HellFire 19 – The View From On High
By Frank Whitby
In case you ever wondered, HellFire can be seen and enjoyed, as a spectator, from 4 miles away and 2000 feet above the salt. My friend Joe Zachary accompanied me on a West Desert Adventure to photograph HellFire 19 from the top of a nearby mountain on the edge of the Bonneville Salt Flats.
For the purposes of this adventure, we decided to hike to the top of Lamus Peak, elevation 6284 ft., coordinates 40.88530°N / 113.8341°W, the 5th peak of the Silver Island Mountains on the northwest side of the salt flats. You may have noticed these barren rocky summits to the North and West of the salt flats. Once the HellFire 19 flight line had been established, Lamus Peak turned out to be essentially due north of the launch site. There are other nearby summits that might serve as a viewing platform, including: Floating Island Peak – half as tall, three times further away; Jenkins Peak – somewhat further away north of Lamus Peak, taller, and more difficult to climb; Tetzlaff Peak – similar distance from the launch site as Lamus Peak, slightly lower elevation, probably would be a good choice as well.
A short 4-wheel drive track up a canyon on the southwest side of Lamus Peak provided a good starting point, leaving a hiking distance of only about 1 mile and 1200 feet elevation gain. The short hiking distance and modest elevation gain suggest an easy hike. Without formal hiking route information, and no obvious trail to follow, we picked out way up the west face of the peak. The approach is straightforward scrambling through scratchy bushes, gravel, and scree. Cliff bands of class 4 climbing with substantial exposure high on the face allowed us to gain the west ridge just below the summit. Hiking time to the summit was about 2 hours.
We set up our sun shelter/tarp on the summit at about 9:30 and soon observed Jim Yehle’s hybrid launch with the distinct sputtering sound of the motor reaching us about 20 seconds after the launch. This was soon followed by a couple of highly visible smoky motor launches that I assumed to be J or K motors. We were 200 feet above the salt and we estimated that we were 4 miles straight-line distance from the launch site based on the time it took for sound to reach us. With the naked eye the flight line of vehicles could be seen to grow as the morning progressed. The mid, far, and away pads were barely discernable without binoculars.
We stayed on top, observing and photographing as much as possible, and trying to stay out of the sun. We witnessed the unfortunate demise of Sir Winston and got photos of Neal Baker’s successful Level 3. With binoculars we could tell when people were loading rockets on the pads and we could estimate impending launches based on when the range was clear. All of this required diligent observation with binoculars and telephoto lens for hours on end, while hunched under our feeble sunshade in a cramped cross-legged sitting position. Fortunately we had foam pads to sit on and we had cell phone and 4G wireless services, allowing us to communicate occasionally with Neal to anticipate launches. We packed up and headed down late in the afternoon, exposed to the full scorching sun on the south face of the peak.
Is Lamus Peak a great place to observe HellFire? That depends on your personality and your definition of great. If you enjoy hiking and bushwhacking in remote rugged terrain with no respite from the sun, then you should go. If the intense heat of the salt flats is already enough for you to deal with, without adding serious physical exertion and exposure to significant risk of fall, then you might prefer to observe from the flight line. If you dislike looking up and straining your neck to watch launches, then you might skip the flight line and go to the top of the peak where you observe looking down and straight out. From Lamus Peak the rockets are far away, you have no idea who is launching or when they might launch, and you see mainly just a smoke trail or a bit of flame. We were unable to see any rockets under chute. Recall too that you must carry everything you need on your back. We carried nothing extra, just binoculars, camera, telephotos lens, tarp, water, and foam pads to sit on. The foam pads were critically important, as we sat all day on the sharp rocks waiting to photograph launches. On balance, I love an adventure and this was a fun trip that required minimal planning and preparation and provided a unique rocketry and wilderness experience.
If you go, check out summitpost.org for a route description. We somehow failed to do this, and as such we missed the fact that there is an easier route that starts at the same spot and loops through a canyon on the west and north sides of the peak to access the north ridge high on the mountain. We instead picked our own route and descended the same we went up. After reaching the summit, it was not obvious to us that there might be an easier way down so we felt safest reversing our course. There were some tricky parts where good balance, modest rock climbing skill and steady nerves were necessary. The southwest side of the peak looks like it offers some interesting technical rock climbing opportunities for the intrepid climber. The rock is solid, volcanic rock with very sharp edges that cut and scratch easily. The better season to climb would be fall, winter or spring, but that would preclude watching HellFire from the summit. I would discourage anyone from taking their dog up the peak without some sort of foot protection given the sharpness of the rocks. A dog would have to be carried up and down the upper portion of the route that we followed. The only other peak of the Silver Island Mountains that I have hiked up is Floating Island Peak, which is a much easier, shorter climb, and would be a good choice for your dog.