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We visited AREA 51, climbed highest peak in Nevada

  • 12 min to read
buttermilk confusion

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a continuing series by Ashland mountaineer Adam Fox, a Source Media employee, who is on a quest to scale the highest peak in each state, dubbed highpointing. Read past climbs here: UtahOhio/IndianaAlabama/Mississippi/FloridaOregonCaliforniaRhode IslandDelawareKansas/NebraskaWyomingNew MexicoNew YorkWest VirginiaColoradoTennessee/Georgia/SouthCarolina/NorthCarolina/Kentucky/VirginiaMinnesotaMissouri, Arkansas & LouisianaHawaii and Montana.

State Highpoint Attempt #42, June 25-29, 2020, Nevada

The legends were true -- if you could navigate your way into the never-known Nevada desert and arrive at the secret gate for AREA 51, the white truck would appear.

After being monitored via drone, satellite and roads with motion sensors and buried scales for miles before, we finally arrived at the gate of the world’s most top-secret military installation. The “camo patrols” or “Men In Black” (MIB) were already waiting, watching.

“I’m not taking any pictures,” climbing partner Chad Emmons said through the chapped lips of the dry air. 

“The aliens don’t care. They are reading my mind right now and know I’m not a threat,” I said. 

It’s a historical data point that in 1947 what some believe was an alien spaceship crashed in Roswell, New Mexico, and the surviving aliens were taken to a secret military base in Nevada called “AREA 51.”

Then, the U.S. military was all like, “We want to spy on people, can you help?” and the aliens were all like, “OK, here’s how to make a U-2 Dragon lady, and SR-71 Blackbird and if you want to develop some real crazy sh**, check out stealth technology and this F117 Nighthawk.”

Some totally crazy people think there aren’t aliens at AREA 51, and the site was developed because it was a massive salt flat in the middle of nowhere that could serve as an airport for newly developed, top-secret U.S. military aircraft. 

In the 1950s, the CIA wanted a spy plane that could go higher, longer and be more undetectable. The advanced project development division within the agency was known as “Skunkworks,” headquartered in Burbank, California. But it was going to be hard to run test flights of the newly developed U-2 without being noticed. The salt flat was the solution as it was already restricted air space due to missile and atomic testing. The Atomic Energy Commission made grids of the testing ranges and assigned them numbers, and that section was AREA-51, also known as the “paradise ranch.”

But that’s all Nonsense. It was an alien exploitation facility, plain and simple. 

To reach AREA 51, C. Emmons and I headed northwest from Las Vegas for a couple of hours and took the “Extraterrestrial Highway” to an unmarked dirt road. The ET Highway got its name because travelers would see crazy lights and aircraft they couldn’t identify and thought it was a UFO hotbed. Really, it was just the planes and top secret projects being tested at AREA 51.

Or was it???? 

To our surprise, the security gates weren’t lifted and we couldn’t go all the way into the base. We sand strolled beside the gate and waited for someone or something to approach. It was just a stare down with the white truck. The MIB had probably been waiting in the sun for years, perched on the hill ready to snipe a moron like me that crossed the easy-to-cross barbed wire border. The signs have always been clear around the gates of AREA 51: ”Use of Deadly Force Authorized.” 

Luckily, eventually, an alien came out to greet us and we got some autographs and some selfies and it became time to switch gears to mountaineering. 

Three more hours of desolation driving through vast open desert spaces saturated with foothills off in the distance and we arrived at the base of Boundary Peak, near the California state line.

C. Emmons’ cousin and Ashland native Seth “Emos” Emmons, who has been living in Los Angeles for the past 16 years, drove up and met us at the highway turnoff.

We were like the three bears in Goldilocks, C. Emmons was super tall and skinny, shaved head, I was 6-foot-1, a little thicker and thinning hair and Emos was slightly shorter, had a more muscular, rounder build and featured long hair. C. Emmons' pace was always too fast, Emos’ was a bit too slow, and could you believe it, my pace was just right, lol. 

The area was the northern region of the White Mountains within the greater Inyo National Forest. We didn’t need permits and could set up basecamp wherever we wanted. 

Research showed the now abandoned Queen Mine still had 4x4 access roads running through the lower part of the mountain. Although we scratched the hell out of the rented Ford F150, we got to the entrance of the Queen Mine at 9,200 feet. But we could drive higher along a death trail and we opted to keep going. 

There was a point where the right tire track path was much higher and so uneven the truck felt like it was going to roll over and send us into an endless barrel roll down the hill to our demise. 

“Everyone lean right!” I yelled.

The path spit us out at a “saddle,” a flat space between two mountain faces or hills at 9,700 feet. 

“Don’t get me wrong; I leaned right, but I was pretty confident with the grade and rocks, we would have wedged the truck into the mountain and not died,” Emos said. 

Weeks leading up to a climb, you always check the summit weather. I use Mountain Forecast and it was calling for rain, so we quickly set up three individual tents (due to Corona). The sunset offered views across the state line into the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, and the vast desert plains of Nevada. It also brought in the cold. 

It was the first time I’d done desert climbing, where you hike in the day at 95F degrees and then it drops to 50F at night. Been a lot warmer sleeping on a glacier than I was at the beginning of the first night, tucked deep in my sleeping bag, shivering against the cool air blasts that were channeled through the saddle valley.

We’d been traveling for almost 20 straight hours coming from Ohio, but sleep was still difficult with the cold and lack of oxygen. 

Didn’t set an alarm and it was easy to tell when the sun was rising as the illumination grew in my tent. With COVID-19, we all had separate everything, food, water, pots, bowls, etc., which added a lot more weight since we couldn’t share gear. 

Summit attempt day! There was no better feeling. 

The first mile of the trail was a gradual uphill hike to a massive plateau that would connect to the true base of Boundary Peak. 

Sunrise oranges and pinks flooded the horizon, but that was nothing compared to seeing a wild Mustang pack breakfast grazing on the pass. The long, unkempt manes blowing in the wind, just needed a flapping American flag in the background and it would have been a perfect truck commercial. 

With the Boundary Peak massif in full view, we dug our poles in and hiked to the base where the mountain dramatically angled upward and the real hiking and climbing was to begin. 

The high desert winds and erosion made the footing loose and sandy so sometimes you’d take a step only to slide right back down. 

The top mountain cone or triangular peak of Boundary had a lot of prominence. The easiest way to the summit was to follow the ridgeline. Lots of exposure but no death fall spots. 

Halfway up the cone, route finding became difficult because as all the boulders looked the same and you couldn't see around them like you could five feet lower. 

To give you a sense of scale and size, look at the picture below. Do you see two black dots at the top of the ridge? That’s us. 

Two dots on a ridge
Close up of dots on ridge

The elevation gain was close to a 1,000 feet-a-mile, which meant steep grades and knees grinding to dust on the descent. 

C. Emmons and I had been talking earlier about the climbing documentary, “Meru,” so I tried to be all “Conrad Anker” and let him go up to the summit first and have a little alone time up there. 

My training in Ohio was weak and the euphoria I felt at the top was more about the physical burden being half done than it was about completing my 42nd state highpoint. 

The last mile to basecamp burned my quads and every time I looked down at my knees I expected them to bend inward. 

Tearing down basecamp after a summit feels like you're moving through jello. You’re windburnt, sunburnt, mentally gone, dehydrated and would be fine leaving everything behind. 

With the wind, we needed to go down at least 500 feet to cook, and since we were still in the treeless alpine zone, we baked in the sun and choked down warm red beans and rice. 

The Second Quest--Upper Horton Lakes 

It was a short ferry across the state line into California and to the Buttermilk Ranch Boulder Fields. A century ago, prospectors would come down from the mountains and drink the rich buttermilk the farm had. But the insanely hot summers (it was 94F) and the millions of pounds of winter snow mixed with underbearing mines, left the area quite abandoned. 

It had been miles since anything paved was seen and the boulders were smooth cream-colored eggs the size of houses surrounded by the flat bush fields of thorn and prick. 

At 5:42 p.m. we arrived at the trailhead -- we’d be climbing and traveling for 12 straight hours. Time to get on the Horton Lakes trail and see how far we could get before collapse. 

As soon as you crossed the state line you brushed up against some of America’s most glorious landscapes all within a couple hours of each other: the most elite big wall climbing in the world is in Yosemite, the hardwood giants of Sequoia National Park, the vast valleys of Kings Canyon National Park, the lowest point in the U.S. in Death Valley National Park and the highest point in the lower 48 with Mt. Whitney.

The downside was that it was the most policed nature area on the planet.

With 39 million people in California plus tourists flocking to the hills. These were the Sierras that became every framed painting sold at garage sales and the landscape shots for coffee table books and sorority girl bedroom posters, the famed John Muir Wilderness and skyscapes capture by Ansel Adams. They had become full of poop, trash, general human overpopulation and more forest fires. So they over-regulated to compensate. 

In order for us to sleep in the John Muir Wilderness in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, we had to get a permit and pass an orientation with a ranger. Usually, it’s a lottery or everyone crashes the reservation site the day the permits were open for purchase. But because of COVID-19, they were just releasing them and I was able to procure one to the Horton Lakes region at the last minute. 

During my permit orientation via phone, the ranger paused and said an earthquake was happening.

“Get little ones like that all the time,” he said.

One of the reasons Horton isn’t often traveled is because it’s very hard to get to the trailhead -- through the lower desert, past the enormous milk ball boulders and up terrain that defined “rocky road.” 

Team morale was not high when our legs reluctantly began stair-stepping up the trail at 8,000 feet. There was a river a little over a mile in; we could camp there as water was a must for cooking and hydrating. 

But the beta I received about the distance was off, and it was 1.75 miles in and the team thought I was just lying to get them to go further. 

Do you like mosquitos? Tell the truth. You love ‘em, right? The river area ecosystem housed the worst mosquito breeding ground my vinegar-smelling skin had ever known. 

You had to double layer your pants and add a jacket, but it was still hot as hell and you’d been carrying a 35-pound pack so you just boiled under your hood. 

Mosquito nets over your face held back 10-to-15 that would land on the screen, with the vigor of their high-pitched hissing aggression. Lift the net to drink at your own risk. Cook food and quickly shove the fork in and out and close the netting. They fly into your water. Terminators actually were molded after the bugs of the Horton Lakes region. 

Just after 10 p.m., with the Earth’s moon rotating on its axis and shining over the valley, the bugs disappeared. Lifted my net like the veil of my bride, hoping for a most romantic future. 

One team member really had to move his bowels, but the bug fear put him in his tent. A mental note was made and I limped out of my sleeping bag at 5:30 a.m., determined to get up before the mosquitos so that I wouldn’t have 10 bites on my butt before breakfast. 

Emos was sure we didn’t make the same mistake about breaking down camp.

“Before we set out for Horton Lakes, what do we think about packing everything up, so when we return, all we have to do is put on our backpacks on and hike out?” Emos asked. 

The bug army was just marching in as we were purifying water in the creek and hiking up through the inclined valley. 

Creating the right side of the valley wall was the mighty Mt. Tom. He’s the front figure of the range. At 13,658 feet, old Tommy welcomed all the brave warriors and then patted them on the arse as they exited, beaten, broken and without recollection of their family name. 

The left valley wall was a bunch of tall granite peaks lumped together with slashes down their front faces from the snow melt that created the down-flowing river scars.

Thousands of feet of elevation had been gained and we happened upon some old mining infrastructure. They mined ore until 1946 when a fire destroyed most of the installations and upper tram terminals. A snow slide in 1951 wiped out the rest. Absolutely insane to think of the work behind people blazing a trail all the way up there, looking for shiny things in the ground like ferrets. 

Yes, Lower Horton Lake is one of the most beautiful postcard shots you could find. But that’s just it -- I picked that area because of that photo I’d seen -- the beyond clear water, granite spires and snow peaks in the background, red-trunked Sierra pines in the foreground. But I wanted something rarely seen. 

“I think if we continue west to the end of the lake, we’ll find some sort of river tributary thing, and if we follow that all the way up,” I said.

“Nothing can stop me. We’re all the way up,” Emos said.

Fat Joe's “All the Way UP” was the musical theme of the adventure. 

“If we follow that river, that should lead us to Upper Horton Lakes, which doesn’t show up on AllTrails but does on Google Earth,” I said.  

Emos decided to stay at the lake and meditate and explore the inner workings of thought. He was a billowing introvert, fueled by the consumption of literature and the complete evaluation of “fact.” 

C. Emmons and I set off on the trail but I felt bad about leaving Emos behind. 

“He’ll be fine. It’s what he wants to do. I’m the older cousin, and when I would go over for a sleepover at age 5, Emos would read me a story before bed,” C. Emmons said. 

Ahhh, bushwacking. No trail, just you and the underbrush slashing your shins, even with long dry-quick pants, and the uncertainty and heat and lack of oxygen and where the hell are we going?!?!

Boulders the size of boxcars stacked on top of each other like dominos, and we climbed up to survey the scene. The valley ended into a rock wall. No way out. No way beyond. Time to turn back and go like, meditate with hippie boy. 

But wait, what’s that? A waterfall with such hydro force the spray caused by the impact on the rocks below it sent a shimmer across the valley and I pointed and said, “Only a mountain lake could produce that run. If we can get to the top of the waterfall, we’ll find Upper Horton Lakes.”

Just below the falls we picked up a very lightly treaded trail only discernible by the cairns, or series of rocks stacked on one another that served as trailmarkers. 

We were on our second marathon in as many days and at 10,000 feet I just didn’t have it. Couldn’t go on. Compression breathing wasn’t helping. C. Emmons was a relentless mountain beast that thrived where oxygen died and laughed at cramps and body fat and frowned upon drinking alcohol after a workout and I couldn't cope it was time for me to crawl under a spruce and die. 

“That looks like a lake!” C. Emmons said, peering down river into the open gleam of sun reflecting off a big body of water. 

Listen, ego or whatever aside, I’ve seen some mountain features, and few compared to Upper Horton Lake. Think of a massive college football stadium like The Horseshoe. The lake was the field and mountains were the stands. But there’s no lower bowl. Just the steep jagged walls that maybe three humans have scaled.  

The glory was short-lived as we had to downclimb back to the lower lake, then back to our camp, then hike out with the end destination being the boulder fields.

It’s weird; when writing this I remember a lot of punishment. Tired and out of breath and never sitting quite comfortably and eating out of bags and pores filled with filth or broken off mosquito straws. But in the moment, you’re just looking at the cloud-splitting Mt. Tom and all the plants are foreign to you and you just want to live there, forever. 

The next day we parted ways with Emos, and on the way back to the Vegas airport C. Emmons and I took sometimes-single-laned mountain passes over the range and back into the unwelcoming Nevada desert. Randomly, we pulled off to piss along a no-cars road and saw a small sign: “Nothing Happen Here, Billy Queho.” 

Queho was the most notorious outlaw in Nevada’s wild west history, and we came across a spot of pure historical landmark irony. Someday, I hope someone makes a road sign that honors me in the same respect: “Doc was here and used to say, ‘summit pic or obit.’ But no one really cared either way.”  

In order to complete the 50 state highpoint quest, I need 8 more summits. Here’s the breakdown:

There are two easy hikes with White Butte in North Dakota (3,506 ft.) and Black Mesa in Oklahoma (4,975 ft.).

Two moderate climbs left in Guadalupe Peak in Texas (8,751 ft.) and Humphrey’s Peak in Arizona (12,635 ft.). 

And four extreme climbs left, in order of hard to hardest: Borah Peak in Idaho with the infamous “Chicken Out Ridge” section with death falls on both sides, Mt. Katahdin in Maine during the northeast winter, Mt. Rainier in Washington, the most difficult glacier climb in the lower 48 states and Denali, 20,310 feet of pure Alaskan madness and the hardest mountain in North or South America to summit, and the sixth hardest in the world (Everest is #5, for perspective). Only one person has ever soloed Denali in January, where there can be only 4-5 hours of sunlight a day. 

Adam Fox mug shot

Adam Fox, Ashland Source Columnist

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