McFarland Peak (Nevada)


By: Bob Michael


The North Palisade, the Big Picacho of the Spring Mountains is McFarland Peak (10,745') in the wild, rugged country at the north end of the high Spring Mountains. This peak bares its fangs of thousand-foot cliffs to climbers approaching from the south and east sides. The terrain on the northwest side is gentler, but access is difficult because of private property on the west and long arduous approaches from the north. Featured on the new "Nevada Peaks List", it is without a doubt the toughest high peak in the Spring Mountains.

Third time (for me) was a charm on a radiant, crystalline day in late September as I and the duo of Ron Grau and Ellen Senior summited this prize. First two tries were with "Vegas" George Quinn. In fall 1996, we tried the western approach, a long dusty dirtroad drive out of Pahrump. Through George's field work as a water-resource engineer with the State of Nevada, he had become acquainted with the crusty old gent who owns a private inholding on Clark Canyon that impedes this approach. This enclave dates from the early days of Nevada statehood, and Les Adams, the owner, regards it as his private fiefdom -- when he says "No Trespassin"', he means it! Of course, it's possible to go cross-country around this property, but it adds an element of hassle. Les had taken a liking to George, and the latchstring was out to come up and stay at Les' "chalet" any old time. The topo map looks like Clark Canyon gives you a close-in straight shot at McFarland. So, we accepted Les' hospitality (he regaled us into the night with stories of his ongoing low-level guerrilla war with the Forest Service) and on a perfect fall morning we drove to his upper trout pond at 8,530' and headed up the S slope of McFarland, hoping to intersect the Bonanza Trail and, hike it around to the peak's more sloping N side. (We had not consulted anyone about the route; the cliffs on the south are so intimidating that we never dreamed the route actually was on this side!) Big problem: The Bonanza Trail, which looks so nice on the topo, and whose excellent north end we had hiked the year before to climb 10,397' Bonanza Peak (SAGE #241, 1/96) is so little used in its remote central portion that, in places, erosion has almost obliterated it. It is also incorrectly located on the topo.

Ignorant as we were of these crucial facts, we wasted precious hours going back and forth, up and down, trying to find the trail. Suddenly, the landscape looked familiar ... we'd gone in a huge circle! By then it was so late in the day we gave up in disgust and retreated to Les'villa.

That winter, we visited Howard Booth, a walking encyclopedia of Southern Nevada mountaineering, who told us we were wrong in any case to have looked for a route on the north - the route is up a huge couloir that cleaves the cliffs on the southwest face, and that looks so nasty from below that we- had passed by it a few months before with a comment from me something like, "Boy! I'm glad we're not going up there!". I also acquired a copy of "Hiking Las Vegas" by Branch Whitney, a rather poorly-done guidebook which, instead of showing routes on topo maps, relies on crude inadequate sketches and photos of trees and rocks slathered with black arrows as "route is also the SW couloir, although, you wouldn't guess it from the ambiguous text and indecipherable sketch. The book does have one very useful nugget of information; it has a photo of a rock formation at the very crucial spot you leave the Bonanza Trail and head into the base of the SW couloir.

Armed with this information, George, Marvin 'Saines and I set out on a hot, brassy-bright morning last July from the Bristlecone Trailhead at the end of Nevada Highway 156 at the Lee Canyon Ski Area. Presently, tiny wisps of cloud appeared from nothingness. By the time we got to Whitney's rock formation, which looks a bit like the Michelin Tire man with his stack-ofdoughnuts belly with a dead snag leaning on it, it was thundering. Then the sky ignited with a fearsome display of murderous lightning which went on for hours. Not only did we not get the peak, we were grateful just to get back to the roadhead safe and alive.

Third try was on a superb early fall day with pristine blue skies from dawn to dusk. Ron, Ellen and I left the Bristlecone Trailhead at 86701 at 0800 and, after 2.5 pleasant miles, joined the Bonanza Trail on the Spring Mountain crest at 9760'. The Bonanza Trail, here welldefined, heads NW along the main divide of the Springs and is a scenic and delightful hike in a lovely old bristlecone forest. Considerable ups and downs in this stretch make the total altitude gain much more than just the difference between the trailhead and the descriptions". Whitney's route on McFarland summit. Ahead loom the forbidding grayish white limestone battlements of McFarland, looking quite unclimbable from this side, reminiscent of the Italian Dolomites - similar geology, even. The trail drops to the W side of the crest below the SE toe of McFarland's ramparts, and cuts down to the W below big switchbacks as the S face; it does not drop in erroneously shown on the topo. Just about when you're starting to complain about all the altitude loss, there is the stone "Michelin Man". A steep, sliding sidehill traverse here takes you into the couloir at about 9450'. It's not too bad for a few hundred feet of gain, through steep pine trees, mostly on soil. Then, the terrain steepens, the soil is replaced by treacherous limestone scree at the angle of repose, and the first vertical impasse is met. We burned quite a bit of time here in failed route finding efforts. It initially looks better to go right, but this will always come to grief in this couloir; the simple key to a successful ascent is to always go left even if that doesn't look as good from below. Thanks to Ron Grau for some crackerjack route finding here. By an iron determination to keep left, he climbed one little easy cl 3 pitch and found a wildly steep but surprisingly doable chute - even some pine trees, and soil to kick into - that was completey hidden from below. This chute daylighted at a notch at 10,515' on Mc Farland's gentle summit area; a euphoric stroll up to the right and we were on top the toughest big peak in southern Nevada. The register, which dated back to 1967, had several comments to this effect. The view to the SE was such as skydivers see; the edge rolled away to an abyss of empty space.

10.5 hours after beginning, we were back at the roadhead - a perfect day with good friends, and an old score settled with a worthy adversary. It goes without saying that this peak would be a distinguished addition to the List, getting people into the splendid high country of the Springs north of the Charleston/Mummy area. Dump Potosi with its road and electronic junk and put this one on!

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