ADVENTURER | DAVE ZOOK
Josh Colvin and I pulled off the pavement onto a dark dirt road where Josh‚ and mid-90s Subaru bounced and twisted through the ruts and potholes. As we approached our second turnoff after two hours on The Loneliest Road in America,‚ Highway 50‚ our sense of remoteness had only just begun.
Eyeing a white light in the distance, which turned out to be a well-placed lantern from Dan Norfleet, the third member of the trip and an Elko resident, we approached the camp. He had arrived a few hours earlier and was stoking a fire and rolling cigarettes in the dark. Well, we could just get started right now, make a bit of headway on tomorrow‚ which was the 'big day', Dan suggested. After a few beers, debating the merits of such an idea, and christening the bourbon, we were steadfastly convinced we should get moving, and right away.
We consulted the map to get a general sense of the route. The thing is, some of these trails are quite primitive, as Dan said. "Sometimes they aren't really anything; they just stop," Josh added. The duo had done a multi-day trek in the Toiyabe Range in the recent past and had thought up this trip. True to form, after five minutes we were vaguely following a trickling creek, lily pad hopping over rocks, and trudging up slippery hillsides. This was quite the exhilarating start. After about 90 minutes, we found a primitive camp with a plush bedding of grass and sticks and wound down the night.
The objective on this autumn trip was to summit Arc Dome‚ the highest peak in the Toiyabe Mountains at 11,722 feet. Starting from the South Twin Trailhead (on the range‚ east side whereas most approach Arc Dome from the west), it was around an 18-mile round trip with 5,000 feet of elevation gain. The forecast called for lows in the 20s and gusty winds on the ridgelines, with clear skies.
The next morning, we got up early and could now see our surroundings of red and brown rocky cliffs that shot up a few hundred feet into the dry air, and the aspens, sagebrush, and willows that lined the creek. We were in the belly of Belcher Canyon, coined as 'the gateway to the Toiyabes', by Dan for its narrow access point.
Emerging from the canyon, the terrain opened up, and we followed on an easy and smooth trail for a few hours. Breaking for lunch and to pump fresh water, we decided we would gain the long ridgeline that linked to the summit instead of through a canyon that was perhaps more direct. A layer of snow was locked into the north-facing pockets, creating a combo of ankle-deep trekking and scrambling up dry grass and cobblestone.
On the ridge, we were making our own route and picked our way through the heavy limber pine clusters before rising past the treeline. The broad ridge slimmed out, and we ascended three successive steep pitches to flat shelves. Directly before the summit, we clamored over a field of sharp rocks, the wind picking up and my socks soaked through from the snow. At around 3 p.m., we rested at the peak, snapped some photos, and refueled with a standard summit fare.
The line of sight shot all the way to the lake-flat valley. Arc Dome is one of only 57 peaks in the country with a 5,000-foot prominence. Prominence, as I learned, is the elevation difference between a peak and the lowest contour that encircles said peak and no higher summit. Imagine a tiny island with a palm tree as its highest point; the prominence would be from the top of the palm tree to sea level. This translated to a feeling of being a world above the desert.
Our route continued up and over the summit. We would cut down into the drainage to the east, and seek out camp for the night. Following this canyon out the next day, we would link back to the trail we had come in on and to the finish.
Stepping off the ridgeline, we slipped and stumbled down a deep and loose-dirt hillside that fed into an icy creek at the drainage, the base. The other side of the stream was a steep, rocky snow-covered slope, and the slow bushwhacking commenced. Dan typically charged ahead and broke trail through walls of willows, agonizing side-hill traverses, and thick sagebrush that lined the ground.
Anything that approached flat was next to the frigid water and thus covered in six inches of snow. A point of absurd adventure came when battling a thick web of aspens. Hundreds of them were down and dead, creating a pick-up-sticks-like pile of land bridges. Balancing and jumping from one to the next was the only way through.
A couple hours into the night and the guys found a small, essentially flat area. In minutes we had a fire going, with just enough oomph left to make noodles and take sips of tequila, as the night became bitterly cold as soon as we stopped moving. The bright moon and the orange light of the embers bounced off the pockmarked aspens, creating an eerie web of gaunt, glowing tree limbs dangling above us. After a few boxes of cheap pasta, sleep came fast and easy.
"There is no way I can put these on right now,"Josh said in the morning, holding up his ice block of a boot with stiff laces. The remaining six miles or so allowed us time to rekindle the fire, warm up, and de-ice our shoes before finishing the trail off.
After an hour we were back on the trail, which felt like the interstate after the canyon schlepp. As the vehicles came into sight on the steep switchbacks that led to the parking lot, a pickup pulled into the trailhead, cruised through, and then took off, marking the only other humans we had seen since starting.
On the way home, we stopped in the Highway 50 town of Austin, indulged in cheeseburgers at a Serbian diner, celebrating our summit crossing and spending a few days in the remote and raw landscape. The owner, Vick, an emigrant to America years ago, saddled up behind the bar to chat.
He told us tales of hanging with his gun-running uncle in Serbia in the 1940s, and we told him of our recent trek. Seemingly happy to have a little company, he sent us on our way with a shot of Serbian plum brandy on the house and we cheered in Serbian: Ziveli!