By: Gary Craig
Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!
That's what some influential resident of the Spring Mountains must have been singing earlier this year, bringing on blizzard after blizzard, as evidenced by the copious quantities of snow still present in mid-June. Our DPS group had excellent weather for our hikes, but our progress was slowed by the unusually large amount of snow on the trail (for this time of year, at least) at the elevations reached by these, the two highest peaks in southern Nevada.
Sue was game for most any routes during the planning stages, so I opted out of an overnight backpack and decided instead to climb these two peaks as two dayhikes. Originally, we intended to dayhike Charleston via the partially-cross-country "C" route from Lee Canyon, which is the shortest route to the summit from any paved road. We would then, on Sunday, climb Mummy via the Trail Canyon / North Loop combination from Kyle Canyon. Mind you, this was way back last November when we were doing the write-up for the Chapter Schedule, well before the worst of the winter storms had hit. Jump forward in time now to mid-May, when the Sierra, Inyos, Panamints, and Springs were still mantled in a thick white blanket. I had already advertised this trip as dayhikes, not an overnight trip, and I had a dozen or so participants signed up, with no possibility of changing the trip dates without completely canceling, due to other commitments. So, it seemed that our best chance of success would be to hike both peaks via the North Loop, which has a southern exposure and reportedly holds the snow for less time than either the South Loop or the obviously north-facing Lee Canyon route.
This is the plan that I communicated to the participants a couple of weeks before our departure date, and we had several last-minute cancellations for various reasons. So only six hearty souls were present at 6am on Saturday morning at the Trail Canyon trailhead for the 18-mile round trip to Charleston Peak via the North Loop: myself (leader and scribe), Sue Holloway (co-leader), Brian Smith, Audrey Goodman, John Strauch, and Kathy Wing.
We started hiking about 6:25 on Saturday morning and made good time to the junction with the true North Loop trail, 2 miles from where we started, and then proceeded a half-mile or so more on up to Cave Spring. There is a water trough adjacent to the trail and a nice campsite a bit up-slope here. At one point I had planned to climb Mummy on the first day so as to be able to check out the snow conditions on Charleston, but that seemed pointless very early on, as snow coverage was complete at the highest elevations. So, we decided to get the harder hike (Charleston) out of the way first, and do Mummy (the shorter hike) on Sunday so as to get an earlier start for home.
With this plan agreed upon, we climbed the long switchbacks beyond the spring, and when we passed the 10,000' level the first snow patches began to appear. At first these were no problem to negotiate, but as we bobbed along the ridge toward Charleston they became more numerous and annoying. Our progress slowed as we reached Devil's Thumb, a rock outcropping at the end of a ridge extending north from the summit. It is at this point that trail passage becomes treacherous when snow-covered, as it traverses steep ledges with bad runouts over cliffs below. But, there is a bypass route that leaves the trail up and to the right. It takes a bit of searching to find the correct route, and with a bit of huffing and puffing Brian and I emerged on top of the ridge on easy ground with a straightforward climb to the peak, still a ways off. Sue and the others decided to wait below, and have a bite to eat.
Brian and I pushed on to the summit, first on level terrain with mixed rock and snow, in a sparse forest of gnarled pines. As the terrain climbed, we were on sand and scree for a while, and then came the summit snowfield with excellent footing in snow that was neither icy nor slushy. I reached the summit about 10 minutes before Brian, and spoke briefly with a fellow who was just leaving to retrace his steps along the South Loop. Boy I'm glad we didn't climb that way! His description was one of several miles of solid snow-cover at high altitude, and he looked like he wasn't looking forward to his return trip.
Shortly thereafter, Brian and I tore into our respective food supplies, whilst admiring the views and enjoying the chance to "set a spell" on the summit. One odd sight was a "golden spike" reflection of sunlight from the side of one of the Las Vegas Strip hotels, catching the sun at just the right angle, and appearing to be a brilliant needle thrusting into the sky from the valley floor. There was a fairly threatening cloud cover building by this time, and a lot of moisture in the air... no rain, but our views were not as clear as one might have hoped. It was also quite cold at nearly 12,000', with a strong wind blowing from the west.
Bundled up, we quickly signed the register and started down after 40 minutes or so on top. We found the register in an ammo box leaning against the cylindrical structure on the summit, not in the other ammo box permanently fixed to a short post a few feet away, and signed in. We plunge-stepped ,or boot-skied the uppermost snow, and then made our way through the scree and mixed terrain to the top of the chute leading back to the trail. We found it generally easier to walk on the snow in this section, except for those areas where it had become soft in the mid-afternoon sun, where midthigh postholing was the norm for short stretches. But, with little delay we carefully descended the chute back to the trail.
Brian and I knew that the others had started back along the trail to the cars, and that the hour was getting late, encroaching on our relaxation time at the end of the day. So we proceeded at "best speed" along the North Loop, seeming to actually do more uphill than downhill walking along the long section leading to the top of the switchbacks above Cave Spring. We were glad to be past the last of the snowdrifts at the top of those switchbacks, and we were both in "I want to be at the car and have a beer" mode for the last few miles. Our round trip total time was 13 hours, not bad considering the snow, altitude, and myriad other excuses.
Our campsite was literally a one-minute drive from the Trail Canyon trailhead. One drives downhill a few hundred yards to the dirt road turnoff to the Mary Jane Falls trailhead. Turn uphill on this dirt road, past the pump station immediately on your left, and just a few yards farther to a dirt spur road leading left (south). This almost immediately leads to a large, relatively flat openforest area where the rest of our group had set up camp. This is an excellent spot for either Friday or Saturday night in an area where private property predominates. We had many nice contributions for our small potluck feast. Everyone retired fairly early after our long hike, knowing that Sunday's adventure would not be trivial. One downside of this popular BLM camp area is the possibility of the "mmmmm" of a generator from one of your neighbor's campsites into the wee hours.
We slacked off a bit on the starting time on Sunday morning... I think it was more like 7am when we started walking back up the trail toward Mummy Mountain. But, we had all had a good night's sleep at altitude, and were walking on familiar trail with knowledge that today's hike would be significantly easier than the day before, so spirits were high. We hiked past the trail junction and Cave Spring to the spot just past the start of the last long switchback where one leaves the trail to ascend the scree slope to Mummy, just as described in the Peaks Guide. The weather was just as clear as the day before in the early morning, and there was much less cumulus buildup later on.
Our time to the spring, then to the trail turnoff, and up the scree slope was about as expected. We encountered the first snow of the day at the crest of the ridge, where we had a nice break taking in the views to the north. Shortly after leaving the saddle, following a route snaking along the ridgeline to ward the summit, we met Kathy on her way down from the peak; she had made her own plans for the previous evening and gotten an earlier start than the rest of the group this morning. Also about this time Audrey decided that she would return to the saddle to await our return from the summit, having done enough uphill walking for the day.
The normal route to the summit goes left near the top of the ridge across a broad slope through an obvious gap in the west-facing cliff face. However, there is another weakness in the cliffs, basically directly above the upper end of the ridge that one climbs from the saddle. We spoke with some other hikers regarding the feasibility of this possibility, but what we heard wasn't really encouraging. So, we started the traverse below the cliffs toward the chute on the normal route. This was a truly annoying mistake, as we later learned. The slopes below the cliffs were still quite heavily snow-covered, and we spent a great deal of time maki~ig our way to the chute, with much up, down, back-and-forth along the way. Ugh. The chute itself was easy, if loose, sand and gravel, and Sue, John, Brian and I were glad to see the open expanses of the summit plateau at the top. Finally, an easy walk of just a few minutes led us to the register box.
What a change from just a day earlier! Temperatures were reasonable t-shirt weather, and there was just a light breeze. It was also much clearer, with even the eastern ramparts of the Sierra visible far in the west under the noontime sun. We had some lunch and took photos during our half-hour (or maybe a bit more) on top.
There was unanimous agreement that the ascent route traversing the snowfield to the "normal" chute was quite unpleasant, and no one wanted to go down that way if there was an alternative. So, we agreed to find the other (more southern) chute from the top, and see if it made for a reasonable descent route. So, our downclimb started across the plateau to the left of where we had come up, and in short order we reached the top of the cliffs. A few minutes searching led us to the only reasonable route down; this must be the correct chute that was visible from below. And, it was! For reference, from various points below this alternate chute one can see a large, fallen, dead tree pointed uphill in the bottom of the chute, and it looks to be the only reasonable alternative to the normal route. Climbing the chute is not hard, though it is steeper than the normal route. Below our chute we crossed directly downward across the snow below to the normal route along the ridge. This was infinitely more enjoyable than the way we had come up.
After rejoining Audrey near the saddle, we quickly descended the scree slope to the trail, and then back to Cave Spring once again for a short break. Then, back to the junction, and downhill through Trail Canyon to the cars. We hit the pavement at 3:30, an 8.5 hour round trip, including all rest stops. As the trailhead itself is not a very hospitable environment, we again made the very short drive to our campsite from the night before to clean up and relax a bit in the pine forest. We again picked a shaded spot where we broke out various drinks and snacks, and everyone remarked how perfect the weather and views were from here. After an hour or so even the most reluctant agreed that it was time to head for home, first through the June heat of Las Vegas, and then through the 1-15 parking lot. Fortunately, neither of those obstacles proved insurmountable.
Good job everyone on the hikes and the camp! This was a challenging and unexpectedly delightful trip!
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