December 29, 2017
Pinnacle Ridge sits in the Panamint Range in Death Valley, connecting Telescope Peak to Badwater Basin. Its net gain from the valley floor is roughly 10,000 ft, making it one of the tallest single ridges in the United States. The first two thirds of this ridge is a straightforward slog up from the desert floor, gaining elevation fast with breathtaking views, while the last third is class 3 with several pinnacles to navigate up and around, eventually passing below, around, and on top of a giant unclimbed rock face known as "Gargantuan" about 1,500 ft below Telescope Peak. This route looked much more interesting than the standard "Telescope Peak via Shorty's Well" route, and Sean and I went over to check it out just before New Years. We had originally planned on doing the route in 2-3 days, but an unusual lack of snow on the mountain and the thought of having to carry 2-3 days worth of water resulted in our eventual decision to do it in one nonstop push. I estimated that it would take between 20-24 hours to complete. We would start from and finish at Shorty's Well.
|Peak||Elevation||Topographic Prominence||Summit Coordinates (lat/lon)|
|"Hanaupah Peak"||4,444 ft||285 ft||36.1864, -116.9782|
|"Wire Peak"||7,144 ft||324 ft||36.1599, -117.0243|
|"Dehydration Peak"||8,170 ft||430 ft||36.1653, -117.0498|
|Gargantuan||9,688 ft||118 ft||36.1654, -117.0722|
|Telescope Peak||11,048 ft||6,188 ft||36.1698, -117.0891|
Getting to the trailhead (modified from Summitpost): From Furnace Creek, head south onto Badwater Road. Continue onto Badwater Road till Westside Road is reached. Turn right onto Westside Road (2WD dirt) and follow it to the dirt intersection of Shorty's Well. Vehicles can be parked at the trailhead for Shorty's Well (elevation -262 ft). This parking area is set 100 yards left off of Westside Road. The route starts up the 4WD Hanaupah Canyon Rd to the right.
Trailhead coordinates (lat/lon): 36.2265, -116.8806
I pulled into the trailhead (-262 ft) at 1:30am to find Sean's truck and camper already parked there, having arrived roughly 2 hours ago. He had brought the rest of his family along, who would do touristy things around the surrounding area while we hit Pinnacle Ridge. We grabbed another 2 hours of sleep before setting off up Hanaupah Canyon Rd at 3:30am. Both of us had brought roughly 2 gallons of water each, which was pretty standard for a route of this length with the forecasted temperatures.
The moon had set an hour ago, and all was pitch black except the few feet of road ahead of us washed in headlamp light, and a few small lights twinkling on the other side of Badwater Basin as well as Furnace Creek to the north. I let my navigational senses zone out, as the road would pretty much navigate for us for the next couple hours as we watched as the faint silhouette of the Panamint Range against the stars creep ever so closer.
5 miles after starting out, the road took a very noticeable 20 ft drop into a large wash- the first time the road had dropped. After continuing for another tenth of a mile across the wash, it was time to leave the road (1,750 ft). We had a quick snack break before starting up the initially mellow ridge. A faint glow could already be seen to the east above the Black Mountains. For the first 10 minutes or so, the ridge ascended gradually, gradually getting steeper. The terrain was composed of typical low desert compacted dirt with embedded small rocks. We soon hit talus on the steeper sections, but it was never horrible like ascending Sierra scree.
Sunrise came as we hit 3,400 ft, and the usual brief pauses ensued as we took pictures and pointed out nearby features since we could finally see them.
Soon we reached the first peak, Hanaupah Peak, at 4,444 ft. From here we caught our first glimpse of the next two peaks as well as Gargantuan. Telescope Peak looked close, but we knew it wasn't.
Upon reaching Wire Peak, both of us realized that we had already gone through half our water. It was time to begin rationing, as we were still far from completing half the overall route. Wire Peak was a tree-covered summit with a mostly clear view west to the next peak: Dehydration Peak.
After dropping just over 300 ft of elevation west from Wire Peak, we slogged up a steep sandy hill for 600 ft of elevation, continued up a brief flattish section while weaving in between trees, and soon hit limestone. This was one of the more tedious parts of the route, as the limestone undulated up and down in small craggy bumps. There was a little bit of class 3 here and there as well as some whacking through scraggly brush.
The summit of Dehydration Peak was tree-covered and afforded little views. We stopped briefly to eat and try not to drink too much of our diminishing water supply. To the west, the ridge looked jagged and slow going. Gargantuan and its massive wall loomed over us. The key was to locate a talus ramp leading up to a notch I dubbed "Dehydration Gap" about 0.4 miles northeast of Gargantuan.
looking east from Dehydration Peak
After dropping 430 ft of elevation on mostly easy terrain with a little bushwhacking, we powered up the crags ahead. Although I had initially thought this section to be a tedious talus fest, it actually turned out to be my favorite part of the route. We almost always stayed on top of the ridge, finding the terrain mainly class 3 and fun, with a few loose sections here and there. The undulation was minimal even though it looked like there would be a lot of up and down from below. We only ended up making a few short class 4 moves on solid rock.
Sean weaving through large blocks on the upper ridge
To our pleasant surprise, the ridge naturally spilled into the talus ramp heading up to Dehydration Gap. The terrain here flew by, and soon we were at the gap, making a sharp left turn and following the bouldery ridge to Gargantuan. From here, Gargantuan did not look as impressive since its giant picturesque wall was now mostly below us.
The last 50 ft of Gargantuan extended outward from the main ridge, requiring a short section of loose class 3.
view south from Gargantuan
Smith Mountain cluster
Now all that remained was 1,500 ft gain to Telescope Peak on easy terrain. We continued west up easy shrubby terrain, gaining 1,000 ft to the main Panamint Crest. Here the Pinyon was replaced by Whitebark and Bristlecone Pines. We were hit with bright sunlight as we reached the Panamint Crest. Alpenglow was about to begin. The surrounding terrain grew increasingly red as we followed the ridge to Telescope Peak. A chilly wind blew in from the west, where the not-so-snow-covered Sierra Nevada lay visible.
15 minutes after sunset, we finally reached Telescope Peak, stopping for 20 minutes to rest, eat, and sign the register. It was cold enough that we put on all our layers. Both of us only had a few gulps of water left for the 11,500 ft descent ahead. Luckily the dropping temperatures would significantly save us from requiring too much water.
sunset over Olancha Peak
We soon began descending, enjoying a mile of easy trail before starting the scree plunge down the Shorty's Well route. A mostly full moon had risen overhead and would provide a significant amount of visibility throughout the descent. I quickly felt too sleepy to walk and had to take a 15 minute nap while Sean searched around for a glove he had misplaced. We eventually located the Shorty's Well turnoff (9,930 ft) and began skidding down the steep broad nondescript ridge. After 1,500 ft of this, the ridge leveled out and we hit a dense forest of pinyons. These would continue all the way down to 6,500 ft and would make navigation tedious. In this section, we had to constantly check and recheck the map to make sure we were on the correct ridge in a series of micro-ridges which paralleled eachother and dropped off in various spots. Use-trails would flicker in and out in certain areas, though some went the wrong way. We thought of how un-fun this route was to ascend with its screeish terrain and nonexistent views. Pinnacle Ridge had definitely been the good choice.
As we reached 5,600 ft, the ridge flattened and began undulating in a series of small 50-100 ft bumps. We didn't mind this too much, as the terrain was easy and fast. Eventually we did have the option to turn south and drop steeply off the ridge to Hanaupah Spring, but the ridge felt nice so we continued on it. The end of this undulating section was marked by a 200+ ft bump (labeled 5303T on the USGS 7.5' topo). From here the ridge would drop continuously down to 2,350 ft. The terrain, although easy, was compacted dirt and rock which was slow going and tedious. In what felt like forever but was probably no more than 1.5 hours, I saw the floor of Hanaupah Canyon not far below. Getting excited, we left the ridge a little early and had to scramble down some loose class 3 into a loose rocky wash before spilling out onto the canyon floor, walking a short ways south to Hanaupah Canyon Rd.
From here it was a 6.5-mile walk along the road back to Shorty's Well. I let my brain zone out as we fast walked this distance, watching as the Badwater salt flats in the distance creep ever so slowly closer. We were both pretty thirsty by this point, and the prospect of water made us only walk faster. Each turn of the road looked the same as the last and it seemed to take forever, as long desert floor walks usually seem to take. At 12:30am we finally made it back, happy that we didn't have to walk any further.
13,260 ft gain/loss
Trailhead (-262 ft)
Shorty's Well (standard) route
Death Valley National Park