Little did I know, such a perfect-looking morning in the sun-scorched Mojave near Las Vegas would give way to a blizzard later that day. But I'm getting way ahead of myself...
Above: a perfect warm and sunny morning in the Mojave. It looked like the perfect day to climb the summit of the Spring Mountains west of Las Vegas. My bike saddle is pointing toward Mt. Charleston, but it is hidden from view by the smaller but closer Mummy Mountain.
I've had my sights on Mt. Charleston since the first time I visited Las Vegas more than 10 years ago. Rising a whopping 10,000 feet from the Strip, Mt. Charleston is the most prominent peak in all of Nevada and is the 8th most prominent peak in the U.S. My desire to conquer this beast festered to a fever pitch during the three years I lived in Vegas, but school and family simply kept me too busy to make an assault on its 12,000-foot summit.
Now, living 250 miles away, the logistics had gotten much more complicated.
After taking two weeks off of work to welcome our new baby into the family and helping out around the house as much as I could, Susie rewarded me with a free one-day pass. There was no debate on where to go. I was sure it was time to tackle good ol' Mt. Charleston. And with such an impressive prominence, I knew I had to do it as an ultra-climb and start my ascent at the base of the mountain.
I woke up at 3 am, threw my gear into my well-worn '94 Honda, and prayed it had one more long road trip left in her. Arriving at the junction of US-95 and Lee Canyon Road (elevation 3320 feet) I geared up and headed up the road.
Despite the promising weather conditions, I went prepared for just about anything.
Elevation markers helped keep track of my vertical progress. The absence of the 7000-foot marker caused a mini-mental meltdown, but the jubilation at the first glimpse of the 8000-foot marker energized the legs.
It's pretty rare to find Joshua trees above 6000 feet. But you have to expect a lot of biota mixing when you go from the lower Sonoran (low desert creosote brush and Joshua trees) to the Canadian (Ponderosa Pine, Quaking Aspen) life zone in only 15 miles.
As I climbed higher into Lee Canyon, I couldn't help but notice the clouds building up around some of the higher peaks. Nothing threatening yet, but I didn't like the trend.
Above: Lee Meadows rests high in Lee Canyon. Mt. Charleston is still not quite visible here as it is blocked from view by 11,300-foot Lee Peak (high point on horizon to the right).
17 miles and 5200-vertical feet later, I reached the Dolomite Campground where the campground host was gracious enough to watch over my bike as I set out on foot.
A short walk up the road leads to the Las Vegas Ski Resort, closed and completely deserted for the summer.
Following an off-trail approach route (see http://www.summitpost.org/trip-report/230966/Charleston-Via-Lee-Canyon.html for more info), I hiked straight up "The Line" ski run beneath Chair 2, bringing me to a small ski patrol station.
Above: on top of the avalanche debris, slippery snow-fields, and huge drop-offs, I had to keep an eye out for non-detonated explosives.
Past the patrol station, the route follows a ravine full of avalanche debris which made a pretty challenging obstacle course.
Forking off of the ravine, the route heads up a steep chute that is usually filled with brush and talus this time of year (mid June). But due to the the hard winter we've had in the Southwest, the chute was full of about 6 feet of consolidated, icy, and quite slippery snow (I really need to get some crampons). One slip-up here and it would be a long and fast slide down to the bottom. But I was confident if I took the time to kick in good foot-holds and dig in with the ski poles, I'd be OK.
After topping the ridge line, I got my first glimpse of the north face of Charleston through the ever-thickening clouds.
The good news was that I had intersected the main well-maintained trail at which point I'd hoped would be the beginning of an easy stroll to the summit.
Those plans were quickly thwarted however when the fog turned into an outright blizzard.
Above: the stone-like skeleton of a dead bristlecone pine - the oldest living things on Earth.
Above: a 500 million-year-old fossil coral colony. Like many high mountains in the Basin and Range Province, extensional block faulting has exhumed evidence for sea life from deep within the earth's crust clear up to the top of the range.
The falling snow was not bad to deal with. It was the existing snowfields piled deep on Charleston's north face that became a serious problem. Here, the trail has been built on one of a series of narrow ledges of limestone. And for long stretches, steeply sloped snow completely covered the trail making it way too risky to traverse.
It's hard to fully express the frustration of getting so close to accomplishing a huge goal and coming up just a little short. After 20 miles and over 8200 feet of climbing, I was forced to throw in the towel. I was within 1/2 mile and 300 vertical feet of the top and had to turn back. It was actually a very easy decision to make. The ability to gauge what you can and can't do safely is the key to surviving long solo adventures. My gut told me there was no guarantee I could cross the crusty snow without a fatal slip. There were no other options and within a few seconds (and a few choice words), I headed back the way I came.
As I descended off the mountain, the storm began to clear, and I began to wonder if I could ever get motivated to repeat my efforts in the future. Initially, I didn't think I could do it but after returning back to my car, I turned around to look at the mountain in its entirety, and it, defiantly, looked down on me. It was then that I knew someday I'd be back.
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