Death Valley Country in December

24-31 Dec 2000 - by Debbie Bulger

Kingston Peak, 7336'; Brown Peak, 4947'; Smith Mtn, 5913', Red Mtn, 5261'

When Richard Stover and I woke in the predawn, December 26, the condensation on the windows of our camper shell was frozen. We were camped at approximately 5000 feet at the Kingston Peak trailhead east of Tecopa Hot Springs. Christmas Eve we had camped in the desert outside Barstow and had quickly run up Opal Mountain in the morning before continuing on to Kingston Peak, highpoint of the Kingston Range.

To begin the climb we drove about a half mile on a 4WD road to the weather station. Kingston is a worthy objective. The 2-mile hike up the wash is fairly straightforward, however, once we attained the ridge, the fun began. The DPS directions and the map direct the climber to "follow the ridge line . . . keeping to the left when difficulties arise." (A classic DPS understatement) "Ridge" is too general a word to describe the route on Kingston. More accurate is "jiggedy-jaggedy, roller coaster." Several times I found myself questioning whether I was going up or down this peak. I also found myself marveling at the unexpectedly beautiful pinyon pine and juniper forest and the sparkling display of mineral crystals. After the climb, I was told there is a spectacular stand of white fir, but I didn't note it.

Only about four parties had climbed Kingston in 2000. After we descended, we took a beeline to Tecopa Hot Springs.

The next day was spent in leisurely enjoyment of some of the geologic/historic wonders near Shoshone: A 6-foot deep deposit of volcanic ash from approximately 20 million years ago and the Resting Spring Pass volcanic tuff glass layer formation. Although I had been to Shoshone many times, I had never seen the dug-out homes that miners and later Great Depression refugees had created in the ash deposit. Our guide was the wonderful book, "Geology Underfoot in Death Valley and Owens Valley," by Sharp and Glazner.

Then, on to Greenwater Valley to climb Brown Peak and Smith Mountain. Brown Peak is named after State Senator Charles Brown who as the teenage sheriff of Greenwater successfully subdued desperado "Slim," an attention-starved juvenile delinquent who later found success and money by opening a health spa for well-to-do folks back east. (Read all about it on the menu of the Crowbar Cafe in Shoshone).

One could equally name Brown Peak "Chocolate Parfait Peak" for the delicious-looking layers of chocolate and vanilla rock which make up the western-facing shoulder. Brown also has sparkling mineral chunks (volcanic vesicles) and a fun (easy) rib to ascend on the way to the summit. The climb took us longer than the 4-5 hour estimate, but hey, we stop and look at stuff. It is about 6 1/2 miles and 2000 feet elevation gain. It was extremely windy on top, and we were thankful for the shelters others had built.

The next day, December 29, we climbed Smith. Of the three peaks it was the easiest both in navigation and difficulty. The register boasted of climbers who had powered up in record times, e.g. "51 minutes from the trailhead." Not my game. Of special interest were the recent entries by a party of grandchildren of Borax Smith, owner of the Lila C borax mine, after whom the mountain is named. The view from the top is spectacular. One can look down into Death Valley itself and imagine the challenges facing early visitors who had 4 oxen drives rather than 4WDs and homespun rather than polartech.

We camped that night at the abandoned Greenwater town site and played archeologist the next morning puzzling out the daily life of its inhabitants by the discarded debris of a hurried move. Where had the saloon been where Charlie Brown captured Slim? Were the boards we found part of the cemetery entrance? After the mining didn't play out, the townsfolk moved on taking the wooden buildings with them. We also visited nearby petroglyphs, day hiked and generally explored.

On the way home we stopped to climb Red Mountain outside the town of the same name. I have passed that mountain for 15 years, and finally decided I had to make time to climb it. An easy hike, it offered many treasures including the remnants of a propane?-powered searchlight on the summit, rock graffiti from the turn of the century, the vacant shell of a desert tortoise and a pair of golden eagles circling the summit.

Eight unhurried days, five peaks, history, geology and fun. A great way to end the year 2000.

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