Telescope Peak ~ Death Valley (Thanksgiving 1974)

Up until 2008, our adventures were retained only as memories and on Kodachromes. While our memories may have faded (just a bit), the Kodachromes haven’t – and we have a lot of them. So we’re digitizing a select few to bring some of our past adventures into the 21st Century. This is one of those.

Telescope Peak, at 11,049 feet (3,368 m), is the highest point in Death Valley National Park. My recent trip with The LovedOne to the park rekindled long dormant memories of my first (and only) climb of this peak. It was Thanksgiving 1974 and Wayne, Diane, and I (miraculously in my case) were recent college graduates. I think Wayne had even found a job! Why is lost in the mists of time but we decided to use the holiday weekend to climb Telescope. Today it’s typically done as a long (14 miles round-trip, 3,000 feet of gain) dayhike from the trailhead at Mahogany Flats Campground. We, on the other hand, opted for an overnighter, with a camp on the ridge just short of the summit.

In what was likely the start of the tough but stupid theme that would resonate with us for years to come, I wrestled the three of us (plus gear) almost to the campground at Mahogany Flats in my old VW bug. This was possible only because the dirt road was snow-free that November and I ignored the heart-wrenching grinding and crunching sounds emanating from beneath the car.

The trailhead at Mahogany Flats in 1974

After a moderately cold night near the campground, we hit the trail the next morning under sunny, but not particularly warm, skies. It’s interesting to see that the external frame packs that were de rigueur then are now making something of a come-back. We’d been doing a lot of rock climbing, so I suppose carrying ice axes up a snowless desert mountain was our way of starting the transition to mountaineering. Or was it just good old fashioned cluelessness? 🙄

Wayne sporting the backpacking fashions of the early 70s
Wayne and Diane on the trail
Our goal – a mostly snowless Telescope Peak

After several miles of hiking, we stopped to camp amongst the sagebrush on the ridge at about 9,800 feet. Since there were three of us, I had brought along my recently purchased (from REI) expedition pyramid tent. It was certainly roomy but a bit excessive for the conditions we were facing. But maybe it went along with the ice axes as a step toward mountaineering? A few of these tents are still for sale on eBay as vintage REI mountain equipment. I suppose it’s gratifying to have lived long enough to qualify as vintage.

Setting-up our not then vintage tent on the ridge
Wayne, Trees of Mystery, and the mighty tent

Camping on the ridge is actually not a bad idea if you want to see a sunset and a sunrise and have big views to the east and west. However, I’m not sure how we would have fared with this expedition tent (even with its numerous stakes and guy lines) if the wind had been howling across the ridge.

Looking west from the ridge to the snowy Sierra Nevada range

But the day had been calm and clear and all was well until the sun set. Then that clearness caused the air temperature to plummet mightily toward a glacial abyss.

The sun sets…and the cold begins

I have been on a lot of snow climbs and high altitude expeditions since then, but this one night is still remembered as cold, really cold, damn cold. Colder than a frozen daiquiri on Neptune. And since this was November, the night was long, real long. And dark too. And real cold. Wayne and Diane huddled for warmth; I lay, fully clothed, in my inadequately insulated sleeping bag, shivering and building character throughout that long, long night.

The sun also rises…

Eventually the sun starting creeping over the eastern horizon. Oh joy! Oh rapturous joy! We emerged from the tent to find the air temperature a balmy 2°F (-16°C). Breakfast seemed like a logical next step (or two-step on Diane’s part) – the trick was to heat it and eat it before it froze in the pot.

A cold breakfast with a hint of sage

What seemed like an eternity later, the sun finally reached the tent and temperatures rose into a range where sustained human life was possible.

Sunlight reaches the tent

With the sun up, and warmth returning, we made quick work of the remaining distance and gain to Telescope’s summit. No one had any enthusiasm for another night in the freezer, so, after some obligatory summit photos, we went down, broke camp, and scurried back to the trailhead.

Wayne and Diane on Telescope’s warm summit, with the Sierra Nevada on the far horizon

We got to the trailhead thinking our adventure was behind us. But wait! More adventure lay ahead! During the drive to the trailhead, I’d been so focused on not tearing the VW apart on the dirt road that I failed to notice the big “E” on the fuel gauge. While that letter had always meant “excellent” to us, it meant something quite different to the car. 😮 We could start the car but how long it would run before full “E” was achieved was unknown. We knew there was a gas station open down at Panamint Springs – we just had to get there without having to walk. By relying heavily on gravity and coasting, we managed to get exceptional fuel economy out of the VW. It was a wild, and strangely quiet at times, ride, but we got to the station in Panamint Springs without having to walk. This brush with the big “E” was followed by a long drive home in, thankfully, a warm car. 🙂

In the end this adventure was both a climb and a night to remember. It became legend in a friendship that has sustained itself through almost 50 years of subsequent adventures. I have, however, been suspicious of fuel gauges ever since.

Sunset over Telescope Peak
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5 comments

  1. I think those carmels were about 9 on the Mohr’s hardness scale. I had forgotten we had lugged those ice axes up there. They were probably handy for digging a hole to poop in the frozen ground. Diane still has that green mountain parka, though I recently finally got rid of my orange one. They are double layers of 60/40 cloth and weight about 3x our modern ones. I still have the ice axe which is not relegated to gardening duty.

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  2. Holy frozen caramels, Batman! 🙂 I am so glad you wrote this up! Every time you had mentioned Telescope Peak in your recent day hikes, I was thinking about this trip. Your descriptions are so accurate that it feels like we were there– oh wait, we were there! Thanks again for the great write up, photos, and memories.

    One more little gotcha from this trip was that I got tendinitis from the boots I was wearing…tough and stupid is not just a saying but a way of life…

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