By: Penelope May
It had just rained all day as Kate Sirkin and I approached Death Valley; in the Sierra there was a winter storm watch; now it was just cool. We congratulated ourselves on the timing.
Full of curiosity we pulled in at "Chris Wicht Camp" as the sun was setting. The "camp" was the end of the road, with some kind of building(s) at the side, which the waning light prevented us from seeing. A barking dog and "No Trespassing" sign encouraged us to park at the other side of the road next to a roaring creek. Desert? This was lush and very cold at only 2,800 feet. We had our pasta dinner and bottle of wine and settled onto the ground for a peaceful night under the stars.
Early next morning our wake-up call was the sudden appearance of an old man's face hovering over us offering to park our car for a fee. In my sleepy daze I gamely asserted that I thought this was government land; "no", he responded, it was "his place". I waffled a bit, dodged a fat rotweiler interested in tasting my faces, and postponed the arrangement till after breakfast. After checking all the DPS write-ups we had with us, and discovering nothing about this parking fee, I agreed reluctantly to follow Kate's suggestion of just being "nice". We put on our backpacks and smiles, locked the car and moseyed over to "his place".
By now the smell of bacon in the camp was tantalizing. George Novak, the proprietor of "this place", was a tall, skinny, old prospector who has been living here for "30 years, this time". His domain included several trucks, several trailers, a house and a large variety of old machines and well organized trash piles. Nothing looked very mobile. He invited us into his one-room house and we chatted away, looking at his old photos, pictures of his wife (died suddenly of lymphoma) and son Rocky (mining companion), noting the cooking on the warm wood stove, the gun by the bed, and listening to his stories of finding gold and silver in the canyon. His best fmd was while "toe-nailing" it up a cliff nearby. After all this conviviality he waived the parking fee. We set off. The mouth of the canyon is gorgeous, huge colorful walls, running creek, trees and the occasional old truck sent down with one of the massive flash floods common in the area. In fact, there had been one just a short time before, September 3, 2001, which had destroyed all the dirt roads leading up the west side of the Panamint range, explaining the recent grading of our entry up Surprise Canyon.
We soon came upon the waterfalls in the Narrows and climbed around them on the walls to the side.. .Class 3, I suppose. After that, it was simple hiking up to Panamint City, where we arrived about 4 1/2 hours later. There, to our astonishment were well-preserved cabins, I mean, well, really habitable! We had brought up a tent as temperatures at night were dropping down close to freezing... but now found ourselves moved to set up camp inside a roomy living room, with two beds, a refrigerator for storing food away from the mice, running water in the faucet and finally, the real gem, a wood stove. We found enough wood to get a fire going and enjoyed a lovely cozy evening, cooking, eating, drinking tea and playing cards before retiring into the comfort of a well-heated night. At 6 am we were out the door, first light. We followed the DPS directions and scrambled up the hill behind the Smelter tower until we found ourselves on the road up to Wyoming Mine. I recommend just starting on the road a little past the Main Cabin.. .a lot easier, finding it and hiking it. We came across snow at 7,300' but that soon evaporated when we started cross-country up the boulder field above the end of the road, following the rocky, brushy, uneven ridge up all the way up from there. We rested and snacked here and there, worked with taking bearings and practicing map skills so were a bit late gaining the summit at about 10:45 am. It's about 3,300 feet of gain. The terrain was beautiful, cliffs and ravines and scrubby with pinyon pines, and rocks of all colors... reddish with metal ore, harsh volcanic and slate-like gray chips and white chunks with dark blue and green veins (silver?), all capped with a small layer of pristine snow. At the summit we noticed the towering south side of Telescope Peak facing us to the north. There was, by the way, no register or can. We eye-balled our target of Porter, sitting some 4 miles away, down and up another long ridge. Based upon the DPS guideline of 5-6 hours to do it, and the fact that daylight would forsake up promptly at 5:00 pm, we reluctantly but oh so sensibly, decided to postpone it for another day, perhaps even the next day. However, this gave us the afternoon to spare, so we hurried on down to the cabin by 2:00 pm, packed up and packed out. En route we saw two beautiful wild burros, biological left-overs from an earlier era when they helped move out the silver. As the sun set at 5:00 pm we opened the car, took out our two nice chairs and even nicer two beers. As we happily lounged and watched the sun coloring up the western sky, we heard the familiar bark of Lucky approaching and George, uttering, "my aching boots" etc. etc., quite amazed that we had climbed the peak and were back already. Since we were old buddies now, we chatted away and listened to his stories of the past, so colorfully and passionately told, a walking legend.
I had noticed that the former jeep road from "his place" up to Panamint City was permanently closed by the BLM, blocked by a sign dated May 29, 2001. Upon asking George about how this came to pass, we were treated to a discourse on the way the "environmentalists" managed to get BLM (via a lawsuit) to close it due to water contamination by the 600 or so jeeps (George's count) riding up every week-end. As he so lucidly pointed out, "It was like shooting the Devil and then a judge saying it was Jesus and you're now in jail". In other words, poor ol' Sierra Club was indicted for causing the closure and suffering the lack of jeeping as a result. Since George was both deaf and a member of NRA (per the sticker on "his place") we decided to let that one slide!
Next day we discovered that we could not drive up Pleasant Canyon, due to the flash flood, so climbing Porter from there was out. We examined the remnants of Ballarat, another ghost town, and proceded to the metropolis of Trona, choice borax and chemical capital of the vicinity, where we found a new Mexican restaurant eager to serve us breakfast. We saw the local paper full of news that the Taliban were fleeing and hostages were freed.. .such good news to augment the pleasure of our bacon and eggs. Then, short of a "short" DPS peak to climb, we drove to Red Mountain (on the HPS list) and climbed that on the way home.
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