A friend of mine moved to Vegas in December of 2001. In January of 2002 I flew out to visit and while visiting we hiked at Red Rock Canyon. Flying back home all I could do was think about how enjoyable the hiking had been and when I would be going again. As soon as I got home I started looking online for information and came across Glenn Campbell’s web site (www.aliensonearth.com). I've always been captured by thoughts of climbing in the mountains above the tree line and Mt Charleston seemed like a good start. I started going on hikes a couple times a week to get into condition for climbing in April. I worked my way up to ~45 lbs, problem was that there are no hills in South Eastern Michigan, so most of my training was on flat land.
April 4th I flew to Vegas and the next morning my friend dropped me out of his Jeep at the base of the canyon. Off I went, with about a 45lb ruck loaded with 7 quarts of water and some very nasty trail food-tortillas, peanut butter, and cliff bars. After climbing just a couple hours up the South Loop Trial the snow was becoming quite evident. By noon I was in ankle to knee-deep snow. Soon after the switch backs, where the map shows the trail heading pretty much straight up, I lost the trail in deep snow. I did find a set of old tracks though, and followed them. After a short while I checked my GPS and figured out I was off the trail. Surprised by this, I confirmed the GPS reading using a resection technique with my compass and two known points (Charleston Pk and another unnamed peak), it made sense. I had pretty much traversed across the mountain towards Mazie Canyon. With a good since of adventure I continued following the lone pair of tracks. Snow got deeper, pack got heavier, legs got more tired, and before I new it I was post holing in waist deep snow. I did this for about an hour. It was about 3:00pm and I new I wasn't moving fast. Down the mountain I went, all the way to the bottom where I set up my one-person bivy tent.
Lesson #1: Snowshoes are needed to make any decent progress in waist deep snow. Post holing is not fun. I know, I know – duhhh!
Lesson #2: The other side of the canyon, as seen from half way up the South Loop Trail, revealed no snow. The South facing canyon walls are almost void of snow and the North facing walls are snow covered. Again, I know, I know – duhhh!
Saturday morning found me hiking over to Trail Canyon and up I went again. I left my sleeping bag and bivy set up, more to save weight in my pack than for any other reason. Later, I was at the intersection of the North Trail Loop and Trail Canyon. Beautiful views greeted me and although my legs felt smoked, the views brightened up my attitude. To be truthful, I was feeling defeated. Oh well, I thought, I'll give a good effort and keep going for as long as I feel safe.
Off I went, through those miserable switchbacks at the base of Mummy Mountain. Once out of the switchbacks, the trail rolled along the ridge, not bad at all. Some where just short of the Devils Thumb the trail totally disintegrated and I decided it was time to turn around. I was smoked and I was breathing pretty badly, having gone from 750 feet to 10500-11000 feet in a matter of a day and a half. Down the mountain I went, all the way back to my bivy site, about 200 feet from the South Loop Trail trailhead.
Lesson #3: I should have kept the bag and tent with me. Now I thought I was doing the smart thing by leaving it behind to save weight. In fact, all I did was force myself into having to come off the mountain that day. If I would have had the bag and tent I could have set up a high camp. This would have given me time to acclimatize, rest, and make it to the summit in the morning.
Sunday morning found me, and my bruised pride, rubbing sore legs and packing up my bivy. Since my friends weren't picking me up until noon, I started hiking down the 157. They spotted me and picked me up, offering a fresh bottle of Mountain Dew.
Cold weather equipment is a must on Charleston Peak during the winter months.
I was really bummed I didn't make it to the summit. However, I was really happy that I had pushed myself fairly well. I made a couple of big mistakes, and paid for them. Post holing through the snow for a couple of hours, while trying to move up a mountain, will really break you down. Especially if you haven't been doing it somewhat regularly. I'm not going to say this route is impossible, quite the opposite. I think it is very doable, even during the winter months. However, with a lot of movement through deep snow I would suggest making it an overnighter to give your muscles a break. I am sure that if I would have bivied high on the mountain Friday night that the next morning I would have summited. I still can't recall a good reason for my decision to go all the way back down to the base of the canyon. Maybe it was the snow free canyon walls on the South facing walls; or maybe it was the fact that I had been post holing through waist deep snow and was really pissed at myself for not bringing snow shoes!!!
To those of you who think Vegas is just about the desert and casinos, think again. In the winter Charleston Peak offers a real alpine environment and I hope you get to experience it.