I’ve published a new book Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots. Epic Adventures, Romance and Outdoor Fun in the Western USA. The book has received great reviews (thank goodness) and is available at www.fiftyclassics.com. As a West Coast Flying Adventure blog reader you can use coupon code “blog20” to get 20% off on the price of the book.
– Thanks – Ney
I was on my way to a meeting in Salt Lake City and I looked out the airplane window to my left and saw in the distance spires rising out of the Nevada desert. Are those granite? There, close to the Black Rock Desert (aka home to Burning Man)? I looked at my watch to make sure I had enough time before my meeting in Salt Lake City, then banked the plane and descended for a closer look. The spires were indeed granite and looked tall enough for some interesting rock climbing. I circled a few times, took some photos then banked away towards my meeting.
Research turned up very little about the place. It seems to be a relatively unvisited part of Nevada. So that settled it. Betsy and I had to go to this remote area of Nevada and find out what is really there.
There were no airports or dirt strips close to where we were heading so Betsy and I headed out in our van after work on a Friday, stopping in Reno for dinner and then out into the Nevada wilds. We first ran into a rainstorm and flash flood, and wondered why every time recently when we drive into the Nevada desert where it never rains, it rains.
Soon we were on a decent mud-free dirt road, heading into the darkening desert.
In spite of GPS and modern Google/Bing Satellite previews of the roads, at one point during the evening we took a wrong turn and drove down to a gated private ranch – and we couldn’t back up in the mud nor could we turn around. We could only go down but were block by a gate. We crawled through a barbed wire fence, a cattle dog warily circling and barking, and slowly approached the ranch house. It was surrounded by corrals, pickup trucks and long multi-horse trailers – so I felt better that it was probably a cowboy’s bunkhouse rather than a private ranch with an old rancher sitting on his rocking chair with a rifle in his lap. Sure enough a couple of guys answered the door and said the gate wasn’t actually locked, it just looked like it and we could unwrap the chain and drive through. In fact, they said we could drive though a road on the ranch and meet up with the correct road later.
We spent the night just off the dirt road before we hit the “less traveled” road in the morning. It was definitely less traveled.
I had learned a well-known 4×4 technique after being stuck in the mud previously. Let the air out of your tires, all the way down to 25 lbs or less (from 50). It works! Which means we have a new air compressor for the van.
The soft-tire bit really did the trick! Until it didn’t.
We bent the propane filler attachment and crammed dirt into the van’s battery box but didn’t seem to do other damage. We do have a satellite emergency beacon and lots of extra water but getting stuck out here would not have been fun.
We finally make it. Not to where I had planned because another dry creek crossing scared us, but we certainly can’t complain about the camp site:
But don’t let your guard down. Right to the left from where this photo was taken Bodie, one of our dogs, leapt straight up like a cat and a buzzing sound ensued. Betsy and I stepped forward to inspect the rattlesnake under the rock, but not until I later looked at the photo on the computer did I see the second snake! We were close to that snake!
Betsy found a really cool spot where perhaps Indians made arrow heads. There were flakes of obsidian everywhere. We collected some of it for this photo, then spread it out again.
Oh yes, we came to climb. It was great and we did some probable first ascents. Betsy ended up leading the first crux pitch of a delicate climb called “South Spring Arete”. There were places for natural protection but you had to seek them out. The rock is rough and a little crumbly in spots on this spire.
There are many springs in the area which cows, wild horses, wild burros and one small fawn enjoy. We saw a lot of burros on the way in and out.
We also put up a couple of shorter fun climbs.
We found a grassy area / oasis we called Shangri La, hidden from the wild horses or even deer because of the rock climbing required to get there. We almost expected mini-dinosaurs to be living there, undiscovered for centuries.
We were so tired at the end of the weekend we didn’t even make it home. We pulled over in Tahoe Sunday night at a hidden spot to sleep, then continued on early Monday.
The Lava Beds are also known as Elephant Land which comes from research that shows that desert rat and well known Nevada climber Alvin Mclane (passed away in 2006) discovered this place in the 60s. He was known for keeping secrets but for this place he didn’t. He brought National Geographic out here and the results were published in 1983s “America’s Hidden Corners: Places off the Beaten Path”. I found an old copy on Amazon and bought it. The article’s author calls it a climber’s paradise and Alvin names it Elephant Land. It is better known as The Lava Beds for 4×4 enthusiasts and Chukka hunters, although it is misnamed as a miner looking for Tungsten in 1921 said, “…but so far as has been ascertained there is not a pebble of lava in the range”.
It promised to be a few months of convenient and fun flying and I had been looking forward to it for a long time. Our daughter Belyn is a whitewater river guide on the Rogue River in Oregon. She is also at a point of thinking about what she wants to do long term. We originally were not going to see her much this summer, so we hatched a plan. We get a family discount on river trips so the plan was to sign up on her trips in order to spend some quality time with her. First I would go, then Betsy would go, then the entire family would go as our summer get together. This would normally be a lot of driving back and forth, but with the plane it would be a piece of cake. In addition, the rafting company ARTA has a “guide house” near Grant’s Pass airport, so it would be very convenient to fly in there and just walk over to the guide house.
It wasn’t to be. My annual was due in June (into July), and the first Rogue river trip (mine) was happening in late July. My plane seemed to do well in annual with good compressions in all cylinders and only a few minor items to take care of. Tom my mechanic knew about the trip coming up, so he was putting the plane back together the week prior so I could get it out for a test flight. Then the call came. He had found a crack in the exhaust manifold near the turbo and it had to be fixed. We called around and I was prepared to drive somewhere to have it welded, but it turned out it needed to be replaced. I was grounded.
I flew commercial to Portland, then my flight to Medford was canceled and I finally got on the last flight of the night at 11:00 pm. So instead of a 2 hour flight in the Cessna, the journey via commercial was about 13 hours. I know, pity me that I had to fly commercial. But it did kind of suck. Belyn had been loading all evening for the four day trip, and had to get up extremely early to finish, so I felt guilty because she had to drive over from Grant’s Pass to pick me up.
The Rogue River
The trip was awesome – what a beautiful river with bear, bald eagles, osprey, mink and river otters. I was able to hang out on Belyn’s gear boat and chat for hours.
Next was Betsy’s turn to head up and spend time with Belyn. Tom got the exhaust replaced and I took it up for a 30 minute test flight around the airport the day before we were to leave. The test flight went well with no problems.
The Engine Fire
Both Betsy and I worked all day and we met at the airport at 6:00 pm for her flight to Grants Pass. We packed her stuff, got in the plane and I turned the master (electrical) switch on and listened to the gyros wind up. But some strange static came through the overhead speaker and the electrical aux fuel pump would not come on. Something was wrong. Betsy said, “I think there’s smoke”. Remember, the engine isn’t on at this point, just the master switch. I immediately switched the master off, but I could hear that the gyros were not winding down. What? It isn’t powering off! I cycled the switch but nothing. I pulled the pullable circuit breakers and tried to think how I could get the power off without having to remove the cowl and disconnect the battery which would take some time. I then decided I should probably turn the fuel off and pull the mixture off as we are trained, but the mixture cable was frozen. What the hell? It was seemingly an electrical problem but the mechanical mixture knob would not move? Then Betsy said, “yes, definitely smoke”. Ok, let’s get out. Now.
Once outside Betsy said, “Is it a fire?” I said no, some sort of electrical short but probably not a fire. The gyros were still spinning so I was bewildered on why the power was still on. I opened up the oil access door and peered inside. Flames! “Uh, yes, Bets, it actually is a fire”. I got the fire extinguisher from the cockpit and thankfully it immediately put out the flames. After a few moments the gyros spun down. Betsy looked at me and said, “Its probably not going to be fixed tonight, is it?” I said unfortunately it wasn’t going to be flying for quite some time.
We unpacked her stuff into her car and she took off driving to Oregon for the river trip that started early the next morning. I felt terrible. But I was also thankful it didn’t happen in the air. That kind of fire in the engine compartment would certainly be much much worse with the amount of air that flows through the compartment during flight.
So what happened? A large battery cable that goes from the battery to the coil lays on an aluminum firewall shelf. Either the cable had worn through from the shelf or the mixture cable had worn a hole in it. Either way, a major electrical short occurred and a fire started which burned some cables (thus the frozen mixture cable) and a few small holes in the firewall. Fortunately it didn’t burn any structural members or any rivets in the firewall, so the mechanics were able to patch it without major work.
The Rogue River
Betsy also had a great time on the river with Belyn. She was a little tired from all the driving because we had scheduled everything with flying in mind, not driving. So once off the river in the afternoon she had to jump in the car so she could be at work the next day.
The last trip was coming up. Our son was working at a summer camp and had a few weeks off before school started again so as a way to all be together we planned another river trip with Belyn. Who knows, she maybe was tired of having her parents as guests but we did tip well.
The plan of course was to fly, and Tom worked hard to get the plane patched and put back together. I took it up for a test flight while Tom waited on the ground and as a joke I shut it down and jumped out with a fire extinguisher in my hand. However, there were no fires and he made sure that the new cable was well armored. It was ready to go – again.
Betsy had other ideas. Like not flying for a while. Who could blame her? She knows how serious it could have been had we been in the air. She wants to wait a few flights, without any smoke or fire, before getting back in the plane.
The Rogue River
So we drove and had a wonderful time again, the entire family together. Driving wasn’t bad since we scheduled enough time. It wasn’t nearly as painful as the 13 hour commercial flight – and shorter.
I had moments of frustration when we stopped by the guide house and I saw how close Grants Pass airport was – and realized we did three trips there and I never landed there.
Maybe next year.
In 1982 (yeah, sorry, the story starts in 1982) my sister set me up on a date and to entice me to follow through she said it was with a woman who “was a rock climbing instructor and had her own rope”. That was Betsy and besides having kids and all that stuff we’ve been climbing rocks together ever since. One of the first places we climbed together was at Lover’s Leap using a guidebook written by Rick Sumner. Yes, you’ll hear the name again later.
Betsy and I have climbed a lot, have been on first ascent teams but have never actually put a route up ourselves. As you can imagine, finding a new route at established areas these days is extremely difficult. But it sounded like a worthy goal and as you age you start thinking about what you leave behind. When someone says, Ney and Bets – what did they leave behind? For example, did they help end world hunger? No, but they did put up some rock climbs out in Nevada where no one really goes. Well, it would be a fun goal anyway.
So I started watching for areas as I flew across Nevada and eastern California on my trips. I found one worthy area but it turned out to be too good to be true – it was a large granite wall that had been climbed.
I was also doing research on the web and I saw that Rick Sumner (same one) was developing a secret area out in Nevada somewhere. He was posting enticing photos but not revealing where the place was. I started to strategize on how I could find out where he was climbing. Extortion? Kidnapping? I finally settled on bribery. I offered him an airplane ride over his area and to recon other areas in exchange for introducing Betsy and I to his area.
Rick lives halftime in Alaska and was soon to depart north, so he declined the ride in order to get more rock time – but he graciously invited Betsy and I out to climb. We had a great day out and Rick led us up some of the climbs he had recently put up – and we got to feel some of the excitement of being in an area not fully developed. Thank you Rick.
Now Memorial day weekend was coming up and the weather was crappy each day, but I snuck out for a two hour flight one morning to try to photograph some of the crags in the area that Rick had now publically named, “The Egyptian Ridge”.
At first I thought the flight was a total dud. The ridge was mostly in clouds and the photos I got were blurry because I didn’t want to slow down too much or get too close. I can fly slow, take photos and deal with clouds and terrain, but not all three at once.
But I did get some blurry photos that ultimately came in useful. Note that I’m not including here the photo of the formation we ended up on – because that location is still secret. Here are some photos of the Egyptian Ridge taken on a later flight on the way to Salt Lake City for business:
Betsy and I drove out Friday night and camped in our van nearby, only to wake up with rain, clouds and the Egyptian Ridge completely obscured. Damn.
But then I remembered a blurry photo of a formation, not identified on the ridge by Rick, that looked promising. Betsy and I headed that way and got halfway across a large field of sagebrush on a dirt track before becoming stuck in the mud, with the cool traction sleds and the tire chains tucked safely away in our garage for the summer. Bummer.
Oddly, not long after we stopped forward progress we saw lots of cows moving all around us. We eerily ended up in the center of a cow roundup. A cowboy and his dog came riding over and we were feeling guilty that we were stuck in the middle of the jeep track, but he was only asking if we had extra beer. He ended up with wine, which I felt bad about because he surely thought I was a wus not having any beer.
We hiked up to the formation Saturday and spent the day with our dogs hunkered down under rocks in the rain watching water pour off the face. But what a face it is! We picked out some good lines and went back to the mud-bound van for the night.
Betsy got the van stuck again just trying to turn it so we would have a nice view, but she redeemed herself by figuring out we could use the plastic leveling blocks (which we broke to bits) to help free the van. We then decided to just leave it in place until Monday when everything was hopefully dry and we could drive it out.
On Sunday we put up two new first ascents! We did it. The first, we named High Desert Solitaire, starts on the left side of the face with a bolt, which protects a few thin (5.9) face moves up right into a crack (5.6) leaning right, then up to a small roof/belay (5.8), then up to a ridge that leads to summit blocks.
The second climb, called Visions of Empire (the modern ghost town of Empire is just within sight), is a fine face climb that goes up the middle of the face (5.8).
I had posted the photo of us in the mud on the Supertopo.com climbing forum on Saturday and a climber, Alex Kirkpatrick, saw our van in the field and drove out Saturday afternoon to make sure we were OK. Thank you Alex. He ended up camping with us, and we all did the big hike back up to put up a third climb called The Hourglass (5.7).
For getting almost hopelessly stuck in the mud, it turned out to be a fantastic climbing weekend!