Off The Trail — Broken Finger Peak

The old mining road that struggles up the side of Broken Finger Peak isn’t most people’s idea of an ideal backcountry trip.

It’s 20 feet wide, and hot, even at 12,000 feet. It’s exposed, dropping like a shot down toward Pine Creek Canyon more than 5,000 feet below. It’s littered with old machinery, four-decade-old broken Coke bottles with half-inch thick glass, pieces of sun-beaten plastic and wire of indeterminate origin and use.

It swings and slips and staggers up the bleak and red-rocked mountain like a drunk thing, aiming toward the huge mines that I’d heard are somewhere above, scattered like a dream on a 13,000-foot ridge at the terminus of Wheeler Ridge. Adamson’s Mine, it’s called, and on the map, it’s painted on a ridge so steep and inaccessible it looks like even a goat couldn’t get to it.

Naturally, I had to try.

No, it’s not a pretty road at all; there are no creeks and trees and picturesque lakes up there, no green at all except the emerald of copper and manganese-painted rocks that long ago told miners gold might just be nearby.

But far below, just over Morgan Pass only a few miles away, the trail to Chickenfoot Lake in Little Lakes Valley at the head of Rock Creek sees a hundred people pass by every two hours, one of the most popular trails in the Sierra.

Up here, the quiet is profound, the light so clear it’s like drinking vodka.

There are no footprints, no backpackers in lycra, no noise at all.

I thought I knew every ridge and valley in this range, thought I knew a lot after 20 years here, but I had no idea there were roads in places like this.

I had seen it straggling up into the highest ridges of this hanging valley two years ago on a trip to Italy Basin and from that pass, far away. I could see this huge valley and sun-blasted rocky road and knew, one day, I would figure out how to get there.

That day galvanized an interest in the old mining roads of the Eastern Sierra as a way to get into country otherwise inaccessible. For the past few weekends, I had been backpacking into places where mine were quite likely the only human footprints to hit the ground in decades.

But this place, high above Pine Creek’s old and now defunct tungsten mine nestled above the little town of Rovana just north of Bishop, beat them all.

Struggling around the last bend of the road, I saw something extraordinary; a huge vein as wide as a skyscraper—and taller—that had been blasted out of the side of the mountain, leaving a giant gaping hole cut horizontally through one side of the mountain and out the other side. I scrambled up to it, tumbling and slipping on the huge tallus at the bottom of the blasted rock piles left behind after the miners went home.

The walls soared to the sky. Cables of metal and twisted rope and plastic hung from the walls, left behind decades ago.

Ice and snow that never melted in the deep, dark vein sparkled like diamonds on the ground, the only water of any kind in this high and arid valley.

The place felt like something out of a dream, like something out of a Tolkien novel, but it was only a few miles from home.

The road staggered up farther into the mountain valley and it became clear this was just the beginning.

Over the next few hours, I found more huge, blasted veins that had been eviscerated, more deep, deep mining holes covered with fencing and wooden beams to keep out—what?

Then it was time to go home and as I hiked out in the blazing summer sun down to the Pine Creek trailhead 5,000 feet below, I started planning the next trip to the next old mining road.

Forget trails.