Friday, January 15, 2010

Baptism of fire: Salt Tram Outing Gone Bad!

Salt Tram history is rapidly disappearing, and we are striving to rediscover the efforts of our forefathers in order to give proper recognition to their hopes, dreams and abundant sweat from an era that is rapidly fading from our memories. We are actively seeking out information about the mining of Salt in Saline Valley between 1903 and the 1940's, including: documents, photos, articles, stories, artifacts, etc. If you can help us out, please email us at the address above.
Thank-you! --Tim and Brian Waag, the Waag brothers (aka E. Clampus Waagus).
Caution (PLEASE READ): Climbing around on the tramway is dangerous because its really old and defnitely unsafe, so don't even think about it. Shoot, just getting to it requires some perilous hiking, and if you don't believe me, just take a look at the Zig Zag Access Trail (or what's left of it). Plus, climbing on it weakens it and endangers your life. Also, the Saline Valley Salt Tram is on the National Register of Historic Places and should be treated with the respect that it deserves. What little remains is of great historic value, and should not be disturbed in any way. Heck, its probably against the law to move parts of the tram around, and certainly a crime to take home some of the few bits of it that remain (though you'd have to ask your friendly local BLM agent for details). So please treat it with the respect it deserves, so that future generations can enjoy whats left, without you messing it up. Really. Please. You can see its listing on the National Register of Historic Places at these web links:

QUESTION 1: Rehike the Wendell Moyer route from the bottom of the Zig Zag trail in Daisy Canyon to the floor of Daisy Canyon, and take photos of the "Chimney" and the 80 foot fall that they encountered on the difficult day, in order to better illustrate Wendell's story.

Introduction: You can find this story by the hiking and exploring stalwart Wendell Moyer (now deceased), at the link below (though at the link below, the article is incomplete, as it is missing many paragraphs, and instead repeats about 15 or 20 paragraphs of the story - so the best place to read up on this one is here!):

You can also read about the sad events of 64 year old Wendell's passing while downclimbing after summiting Navado Ojos del Salado in the Andes in Chile at 22,600 feet (by Steve Smith) at:

Sadly, Wendell's story is mangled on the Sierra Club website (the only place where I know that it still exists), with a large number of paragraphs repeated, and some apparently missing. I am hoping that somebody has an original, unmangled version of this compelling modern day Salt Tram drama. Anyways, I deleted the 20 or so paragraphs that were repeated in the story, and identified where I think the missing pieces of the story are located. My commentary is denoted with [bracketed] text. Enjoy this story and take heed of the many dangers of hiking unprepared in the Inyo Mountains.

Update 1/16/2010: A heads up reader of this Salt Tram website, Corbett, pulled a rabbit out of his hat, by emailing me the missing pages to Wendell's manuscript! I was ecstatic! Finally, the missing pieces to the story. More than a decade ago, Corbett managed to get a hold of a copy of the manuscript directly from Mr. Moyer, and rustled it up out of his archives in order to email the missing pages 9, 10, 11, and 12 to me (from Alaska)! So this morning, I eagerly printed out the missing pages (scanned by Corbett), figured out where they belong in the story, and typed them in where they appear below. I left in my bracketed text just for the fun of it. This is one of the reasons for this website - so people with things to contribute to the amazing Salt Tram Story can find us and add to the collective history of a most incredible time in American history!

Caution from the Waag Brothers: We have included a few notes of our own regarding statements made in this story: Following the Salt Tram pack trail on the eastern side of the Inyos is difficult and arduous, and should not be taken lightly (Wendell's story below will attest to that). Indeed, the trail does disappear in several places, leading to perilous downclimbing at times. Wrong turns can lead to grave mistakes. Though Wendell states at the end that Daisy Canyon can be downclimbed the entire way without ropes, that may no longer be true. We have witnessed dramatic changes in the bottom of Daisy Canyon, and what was once an easy downclimb may now have a giant wedged chockstone and no longer by downclimbable, so I wouldn't depend on that escape route. Instead, you need to scout the routes ahead of time like we did, then when you know the entire way to go, go for it.

Actually, on our end-to-end Salt Tram hike in October 2006, we made a huge mistake that we almost paid dearly for (hmmm...strangely similar to Wendell), though we did have plenty of water for our (mis) adventure. As it turns out, we didn't know the entire pack train route, and made the mistake of going down the Daisy Canyon Narrows just below Control Station 2 (needless to say, we missed the actual trail - which we found on a subsequent trip - but we were real close!). I'll toss in a few photos so that you can see what we hiked down with full packs.

Fortunately, I brought a 45 foot length of 3/8" static rope that we used both for downclimbing in the Daisy Canyon Narrows. Also, Tom brought a smaller but longer rope (maybe 1/4 inch or so) that we used to lower our packs down the steep falls, and without this rope, we would have had to TOSS our packs down instead (actually, we did that a few times anyways). Most of our packs were seriously damaged by this process, nonetheless! Note that though Wendell didn't make the same mistake we did in the Daisy Canyon Narrows, he made a much worse mistake in his story (below) of his initiation in the rugged Inyo Mountains.

Also, we encountered another potential problem: a large stretch of the Salt Tram eastern Pack Trail runs directly along the bottom of Daisy Canyon proper, and here there can be a massive growth of underbrush that is difficult (and I mean difficult) to struggle to get through. One photo below shows a stretch where we had to wade through very tall, tough, scratchy, thorny underbrush (you'll recognize the photo when you see it!). Fortunately, unlike Wendell, we managed to take a few photos along the way, so we can share them here with you (click on photo to enlarge):

Daisy Canyon
April 1988

By: Wendell W. Moyer

Baptism of Fire: My Introduction to Climbing in the Inyos

Daisy Canyon
April 1988
By: Wendell W. Moyer
Baptism of Fire: My Introduction to Climbing in the Inyos

As I was later to learn, I had been invited along on the little Daisy Canyon outing because of my (presumed) climbing skills. After all, had I not climbed in the Sierra Nevada and elsewhere for many years? Had I not climbed all of the west coast's 14,000 footers as well as completed the Sierra Emblem Peaks list ... and rarely passed up an opportunity to talk about it? So my climbing experience in the Inyos and the desert area didn't amount to much - some car camping and day hikes on well used trails ... So What? Climbing is climbing and mountains are mountains! Right?

Our little hike in the Inyos had been organized by Richard Cain -- "Killer Cam" [correction from original: Cain] as he was affectionately known to the regulars in Saline Valley. Richard was a local history buff and was also well known for his video filming prowess the Cecil B. DeMille of Saline Valley if you will. Richard's project at the time was the Salt Tramway and the object of our trip was to hike the old Tramway Trail from the Inyo ridge (8600 ft) down to its terminus in the Saline Valley below (1100 ft).

As Richard explained the details to me, the actual hike was only supposed to require less than a full day all told, even though there was some 7000 ft. to descend, since we were to be on a good trail the entire way. According to his information, there really wasn't going to be any "climbing" involved but nevertheless he thought that I would like to go along for the exercise. The plan, however, was intentionally to make a two-day backpack trip of it so that we could take our time and enjoy the ambiance. Our layover camp site was to be the Second Power Station at about the 6200 ft. level. And the date had been selected so as to coincide with a full moon. Just imagining the view from that incredible vantage point was enough to excite everyone. The next day we were to continue the hike down the remaining portion of the trail and be met at the bottom about noon by Alan Akin.

Alan Akin, it should be known, was Saline Valley's "Man of the Inyos." Unquestionably he knew more about the Inyo Mountains and its system of trails than any man alive. Taciturn by nature and not given to lengthly descriptions he was also (as I was to learn) a master of understatement sort of reminiscent of John Muir describing a "little day stroll in Yosemite" which for the average person corresponded to a grueling 12 hour struggle. And Alan was, of course, our sole source of information about the Tramway Trail. Who better?

Our little hiking group was comprised of four people:

Richard "Killer" Cain - our leader and organizer of the trip. A soon to be retired electronics engineer, Richard was a vigorous, active man of about 60 at the time. He was reasonably fit but by no one's reckoning would he be considered as an "out-doorsman." Loved by one and all and well known in Saline Valley for this video film epics he also had the reputation of being a bit scattered, disorganized and forgetful.

Myself -- a reasonable normal family man and a professional research chemist when I wasn't off traipsing around in the mountains. I was probably a few years younger than Richard and, if I may say, in a somewhat better state of physical conditioning.

Pat Ormsby -- a businessman from the Reno area. Pat was an essential member of the team as he was the one to provide the required 4WD vehicle. Pat was then in this early 40's. Off-road jeeping was his big thing and as a consequence his backpacking experience was limited. "Who walks when you can ride?"

And finally Holly Ann -- Pat's cute, little, just-turned 16 year old daughter. Holly Ann had never before been backpacking and, for that matter, had hardly ever even been on a real hike. She came along at dad's invitation because it sounded like "a neat thing to do."

A fifth person, "Mammoth Carol" Broberg - a 4Oish teacher from Mammoth Lakes, had planned to accompany us the entire way along with her Border Collie-like dog, Homer; but in the last minute she opted to shorten her trip to a single day skipping our layover at the 2nd Power Station. Among other things Carol was a ski instructor at Mammoth Mountain and an unexpected schedule change required that she return a day earlier. She and her dog would start with the other four of us but move faster and keep on going until she reached the bottom. Her car had been left down in Saline Valley the day before.

Hers was to be only a one day trip so she was traveling light -- just a small pack with some food, 2 qts. of water and an emergency sleeping bag. Carol was a very responsible person and an experienced mountaineer. No one questioned her decision (to travel alone.) After all, wasn't this supposed to be only a little jaunt down the hill?

The year was 1988 and the time was mid-April. It was a bright, gusty cool spring morning when we assembled at Alan Akin's place there in Keeler. Everyone was excited about the trip. Everyone was fully equipped or at least so they said. In due time we were all loaded in Pat's vehicle and on our way up the famous Yellow Grade Road to the Cerro Gordo ghost town high above on the ridge.

Cerro Gordo is a great place to visit -- old mines, houses, hotels, stores, structures of all descriptions. The caretakers, Jody Stewart and her partner, Mike Patterson, have a fine little museum there open to the occasional tourist who wanders by. We took our time and enjoyed the wonders of the area. Who's in a hurry? Well, maybe Carol. But what's to worry? "For Carol, it should take her only half a day to get to the bottom."

One couldn't help but notice how cold and windy it was there in Cerro Gordo, certainly below freezing, and there were occasional patches of snow. As we proceeded to drive on up the Inyo Ridge, it came as no great surprise to have our way blocked by a large snow bank.

"No problem", said Alan. "We'll just go down and around by way of the Swansea Road." But this all takes time, of course, ... time certainly not figured into Carol's schedule.

So it's back down the Yellow Grade Road and up again on the old Swansea 4WD road. No snow this time and no particular problems although this road requires some serious four wheel driving and is necessarily quite slow.

It was about 2:30 PM when we finally arrived at the Tramway Power Station located at the 8600 ft. level on the Inyo Ridge. Carol and her dog, Homer, were off like a shot. She's got to hustle now in order to get down to Saline Valley below by nightfall. The remaining four of us are more relaxed about everything; our goal is easily attainable and we have ample time.

Even though it was Richard's "party" I took it upon myself to check out the others' packs and gear. After all wasn't that really why I was asked to come? "Listen up everyone. You got everything you need? Do you have enough water? Remember it's going to be two days. Make sure you have enough. The canyon is supposed to be a dry one."

All professed to be fully prepared. Their gear was makeshift and rag-tag since back-packing was not a usual activity for them, but they appeared to have the necessary basics.

And, of course, I, as the experienced "old hand" had everything one could reasonable need. As to water, why I figured that I was carrying more than a "whole gallon" stashed in various small bottles throughout my pack. That certainly seemed ample standing there in the snow buffeted by the windy, thin cold air of the Inyo Ridge. When conditions are like that, who's thirsty? And as an afterthought I had even included some climbing gear -- a piece of 5 mm rope all of 20 ft. in length. A 5 mm (approximately 1/4 inch) kern mantle climbing rope doesn't look like much but probably has a breaking strength in excess of 1000 lb. That fact not withstanding, it is still not entirely reassuring when you are hung out over a cliff on such a rope.

After the obligatory picture taking of the ridge tramway power station (an impressive structure indeed) away we go down the slope. The Tramway Trail was not immediately evident but Carol and Homer's tracks were still quite fresh and obvious, especially where they crossed snow patches. The two of them were already long gone and out of sight.

Within a short distance we located the old trail as had Carol. It was in relatively good shape and easy to follow. Being a horse trail, it followed the contour of the mountainside with occasional switchbacks at only a moderate angle. The trail (any trail) is certainly preferable to a direct line, cross-country route in steep, rugged terrain such as we were in.

At this point the tramway was some distance off to the north. Our trail was running essentially parallel following a line of old power line/telephone poles. What difference "all roads lead to Rome." Since dropping over the east side of the ridge, the air was now calm, the sky beautifully clear blue and the temperature noticeably warming as we descended. The last traces of snow disappeared after only a few hundred feet of descent. Spirits were high. We're on schedule and every thing was going great.

At about the 7000 ft. level our trail, which until that time had been so clear and obvious, mysteriously disappeared out at the end of a rocky promontory point. Where could it have gone? A brief search revealed nothing resembling a trail. The descending line of power poles were still quite visible but no trail.

No matter, the 2nd Power Station, some 800 ft. below, had come into view. You can't get lost. Take it easy. Every man (or woman) for himself down the steep scree strewn slope. Slip and slide. Sand and dirt in the boots. No graceful way to do it.

We arrived at the 2nd Power Station (roughly 6200 ft.) at about 5:00PM, still early enough to get a good look around and some great pictures. And what a sight it was. Perched on a rocky outcropping, this massive wood beam structure is like nothing you have ever seen before ... sort of resembling the wreckage of a grounded ancient juggernaut. Only on the north side was its perch attached to the mountain side and accessible. The other three sides were cliffs or very steep hillsides. The views from its deck were spectacular especially to the east, down canyon. The main cable system was still intact with its salt buckets dangling beneath a full 2000 ft. above the canyon floor in places.

Because of the remoteness of the site much of the old facility was still largely undisturbed ... almost as if the workers had just gone home for the night. Spare parts and rusty old tools were still found at their appointed locations on the deck. Debris and miscellaneous artifacts of all sorts were scattered about over a broader area.

But it's the massiveness of the structure that makes the greatest impression: huge wooden beams, giant steel fly wheels and accessory parts and a massive electrical motor. The question was asked a dozen times, "How did they get all this stuff up here?" Truly an engineering wonder.

That evening was magical. The temperature was cool but not unpleasant, the sky was crystal clear, the air was dead calm and the silence was almost deafening. And then add to that the huge full moon rising on the eastern horizon. We all howled like a pack of deranged coyotes. In a lifetime you don't get a better evening than that.

The next morning was equally beautiful -- cool, calm and brilliantly clear. No one was in any hurry to leave as it was so peaceful and beautiful. Moreover, why hurry when all we had ahead of us was an easy stroll down the trail to Alan and our waiting car in the valley below.

So we took our time getting ready. Because I had so much water, or so I thought, I indulged in the luxury of washing my hands and face and brushing my teeth. A final check of my pack revealed that I had only a pint of water left for the last leg of the down climb. Well, no matter, that should work. It was cool and who's thirsty?

We had one small problem, however. Where was the trail? The south side of the canyon was ruled out; it was obviously too steep ... nearly vertical in places. It was known that the trail at some point crossed over from the north side 'were we were to the south, but where? A faint but obvious trail was observed on the north flank winding its way out and down to the next tramway pylon on a rocky outcropping some distance to the east. All agreed; that had to be it! So off we go. The time was about 8:30 AM.

To our disappointment upon arriving at the pylon the trail ended. Apparently this was only a service trail for access to that particular pylon. It went no farther. So now what do we do? Go back? If so, what then? There certainly were no other trails that anyone had seen and our view of the area was excellent from that airy vantage point.

I reminded everyone that it was known for certain that the trail eventually ended up on the south side of the canyon. I had, in fact, hiked up the trail (south side) from the valley floor to beyond the 1st Power Station at 3500 ft. the previous year. The trail, therefore, had to cross the bottom of the canyon somewhere between where we were and the 1st Power Station. With such logic how could anyone disagree? Thus all we had to do, so it seemed, was get down to the valley floor somehow; the ascending south side trail likely would come into view in short order.

From where we were standing the slope down to the canyon floor was very long and steep (over 1000 ft. elevation loss), but it looked doable. It would be messy and unpleasant but what was the alternative?

At this point in the narrative you should know that the day was getting noticeably warmer, and the lower we went the warmer it got. We where on he south facing slope and the sun was increasingly intense as it rose higher in the sky. It was already evident to me that my limited supply of water was not going to last. I was going to be thirsty when we reached the car for sure. But I took some solace in the knowledge that a cold beer or two would be waiting for me in the valley below. "My, won't it taste good!"

So I was watching my water consumption and preparing myself mentally to be a little thirsty. But what I wasn't prepared for, as we stood there on the point about to make the great descent of the slope, was the startling request from Richard, "Say Wendell, do you suppose that you could spare a little swig of your water?"

"Good grief, Richard! Don't you have any water... none at all?"

'Well, I thought I did but I am afraid that I forgot to pack those bottles," Richard replied sheepishly.

"Whoa, wait a minute. Pat and Holly Ann, how much water do you have?"

"Less than a quart between us," answered Pat.

"Well, the fat's in the fire now, Richard. Sure, here you go. Have a drink. We'll share it between us--one whole pint. And that's all we've got till we get back to the car."

With much mumbling and complaining from the ranks we start down the slope. I was reminded at the start and several times along the way that they weren't climbers and that I was expecting a lot from them. I made my best effort to be congenial and reassuring but the reality of the situation was becoming all too apparent. There were likely to be some difficult places ahead. The inexperience of the group and their somewhat questionable physical condition could be a problem ... possibly a major problem.

In order to locate safe passage routes it was necessary for me to move out far in the lead. Down climbing is certainly more difficult than ascending as far as route finding is concerned ... and this slope was a tough one -- many impassable ramparts. I was moving fast and working hard. As we approached the bottom, I could see that the worst was yet to come. Our wide couloir gradually necked down to a single steep gully blocked by a large chock stone at the top.

I arrived at the chock stone well in advance of the others (they were slow movers) and my immediate reaction was, "Oh God, now what? If they were complaining about climbing before, wait till they get a load of this!" I knew that I could down climb it but no way for the others. "Whether they like it or not, it's time for the rope" ... all 20 ft. of it.

Here, I am happy to report, my little group surprised me. When they finally arrived and I explained the situation, they accepted the inevitable without hesitation or complaining. I belayed them from above while they each down climbed as best they could. My little rope was none too long. The packs were then lowered and finally I down climbed on my own.

Great relief! We're on the canyon floor at last. The time was about 11:30 AM. Richard and I were already out of water. It's warm and getting warmer ( you could even call it "hot"). I figure that we were at about the 4500 ft. level. "The trail has to be nearby. Yes, but where? Up Canyon? Unlikely ... just look at that canyon wall; how could there possibly be a horse trail up there? Ok, if it's not up canyon, then it's got to be down."

So down the canyon we go at a newly confident pace. Walking on the canyon floor was easy .. much too easy. I knew it couldn't last. And sure enough around the next big bend we came to a screeching halt at the top of a 20 ft. high dry waterfall. "Horses sure as hell couldn't go down that thing. The trail has to be nearby somehow." But there was no sign whatever of a trail. Look as we might, nothing! Our hopes for finding the trail were now gone.

But no big problem. It was relatively easy for everyone to down climb this one although we did have to lower our packs. Like it or not we were now committed to going down the canyon at least until there was some reasonable place to break out ... or until our passage was blocked - an eventuality we chose not to think about.

Pat and daughter Holly Ann finished their last water about this time, roughly 12:30PM. Stopping for lunch wasn't even considered. Lunch doesn't go down so good without water. The sun was directly overhead and it was just plain hot. The "troops" moved more slowly now. Coaxing didn't help much.

On occasion I would catch sight of what appeared to be foot prints and what I thought were also dog tracks. How fresh, I couldn't tell. Were they Carol and Homer's? I took some comfort in thinking that Carol had also come this way. "The route must run!"

With all too much regularity we came to one dry waterfall after another. Each was greeted with great apprehension. But with each we were able to find somehow a down climb route usually requiring rope belays and the lowering of packs. We're making it, but it is time consuming .. precious time.

2 PM found us at about the 3600 ft. level and for the first time at a point in the canyon where a climb out was possible. A tramway pylon was visible directly above, maybe 6700 ft. We knew that the trail was up there. If we got up to that pylon, I knew for sure that we could be down to the car in short order. Up there we would be safe! The slope was steep and scree covered. It would have been ugly and unpleasant but it was definitely doable.

"Ok guys, this is our escape hatch. Up we go."

[At this point, I deleted 20 paragraphs of the story that were repeated on the Sierra Club DPS Section web page, so that you needn't read them again. Obviously, there is a section missing here as well - perhaps a large section! Its obvious that what is missing in the story is the decision of whether to go up the south Daisy Canyon wall to regain the Salt Tram pack trail, or to to stick with the bottom of Daisy Canyon; perhaps they tried climbing up the south wall without success? Anyways, we hope somebody reading this knows where the original text of this story is located, so that its account can be complete]

[At this point, Corbett Upton of Alaska supplied the missing pages 9, 10, 11, and 12 of the story, which I am hearing for the first time as I type it in! Thanks, Corbett!]

To which they all replied loudly and in chorus, “No way! Who do you think we are, mountain goats? We’re not climbers. You can’t expect us to climb that!” They were adamant. There was no changing their minds.

“So, OK, if you won’t go up, then, I guess, we must go down,” I replied with great resignation.

Here I frankly must admit that I briefly considered separating from them and heading out on my own. But no, I just couldn’t do that.

Like it or not, they were my responsibility. Our fates were intertwined. The seriousness of the situation was finally sinking in. This was no longer a little game. Their very survival could well hang in the balance. I had to stay with them. They were so innocent.

My thirst was extreme. It was hot and I had been working hard. I had been out of water for over 3 hours. A dozen times I held the empty water bottle to my lips. Sometimes I even managed to squeeze a full drop out of it. You will never know how refreshing a single drop of water can by when you are really thirsty. My only encouragement was the knowledge that I had an escape route if it came to that.

Onward and downward. Another and another and still another dry waterfall. I lost count of exactly how many. Somehow we found a way to work our way down each. But how long would our luck hold?

Time dragged on. The sun had moved away from zenith; there was some shade now. The group moved slower and slower and there was now grousing and complaining in the ranks. I did my best to maintain an outwardly optimistic and confident demeaner but it was difficult. The full reality of the situation was finally sinking in. We had come too far! I didn’t reall have it in me anymore to trace our course and exit by the escape route. The canyon route ahead had to work or we were goners.

I was becoming seriously dehydrated by this time. As I had slowly come to realize, climbing in the desert is very different. Strength, ability, determination, and bravado are of almost no consequence when you run short of water. The combination of heat and low humidity leads to rapid desiccation of the body. There comes a point where the body can no longer maintain its temperature. It overheats. There is no more perspiration left for cooling. The minds goes first, then all is lost.

4pm Found us at about the 2,500 foot level — only 1,000 feet left to go! I was well in the lead as the others were dragging badly. The canyon had opened up some, but the actual water course was confined to a deepening cut. Naturally, I followed the main water course without looking around much. At this stage in the game I wasn’t into any deep thinking.

Suddenly, the dry water course disappeared down a slot. “Oh Lord, now what?” Closer inspection revealed a roughly 10 foot vertical chimney polished glass smooth. It wasn’t going to be fun, but we had already handled situations almost as bad.

“Ok, gang, same routine as before, only this time you are really going to have to trust me.”

Here again I must say that I was proud of my people. Without hesitation or complaint, each dropped off down the hole, trusting implicitly in me and my ridiculous little piece of rope.

When it was my turn, I found that the climbing technique known as “chimneying” doesn’t work all that well on a smooth surface … in fact, it hardly works at all. “Oh well, we’re all down and that’s the important thing. Right?”

As it turns out, the answer to that rhetorical question was a resounding “NO!” Collecting myself at the bottom of the slot, I could see that we were not on the canyon floor again, but instead a scant 20 feet away from the lip of what was certainly another dry waterfall. And let me tell you that this one was the grand-daddy of them all! … the kind where as you look gingerly over the edge, you might lose your lunch — if you had eaten one. It was fully 80 feet high if it was a foot and dead vertical. I was overcome by shear panic. The situation was hopeless. “We’re had!”

What to do? Give up? Unthinkble. So now what were our options? Looking about we could see that the south side was absolutely out of the question, but on the north where the dry fall met the canyon wall, the rocks were broken up sufficiently for a possible down climb route. You couldn’t really see the full course from our vantage point, but as matters stood, any possibility now was better than none at all where we were.

But how to get over to that far left side now? We were stuck in a rocky slot. Back up the chimney? Frankly, I doubted that I could do that, especially in my weakened condition. The only other possibility was a steep, rock strewn bank jutting up on the left, perched on the very lip of the precipice. To add to the challenge, the rocks were all rotten and there wasn’t a single firm one you could trust.

No time for doubts or hesitation. I had to go; I had to do it. I didn’t bother with a belay — the rope wasn’t long enough and they couldn’t have held me anyway had I slipped. Slowly, ever so slowly, I inched my way up that awful bank. I was tense with fear. I like climbing, but I never ever claimed to be any good at it, and honestly, heights (where exposure is involved) scare the hell out of me. Gravel and little rocks cascaded down around me. Any slip or mistake would surely send me over the edge. “Mustn’t think of things like that now.”

After what seemed like an eternity, I reached a point of relative security — all of 15 feet above. “A rope length away. Bomb proof” as I lied to the people below. “Your turn to come up.” As scary as it was, they all knew that they had to do it. And yet again, my troops pleasantly surprised me. They were champs. No complaints; no dawdling. Implicit, if not fully justified, trust in me and my puny little rope.

The remaining section of the bank was comparatively easier and safer but still required a full belay for all three. At the top I was drained — emotionally and physically. It’s not often in life when you hve to put it on the line like that. We had dodged a bullet for sure … but were we only postponing the inevitable?

The downclimb on the left [north] canyon wall went surprisingly easy and fast. No belays required. The view of the waterfall below was impressive. It was awesome. No one thought of taking pictures — we had ceased to be gawking tourists along way back up the canyon.

The time was 5pm. Deep shadows were forming and with the shade came a blessed cooling. There was some slight encouragement from this. Nevertheless, our only option was to go forward, down canyon. There was no turning back now. I was scared I don't mind saying. In my whole life I had never gotten myself into such a predicament. Our bridges had been burned behind us in a manner of speaking. Our fates were no longer under our control.
By this time "the troops" were hardly moving at all. Even the admonition, "You must somehow move faster or we're not going to make it" didn't speed them up appreciably. I had to get water and fast. A decision had to be made?

"Ok, listen up. Here's what I am going to do. I am going to leave you and move out ahead as fast as I can. If I get hung up and absolutely can't make it, I will drop my pack, come back up canyon and get out by way of our escape route." (To them I was still maintaining the pretense that I could actually get out in this way.) "If I am successful, I will come back to you as fast as I can with water. Have no fear, I am not abandoning you."

With these words I found some hidden strength. I was off at as fast a pace as I could muster in that kind of terrain. My pulse was racing. Naked fear pushed me on. Our very survival was at stake.

We were deep in the lower canyon now. Huge, towering shear rock walls were on both sides. Walking was generally easier until you came to the narrowing sections were the inevitable waterfalls were found. As I approached those places my heart came up into my mouth. I was gripped by almost uncontrollable fear and apprehension. They had to run! They had to run! And they did. First one, then another and then miraculously no more. I had made it! I was going to survive. Ahead some distance on the bank at the canyon mouth, in the gathering dusk of evening was Alan impatiently waiting. The tune was roughly 6 PM.

"Water!" Water at last! Yes, blessed water. I drank 2 or 3 quarts on the spot ... maybe more. Alan was unhappy ... you could even say "pissed". "What in the hell are you doing coming out of the canyon? Don't you know, you never get yourself into these (Inyo) canyons below 5000 ft." and on and on.

I was really in no mood for that kind of dressing down, but I knew that he was right. Absolutely right. I deserved it. We had done a stupid thing and like it or not I was responsible.

I reached the others some mile or so back up canyon. The gallon of water I was carrying disappeared fast.

Later on that evening, after a luxurious shower and soak in the hot springs, an ample dinner and a generous number of ice cold beers, I was mellow again. It had been quite a day. I wouldn't trade it for the world although I can't say that I would ever want to repeat it. The feeling was that of a soldier who had somehow survived a great battle. We had dodged the "big bullet" for sure.

I was also humbled and contrite. I had learned much ... the hard way. Yes, the desert is different and desert mountaineering is certainly different from the Sierras and elsewhere.

The Ormsby's returned to Reno directly and Killer Cain busied himself with his usual Warm Springs activities. We never had a chance to get together again to recapitulate and reminisce. No doubt they knew that we had been through quite an ordeal but whether or not they ever fully realized how close to the line we had come, I'll never know. I suspect that they were blissfully ignorant and it's probably best to leave it that way. It wasn't until a year later that I caught up with Carol again. Yes, Carol and Homer survived and, in fact, had come down the heart of the canyon just as we had. Even after a year the memory of her experience was as vivid as if it had happened only yesterday ... as it certainly still was with me.

According to Carol, she had stayed in the canyon the entire way - even through the section below the 2nd Power Station (which incidentally was especially difficult). She too searched in vain for the elusive trail. Unknown to us at the time, she had spent the night in the canyon almost directly below the Power Station. She could hear us, but we couldn't hear her. Unlike us, she had no rope at all. Fortunately Homer was a good climber (it helps to have "four wheel drive") and was able to manage most of the cliff down climbs on his own. Only once or twice was it necessary for Carol to use jury-rigged clothing as a "rope" assist. Also unlike us, she had enough sense to avoid the near death trap chimney above the "grand-daddy fall." [I believe that this previous sentence is a reference to the missing section of the story as well...sigh]. She too ran out of water early and both she and her dog were mightily thirsty when they finally reached her car. She claims to have drunk a full gallon of water on the spot. Homer didn't say how much he drank. And as to her scheduled ski class, well, I understand that she was a little late.


In the intervening years I have had the opportunity to climb all of the major features in the Inyo Mountains, generally in the company of a hardy group known as Friends of the Inyos. In addition to the peaks we have also down-climbed all of the seven major canyons in the range. And I have returned to the "scene of the crime" in Daisy Canyon twice in search of the elusive trail. As a result of my now hard earned education, I can report the following:

- The Tramway Trail exists and is, indeed, an engineering wonder. The "missing link" was a section on the rock outcropping just below the Power Station. This portion of the trail had been chiseled into the rock wall thus skirting and by-passing the dry waterfalls below.

- Access to this portion had been washed out years earlier. A couple switch backs brings it back down to the canyon floor. A short distance thereafter (far up canyon from where we entered). The trail ascends the south canyon wall in a steep, improbably couloir -- a section known to the old timers as the "Zig Zag Trail". From there it runs easily on down to the 1st Power Station and the valley below. No problem at all to follow.

- Daisy Canyon alone, of all the other major Inyo canyons, can be free climbed by someone with normal climbing skills without the need for technical equipment (i.e., ropes, slings, pitons, bolts, etc.) None of the others are free climbable.

- Alan Akin was right, "Never go into these canyons below 5000 ft." ... unless of course, you are experienced and fully prepared. They truly are death traps.

Postlogue (by Tim)

It is interesting that we too had a perilous experience in climbing from the Salt Tram Summit to the Saline Valley salt flats below. Our mistake was missing a hard-to-find trail that we wouldn't find until many years later. RiverRich (aka R2) is credited with being the first one to spot this missing stretch of trail (on our trip in October 2008), and given how hard it is to find, we don't feel bad about missing it in the first place. On our misadventure, we continued down Daisy Canyon Narrows long after realizing that this wasn't the pack trail that were were looking for. As we said many times during this section, "there's no way that they could every get a mule down this canyon", and of course, that statement turned out to be true! The actual pack trail skirted the narrows to the north, and Wendell alludes to it in the closing remarks of his story.

It was interesting to note that when we decided to continue down the narrows past a point where we could climb back up, it got very, very exciting — in fact, adrenaline producing (at least for me - I didn't poll the others) to the extreme. When we got to our high fall (not as high as Wendell's, but probably at least 40 to 50 feet), I got an appreciation for what he migh have felt like. Being adrenalin struck, I was the first one to downclimb that dry fall, and was able to take photos of the others making their way down. In all, we encountered 4 or 5 dry falls that we could (barely) climb down (with aid of my static rope), but would not have been able to climb back up. Once we finally got through the Daisy Canyon Narrows, we knew we had to find the dreaded zig zag trail, and climb up it using the 2 lengths of climbing rope plus 50 feet of 1" webbing that our good friend Alan E. was supposed to leave for us at the trail for use as a climbing aid - thankfully, the rope was waiting for us when we got there!

Brian and I are also avid Inyo Mountain Hikers and Backpackers, as was Wendell Moyer, which I noted before - we are sad to have never met him. I wanted to include this photograph of the Memorial Plaque placed at the Beveridge Ridge Cabin in his Memory and Honor. We too honor his memory, and if he were alive, I am sure that he would give his support to our Salt Tram Research Project. God Bless Wendell and his family and friends.


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