By: Bob Michael
A Worthy Death March Approach!
Wes Shelberg has an article in the March '95 SAGE (p236) describing a climb of Sheep Peak north of Las Vegas using an eastern approach. On May 20 of this year, myself and two Las Vegans, George Quinn and "Nevada Bob" Greer, did a splendid Panamint Butte-style death march route up the steep western face of the range from the desert floor - 4,000 feet of trailless gain over about 3 1/2 miles. We had the serendipitous experience of getting a bit lost on the driving approach - a "mistake" that quite possibly got us the peak. Approach is from the "Alamo Road" which heads north from the Corn Creek headquarters of the Desert National Wildlife range; this is the same road one uses to get to Hayford Peak. The signed "Cow Camp Road" branches off the Alamo Road to the south of the road that leads to Deadman Canyon and the Hayford trailhead. Cow Camp Road can be driven in a 2WD for all but the last few hundred yards. Late wildflowers spangled the desert floor, and the cool May this year spared us heat miseries.
Sheep Peak is the second highest named peak in its range and is actually much more prominent from Las Vegas than Hayford. The Sheep Range is a massive block of gray limestone uplifted on its west side (the mirror image of the Sierra) by faulting related to the Las Vegas Shear Zone, a large NW-SE-trending right-lateral rift (somewhat like the San Andreas, but shorter) that is the major architect of the southern Nevada landscape. Thus, the west face of the range is very steep, while the topography on the east side (Wes' route) is gentler. The range is pretty much barren limestone, with nothing to attract miners; not enough timber to support logging; and the higher Spring Range draws "recreationists". So, the Sheep Range is a vast expanse of raw wilderness within plain sight of the sprawl of Vegas.
Bob Greer, a frequent DPS trip participant and a tireless explorer of the Sheep Range back country, had wanted to climb the peak by way of Wagon Canyon, so we drove to what we thought was the very end of the Cow Camp Road at the mouth of the Canyon. All but the last few hundred yards of this road are passable to 2WD trucks. We left the vehicle at 5750', almost exactly 4000' below the summit, where the base of the range rises abruptly from the desert floor in a sheer cliff We had to scamper up the sides of the canyon to avoid a waterfall just behind its mouth; already, we were having doubts whether we were in the broad Wagon Canyon shown on the map. But, the canyon soon settled down into pleasant, gentle hiking. After a while, however, the canyon degenerated into a bouldery ravine, and we realized that we had for sure gone up the minor unnamed canyon south of Wagon Canyon. No worries; right ahead loomed two parallel E-W ridges which headed straight towards the summit. George and I chose the northern ridge as it looked smoother; Bob, ever out for a challenge, took the southern ridge which looked quite cliffs' from below, although he reported no real problems. The ridges merge at about 8800', and from there it is a straight shot about 3/4 mile east to the bristlecone-clad summit pyramid. This peak is almost dead center in our southern Nevada climbing grounds, and yields a terrific view in every direction. Although it does not quite reach 10,000', we noted some Arctic Alpine tundra "cushion plants" on the bald top.
We were very glad that we had serendipitously gone up the "wrong" canyon. The ridge George and I climbed gave awesome views down into Wagon Canyon, which is a profoundly deep, cliff-lined gorge in its upper reaches: we might not have gotten the peak if we'd gone up that way, and for sure it would have been a real struggle.
Bob led us on a contouring, ridge-running route on the way down that avoided the scrambling on the side of the lower canyon to go around the basal waterfall. This route took us right back to the vehicle after 10 hours of one of the most demanding workouts I've had in Nevada - Joshua trees to bristlecones.
On our drive out, we spied one of those BLM "Carsonite" marker slats designating the stretch of road to the mouth of Wagon Canyon as closed; we didn't even see this on the way in, and the road itself has so deteriorated with non-use as to be hard to spot. Thanks, BLM, for putting us on the "right" route!
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