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Rick's Corner

In Search of Duffer Peak

Old cowhands know it is unwise to follow alarmed cattle into chest-high brush. But I learned it the hard way, midway through a jinxed hike, high in Northern Nevada’s Pine Forest Range.

It isn’t that cattle–about 50 in this case–are apt to turn on you like wild beasts. Rather, like birds in flight, they tend to raise their tails and lighten their loads as they run, and it wasn’t until I noticed dampness soaking through my shirtsleeves that I realized the aspens and bushes flanking the path were liberally smeared with cow flop, at least as high as my shoulders. My pants were stained, my shirt was stained, and my backpack carried unpleasant smudges.

There are times when even people who rarely swear want to give vent to a choice expletive. But the most obvious option was a little too literal for the present moment, so I settled for something more Victorian.

“Yuck,” I said with as much feeling as the word could carry. “Yuck!”

The Pine Forest Range is a little-visited upthrust extending a granitic finger into the basalt tablelands northwest of Winnemucca, named for its dense cloak of limber pine. The highest summit, 9,397-foot Duffer Peak, rises a vertical mile above the desert floor, making it one of the tallest peaks in this fractured corner of the Great Basin near the intersection of Nevada, Oregon and California–arguably the most remote corner of the continental U.S.

Despite its remoteness, I had expected Duffer to be a simple climb. In the game of golf, a duffer is an amateur with no illusions of prowess. A mountain named “Duffer” should be an easy hike, a pleasant respite in the long drive my friend Kelly and I were making from Elko to Portland, Oregon.

DeLorme’s Nevada road atlas perpetuates this myth, highlighting the peak and a shorter trail to nearby Blue Lakes as two of only 27 recommended hikes statewide. According to the atlas, it is a “moderate” ascent, covering 2,200 vertical feet in three miles from a parking lot near a lake called Little Onion Reservoir–as close to a duffer hike as one is likely to find on a 9,400-foot summit.

But in desert hiking the adventure begins the moment you set wheel off pavement.

From the east, the shortest approach was a gravel road branching off Highway 140, about 15 miles southeast of Denio. We found it easily enough, marked by a wildlife-viewing sign. The sign didn’t bother to inform us, though, whether we should be on the lookout for antelope, bighorn sheep, falcons–or cows. It was the first of several bad omens. Another was that while mileages were posted to Onion Valley Reservoir (a larger companion to Little Onion) and the Blue Lakes trailhead, there was no mention of Duffer Peak.

A mile later, we encountered a third omen: a stream flowing across the road.

When it comes to driving passenger cars into the backcountry, I’m bolder than most. Years earlier, I’d inched a low-slung Mazda through 24 miles of gravel into a canyon where the only other vehicles were 4-wheel-drive rigs belonging to deer hunters. It was only when the road got steep and rocky enough to deter even the hunters that my companion turned to me with a grin and announced: “I’d never have driven my car down here.”

This time I was the passenger, in Kelly’s relatively high-clearance Suburu. Nevertheless, I wondered what kind of adventure we were heading into.

From the water crossing, the road climbed 4,000 feet onto an airy sage-covered ridge where it felt as though I needed only extend a hand to stroke the puffs of cloud forming on the high-desert thermals. It was steep but easily passable, and I was just beginning to regain confidence when it dropped off the ridge and narrowed to a single-lane track surfaced in potato-sized rocks, hacked into the mountainside at a 10 percent grade.

An oncoming driver stopped to exchange route information. “You’ll never get through with a passenger car,” he said as he eyed Kelly and her vehicle.

But one should never underestimate a Suburu or the tenacity of a condescendingly treated woman. We crept along three miles of narrow ledge, pausing at each pullout not only to look for oncoming vehicles but to listen for them as well, lest we find ourselves having to back up over this exposed shelf masquerading as a road.

People often refer to such drives as “bone jarring,” but that occurs only if you’re going too fast. At saner speeds it’s more like being in a slow-motion blender as the car pitches, yaws, rolls and bobs while the shock absorbers combat an endless succession of rocks and chuckholes.

The worst part came when we finally reached Onion Valley Reservoir, where weathered granite boulders protruded through the road surface at inconvenient locations, such as midway into or out of steep gullies. Weekend campers and fishermen–all with large 4-wheel-drive rigs–turned to watch us sway through this boulder garden, and I wondered if they were exchanging bets on when we would break an axle. I trusted Kelly’s driving, but found I had a death grip on my armrest, as though trying to help stabilize the car. I ordered myself to relax, but my hands kept renewing their clutch, seemingly of their own volition.

The short spur to Little Onion Reservoir was better, though, and I could feel my excitement growing as our goal drew near.

I’d first lain eyes on the Pine Forest Range from high in the Pueblo Mountains, which stretch across the Nevada/Oregon border near Denio. From that direction their jagged profile, seen end-on, dominates the southern skyline in an inverted V of gray-streaked cliffs, sheared and uplifted in the violent geologic dance of basin-and-range faulting. On subsequent outings, I’d gazed at them from other angles, always wondering what lay in their interior but never quite having time to find out. Now, I had about four hours’ daylight for a 6-mile hike–ample for a well-graded “moderate” trail.

But to my surprise, the road continued beyond the reservoir, passing a rude stable with two inquisitive horses before plunging into a wide grove of aspen. We started to follow it, but were halted by a mud puddle deeper than anything we cared to cross. Unless it doubled as a stable yard, the trailhead parking lot was nowhere in sight.

“Maybe we should just walk up the road?” I suggested even as I felt my expectations deflate. Because we’d planned the trip on the spur of the moment, we had no hiking map, just the DeLorme atlas and an expectation the parking lot would be marked. “Heck, maybe the road is the trail.”

We backed up and were preparing to park when a large vehicle, similar to the campers’ rigs we’d seen at the lake, appeared beside us. It too stopped as the driver stared at the puddle. “Just checking it out for deer season,” he said. “The road’s slow to dry this year.”

“Where does it go?” I asked.

“Nowhere in particular. It just winds around for a ways. I’ve never been to the end.”

“How far to the Duffer Peak trail?”

“Duffer Peak? You climb that from Blue Lakes, back there.” He waved toward Onion Valley Reservoir, where we’d seen a two-track marked “Blue Lakes Threshold.” “But the trail quits at the lakes. The peak’s back behind them. And you’ll never get that car up the road. You’ll have to walk the last mile.”

But he, too, underestimated Kelly and Suburu. We bounced a second time around Onion Valley Reservoir, the fishermen eyeballing us even more skeptically than before, then turned toward Blue Lakes. Unlike the Little Onion road, this one ended in a clearly defined parking lot, although one 50-yard stretch presented the worst boulder garden yet. But we survived, and I chose not to echo my long-ago friend’s after-the-fact comment about not taking my car up here.

It was now 5:00 pm. It had taken us three hours to drive 20 miles, and I still wasn’t sure which peak was Duffer. One summit rose directly out of the lake, topped by a 1,000-foot cliff–part of the sheer granite I’d seen from the Pueblos. I could climb it by ducking pines and boulder-hopping talus to a steep ridgeline that bypassed the cliff, but I wasn’t sure it fit the description of “back behind.” In the distance, another peak rose to a narrow point, steep but not cliff-bound. I couldn’t tell which was taller.

Thus it was that an hour later I found myself in the wake of the cattle, feeling like a walking manure pile. Kelly had opted out of the hike, preferring to relax near the lakes, so I set out solo, intending to stay low on the mountainside until I could determine which peak was taller. But often, it is easier to go up than to traverse. Each time I dodged a tree or boulder, I veered uphill until, as I came around the peak’s shoulder, I’d climbed at least 500 feet. There, to my horror, I concluded that the more distant peak was taller. I was a midway up the wrong mountain.

Feeling sunset drawing ever nearer, I descended into a meadowy valley, lush with wild iris. The cattle were here, gorging themselves on the flowers. They gazed at me for a frozen moment, then one lowed and all were in motion, trotting toward a low gap between two peaks shaped like pine-clad sombreros.

My target peak–the taller of the sombreros–was too steep to climb from this side, and the only hope seemed to be circling around it in the direction of the departing cattle.

But there was still no way to the summit. The moment I left the cattle trail for a less-polluted landscape, I encountered automobile-sized boulders festooned with aspens and limber pine–terrain in which hiking was to court a broken leg. There was nothing to do but backtrack to the iris meadow, adding to my manure collection with each step.

I was in a mood to match my aroma by the time I got there, beginning to wish I’d never heard of either cows or Duffer Peak.

But as I broke free of the aspen, I spied yet another, slightly more distant, peak I’d overlooked before. It could easily be the tallest, and with renewed determination I headed for the gentle, wooded valley leading toward it. Immediately, I stumbled onto a broad trail marked with yellow plastic ribbons.

Here it was at last, I thought, the Duffer Peak trail, obliterated in lower country by the spring growth of iris and repeated passage of all those cattle. I hiked rapidly upward until after a half-mile, the trail passed though another, higher meadow–and failed to emerge on the opposite side.

Time was running out. Although the walk back would be shorter than the circuitous route I’d taken so far, I had at most 45 minutes before I must turn around. I dug into my energy reserves and climbed rapidly, gaining several hundred feet in a grueling 10 minutes. Then I glanced behind–and saw that the trail had taken a 90-degree bend in the middle of the upper meadow. It was now slicing across the back side of the first peak I’d disdained as too low.

Frustration can do amazing things to one’s perceptions. Now, I persuaded myself that I’d been wrong, that the original peak was actually the tallest.

Again, I dropped back down hundreds of feet of hard-won elevation, intersecting the trail and practically running up it. For a quarter-mile, all was fine. Then, in a patch of big limber pine, the trail encountered a fence. I squeezed between two strands, dodged around more pines, crossed a ridgeline–and saw the trail descending toward another iris meadow on the far side of the mountain. I had found not the summit route, but a cow path connecting one upland pasture to another.

Having twice climbed halfway up a peak to no avail, I was desperate to reach the top of something. There wasn’t time for another choice, so I continued to press upward. Although the trail was gone, I was now in upland sage that offered steep but uncluttered walking, and 20 minutes later I reached a ten-foot granite outcrop with no more “up” in the immediate vicinity.

I was still unsure which of the three peaks was the highest, although it didn’t appear to be mine. But the view was stunning, and I forced myself to let go of my frustration and enjoy what I’d found. On north-facing slopes, the top 1,500 feet were clothed in some of the best stands of limber pine I’d ever seen. To the north, the big cliff dropped into Blue Lakes; beyond, snow gleamed on distant summits.

I lingered as long as possible, then took a steep shortcut back to the lakes, swinging from tree to tree to keep from plunging too quickly downhill.

“How was your hike?” Kelly asked, when I reached the car. “Do you know there are iris out here?”

“Yes,” I said, thinking: And they do wonderful things for a cow’s digestion.

We camped that night on a rocky promontory near the mud puddle that had stopped us earlier. I toyed with making a second summit attempt in the morning–walking up the road and seeking a trailhead somewhere beyond the puddle. But my frenetic scrambling had left me tired, and we had a long drive ahead. Instead, I took a predawn stroll to a nearby knob where 15-foot boulders supported a gnarly growth of mountain mahogany.

To the west, the tablelands, playas and canyons of the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge caught the first rays of dawn, with the swaybacked silhouette of California’s 9,800-foot Warner Range–the northwestern edge of the Great Basin–blue on the horizon, a hundred miles away.

Looking back toward Little Onion Reservoir, I could see the mud-puddle road emerging from the far side of the aspen grove, angling across sagebrush slopes without any sign of a parking lot. All three of yesterday’s peaks were out of sight behind a ridge, and I still had no idea which had been Duffer.

Later, I learned it was the taller of the two sombreros, best climbed from the vicinity of the mud puddle. From there, three miles of bushwhacking, including a steep ascent of the peak’s east side, will supposedly catch the summit.

Perhaps I’ll return someday to try again. But this is no hike for duffers.

© 2000 by Richard A. Lovett

All rights reserved.

First published in Nevada Magazine, July/Aug 2000.


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