Day 2: Hike to Telescope Peak
The unexpected visitors
I awoke with a start. Howard was leaning over me by the zipped closed screen “door” to the tent. I thought he wanted out, but couldn’t find the zipper(which was odd because with the full moon it was easy to see inside the tent).
He hushed me as I spoke. “Listen. There’s someone out there.” I listened for a moment and heard the crunching of footsteps on the gravel of the camp. As we strained to hear the footfalls, I tried to imagine what was making the noise. Howard whispered something about a ranger. But something wasn’t right. The footsteps were too close together. It sounded like someone was taking very short strides. It was dawning on us that what was outside wasn’t human.
Howard tried to peer through the mesh at the peak of the tent, but it was just too dark to make out anything distinct. After a few minutes and the steps worked their way away from the tent, I unzipped the door partially and peeked out.
I could make out a couple dark shapes moving on the hillside above our campsite. I didn’t want to startle them, whatever they were, but I wanted to get a better look. Slowly I stood up. The shapes on the hill kept moving around. I took a few quiet steps away from the tent as Howard stuck out his head. What were they?
I made it within about 15 or 20 yards from them before one of them snorted. Ok, something like a horse. That definitely sounded like a noise a horse would make. I stood still for a moment. Suddenly I could make out their shapes better. They were small for horses, but definitely quadrupeds. I took a couple more quiet steps.
The one that snorted at me finally decided I was too close. Like a shot they took off across the hillside, and in a moment they were gone. It was (as it turns out) a rare moment and one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.
A little detective work
I found it difficult to sleep after our little encounter, and about 6 we packed up the camp.
I ventured onto the hillside where the “herd” had been to see if there was any evidence of what we had seen. I found droppings(but in the desert who knows how long they’d been there), and then Howard found some tracks.
It turns out we’d been visited by feral/wild burros. They’re descendants of the pack animals brought in (and subsequently abandoned) by prospectors who came to Death Valley. They’re tough animals that did fairly well in the desert environment… a bit too well. The National Park Service is catching them and removing them from the park because they push out native species, namely the Desert Big Horn Sheep. The current number is somewhere under 500 burros in the park today.
Onward and upward
Mystery solved we headed out for the start of our hike. First, this involved driving several miles further up the mountain over a very rough dirt road. Eventually we decided that our little RAV4 was no longer up to the task and parked near some charcoal kilns.
The kilns were built in 1877 and only used on a regular basis for about ten years and then completely abandoned by 1900. The charcoal was hauled down into the Pentamint Valley(it runs roughly parallel to Death Valley) to be used in the smelting process at a lead and silver mine.
The 10 kilns were quite large perhaps 35 feet across and 35 feet high. Well, enough archaeology… we came here to hike a mountain!
We checked our gear and made sure we had plenty of water. So from Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, at about 6,800 feet, we started our hike.
All of the guide books I’d looked at suggested we start the hike at the last and highest campsite by the trailhead, Mahogany Flat, but our SUV just couldn’t hack it. So we had to hoof it. The day was cool and made for good hiking.
The road up was rocky, deeply rutted and quite steep. In two miles of hiking we’d gone past Thorndike Camp to Mahogany Flat and gained 1,400 feet in elevation.
From the trailhead to the peak was listed at 7 miles. And to the 11,043 summit of Telescope Peak… almost 3,000 feet of elevation gain. And that doesn’t count the 1,400 feet we’d already done. If we’d stopped to look at the numbers, perhaps we would have changed our minds. Perhaps we should have hiked something lower like Wildrose Peak (9,064ft), Rogers Peak (9994 feet) or Bennett Peak (9980 feet). The lower elevation change and the shorter distance would have been far easier and we could have made it to our end-of-day destination of Bishop in one piece.
The trail from here to the peak was created in 1935 by the CCC(Civilian Conservation Corps). We found some evidence along the trail.
Well, we forged on making decent progress throughout the early morning. We appeared to have the trail entirely to ourselves although the trail register showed 3 hikers ahead of us(turns out there were 7). The views of Death Valley were stunning long before we reached the summit.
We started to get a little fatigued from the constant climbing, the thin air, and eventually the sun. Our mantra was “Shade to Shade” as we would hike from stand to stand of the native trees: Mountain Mahogany, Pinon Pine, and Juniper. The temperature drop in the shade of these trees was dramatic and quite welcome. My Camelbak Fourteener was proving to be worth every penny as the waist belt transferred nearly all of the weight of the water to my hips and my shoulders felt almost untouched.
The higher we got the more evidence of water and life we saw. Our first birds, ravens, a couple sagebrush lizards, and the Purple Sage. However, the heat had forced all but the most hearty and drought resistant plants into a summer period of dormancy.
Eventually we made it to the saddle between Rogers Peak and Bennett Peak. This high area is called the “Arcane Meadows.” During the spring it explodes in colorful blooms, but in August it’s a windswept, sun-baked ground where low cacti, scrub, and rocks dominate. We both started to get headaches. At first I thought it was the heat and stepped up my water consumption. Soon, however, it was clear we were showing the early signs of altitude sickness.
We headed up around the side of Bennet Peak and continued higher still.
Altitude sickness or acute mountain sickness can be a potentially life-threatening condition, but is very treatable. The symptoms are: headache, light headedness or dizziness, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea/vomiting, rapid pulse, shortness of breath with exertion. Both Howard and I had nearly all of these symptoms(save nausea) although several were masked by our exertion(fatigue, loss of appetite, rapid pulse, shortness of breath).
The primary treatment? “The main treatment for all forms of mountain sickness is to climb down (descend) to a lower altitude as rapidly and safely as possible. You should not continue climbing if you develop symptoms.” (National Library of Medicine)
What did we do? We kept climbing.
Soon a trio of Japanese hikers climbed down the trail having already reached the summit. The first one by tells us, “Two hour to top…hour and half down.”
Howard’s knee was starting to send him hate mail and the news that we had perhaps 4 more hours of hiking ahead just to return to where we were… 4 hours already into our hike. So Howard made a tough call. He told me to head up to the summit, and he’d wait for me to return.
My head was pounding, my legs were tired, and I worried about getting hurt somewhere on the trail. But I told Howard I’d be back in under two hours.
I spent the next forty minutes punishing my legs as I drove myself up the mountain as fast as I could go. I found a trio of German hikers and one solo hiker coming back down. By the time I reached the 13 switchbacks to the final climb I was nearly done in…
Then finally the summit!
And a view down into the Pentamint Valley…
Well, no time to dawdle (and my headache was just getting worse by the minute). So full of renewed energy(and an apple) I launched myself down the trail. The switchbacks which had so tortured me were suddenly a breeze. My legs felt light and full of energy where only 20 minutes before my legs wanted to secede from my body.
A couple twists and turns and who do I find lounging along the trail… Howard. I’d made the 3 and a half hour hike(according to our Japanese scouts) in an hour and a twenty minutes.
What followed from this point was a epic saga of pain…
Getting off the trail
I didn’t realize it, but my speed hike to the summit and back had laid the groundwork for a physical and mental torture test. Within about half an hour of linking back up with Howard my quads started to complain. And the final descent to the trailhead was a trial. With each step our feet jammed forward in our boots mashing our toes and toenails.
Both Howard and I were pretty well spent by the time we got back to the trailhead. The heat, the altitude… they did the work. My hamstrings and quads were shot. We’d been hiking for 7 hours. We took a ten minute break to regroup and then remembered…
We still had two miles to go.
Back to the car
It took us nearly an hour to cover the very steep final 2 miles. By the time we reached the car even standing up was difficult. My legs were shaking, I was dizzy, and the prospect of taking another step on any kind of incline/decline was shattering. I had covered nearly 20 miles and a total of 8,486 feet of elevation change while suffering from a mix of jet lag and a heavy dose of altitude sickness. I needed a nap followed by a coma…
Howard drove us back down the mountain and out to Lone Pine. The sunset against the high Sierra Nevada range and Mount Whitney in particular was simply stunning, but I was in such a bad place I neglected to shoot a photo. I just wanted to lay down. My thoughts were filled with the wish that this sensation of spinning, tingling abject exhaustion mixed with a titanic jackhammer of a headache would go away.
After a shower I attempted to eat, but waves of nausea washed over me. I knew I had to eat. I’d burned up maybe 4-6,000 calories and only eaten 500-600. With great effort I managed in the end only one or two bite, but it took all of my willpower not to vomit. Instead I took a sleep aid and wished my muscles to relax.
At this point I was a bit scared. I’d pushed myself before. But this went even beyond those experiences… climbing the 9665ft Sacagawea Peak on a scaldingly hot day, running a half marathon, etc.
Finally I slipped off to the bliss of sleep.
So hiking up an 11,000 foot mountain in Death Valley in August has turned out to be one of the top 5 dumbest things I’ve ever done. Let’s tally the mistakes:
- I was not acclimated to the altitude before the hike(a week at Ocean City, New Jersey was poor preparation). At the summit there was almost 20% less oxygen available!
- We started the hike two miles, and 1,400 feet further down the mountain than we had counted on. This added 2,800 feet of climb and descent and 4 miles to our hike.
- I continued up the mountain(and at a fast pace) even after I showed signs of altitude sickness.
- I clearly did not eat enough calories. 5-600 does not fill the 4-6,000 calorie hole I’d created.
How bad could it have been?
Severe cases may result in death due to lung problems(pulmonary edema) or brain swelling(cerebral edema). Now my case was on the mild end, and I’m glad because anything more severe would have meant a trip to the hospital.
They say you can’t know your limits until you exceed them. Perhaps.
But how much further could I have gone before I collapsed? A hundred yards? A mile?
Discovering that last 1% of what you’ve got…
For me, it turned out to be both a scary and exciting place. There was something oddly peaceful beyond the pain. I felt a strange transcendent sensation. Most likely it was the endorphins firing like mad to protect me.
I’m a bit of a philosophical Taoist. And Taoism looks at pain, misery, and suffering not as separate from contentment, pleasure and happiness. That is, not as even as separate “sides of the same coin,” but paradoxically… the same… so completely mixed that calling them by separate names, by demarcating where each starts and that other ends is to ignore the truth of nature. This is how we find ourselves out of balance.
I think that’s what I found out there on the mountain: my balance.