| Journey to the Prominence Land: Great Basin National Park
Choose well, your choice is brief, and yet endless. - von Goethe
Autumn is Nature’s sleight of hand, a one-card trick where the dealer takes back all the winnings. Nature gives, and Nature takes away. In the game of life, when the winning streak ends, limiting the loss becomes key.
I struggle to win during this season. My loss is not physical; the god Boreas strips the land bare with ease but I can protect myself from the cold wind. I am prepared for physical battle. But emotionally, the bottom drops out and losses mount within.
My birthday occurs in late October, not far past the peak of autumn. On the road of life another year fades in the rearview mirror. Up ahead I confront my future, and my frailty. The road veers out of sight as my headlights vanish into night. Do I dare drive this road?
The Great Basin stretches from the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges on the west to the Rocky Mountains in the east. It is a vast arid expanse punctuated by peaks and valleys. Highway 50 is a faint two-lane lifeline across this wide open space. It's considered America's Loneliest Highway for good reason, thanks to an almost complete lack of civilization in these parts.
Great Basin National Park is a narrow mountain range in the basin, an island of curiosity in a sea of dust. At 77,000 acres, the mountainous park is modest in size, ecompassing most of the South Snake Range on the eastern edge of Nevada. The park receives 70,000 to 90,000 visitors a year, making it one of the least visited national parks. Due to the remoteness, the night sky is known to be one of the darkest in the country.
The park is notable for ancient bristlecone pines, including the oldest non-clonal organism ever discovered: the tree known as Prometheus. Other notable features include the limestone Lehman Caves and the highest ranked peak in Nevada, magnificent Wheeler Peak. Topping out at 13,063 feet, the peak offers 7,568 feet of prominence, the 12th largest in the contiguous United States. It is also the 12th most topographically isolated summit in the lower 48, and the tallest mountain in 180,000 square miles.
Time shaped the Great Basin landscape into peaks and valleys like time had shaped me. This was a place I had to go, a tangible expression of what I knew life to be. I imagined photography would flow easily in such a kindred environment. And I would climb a significant peak while searching for the creative light.
I made the plan: Drive to the park. Explore the cave. Sleep up high. Catch the sunset. Climb the mountain. My one constraint - I had to be in Sacramento in three days time. I would have 36 hours in the park to do as I wish. Goethe said "Choose well." And I certainly did.
But no, I was out for stars;
I would not come in.
I meant not even if asked;
And I hadn't been.
Journey to the Prominence Land: Great Basin National Park
Wheeler Peak - 13,063 feet (ranked #1 in Nevada)
Bald Mountain - 11,562 feet (ranked #18 in Nevada)
Climb date: Sunday, October 30, through Monday, October 31, 2011
Trailhead name: Wheeler Peak, approx. elevation 10,000 feet
Total distance: Approx. 11 miles roundtrip.
Total vertical gain: Approx. 3,700 ft.
Difficulty: Class 1 below treeline, class 2 on Bald Mountain, class 2+ (due to snow) on Wheeler Peak.
Park homepage: http://www.nps.gov/grba/index.htm
Park map: http://www.nps.gov/pwr/customcf/apps/maps/showmap.cfm?alphacode=grba&parkname=Great%20Basin%20National%20Park
Captions on top of images.
I leave Boulder at three in the afternoon. I reach Green River, Utah, after dark. The candy-colored truck stop neon pulls me in like a fly on a bug light. The walk-in beer fridge is cold and lifeless. I reach for the Coors out of necessity, but catch movement in the corner of my eye. There, way in the back...what is that? I push everything aside. Moments later I check out with six inticing bottles of Polygomy Porter.
By midnight I can't wait any longer. I park the car in pitch black nowhere, on a dirt road, near the Nevada border. I've driven 600 miles to get here. I lift the back hatch and drop my feet out over the bumper, over soft grey dust. I peer out into the inky darkness. Don't fall in. I reach for the first beer. It goes down easy. I reach for another. Polygomy. Porter. Why have just one? I laugh quietly. Out there in the night is a big mountain looking back at me. I smile back at it and lay down to sleep. The star filled sky is magnificent.
I reach the Nevada border the next morning.
I turn south on Highway 487 and drive towards the sleepy town of Baker, Nevada - gateway to the park. In the west, Wheeler Peak rises from the golden tide.
The lonesome highway leads to the park entrance. There is no fee to enter. The view is dominated by the broad east ridge of Jeff Davis Peak, the second highest peak in the park.
I arrive at the Lehman Caves Visitor Center ten minutes before 9am. Three cars are parked in the lot, and one belongs to the park service. I walk over to the colorful Lehman Grove and take a few photos of the old trees.
I walk into the visitor center. At the counter, two rangers and three young women stop talking. I feel like a stranger stepping into the town's only saloon. I break the strange silence with a smile and hello. By luck, my timing is perfect; the first cave tour starts at 9am. I join the visitors on the guided tour. Over an incredible 90 minutes I learn that caves are pitch black, difficult to photograph, and very interesting. I could get into caving.
After the tour, I ask for a backcountry camping permit. Two rangers work the front desk, and both seem astonished by my plan to sleep on the summit of Bald Mountain at this time of year. I tell them about spectacular sunrise and sunset photography. I make the case that I'm well prepared. And I assure them that I'll be alright. With permit in hand, I return to my car and start driving up the road.
The Mather Overlook is halfway up the 10 mile long Wheeler Scenic Drive. Wheeler Peak (L) and Bald Mountain (R) are seen from the overlook.
I continue up the road. The bright midday sun tries to wash away Wheeler Peak and its impressive glacial cirque. Jeff Davis Peak is seen on the left, Wheeler Peak on the right.
At the end of the road is the Wheeler Peak trailhead, elevation 10,000 ft. I unpack all of my gear and lay it out on the warm pavement. I take my time repacking only essentials into my rucksack, including a few camera lenses and a tripod. My cold weather sleeping bag fills half of my pack. Maybe it will fit better sideways. I make a few adjustments; I'm in no hurry. Bob Marley's record Burnin' plays quietly on the stereo, quieter than the beautiful birds that sing overhead in the bluebird sky. I prepare some ramen; I don't notice the water boils over until the pot is dry. I forget everything, slow myself down, and come into tune with this special place. It feels good. The north ridge of Wheeler Peak, my route for tomorrow, rises high in the distance.
I wake from a daydream. The sun is getting away. I shoulder my rucksack and make haste, blazing a trail through the trees toward fading daylight.
The trail leaves the darkening forest. The rugged northern ramparts of Jeff Davis Peak tower above once golden aspens.
The trail twists and turns through meadows and trees. The broad summit of Bald Mountain comes into view.
The trail continues for the saddle between Wheeler Peak and Bald Mountain. I leave the trail and start hiking straight towards the Bald Mountain summit. Over my shoulder, the view is incredible.
The slope steepens and grass turns to scree. A cold, stiff wind comes in from the west.
At my back, the incredible view gets better. Wheeler Peak begins to show its lofty prominence.
The scree slope relents and the summit comes into view. The top is marked by a weather station.
The ranger had informed me that the structure was up here. It's locked tight. But I'm glad to have it, as its leeward shadow creates a great wind break for cooking and rest. I just can't sleep next to it. Regulations do not allow camping on the Bald Mountain summit. I must sleep 50 feet to the north of the structure where I will be exposed to the wind.
I prepare my sleeping gear for the night. The blue bivy material flows like wind-blown waves on a lake.
A seductive pairing waits. Sunset has arrived; it's time for some fun.
I grab my camera and a beer - and claim a quick self portrait.
I circle around the summit area, staking out the best locations for a hundred photographs. A cascade of apricot and peach tones spill over the stoic landscape.
Sun touches earth. The lightshow peaks with an incredible rush of color.
Fiery light streaks across the sky and then, like the outgoing tide, recede toward a simmering horizon.
The sky darkens. The last warm undertones of daylight mix effortlessly with approaching blackness.
The magnificence of time and space.
The waxing moon chases the final rays of sunlight toward the western horizon.
Without the sun, I become cold. The relentless wind seems to penetrate every thread of my clothing. My creative sense is lost, and so I put my camera away. Up here, in the cold and dark, I have few options. I crawl into my sleeping bag and I'm warm again.
The moon disappears and a thousand veiled stars are betrayed by the black of night. I take no photographs, the wind is strong and cold, the camera a liability. I peak out through the bivy, a voyeur in hiding at an empyreal orgy. I sleep well that night, satiated by stars.
The quiet melody of a spanish guitar lures me into being. My alarm says it is 6 AM - time to rise. First light breaks over the horizon.
Last night, I partied with the stars. Now, I slow dance with the sun.
The north face of Wheeler Peak is an impressive sight.
Morning light pours over the landscape like the incoming tide.
I have arrived in the prominence land.
It's 8 AM. I prepare a cup of hot coffee on the stove. The wind has vanished with the night. I savor the moment, in no hurry to go anywhere. But there comes a time...there always comes a time...
I pack my sleeping gear into my rucksack and leave Bald Mountain's summit with a thank you and good-bye. I descend toward the saddle with Wheeler Peak.
At the saddle, I locate a thick stand of trees to hide my heavy rucksack. I carry only the necessities in my small summit pack.
A snowy boot track follows the summer trail through the trees.
I break from the trees. The trail vanishes under the hard snow. I don my micro-spikes and ascend the slope with axe in hand.
I gain the north ridge. Contrails buzz Wheeler Peak like shooting stars in slow motion.
I hike on easy terrain to 12,000 feet, where the stiff cold wind greets me. The summit is a half-mile in distance, with a thousand feet of vertical gain.
The last of the small rocks.
The ridge is made of shifty talus blocks that get larger as I ascend.
The view to the east includes Jeff Davis Peak - the second highest ranked peak in the park.
The view to the west goes on forever.
The easy crux of the route: a short wall of couch-sized talus blocks stacked precariously on top of one another. I carefully hike up the broken staircase on photo right.
I gain the summit ridge. It resembles a diving board over a vast sea.
The wind shelters on the summit were built long ago to protect instruments used by the first survey party.
The view toward the south takes in a handful of rarely climbed alpine peaks.
The only alpine glacier in Nevada is located in the cirque between Wheeler Peak and Jeff Davis Peak, seen here. Jeff Davis Peak is the second tallest mountain in the park.
Mountains like breaking waves.
The summit register is stashed in an old mailbox. The register is nearly full with ascents from the past few years. I sign the delicate register and place it back in its home to endure another winter.
An interesting rock catches my attention. It's an ancient fossil. I study it, take a few photos, and place it next to the mailbox. I hope the next visitor leaves it for the next, and the next, and the next after that.
On the summit, I relax for an hour and swim in the views. I take a good long look at the north ridge that descends to the saddle with Bald Mountain. It's thirty minutes past noon, time to go down.
I follow my footsteps.
I look back to Wheeler Peak and give my thanks to the majestic mountain.
Bald Mountain now reigns over my view as I descend to the saddle.
I recover my rucksack at the saddle. I repack my gear, take a deep breath, and shoulder the heavy pack. The anticipation of a well earned beer begins to build. But Wheeler Peak does not give up easily, it does not allow my mind to wander. The mountain continues to dominate my senses until I reach the cover of trees.
Rough and rugged Jeff Davis Peak appears delicate in the warm afternoon sunlight.
A cold and wintery creek cascades through a darkening forest.
The sense of being watched.
I reach my car at 3 PM, elated, satiated, sad, overflowing with mixed emotions. It happens after every climb. I clumsily deconstruct my rucksack, spilling everything into a giant duffel bag. I seek out the comfort of a warm Polygamy Porter. I prepare to re-enter the world of good and evil. But I really wish I could just remain with the trees.
Choices...we all have choices in life. This one is easy: go west, my friend! I leave the park and turn left onto Highway 50, heading for Ely.
In fields of Nephilim.
The idyllic landscape glows orange and gold as the sun sets in the west.
Highway 50 contorts around the northern boundary of the park. Wheeler Peak's north ridge and west face are seen from road.
It is dark when I arrive in Ely. It's Halloween night and the spirits are out. I drive slowly through town. I have no reservations, no expectations. My car windshield reflects a kaleidoscope of neon motel signs and gaudy ornaments.
I stop at one of the oldest joints in town, Hotel Nevada. When the hotel first opened in 1929, it was the tallest building in the state of Nevada. For many years, it was an elegant establishment that attracted celebrities and the rich and famous. It's not like that anymore, not even close.
I enter the hotel lobby and approach the front desk. A blood-covered witch greets me with a half smile. A stuffed cougar lounges above the elevator door, staring at me. Red lights flash as coins tumble from a one-armed bandit. A hundred voices blur into white noise. Cigarette smoke chokes my nostrils. The atmosphere is thick with glory long past. It's the perfect place to spend Halloween night.
Rooms are thirty-four dollars for the night, a fair price for a clean historic room with firm bed. I satisfy my hunger in the hotel restaurant with a giant steak and baked potato, washed down by a few Sierra Nevada Pale Ales. The beers are a buck twenty-five each. I'll take another beer please. Feeling confident, I challenge a one-armed bandit to a duel. I win ten bucks. And then I lose twenty. I retire to my room, satisfied that I squeezed every last drop of adventure from this long day that started 18 hours earlier on top of Bald Mountain.
Overnight, a storm rolls over Ely. The next morning, November 1, is cold and overcast. I walk through a groggy downtown in search of photographs.
By mid-morning, I'm on the road again, driving west to where the sun will set.
The storm cloud hesitates, and then lets go. It can't hold back a big blue sky.
By noon I arrive in the old mining camp of Eureka, Nevada. The town was established in 1864, after the nearby discovery of rich ore. The furious silver boom of the 1880's created a rowdy town with 16 smelters, over 100 saloons, and a population of 10,000. The smelters closed by 1891. And now the old town is a curiosity along America's most lonely highway.
I continue west on Highway 50, a narrow strip of smooth black pavement, connecting the dots in the Great Basin landscape. The road goes on, and on.
Sand Mountain is a singing sand dune about 600 feet high, located in the corner of an ancient lake, between two mountains, and visible from Highway 50. A singing sand dune is rare and remarkable, as it moans in the wind.
I reach Reno, Nevada, by late afternoon. I stop at In-N-Out Burger, a tradition on every trip out west. After a tasty cheeseburger and fries, I steer the car onto Interstate 80 and turn up the music. The car twists and turns through the Sierra Nevada range, a fast roller coaster on a wild descent into California. The sun has set by the time I reach Sacramento. The mechanical horizon creates a vivid contrast against the beauty of Nature.
Five days in California, a whirlwind tour with friends and family. Exhausted, I attempt a single day drive from Los Angeles to Boulder. I make it to Glenwood Springs, where I need to sleep for the night. Somewhere along the way I stop for a few photographs. The clear night sky unveils the celestial riot.
Over hills and down through valleys, headlights penetrate the dark wilderness. It's a metaphor for life.
The past year has been remarkable. I need to thank my partners and my friends who shared the journey. It was an honor to climb beside you and gaze out over the precipice.
I also want to thank the 14ers.com members who read and comment on my trip reports. I don't always return to my reports to express my gratitude. Please know that your kindness is appreciated. May your road lead to happiness and the realization of your dreams.
Mountains lie all about, with many difficult turns leading here and there. The trails run up and down; we are martyred with obstructing rocks. No matter how well we keep the path, if we miss one single step, we shall never know safe return. But whoever has the good fortune to penetrate that wilderness, for his labors will gain a beautific reward, for he shall find there his heart's delight. The wilderness abounds in whatsoever the ears desire to hear, whatsoever would please the eye, so that no one could possibly wish to be anywhere else. And this I well know, for I have been there. - Tristan and Isolde