Telescope Peak from Death Valley

29 Sep 2001 - by Richard Vassar

A joint PCS and DHS trip

At 3:00 on Saturday, 29 September, eight adventurers: Rick Daraska, Jeff Fisher (co-leader), Nancy Fitzsimmons, Bob Gross, Linda Roman (from the San Diego area), Maxym Runov, Hal Tompkins, and Richard Vassar (co-leader), gathered at Shorty's Well (-253 ft) under the light of the setting moon to begin a climb of Telescope Peak with a little help (car shuttles, sag wagon, and moral support) from our friends. While we added our names to the sign-in sheet, someone in the group noted that it was 82 deg F which caused many of us to doubt the sanity of our undertaking. WT Henderson named Telescope Peak in April 1861 because of the wide, clear view from its summit. It is probably the mountain with the greatest sheer rise from base to summit in the continental US. WT Henderson climbed Telescope Peak in 1860 and is also credited with being one of the California Rangers who killed the bandit, Joaquin Murieta.

We started walking up the road to Hanaupah Canyon at 3:05 using headlamps to avoid stepping on dessert critters and tripping on our shoelaces. We kept a steady, moderate pace eventually crossing a small stream as it began to get light at 6:00. After regrouping we continued up the road to its end. We then followed a trail that continues up the canyon until we reached a spot where there is an old mine entrance on the south side of the canyon and a good strong flow of water next to a boulder (see Spring waypoint below) surrounded with plants. Since this was our last chance for water, we stopped here and filled our packs with 5 or 6 liters of water to see us through the rest of the day. It was now 6:55 and 68 deg F and we had completed approximately 10.5 miles of the climb. We left the canyon and began climbing steeply up a south spur ridge via a use trail up to the main east-west ridge which divides the middle and south forks of Hanaupah Canyon. Soon we were in the sun and the rising temperatures were making this start to seem like a real climb. About three-quarters of the way up the spur ridge we followed the use trail as it contoured over to a saddle on the main east-west ridge. We stopped to regroup just below a saddle (see Saddle waypoint below). The temperatures had warmed into the mid-70s and they stayed in a 75 to 80 deg F range for most of the remainder of the ridge climb. There was a light breeze and the temperatures were quite comfortable as long as we remembered to keep drinking.

At this point Jeff and Richard decided to split the group into two with Rick, Nancy, Linda, Maxym, Hal, and Richard in the first group and Jeff and Bob in the second group. We used FRS radios to maintain contact between the two groups with a pre-arranged radio check-in every hour on the hour. The route followed the ridge and initially involved some up and down before the climbing got underway in earnest. From the ridge we could see the summit of Telescope Peak and also the hiking trail from Mahogany Flat as it contours around Rogers Peak on its way to Telescope Peak. The view from where we stood back down into Death Valley 5000+ ft below was spectacular. The ridge walking was quite enjoyable with good footing and a pleasant mixture of chaparral plants and open stands of pine trees. The first group continued to hike at a moderate, steady pace keeping to the planned 1000 ft per hour itinerary. The ridge steepens noticeably as it nears the junction with the trail from Mahogany Flat and we zigzagged to ease the gradient. The first group reached the trail at 12:55 (see Trail Junction waypoint below). At this point Richard turned the first group loose so that everyone could hike the trail (1.5 miles) at their own pace to the summit.

Climbers from first group summited between 13:30 and 14:15. The temperature was 60 deg F with a beautiful clear sky and no wind. In other words---perfect! From the summit there were great views down the length of Death Valley and across to the Grapevine, Funeral, and Black Mountains. On the other side we could gaze the length of Panamint Valley. Because the weather was so nice we had a leisurely rest on the summit as we waited for our friends hiking up from Mahogany Flat to join us. The group hiking from Mahogany Flat included Bob and Gretchen Bynum, TJ Wilcock, Maxym's wife Dara, his sister, Olesya, and his son, Gleb, and Richard's wife, Janet, and his daughter, Rachel. They left Mahogany Flat at 11:00. Janet and Rachel Vassar arrived at 14:50 with extra water and food in their packs in case it was needed. After taking group photos and signing the summit register the first group left the summit and began hiking to Mahogany Flat at 15:15. We passed Bob, TJ, Dara, Olesya, Gleb and finally Jeff and Bob as they headed up to the summit. Jeff and Bob reached the summit at 15:50 and departed about 15 minutes later. The front-runners from the first group reached Mahogany Flat at 17:30 with the Jeff and Bob finishing by 18:45 (before dark). It was a very successful climb for all concerned! We ended the day with snacks and drinks allowed us replenish our energy and fluids while entertaining each other with tall tales. We would all like to say a very special thanks to Bob Bynum, TJ Wilcock, and Janet Vassar for shuttling cars and/or climbers to and from the trailhead. Thanks also to Bob Gross who prepared and printed customized topographic maps showing our climbing route using Topo! software.

The following is a note to future Death Valley to Telescope Peak climbers. This climb was done in the midst of a heat wave in Death Valley. On the day of our climb the high in Death Valley was 107 deg F. The high on the previous day was 114 deg F (tied the record high temperature for the date). Yet by starting well before sunrise we experienced temperatures between 82 and 60 deg F during our climb. Jeff Fisher has also done this climb in early November 1995 and 1999. In 1995 the temperatures that were 20+ deg cooler than those we experienced in our climb. You should select your day for climbing depending on your tolerance for heat or cold and the amount of daylight you want. Remember that the summit of Telescope Peak is approximately 50 deg cooler than the temperature at Furnace Creek because of the 11000 ft + elevation difference. In my opinion, the ideal time for this climb is probably mid-October. For more information on the daily temperature norms and extremes in Death Valley (i.e. Furnace Creek) go to the website Click on "Daily Summary Stats" (next to bottom under "Period of Record Data Tables") for a tabular listing or "Daily Extremes and Averages" (under "Temperature") for a graph. Up to date information on the route and current conditions can be obtained from Death Valley NP Rangers Charlie Callagan at the Furnace Creek Ranger Station 760-786-3244 or Kyle Nelson at the Cow Creek Ranger Station 760-786-3260.

Richard Vassar's trip statistics:
Distance = 26 miles
Time = 14 hours 58 minutes
Elevation gain = 11870 ft.
Maximum elevation = 11048 ft (Telescope Peak)
Minimum elevation = -253 ft. (Shorty's Well)

GPS Waypoints (UTM coordinates, NAD27 datum) Waypoint, Zone, Easting, Northing, Elevation Shorty's Well, 11S, (0)510728, 4008789, -253 ft. Spring, 11S, (0)498264, 4004360, 3680 ft. Saddle, 11S, (0)497552, 4005240, 5200 ft. Trail Junction, 11S, (0)492570, 4004099, 9920 ft. Telescope Peak, 11S, (0)492054, 4002591, 11048 ft. Mahogany Flat, 11S, (0)493936, 4009264, 8140 ft.


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