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 climbing. I thought it must be a known area, so I took some photos then banked away towards my meeting.
Research turned up very little and a photo I posted on the ST “Obscure Nevada” thread didn’t turn up any comments from anyone that knew of it. So that settled it. Betsy and I had to go to this remote area of Nevada and find out what is really there.
Betsy and I headed out 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 “Lava Lightning” on what we call “Sky Spire” the largest spire in the area. We did find a top anchor on top so it has been climbed (I would have thought so) but the anchor was over on a route to the right where some large flakes and cracks are. We placed two bolts on the lower face (5.8+) and then the climb moves straight into a finger crack which disappears (5.10a) and then into a main crack and back onto the face for a direct finish. It looked like a difficult walk-off so we put two ring-anchors there for a two-rope rappel. We found the rock to be excellent here.
We also put up a couple of shorter fun climbs.
The Road to Shangri La has two bulges and we put in one bolt at each bulge to protect the moves. You can also get small cams in at other places. Both climbs share a new two-bolt anchor at the top.
The grassy, green springs of Shangi La seems like a sensitive place that couldn’t withstand much traffic so we are not going to provide directions. If you find Shangi La, and you’ll know it when you find it, then you’ll probably see the short, fun climbs Road to Ruins and Road to Shangri La.
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.
Elephant Land (aka The Lava Beds) isn’t likely to be a climber’s destination but it is a fantastic place for a multi-day remote climbing adventure.
The area can be found on maps as “The Lava Beds” (though its all granite) in Pershing County Nevada. Two roads approach from the south. We took the more eastern road although it is high clearance / 4WD whereas the western road, Trail Springs, is an apparently better road but with a longer walk to the spires.
In the aerial photo we parked at P1, which is the near Elephant Head rock. You can keep going with a 4×4 and end up on near the top of the ridge, near the highest spire at P2.
We visited several spires but the two climbs we detailed are on “Sky Spire” (S1 on the map) and “Spring Spires” (S2 on the map). For all we know there was a kiosk with a map of the spires and names for all of them. We didn’t see the kiosk, so we named these two spires for reference. There are more spires to the left and right of the photo!
We don’t want to mislead anyone. It is a hike to any of the spires over difficult terrain with sharp sticky things everywhere and, obviously, rattlesnakes. It was really hot, and the rock was inconsistent – great in some places but crumbly in others. Having said that, it is a wonderful place to visit climbing or not!
Why did we call it Elephant Land? See below.
The name Elephant Land 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”.
Alvin mentions it again in a 2004 Reno Gazette-Journal article, and says the crumbly nature of the rock makes it less than ideal for climbing.