Notch Peak – into the cold desert canyon

Notch Peak from looking east

If ever there was an inspiration for the title of this blog my most recent outdoor adventure – albeit short – is such an inspiration. I finally got a chance to flee the demands of graduate school’s first semester for a visit to Notch Peak in the House Range. Notch Peak is one of Utah’s most appropriately named mountains. It is a great block of dolomite whose roots run deep into the Great Basin just north of Sevier Lake. It is surrounded by dunes and salt flats and eroded alluvium pushed into the valleys of ancient lakes and seas that form the low platform of the Great Basin’s sky island ranges. It was torn up from this base and its western side forms a massive blocky cliff while the climb up the canyons on the east side of the range is generally gentle.

We had our first significant snow of the winter this past weekend and the early morning drive down US6 was treacherous. The snow added to the cold desert quality of the experience. The waters of Sevier Lake reflecting the snowy range to her south erase the immediate image of this land as any sort of real desert. Staring at the lake bed from near the summit of Notch Peak in this season forces the viewer to hold a number of paradoxical thoughts at once in their mind. Those still actual waters appear to be a mirage. They do not belong to the landscape the way a mirage should.

Remnants of taller times

I kept remarking the entire weekend at Notch Peak how much this adventure reminded me of Death Valley. It is essentially the same circumstance of geology and climate. Notch Peak is at one end of this long blank region and Death Valley is at the other. The House Range does not, of course, experience the same harshness of temperature that Death Valley does. But Sevier Lake does not look all that different from Badwater Basin. The Sawthooth Canyon is much greener than the hike we took in Death Valley, its trees are much taller and of course in this first week of November, the canyon held about a half inch of snow. Something no modern human has seen in Death Valley. And were it not for the firewood we lugged up the canyon, we would have had an extremely cold night. (Leave No Trace principles were followed for the fire.)

We did not make it to the top of Notch Peak itself. It gets a bit confusing on the backside of that long cliff and we took a side canyon to the summit of a lesser peak just to the north of the actual Notch. The views were still incredible and the snow added a quality to the landscape that is hard to see in the summer. It changes the shadows and the sound of the land. A snowed in desert is something else entirely for the mind and the imagination to process. The desert here is a margin. It is a borderland between the harsh environments further west and the mountainous water-catching regions to the east. We could still see the snowed-over peaks of the Wasatch to the east. I might attempt some other cold weather trips to the West Desert and Nevada over this winter to get a fuller feel for this marginal paradox.

View of Sevier Lake from near the summit of Notch Peak

This little weekend trip marks my third or fourth adventure in the area this year. I seem to have spent more Utah adventure time this year in this odd landscape than in the Uintah/Wasatch mountains or southern Utah’s canyons. There is something intriguing about this landscape – empty, foreign, and stretching across half a continent. It presents certain paradoxes greater than mountains or redrock canyons. One understands water in a canyon. The Great Basin’s waters are oddly different. This entire region contained lakes – or properly a lake – larger than Superior, Huron, and Michigan combined. They were cold and icy and lapped at the foot of huge dolomite ranges like the House Range. It is no wonder these ranges are limestone and dolomite and other carbonates with all that water to dissolve them. All that water. Consider that thought in the epoch we live in now. An epoch where Sevier Lake is an ephemeral shadow struggling against its salty base. In that icy epoch preceding human settlement, one could have rafted Huck Finn-like from Mt. Olympus near Salt Lake City passing range islands all the way down to the inland sea’s southern end. A lake rafter could have sat atop Notch Peak Island and looked out over the green tops of the islands towards Wheeler Peak Island in what is now Great Basin National Park. The evaporative temperatures that reduced Sevier and Great Salt Lake to almost nothing should send a chill down the spine of anyone who hears the term ‘climate chage.’ Especially in this region where our water’s course is eternal and our engineering cannot outrun its downhill run. We live in a region where climate change is evident on the very rocks we enjoy climbing, yet it is such a slow calamity that we do not recognize it for the beauty, but it is all really there. How we can deny our climatic fate when looking at and living in the Great Basin takes a level of cognitive dissonance that only the human brain can deal with. There is dissonance too in nature; in the force that gives rise to a thing like a cold desert.

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