6531 ft — 1991 m (1593 ft gain)
There is something in the Slumbering Hills. The unnamed high point is below 7000 feet in elevation and there are few riparian areas, only scattered springs, and absolutely no trees. Cheat grass and desiccated plants of sagebrush and saltbush communities show the struggles of fire and scabby recovery; mining pits and piles pock the numerous roads and tracks that traverse the range. It seems unappealing and easily unassuming from the highways where one glimpses higher, snow-capped mountains that rise in the distance, drawing sightlines to obviously higher horizons. And yet, the late evening light of each day turns a brief trick of alchemy as golden hour sets magic at play. Some of my favorite Great Basin imagery comes from these magical hills. Appropriately, the hills’ magic would trick me in other ways too.
For the past several months I have been working nearby, studying the paleogeography of obsidian and its use in the northern Great Basin, and this provided the opportunity to hike into the Slumbering Hills. Obsidian is absent from this range, but I wanted to get closer to the photographic magic I had experienced several years ago and, of course, find my way to the range’s high point. With this in mind, I left camp one afternoon with Joe Burfield, a collaborator on my current project, working our way into Humboldt Canyon below Awakening Peak. We climbed grassy slopes to gain an east-facing ridge, finding a barking pronghorn antelope as we approached the rocky outcrop of the summit. The climb was a pleasure that later turned to surprise as, downloading my images and checking my high point catalog, I realized that Awakening was not the apex of the range. It was the obvious summit in my early photo, and I had fixated on it, forgetting to check my catalog — I had led us to the wrong summit! Not the third time I have made this mistake. No worries, it simply meant another walk with Joe.
This time we traversed the base of the hills to a point further south, leaving the old site of Daveytown and following a sandy two-track to Pickhandle Pass. As we drove, we climbed into a garden of granitic knobs and outcrops, each a puzzling, bulbous crag or an impossible set of balancing boulders hosting little kingdoms of a ruling raptor or raven. Take Owens Valley’s Alabama Hills, bury it in alluvium, and lift it into the sky; it is something like that. We pointed and laughed at the surprising formations that kept popping into view. I had camped here year’s ago, approaching from the west, so I remembered the ridge-line two-track leading south from Pickhandle Pass. We parked somewhere near my old tent site, looking forward to a three-mile wander among the granite hoodoos to the range’s true, though unnamed, high point (I was sure this time).
Vast sand dunes ramp along the southern margin of the range; wind-driven remnants of an ancient course of the Humboldt River, from a time when it veered into Desert Valley to join the Quinn River, probably some time in the Late Pleistocene. Today, the wind was carrying loads of fine-grained desert loess from the playas of the Black Rock Desert and beyond – this is the magic dust that imbues the Slumbering Hills with its golden hour personality. It did not disappoint.
After a brief visit with a pronghorn antelope, yet again grazing below the summit, we climbed into the golden light of the summit, a cairn and register confirming that I had navigated correctly. The sun was setting as we paused for a time, bracing in the wind but warmed by the beautiful glow of the last light. We could look several miles north to see Awakening, where we had been only a few evenings earlier. Our descent would be in twilight, venturing into night. Joe’s headlamp eventually found the rig in the dark grass of the two-track. Our drive’s conversation would inevitably turn to the pleasure of having ventured into this bedraggled little range twice, not disappointed and by no measure a waste of time. We would roll into our camp near Orovada just prior to midnight, a worthy day of magical light.
My last few high point excursions – even the one that did not count – have been evening walks. While I enjoy the challenge of photography and will seek out a trail at all times of day, the golden hour of a Great Basin evening, with dust, straggling clouds, and wispy virga – the aborted promise of moisture – among the contrast and saturation of low-angle light, is the epitome of a day’s completion. I have often known summer heat to abate or winter storms to break with the fading light, as the energy of the day wanes and the sun’s last rays scrape the topography to pile shadows into canyons and stack highlights among outcrops and ridge lines. This is the time to wander and see; when the experience of the Great Basin is at once, and almost daily, sublime. The walk out can be dark, but the memories light the way.