Black Mountain, Ubehebe Peak, Pyramid Peak, Desert Butte


By: Debbie Bulger


DEATH VALLEY CHRISTMAS December 23, 2006 - January 1, 2007

Since it's a very long drive from Santa Cruz to Death Valley, Richard Stover and I camped for the night in the El Paso Mountains, south of Ridgecrest. Black Mountain, the highest peak in this range, was the perfect warm up for our anticipated week of hiking and climbing in Death Valley. We were joined for the easy climb of lava-studded Black Mountain by a hiker from Bakersfield. After reaching the summit with its views of Owens and Olancha Peaks to the north, we proceeded to the western summit in search of Indian house rings. We did see rings of lava rock, however, we cannot say for sure if they were the archeological structures we had read about.

The next day we drove to the Mesquite Springs Campground in Death Valley after a Christmas Day tour of Scotty's Castle. Contrary to the bad review in the DPS Guide, this campground is pleasant enough, although the coyotes are a bit too tame. One brazen trickster trotted down the middle of the road to Scotty's Castle stopping traffic in search of handouts.

Our climb of snow-splotched Ubehebe Peak on December 26 was joyful. There is a trail part of the way as well as fun scrambling and historic mining artifacts. After the climb we investigated and photographed the famous racing rocks on the playa below.

Alternating geology with peak bagging, we spent half the next day circumnavigating the Ubehebe Crater and hiking nearby, ably guided by the fabulous book, "Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley," by Sharp and Glazner.

December 28 brought 50 mph wind gusts blowing borax and sand, completely obscuring views. We headed for Slit Canyon and Hole in the Wall as described in "Hiking Death Valley," by Digonnet where, at least in the narrows, the wind couldn't reach us. We also saw a Loggerhead Shrike.

The weather was starting to calm when we started our climb of Pyramid Peak at first light on December 29. Although the DPS Guide estimates 8 hours, we knew the climb would take us much longer at 10.5 miles and 3500' elevation gain. We left our truck at the abandoned trailer park about a half mile past the traditional starting point at milepost 129.

Neither the DPS Guide nor Andy Zdon's "Desert Summits" discloses that Pyramid is the Queen of Scree. As I trudged up the seemingly endless ridge, at times quite steep, I kept thinking of the hot fudge sundae I would enjoy if I ever made it back to Santa Cruz. Worried about hiking too slowly, I ate very little. About 600' below the summit, I got real grumpy, grabbed the cheddar bunnies out of Richard's pack, and tore open the package. I scarfed half the lot. They were the best bunnies ever.

That energy boost got us on the summit for views of snow-capped Telescope to the east and snow-capped Charleston to the west. With plenty of moonlight on tap for the evening, I decided to relax and not worry about finishing in daylight. The descent on all that scree was rapid but hard on the knees. We saw fossils. After we reached the sandy wash, our knees thanked us. Only 2 and a half miles across the desert to our truck. As the sun set, we stowed our packs, 10 and a half hours since starting that morning.

For a relaxing next day we decided to explore Chloride City, an old mining site. Instead, we were treated to one of the most hair-raising, heart-stopping, roller coaster 4WD roads I have had the pleasure to traverse. More scary than Goler Wash. Neither Zdon nor Digonnet give any hint of the condition of this road. Digonnet says, "Lighter vehicles may also require 4-wheel drive for the last 1.1 mile stretch which goes over steep and lopsided bedrock." May? May? We were in low gear for much of the drive. Richard was driving, so I had to look over the steep drop offs on the passenger side. We came up over rises where all we could see was sky because the descent was so steep. At one point it seemed the roadbed was ready to collapse into the void. Luckily we didn't meet any vehicles going the other way at the really tight spots. Needless to say, we took the less dramatic way out.

I had had it for 4WD adventure. Since we were not sure what the exit entailed and didn't want to rush, we decided to camp below Chloride City after just scratching the surface of mine exploration. We had a cheerful campfire and dinner at the Chloride Cafe (aka tailgate). That night our water bottles froze. On the drive home we stopped to run up Desert Butte just south of California City. On the summit we were treated to a thrilling display of aerial acrobatics as a gang of ravens harassed a red-tailed hawk. There was a brand new register placed by Barbara Lilley and Gordon MacLeod in October.

And yes, on New Year's Day I kept my promise to myself and stopped at the gelato shop for a hot fudge sundae before we pulled into our driveway. I have my priorities straight.

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