Virgin Peak, Mount Tipton, Spirit Mountain, Porter Peak, Smith Mountain
By: Gary Craig
I had a busy month of April planned, trying to get a couple of DPS trips in, between the demands placed on everyday life by work and other concerns. But, it was going to be a good month, starting with a trip to Arizona to fmally bag Babo and nearby peaks (actually at the end of March). Then, do a local, HPS-type hike, then Greg & Mirna's trip to Tipton and Spirit (to which I would add Virgin, privately), the DPS banquet on May l~, and culminating with a trip to Death Valley on May 4th to lead Porter. I'm happy to report that I basically got to where I was headed, but the road there was not quite as expected.
After the DPS trip to Baboquivari and surrounding peaks (led by Tom Bowman and reported on in the last issue of the Sage) and a Yucaipa Ridge dayhike, were two scheduled trips on the weekends of April 20th and May 4th with the DPS banquet in between. The first of these weekends was a trip to Tipton and Spirit, and I'd had plenty of suggestions to go climb Virgin as well since it was relatively close and I still needed it. Then, I'd planned the Porter climb with Greg Roach as a climb from the east, Death Valley, side of the Panamints so as to avoid the now not-so-pleasant road up Pleasant Canyon from the west.
Greg called a week or so before the Tipton/Spirit trip to see if I wanted to take over as leader... he got a better offer, to go hike the Escalante canyonlands in Utah. Sure, no problem, I'm motivated... I can't let this trip be cancelled. With the enlisted help of Patty Rambert as assistant, the trip was still a "go". On Friday I had a successful climb of Virgin Peak on Friday with Patty, Ron Hudson, and Linda McDermott. We had a cool, partly cloudy day for Virgin and dispatched the peak in good time. We all piled into my 4wd Explorer for the last few miles of the road. I think it is 3.8 miles, not 2.8 as reported in the Peaks Guide, from the last road fork to the mining ruins where one starts hiking. After returning to the other cars, Linda left for home and Patty, Ron, and I drove through Overton, along Lake Mead, to Boulder City for dinner, with a quick side trip to visit the tourist highlights of Valley of Fire State Park. We then drove across Hoover Dam and to the Tipton meeting point, sacking out about 1/2 mile up the dirt road that leads to the trailhead on a side road to the west.
In addition to the three of us, we had Dave and Elaine Baldwin, Gary Murta, and Gary McNulty signed up to meet near the Tipton trailhead for an early start on Saturday the 20th~ This day dawned clear and cool, perfect hiking conditions. After a brief deep-sand, off-road mishap with Gary McNulty's truck, we got to the cattle gate described in the Peaks Guide. This is a BLM access gate for the areas behind the fence. About 0.8 miles beyond this gate we came to a parking area with a BLM kiosk. We parked here, and walked up the road another 1/2 mile or so to a locked gate; we could have driven here but parking is limited. From here it is over a mile to the "old" 4wd spot described in the Peaks Guide, walking along the deteriorating road.
Tipton has a well-deserved reputation as being among the brushiest DPS peaks. It starts soon after leaving the remnants of the dirt road, when the sagebrush gives way to piņon pine and worse. But, it really wasn't too nasty, and we made good progress up to the saddle at about -5300'. Staying in the lowest gully of the drainage helped a lot in avoiding the brush. At the saddle, we took a long break, and then started up the steeper terrain to the east. It is impossible to describe the route through this section; we headed generally toward the 6600' knob and just took the path of least resistance through the brush. This took significant time and effort, but after reaching the knob and passing it on the left side, the terrain magically opens in a forest of Jeffrey Pine... amazing! What a relief. Very pleasant walking in perfect temperatures brought us to the top at lunchtime, with crystal-clear views in all directions, which everyone enjoyed.
Our descent was tiring but uneventful except for Ron, who got a whack on the forehead from a low-hanging tree branch; no serious damage done. We took a fairly slow pace with plenty of rest stops both up and down, so it was about 9:45 round trip for the hike. We did a pretty good job of following the lowest part of the drainage channel on the way down from the 5300' saddle and so the brush wasn't too bad in this section. We made up a plan along the way to have dinner at the Harrah's casino buffet in Laughlin before driving to the Spirit Mountain trailhead, so we relaxed at the cars only a short bit before hitting the road south to Laughlin. I think we all enjoyed this buffet, especially the margaritas while waiting in line, and heartily recommend this as a good dinner stop: $10, all-you-can-eat with a good variety.
The AAA map shows a few campsites along the Christmas Tree Pass road from the east side, but these appear to all be closed and we camped at marginal spots along the spur road leading to the Spirit trailhead. After the long hike, long drive, and dinner, it was fairly late when we got to the trailhead Saturday night so we all hit the sack immediately, and of course, morning came too early. But, everybody was ready for a 7am start for Spirit. This hike went well per the directions in the Peaks Guide. In retrospect, one should lose more than the recommended 150 feet after crossing the first saddle, in order to avoid trickier ground. We stayed fairly high on the traverse after the first saddle on the way up, but were lower in this area on the return and the walking was definitely easier there despite the extra elevation change. On the way up, one passes through an obvious notch at about 4200', and then a well-ducked route leads steeply east and up to the main ridge, where progress is mostly easy to the summit. Again, clear skies graced us and we had seemingly infinite views in all directions.
Our descent was fast from the summit and we rejoined Gary McNulty who was tired from the Tipton climb and was waiting for us about halfway up. From here we returned to the cars, with an almost-too-close encounter with a rattlesnake along the way; no worries, nothing but a few jangled nerves. These were quickly salved by a nice happy hour back at the cars after the end of the hike, after which we said our good-byes and made our way south to I-40 and then home.
Ok, home now, and time to prepare for the Porter trip. The banquet, as you all know, was splendid just a few days before. Unfortunately, Greg was burned out from his Utah trip and asked if once again, Patty could sub for him as assistant on the Porter climb. "No problem" was her reply... what a trooper! Anyway, we again had seven climbers for the Porter Peak climb on the Second Weekend, May 4th~ In addition to myself and Patty, and Ron Hudson once again, we had Brian Smith, Jim Kalember, Gary Bowen, and Virgil Popescu meet in Johnson Canyon for the hike to Porter Peak via "Hungry Bill's Ranch".
I camped fairly far down the road on Friday night, and so got to the trailhead a bit late and last of all. The road leading west from the West Side Road to the trailhead is rocky and tedious, and quite slow-going but with no real difficulties. We started up the easy-to-fmd use trail leading west up the canyon from the end of the dirt road. This trail has some ups-and-downs as it crosses some side ridges well above the small creek. The Peaks Guide description of the route has one following this trail to Hungry Bill's (about 2 miles from the cars), and then taking a side trail that leads up to Porter to the south. The trail was obviously constructed in some areas, with rock walls and shoring, and was likely used by the occupants of the ranch in times past. Well, we never got to Hungry Bill's Ranch, because we left the canyon bottom about halfway along (at a spot where the trail appears to go the wrong way, down the canyon for a bit), and ascended to a rounded ridge where we hoped the walking would be easier and open. We were trusting the map here as the terrain was not visible to the south from the canyon bottom. But, this route turned out to be a good one. We met the ridge's end at about UTM 981932, elevation 5200 feet. One then just follows the ridge S then SW through light sagebrush to "rejoin" the Peaks Guide route at about 6600', though we never saw any trace of a use trail here. As we proceeded up the ridge to near the 8000' level we entered a piņon forest that had been recently burned over a wide area. The ridge that we had been walking on for so long steepens markedly as it joins the main crest of the Panamints, so we veered left (5) across scree slopes for the final push to the crest. This was easily the least enjoyable portion of the entire day, as the scree was quite loose... Brian declared that it was the worst terrain he'd been on in a long time.
With much huffing and puffing and mumbled curses, we finally reached the main crest of the Panamints where fine views unfolded. We could see that the fire that had burned much of the area we'd been in for the last few hours had also burned large areas on the west side of the ridge as well. We'd hit the ridge a bit over a mile north of the summit, but the walk along the top was quite enjoyable. There was some wind on top but the temperature was nice; lunch and a nice rest on top were welcomed by all. Just a few steps farther south on the gentle summit one can look down into the top of Pleasant Canyon and the upper portions of the road leading up from the west.
We took a different route on our descent. We proceeded north along the main crest well beyond the spot where we had reached it on the way up. We had thoughts of maybe trying to bag Sentinel Peak and then descend the Panamint Pass trail. We ultimately decided against this due to the time of day and everyone's energy level after the already tough hike. We left the main ridge about a mile from Sentinel, just before the last major notch before the top. We took a side ridge leading NE from UTM 941939. This ridge peters out before reaching the bottom of Johnson Canyon, but we moved right into the next gully for the remainder of the descent.
Once at the canyon bottom, we found the faint Panamint Pass trail and followed it off-and-on to Hungry Bill's Ranch. There's not much left of the ranch, mostly some crumbling rock walls and old rail fences, and a fair amount of brush. We saw no trace of the trail that the Guide would have had us following on the way up, but admittedly we didn't look very hard. Leaving the ranch, we followed the main trail down Johnson Canyon, which isn't as easy as one might think as there are numerous side paths to lead one astray. The trail crosses the stream a few times in one stretch. We all eventually made it back to the end of the road and the vehicles after a round- trip time of 12:30, not bad after our intentional long detour on the descent. There was general agreement that it was good that we did not try to also summit Sentinel. For happy hour and dinner we drove down the road to just below the mouth of the canyon (just after climbing two steep hills) where a wide area in the road allows parking for several cars. This spot has great views over the valley. We shared appetizers and snacks here, and bid farewell to Virgil and Jim who were making the long drive home. After a warm night, we awoke Sunday to clear skies. Brian and Gary Bowen left for breakfast at the Crow Bar in Shoshone and then a visit to Tecopa. Patty, Ron and I decided at the last minute to try DPS Smith Mountain despite the possible heat. We slowly made our way down the endless road to the floor of Death Valley, then south to the pavement and around to the standard trailhead for Smith via the (3reenwater Valley. The worst portions of this driving route are just before and just after crossing the ridge where you start to drop into Gold Valley. There is parking room for a few cars right at the top. Once you drop down a few steep stretches and pass the road junction "at the head of Gold Valley" mentioned in the Peaks Guide, there are no difficulties the rest of the way.
The three of us obviously got a late start on this hike, and while it was warm, it was not oppressively hot and the hike went fine via the standard route. Views from the summit were good but marred a bit by "heat haze" in most directions. I think it hit 100 at Furnace Creek that day. Smith doesn't get climbed a lot and the register went back a long way. I happily made my entry, noting it as my 931(1 DPS summit. So, I'm close enough to finishing the list now to seriously plan my List Finisher in the fall, on Corkscrew Peak. Look for this trip to be in the Schedule and the Sage, and I hope to see you all there. And of course, my thanks go to Patty for co-leading both of these outings and helping make them both a success.
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