of the upper spring and then coming down the normal ridge on the north. They could see that there was very little snow on Telescope and left their crampons and ice ax in their truck. Quite a few people were doing Telescope that day, some in plastic boots and others in shorts and tennis shoes. Such benign conditions are probably rare in midwinter, and Walt Wheelock's Desert Peaks Guide points out that several fatalities have occurred doing Telescope on the often hard snow. Mark and Bill left their truck at 6 AM, topped out at 2:30, and got back to the truck at 8 PM. This time might been a little shorter had they not ascended the pinnacle ridge. They also lost some time by dropping into the canyon too soon on the descent and wound up struggling after dark through the same brush that Asher and I trouble with.

Detailed information for visiting one or more peaks mentioned in this article can be found in the
Desert Peak Section Road and Peak Guides

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