By: Gary Craig
A group of fifteen hikers met at the Chris Wicht Camp in Death Valley under clear blue skies on Saturday morning the 28h for the moderate hike to Panamint City. The group consisted of Gary Craig (leader and scribe), Sue Holloway (co-leader), Annemarie Schober, John Strauch, Ray Mencken, Linda Roman, Lynne Buckner, Ken Barr, Gene Mauk, Jan St. Amand, Jane Gibbons, Patrick Wood, Cliff Jones, Laura Lathrop, and Steve Gabel. The directions given in the DPS Road and Peaks Guide are accurate, except that the last stretch to the camp is a few tenths longer than indicated.
We started hiking around 9am, and the walk up Surprise Canyon took about 4-1/2 hours. The road in the lower part of the canyon was wiped out in the 80's by a flood, but the majority of the road higher up is in good shape. Recent tire tracks attest to the fact that jeeps are still winched up the worst parts of the canyon by a determined few. In three spots there are waterfalls which are difficult to negotiate on foot; it is amazing that people manage to get vehicles up! Sue noted that the water level in the creek was lower than when she had done this hike in the spring a couple of years ago. Just as well!
Panamint City is one of the best-preserved ghost towns around; it now falls within the recently expanded boundary of the National Park. The map shown in the Peaks Guide is a good depiction of the remaining structures. For about the last mile the large chimney of the smelter is visible, and the foundations of long-gone buildings can be seen a bit back from the road. The "main cabin" is one of the first intact buildings you encounter upon entering town, and we chose these comfortable surroundings for our potluck dinner. The main cabin had a nice stream of water flowing from a pipe outside, and the nearby welder's shop has a hand-operated valve that also produced water; we used both of these sources throughout our stay. Most people drank the water directly, without feeling the need to purify or boil it.
Everybody spent the afternoon exploring the town, both just for fun and in search of the perfect sleeping spot. A few decided on spots inside the main cabin, a few others under the shelter of the welder's shop roof, and the rest in tents scattered about. One cabin of particular interest is the "Castle", which is a fine structure set apart from the rest of the town. It's a bit far off to be convenient for sleeping, and is not at all castle-like, but is in excellent condition and has a fine view from its hillside spot in a side canyon.
At 5:30 pm or so the group gathered for a fine selection of happy hour appetizers and dinner entrees. Among the offerings were several tasty soups, crackers with unusual cheeses, salad, fresh fruit (from Gene's garden), wine, and desserts. My apologies to those of you that I've neglected to mention, but it was all delicious. There was some socializing after dinner, but people slowly drifted off to their beds to rest up for the early start planned for Sunday.
We were up at first light to prepare for the 7am start for the peak. A thin high overcast had come in overnight, and there was a lower layer of thick clouds obscuring the higher ridges and summits. We had a couple hikers who elected to remain in camp, but 13 of us started up the hillside for the start of the 'A' route at about 7: 10. This is fairly steep going at the start, but soon one meets the road that leads to the Wyoming Mine. We stopped for a rest at the mine, where a use trail leads to the ridge beyond, which is then followed upward. There are a few knobs on the ridge which can by bypassed easily, or overcome by a direct frontal assault. We proceeded up the ridge, and met the bottom of the clouds hanging on the peak about halfway up. As we climbed, the temperature dropped and the wind increased. As we neared the tree line, two hikers elected to not continue to the peak, and instead waited for the bulk of the group to summit and return.
The ferocity of the wind seemed to multiply as we climbed the highest slopes, and the summit itself was raked by gale-force winds that made it hard to stand up. The eleven hikers who summited (the first eleven listed above) huddled just below the summit on the lee side, robbed of the normally-fantastic view by the fog bank which persisted throughout the day, We took a few group photos, signed the register, and headed down to regroup with Cliff and Laura who were waiting for us.
We retraced our steps on the way down. A spot where the ridge divides at about 8500' caused a minor navigational error, which was easily corrected with the help of an old miner's trail that heads back to the correct ridge. The rest of the descent was uneventful, and when we reached the Wyoming Mine road we followed it all the way back to Panamint. We were back in camp at about 12:25, after a round trip of a bit over 5 hours. Everyone was happy to have stayed dry throughout the hike (no rain or snow), despite the threatening weather.
At 1:30 pm we had "saddled up" the big backpacks and were headed down the road back to the cars. Everyone made it through the waterfalls in the lower part of the canyon without incident, and we reached Novak's camp about 4:30 after a 7000' descent from Sentinel Peak.
There was a bit of socializing and picture taking, but before long all participants had begun the drive home. Just about everyone drove through quite a bit of rain on the way home; it had held off just long enough.
Thanks to everyone who joined us and helped make this a great trip, and thanks to Sue for co-leading.
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