Our original plan was to start at Shorty's Well off the West Side Road in Death Valley and finish at Mahogany Flats but our sag support fell through at the last minute. Let me say that this is BY FAR the preferred way to do this route. In case you have never experienced 10,000 feet of descending after a 10,000 foot ascent, let me save you the trouble. It hurts, a lot!
Since we were stuck with a round trip hike, we elected to drive up Hanapauh Canyon road for 5 miles to set up our camp and shorten the route to around 20 miles. It turns out that after the road drops into the canyon at about 6 miles there are some excellent campsites. The road stops about two miles short of the spring so any car camp will be dry.
We started our hike about 4:15 am and walked up the road and then through the wash on minor use trails to the spring which is 10.5 miles from Shorty's Well. This was about 5.5 miles for us and took 1:45. The mine above the spring is quite deep and was interesting to poke around (carefully).
It was at this point that we made our critical mistake. To have a class 2 climb, you must cross the canyon and find your way up the north side of the canyon to the East/ West ridge that separates Southern Hanapauh Canyon from MIddle Hanapauh Canyon. It looks very steep and brush covered but is still easier than what we faced.
The next time we try this, we will probably leave the road at about the 6-mile mark and start up this ridge right at the canyon mouth. This is how we came back down and even in the dark it was better than coming down to the spring.
Once we left the spring, we continued climbing the mine road on the south side of the canyon to its end at 6000 feet. There are two mine entrances here and it was interesting looking at all the artifacts. It boggles the mind that someone would go to the trouble to cut a road up this extremely steep ridge.
From there our route was nothing but up. We tried to stay on a ridge that headed basically west and defined the southern side of Southern Hanapauh Canyon. Because the ridge was sharp and capped with many Pinion Pines and Junipers we mostly contoured along the northern side of the ridge.
The rock and shale were so loose that we could not even rely on the larger rocks to be stable. If you decide to try this route, bring a helmet. We had to leave a good distance between ourselves to avoid getting pelted by falling rocks. At about 7500 feet we really began to think our route would end in futility as we were approaching another ridge that looked like the east face of Whitney. But we were able to traverse to the north of the buttresses and get around behind them to continue our climb.
Finally, at about 9500 feet we could see our way clear to the peak. The route we were on actually took us right to the top of Telescope Peak without ever hitting the trail from Mahogany Flats. From this point up the slope was covered with low brush and we had no more of the hand over hand climbing that had been the norm since we left the mine. We followed the small ridge that heads east to the peak.
We summited at 2:20 pm with about 30 minutes of dinking around in the mines. While it was not a crystal clear day we could still see about half of California and Nevada! Someone had drawn a peak guide for the Eastern Sierra's and we could easily spot the peaks from Langley to Williamson.
As difficult as our climb had been, we would have easily been done before dark if we had a vehicle waiting for us at Mahogany Flats. As it was we nearly shredded our feet on the descent and still had a good 5 miles to go after dark. We did not retrace our steps on the descent. We followed the trail down to the broad slope that drops to the aforementioned East / West ridge to head back down.
This is very nice walking, with ample evidence of Big Horn Sheep in among the trees. Unfortunately we were not lucky enough to see any. We had reached the saddle above the spring just before dark and, not knowing where any use trail might be, decided to stay on the ridge and take our chances following it all the way to the desert floor.
This was really quite an easy walk until the final descent. That portion took us about 1-_ hours and was nothing short of miserable. With the steepness, looseness and abundant cactus we were not having any more fun. Finally, the face degenerated into a series of gullies that all seemed to be either avalanche shoots or waterfalls. We traversed until we found one that was walkable and finally made the desert floor.
By God's grace we were only about 100 yards from the road and thus were back at the car by 9:00 pm. Our overall time on the trail (or lack there of) was 16:40 which is well beyond enjoyable. Did I mention we had gone through 6 to 7 liters of water each, and were dry for the last hour?
I write this mainly to help others avoid having a trip so close to the ragged edge! Had we carried 2 gallons of water each, we would probably bivouacked for the night. But being both cold and thirsty seemed more miserable than continuing on in our depleted state. Besides, eating powdered chicken noodle soup without the water wasn't that attractive.
1) Don't try an up and back trip unless your base camp is as far up Hanapauh Canyon road as possible. I would also not do it again unless we took the East / West ridge route both ways. This other route is just too slow.
2) Don't try this trip after the time change, daylight is just too limited.
3) Carry more water than you think humanly possible. We had a very cool pleasant day but there is NO humidity out there.
4) If you decide to follow the mine road as we did, go out at Mahogany Flat.
All this said it was a great adventure. The desert offers unique beauty and unmatched solitude. We would much rather repeat this trip than fight the crowds on Whitney!
Jeff Cannon, Atascadero (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Steve Brookshire, Santa Maria