Mt. Charleston, Nevada
Mt. Charleston (elev. 11,918 ft.) is located forty minutes north of Las Vegas in the Toiyabe National Forest. This climb offers an excellent 4,000 ft. challenge for a long single-day summit attempt, or
broken up as a great overnighter. Unfortunately, there are no decent topos available. Visit the Park
Ranger office to pick up the only available trail maps.
There are two basic approaches to the summit, both very different in character. The first is The South Loop. This climb begins at Cathedral Rock Picnic Grounds. The second approach is from the north, this even more appropriately named The North Loop. The latter should definitely be done as an overnighter, as it's a bit longer of a hike. Both approaches will be discussed here.
The South Loop
The trail starts out gradually for the first mile, then begins to steepen. Please note that I climbed this route in mid-March and the winter snows were still very much in place. Should this be attempted in the winter months, be aware of the very real avalanche danger. If attempted in the warmer months, a series of switchbacks help to bring you up to the rim. However, in March the trail does not exist,
thus it is basically a straight shot to the rim top at about a fifty-five degree angle. It was evident the
day I climbed that snowboarders had been there a couple of days earlier. This location definitely
offers some extreme boarding and skiing terrain. I'll discuss my radical descent later.
Once up on the rim, there remains about a five-mile hike with about another 1,000 ft. of elevation gain
to the summit. The walk, for the most part, is along the canyon rim, offering good northern views
along the way. As you approach the peak, the terrain becomes steeper and snowless, as the
westerly prevailing winds manage to keep the western face of the summit clean of snow. This
mountain range is the first set of mountains to get hit by wind coming in off the Pacific, and man can it hit hard. At night, I experienced steady winds at 40-50 mph with gusts to 60 mph+. If you're going to
spend the night on this mountain, be prepared for high winds. And don't forget the ear
plugs, as the wind sounds like a couple of 747s are parked outside the tent with engines at full throttle.
In the approach to the summit of Charleston from the south, one encounters something a bit out of
the ordinary for back country travel - the remains (engines and electronics) of an airplane crash that
occurred in the 1960's. According to the Forest Ranger, it was some kind of top-secret military
plane. Needless to say, right after the plane crash the mountain was closed off to any unauthorized
personnel until all the classified debris could be gathered up. Now the Forestry people have to
contend with an impending problem of cleaning up what's left. A law exists on the books that states
that any objects on government land for more that 35 or 40 years become a permanent part of the
land; so they are faced with either removing the remaining wreckage or living with it for the next hundred years or so, until it disintegrates. I'm not sure of the half-life of aircraft aluminum.
The summit of Mt. Charleston sits higher than any of the other peaks in the region, thus offering
A view from the rim.
Final summit approach from the Western Face.
an astounding 360-degree view. On a clear day you can see for more than 200 miles. The view includes Las Vegas which lies about 30 miles away. You'll also find a canister containing a registry.
The descent off the rim is where things got a bit tricky for me. This was my first attempt at glissading, sans any self-arresting lessons. Well, things were going OK for a while. As you may know, glissading can be a fun way to make a descent and offers a way of making quick time back to camp. Anyway, I reached a section that looked like it had good runoff as long as things didn't get to out of control. Well, things got out of control; I wasn't able to make good use of the ice ax in my feeble attempt to slow down, and actually was gaining speed as I fast approached a hundred foot drop off. Having given up on gaining any purchase with the ice ax, I started clamoring for any kind of handhold that was available. At the last possible second, I grabbed onto a boulder that was perched at the edge of the cliff and stopped myself from plunging to serious injury or possibly worse.
The whole trip was about 12 hours. I recommend bringing snowshoes up to the rim as it may be
difficult to predict the conditions at the top. Every fifth step or so I was breaking through the crust
and post-holing up to my thigh.
The North Loop
I attempted the summit from this route in mid-November. There are two approaches to the North
Trail. One longer than the other. I chose the shorter of the two. After about two miles of steady
climbing you'll approach a horse trough. Just above the trough is a small cave that makes a good spot to bivy for the night, which I attempted to do, until the snow started. After a while, it started to pile up under what can really be considered a rock overhang, so I broke out the tent.
From the cave, the trail meanders up though a series of winding, long switchbacks. After you pass a
col that sits between Mt. Charleston and _________, the trail levels off and wraps its way around the canyon wall that has a very steep 2,000 foot dropoff. This is where I encounter my biggest problem. With about three to four feet of snow covering the face, the trail disappeared. Because of the steepness of the dropoff, snowshoes were out of the question because of their lack of lateral purchase. So I was confronted with covering about of mile of post-holing up to the knee, with very real danger of the snow up above starting to slide. Well, I attempted it anyway, doing the walk a little further, turning around and heading back down for a few steps, stopping and turning around and continuing. I'm sure others must have been confronted with this scenario at least once before.
I made it around the face of this canyon to the start of about a thousand-foot vertical climb up the
north face, which offered a series of switchbacks up to the summit. It was at this point that I decided to turn around for real. I felt the hike back along the canyon face would be long and hard. And being more fatigued would have turned it into a potentially deadly situation. So I got close, but no cigar, on
The other possibility that exists on Mt. Charleston is combining the North/South Loop. Without snow, it would make for a great weekend hike. With the snow, you'll be traveling a little heavier; but with two people sharing the load, you'll have a good, fairly technical challenge.
Contact information: Las Vegas Ranger District 702.872.5408
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