Telescope Peak

15-May-99 (private trip)

By: Erik Siering


This was an epic. The effort surpassed even the renowned trek to Telescope Peak from Shorty's Well to the east. Yet this western approach is also more scenic and interesting. Bob Sumner and I dayhiked Death Valley's Telescope Peak in a loop from Panamint Valley. We ascended Hall Canyon and scaled the summit by the west ridge. We descended the south ridge to Panamint Pass and Surprise Canyon, passing through the deserted mining town of Panamint City.

I've wanted to climb Telescope Peak via Hall Canyon since my trip was stormed out several years ago. I added the Surprise Canyon twist for exploration. Bob and I set up our shuttle in the morning by parking my truck at Chris Wicht Camp, the customary trailhead for Panamint City and Sentinel Peak. A hostile canine of an uncertain breed greeted us. We set out at 06:30 from Indian Ranch (1100'), off the graded dirt road of the same name. This is reservation property at the mouth of Hall Canyon to the northeast. We respected the "No Trespassing" signs posted on the locked entrance gate, although the dwellings appeared uninhabited. So we skirted north of the wire fence, and crossed open desert to join the water pipeline road above the ranch. The road leads into the canyon, culminating in a footpath that wends alongside the brush and flowing stream in the tight gorge.

Brush becomes an obstruction at the first of a series of impassable waterfalls in the narrows (1800'). To the north is an obscure mining trail that leads to the upper canyon via the adjacent ridge, passing above the cascades. This is shown on the Telescope Peak 15 min topo. Steve Smith has rappelled down this chasm, and reports that the canyon is spectacular with fourteen flowing waterfalls up to 125' high. The trail becomes more pronounced at the flat top of the ridge, but we saw no indication of late use. We followed the trail as it crested below a jeep track coming over from Jail Canyon (4800'), and then dropped to meet the track at the spring and the miner's cabin in Hall Canyon (4400'). There is water here year-round. This is also the western boundary of the national park. Named after its former owner, the Rowland cabin is nestled in the protection of a lush grove of trees. This small, one-room structure is in fair condition but for the blown-out windows. It had been designated by the BLM in the Adopt-a-Cabin program. Bob and I gratefully appropriated a couple of beers. . We deemed it a good omen.

We followed a burro track east up the broad rocky wash. The serenades of snorting burros echoed throughout Hall Canyon. One stood off to our right, closely watching our progress. Glowering at our ingress to his domain, we imagined. This is beautiful, isolated high desert terrain. Telescope Peak's west face is its most attractive perspective, featuring the colored rock bands and steep cliffs commonly seen in Arizona and Utah. We steered northeast at the prominent "Y" in the wash (6000'). A jeep track here led out of the wash on a gradual rise through the pinyon trees. Our objective was the last subsidiary N-S ridge (6800') prior to an enormous dry waterfall, and the headwall cliffs still adorned with snow.

We climbed this open ridge until, to our surprise, we came upon a fine, large corrugated metal cabin with glass windows (7700'). It was in a peculiar location on a scenic bench, with neither water nor mining sites apparent nearby. It showed no signs of recent activity, although it was home to a plump, happy mouse. Pressing on, we crested the west ridge (8200'). After negotiating light brush, rock gendarmes, and residual snow, we intersected the trail from Mahogany Flats (10,900') shortly before attaining the summit at 15:15 (11,049'). Bob and I celebrated with the beers we'd liberated below.

Several trail hikers were on the summit. They reported the road to the Flats trailhead as in good condition. Coincidentally, one fellow there had prospected in Hall and Jail Canyons with his father long ago. He excitedly showed us a map indicating the locations of the mining adits, and was keenly interested in what we had observed en route.

It would have been prudent to hitch a ride at Mahogany Flats back to Panamint Valley. But no, we persisted with our plan and turned south to Panamint Pass. The undulating ridge proved to be a tedious horror of talus, boulders and brush. However, we averted the harsh experience of the DPS backpack years before that had taken an ill-advised, premature descent through cliffs into brush-infested Water Canyon. Their account kept us focused on the ridge despite its shortcomings. We were intent on reaching the Pass before dark on this new moon night.

We did so, barely, achieving Panamint Pass (8070') at 20:15. The sun had already dropped in the west behind Parkinson Peak. We had twilight enough to discern the start of the old trail to Panamint City. This route had once been used to ferry produce and goods to the miners in the City from Hungry Bill's Ranch, on the Death Valley side of the Pass. The path, ducked in places, eventually follows the drainage through Frenchmans Canyon until it becomes a jeep track above Water Canyon. The BLM/NPS has an impressive electronic monitoring installation here, cordoned off by barbed wire fence. The antennae and sensors eerily reflected our light beams. It appeared in the gloom much like the Surveyor spacecraft lander. Was this our vivid imagination or simply delirium?

We hiked into "downtown" Panamint City, pausing at the machine shop for a rest and water (6400'). The cabins were vacant, although we spotted an odd glimmer in the canyon below us. We tanked up on water from the hand pump before continuing. Shortly ahead on the road, we met the owners of the light, a headlamp. Two fellows were hiking up to overnight at the cabins after a false start in Happy Canyon earlier in the day. We all remarked on our curious encounter at night in such a remote location.

It was a pleasant stroll downhill with the stars shimmering above. A herd of burros startled us near Limekiln Springs. Fortunately, they were easygoing and moving slow. The water runoff in Surprise Canyon was still high, due to the rapid melting of last month's snow. Still, scrambling down the rushing constriction by headlamp was particularly enjoyable. We carried light daypacks and cared not whether we go wet. After initially missing the exit turn out of the wash, we reached the trailhead at 00:30. Our canine friend was again alert to our arrival. The chilled Rowdy's Lagers tasted great!

Statistics: approximately 27 miles and 11,800 feet gain total. Our time was 18 hours.

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