Ski Mountaineering

Telescope Peak
Feb 15-16, 2003

Reiner Stenzel

The snow covered Panamint Mountains look inviting for a ski tour. Its highest point, Telescope Peak, stands over 11,000 feet above Death Valley. It is not only a DPS emblem peak but also a desired ski peak in winter. The last scheduled SMS trip was over 10 years ago but did not reach the summit due to bad weather.

Timing is very important for skiing in the desert. On Feb 10-12 a pineapple express dumped 6 inches of rain in the San Gabriel Mountains but with a very high snow line. Some frustrated skiers decided to head north to Mammoth. I carpooled with Leslie Hofherr. On the way to the Sierras we spotted the Panamint Range which was totally white. A quick decision was made and we headed east on Hwy 178 via Ridgecrest and Trona into Wildrose Cyn where we parked the car at the Charcoal Kilns. By 1 pm we hiked on the 4WD road half way up to Mahagony Flats where the snow became continuous and we started to skin up. By 4 pm we reached the ridge north of Rogers Peak which had iced-over radio tower on its summit (9994'). We were greeted by gusty winds from an approaching cold front. We searched for a suitable campsite and found it among rimed trees west of the exposed ridge. We dug in our Bibler tent, put on extra layers and made hot drinks, soup and dinner. Occasional gusts shook the rimed trees and blew ice chips and spindrifts around. It was COLD. After all, it was the middle of winter. After 6 pm we would be confined to life in a tent for the next 12 hours. In the night a full moon lit up the snowy landscape. The tent shook badly and Leslie needed earplugs to get some sleep.

On Sun morning we got up at 7am, ate our oatmeal for breakfast, packed and skied out by 8 am. A relentless wind was blowing from the west. We descended into the saddle between Rogers and Bennett, then skied over Bennett Peak (9980') into the next saddle north of Telescope Peak. At times the wind was so strong that one had to stop and dig in the poles not to be blown over. Only behind trees one could stand and rest for a while. Luckily, one ascends Telescope Pk from the east, i.e., the lee side. There were a few steep stretches along the ridge where sidestepping was needed.

The snow consisted of either windblown powder or hard packed wind slabs that required careful edging. After reaching the high point on the ridge one can see the main summit ľ mi to the south. Another traverse on a windy ridge got us at noon on top of Telescope Pk (11,049'). Luckily, the white ammo box was located under the snow.

We descended to the lee side, made a platform in the snow to rest out of the wind. We ate and drank, read and signed the summit register, talked to some folks in Death Valley by radio, and took many pictures. Bad Water (-282') was directly to the east below us. The Salt Creek Basin was covered with water. To the south there were many more snow-covered peaks. In the distance, white Charleston Peak near Las Vegas was visible. The White Mtn Range was visible the to north and the Sierra Nevada to the west, all in white.

After 45 min on the summit we began our ski descent. We skied along the windy ridge, then descended carefully on the steep east face making a few jump turns where the snow was soft, some controlled sideslipping where it was hard, until we reached more mellow terrain. Unfortunately, windslabs and breakable crust were the rule, powder the exception. Instead of climbing Bennett Pk again we followed the trail on the west side which had only a short section without snow. By 3 pm we were back at camp, packed and left around 4 pm. The wind had calmed down but gloomy clouds rose from the Valley and we skied in partial whiteout. We followed the road down. On breakable crust it was not as easy to turn or slow down, thus the best approach was to keep the skins on. By 5 pm we encountered a group of big SUVís driving up the road to Mahagony Flat. When they returned they offered us a ride down so that we would not have to hike out by darkness. At 6 pm we ready to drive back home, feeling the 18 mi, +-3000í weekend. After sunset half the sky lit up with thin red clouds. Later a full moon rose over the Panamints. It was a great ski weekend.

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