Arc Dome and Columbine Campground

July 4

I drive from Reno, through Fallon and turn down toward Gabbs. Watch Gabbs getting closer for about 15 minutes but turn toward Ione and Reese River. Crossing into the Ione valley I get my first glimpse of the Toiyabe Range. I wanted to get here before sunset. Two weeks ago, flying from Salt Lake City to Reno with a stop in Elko, I saw clearly that the ranges were solidly packed in snow about 10,000' with quite a bit down to 9000'. Now, though, I see no snow at all, even on top of what I think is Arc Dome. Is it really gone? Or is it just the late day light making even snow look dark red?

Ione is actually flooded with people: must be a July 4th party there. Find the road to Columbine campground, with a sign "impassable to passanger [sic] cars". Ford the first two creeks without difficulty, but by the time I reach the third it's so dark I don't try. Pull off, lean back, sleep.

July 5

Next morning the ford is nothing. Farther along, a stretch of the road is loose gravel, but I follow a well worn bypass on dry ground. Road goes along the edge of a meadow, damp and rough but passable. A week or two earlier I could not have driven a small car up this road. Already I'm learning two things: first, why so many people here have 4WD vehicles. Second, that in the central Nevada mountains, avoiding water is going to be a more prominent theme than finding it.

Small campground is at 8500', already some 2500' above the Reese River valley. Indeed columbine is abundant. I set up camp, putter, and talk to some backpackers on their way out. The maps and signage for this area are confusing, so I figure I'll just set out hiking and try to figure out what's where.

In a couple of hours I'm above treeline. Spending a lot of time with maps and compass, partly trying to figure out just where I am on the maps, partly figuring out what I'm seeing in the distance. Easily see the next three basins and ranges to the west, and either the Clan Alpine or the Stillwater range to the northwest. Southwest, over 100 miles away, I clearly see the snowy crest of the Sierra Nevada. Little do I realize that this is one of the clearest days of my entire trip. The weather is about to change.

Been hiking on what's known as the "old jeep trail". One book mentions the ugly gash of the old road. I suppose that book was written a number of years ago. Much of the trail is now single track, with only the width between trees as a clue to the old use. It must have recovered quickly after wilderness designation (I don't know when that was). Above treeline, walking among mostly somewhat stunted sagebrush, the double track is more obvious but still seldom offensive. All in all it's a pretty trail.

By mid afternoon I'm up on the 11,000' plateau north of Arc Dome. Even sagebrush has trouble here, plastered against the ground, and the landscape is tundra. Rocks are covered with lichens, every rock splashed orange and light green and yellow, some with dark green and black. Small flowers permeate the land: purple and blue and yellow but mostly the white ones, in solid bunches a few inches across, the bunches in clusters a few feet or tens of feet across, the superclusters almost like snowbanks.

For the first time, I really seem to feel the elevation. I find it difficult to separate the effects of elevation from all the other variables of exercise, but here I really do seem to be breathing much more deeply for the perceived exertion.

The land exhilarates me, the miniatures and the grand view. So high above the basins, yet I'm walking in pleasant rolling hills. I wander to the south end of the plateau. Arc Dome dominates. Arc Dome looks like a dome only from certain angles — it's really a long arcing ridge — and this is not one of those angles. From here, it's a steep narrow peak, looking all the steeper because I'm looking at the slope face on. I know there's a trail up the ridge, and it still looks scary. A 700' foot drop to a saddle separates me from the mountain and the final 1200' climb, and I don't have time today.

View from across the Ione Valley was no deception. Snow is gone, except banks on the lee side of ridges. It melted quickly in the past two weeks. I won't have to deal with snow on Arc Dome.

Back to the trail intersection in the middle of the plateau; take the other fork. Totally dependent on cairns for a while, as the trail on the ground totally disappears. Soon I reach the edge of the plateau and I'm met by one of those snow banks. For someone with basic snow travel skills, this would be no big deal. But I take a couple of steps and realize that not only do I not know how far I can trust the snow, but also the bank becomes steeper and from the top I can't tell what the worst will be. I look for a way around. To the north it seems to go on interminably. I walk south, but soon I'm blocked by the vertical dropoff into a large cirque. There's one spot where a few steps on the snow would take me to solid ground below, but it's right at the edge of the cirque. I slip, I die. It's tempting but not that tempting. I move a few feet north to where a slip would only hurt, not kill, and pick my way. Down the trail I can see that going around the north end was feasible after all. Later I will figure out that one book recommends staying on the plateau all the way to the northernmost finger and then catching the trail at the saddle below, which also avoids a 200' retrograde.

But I'm on the trail and soon climb up to that saddle, at the top of the north fork of Stewart Creek. A short way down the trail I see other people for the first time since I left the campground: two young women, ornithologists who have spent the past several months doing a bird nesting study for the Great Basin Bird Observatory (I think), also associated with UNR and The Nature Conservancy. They've been doing nesting surveys on randomly selected sections across most of Nevada — started with the more accessible ones a few months ago, and are now near the end, doing the highest and most remote sections now that the snow is gone.

Way down the creek I come to a trail sign, another of the confusing signages in the area. Which way? The way I pick, I figure out later, is the wrong way. Yet it's officially part of the Toiyabe Crest Trail, which is a National Recreation Trail. Another CCC masterpiece rotting for lack of maintenance. I wish I had time to take a whole summer, organize volunteers, and refurbish the entire trail (some 50 miles) and all its side trails. Wouldn't be a bad place to work outside.

July 6

I figure that to get to the top of Arc Dome I have to start very early. By the time I get back to camp it's late. I decide on an easy day, more poking around figuring out how the trails fit together. Back up the Stewart Creek trail — the way I returned yesterday, but finding the lower part this time. I stop for a while at the intersection where I went the wrong way, just above the very wet meadow which obscured the right trail. As I rest, I hear something coming through the muck, then voices of men obviously looking for the trail. I call to them and they come up on their horses, whose hooves I'd heard pulling out of the muck.

We talk. One is originally from Gabbs, though he lives in Spokane now. They continue ahead, but soon I catch up with them. They've brought loppers and a saw. This section of the trail goes through aspen groves for about a mile, and they are clearing the many downfalls. I wish I'd brought a saw. I help them off and on for about an hour, until they move too far ahead too quickly.

I go up to the saddle and look up at the cross-country route to bypass the snow bank. I'm not going any farther up today but I'm still planning my route to Arc Dome for tomorrow. (Eventually I decide against the off-trail route, since I'm alone and haven't left detailed plans with anyone.)

July 7

That evening I prepare for an early start. I get up with the birds and hit the trail at 5:45 am. A mile up the trail I hear a ca-ca-ca over my head. I look up and see a very large bird. It continues the cry for quite a while before it stops.

In my hurry I skipped the hot tea, and I don't eat until I'm about a mile up the old jeep trail and take off my warm clothing. As I leave this stop I notice two people behind me. We wave, but they don't catch up with me until I'm stopped by a creek to filter water another mile or so along. During a brief conversation at this stop I mention that I'm 50. He mentions that his son is 50, and her son is 51. I think they are older than me.

Another couple of miles is a rivulet that I know from two days ago is the last water, so I filter two liters. The other two hikers are staying about ten minutes ahead of me — mostly the time I spend filtering water and hourly checking my blood sugar. I catch up with them on the plateau at the trail intersection. They are in the process of climbing every 11,000' peak in Nevada. They've climbed Arc Dome before, but at that time did not stop at a little bump on the plateau which is also on the list! So they've come this high again just for that bump.

They head for the bump, and I follow the trail to the end of the plateau, where I stopped two days ago. I look down along the ridge dropping between the plateau and Arc Dome and see a tent nestled in one of the few flat spots. I suspect it's the ornithologists again, as they said they had a section close to Arc Dome to survey. I'm right — I wave to one of them, and her dog, as I pass.

At the low point on the saddle is a small rock wall quadrangle, a windbreak for the windswept souls who camp here. Cold camp. Up the final slope. This part of the trail may be 125 years old. Part way up are the remains of two very small stone shacks. John Muir may have slept here — the cabins were built by an 1878 mapmaking crew for which he was a guide.

The trail is steep and the switchbacks short; it gets rockier as it gets higher. Finally nothing remains of the ground but a pile of rocks, and the summit arrives. Browse though the peak register and stare at the scenery in every direction for an hour. Air is hazier than it was two days ago, and the Sierra Nevada are not visible. Still, it's quite impressive to be higher than almost everything in sight. Almost? Yes, Mt Jefferson, in the Toquima Range about 20 miles to the east, is slightly higher.

It's a long walk down. Exhausted by the time I get back to the plateau, but after that it's all downhill. Arc Dome is the highest I've ever hiked (11,800') and this hike is the most total elevation gain I've done in 15 years (4700').

July 8

I carried my pruning saw, thinking I might have the energy to clear a few downfalls from the trail on the way back. Ha! Next morning I figure I'll do that before leaving the campground. Ornithologists are back at Columbine, having packed up and started down while I was on top of Arc Dome. I talk to one of them about the bird that called to me yesterday. I go up the old jeep trail and manage to clear every log. Near the end of the forest is where the bird called yesterday. It calls again and is joined by a second. I try talking back and one seems to come closer. Back at Columbine I give my more detailed report to the ornithologist, who says this is interesting enough that she might walk up and check them out. Probably Cooper's hawks, she says. Good to know. Better to say I observed a pair of Cooper's hawks than to admit I saw two Big Birds.

Next: Tweeners