By: Steve Smith
Eight of us met Thursday morning on the floor of the Saline Valley near the mouth of Keynot Canyon in the Inyos. From the morning of Thursday April 18 when the 1st helicopter shuttle rose from the floor of Saline Valley, until the following Sunday night near midnight, when the last climber straggled out of Keynot Canyon, a unique and productive desert experiment took place. We met in a joint effort of trail restoration for the 1991 State of California Trail Days effort, a BLM/Inyo Mtns WSA project and to pioneer a descent of Keynot Canyon.
Heading the trip was Steve Smith, Chief of Resources for the Ridgecrest BLM office. Andy Tenney, a recreation planner for the BLM was present. They were joined by Jerry Bogqs, a wildlife expert for China Lake NWS: Matt Webb and Mark Smith of "Friends of the Inyo WSA"; Doug, Ron and Jim Morrison, founders of the Desert Survivors organization & Ron Jones of the Sierra Club, DPS. For years the Keynot mine area, abused by illegal mining, has needed clean-up and restoration and the hiking trail improved on the Keynot/Beveridge ridge leading east from Keynot Peak to the Beveridge Trail Cabin. This site has magnificent views of Keynot and Beveridge Canyons, the Snowflake Talc Mine, Saline Valley and the Inyo Crest.
This year we were flown by helicopter to the cabin site at 8,200'. That day and the next were spent dismantling 1/2 mile of water pipe leading from Keynot Spring to the mine and depositing the pipe in a massive mine dumpster. We cleaned up the Keynot Spring area and removed much modern debris leaving only artifacts from the historic mining days. We sealed off a mine entrance where cyanide was once stored and Steve camouflaged the massive Fiat-Allis bulldozer with a paint job which blends into the landscape. We also stocked the Beveridge Ridge cabin with emergency food, some donated by Hunt-Wesson. The following two days were to be spent in a descent of Keynot Canyon.
Not many people enter into the Inyo Mountains, and fewer yet venture out into the steep and rugged eastern side of the range. The eastern slope is a frontal fault line escarpment which is undergoing rapid vertical uplift which results in the high ridges and deep canyons.
Hikers that do enter the area mostly use the old historic mining trails which generally follow ridgelines and avoid the deep canyons with their frequent high dry waterfall obstacles and dense brush. There had been however two known times that climbers had attempted to descend the length of Keynot Canyon. Two people from an early 1980's mining effort at the Keynot mine first attempted the canyon in 1982 and another two people from7 the BLM had attempted it in 1985.
Both trips were unsuccessful when the climbers reached high dry waterfalls they could not go down and cliffs they had already descended prevented them from going beck up canyon. Both groups had to be rescued by difficult helicopter airlifts -including use of a military helicopter with hoist cable for one group - after they became stranded deep in the heart of Keynot Canyon.
After the 1985 rescue, Steve decided that someday he would like to organize a third attempt to descend Keynot Canyon. Years passed and finally we had the opportunity. We set up a 8L14 volunteer restoration and site clean up project for the Keynot mine and we could attempt to descend Keynot Canyon after finishing the project work.
Steve enlisted Ron's assistance, knowing his desert climbing expertise would help assure a successful descent. Ron was interested in assisting and helped organize the trip. Everyone was required to bring a climbing harness, hard hat, and plenty of pitons, carabiners, and webbing for rappel anchors along with their other gear.
Jerry along with former Ridgecrest BLM Ranger Bruce Albert had made the 1985 attempt so we had first hand information about the upper bait of the canyon. After having to leave one of their ropes, their remaining ropes had not been long enough to descend a lower slope. Not knowing the height of the lower waterfalls, we brought plenty of rope - seven 165' climbing ropes. We did not want to end up being a third party needing rescue and felt there would not be any face we could not get down with that much rope.
It was certainly with a feeling of uncertainty though, that we started out Saturday morning from the historic cabin at 8,200' on the Beveridge and Keynot canyon ridgeline. From the ridge, we hiked an old trail directly down into the bottom of Keynot canyon and reached the bottom one quarter mile below Keynot nine. There was some dense brush as we continued down the canyon bottom and at about 7,600' we encountered some old mining debris and a one inch diameter pipe that had probably carried water to that operation.
As we descended, we found a Bighorn sheep rams head with a full curl - it appeared to be at least five years old. Dropping another couple of thousand feet, with no major rappelling faces, we started kidding Jerry about his stories of horrific rock faces and getting stranded on a high ledge. He even began wondering if he and Bruce might have been in another canyon. By late afternoon, we were down to 5,000' and Jerry was starting to wonder about his memories from the 1985 trip.
We passed the more intact remains of a bighorn ewe and periodically encountered some fairly good surface water flows. At one point, there was a large 4x4 wooded post which we theorized was from a mining exploration and had fallen off the ridgeline above us.
The late afternoon views out of the narrow, confined canyon down into Saline Valley and out over to the Last Chance Range to the east were magnificent. And then, early in the evening at about 4,600' we walked out on a high rock bench and we were glad to have all the climbing gear along. The evening shadows accentuated the depth of the vertical tall before us and Jerry was vindicated, saying, "yes, this is what I remember". It was at this point in 1985 that they had to abandon one of their climbing ropes and it was because of that they were later unable to descend one of the lower waterfalls.
We camped on the ledge and enjoyed the sunset views. A small stream flow provided water and everyone was able to find a fairly level spot for sleeping. Next morning, we set up a two stage rappel with everyone on a belay. That first cliff turned out to have a total height of about 185' and required 40' and 145' rappels. The rest of the day was a series of smaller rappels as we descended down the canyon. They went nicely but took time to set up and get all seven people down.
By late afternoon we had done about 11 rappels down a variety of rock faces. All rappels were belayed. One particularly interesting one was where the water bad channeled out a huge chasm beyond the waterfall where an erosion resistant strata had blocked and turned the flow laterally. Most of the rappels were on dry f aces but on a couple we had to go through a little water. Faded rappel slings from the two previous attempts were found at several sites.
We continued to wonder about the face that had stopped Jerry in 1985 and we were down to 3,200' and late afternoon when we reached it. It looked ominous - with an overhang at the top and a canyon configuration that made it look deep. There was a short piece of broken non-climbing rope hanging over the side and we wondered about the story behind its possible use.
Everyone was tired and it was getting late. We were quietly contemplating the chasm before us and wondering if we should make camp or go on. We decided to determine its height so Steve belayed Ron out to the edge and he threw a 165' rope over the side. Surprisingly, it was not as high as it appeared since there was about 15' of rope lying at the bottom of the face. Setting up the rappel, Jerry volunteered to go first. This was the point where the helicopter had rescued he and Bruce six years earlier and now it was time to finish the trip. The straight 145' rappel went great and we had everyone down as the sun set. We decided to go on in the dark and only make camp if we encountered another rappel. For three more hours we worked our way down through the boulders and loose rock in the canyon and at 10:00pm reached the mouth of the canyon. Jerry and Bruce would have succeeded in completing they canyon in 1985 if only they had carried one longer rope to complete that one final, high rappel near the bottom.
It was a short walk to where the vehicles were parked on the Snowflake Talc mine road where all eight participants had a happy celebration. It had been a memorable trip - interesting rappels, terrific scenery, exploring and inventorying the known resources of a proposed wilderness, and great camaraderie as we all helped each other in getting down the canyon. We had left behind 150 feet of sling material, at least 15 pitons and a chock at our anchor points. This was a greatway to experience and enjoy the desert.
P.S. Steve and Ron took the helicopter Thursday early am up to Dry Mtn (our easiest ascent even) and left a large container of emergency supplies and food on top for climbers in trouble on that peak.
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