By: Bob Michael
BLACK MOUNTAINS (4,254’) DEATH VALLEY NATIONAL PARK
No doubt about it; I’ve caught a mild case of the iron horse bug from Ron Grau. On Saturday, 2/15, I joined the DPS in an exploration of the Death Valley Railroad route as it sidles into the Greenwater Range to Ryan. Sunday, I was torn between accompanying the group on the fetchingly-named “Baby Gauge” hike — with the promise of rails and switches still in place — or getting a peak. Peak won out, as I decided I wasn’t going to put all those miles on my truck without bagging something. I returned to the Salsberry Pass area off Highway 178 at the southeast corner of Death Valley National Park. There are several worthwhile named (but unlisted) peaks in this area which offer the rare luxury of a paved roadhead. I wrote up 4,273’ Sheephead, a colorful and distinctive butte prominent from the Shoshone/Tecopa area, in 1998. On p. 198 of Desert Summits, Andy Zdon says of Salsberry Peak: “This handsome peak lies just north of Salsberry Pass, and is named for Jack Salsberry, promoter of the ill-fated (mining) camps of Leadfield, Greenwater and Ubehebe.” So, what we in essence have is a peak and pass named for a con man.
After a fine breakfast at the Crow Bar (a place steeped in DPS memories!), I drove about nine miles west from Shoshone on 178 to the parking spot shown on the accompanying map, loosely following the instructions in Desert Summits. (I totally agree with the book that a route following the range crest from the pass to the peak would be just miserable.) I headed generally west up the bajada to the base of the mountains. This route is one of those we’re all familiar with in the desert that cuts across the grain of the terrain, so the closer one gets to the mountains there is more and more of climbing in and out of dry wash gullies. Once again I realized how much micro-terrain just doesn’t show up on the map in the gaps between 40-foot (l0m) contour lines. Especially in the interval between 950 and 1050 meters, there are several slot washes that have to be negotiated by descending, hiking up the wash a bit until the other wise breaks down enough to allow exit, and repeating the process with the next one.
Presently I got on a little interior ridge that led up to the broad gentle saddle at 1130 meters on the north side of the peak. The easy north ridge ended at a serious-looking fifty-foot cliff at about 1250 meters. The northern aspect of this cliff is entirely technical and my heart sank as I contemplated going home empty-handed. I looked around the corner to the left (east) and saw a doable if ugly break in the cliff — some of the “class 2.9” you can get hurt on, little ledges just loaded with loose crud ready to come down. (The whole peak, like Sheephead, is made of weathered rhyolitic/andesitic volcanics — colorful but utterly rotten.) I tiptoed on eggshells up this pitch and topped out on a gentle slope which led right to the pleasantly craggy summit. I placed a register and savored every drop of a Pilsner Urquell while enjoying one of the best views I’ve had of the magnificient desolation of the south end of Death Valley — the Owlsheads to the Nopahs.
Ed. Note : some years ago, me and my list finishing peers climbed this and numerous other peaks along this stretch of 178. Odd that Bob had to place a register since we upgraded many of the MacLilley registers I recall we found firnly in place.
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