Hiking 16:41'21.4 Average heart rate 127 bpm, 36.08 km
Last weekend, I drove over 8 hours for something billed by one of the Meetup groups I hike with, as “The I-m-possible Hike”, a hike from Shorty’s Well, near Furnace Creek in Death Valley to Telescope Peak, then down to Mahogany Flats, and ending at the Charcoal Kilns. From the summit of Telescope Peak, you can view the lowest point in North America, Badwater in Death Valley, to the highest point in the contiguous United States, Mt. Whitney. As is said, from the peak, you can see no further with a telescope, hence the name Telescope Peak.
When I first read about the hike, the word impossible didn’t deter me, especially when I read on the net that others have made the same hike. Despite the hike organizer’s play with the letters of Impossible, the hike HAS been described as impossible, even by experienced hikers that have hiked it.
Despite my eagerness to do the impossible, I drove down not knowing how I’d deal with the hike’s 11,000+ ft. of elevation gain. The most ever increasing elevation gain I’d hiked up to that point was for the Mt. Whitney climb back in July, and at just over 6,000 ft. of constant gain, that hike has a lot less elevation gain than the proposed hike.
The Mt. Whitney hike is no walk in the park, although technically, it is, but lots of people have completed it. The trails up the Mountain are clearly marked and hard to mistake. The Impossible hike is different. The first 8 miles are up Hanupah Canyon Rd, a 4X4 dirt road that climbs up to around 3,000 ft. From there, until the hike hits the ridgeline at around 10,000 ft. that leads to the summit of Telescope Peak. there are no well trod trails, much less signs pointing in the right direction. You’re on your own on this hike, although it helps to have a map, a GPS app on a PDA, or a GPS watch as a friend.
I ended the long drive from San Francisco,by driving to and parking my car at Charcoal Kilns where I met my hiking partner for the hike. From there, we drove in his car about an hour to Furnace Creek, had dinner at a local cafe, and went to a local campground to attempt to sleep. For the most part, I wasn’t able sleep except for an hour and a half before we left for the drive to the trailhead.
We started the hike around 3:30 at the trailhead, at 262 ft. below sea level, 11 miles up the unpaved West Side Road and its intersection with Hanaupah Canyon Road. We began with headlamps on, hiking up the 4X4 Hanaupah Canyon Rd. After around 2.5 hours, the headlamps went off, and at close to 10 miles in, at around 3,500 ft. of elevation, we started a climb up a 19 degree slope, parts of which are scree.
This 1st experience with scree was nothing compared to what we’d have to deal with later. On this part of the climb, if one looks carefully, footsteps of others can be seen , but for the most part, a hiker has to look up to the ridgeline and just hike in that direction. It was a steep climb to the ridgeline but once there, we could see deep views all the way down to Badwater.
After a quick break for a snack, we followed the ridgeline up as it ascended, but also had some short descents. At around 7,000 ft. we hit a scree filled slope. This scree is where the real “fun” began. We had to contend with scree up until we hit the trail between Mahogany Flats and Telescope Peak, which at the point we hit it, is on a ridge line near 10,000 ft. To understand why scree is so much fun, a little about scree is in order — scree is the name for the mass of broken rock fragments that can cover the slope of a mountain. Scree is the result of rockfall, thermal stresses, mechanical and chemical weathering, topographic stresses and biotic processes.
Scree includes large beds of smaller, medium, and larger sized rocks. For many reasons, you won’t find a trail blazed through the scree we walked through. The shifting, at times somewhat amorphous nature of scree along with the steep slope and the geology of the mountain, prohibits trails. Walking up a slope without a trail isn’t easy but it’s even harder on the small screen we ran into before the main ridgeline. It’s preferable to walk on larger sized scree as you can often find surer although not perfect footing on it.
What makes scree so difficult when climbing up a mountain, is the slope of the mountain and the unsteady footing on scree. As scree gets smaller, footing gets more unsteady. The hike from 7000 ft to the ridgeline was on slopes with an angle of anywhere from 18 to 22 degrees. Walking on the larger scree slowed us down but as the scree got smaller, walking on it was like walking on shifting earth. Aside from the lack of sure footing, walking on scree is hard work, and any progress up the mountain is extremely slow.
Walking on scree reminds me of the saying “For every step forward, I take two steps back”. Scree is frustrating, can be infuriating to some, and is very much energy draining. Walking up scree also bears a resemblance to the story of Sisyphus who was doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have the boulder roll down, after which Sisyphus would roll the boulder back up, only to have the boulder roll down, ad infinitum. At times during the climb up the scree, I felt as if I was starting the climb over with each step.
Eventually, we hit the end of the scree at ridge line leading to Telescope Peak. After the climb up scree, it was a time for rejoicing for I knew that the impossible part off the hike was over. The hike would be much easier after the scree.
On the ridge line are Ancient Bristlecone Pine and a clearly marked trail of switchbacks leading up to the peak. As we climbed up to the peak, I was able to get photos with a panoramic view down the mountain to Badwater. By the time we got to the top, at 11,043 ft., it was dark and chilly, and I didn’t run into too many photo ops, although I did get some. One problem I ran into is when I stopped and put on my down jacket. Unknowingly, while putting on the jacket, it brushed against my GPS watch, pausing it. It wasn’t until after we had hiked to the summit and started hiking down that I realized what had happened and set the watch straight.
The walk down to Mahogany flats was in the dark, with headlamps. We moved quickly, also aided by the light from what would later turn into a supermoon, two days later. At Mahogany Flats we met a fellow hiker who started later but didn’t take the scree filled route. We ended up at Charcoal Kilns, in the dark, 17+ hours after we started, with over 11,000 ft of elevation gain and over 24 miles hiked.
Like the Whitney climb in July, while I was hiking up the mountain, I couldn’t see ever doing the hike again, especially if it means repeating the trudge up the slope with the smaller sized scree. Now that the hike is over, in the comfort of my home, I ask myself if I’d do it again. The answer? A resounding yes! Just like the Whitney climb, I want to do it again so I can do it better and faster.