We two have been motivated to hike and climb mountains through our 45 years of marriage and separately even before that. Now 75 & 78 and with many mountains and trails under our boots and with another exciting mountain conquered, the inspiration just under our skin continues to motivate us. Here is a story of that climb and the backstory about the realities behind it. We are just two active seniors, who enjoy the serenity and beauty of nature and the physical challenges of achieving interesting summits. Is it hard? You bet. But inspiration is easy to unleash.
This is the story of our climb of Telescope Peak, at 11,043 feet, the highest point in Death Valley. We like highest points and Telescope Peak (named in 1861 for its unobstructed 360-degree views) fit the bill. Despite the macabre names that abound here – Funeral Mountains, Devil’s Canyon, Dante’s View, Badwater Basin, Furnace Creek – this is quite the unique area.
Travelogue: It was a beautiful day to fly to Las Vegas, rent a 4×4, drive to scenic Death Valley, then drive 30 more miles up into the Panamint Mountains, past the famous Charcoal Kilns, to Mahogany Flat Campground at 8,300 feet. Overnight under a full moon in anticipation of an exciting climb of Telescope Peak.
Reality: Understandably anxious for an early flight, we slept too little. A post-pandemic Sea-Tac Airport was packed. Our Alaska Airlines flight was on-time, but packed and offered no food. The insanely expensive cost of a high clearance Jeep 4×4 rental for two days, $635. Perk: We were able to sleep right at the trailhead with gear and boots on. The 200-mile drive took 5 hours through 110+ heat. Cannot lie – it begged the question: “Honey, whose idea was this, again?” Funny how people down there were burning up in deadly heat, yet by 9.00p at the trailhead, it was a cool 40’s. Though very tired, ‘motivation’, inspiration, or endorphins kept us ‘happy’. However, I’ll confess that the full moon became really annoying at times. The thin air at this elevation also adds to the challenge. We chose not to acclimate for 1-2 nights there, but push on. Best Hidden Reward: The Wild Burros. Watch for dozens of wild, adorable burros that use these backroads as their personal right-of-ways, turn the side-eye to greet you. Like, ‘What are you two doing here?’
Travelogue: At 5.00am we strapped on our headlamps, signed the trail register and started up a steep long traverse, which is the first third-of-the 7.2-mile trek to the top. We are rewarded with a brilliant ‘orange’ sunrise at 5.30a. We reached Arcane Meadows saddle and started the second third of the hike, now along an exposed ridgeline running to the base of the final ascent. The dream is finally is becoming a reality. Sleepy? Nah, never. Now we can look up and see the final third, the final piece of the ascent, a series of steep switchbacks. We pass many huge ancient bristlecone pine trees. These live 3,000 years and are the world’s oldest living organisms. 40 miles away is Methuselah, a bristlecone documented at 4,850 years old. These trees pre-date us, our entire lineages, the U.S., the Middle Ages, Christ, the Roman and maybe even Greek civilizations, absolutely awe inspiring that we can see and touch something that old. Arcane Meadows is named after the Arcane Party trying to reach the California gold fields in 1849 and thought that cutting through the Panamint Mountain Range was a short cut. Stranded, some died, the rest were rescued and as they left, they remarked, “Good bye, Death Valley”. The name stuck. They are historically referred to as the ‘Lost 49ers’.
Reality: Early part of the morning is a chilly 40-ish and gusty winds at some points. We feel full of vigor until the affect of altitude kicks in. But no Pain- No gain, right? Muscles feel tired for lack of oxygen. So, as always, we slow the pace, taking frequent 15-30 second breaks to combat the lack of acclimation. Let the inspiration seep in to your inner sanctum and keep some conversation going. The section through Arcane Meadows is on an exposed ridgeline. The problem with saddles, passes and ridgelines is that they are notoriously windy, as vast weather systems try to equalize the pressure on both sides of mountain ranges. Despite the bright sun above, today’s winds were 25-40 mph and wind chill cold. We are layered up, but hats fly off and the sounds of the flapping fabric of your clothes can drive you nuts. The question, ‘Why are we doing this?’, bubbles up; we quickly suppress it. Inspiration, perseverance and god’s given energy take the lead. Now at 10,000 feet we are looking up at the last third and steepest section of the trail. Without a good night’s sleep, no real breakfast, unacclimated and tiring, now the most strenuous part starts. Mental distractions and mind games help mitigate the effort. Looking for uniquely shaped rocks to take home. The ‘no-return’ juncture is behind you. Slow and steady, frequent short breaks and purposefully ignoring how much trail remains ahead, it really is literally and figuratively, one foot in front of the other. Mentally retreating to a reassurance that the summit is nearer with each step.