Spring 2017: Sonic Booms and Peakbagging in the Mountain Kingdom


April 1-6, 2017

The previous two Februarys John Platt and I fled the Idaho winter in an effort to satisfy our peakbagging addiction by spending a week climbing in Death Valley and southern Nevada. While we planned to undertake a third trip in 2017, the ferocious winter brought significant snow to those normally snow free areas and we decided to postpone our trip until the first of April. Since we had a later departure time we planned to visit areas that are usually too cold and snowy in February. On April 1st we departed a rainy Idaho for south central Nevada looking forward to exploring new areas and peaks.

I have had a long love affair with Nevada. My first road trip through Nevada was in 1974 when I was on my way to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks for a job with the National Park Service. I saw enough during that long drive to develop a long term fascination with the impressive landscape. Ever since, Nevada, in my mind, has always been the “Mountain Kingdom.” The state has a physical and cultural ambiance unlike any place else.

There are over 140 different mountain ranges interspersed by wide, dry valleys. Despite having driven all of the major highways and many back roads and climbing 90 of its mountains, I have barely scratched its surface. I keep trying to consume the elephant a bite at a time.

Our first destination was a mountainous area south of Lund, Nevada which had peaks located on either side of Nevada 318 with decent access.

Gap Mountain rising roughly 1,200 feet above our parking spot.

Saturday April 1st: It was a long drive from Boise to our first objective, Gap Mountain. The terrain in southern Idaho and northern Nevada was wet and muddy. After we passed Ely, Nevada, the skies cleared and the ground was drier. The area around Gap Mountain was dry we found a good two track road that took us to the base of this complex, three-summited peak. We parked near the base of the south ridge around 3:30 pm. Our climb started by traversing north and upward across the east face until we reached a gully that dropped down from the saddle between the lower south summit and the true summit. We then took a steeper route up to the saddle and then followed the summit ridge to the top. We found a register on top left by a Sierra Club group.

Looking north from the summit of Gap Mountain.

After the climb we found a campsite at the base of Peak 6449 and Peak 6446. The view from camp was massive and included busy NV-318 a few miles away. We occasionally heard the semis and motorhomes driving by but for the most part enjoyed the tranquility of our first evening out.

Sunday, April 2nd: My primary goal this day was to climb Burnt Peak which was located to the south. However, before driving to Burnt Peak we had unfinished business at our current location.

Peak 6446 was north of our camp but the map I had printed out was of poor quality and we were not able to determine which point along the ridge was the actual summit. We had studied the ridge from Gap Mountain the day before and identified two candidates. One looked easy, the other looked like a rock dome which would present climbing difficulties.

We climbed up the ridge northeast of camp to the first potential high point. Once on top it was evident that the rocky dome was the high point. From our vantage point the dome looked to be a technical problem. So we followed the winding ridge north toward the dome hoping that we could find a route on its west side. The ridge walk was easy and we soon found ourselves walking under the cliffs traversing toward the west. We found a gully that looked promising and climbed up it. After 30 feet we found a sloping, slab covered face that was easy to climb to the summit.

John is exiting the west side gully on Peak 6446.

We returned to camp and packed up the 4Runner and moved on to Peak 6449 which turned out to be a quick hike. Time to move on

Peak 6446 viewed from the south. We found a route through the cliffs on the peak’s west side which is around the left hand side of this photo.

Looking north to Gap Mountain from Peak 6449.

I first spotted Burnt Peak during a drive between Boise and Las Vegas six or seven years earlier. The distinctive reddish colored peak looked like a volcanic cone. I set my sites on climbing the peak. It was now time. The peak sits in the center of a group of sage and juniper covered peaks several miles east of NV-378. On the map the driving approach looked straight forward. However, our printed map did not jive with the roads shown on John’s GPS. Between the two resources and a bit of dead reckoning we arrived within striking distance of the summit on the peak’s west side.

Burnt Peak is the cone shaped point rising over the truck and the horizon. At this point we are trying to decide whether to go straight or take the left fork.

Burnt Peak from the west.

After a snack we struck out for the summit by ascending a line that kept as much as possible out of the loose talus. This route was Class 2 but steep. When we arrived on the summit after gaining 1,200 feet we found a large cairn but no register.

Looking north toward Silver King Mountain.

A weathered juniper log. You find all sorts of interesting objects hiking in Nevada, some natural, some remnants of humans.

Peak 6421 and Peak 5912, two minor peaks south of Burnt Peak were next up. Climbing these peaks was an easy task once we navigated our way over some tricky 4WD roads.

We found a campsite to the southeast of our last summit on a windy alluvial fan and settled in for an evening of moving clouds and then bright moonshine.

Peak 6421.

Our Sunday night camp in the middle of an empty valley

A Nevada evening sky. Peak 5750 is on the right side of the photo.

Peak 5750 from camp.

Monday, April 3rd: This day had rain and thunderstorms in the forecast so we were up early planning on climbing five peaks. The first two peaks, Peak 5811 and Peak 5750, were located on either side of our camp. Both turned out to be Class 2 climbs with Peak 5750 the most interesting. We climbed the peak by a west facing ridge that had numerous short cliff bands that were easily skirted.

We were a week or two too early for the wildflower bloom. These paintbrush flowers were early arrivals.

Next up was Peak 5882 which was located to the west of our fist two peaks and nearer to NV-318. The morning had started out cloudless but we knew there was a chance of thunderstorms and rain in the forecast. As we drove toward our next objective we observed clouds building to the west. We easily found our 4WD road turnoff and drove through the sagebrush flats toward the peak. The road ended about a mile north of the peak where we had a straight shot toward the cone shaped summit. As we walked we came across an area littered with broken quartz shards. Around one large Boulder there was an incredible amount of the shards which we surmised was a work station for native Americans. We also found a marker for a mining claim close by. Peak 5882 was a steep but easy Class 2 climb.

John on the summit of Peak 5882. The clouds were now starting to look more threatening.

As we drove away from Peak 5882 we saw lightening which is never a good sign for climbers. By the time we reached the jump off point for our next climb the scattered thundershowers were more pronounced. Although it was not yet 11:00am we decided the day was no longer favorable for peakbagging. We decided to head south to Alamo, Nevada and look for a room. Alamo is a small town mostly located off of US-93. It is the first place in Nevada where I did not see anything gambling related and where you could not buy a beer.

We secured a nice cabin at the Wimdmill Ridge Resort and settled in while outside the storms passed and the wind howled. The cabins are relatively new and well kept. We had a nice dinner at the restaurant that evening.

Tuesday April 4thAfter reviewing our options, we decided to climb Mt. Irish on Tuesday. Mount Irish is a popular peak with a group of climbers who specialize collecting high isolated summits which have more than 2,000 feet of prominence.

Mount Irish and the cliff band.

Our climb up the peak followed the south ridge. The ridge started out climbing steeply through juniper and talus. It eventually narrowed down to narrow, rocky spine that flattened for a while before climbing to a band of cliffs about two thirds of the way to the summit. John led us off the ridge and then through a steep gully which penetrated the cliff band. From this point, we crossed over broad forested slopes to the summit cone.

Climbing Mount Irish’s south ridge toward the cliff band. John Platt Photo

The peak’s summit is covered by an electronics site complete with solar panels and a generator. The summit register was signed numerous times by helicopter pilots. The view from this 8,700 foot vantage point was huge.

We found a grove of ponderosa pine on the west side of the south ridge.

Our climb of Mount Irish began on Logan Pass as we descended back to the pass we noted that Peak 7564 sat just south of the pass. It looked like an easy walk and so we decided to climb it. The summit was reached after 0.8 miles and 400 feet of elevation gain. The only obstacles encountered were thick juniper and piñon pine groves.

After climbing our two peaks we spent a little time exploring the Mount Irish Petroglyp Reserve. The BLM set this area of Native American artwork aside and  you can find a nice brochure at the site which covers the areas prehistory.

There are 640 acres in the reserve. We saw only a small portion of the rock art.

My favorite panel.

The most distinctive panel I viewed.

Nevada 375 is often called the Extraterrestrial Highway because it passes just north of Area 51. Area 51 is part of a United States Air Force highly classified facility and is also part of Edwards Air Force Base and the Nevada Test and Training Range where many nuclear bombs were tested in the past. There is a lot of speculation about what goes on in Area 51 including the belief by some that alien spacecraft captured by the government reside within its confines. NV-375 was the last major Nevada highway that I had not traversed. So, with great anticipation we started west on this lonely highway.

The highway quickly crossed a pass and descended into a valley covered with Joshua trees.

The valley was filled with Joshua trees. The next valley to the west had none.

Next up was a group of peaks which are located north of NV-375 at Queen City Summit. I spotted them on a map and found them intriguing because of their setting between two large barren valleys. The only named summit is Black Top but the three summits with compressed contour lines (indicating steep terrain) sitting to the south potentially offered interesting scrambling.

The Black Top ridge with Black Top on the right.

After driving across and up the large alluvial fans that drop down from the ridge we arrived at a saddle between Peak 7087 and Peak 6980. Peak 7087 is shaped like a mesa crowned with steep cliffs which at first glance looked impregnable. Our search of the north face had to contend with the fact that it was already in the shade and with our lack of binoculars. Nevertheless, John and I agreed that there was a steep ramp that looked as though it would safely take us through the north wall.

The north face of Peak 7087. Our route climbed the ramp just right of center.

We started across the intervening land to the base of the peak. John quickly left me behind determined to discover the secrets of the ramp. His ambition made it easy for me to see that the chosen route would work and I simply followed his tracks up the ramp and through the wall. The climbing never exceeded Class 2.

The summit of Peak 7087.

The south face of Peak 6980. If you look closely you will spot my 4Runner.

John enjoying camp life.

We camped that evening on the saddle between Peak 7087 and Peak 6980. The campsite was one of the most picturesque I’ve enjoyed. As we thought we were truly in the middle of nowhere with only a few birds disturbing our tranquility we were startled when the stillness was shattered by a pair of sonic booms. Over the next two hours we were entertained by fighter jets flying in various patterns in the sky above us.

Peak 7087 in the morning sun.

Wednesday, April 5th: Our goal on this day was to climb the three remaining peaks on the Black Top ridge and then to move on to one of the next climbing areas we had identified. First things first. We set our heading toward Black Top which was a mile and a half north of our camp. We skirted around the west side of Peak 6980 and then followed an up and down route to the base of Black Top. The only Climbing we encountered was on the west side of Black Top’s black top. This short ten foot pitch was of little difficulty. We found a Benchmark on the summit.

Black Top.

We descended down the peak’s southern slopes and headed directly to Peak 6980’s northeast ridge. From the distance the peak looked like there could be cliffs guarding the summit. The northeast ridge looked like the best route and we easily made it to the summit block which was also easily climbed.

The summit of Peak 6980.

Another view of Peak 7087 as we drove to Peak 6768.

We dropped off Peak 6980 to camp on a nice line down the east face identified by John and packed up. We then drove over to Peak 6768 which was a smaller twin of Peak 6980. With an audience of hardy Nevada cattle watching we made quick work of this peak which mostly involved Class 2 climbing.

Peak 6768 from Peak 7087. John Platt Photo

Back on the road to an area identified as The Wall. This area is located east of Tonopah and south of US-6. The wall is a feature in the center of a large volcanic area highlighted by a large volcanic crater misnamed as a lunar crater. The Lunar Crater National Natural Landmark was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1973. Other than an signs at two points along US-6 and improved dirt road that looks through the area there are no improvements.

The Lunar Crater.

After visiting the crater, we moved on to North Kidney Butte, a volcanic cinder cone centered between the Lunar Crater, The Wall and US-6. The road passes within 1.2 miles of the summit so we parked and hiked across a cinder and sagebrush covered plain to the base of the peak. The south wall of the butte had blown out during and eruption. We climbed up the southeast side of the cone, followed the crater rim around and descended the southwest side.

North Kidney Butte viewed from the south.

The view from North Kidney Butte to The Wall includes a large playa lake.

Next up–The Wall. There are five point along The Wall with more than 300 feet of prominence. We wanted to climb the highest point. Unfortunately, on our drive we were mislead by a sign and our failure to pay attention to the details. As we sat on a saddle between two of the five high points, we both commented on the fact that our location did not completely jive with the map. Nevertheless, we concluded that the The Wall’s high point was to our north. From the saddle the alleged highpoint looked difficult and we decided to approach it from a point farther north.

John, with his never ending supply of energy decided to climb the peak to the south of the saddle. (You can read about his adventure in his trip report which is linked below.) I decided to rest up. When John returned, we drove north looking for a way up The Wall and a campsite. This area was covered with low brush and try as we may we could not find a spot big enough for two tents. We did spy a route up The Wall but continued north looking for a campsite. At the base of Peak 6355, another big cinder cone, we found a corral and decided to climb.

Peak 6355 was an easy stroll even though it was our fifth peak of the day. Some how, for the first time all trip, I managed to keep ahead of John. On top the wind was picking up and I got cell phone coverage. I checked the weather and found the forecast had changed from sunny and warm to very windy for the evening with a winter like storm forecast for Thursday evening. We talked about our options and came to a quick conclusion–it would be better to drive to Tonopah and get a motel room than spend the night listening to the wind buffeting our tents.

We got a room at  the Tonopah Station Casino. If you have never visited Tonopah add it to your “To Do” list. It is one strange, run down but interesting town surrounded by peaks. We had a decent room and meal and we were happy to be out of the wind.

Thursday, April 6th: We were up early determined to beat the coming storm to Austin, Nevada where we planned to climb Mt. Prometheus, a peak situated just north of Austin. Some peaks you climb because they are challenging. Some peaks you climb because of their aesthetic lines. Some peaks you climb because of their name. Prometheus clearly falls into the last category. Its summit was a short 0.9 miles, steep hike from Austin Summit on US-50. We were pushed around by the wind the entire hike as the storm built up. Back down at the truck we shook hands and called our peak quest officially over at 18 peaks.

Quirky Austin, Nevada, Trump Pence Headuarters for central Nevada.

Epilogue:  Nevada is mostly comprised of public lands and much of it is wild and remote. There are more than a lifetime’s worth of peaks to explore. All of my Nevada climbing trips have been rewarding and challenging. The peaks come in all sizes and shapes and difficulty. You can find difficult Class 4 and 5 climbing blocking your way. Don’t leave your good judgement at home.

The peaks are desert peaks. Remember above all else that Nevada is wild, remote, desert country. Be prepared for difficult and sometimes treacherous travel conditions including bad and/or impassable roads, heat, rattlesnakes and every other conceivable hazard found in desert terrain.

Take a four wheel drive with good all terrain tires (6 or more ply sidewalls). Don’t depend on cell coverage. Buy BLM Surface Management maps to supplement topographic maps. John’s GPS was helpful but its large scale maps were not as accurate as we would have liked.

Keep the gas tank full. Fill up at every opportunity. It is amazing how few gas stations are available. Expect to find gas only in towns but don’t expect every town to have a gas station. I pulled into Ely on fumes in the past and it was not a pleasant experience. Don’t expect anyone to find you if you get stuck or your battery goes dead. (We took an emergency car battery as a back up.)
A shovel is a necessity and chains would be essential in wet weather.

Take an extra pair of boots.

Go to John Platt’s Trip Report