Climbing Telescope Peak from Badwater in Death Valley

From famed salt flats to jaw-dropping summit views above 11,000 feet.

The four of us piled out of the SUV for another predawn start in a pull-off on the side of the road. Shoes are tightened, trekking poles extended and packs are hefted (heavier than I had expected) as we prepare to walk out onto the flats. Not just any flats. These are the famed salt flats of Badwater in Death Valley National Park. A place of extreme terrain and extreme conditions. It’s a comfortable 60-degrees as we head out onto the salt before sunrise.

The rugged evaporated lake is worn smooth by thousands of visitors who walk out a thousand feet for that obligatory selfie. Our trek will take us quite a bit further, up to the snow covered peak 20-miles distant. We can see that morning light already bathes the 11,048-foot summit of Telescope Peak, the highest peak in the Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park. We’ll save our selfies for up there.

The vertical rise from Badwater (which is at -282 ft) to Telescope Peak is one of the greatest on the planet. Add in some false summits and a roller-coaster ridgeline, and we’ll climb about 14,500 ft when it’s all done. Yet we can see the entire route while trekking across the salt flats. It seems so simple, but I recall when researching this route how difficult it was to estimate how long it was going to take us. “You know it doesn’t add up,” I say to my friend Mike Barcom as we cruise the tourist-buffed flats. He responds with a quizzical look. “The stats. They don’t add up for us to pull this off in an overnight,” I add.

Alex Stoy chimes in as the only member of this team who has done part of this route on a previous adventure to climb and ski Telescope Peak. His account of getting off course and spending an extra night out doesn’t inspire confidence. But we’re making short work of the Badwater segment, completing half of the six-mile crossing in about an hour. Then the salt crust starts to give way under our weight, plunging each step ankle deep in a sticky mud. We have three miles of this and sunrise has begun heating up the salt flats. “Yeah it doesn’t add up,” jokes Mike as he plunge steps past me through the mud.

There are few things more demoralizing than hiking empty stretches of gravel road in the desert. But after escaping the breakable crust mud bog of Badwater, there isn’t too much grumbling from our team. Having regained sure footing at Shorty’s Well, we started up the enormous alluvial fan leading into Hanaupah Canyon. A 4×4 truck slowly passed us, its occupants offering a friendly wave and words of encouragement. Fragrant desert blooms also helped relieve the sting of the hours spent walking up the featureless gravel.

By the heat of the day, we had reached the canyon’s massive outflow wash and it was thick with Desert Gold wildflowers. The beauty lifted our spirits as we dove into the wash. An hour later we came across the 4×4 parked in the wash while its owners went for a day hike. A shiny silver cooler and large tank of water sat on the tailgate with a note for “the backpackers” to help themselves. We toasted these trail angels with ice-cold Corona’s in the ninety-degree heat. The hot, dusty monotony of the past three hours quickly faded from our memories.

Hanaupah Canyon is one of a handful of oases in the harshness of Death Valley. A natural spring gushes forth from the canyon’s South Fork creating a good sized creek up canyon. It’s a surreal sight to behold once you reach it; gurgling water flowing freely in this desert. Watching a rattlesnake drink from the waters was also pretty surreal. 

The lush valley surrounding Hanaupah Spring is the obvious place to make camp as there is not much flat ground on the route above us to Telescope Peak. But at a meager elevation of 3,700-feet, our decision to bivouac in the proximity of fresh water meant saving about 9,000-feet of climbing for tomorrow.

We quickly took care of camp chores and an evening meal to facilitate getting everyone to sleep early. With the alarm set to four o’clock in the morning, I zipped up in my sleeping bag for six-hours of shut eye. 

The morning went smoothly and we were starting our slow grind up the ridgelines just as dusk gave the sky a bit of light. Few hikes can match the relentless climb of connecting these ridgelines from Hanaupah Canyon to Telescope Peak. For about 10 hours, our team worked hard for each thousand feet of gain. A steady progression of scree, scrambling, and route finding challenged our progress. And then we reached the snowline at about 7,000 feet further slowing us down.

Glancing up at our snowy summit goal brought dismay in its continued distance, but looking back down through thousands of feet of sky to the Badwater salt flats was exhilarating. Finally the snow was continuous enough for us to don traction and we kicked steps in the spring snowpack all the way to the ridgeline leading to Telescope’s summit.

The last thousand feet to the top had drop-away views. We spent an hour on the summit, taking in the 360-degree views and passing around a flask. Our three o’clock arrival time surprised all of us. “How did we get here so fast?” “I was sure it would have been later.” “I thought we’d be busting out the headlamps for sure.”

“It just doesn’t add up,” added Mike in his best deadpan manner.

Matt Hage on Gear Choices:

For gear choices in regards to MSR, the WindBurner Stove was an obvious choice. We would be arriving at our camp after a very long day, so getting hot water into our dehydrated camp meals ASAP was important. Mountain canyons are also notorious for winds, so a fitted, protected stove system would be several times more effective in a stiff breeze. With four in our party, we carried the 1.8 L pot and found this plenty of capacity for our needs.

Our shelter was a Mesh House 3 paired with a 100 Wing Shelter. We could have probably gotten by just camping cowboy style, throwing our sleeping bags and pads on the ground unprotected. But there are some pretty nasty critters that come out at night in Death Valley (tarantulas, scorpions) and we all slept better with a small bit of shelter keeping them at bay. Also we’ve experienced that the mosquitos can be fierce around perennial springs in the desert. The small, minimalist Mesh House keeps out the biting insects and weighs next to nothing for its size. It’s the next best thing to bringing nothing.

We packed the 100 Wing Shelter as a wind break, as this place can get some big winds.