The long, warm reach of the morning sun illuminates the Silver Island range (mid-distance) and 10,700-foot high Pilot Peak (tall peak in distance), both of which rise straight up out of the salt flats.
Winter time in the high desert. No snow, just rocks - lots of rocks.
The usual approach for Pilot Peak is to take a series of dirt roads north from I-80 to the UT-NV border and then head due west on a rough 4WD road up Miner's Canyon on the southeast flank of the range. All is going well until the road gets really rough near the mouth of the canyon, jarring my dad's little Dodge pickup all over the place. This normally is no problem - if I'm driving; but as a passenger the nausea is practically instantaneous. I might as well be in a small plane that is being tossed around in turbulent thermals or in a small boat rocking in high-amplitude waves. I should ask my dad if I can drive, or to stop and let me out, but I'm a little self-conscience about how easily I get motion sickness. Here I am trying my hardest to be tough, challenging mind and body with a grueling 6000-foot ascent, but I can't even stomach the drive to the trailhead.
So we go on a few more hundred yards. By now I'm completely pale, sweating, and I'm sucking air as my heart rate soars. When I realize I'm about to coat the interior of my dad's new truck with this morning's Cheerios, I tell my dad to stop. As I explain what's ailing me, I can tell by the look on his face that he doesn't think I stand a chance against this mountain.
I double-check my pack and start hiking up the road. My carsickness costs me about a mile of road walking, but the relatively easy walk gives me enough time to get some fresh air and pull out of the nausea.
At the end of the dirt track is the "trailhead," although there is no trail to speak of. You simply have to routefind your way to the top taking the path of least resistance. The resistance comes in the form of trees (isolated, thick, and brushy groves of pinyon, juniper, and mahogany) and loose talus. I have never seen so much loose rock in one place before - it's everywhere and there is no escaping it. Boulder size ranges from a loaf of bread to boulders as big as VW Beetles. I try to stay on medium sized debris somewhere between the two extremes; the small stuff shifts and slides beneath your feet, and the larger boulders themselves are quite unstable and could easily shift and trap an arm or a foot - and I'm pretty sure I don't have the cajones to chop my arm off with a pocket knife in an emergency situation.
A sea of scree. Pilot Peak is littered with piles upon piles of loose Tintic Quartzite - the key is to find a path that has some stability.
I was amazed at how dead this place was. I don't recall seeing any insects, rodents, or birds. The only sign of big game I encountered was a lone horn and soiled rocks where a desert big horn had died and rotted away a long time ago.
Climbing at a steady pace, it took just under 3 hours to climb about 3 miles gaining nearly 5000-vertical feet. The views from the top are incredible. To the east, I could just make out the Wasatch Range through the haze. To the west, the massive and very-much snow-covered Ruby Mountains filled the horizon.
160-year-old wagon tracks? The small dark hills in the upper left portion of this photo make up Crater Island (isolated ranges surrounded by salt flats are commonly called islands out here), the larger range on the right is Silver Island. In between the two is Donner Pass, named after the ill-fated Donner-Reed wagon party that passed through here in 1846. Just left of center, at the bottom of the photo is Donner Spring which was a critical source of water for travelers crossing the desert. Extending from the pass toward the bottom of the photo are two faint tracks. The very straight track that angles to the bottom right is clearly a more recent road of sorts that was surveyed in, but the more obscure and not-so-straight paths that lead to Donner Spring is said to be the original wagon ruts carved in the salt-encrusted mud by the Harlan-Young, Hoppe-Lienhard, and Donner-Reed wagons more than 160 years ago.
Also of historical significance are the numerous and substantial stone wind shelters constructed on the peak by surveying crews back in the 1930s(?).
Like most significant peaks nowadays, someone has packed a mailbox up to store the summit register. I spent a good 45 minutes reading through the colorful accounts including some harrowing climbs in snow, fog, and lightning storms. Amazingly, the original register placed in 1963 is still there and is in pristine condition - a very interesting read!
This geodetic marker is not THE benchmark on the very top of the peak used in leveling surveys. At the very center is an arrow that points to the real triangulation station. There are typically about three of these scattered about the mountain peak that all point to the center station, which is recognized by a simple cross rather than an arrow. Despite finding a couple of these "locator" benchmarks, I never could find the center station.
The return trip to my dad's truck took about the same amount of time as it took to climb to the top, which is really strange. There really is no way to move fast on this mountain, even when it's all downhill. All of the rock-hopping took its toll on my quads - it took a good 5 days for the soreness to go away.