Snow Climbs in Desert Climes, Part 2
(Ruby Dome and Ruby Pyramid, near Elko Nevada)

7-8 Jun 2002 - by Steve Eckert

This is the second half of a long road trip. For the rest of our trip, refer to my Great Basin report. Below is an addendum by John Strauch, who was here a few weeks after we were.

Tim Hult and I, being unemployable, decided to take a week off from our duties and busywork. Archived trip reports indicate northeastern Nevada is most often done later in the season when the snow is gone, but I'd highly recommend re-thinking the timing in light of the great snow conditions we found. Earlier seemed easier to us.

The trailhead for Hennen Canyon (misspelled occasionally) is at waypoint HENNEN (6600'), as described in the driving directions page. The gain to Ruby Dome from here is only 4700', not 5900' as previously reported. If you don't rent the gate key, add 450' of gain and 1.2 miles each way.

Prior reports mention a sign at the trailhead, but we saw none. There is a large turnaround area (for horse trailers), but the use trail up Hennen seems to start directly from the highest campsite. There is a small stream on each side of the campsite, but head directly northeast from the picnic table and you'll find a place to ford. Or you can walk southeast and go through a gate and THEN go left to another ford. I managed to keep my boots dry in both directions, but it's tricky. Just get to the left side of all streams as soon as you can, and you'll pick up a good use trail that climbs a couple dozen yards away from the trees in open sage.

We straggled away from the trailhead sometime after noon. The guide books and the old trip reports were amazingly inconsistent about how much mileage and elevation gain there was, so we conservatively packed to Griswold Lake for the night. A local resident says 4 hours up and 3 hours back make this an easy day hike! Anyway, an early start the next morning would ensure solid snow, and the snowpack in the Rubys was far heavier than we observed driving through the Sierras.

Hennen Canyon
The lower regions of Hennen Canyon aren't just sage brush.

The trail goes through sagebrush, birch, and pine, with a carpet of wildflowers in places. I imagine it's much hotter and drier in July/August when most people climb, but we had perfect temps and it didn't quite freeze overnight at the lake (9200'). As you get higher in the valley, you quickly lose sight of the peak. The trail goes from a worn track in the forest to a faint trail on slabby terrain somewhere around 8100', but by then just about any route works and you don't need a trail. Cell phones work for almost the entire trip since you have a nice view down u-shaped Hennen Canyon to the sprawling Spring Creek development.

Around 8400' is where the climbing starts. The slabs sort of end in a grove of trees, and the trail edges around the left edge of the valley (below the cliffs) and deposits you in a stand of pussywillows. We didn't find any of it difficult or challenging, just look around a bit for what seems easy. The multiple rows of ducks (cairns) marching up the valley attest to the contagion of Rock Stacker's Disease, AND to the fact that any old route will do (e.g. you don't need to follow the ducks, since wherever you are there are ducks to confirm that you're OK).

Old reports mention trouble staying on the trail, and dangerous mud, but we didn't see how that could happen. Staying to the left of the stream (northeast) was always the obvious choice, there were no mud holes, and by the time we reached the "tough" ledges on the final approach to Griswold Lake we were kicking steps in the finest possible late spring snow (using ice axes but no crampons). Wide waterfalls cascaded down the canyon walls and joined the main stream, the plants and the rocks were wonderfully diverse, and we arrived at the lake in about 4 hours not feeling at all tired.

Griswold Lake
Griswold Lake, 9220' in Hennen Canyon, where we camped en route to Ruby Dome.

Multiple fire rings indicate this area gets used, but we saw no one the entire trip. The cirque containing Griswold Lake (9220') is stunning, at least with partial snow cover. There are substantial trees, which we camped behind (waypoint GRSWLD) to help block the wind. It was windy overnight, after cloud bands drifted over and seemed to threaten a storm. Tim's radio predicted snow in Elko on Sunday, but we planned to summit and leave on Saturday. Temps dropped from 50 to 35 overnight, the snow firmed up, and we put crampons on at lake level for the climb (which we started around 5:30am).

Old reports indicate the climb from the lake southwest to the saddle is tough... but we stormed up it with only one spot we had to step on a rock. We angled up into the small bowl immediately below the classic "knob", spotting a couple of cairns along the way. The route seems to follow just below a cliff band, notable because the cliffs are topped with loose talus rubble. We bypassed the knob via the saddle just left of and below it (waypoint KNBSAD) and studied the standard route from the saddle.

Ruby Dome Panorama
Ruby Pyramid on the left, Ruby Dome in the center, and our climbing route on the right.
Note continuous cornice from our rib to the summit of Ruby Dome!

We abandoned the standard route due to overhanging cornices and some recent avalanches. Instead, we stomped right up snow on the ridge above the knob, which is actually a shoulder and not a knob at all, attaining the northwest shoulder of Ruby Dome at about 8am (waypoint RIBTOP, 11100'). The top 10' was nearly vertical, and the snow was softening, so I had to ram my hand into the slope for a hold while using my knee to pack snow down far enough to make a step. Tim ditched his crampons and climbed the rock rib.

The ridge from RIBTOP to Ruby Dome (waypoint RUBDOM, 11387') was trivial, taking about half an hour, and could be done by walking on the inner edge of the cornice or entirely on rock. We're not sure what the ridge or rib we climbed looks like when not partially covered with snow, but it seems like a simple alternative to the convoluted route descriptions we've seen in prior reports. By staying near the rib we avoided the avalanche routes and cornices common on the face of Ruby and the nearby ridges. I didn't take my crampons off until the summit, and didn't use them at all on the descent.

Views from the top were amazing! We thought this was a desert peak, but the valleys below it looked more like those near Three Sisters in Oregon - green, ringed by snow-capped mountains, etc. The weather, however, wasn't looking good. The wind was strong and dark clouds had re-formed. We left after signing the register (second party this year) and admiring the armchair someone had constructed from large flat rocks.

Continuing our traverse by dropping east to the saddle between Ruby Dome and the informally named Ruby Pyramid, we encountered some low 3rd class that would probably be avoidable if not for the cornice (which was weak and cracked here, so we entirely avoided it). We recommend the east ridge of Ruby Dome over the standard northwest ridge - it's more fun! At the saddle, we dropped our packs and raced up the pyramid over very nice blocks, arriving around 10am. No register at Ruby Pyramid (waypoint RUBPYR, perhaps a few feet higher or lower than Ruby Dome), but there were a couple of sticks and a huge cairn. It was clearly snowing to the northeast, and by the time we got back to the saddle we had a few flakes drifting down on us (now 11am).

Tim put crampons on for the descent because it was icy at the saddle. I strapped on my blue poly tarp glissade sheet and scooted down on my butt despite his concerns. One spot went beyond 45 degree slope, but most of it was 35 and very enjoyable. (Don't try this unless you know what you're doing!) We dropped straight down to about 10300', then traversed back to the knob and retraced our steps to camp (arriving around noon).

Of course the sky cleared, the sun came out, we took off our hats and gloves, and packed out under perfect conditions in about two hours. The local we had met on the way in told us that Hennen Canyon wasn't even close to the best scenery in the area, but it looked great to us. Someday I'll go back and do some day trips from Lamoille Canyon to find out more about this stunning area that's often overlooked - but only 9 hours from the Bay Area by car.

Old trip reports had pointed us to the trailhead, but we were going to walk up the road for over a mile since we didn't know how to get a key to the gate. A local just happened to drive up while we were there, and gave us directions! See the driving directions page for details, maps, waypoints, etc.

John Strauch adds:

Enjoyed your timely report on your Ruby Dome climb. My youngest brother and I had already planned to do this year's annual 4-day backpack in the Ruby Mtns, with a basecamp at Lake Griswold. His 22-yr old son and 16-yr old nephew also joined us. We were there 3 weeks after you (6/28-7/1).

We met up in Elko (he lives in Oregon), bought maps at the map store and had breakfast at the cafe (at 13th & Idaho). We parked outside the gate and walked up the road. Unlike your experience, we saw about 20 friendly locals by the lake and on the peak. We climbed the peak by Route B on the second day. I was the only one with an ice axe - probably not needed but it made me feel more secure crossing the snowfields. With reference to your photos, there was no ice in the lake, and more rock than snow in the cirque above 10400'.

While on the peak, a 40-ish father with 16-yr old son arrived from the west ridge. They had dayhiked the peak from the end of the road. I believe they came up over 10428 and topped out at 11080+, west of the Route A saddle with its snow-filled chutes.

The third day we explored around the lake. After hiking out on the fourth day, we had lunch at a great Basque restaurant in Elko at 4th & Silver. I had a huge serving of lamb & gravy for just $6.50, with family style green salad and french fries.

Thanks for the great report and the good info. It certainly made our trip more enjoyable!

Waypoints - see trailhead page for driving waypoints, including where to get the key

info Download the Waypoint+ data below as a
GPX file for your GPS.

Datum,North America 1983,GRS 80,0,-1.6E-7,0,0,0
RoutePoint,D,SCGATE, 40.6784340143,-115.5285600424,06/12/2002,22:15:52,SPRING CK CAMPGROUND GATE
RoutePoint,D,SCFORK, 40.6777399778,-115.5258899927,06/12/2002,22:15:52,SPRING CK CAMP ROAD FORKS
RoutePoint,D,HENNEN, 40.6668499708,-115.5205099583,06/12/2002,22:15:52,HENNEN CANYON TRAILHEAD
RoutePoint,D,GRSWLD, 40.6354500055,-115.4859299660,06/12/2002,22:15:52,GRISWOLD LAKE CAMPSITE
RoutePoint,D,KNOBSD, 40.6299899817,-115.4781399965,06/12/2002,22:15:52,SADDLE BELOW KNOB
RoutePoint,D,RIBTOP, 40.6243499517,-115.4794399738,06/12/2002,22:15:53,TOP OF RIB ABOVE KNOB
RoutePoint,D,RUBDOM, 40.6217800379,-115.4753899574,06/12/2002,22:15:53,RUBY DOME
RoutePoint,D,RUBPYR, 40.6222800016,-115.4677900076,06/12/2002,22:15:53,RUBY PYRAMID

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