By: Steve Smith
INYO MOUNTAINS EXPLORATORY
McElvoy Canyon extends precipitously down the eastern side of the Inyo Range. It is the canyon directly east of Mt. Inyo and makes a steep descent from the Inyo Crest at 10,000+ feet down into Saline Valley where it reaches the valley bottom at 1,600 feet. I knew of some people who had walked up into the canyon for a mile from the bottom and they told of being stopped by a high waterfall from going any farther up-canyon. Interesting, they reported the remains of an old wire and wood ladder at the bottom of the falls.
In October, I had a chance to descend McElvoy Canyon and find out what was there. For the BLM, I coordinated a two day volunteer project at the Keynot mine which is located at 8,200' on the east side of Keynot Peak. Our project was to continue work started last April and involved cleaning up mining debris and repair an old cabin at the mine. Twelve members of Friends of the Inyo WSA and the Desert Survivors joined me on the project.
Two small cabins at the top of the Keynot mine were damaged in a rock avalanche about five years ago. One was completely demolished and its debris scattered over a wide area. The second cabin was mostly intact but had several boulders inside and some structural damage. The group spent two days cleaning up the debris and started repairs on the remaining cabin. The inside was cleaned out and the walls and roof supports repaired.
The remaining cabin is not yet weather proof but should remain standing and now provides a shelter for backpackers to the area. We also put all the numerous mining artifacts from the two cabins that had been scattered by the avalanche into the remaining cabin with a plan to use it to preserve and interpret the area's history. Future plans are to complete the cabin repairs and put in some interpretive materials on the area's history, natural resources and present day management.
The descent of McElvoy Canyon was scheduled for the next two days over the weekend. McElvoy Canyon is the next canyon north of Keynot Canyon and on Saturday morning, eight of the group decided to go for the McElvoy Canyon descent while three decided it would take longer than they wanted to so they headed down the Keynot ridgeline trail. This seven-mile trail leads east from the Keynot mine and follows the ridgeline on a historic mining trail down into Saline Valley.
Carrying six ropes and plenty of rappelling gear, the eight of us climbed 1,000' up from the Keynot mine and attained the Keynot Canyon - McElvoy Canyon ridgeline at 9,000'. From there, it was an arduous straight down-slope scree decent for 3,000' to reach the McElvoy Canyon floor at 6,000'. At that point, there was a small flowing stream and lots of thick brush. The brush looked formidable. Fortunately, unlike, Beveridge Canyon, the canyon bottom is a little wider so we could frequently skirt the brush. Also, the remnants of an old mining trail could be followed along some stretches where it was out of the brush and was still intact. This old trail came in from above where we had intersected the canyon bottom - my guess is that at some point it turned northward and connected up with the Pat Keyes trail to the north which comes up out of Owens Valley to the north of Mt. Inyo.
We discovered that the miners had put in a fairly well constructed trail the entire length of the canyon bottom. At each of the eight waterfalls we encountered, homemade wire and wood ladders existed - six were still attached to the rock faces while the remains of two had fallen to the bottom of the cliff faces. The intact ladders were of no help since they were not safe to use and in fact created some problems when they tangled up our rappelling ropes.
Another difference from Beveridge was that the brush consisted more of several types of trees which seemed to have pushed out the wild roses, gooseberries and scrub brush that had made Beveridge so difficult. Interestingly, Keynot Canyon was the most brush free - probably resulting from the least amount of water flow between these three adjacent Inyo canyons.
On Saturday, we made it 800 vertical feet down canyon to 5,200' where the "ruin" shown on the new 7.5 Mew York Butte map turned out to be a 5 stamp mill, a partially intact cabin, and several foundations. A good trail headed north up towards the ridge at that point. Sunday, we were able to descend to 3,800' with the brush only a moderate problem and six rappels. We passed an intact cabin at about 4,700' which showed evidence of use from the early 1960's and some supplies for beekeeping. Why someone had gone into this isolated area and harvested honey was another one of those mysteries of the desert.
Between the six waterfalls and route finding through the brush, we ended up only making it down to 3,800' and camped at the base of the sixth waterfall - the largest in the canyon at 150'. It was impressive and after tying ropes together, we still could not tell for sure if the 165' of 9mm double line was reaching the bottom. I belayed Desert Survivor Doug Kari over the side and about a third of the way down he confirmed there was about 15' of rope on the ground.
On several of the waterfalls we had to go down through the water, there was some thick mud accumulations on the rock on two rappels which made the rappelling rather messy, and at two sites we came down into pools of water which were several feet deep. Raving to drop into knee deep water with leather boots made for some soggy walking afterwards.
On Monday there were two more waterfalls but they were wider and did not exceed 80' and we could stay out of the water on each. It was just several hours of hiking down the canyon and out to the cars around noon which were parked at the roadhead at 1,600'.
The canyon is certainly impressive with its ruggedness, waterfalls, old wire ladders, historic artifacts, stream and riparian vegetation. Imagining the miners using those homemade wire ladders over 80'to 150' high waterfalls made you appreciate what they had to go through to mine in an isolated canyon. The heavy equipment at the mill had to have been brought in on another freight trail usable by burros - our guess was that a trail connects south with the excellently constructed Keynot ridge trail or they may have used the Pat Keyes trail out of Owens Valley. Certainly an impressive operation and interesting historic activity in the Inyo Range.
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