Climbing Boundary Peak

14 January 2016

Boundary Peak is Nevada’s highest point. Boundary gets its name from the fact that it lies right on the border between Nevada and California. It’s in the White Mountain Range and is the lowest of the major peaks in that range. But it’s the only one that is on the Nevada side of the border, and it’s higher than Wheeler Peak, which is located in the eastern part of the state, so it gets to claim the title. It has always bummed me out that Nevada's highest mountain rests in a place where you stand on top of it and be looking up at another mountain less than a mile away.

I got in on this trip with relatively short notice. I found the Sierra Mountaineering Club online and they posted a trip that I had originally looked at and figured I couldn’t make it. After talking a bit at home and looking at my schedule, I realized I could and that I’d give it a shot.

The date of the trip was December 19. The point was to do a winter ascent, which the trip’s leader had never completed. Of the rest of us, only one other guy had ever even been to the mountain—the failed attempt last winter. We would meet up at 6 AM and drive up the road as far as we could before the snow stopped us, then hike from there.

One thing I neglected to notice on my calendar was the dinner with several friends that we had planned a couple of months earlier. That dinner was on December 18. While most of the team was going to be driving down (or up, depending on where you lived) on Friday night, I had a decision to make. I decided to also drive down that night, after dinner, and arrive in the range of about 2 AM. I got a few hours sleep in the back of my small SUV, but felt pretty ready to go at call time.

After some brief introductions, we all jumped into one of the guy’s trucks and started up the hill. We used the road to the Queen Mine. About a mile past the mine is a saddle that acts as parking and the summit trailhead. We made it just past the mine, so we loaded up and started hiking. The 4.5 mile hike to the summit was now going to be about 5.5 miles. Still not bad at all, but a little slower due to snow. And my damn boots.

From the trailhead you begin a quick little ascent. After about a mile, it levels off as you gain the first ridge on the trail. That ridge is about a mile and a half long and even descends slightly. It’s a fast section. At the end, you reach the first real saddle on the trail. It’s at about 10,800 feet and it was cold. It was the point where the realization that the weather forecast of -7 F on the summit hit me that it was probably accurate. Taking gloves off to take a photo hurt. And it hurt for a little while after.

At this point, you’re sitting at about 3.5 miles into a 5.5 mile hike. But that’s when the climbing really begins. It’s not a particularly steep hill—we did the remaining 2500 feet in about 2.2 miles—but there is a lot of loose rock and with snow on the ground, it was a stability nightmare. Couple that with my boots, which are double plastics and way more suited for strictly snow than this combination due to their stiffness and incredible warmth, and I can say that I had a rough day.

Those last two miles took about two hours of moving time and a lot more time in general. I was the slowest by a decent margin. I contemplated turning around pretty much constantly while I went those last couple miles. The biggest factor in stopping me from doing that was that I’d probably have to walk all the way down to my own car, which I figured in my head would be harder than making the summit, then walking down and getting a ride the last few miles. Seriously. I thought about this a lot.

On top of the difficulty I was having, which by the way was not only with my boots—I was tired, possibly from lacking a lot of sleep the night before and maybe from the altitude—the weather was getting exciting. We got snowed on and it was windy. At the second saddle, it was howling. Most of us put crampons on at this point. We had another mile or so and 1300 feet at this point. I was getting slower and it sucked.

I probably fell a good half hour or more behind the best of the climbers from here to the summit. I kept thinking about how I wanted to go back, but I could see the summit. Once the lead group reached it, I knew I was close. As I moved along nearer the top, it just kept getting later. The group at the summit, when I was about 50 feet below, called out for me to ditch my pack and just get up there. We had to start moving back down quickly.

I left my pack and moved as quickly as I could. It still wasn't fast. Snow was falling like crazy and it was really cold. Visibility was virtually nil. We couldn't even really see Montgomery Peak just about a half mile away to the southwest. We took a photo at the top and began to head down.

The trip down, while slightly faster, wasn't much easier. The instability of the footholds made for a challenge. Footwork is critical when wearing crampons, and footwork is much harder when you're exhausted. The combination of boots, loose rock, and tiredness caused me a fair bit of slipping on the way down. I tore the knee in my pants and scraped myself up pretty good. And I was still pretty slow.

We got back to the first saddle as it got dark enough to don headlamps. So we walked the rest of the way in the cold, virtually silent, with just enough vision to see what was directly in front of us. That two miles over the ridge was an eternity. I didn't remember it being so long, which is normally not the case. I have a much harder time, as I suspect most people do, with the way up the mountain than with the way down. I usually remark that I can't believe what seemed so brutally difficult was really not all that long. But this time, it was the opposite on this part of the hike. That section was very long and very difficult mentally for me.

As we reached the trailhead, I actually felt refreshed. I wasn't feeling perfect, but I was feeling better, suggesting that the altitude had a greater effect on me than I had realized. In retrospect, I did all the things you are supposed to be aware of to avoid. I drank far less than I should have. I ate far less than I should have. I attribute it to the severe cold. I was unwilling to do much other than sit and stay warm when we stopped, so I didn't get into my pack for water or food. That was really dumb. I can only hope that I learned from it and don't make that mistake again.

We reached our cars at around 7:30 at night. It was almost a twelve hour day, which I think was longer than any of us had anticipated. The weather really did make it tougher, but it was quite a good experience in less than ideal conditions. I made a few mistakes that I should be able to use to make myself better. I climbed with a group of very capable, really cool people. My first experience doing anything with the Sierra Mountaineering Club was a very good one. After saying goodbyes, I got into the car and made the long trek back to Reno.