Date: September 21, 2017 & June 25, 2018
Distance: 8.9 miles round trip via Queens Canyon Trail
Elevation: 13,140 feet
Vertical gain: 4,400 feet
Calories burned: 5,444 (according to AllTrails recording)
Time: 11 hours
One of the very first notes I made in my highpointing spreadsheet years ago was to make sure I had a 4WD vehicle for the approach to Boundary Peak. Countless blogs and trip reports will echo this advice, so allow me to beat the drum: rent a 4WD vehicle for this highpoint. Don’t feel a sense of complacency with a high clearance front wheel crossover.
Our team of three woke up in Tonopah, NV somewhere in the 3s and was on the road by 4:00 am, aiming to start Boundary Peak at 6:00. As highpointers will likely agree, many of the back roads we travel to reach highpoints are questionable. Out of the 46 highpoints I’ve set foot on, the road to this trailhead was THE most treacherous. No question. USDA describes the trip from US 6 to the trailhead as about 7 miles, with the first six achievable in a high clearance 2WD vehicle. The last mile they reserve for 4WD. I disagree.
In those first 6 miles, we felt like our 4WD SUV was in danger of tipping a few times. On one occasion, it seemed we drove sideways on a wall. On another, two of us helped by leaning left so the SUV had less risk of summersaulting down the mountain. The road was rarely level. In many spots a huge earthquake-type split ran through the middle of the road, so it became a game of straddling the gigantic dips or maneuvering the SUV around them in a tight space. About mid-way up, the vegetation begins to overtake the “road,” so expect your car to experience scrapes from unyielding branches. Half a mile from the trailhead, our vehicle got stuck. We couldn’t move forward or backward. Well aware of the steep drop off on our right, we began to smell something burning. We’re still not sure if it was tires or brakes or the engine or something else entirely. Either way, the car was emitting warning smells and it wasn’t about to move another inch up that mountain.
After several forward and reverse thrusts, we managed to get unstuck. A quick look at the road ahead, and we perhaps wisely opted to park about 0.6 miles from the trailhead. This required driving in reverse for a frightening minute or so. I may have volunteered to jump out of the car to help the driver navigate. But, really, it was self-preservation to avoid falling off the mountain. My request was declined anyway. If that car was about to do cartwheels, I was apparently going down with it. Luckily, we made it unscathed.
The weather forecast had been changing dramatically every 15 minutes. Three days before the climb, reports promised clear weather. Two days prior it called for 2 inches of snow. The day before it predicted only 0.4 inches of snow. Seemed promising, so we went for it.
The day started with rain at 33 degrees and quickly turned to snow, then sleet, then later hail with 35 mph winds. We made it to the saddle at Trail Canyon. At that point, we had no visibility of the mountain and lost the trail in snow cover. Conditions were worsening and we’d already spent a few hours surviving hail pelted into our faces at 35 mph. Reluctantly, we made the tough decision to spin that day. On the way back, only about 25 to 50 yards behind my friend, I couldn’t track footprints as they were covered too quickly by the inches that rolled in. Four hours and 11 minutes from the time we left the car, we safely returned.
The mountain will always be there, but this was still a tough loss.
To shake off the bad vibes from the first failed attempt, it was important to me that Trip #2 feel different from #1. My two climbing companions from the first attempt declined a re-visit, so I recruited my friend, Mike. We decided to mix things up further by staying in Benton, CA, rather than Tonopah. Tonopah provides more in the way of restaurants. By this I mean, Benton has only one gas station/convenience store/bar/restaurant/dentist’s office/beer distributor/post office all under one roof (only one of those is a joke). But, Benton is close to the trailhead and offers natural hot springs and views of the mountain. Were I to do this a third time (which I won’t), I’d opt for Benton again.
Like many Western mountains, I had that Oh Crap feeling the night prior while standing in its shadow. The first trip, it was dark and snowing, so the mountain was not visible enough to be intimidating. Mike wondered aloud at the Benton gas station more than once, “Are we crazy?” Yes. Yes, we are.
The road this time didn’t seem quite as scary, perhaps because I knew what to expect. Good visibility in morning civil twilight, a high-clearance 4WD vehicle, and a driver who is schooled in off-roading helped get us all the way to the trailhead. The car was again scratched from head to toe and screeching a constant protest, but we made it.
The first leg is an easy jaunt up a hill, followed by what feels like a flat mile, but is actually downhill. At the end of the mile is an open saddle where we stopped for lunch in a manmade wind-break. Refueled, we made the first meaningful climb up what we thought was the notorious soul-crushing scree. Sadly, it wasn’t.
Reaching the top of that first big push, we took in the view of a series of much taller mountains that appeared to be a significant distance away. The trail is clear and easy to follow until somewhere in the second set of peaks.
The second major push is where the scree gets interesting. You take a step up and slide down half a step, repeating this for an endless amount of time. The multiple peaks seem to keep moving farther away. And, to cope, my propensity to swear became more frequent.
Highpointing friend, Rob, with whom I climbed Hood, had sent me a picture of a rock in the shape of a shark’s tooth the day prior, with instructions to keep going right. Spotting this landmark helped keep us motivated and knowing we were on the right track. Also helpful were the numerous cairns hikers have placed along the way. To pay it forward, we set one along the trail where we felt it would help future climbers.
When the trail disappeared, we had some confusion to sort through in identifying which was actually Boundary. We knew Montgomery was taller and adjacent, so we kept fooling ourselves that the highest point in front of us was Boundary. We began looking for the register too early and were further confused when our GPS tracking told us we were 100 vertical feet higher than Boundary. Luckily, the map of my AllTrails.com recording pointed us in the right direction to close this one out. We had paper maps on hand, but without the electronic route overlay, it would have taken us longer to figure it out.
The summit was swarming with flies, but we didn’t care. We took in what might be the most gorgeous of highpoint views to date, signed the register, and replaced it with a fresh one.
The trip down was horrific. While the scree was a struggle on the way up, it was unmanageable on the way down. The only way to mentally prepare is to expect rock surfing with every single step. Few rocks stay in place, including some of the big ones that appear stable.
The first time I fell, I slammed my knee into a rock, gouging my knee. With each subsequent fall, I found it more difficult to get up amidst the constantly moving scree and steep angle. One of our trackers recorded that we were at a -70 percent grade for a leg of the descent. Yes, nearly vertical.
Compounding the difficulty of the terrain was knowing that no one was around to help in an emergency. We were the only two people on the mountain that day. Judging from the base and summit registers, it appears fairly normal to be the only climbing party around. I had spotty cell coverage, but that only offered a sliver of comfort.
Finally down from the scree fields, back at the manmade wind-break, we emptied our boots of gravel. In retrospect, gaiters would have improved the experience. They didn’t seem worth the weight in the morning, but we both lamented not having them during the falls and slides.
Wild horses, including a few foals, hung out near the western base of that saddle, which was a fun mental boost for the final push out of there. We saw other wildlife on the trip including deer, squirrels, chipmunks, jackrabbits, and many varieties of birds as well. No marmots, though.
The last leg, while easy by comparison, seemed to take a long time. Still, we spent 6 hours going up (route finding and exasperation held us up a bit), half an hour at the summit, and 4.5 going down. I was delighted the Jeep was waiting at the trailhead, rather than another mile down the road.
Grateful for good weather and successful route finding, we celebrated by soaking in the natural springs hot tubs in Benton, followed by some time in Vegas. Highpoint #45 complete!
- Consider bringing gaiters for the scree field
- Have bandages on hand for falls
- Track your route with an electronic map like AllTrails – the lack of signage and dearth of a trail make this one challenging to find
- Take food with you if you stay in Benton
Thank you to Nevada residents Dan and Robert who suggested we try In-N-Out Burger. As a vegetarian, I didn’t think they’d be able to feed me. Turns out, they can accommodate me just fine and this ended up being one of my favorite meals of the trip.
Our team also enjoyed driving the Extraterrestrial Highway and seeing the Hoover Dam. If you fly into Vegas, add on a few days for an extra boost to your vacation. We especially enjoyed drinks at the Chandelier Bar.