Telescope Peak is the highpoint of the Panamint Range, rising over 11,000 feet from Death Valley to the east, and slightly less from the Panamint Valley to the west. Most people hike it from the northwest, via a well-maintained trail starting above the charcoal kilns. However, there is a harder way to climb it, starting from Badwater to the east, that is popular among Californian peak-bagging masochists. Since I am all of that except Californian, I have had it on my to-do list for awhile, but have never quite summoned the motivation at the right time. Now was my opportunity.
There are several ways to do it, the most popular being to start and end at Shorty’s Well on the west side of the valley, as Brett Maune did for his mind-blowing 8-hour run. However this is not technically the lowest spot in the United States, and Shannon, displaying admirable purism, insisted upon starting at Badwater, 30 feet lower and six miles east of Shorty’s Wells across a salt flat. I had originally wanted to return to the start, but was fortunately persuaded to set up a car shuttle to the normal trailhead. With the shuttle, it was about 30 miles and 12,000 feet of gain, much of it over rough terrain, and a long day; without, it would have been a nightmare.
I had planned a 4:00 wake-up and 4:30 departure. However, there was a surprising amount of nighttime traffic at the “day use only” parking lot, so I got little sleep. Topping it off, a noisily enthusiastic group pulled in at 3:00 AM, and spent the next 15 minutes loudly sorting gear, enthusing about burritos, and probably fist-bumping. What were the odds that we would share the route with another group, and that they would be so annoying? There was no chance of getting back to sleep, but we still managed to take forever getting our act together, starting at the originally-planned 4:30.
The night-time crossing of the salt flat was probably the day’s crux. We were fortunate that it was mostly dry, as it can become nightmare mud, which the salt crust prevents from drying. The dry parts of the flat were some sort of salty and surprisingly hard mud/rock with pockets and sharp points, which sounded like flatware when it broke. It suddenly changed in color and texture for no obvious reason, and always required careful foot placement.
With no moon, there was no horizon by which to orient myself. I had read about people wandering in circles in the desert, and it turns out that I am especially bad in this respect. After hiking a bit in what I thought was a straight line, occasionally bumping into Shannon, I looked at my phone and realized that I naturally turn left at a radius of about 0.1 miles. I had no idea I was so defective. Fortunately we had started relatively late, giving us a horizon to orient ourselves for the second half of the crossing. As we approached the west side of the flat, we encountered a mild version of the dreaded mud, sticky and perhaps an inch deep under a breakable crust.
Once past the salt flat, it was a short and mildly brushy hike to the well-graded West Side Road, which leads to the much rougher Hanaupah Canyon road. This road climbs the endless alluvial fan to the canyon’s mouth, then drops into the wash to make its way up the south fork toward a year-round spring. Badwater to Telescope hikers normally count on this spring to refill at the base of the main climb. However, a sign at the start of the road stated that unspecified “illegal activities” had made the water “NOT SAFE FOR DRINKING.” Fortunately I am paranoid about desert water sources, so we had both brought enough to skip the spring.
Hanaupah Canyon was surprisingly busy. In addition to the large group somewhere ahead, we were passed an older couple in a rented jeep, moving at a slow jog, and saw a half-dozen people at the mouth of the canyon’s north fork, possibly canyoneering. The canyon climbs very slowly, gaining only 3500′ in 8 rough miles to the spring, so we had plenty of time to speculate about illegal activities and why people would drive up this obscure canyon in the rapidly-warming morning. The road disappears below where the map suggests, and we found the jeep there, and the senior couple a short distance upstream. We found occasional cairns or bits of use trail, but the route seemed far less traveled than I had hoped.
Nearing the spring, a small running stream with nasty brush to either side forced us along one side or the other of the canyon. I knew the route climbed the right side, but for some reason followed a faint trail on the left. This eventually led to a decent-sized mine, which provided a welcome diversion after the long desert slog. Perhaps the jeep couple were mining enthusiasts?
I spotted an old gate across the way, and I think the normal route climbs the ridge just beyond this point, but the brush looked particularly nasty, so we continued upstream on the left, hoping to round the brush above the spring. This little detour did not cost much time or effort, and solved the mystery of the “illegal activity.” Some hardy (in the Dave Barry sense of “stupid”) entrepreneurs had set up a large marijuana field less than a mile from the end of the road, with a hundred or so plants drip-irrigated from the spring. The National Parks Service had snipped the hose from the spring, but left the whole system in place for the next person to come by with a roll of electrical tape and some seeds. In addition to the irrigation system, there was a small camp with a bag of fertilizer and some empty cup-o-noodles packages.
Now it was time to climb: 6200′ in 4.5 miles to the trail, then another 1200′ in 1.5 along the trail to the summit. We started up along an old mine road above the grow, then took off cross-country where it ended at a partially-collapsed tunnel. Shannon was a bit skeptical of my route, and I had to admit that it was not a GPS track someone had recorded, but just a line I had made up based on a rough written description. Fortunately almost nothing can grow in Death Valley, so after a bit of steep side-hilling, we found easy travel up a faint rib to the ridge north of the canyon, even passing a couple of useless cairns.
There is a trail in places along the ridge, but it seems to serve sheep more than humans, and fades in and out as the possible path narrows and widens. The best route stays near the crest, weaving around trees, crossing minor bumps, and climbing steadily and steeply. We had been expecting to catch the 3:00 party group all day, and finally met one descending as we approached the steep, forested headwall below the north ridge. He was planning to descend to the springs and camp, then hike back across the salt flats to a car at Badwater the next morning. I thought “okay, have fun with that,” but Shannon generously offered him a ride from the standard trailhead, convincing him to head back uphill.
The young man made good time for awhile in his overnight pack, staying with us and talking long enough to make things clearer. He was one of a group of six, trying to set a record of three days on a 150-mile cross-country route from Badwater to Whitney called “lowest to highest” (explaining the crude metal “L2H” sign we had found earlier). Not liking his chances of completing the 35-mile dry stretch from Hanaupah Springs to the next water source, he had abandoned the attempt. While desert fast-packing is absolutely not my thing, I appreciated the spirit, understood why they were so fast and loud, and was somewhat ashamed of my earlier irritation.
He eventually dropped back, planning to skip the summit and meet us at the trailhead. The last 3000′ are a brutal grind up the east face to the ridge, weaving through trees and brush on mostly loose ground. We got lucky and chose a good path, passing another member of the L2H team who spotted us from a worse line and, mistaking us for two of his group, shouted to go on without him. This was starting to look like a desert version of the Scott Antarctic expedition, with members dropping along the way as ambition met harsh reality.
After hours of calf-burning climbing and backsliding, the well-manicured trail was a pleasant relief, though I soon tired of the horizontal switchbacks. As expected, there were several groups of hikers out on this perfect holiday weekend, amusingly (to me) including some fans (not mine). It had been t-shirt weather almost the whole way up, but was suddenly chilly and windy on the summit. There was a group with a friendly dog on the summit, who were a mixture of impressed and baffled when we explained how we had arrived there. Snacks and silly photos later, it was time to head down: while there would be no evening headlamp, there was still an exhausted 2-hour drive back around to Badwater.
We met our young companion just as he was reaching the trail, worried that we might have already passed and left him. He turned out to be a Berkeley student just about to turn 21, making me feel even older than I normally do. I appreciated his enthusiasm, though, and enjoyed our conversation on the way to the car. Two hours’ drive later, we were once again cooking dinner at Badwater in the dark. Not wanting a repeat of the previous night’s disturbances and sleeplessness, we blearily drove to the closest more secluded trailhead to camp.