By Tom Pfaendler
It was an early winter morning. Icy grey light filtered through low clouds illuminating the massive rock face in threatening detail. I had arrived with the proper hardware for the ascent. Communications, GPS and clinometer were all in working order. The radio crackled with current weather conditions, and it became apparent that the climb was a go. There could be no turning back now. But was I ready, mentally? I had been training several months for this... Yes, I was ready. Mt. Everest? K2? Half Dome? No, worse… This was Turtlehead Peak!
I locked up my old truck in the Sandstone Quarry parking lot, mingled with the crowd for a few minutes, and then without any deserved fanfare, struck out for the mountain. The trail to the peak starts out deceptively well marked with cute little square signs that cheerfully say, “Turtlehead Peak 2.5 miles, have a nice day”. My inner Sam Kinnison is screaming “Yea, two and a half miles, STRAIGHT UP!! AAGH, AAAAAGH” But, once you commit yourself to a challenge like this, you must focus only on the goal and ignore those little voices of reason. A stop at the old Sandstone Quarry (You can be pretty sure that Fred Flintstone worked here) to stretch your legs is a great idea. From here the path continues north through the rocky Brownstone wash, then up along a little ridge and right over the top of an ancient agave roasting pit. The imposing Turtlehead Peak looms overhead, however a massive vertical ravine now lies between you and the mountain.
You stop seeing those cute little trail signs about halfway to the ravine, but it really doesn’t matter because there is only one way you can go from here and that’s UP! The ravine is an obstacle course of boulders, loose gravel, falling people and braided trails, but you are focused on goal number one… the ridgeline at the top of the ravine. It’s the obvious gateway to the peak but it’s very effectively guarded by the obstacle course. You need to reach the ridgeline at all costs. Never mind those people sliding downhill who are saying things like “it’s worse coming down than goin’ up”. Never mind those euro-tourists who whiz around you like you were standing still. You are focused! Speaking of standing still, this climb is a terrific aerobic workout equal to several trips to the gym; therefore you need to monitor the ol’ heart rate as you ascend. Be sure to rest often and of course drink plenty of water along the way.
Once you crest the ridgeline feel free to do a little victory dance and then take a long break to catch your breath. The peak is still high above and those voices in your head are saying things like “what was I thinking?” and “I’m not sure I can make it”. But, you’ve come this far, so with sore and wobbling legs, you start off again in the general direction of UP! Now, normally I despise Cairns, those little piles of symmetrically stacked rocks (SSR’s) that we gleefully knock down everywhere, but here at the ridgeline they are welcome indeed for some helpful guidance through a mountainous outcropping of boulders. The remaining climb up the north side of Turtlehead Peak is much nicer than hiking in the ravine. The path is soft and welcoming all the way to its rocky summit.
As the 6,323’ limestone peak surrenders to your tired and determined legs, the great panorama comes into view and victory is finally yours! The feeling of accomplishment can be overwhelming. It’s not unusual for people to do a Rocky-style dance at the summit, so go ahead, you’ve earned it! From this limestone peak you can enjoy a birds-eye view of the Red Rock escarpment, the Calicos, the secluded Brownstone Canyon, the entire Las Vegas valley and the snow capped La Madre Mountains. Plan on spending some time here. Enjoy a backpack lunch, check out the old pine and juniper trees, and be sure to sign the logbook you’ll find in the green ammo can. It’s fun to read the comments of others that have ignored the little voices of reason.
Turtlehead Peak scores very high on the old boot-meter. It is a seriously challenging climb. Legal fine print would probably advise anyone with a heart condition, breathing problem, or general apathy issues, to please pick another trail. But for you and I… this is the nine-boot, two days to recover, three days to stop smilin’, all time bad-boy hike at Red Rock Canyon!