S3:E10 – Backtracks, Chapter 10: The High White Peaks

Edna and Charlotte embark on their long-anticipated adventure of climbing Telescope Peak, where they stand on top of the icy, shiny world for a few all-too-brief moments.

This episode was recorded and produced by Lisa McNamara. Supplemental text is by Lisa McNamara and original text is by Edna Brush Perkins. Music by Nesrality and Lesfm, and sound effect by SSPsurvival, all from Pixabay.


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This is Backtracks, a special series brought to you by Road Tripping in America. I’m Lisa.

This is chapter ten of The White Heart of Mojave by Edna Brush Perkins. If you haven’t listened to the earlier chapters yet – check back where you found this chapter and start there!


Chapter 10 – The High White Peaks

Wild Rose Canyon has a lovely name, justified by a small clump of bushes that may bear wild roses sometime. The canyon, where it branches east from Emigrant Pass, is very narrow with precipitous sides. Emigrant Canyon itself at this point is walled by high cliffs so close together that the wagon track fills the gorge. A considerable stream, bordered with feathery trees, flows through the lower end of Wild Rose Canyon and down Emigrant Pass toward the Panamint Valley and Ballarat, but dies before it emerges from the cliff-like hills onto the long, stony slope that leads into the valley. Once more we had been deceived. From Pinto Peak the rocky cliffs appeared to rise directly out of the Panamint Valley, but a walk down the western descent of Emigrant Pass revealed the same long, brush-covered slope that we had learned to know so well.

The cattlemen had been there and gone away, leaving the cattle in Wild Rose for their spring range. The young steers huddled together, staring with their expression of fierce innocence. They had tramped the stream-bed into a bog and otherwise made camping at the mouth of the canyon unpleasant. A stone shack with an iron roof was located near the spring. It was rather a magnificent shack with two rooms, the inner one windowless like a cave. For some reason that seems to be the approved way of building sleeping-rooms on the desert. At Keane Wonder veritable black holes were the sleeping-quarters near the boarding-house. The shack had no floor and the uneven ground was littered with rubbish, as indeed were all the surroundings. The mess around the spring at Wild Rose bothered us more than the litter anywhere else. Perhaps it was because we were shut in on all sides by high walls, and there were no vistas nor even any beautifully shaped summits to look at. For once the desert was all foreground, little trees along the stream, little bushes, little stones.

(LM: near this cabin is where the Wildrose Campground is located today. Back in the 1930s, the area was a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp, one of three permanent camps in what was then the newly established Death Valley National Monument. Administrative offices, maintenance buildings, tool sheds, barracks, and a mess hall were all built near the spring. Men and boys from California gradually replaced many of the early CCC members, who came from eastern states and were often unprepared for the isolation and homesickness. Throughout the monument, the CCC ultimately graded 500 miles of roads, constructed an airplane landing field, installed water and telephone lines, built 76 buildings, built trails in the Panamints, and built campgrounds, restrooms, and picnic facilities. The CCC developed the monument for early visitors, who were able to access and enjoy it in ways that weren’t possible just ten years earlier.)

A tin can in such a small environment can hardly be ignored.

As soon as possible therefore, we pushed on up the canyon which widened into what looked like a plain surrounded by mountains. In reality it was level nowhere, but rounded down like a giant oval basin about five miles wide and seven or eight miles long. The mountains on the east and south were covered with cedars whose vanguard dotted the edge of the mesa under Mount Baldy (LM: aka Rogers Peak), now become a great white mass, very near, led up to by a precipitous ridge broken into jagged peaks. Telescope Peak lay behind Baldy and was not visible. There was more snow than we had supposed in our survey from Pinto Mountain, it lay all along the jagged ridge, coming down in some places almost to the mesa. The northern wall of the canyon was composed of lower mountains. The one furthest east was a big, pointed, red mass, polka-dotted with little trees near its summit. Looking back whence we had come the mountains seemed to close the narrow gorge.

The cattlemen had told us that Wild Rose Canyon was full of water, but after we left the spring we found none. The big wash down the middle was dry—the boy must have seen it on some rare occasion when it had water in it—and the great bowl far too large and too rough to admit of much scouting for springs at the bases of the mountains. We had thought that we would see the deserted charcoal-kilns and thus find the spring which the cattlemen had described, but there was no sign of any kilns. We supposed that they were somewhere along the bottom of the precipitous ridge that led up to Mount Baldy. In that direction the mesa was so terribly cut up that we could not attempt to take the wagon there until we had first explored it, so we made a dry camp in the middle of the basin under the shelter of the eight-foot-high bank of the wash.

The wind had blown harder than usual all day with an icy bite from the snowy heights. During the night a racing cloud deposited snow on the northern hills which before had been bare. A real storm now became our fear, for a little more snow would defeat our project. Moreover Wild Rose Canyon is at an altitude where the cold at that time of year is intense, and we had to depend on the sun’s fires to warm us sufficiently during the day to make life possible through the night. The “desert rat” became a bundle of misery. We had not realized the paralyzing effect cold would have on him. He sat and shivered, apparently unable to move or to think, so utterly wretched that Charlotte and I offered to give up the Panamints and “beat it” to a more salubrious climate. We could not bear to see our friend suffer; but he flatly refused, angry with us for even making the suggestion, saying that when he started to do a thing he generally did it.

The next morning was as cold as ever. Still the Worrier refused to consider moving out, and when the sun had warmed the great windy bowl a little, he went back to fetch more water from the spring by the old shack. We explored the base of the long ridge under Mount Baldy as well as we could, but failed to find the charcoal-kilns. However, it was possible to get the wagon over there, so in the afternoon we moved the whole outfit up to the first cedar trees. There the mesa became so steep that Molly and Bill could no longer pull the load. The Worrier had brought ten gallons of water, enough for several days, and the “desert-proof” horses were turned loose to find their way back to the spring at the mouth of the canyon. What either they or the cattle ate at Wild Rose remained a profound mystery to us. The mesa was covered with low, dry brush, interspersed occasionally with bunches of yellow grass. We could see the dark backs of the steers like spots moving through it, but it looked like anything rather than a spring feeding-ground.

Camp-in-the-Cedars was charming. A real tree had become a wonderful object. For once there was plenty of wood and the Worrier kept himself warm chopping and carrying. After the feeble little fires of roots and twigs to which we had been accustomed, that blazing, crackling camp-fire was a rich luxury. Dinner was a banquet. Our bed was laid under a big piñon tree through whose tufts of fine needles the enormous stars looked down. We had a glimpse through the far-off mouth of the canyon of distant peaks, vague in the starlight. The wind rose and fell softly through the pines and cedars, like the breathing of the great white mountain beneath whose side we slept.

(LM: Back in chapter two, Edna had commented that, “The unscientific like us, who accept the word “mesa,” lump together all the varieties of low prickly brush as sagebrush.” Here, I think Edna’s using the same “unscientific” naming conventions. There aren’t any true cedars in Death Valley – juniper, piñon pine, limber pine, and bristlecone pine yes – but no true cedars. I’m guessing that Camp-in-the-Cedars should really be called Camp-in-the-Junipers.) 

The white dawn of a clear day filtered through the blue darkness. Before the sun had climbed over the ridge we were started on our long anticipated adventure. It began with a stiff scramble up the first buttressing ridge, then a long pull to the crest of the barrier that walls the southern side of Wild Rose Canyon. The steep inclines of gravelly rock were varied with ledges. Soon we reached the snow, so hard that steps had to be dug in it with much scuffling of hobnailed shoes. The green trees growing out of the white snow were very lovely, and also useful to hold on to. When they were far apart we had some exciting moments when we zigzagged over the smooth, white crust, which was as steep as a shingled roof. In about two hours we reached the top of the ridge. Until then we had faced the white slope, working too hard to look back very often at the basin that was falling away below us. Suddenly we stood on top. The world opened beyond into an immense white amphitheater shut in by snowy peaks with the pyramid of Telescope, visible once more, at the far side. After the hot, dry sands, how miraculous seemed this glittering winter!

We pressed on toward Baldy along the ridge, which proved to be much steeper than it had looked. It was covered with trees, and great patches of snow grown soft now in the sun. However, by keeping a little below the crest on the southern side most of the snow could be avoided. There the ground fell so precipitously from the ridge to the canyon below that only an occasional tree grew on it, and we had an unimpeded view of the two white summits and the magnificent sweep of snow between them.

Noon brought us to a little saddle north of Baldy, which connects it with another rounded summit of the same name (LM: since renamed Bennett Peak). Here were no trees and the snow was blown off clean. With what eagerness we panted up the last few yards! The mountain climber has his great reward when he “looks over.” That is his own peculiar joy. He toils for hours with the ground rising before him to a ridge that seems to cut the sky, only to find a higher one beyond. He surmounts that, and another and another, until at last he gains the highest and the mountains yield their secret. Breathlessly we stood on the little saddle. We looked down into Death Valley from the still height to which we had looked up so long. The white floor shimmered through layers of heated air, 10,000 feet below. Again the valley was different. That day it was full of sky, as the Imperial Valley had been when we first saw it. Nothing was distinguishable down there, it was a well of clear blue. The Funeral Mountains looked like hills. Behind them the jagged ranges of desert mountains spread back with one tall, snowy peak in their midst, Mount Charleston, sixty miles away on the border of Nevada.

Southward on the saddle the mound of Baldy’s summit presented its snowy side. For the most part the snow was hard enough for us to walk over the crust, but sometimes we floundered in nearly to the waist. That was hard work. By one o’clock we reached the top where the snow was blown off, leaving bare black rocks. It was a quiet day for the desert and especially for the mountains. A slight wind came from the south; the sky was cloudless, a deep, still blue. Mount Baldy overlooks all the country in a complete panorama, save where the beautiful pyramid of Telescope Peak cuts into the view. The horizon was bounded on three sides by snow mountains, Mount Charleston, the San Bernadinos and the wonderful Sierra Nevada. Between these white barriers spread the desert, deep white valleys, yellow dry lakes, ranges of rose and blue and dark-violet mountains, all shining in the incomparable brightness of the sun.

Now, at last, we saw the famous “H. and L.” of which we had heard so much. “You see the highest and the lowest points in the United States at the same time,” everybody had told us. From the top of the Panamints we could see Mount Whitney towering in the west, while in the east the mountain sides fall precipitously into Death Valley, 280 feet below sea level. There must be some more accessible viewpoint which commands this dramatic spectacle, for it is not likely that our informants expected us to climb Mount Baldy.

(LM: With what horror would the trio now view Mt. Baldy, since renamed Rogers Peak. Rogers Peak is the only non-wilderness high point in the park. A road has been carved into the flank, and the top has been adorned with telecommunications infrastructure. According to the National Park Service, Rogers Peak now features two towers, three support buildings, solar panels, and propane tanks. Proposed additions include a cell tower and a military radome. Southern California Edison, Caltrans and other state agencies, Inyo County agencies, FBI, Bureau of Land Management, and NPS use the mountain for communications. It’s necessary, but it’s the ugliest thing in the park. There’s no joy in climbing to the top of Rogers Peak now.)

From the summit of Baldy the long curving arête that had looked so beautiful from Death Valley on one side and from Pinto Peak on the other led over to Telescope Peak. It was no disappointment. Sloping sharply down from Baldy, level for a ways, then rising again toward the white pyramid, it extended for about three miles, precipitous on both sides, often not more than ten feet wide on top. The exhilaration of walking thus in the clear air high above the spread-out world is always a boundless joy; on this shining wall in the middle of the desert the joy was almost unbearable. The great plain of the world was clear cut, no veiling haze softened its distances, it flashed and sparkled, full of strong, austere lines and strong, satisfying contrasts. Like a victorious lover, you walk the heights of your conquest; everything to the great circle of the horizon is yours; by right of patience and love you possess it.

If we could only be like the three old cedars that have withstood the hurricanes on the ridge and gaze with them until sunset, through the night and the wonder of morning! They are so gnarled and old, and so calm. (LM: these are ancient bristlecone pines, some of the oldest living things on earth and very rare). Watchers, they stand on the summit of the world, and they might tell us, if we could stay, why the mountain-tops are joyful. Instead, we must drag around these aching bodies clamoring to be kept warm and to be fed, never letting us listen long enough. Already the sun was descending toward the west, and we had to hasten on if we wanted to reach Telescope Peak and get back to fire and food before the cold of night.

When the arête began to rise it became rapidly very steep. The snow became harder and harder until it turned to ice. The lovely pyramid, now directly overhead, shone blindingly in the slanting sun. The only possible way to its peak was up a sharp knife-edge, from which both sides fell sheer for thousands of feet. Was it all solid ice? The conviction that it was had been hinting defeat to each of us for the last half hour of the climb, but no one cared to speak of that possibility until we were within four hundred feet of the top, clinging to trees and slipping badly. The peak rose at a possible, but terrific angle; the trees for the remainder of the way were much too far apart to hold on to; the ice was perfectly smooth, and glistened like a skating rink set on edge. No amount of kicking with hobnailed shoes could make a foothold on it, and one slip on that knife-edge either way meant a slide down the ice-sheet to almost sure destruction. You cannot climb such an ice wall without either an ax or a rope; with either one we would have tried it. We could have cut steps with an ax, or we might have been able to lasso the trees above with a long rope, and pull ourselves up by it. So lately come from the furnace of Death Valley, how should we suppose that we would need the implements of an Alpine mountain-climber? Down, down, more than 11,000 feet, lay that white pit veiled with the smoke of iridescent haze.

The Worrier, who professed deep scorn of all mountains for their own sakes, looked longingly at the smooth peak. It fascinated us all like a hard, glittering jewel. He said he “hated to be beat.” So did we all “hate to be beat,” but we would have been ungrateful indeed for the joy of that day had we not been able to turn back and remain thankful. There was no sense of defeat in the going-down.

The descent was easy except for the heartbreaking pull up Mount Baldy again. His sides were far too straight up and down to admit of any going around him. On the summit we made a concession to aching bodies by taking a long rest and eating what was left of the bread and cheese and the everlasting prunes. The Worrier had long since dubbed our route “The Prune Stone Trail.” We jested light-heartedly about building cairns along it with a prune stone carved on the top of each, and insisted that we owned a half interest in the Prune Stone Mine, as he would never have found it had we not dragged him up Pinto. Mountain-hater as he was and heat-loving “desert-rat,” he genially admitted that, snow or no snow, the top of Baldy was “fine.” As we sat there Death Valley turned a dark, deep, luminous blue. We could see the Avawatz Mountains by Silver Lake and the notch in the hills where the blue pool of Saratoga cherishes its little darting fish. The slanting sunlight was resplendent on the arête and the west slopes of Telescope Peak. The Worrier called him an old rascal; but we were glad to leave him so, with his white robes unsullied by scrambling feet. His image would remain always to the inward eye in dull days and difficult days, a reminder of how beauty watches around the world.

When the sun stood just above the wall of the Sierras we began the long descent down the rounded, snowy side of Baldy to the little saddle, and down the long, steep slope and the little, buttress slope where the cedar trees had been so lovely in the snow. Night came while we were still going down, and the basin of Wild Rose Canyon was a violet lake.

(LM: Based on Edna’s descriptions here and in the next chapter, I’m guessing that the Camp-in-the-Cedars was off a short road spur that branches off the Charcoal Kiln Road right before that road turns to gravel. That would mean that they started their ascent of Telescope at around 6,500 feet, going up the western side of Rogers Peak (what they call Mt. Baldy).

Today, you can drive up to the Telescope Peak trailhead, which is located at 8,000 feet, easily gaining another 1,500 feet in elevation with a high clearance, 4WD vehicle (when the road is open, which it often isn’t in winter or after a big storm). At the top, a small parking lot is squeezed onto a narrow ridge next to a campground with ten campsites precariously perched above Wildrose Canyon on one side and Death Valley on the other.

A trail has been carved into the steep sides of Rogers Peak – where before they had to climb up and over the summit of that peak, now we skirt along its face on a dizzingly narrow path, mountainside falling away steeply on one side and climbing steeply on the other.

Think of the modern, lightweight clothes we have now, the technical jackets, modern hiking boots, plastic water bottles, high energy snacks, pitted prunes even!, hydration powders, hiking poles, lightweight ice axes, microspikes, crampons. Trails. We have trails now too.

When I returned to Death Valley to finally climb Telescope Peak on my third attempt last year, as Paul and I were resting in our campsite in the Mahogany Flat campground next to the trailhead the night before our big hike, I picked up The White Heart of Mojave and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had left off a few months earlier right in the middle of this very chapter. My path and Edna’s path had converged – and the seed for this project was planted.

I left off when Edna, Charlotte, and the Sheriff were returning down Telescope and Mt. Baldy, looking out over Wildrose Canyon, where I had camped the night before. When I turned my head to the left, I looked straight at the mountain they called Mt. Baldy, with the modern service road carved into its flank. Straight ahead, I watched Wildrose Canyon turn violet in the dusk too. Their journey was nearing the end, but mine was just beginning. And how much easier mine would be.)

If you want to hear about my ascent of Telescope Peak, check out episode eight of series two of the Road Tripping in America podcast.

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That’s the end of chapter ten. We’ll post chapters eleven and twelve, the final two chapters, in a couple weeks. Subscribe to our podcast on your favorite podcasting app so that you don’t miss a chapter. If you have something you’d like to add to the story, email us at info(at)roadtrippinginamerica.com.

Thanks for listening!