By: Mitch Miller
Why do DPS list finishers return to the grueling peaks? "Because they're the best!" as leader Linda McDermott would answer about Maturango Peak. And this was her third time! Of course, each of us has their own reason for tackling 7,000' of vertical gain. Personally, I didn't need the peak, I just wanted it. The fact I'd never been to Maturango and wouldn't mind completing the list added to the attraction. Do you see the twinkle in my eye? Seven adventurers met in the dark at Knight Canyon mine on Good Friday. It always provides me a good chuckle to see my DPS buds materialize out of nowhere and into nowhere, and it feels like home, regardless of the lack of modem day amenities. I had most of what I needed; the stars, fresh desert spring air, the mystery of a new journey that lay ahead, friends who understand me, and a view to Sentinel Peak shimmering with a cold, white glow before the moonrise.
Six-0-nine a.m., 'Easter Saturday', and we're walking past the new gate which has added 3 miles one-way to our trek. I consoled myself with the knowledge I may never have gotten to know these rocks on such a personal level but for the new gate. About the time my 62" frame was wading through chest-high brush Linda remarked Phil Reher led her by car over that on their diversion to Parkinson Peak. Amazing how things grow with a little burro fertilizer and a high water table providing the mud that mucked the boots I'm about to be married in. Eventually we reached the old roadhead and hairpinned back towards Panamint Valley and up to some views under construction; still early, still hazy. Hairpinning right into the Argus Range the road next skirted the ridge downhill so we bid farewell. The ridge proper was high class I and at times I enjoyed my hands in pockets as we found cooler weather. Jim Hinkley had asked for 49 degrees for good ascension weather and depending on the windchill of the hour, his wish was granted. Mostly I preferred getting my whole body activated and enjoying easy class 2. This was the day's "coffee" and no traces of sleep remained once we arrived on the plateau with at last a view to the goal.
Judy Hunimerich asked if I was leaving any water at the large cairn at which we rested. In spite of the fact I was packing a 35 min SLR, zoom wide-angle and zoom telephoto lenses, the elation of viewing the Panamint panorama diverted my thoughts from the obvious and logical choice. Ahem, why, yes, of course I was, now that ya mention it. Later I would laugh for seeking shade in which to stash my water in light of the strengthening sunlight. On we traveled up the zigzagging ridge that alternately provided fine aerobics with the curiosity of how much downhill there would be over the next bump. Joshua trees had just about run their course and provided wonderful contrast beside the thickening pinyon pine forest against the Telescope Peak backdrop.
Checking our map we saw we had one final non-summit bump to surmount, but chose to limit the gain and contour to the left above the endings of Bendiar Canyon. Maggie the wonder dog didn't particularly have a taste for crossing the steep loose shale but decided it best to not turn back for the "478th" time to see how Linda and Neal Scott were doing. Instead she scree-surfed with me down to join Jim and Richard Whitcomb for the final ascent to a saddle where all gathered for a much-needed rest. Our view was next replaced by the warm, comforting arms of a pinyon-clad canyon up which we meandered past a multitude of burro droppings and hoof prints. No concern about the lowering temps here; plenty of biomass if needed. Richard and I led the slowing charge for the peak, a broad mass of chaotic boulders like a desert-varnished Stones Unhenged. Needing, uh, er, wanting the peak, I battened down the hatches against a raging wind piping straight from Owens Peak to Telescope via us. I sucked up the Gore-Tex closer. Clouds spilled over the Southern Sierra in perfect naval formation, searching for their next target. Our small crowd convened in the shaded, less wind-attacked east side of the summit, signed in, and dove lower for lunch under cover. Nestled at the bottom of a narrow part of the canyon, as wind-free as it gets, Linda proudly produced the solid chocolate Easter bunny provided by Jim's mom, and all gave it a fitting burial (chomp, yum, slurp). Strength renewed and spirits energized by a good sugar supply all enjoyed yielding to gravities' way.
Knowledge we were in the rainshadow of a rainshadow provided some solace for a time. Even as we contoured back around that bump no one wanted to explore, and the pinyons began to rock left, snap right, shake, rattle and the clouds rolled over the Argus Range, I knew it was spring in the desert. Still I held my lightly-gloved hand beside my tightening cheek pores to fend off the amazing chill of the wind railroading downslope. Sometimes I laughed. Beside swaying yucca I flew/ran to avoid a vegetable spear. It became a ballet and one could fling their arms skyward and let the wind half carry himself downward. To the south, Searles Lake minerals lifted skyward. A plume of dust shot airborne beside Ballarat, never to settle until Oklahoma? After a time the wind exacted faster motion than that with which I could find appropriate foot placements. I strained my ankle twice, one time holding up just long enough to stumble forward into a bush instead of a rock. How fast was the wind? I can tell you that the dust-dry burro droppings I threw to the sky rapidly adopted a new trajectory and vanished. Entertainment came cheap. Someone shouted "Snow!" I turned and squinted into the sun which now sat on top of a black quilt of clouds which hid Maturango. Winter's remnants danced back down into desert vegetation zones and I could hear the Old Man himself chuckle with delight, "I'm not done with you."
The wind really didn't give us up until back down at the old roadhead. There may be more road now, but it was nice to be on a road again. I assumed Richard and Judy who needed to be in San Diego the next morning would have left a note, but instead we heard the beautiful sound of a horn echo up canyon as we drew near the dark end. At 7:15 all were back in the metal steeds and jostling back to camp where we found my solar shower had been knocked into the dirt by a rogue wind; a bad sign. Cars were parked in windbreak fashion. A lot of clothing was adomed, not a star could be seen and the wind stirred. Linda, Jim, Neal and I proceeded to enjoy libations and cookies while dinner warmed. About the time the food was ready small raindrops began to pelt the fine, gray, silty soil. The wind blew 6 water bottles off my truck roof, chairs collapsed, larger rain dropped in and we bid our fast 'goodnights' as we ran for dinner under our respective noisy truck roofs, smiling and secure in the knowledge another adventure was safe under our belts and we weren't snow camping on Maturango Peak. Snowline dropped to 3,500' in the Panamint Mountains by Easter Sunday sunrise; a religious view.
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