Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mt. Charleston Peak - 9/24/10

Santa Fe Casino to 1st Overlook
Very early, before sunrise, seven hikers gathered to make an assault on Mt. Charleston Peak. For two of the hikers, including the writer, this was the first time they would experience the third highest peak in Nevada at an elevation of 11,913 feet above sea level. The hike would last 9 hours and 40 minutes; go on for 17.2 miles; and climb / descend somewhere around 4000 feet. Daylight began creeping into the darkness as the hikers made their way up Kyle Canyon Road. Before arranging their cars at the Trail Canyon trailhead and the Cathedral Rock trailhead, they watched a full moon slide below the horizon created by Mt. Charleston Peak, itself.

The sky was clear of clouds with a light coating of dust / smoke / smog hanging over the Las Vegas valley and surrounding foothills heading into California. (Though the layer of brown was not apparent until the group later climbed up to the ridge.) There was occasional light wind. The temperatures would range between 50 and 78 degrees. The hikers wound through familiar parts of the South Loop Trail and got their hearts and lungs awakened by the stairs just below the first set of switchbacks. Surrounding yellowed aspens embraced them as they watched the orange morning sunrise on Mummy's Toe. After the stair-climb, the switchbacks were a breeze as the easy pace set in.

1st Overlook to Mt. Charleston Approach

At the 1st Overlook, we took our second water break. It would be a long day ahead so the slow easy pace could not be delayed by many of these breaks. The following switchbacks were in direct morning sun and the added warmth was quite noticeable. We took another break at the 2nd Overlook where the panorama photograph above was taken. Later this day, we would be hiking through those yellow and red aspens seen on the slopes of Mummy Mountain. The remaining climb to the Griffith Peak saddle seemed short. We passed the 3rd Overlook without much ado, took a small break at a clearing where Griffith Peak was in view, then reached the saddle for a small celebration. At 10,800 feet, we had finished climbing for a couple of miles.

Next, we made our way through the meadows of the ridge which were covered in grass with a scattering of bristlecone trees. This was relatively flat. To our left was an expansive view of the valley between Las Vegas and Pahrump with California rising in the mountain ranges beyond. To our right, we mostly saw the ridge itself. When we could see beyond the ridge, we saw Kyle Canyon dropping steeply and Mummy Mountain across the way. Mt. Charleston's peak eventually came into view ahead and to the right when we were at a viewpoint, however, the view in the photograph below shows what we usually saw in front of us. As we rounded the ridge turning temporarily to our left, we looked back to see Griffith Peak as seen in the photo to the right.

Approach to the Peak

We turned back to our right, passed a bald ridge to our left, then, finally, we beheld our target. Mt. Charleston Peak rose like a large gray blemish in the distance. The trail had reached past the tree line and you could see it travelling around a small ridge of the peak to make its climb on the back side of the slope. When we reached the ridge that we had to go around, we saw the remaining parts of an aeroplane crash which happened in the 1950's. There isn't much left of the plane where it had hit the mountain but several pieces have since made their way down the slope. (See the photograph to the left.) This writer's first thought upon seeing the crash site was, "They almost made it." Another fifty feet into the air and the plane would have been able to skim the slope with nothing but air on the other side.

The trail and peak were covered completely in large pieces of broken limestone scree about the size of large flat apples or ipods. The slope cut the horizon at about a 30 to 40 degree angle but there was little feeling that one could slip down the slope and never be seen again. (A little more on that when we begin our trip down the North Loop!) We rounded the ridge and were faced with the final "assault." (This writer realized then with clarity why a climb up a tough mountain is called an "assault.") It takes determination, a sense of methodical surrender and a realization that THIS is what you are there for. A good flow of adrenaline and excitement about doing what you have wanted to do for a long time helps tremendously. Right, left, right, left, hiking stick, right, left, right, left, hiking stick .... Below, see this writer at the top. Nine miles up and eight miles to go.

The Peak

Upon reaching the top, our group of seven settled into the bunker of rock which was constructed for those windy days which this was not one of. It was immediately obvious that this was where the party was. No less than twenty- five people were on the summit during the thirty minutes we were there taking our lunch break. (Did I tell you that it was a perfect day for a hike?) And, the peak is only, perhaps, fifty feet by twenty feet with steep slopes, some dangerous, on all sides. A popular hike leader swooped in and entertained us for part of our lunch then flew away just as quick. He and his hiking partner had climbed up Big Falls for their approach.

These four photographs show views from the peak. The first photo is of the Pahrump valley with California beyond. The second photo is of Mummy Mountain as seen from the back side. Normally, this mountain is best seen from Lee Canyon Road, however, this view is perhaps even more convincing. The photo to the right is showing the trail from which we came; looking back toward Griffith Peak and the Las Vegas valley. Below, we see a view of the Sisters and Mack's Peak with the North Loop Trail dropping down in the foreground. We wrapped up our lunch break having stayed at the party long enough for everyone to know we were there and made our exit.

The Peak to the Major Descent

When one looks at Mt. Charleston from Kyle Canyon, one sees a gray "bald" face which appears to be extremely steep and unnavigable. This is exactly where the North Loop Trail begins its first 1000 feet of descent off of the peak utilizing several switchbacks. It is best to concentrate on your footing for this portion of the hike, however, this writer did manage to steal the first photograph above while planted firmly in the middle of the trail. Results would not have been good if balance was lost! To the left, see a photograph of our view for this descent. This is upper Kyle Canyon. We would eventually be able to see the trails for Mary Jane Falls and Big Falls below us. Behind us, we stole a few views of the peak where we had made our descent, as seen in the photograph below.

After escaping disaster on the scree filled slope, we re- entered the trees and began hiking below Lee and Mummy Mountains while staying on the Kyle Canyon side of the ridge. We passed Devil's Thumb at a corner where we could view the other side of the ridge. From here, we saw the Sisters, Mack's Peak, McFarland Peak and the Bonanza Trail ridge. Across the way, we saw Big Falls Meadows which lies above Big Falls and we were told we were above Mary Jane Falls. This last part required some imagination. When we looked down, we could only see the edge of cliffs peering from between the sparse bristlecone trees. In fact, the whole of this section of the hike seemed to balance above a quite dangerous part of the canyon. But, the trail was solid and the only real danger emanated from the brain. Fortunately, our brains were solid as well!

The Major and Final Descent

Five miles to go and the worst was yet to come ... the descent! While hiking downhill seems easy for some, it is a major pain in the knees for others. So, nearing the end of a perfect hike on a perfect day, it was time to ... explore the lower elevations. The trail began dipping down into the aspens through a series of switchbacks. We were enveloped by yellow, orange and tinges of red. Our mountain high was ending with a colorful dream. Concentrating on retaining our health, we kept the 2 mph pace and the group was able to stay together. Younger souls who had also climbed the mountain that day, were in the vicinity. We continued plodding along as they flitted past us. Cave springs, where a trough of spring water still fills, was the fifth water break on the descent. Asking around, we made sure everyone still had enough water for the remaining 3 miles.

Cockscomb Ridge came into view in front of us and this writer doesn't mind telling the reader that she was happy to see it! Our group of seven, gathered one last time at the junction of Trail Canyon and began our last and final descent to the Trail Canyon trailhead. The two newbies brought up the rear as the pace sped up to 3 mph. Although premature "Congratulations" were made when we reached the peak, more sincere and rewarding "Congratulations" were felt as we got into our cars. Excited conversation filled the car as we drove down Kyle Canyon and back to the casino parking garage. Sleep would come easy that night!

Very many thanks to Chris for sponsoring this hike to the peak. He chose a fantastic day for the excursion and led a calm and relaxed hike for 17.2 miles ... not easy sometimes. Also, thanks to our fellow hikers who were all extremely pleasant company for 10 hours!

Elevation chart for the hike. (Again, be forgiving of the GPS readings.)
The 17.2 miles Mt. Charleston Peak Loop hike.
The 9 mile South Loop portion of the Mt. Charleston Peak hike.
The 8 mile North Loop / Trail Canyon portion of the Mt. Charleston Peak hike.

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