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Ascent of Telescope Peak on 2018-03-10

Climber: Marcus Lostracco

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Saturday, March 10, 2018
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Peak:Telescope Peak
    Location:USA-California
    Elevation:11048 ft / 3367 m

Ascent Trip Report

Telescope Peak 3/10/2018

I was looking for a winter ascent to do in CA before heading back out of town for work again and I set my scope on Telescope Peak in Death Valley National Park. By what I had read it was a doable solo winter hike for my skill level and experience, and that the views would be worth the trip. After all, I have been wanting to visit Death Valley since I did Mount Whitney last year. So, on Friday I loaded up my ’95 Geo Tracker with the gear and some food to last me the trip and I hit the road at 3pm right in the middle of the Friday grand-getaway San Diego traffic. This added a couple hours to my drive I’m sure. I followed the recommended route from Google Maps with the destination set to the Charcoal Kilns, the trailhead for Telescope Peak. This took me up the I-15, the US-395, and then Trona-Wildrose Rd. Each of these is no fun to drive. The 15 with the always backed-up El Cajon pass, the 395 with the two-lane road and double yellow line, and then the brutal, dark, unmaintained Trona-Wildrose road – made for a pretty difficult 8.5-hour journey. Passing through the industrial sulfur mining town of Trona and stopping for gas at 10pm was an experience in itself. I have never seen a more desolate-looking town. I couldn’t imagine what life was like there, especially in the summer. Following Trona is when you enter Death Valley and there is no big warm welcome sign like the other National Parks – you just sort of realize that there is nothing around you anymore and that you are really on your own and the road becomes more rough until eventually becoming a graded gravel road. So here I am at 11pm in the pitch darkness of night banging up my car on a graded road. If I would have known how bad this road was prior to leaving I would have taken an alternate route even if it was longer. I finally arrived at the Charcoal Kilns at 11:30pm where I would set up camp for the night. To my surprise, there were a few cars in the parking lot and actually a group camping with a fire going. I spent some time socializing with the two and offered some of my firewood. They were good company – a young pair form Las Vegas getting away for the weekend. I ended up staying up until 2 with them playing cards and stuff, satiating my social requirement for the weekend.

The forecast for Telescope Peak was calling for 28 degree weather during the morning and “some clouds” and with a chance of snow in the afternoon. So, with that in mind I wanted to get a very early start. I set my alarm for 5am with an intention on starting before the sun came up. However, when it went off I was sleeping so soundly, I felt like I needed another hour – so I only started walking up the road to Mahogany Flats at 6:40am. I got a good look at the Charcoal Kilns before starting – they had a unsettling feeling about them. I would later discover they were built by forced labor of Native American and Chinese prisoners by a gold mining company back in 1870. They were only operational for a few years, and were used to char wood to be used as fuel. Normally the road up to Mahogany Flats is accessible by car, but the gate was closed so this adds 1.5 miles to the hike, making for a total of 17 miles from the kilns to the peak and back. The kilns are at around 7,000 feet elevation and the summit is at 11,049 ft. I reached Mahogany Flats by 7:15am and there was another couple getting ready to start the hike. They were from the Czech Republic and seemed to be in a great mood. I also read in the trailhead registry there was another guy who had already started the trail. It was good to know I wasn’t the only one out there.

I made quick work of the first few miles, not really stopping much. There was a little snow on the ground already and the views of Death Valley to the East were incredible, including an expansive view into Nevada where I could point out Mount Charleston. The bristlecone pine trees lining trail are some of the oldest trees in the world. There is also some vibrant red lichen thriving on the layered rocks. I reached the saddle of the Paramint Mountain ridgeline around 8:30am. Here there is a good view of the summit. As you approach Telescope Peak it does not look far at all and I was seriously doubting the mileage posted on the trail. There was no way it was 7 miles one way. But as I went on and on I came to realize that it was much further and bigger than it appeared from afar. A couple on their way down (they had camped the night up on the ridge) had said the summit approach was very steep and slippery. They said they both fell and it was a bit scary, but they also did not have any spike traction or ice axes. I felt prepared for what they described.

The sky was grey, covered in an expanse of thin clouds. To my right I could still see the Eastern Sierra Mountains across the West side of the ridge. I was able to pick out Mount Whitney. And then I noticed a darker cloud beginning to form right at the top of Telescope Peak. And by 9am it had started to snow where I was standing. It was definitely snowing harder on the top. I debated turning around, considering the fact that it may become worse and I would not want to be on this ridgeline in a white-out. There were massive drops down some steep slopes on either side. Not somewhere you would want to be dis-oriented in. However, I gauged that the precipitation felt quite mild and that I could carry on a little more before making another judgement call.

As I reached the final approach to the summit I applied my micro-spikes, my gaiters, and swapped out my hiking poles in favor of the ice axe. The axe was mainly for precautionary reasons – if I would slide out of control it would give me a method to self-arrest. It was very unlikely this would happen here, but it never hurts to be prepared for the worst. This ascent was straight up and longer than it looked. By now the snow was getting deep! I would guess about 8 inches in some spots, and it was snowing harder now. It was a wet and sticky snow so, despite it being slide-prone it was not that bad to walk in. The views at this point were all but gone, and I was among some larger bristlecone pine trees – these were the ancient specimens. The altitude was getting to me now and in my state, I didn’t really appreciate the trees enough – I should have taken a picture, they looked incredible in the snow. Out from above, a guy in fully stocked mountaineering gear was descending. He introduced himself as Billy, from Mammoth Lakes, CA but originally from Tennessee. We chatted for a bit and it seemed like we had some of the same peakbagging mindset. I was impressed with his climbing kit – he had the right gear for big mountains in the winter. I wrapped up the conversation because I wanted to be going down by now. The snow was picking up and I was not far from the summit.

When I got to the final ridge the visibility was at only about 100 yards. So much for these 100-mile views this hike is known for. I made it to the summit and signed the registry at 10:40am. I was very happy to make it to the top. I had seriously doubted my chances, even on the drive the day before. But it turned out I had what it took to be successful and bag Telescope Peak. I had my lunch on the summit and the Czech couple arrived about 20 minutes after I did. I let them enjoy the summit to themselves, as the snowflakes grew to become fat blobs of white stickiness. Descending was fun and much quicker than going up – although I was very prudent, keeping in mind to stay on my steady 2 feet.

On the descent there were several other groups who had started later – I didn’t think any of them seemed prepared to summit. One guy in a group of 2 was wearing shorts! Not smart… This is where being naïve can actually put others in danger. I warned them the snow was about at 8 inches right now and that it was pretty wet and slippery and to use caution. Another German couple seemed dejected but wise enough to make the right decision. No views on the way down to speak of but I was in great spirits. After all it was a beautiful trail and I had just summitted the high point of Death Valley National Park during a snow fall! Not many people can say that.

I returned to the Charcoal Kilns at 1:40pm. 17 miles roundtrip, 4 hours up and 3 hours down, including stops. After changing into some dry clothes and getting a warm meal in me, I drove off to experience more of the National Park in the direction of the Paramint Sand Dunes – they lie on BLM land (like most of the park) and I was intending on spending the night out amongst the dunes. Seemed like a cool idea.
On my drive over I saw a sign for “Augeberry Point” – the girl from the night before had mentioned it was a spectacular view. I decided I had time to check it out. This is a super bumpy graded road for 6 miles! It was a tough drive for the little Tracker but I made it up and man was it worth it. An incredible view of a giant canyon and down into the Badwater Basin, almost 7,000 feet below. I spent a good half hour up there taking in the view. There was only one other person up there a Russian girl with bright red hair. We did each other a favor and took our photos and went off on our own ways.

It was now 4PM and time to start making moves for deciding where to spend the night. I still felt like I could reach the dunes before dark and set up camp. When I finally reached the end of Emigrant Road at the junction of the CA-190 I made the left turn to drive up in the direction of Lone Pine. This is part of the Badwater Marathon course. As I was driving up and up I could not even fathom running up this road. It’s seriously long and relentless. The Geo started having some trouble climbing up and the weather was worse the higher I got – more rain and super dark skies. Eventually I gave up and turned around to head back to Stovepipe Wells. As I descended my check engine light came on. Shit! At least I was at Stovepipe Wells where I could check all my fluid levels. Everything looked ok but the engine was definitely acting different – a lot of vibration while idling. I had pushed the little girl too hard I guess. As I was letting my car rest I heard a couple speaking in French with a Quebecois accent. I struck up a conversation and figured I may as well practice my French a bit to pass the time. French Canadians like to travel. I considered camping at Stovepipe but there were too many people around for my liking and it seemed more like a party spot since there was a saloon and restaurant right across the street. I also noticed a lot of “REI types” with zip up vests and high noses. So, I started up the Geo and continued on down the 190 in hopes that Furnace Creek would be a bit more of a down-to-earth crowd.

Furnace Creek is a huge campsite – tons of sites but they were all full and this seemed like even more of a party site than Stovepipe Wells. I was exhausted so I didn’t care. I set my tent up right next to my car – not even in a site – put my earplugs in and was ready to sleep by 8:30. Then, came some rain! I think this made all the campers go to bed earlier than they wanted, as it became quiet. Perfect :)

I woke up at 6am (after daylight savings time) and made my way to Badwater. I arrived at 7am and made myself a coffee and had a quick breakfast before venturing out onto the salt flats. There were only 3 or 4 cars in the parking lot. I walked out in my sandals and quickly decided to remove them since the salt was wet! It was like a grainy gel-like texture in some spots, but mostly crunchy and hard. I don’t know how often the basin receives rain but this felt like a very special occurrence. I walked really far out – probably a half hour. I sat down and took in the experience. Next thing you know it was almost 9am. I had managed to spend over an hour out in the middle of the valley without even realizing it. I jogged it back in to the car. Now people had arrived and I was ready to leave. Then a big bus pulled in and a bunch of Chinese people exited the vehicle including some little nuns in the group. They went and started to set up chairs and a table across the street. It looked like they were about to give a Sunday service in the Badwater Basin.

The return drive to San Diego through Baker, CA got me home at 5:30pm. I had put over 750 miles on my car in a matter of 50 hours, summitted Telescope Peak, and walked in the Badwater Basin. Not bad!

Some experiences are best left for yourself to discover.
Click on photo for original larger-size version.
The approach to Telescope Peak as a snow cloud forms on its summit in the morning (2018-03-10). Photo by Marcus Lostracco.
Click here for larger-size photo.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:4448 ft / 1355 m
    Extra Gain:100 ft / 30 m
    Round-Trip Distance:17 mi / 27.4 km
    Route:Telescope Peak Trail
    Trailhead:Charcoal Kilns  6800 ft / 2072 m
    Quality:7 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Unmaintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Gear Used:
Ice Axe, Crampons, Ski Poles
    Weather:Snowing, Cold, Windy, Low Clouds
Wet, grippy snow coming down significantly
Ascent Statistics
    Time:4 Hours 
Descent Statistics
    Time:3 Hours 
GPS Data for Ascent/Trip


 GPS Waypoints - Hover or click to see name and lat/long
Peaks:  climbed and  unclimbed by Marcus Lostracco
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Note: GPS Tracks may not be accurate, and may not show the best route. Do not follow this route blindly. Conditions change frequently. Use of a GPS unit in the outdoors, even with a pre-loaded track, is no substitute for experience and good judgment. Peakbagger.com accepts NO responsibility or liability from use of this data.

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