Telescope Peak (11049’) from the Badwater Basin (at Shorty’s well, -250’)
11 November 2007
Bob Dawson with Rod Sumpter
Rod ( a friend and coworker) and I were on business travel together to Huntington Beach CA (just south of LA) and wanted something fun to do over a weekend between two work-weeks there. It had to be a good workout. A pal (Wayne) had told me about Telescope Peak (11,049’) in Death Valley NP, the high-point in the park. So happens of course that DVNP includes the low point in the western hemisphere at “badwater”, 280 feet below sea level. So looking around on the net I kept running into trip-reports of a climb of Telescope Peak from a trail out of the badwater basin. Excellent! How many times can one climb a fine, high peak starting below sea level? Of course there’s the badwater 135 (climbs Mt. Whitney from badwater) but that one is a bit beyond my resolve. But Telescope from badwater sounded perfect! Actually, we climbed it from “Shorty’s” Well, near badwater but 30 feet higher at merely 250 feet below sea level. Climbing it from badwater-proper would involve some extra miles across a salt-crusted basin. Maybe that would have been even better, in retrospect.
Anyway, the climb involved about 11,500 feet of vertical gain and about 24 miles, using a shuttle to avoid descending the whole 11,500’. The shuttle involves parking one vehicle at the Mahogany Flats campground (el 8130’) where a trailhead for the standard Telescope Peak route begins. This trail is supposedly 14 miles r/t to Telescope peak, with about 2900’ of vertical.
For anyone reading this and planning, know that this shuttle takes a long time; we left LA at about 8pm on a Saturday, and by the time we left a car at Mahogany flats and drove on car to Shorty’s well, it was 2:30am (we did have an hour stop for dinner along the way). It takes nearly 2 hours to drive from Mahogany flats to the Shorty’s well trailhead. Keep this in mind on the way out as well.
The TR’s I found had folks starting in the wee-hours (2:30am-ish) for this one, but we needed some sleep, plus it was November and plenty cool enough at 250 feet below sea level – about 70 degrees – so we decided to sleep for 4 hours and take off, heading up the jeep road up Hanaupah Canyon just before 7am, right as the rising sun was hitting the peaks to the west of us. Beautiful sight, though daunting; it was obviously a long way and a lot of climbing to get to our goal.
The first 8 miles was a stroll up the jeep road; we could have actually gone a long way up with our passenger car. But driving this would kill the cool idea of starting a peak from below sea level, and the gradual road grade rises in elevation quickly enough. At these thick-air elevations this grade was not even noticed, and 8 miles in we’re suddenly at about 3500’ of elevation. Nearly a third of the way in elevation! And about half way distance wise to the summit.
Here is where I made an error: I had a GPS waypoint programmed in for “Shorty’s Spring”, knowing that a good way to gain the first ridge to Telescope Peak began near the spring. We found a stream flowing from the spring, so kept heading up the valley towards the actual spring. Turns out the “spring” waypoint I had entered (found on the net) was for where that person actually first encountered the stream. We were well beyond that point when I realized this. So instead of heading up the ridge nose, we had to either backtrack or climb a steep scree-filled side slope. We chose the latter and this worked, but it would have probably been easier to head up the first ridge. We also wasted some time trying to find a way from the south side of the drainage through the copious vegetation to the north side. What a mess.
So up the steep scree-face, 1500 feet and an hour-plus later we were on the long East-West ridge that winds it’s way eventually to the North-South Telescope peak ridge (the ridge the Mahogany flats trail follows). We were now about a mile above sea level, having completed 5500’ of gain; not quite yet half way. I estimated about 4 clicks (2.5 miles) to the main Telescope ridge, and another 4500 vertical feet, followed by another 1200 vertical and 1.5 miles to the actual peak. Whew.
It was quite unique: all previous climbs ever done I always subtracted my beginning elevation from my current to find current elevation gain. On this peak I added 250 feet to the current actual elevation to compute our net gain. Cool !
Another unique aspect of this climb: The concept of “treeline”. For me, this has always been that elevation where trees stop growing, the climate above being too harsh. On this hike, “treeline” meant that elevation above which trees started growing, the climate below being too harsh ! Where we were, this was about 4500-5000 feet, best I could figure.
The route from here was fairly obvious. I had 3-4 TR’s printed and along, but never took them out of my pack. Simply take the east-west winding ridge towards Telescope, following the path of least resistance, always going up. Actually, there were a couple of very brief downs, maybe 200’ total. Finding this path of least resistance is sometimes problematic! Lots of looses scree-uphills, just steep enough to be highly annoying. When one does an 11,500’ vertical day, one does not want to deal with loose scree and the resulting loss in climbing efficiency! Well, this climb has lots of inefficient scree-type climbing, and I don’t see any way around this. We tried our very best, but plan on thousands of feet of loose-terrain climbing for this one. Not dangerous in any way, just annoying as hell. And tiring. And slow.
Finally, after two eternities we reached the 9900’ elevation N-S ridge and the standard route trail up to Telescope at about 3:45pm. Of course now we had another issue: It was suddenly quite cold, windy and soon enough we had blizzard-like conditions. Thankfully the trail to the peak and eventually back to Mahogany flats trailhead is an excellent one. Up we went that last 1200’ to the summit of Telesccope in a white-out blizzard. By the time we made the summit, about 3-5 inches of fresh snow had fallen. Too bad: No views whatsoever! We had been looking forward to looking back down at Badwater, our starting point 11,300’ below us. Oh well! Couple of quick pics and down we went, reaching our ridge intersection in maybe ½ hour, right when it was fully dark, then to the Mahogany Flats trailhead about 5 more miles and two hours later. This gradual downhill actually felt good on my tired legs and feet. It was cold and snowed like hell the entire way. Awesome !
So 7:15pm, a bit over 12 hours from when we started we were done with a fine, fine day hike of a beautiful peak, done in a unique way. After 2 road-side naps along the way, I got back to LA at 4am Monday. There was already traffic on the freeways. Argh.