23. May 2015
We woke up at seven. The sun had just barely made it above the horizon, and the morning air was fresh. The sky was again clear and we were looking forward to a marvellous hike up Telescope Peak.
Maybe I should have known better, but after I had closed my eyes for just another five minutes, it was suddenly eleven. Dammit. All sleepiness gone, we hastily scrambled up and had another breakfast of left-overs, then hurried back to the car. It was one, when we finally started driving.
We passed through the Devil’s Cornfield. These look like (and have been named after) harvested sheaves of corn, but they’re actually bushes (arrowweed) whose roots have been partly exposed by the wind.
Yes, there are actually some sand dunes in the desert! Dunes cover only about 2% of the area of Death Valley, and this photo nicely shows how complex the wind pattern can be close to a mountain: Tucki Mountain lies to the South of the dunes (left of the photo), but the prevailing winds blow from the North (right), as can be seen from the shape of the dunes. The Tucki mountain blocks the airflow, forcing it around. In front of the mountain, sand is deposited to form the dunes (over around 2000 years), and at the side, where the wind speed is increased, the sand is eroded from the roots of the arrowweed. (For those following on the map: the blue mountains in the background are the Cottonwood Mountains.)
Telescope Peak is 3368 m high, meaning that it towers 3454 m above Bad Water Basin. After driving to one of the camping areas and parking our car, we would have to walk between 7 and 9 miles, climbing between 900 and 1200 m. One way, of course. Optimistically, the whole hike would take us eight hours. You don’t have to be a supergenious to realize that most of the hike would have to take place after sunset if we wanted to go to the top.
I drove, trying not to exceed the speed limit by too much. After we turned off the main road, the road became increasinly narrow and winding. After about an hour of driving the curves became so sharp and the inclines so steep that it finally felt like driving and not just idling along the asphalt, what most of the drive had felt like so far. We reached the intersection where turning left could have led us to an easier hike to the lower Wildrose Peak. We knew we were gambling when we continued straight, because we had been told at the Visitor’s Center that there would be snow at the top of Telescope Peak (“some hikers last week said it was hip-deep”) and that it was risky to attempt the ascent without crampons. But we both agreed that, if we have to walk in the dark anyway, we might as well do the real thing.
Soon after the intersection the pavement got significantly rougher. We passed a major hole in the street that was hidden under a puddle of water – I made a mental note to remember that spot when coming down, because running into it with 30mph might not be the best thing in such a remote place and in the middle of the night. Cell phone coverage in Death Valley National Park is known to be limited, and this area sure wasn’t one of those spots where one could even hope to get a signal.
We only threw a glance at the Charcoal Kilns on our left, but did not stop. A few meters later we passed the first camping area where we could stop. A few cars were parked there, and some hikers that looked like they had just come back down watched us pass by with some wonder on their faces. The pavement had ended, but the road looked manageable further ahead, at least until the next curve. The park ranger had sad that it might be possible to drive with a normal car, although there might be too much snow. If we continued and succeeded, we would save about one kilometer of walking. If we continued and got stuck we would loose time driving this fairly steep road down backwards. We decided to try our luck.
It was rough driving, a balance between going fast enough to make it up and across the next snow patch, but slow enough to not damage the car when the road got too bumpy. I did scrape the ground a few times, although it never sounded too bad. Our car was automatic, but I have to admit that it behaved better than the one I had in Alaska. But then, just before the second campground (Thorndike) I lost grip and could not start uphill again. After getting out of the car and checking which tires were on ice and how far I should go backwards, lots of swearing and tightly gripping the steering wheel, I finally managed to gain some momentum again. I only threw a fleeting glance at the continuing road, but without any hesitation I used all the momentum I had and just barely made it into the parking lot of the campground. Turning around might be a bit tricky on the bumpy, icy ground, but I left that for when we returned. Cyprien did not share my opinion about the road and told me that he would have continued. I reminded him that the ranger had said the third, and final, campground (Mahogany Flats) can only be reached with a high-clearance vehicle. I also reminded him that we had just barely made it here and the road was unlikely to get any better. He did not seem very convinced, but later, when we continued on the road on foot, he admitted that I had made the right choice, because after a few hundred meters it became completely impassable for vehicles without snow-chains and high clearance.
Before taking off, we had another small snack and used the campground’s toilet, which proved rather difficult. The campground was perched to the side of the steep road, and the steepest sections were almost entirely covered in ice. The hike would be fun…
We left the campground just after three. Initially, we followed the road, but after 45 min of steep ice patches, we reached the third campground Mahogany Flats and the trailhead. I had Cyprien sign both our names into the trail book, including our destination and the date, but leaving out the time. Any person in their right mind would prevent us from continuing, especially if they knew we did not carry crampons with us. But hey, ideal conditions are for wimps.
We continued onto the trail as fast as we could. Which was not impressively fast. The path was narrow, and at times completely covered with refrozen snow. And fairly steep. After an endless stretch in the forest we finally reached the treeline and had a fantastic view over the valley below. The trail made a turn so that we now continued towards the west; in the south we could catch a glimpse of the peak that we were heading to.
On our way up we passed a woman (with purple hair!) and a couple who asked us if we’d met the woman. The purple haired woman told us that she’d been to the top without crampons, and that it was challenging (“at times I had to crawl on all fours”), but doable. The couple told us that the hike was nice and easy with the right equipment, but took a long time. They had started early in the morning and had been on the trail for about eight hours. Then they started debating if we would make it to the saddle up ahead before sunset and before we’d have to turn around. They clearly assumed we would head back to our car as soon as the sun had set below the horizon. We did not correct them.
The sun was setting quickly, and we (mostly I) went as fast as we/I could. It was a race, and we made it to the saddle a few minutes before sunset, seeing the other side of the Panamint Range and the Argus Range and the Sierra Nevada across the neighboring Panamint Valley just under the last sun rays. After we had admired the sunset, we decided to continue until a small dip in the saddle, where we’d be protected from the wind, and have a short rest. We did not stay for long, though, because we wanted to use as much of the remaining daylight as possible.
That’s it, Telescope Peak! Southwest from our position. We would have to climb up further to the saddle (outside the photo), then more or less follow the ridgeline and finally, make a dash up the last steep stretch.
For the next hour or so, the trail was rather flat. It wound along the westside of the Panamint Range, overlooking Panamint Valley, rather exposed for most of the distance, with only one or two patches of forest on the way. Approaching the first, the movement of something large in the shade of a tree gave me an adrenaline rush. After a second of being startled, however, I realized that the large animal was a human, a woman waving her arms to stay warm. She told us she was waiting for her friend to return from the top, who we met only a few minutes later, the last person on the trail ahead of us. Shortly afterwards we left the forest and followed the trail through foot-high grass, crossing slippery patches of snow.
The moon was almost full, enlightening our surroundings so we did not need our headlamps. We made good progress, despite the fact that earlier that day my foot had decided to hurt from time to time. Unless I set my foot in a specific way, the pain would send me on my knees and persist for a couple of minutes. I had told Cyprien about it, and we decided to try to get as far as possible anyway. I could walk uphill mostly without problems, but on the long flat stretch where we walked faster, I came close to giving up a couple of times. (The pain went away a few days after we came back from Death Valley, and I (now) think that it might have been caused by tying my hiking boots too tightly.)
Finally, we reached the point from where the mountain slopes upward again. By now, we had reached an altitude of (probably) just above 3000m. The sun was long gone, all light came from the moon and from the stars. The wind was chilly, but there were trees that provided some cover. The mountain was steep on either side of the path. Up ahead lay a continuous cover of snow which had been melted by the sun and refroze at night, and was hardened and polished by the wind.
After a short break, I cheerfully followed Cyprien up the snow. Or at least, I tried. After four steps I hesitated, lost traction, and started sliding backwards. I used my hands for help, but the ice cover was just too slippery. Cyprien, the gentleman, watched me slide backwards on all fours, then we both started laughing. Next try, I stepped a bit off the path, making my way a bit longer, but at least this time I made it. The main path was barely visible, it was mostly marked by very faint crampon tracks, more or less along the ridge. To the left, the slope was bare and steep; if we started slipping here, there was no way we could halt an uncontrolled descent.
Since the path was not that clearly visibly anyway, I tried to meander myself up a bit further to the right, only to find that I was not the first to choose this way. This path was slightly less steep, the slope on the right was less steep, too, and there were trees that could stop a fall quickly. In other words, it was less scary!
The paths kept fading in and out, we mostly tried to follow the footsteps of people before us, simply because it was easier to walk, but sometimes we just had to find our own way. Even though we walked in serpentines, our trail was still horribly steep, and I continued using my hands from time to time. Because of the altitude we made plenty of short breaks to catch our breaths, and one or two longer ones to rest our legs.
After an hour of fighting our way up, the top finally did seem to approach slowly. However, when we reached it, it was not yet the top, but only a “pre-top”. From there we could see how much we really had left to walk – luckily it was a matter of only a few hundred meters, with very little ascent left. Cyprien and I walked the final meters together and reached the top together. Then we split up, while I was taking photos of the surroundings (yes, in the moonlight), Cyprien entered our names into the summit book.
Then we inhaled the view for another few minutes before we started heading back the way we came. It had been scary to look down on the way up – now it was downright terrifying. One step too close to the edge, and there would be no way to stop. Ok, that is probably exaggerated, the ridge was not razorsharp. But it was slippery as hell. Cyprien did not even bother to try to walk, he skied down on his shoes, where the slope was steep enough. Only for a couple of meters at a time, because we had to divert into the woods from time to time before returning to the exposed ridge again. Since walking seemed indeed like an impossible task, I too decided to slide. I first attempted to slide on my butt, but the solid ice proved to be too bumpy for that. So I pulled my feet under my butt, which gave me a lot of stability and therefore security, but apparently also made me look like a penguin and earned me some teasing. Oh well, I preferred looking silly over being terrified by that slippery slope to my right. I also have to admit that I might have enjoyed the sliding a little bit and was relieved and disappointed at the same time when we reached the point where the trail became rather flat again.
From then on it was a test of my endurance. I was already pretty hungry, since we had taken too little food. Not that we’d had any more food left that we could have taken on the tour. At least I did not have to choose, there was only one way to go, and so I forced my body into a steady movement of setting one foot in front of the other. I needed to rest quite often, because I started to feel weak, but when we stopped for too long, I got cold. Eventually, we somehow managed to cross the flat stretch, make it to the saddle and started descending again.
I hate descending mountains. If I didn’t love going up so much, I would avoid it altogether. That day, the descent just dragged on forever. We kept walking and walking, but somehow we just wouldn’t reach that parking lot. I had already forgotten how long the ascent to the first saddle had been, and so was constantly disappointed after every turn of the trail that we still hadn’t reached the end. We had one final, long break just above the treeline, from where, protected from the wind, we had a gorgeous night view over the valley below. But descending on the narrow trail, where you have to balance from one ice-free spot to the next with legs that are already weak and sore and a head that is barely awake enough to sufficiently concentrate on not falling down the mountain… I would remember it as a nightmare if I hadn’t actually switched my brain off and functioned purely mechanically.
I was in the leading position, because I was the slower of us two, and I could occasionally hear Cyprien slip and fall to the ground. At one or two occasions he slightly kicked my leg from behind, but somehow, magically, we did not end up going over the edge together. Back in the forest it was safer with respect to a potential fall, but also riskier, because it was even darker and sometimes difficult to distinguish ice from dust on the trail. I was greatly relieved when we finally reached the upper parking lot.
We still had about one mile to go, and of course the road turned out to be crappier than I remembered it, but at least now we could see where we were stepping. At least in theory, because to my bepuzzlement Cyprien kept walking on the icy patches, whereas I tried my best to avoid them – I still remember very well what happened the last time I fell on ice. Sure enough, Cyprien did fall a couple of times on the road. That’s what you get when you try to show off.
An eternity after leaving, we arrived back at our car. I stumbled down to the campground toilet, while Cyprien started preparing the fire. At that time I had so little energy left that I don’t remember much of the dinner we had. I vaguely recall that we had trouble keeping the fire going (we only had large logs and no tools to cut smaller pieces, so it was mostly the starter burning) and that the meal was not entirely filling. There also might have been a couple of sausages that might have made it into sausage heaven by rolling down the grill and into the fire. Anyway, it was well past midnight when we packed our stuff and started driving down the mountain.
The first part was a bit tricky, because I did not want to risk to lose traction and slide down the road rather than driving, but there were no actual problems. I even remembered that large hole in the road that I needed to avoid. The rest of the drive was rather silent, because Cyprien (“I can drive if you want”) slept like a log.
When we were close to the junction to the main road that would bring us out of this National Park, it was past three in the morning. Initially, we attempted to find a campground that was supposed to be at the junction, but when it became clear that we had missed it, I persuaded Cyprien to sleep in the car rather than set up the tent. A car seat is not the most comfortable place to sleep, but this did allow us to have an extra half our of sleep – until 7.30 instead of just 7, so we could leave at 8 am to be back in time for my presentation in Cupertino.
Cyprien took over the wheel in the morning, and drove until we finally reached a place where we could have lunch. It was a greasy diner, with a super-tasty burger. We started philosophing about how people living here, in the middle of nowhere, with only the occasional truck-driver and tourist coming by, might see the world. We stopped two more times on the way back, so that Cyprien could get himself a coffee, while I got an icecream.
While Cyprien refused to let me drive again, I got to work a bit on my presentation. We did make it back to Cupertino in time for diner, and I even got to take a shower before my presentation. The audience was overwhelmingly interested and asked tons of questions, so the whole event took almost two hours – during which I had to focus hard on not yawning too much.
Nevertheless, the presentation was received quite well, and after grabbing our stuff we set out to drive to our next night’s location, which had a warm, soft bed!
A joshua tree, native to the Mojave desert to which Death Valley belongs, although we did not see any trees there (there are some, in some remote side valley). Actually, it’s not even a tree, it’s a yucca, with the fancy German name “Josua-Palmlilie”. Apparently Mormons thought that this plant looks like the biblical Joshua raising his hands in prayer. Cahuilla Native Americans had a more practical point of view: They used its leaves for making sandals and baskets, apart from eating the seeds and flower buds.
23. May 2015
The next morning we were woken up by a couple of people going on climbing tours inside the canyon and passing our bedside, but we were too sleepy to get up yet. Only after the third group, a lonely French guy who chatted with Cyprien for a bit, had passed, we finally got up. It was already past 10.
Still annoyed by my surrender the night before, I wanted to see the reason for my defeat in daylight. It was a relief, however, to see that there was really no sane way to get up that large step at night. Six meters of polished, slippery rock, with no reasonably safe area at the bottom for a second person (Cyprien) to support (give a step-up to) a mediocre climber (me). Worse, there really was no safe way down, either, the only people I have seen descend at that spot used ropes.
On the way back to our tent we kept our eyes open for an easy route up the canyon wall, and when we found one, we did not hesitate a second to climb it. It was a steep scree slope; the canyon walls consisted of quite soft sedimentary rock that had a very strong tendency to crumble away under your fingers. It required some care to climb that loose rock, but it was not particularly difficult. I was a bit worried about the descent, especially about starting to slide on the scree on one of the the steeper slopes and ending up rolling over an edge, but then again, I am always afraid of descending. The view was great, we could see along the mouth of the canyon, across the Death Valley and all the way to Telescope Peak. We were thinking about climbing even higher, but then we decided that this was supposed to be only a little morning climb, and we had more interesting places to visit. The climb did show one thing though: there were no camping spots up there, and we would have only wasted our time trying to ascend the walls at night.
Back down on the valley floor, we collected our stuff and made our way back to the car. The ground was very flat at times and easy to walk, but at two or three locations we encountered more polished marble rock that would have made for a nice slide. Those rocks must have been polished by countless flashfloods down this canyon.
When we turned a corner we suddenly found ourselves in a cauldron with dozens of people who had come to see the Natural Bridge. Surprised by this unexpectedly large crowd, we quickly passed the Bridge that looked a lot less spectacular during the day anyway. It is made of the same poorly indurated deposits as the canyon walls and consequently looks very crumbly and won’t be around for much longer, geologically speaking. To me, the abundant, long vertical chutes up to approximately 20 m high, were more interesting. Relics of water falls, they formed when the lower canyon eroded much faster than the river bed upstream. I tried to imagine what this part of the canyon must look like after fresh rainfall, with dozens of strong, super-narrow waterfalls that feed into the stream emanating from the winding canyon upstream.
Back at the parking lot, we had a more extended and filling breakfast, or rather lunch, with view over the vast Death Valley. We were located roughly in the middle between the North and South end of the Valley, the sky was blue, and the vision clear. A part of me wanted to stay a bit longer, but the place beside the parking lot was rather noisy and we wanted to see more of the valley. Before leaving the parking lot however, we enjoyed the luxury of a housed dump toilet, including seat and toilet paper!
Our first stop for the day was Bad Water Basin. For the first time since we had left the San Francicso area, I managed to pry the car keys out of Cyprien’s hands and drive us there, only a few miles. The place was crowded. At the sign “Badwater Basin, 85.5m below sea level” we got in line for a photo. Definitely one of the most touristic photos I have ever had taken of me.
We first admired the meagre remainder of the pool that had given this area its name: A surveyor mapping the area tried to make his mule drink from the water, and since the mule refused, he concluded that the pond contained “bad water”. The water is indeed bad for drinking, as it is extremely salty. The rare local Badwater snail, however, likes the salty water, and, being a snail, has been unable to flee from the masses of tourists pouring into Death Valley and trampling the salty crusts of the area. Today, the visitor gets to see the Badwater Pool, which is little more than a puddle now, from a boardwalk, specifically designed to keep the ignorant masses off the “shore” and off the snails. I would have loved to look out for one of those snails, but I’m probably not less clumsy than the average ignorant mass.
Instead, we walked towards the west along an intially well-trodden path. Many people set out to walk a few dozen meters in that direction, feeling the special structure of the ground under their feet. The well-trodden path, however, is about as representative of the salt flats of Badwater Basin as a compacted sand path is of a sand castle. Continuing on less trampled paths that eventually tapered off and led to the undestructed salt plain, we got to walk on partially hollow ground, with large flat salt plates resting only on a few supports. Sometimes, when we stepped on a new plate, we broke in a few centimeters. Not broken by the march of thousands of feet, the salt plates away from the paths were surrounded by shin-high ridges, where the initially intact salt layer has cracked, and some of the broken pieces have been pushed upward by the growing salt crystals. The walking was more a stepping and jumping over these ridges, followed by a few steps on the flat, and sometimes halted by a hollow crunching.
In a sense, the salt crystals that we saw were like snowflakes,they all looked different.. After a while, we started to recognize the typical crystals shapes, some delicate, some sturdy and hard to break. Maybe I should say “I” instead of “we”, though, since Cyprien seemed more interested in looking for bacteria (biologists, pfff) and was rather amused by my excitement over every single salt crystal. Later in the day, he would also react with a shrug to my pointing out some geologic features to him. Dust and rocks, so what.
Speaking of dust – when we were there, the salt plain was covered in brownish-gray dust, although apparently it may be shiny white after rain and strong winds have washed it clean. I found a few clean salt stalagtites inside one of the hollow ridges, though, and can confirm that the salt plain mostly consists of table salt.
We considered crossing the whole valley (about 6miles), but turned around somewhere in the middle for the benefit of seeing other places in the National Park. Our next stop was the Devil’s Golf Course, named after its serrated salt lumps on which only the devil could play golf – because golf is apparently the first thing some people think of when they see a jagged surface. I would have preferred something like “Bed of Nails” or “Shoekiller”, because my hiking boots had quite some cuts in their soles after walking around the area. The ground consisted of ball-sized salt lumps, from which solid spikes emanated upwards. Balancing was a bit tricky, and one slip could mean badly cut hands.
The sun was about to set again, and so we rushed off to our next destination: Golden Canyon. We could choose between the shorter Golden Canyon Trail or the 4-mile Gower Gulch Loop. We took off at sunset, so we figured we had about another hour of daylight, enough for a brisk 4-mile hike. Just in case, we took our headlamps.
We entered a strikingly yellow canyon, with impressive (well, for me) rotated strata, changing deposits of debris, and signs of more or less recent flash floods and erosion by wind and sand. We had made it a few hundred meters into the canyon when we started to climb up the canyon walls. It happened almost accidentally. Okay, I persuaded Cyprien, but he didn’t show much resistance.
After enjoying the view from one of the slopes, we headed back down to the canyon floor to continue following the trail, only to end up climbing another slope just around the corner. Up, down, up, some sliding over gravel, the canyon was much more interesting off the trail, different colors everywhere. Too bad that the light was fading.
When the fading contrasts made it difficult to follow the small paths along the ridges, we finally decided to return to and stay on the official trail. Also, now I wasn’t slowed down by every little rock, simply because I couldn’t even see it anymore. The moon was almost full, so there was enough light to walk with our headlamps off, at least as long as we were still scrampling on the silt slopes. When the trail descended back into another canyon (the Gulch), it became so dark that at least I had to turn on my headlight. We followed an increasingly narrow, winding gulch back toward the road. A few times we had to climb down small and easy, dry waterfalls. After the final, most spectacular fall, we suddenly emerged into the open, and then followed the trail along the road for about a kilometer back to the parking lot.
By now I was quite tired and hungry, and we still needed to find a place to sleep. I was still hoping to find a place where we could overlook the valley from our tent, after that plan had failed in the previous night. Our first try was a small side road towards Salt Creek that turned out to be closed. If I had known that Salt Creek is home to a rare pupfish, Cyprinodon(!) salinus, I might have insisted on walking the two kilometers to get there (then again, they’re dormant in the winter). On our second try, we parked our car on the shoulder close to the Sand Dunes, and marched off towards the south. I was heading for a slight rise that seemed to have been washed down from the nearby mountains, only to find out there was a higher one behind it blocking our view across the valley. I finally settled for the third rise, not really satisfied but also unwilling to test Cyprien’s patience any longer, who grew more and more annoyed with me for being overly picky.
We ended up on an exposed ridgeback overlooking a vast section of Death Valley – not the part that I had wanted, but the view was still superb. We huddled up against the side of the tent out of the ever-blowing cold wind, enjoyed the clear night, and filled our stomachs with the leftovers of the previous days. When we started to feel cold, we sought refuge inside the tent, soon falling asleep. The following day would hold the grand – and strenuous – finale for us.
17. May 2015
Although we were keen on seeing and doing as much as possible in the National Park, we did need the rest, and so we slept until almost eleven on the morning of New Year’s Day. By the time we had reluctantly emerged from our warm and cosy sleeping bags and packed our equipment, it was past noon again. For the moment, we left our packed backpacks at our camping spot and ascended the same hill as in the previous night, carrying only our breakfast.
We spent about two hours sitting in the Californian winter sun, watching over Panamint Valley and lazily discussing life, the universe, and everything. Some small part of that everything was the plan for the day, and eventually we left our scenic breakfast spot to return to our backpacks and then to our car.
Cyprien wanted to reach the Visitor Center at Furnace Creak before it closed at 5pm, so we set off straight away. We had about one and a half hours and one hundred kilometers left. (Here the map of the National Park.) The low sun kept reminding us of the late time during the whole drive, and when it set we had just reached Stove Pipe Wells, Death Valley’s first tourist resort dating back to 1925, where we stopped for gas and paid our entrance fee.
The area was beautiful and otherworldly, the saloon, even the rudimentary gas station about which everything appeared to be creaky, seemed to have been there since the 1920s, preserved by the dry air and covered in a thin layer of dusty sand. Somehow the campground across the street with a few dusty-white caravans felt out of place. I would have loved to stick around for a bit, but Cyprien insisted on hitting the road and so we continued after only a few minutes in Stove Pipe Wells.
We reached Furnace Creek ten to five. I would say that we quickly hopped into the shiny and fashionably new visitor center, but everything had already been covered with a fine layer of dust greying out all bright colors. Furnace Creek is home to the National Park’s headquarters and 24 inhabitants, according to the 2010 census. The majority of these 24 inhabitants are Native Americans of the Timbisha tribe, formerly known as Panamint Shoshone, which had been around Death Valley for centuries. Of course, they never called it Death Valley, but named it after some clay in the valley that they used for red ochre paint.
The valley received its English name in 1849 during the California Gold Rush. Some pioneers were lost in the valley in the winter of 1849-1850 and assumed they would die here, but then they finally managed to escape via the Panamint Mountains, and one of the men turned back and said “goodbye, Death Valley”. Of the group, only one man actually did die in the valley.
Death Valley itself and its surrounding mountains were home to many mines, gold and silver since the 1850s, borax since the 1880s, and plenty of other metals and some salts. Large-scale mining in Death Valley ceased during the early 1900s, and the last borax mine finally closed in 2005. Today, numerous ghost towns are testimony of the mining past in Death Valley, and we hoped to visit one.
Back to Furnace Creek. The highest temperature in the world was recorded here in 1913 with almost 57°C, although there is some scientific disagreement about the accuracy of that measurement. Nevertheless, the average temperature high in Furnace Creek is 19°C in January – and 47°C in July. To quote wikipedia: “The greatest number of consecutive days with a maximum temperature of 100 °F (38 °C) or above was 154 days in the summer of 2001. The summer of 1996 had 40 days over 120 °F (49 °C), and 105 days over 110 °F (43 °C).”
The nights when we were there, however, were around 0°C at the valley floor, and daytime temperatures did not rise much beyond 15°C. This might explain why the time around New Year’s is considered the best season to visit Death Valley.
The visitor center was well visited and had tons of information about the National Park. We mostly asked about current road conditions and the conditions on some hiking trails. During our night of detailed planning I had suggested to climb Telescope Peak or some other mountain close by, and now that the ranger informed us that the last group going up had had to use crampons and ice axes, it sounded more like it would be the other mountain close by. But that could be decided the day we actually went there, now let’s just grab the newspaper-style visitor guide and be complimented out of the office. We used the toilet outside the visitor center, the only time while in the National Park that we actually got to sit on a toilet, running water to wash our hands, aah! Then, armed with plenty of maps from the ranger and fresh information on backcountry camping, we set out to find our next camping site.
We could practically camp anywhere, as long as we went one mile away from any paved road. We figured that in the largest U.S. National Park outside Alaska, that should be plenty of space. We decided to continue driving towards Cyprien’s must-visit sight, Badwater Basin, which possibly was of some slight interest to me, too. Just a few kilometers before the Basin the map shows a short unpaved road leading to a place called “Natural Bridge”, from where it seemed like it was possible to reach legal grounds for camping within less than a mile of walking. And sure enough, the road lead to a small unpaved parking lot from where we could set off on foot on a broad trail.
On the way to Natural Bridge I read some of the news in the visitor guide-newspaper to Cyprien. We learned that single-vehicle rollovers are the single leading cause of fatalities in the National Park, typically caused by a distracted driver who subsequently overcorrects when he feels the vehicle’s tires hit the gravel road shoulder. We (re-)learned about the Hantavirus that may be encountered in the park and should be avoided (“Avoid camping near rodent droppings, nests, woodpiles or dense bush frequented by rodents.”). We learned about possible flash floods in the canyons, about such friendly creatures as rattlesnakes, scorpions, or black widow spiders (“never place your hands or feet where you cannot see first”) and about the reliability of the emergency number 911 (“Cell phones may not work in many parts of the park. Do not depend on them.”). Oh yeah, and Mars would be visible in the west after sunset – the night skies in Death Valley are “very dark and minimally impacted by city lights”. Since we were close to full moon, our nights were not exactly dark, but we did see very little artificial light.
A few minutes into the trail we discovered why it was named “Natural Bridge“, the trail was passing under a broad rock arch that was spanning both sides of the walls of the canyon that we had walked into. We continued walking beyond the bridge and followed the less and less well trodden trail up the narrower and narrower canyon. We started to have to climb occasionally, until we reached a wall that I could not manage with the backpack. That I could not manage without the backpack, either. The scary climb was aggravated by me having no clue how to get down this wall the next morning, and I doubted that some daylight would have helped much. We walked back a bit and tried to find a good spot for climbing up and out of the canyon – my plan had been to wake up to a nice view over Death Valley! We did find a spot that I might have been able to climb up had I not been tired and scared already and thus felt more unsecure than is good for a safe climb. Eventually, I chickened out from this easier climb too and we started heading back towards the bridge.
Having descended another small step wall in the canyon, we started wondering if we could not simply place our tent inside the canyon, right here. Even better, since the canyon protected us from the wind, we would not even need to set up a tent at all! The day had been very clear, so I did not worry much about being washed away during the night by a flash flood, but in my head I did see a scorpion or two crawl into my shoes and into my sleeping bag during the night, neither of which actually happened, of course.
We were both quite exhausted, partly from the long drive the day before. We laid the tent flat on the ground, had some dinner, and crawled into our sleeping bags. Both looking up at the moon and a few bright stars in the narrow strip of sky above us, we talked for a while until we fell asleep.
17. May 2015
Der folgende Blogeintrag unterscheidet von meinen sonstigen Beiträgen in zwei wesentlichen Punkten: Er ist in Zusammenarbeit mit meinem Reisepartner entstanden und daher auf Englisch verfasst. Er handelt von unserem Neujahrsausflug ins Death Valley, dem Tal des Todes in Kalifornien. Ursprünglich als Gruppenausflug geplant, führten verschiedene Umstände dazu, dass wir letztendlich zu zweit um unser Überleben kämpften. Unsere Feinde? Kriegerische Kaktuskolonien, kreisende Aasgeier, messerscharfe Salzkristalle, und die jahrhundertealte deutsch-französische Hassliebe.
[The following blog entry differs from my usual entries in two major points: It is a collaboration between me and my travel partner and is therefore written in English. We recollect our New Year's trip to Death Valley in California. What was originally planned as a group trip, ended up being a cosy camping for two due to various circumstances partly beyond our control. Cosy camping? Oops, am I deviating from the German text? Not really, because the centuries-old deep love between French and Germans culminated in our joint fighting against militant cactus colonies, hungrily circling vultures, razorsharp salt crystals, and bullying all those obnoxious companions in our camping group.]
My contributions are going to be in the normal font.
My travel partner’s comments are formatted like this.
On to Death Valley!
Knowing Christiane’s sweetness and laudatory way of describing people, I expected my ass to be kicked when she started writing a blog entry on our trip to Death Valley. But in an admirable act of fair-play, she gave me the opportunity to give my point of view. Well, “gave me the opportunity” might not be the best description. My life would have been endangered if I had postponed this further.
I won’t expand on our encounter; first because there is already a blog entry about it, and second because there is nothing special to be said. We saw each other for the first time in Utah, a likely place to meet for a German living in Finland and a French living between California and Italy (no, not in the Atlantic). What drove us there is also as ordinary as it can be: a simulated Mars exploration mission in the desert, as part of a selection process that could lead us to the Arctic for one year.
A few days after we left Utah and started our re-adaptation to modern terrestrial life (wait, why did I rehydrate my peanuts?), I received a skype call from my purple-headed crewmate. I don’t remember the reason for this call – probably an appropriate reply she found to some teasing I had done a few days before – but we talked for a while, and then started calling each other from time to time. A couple of weeks after this first call, we had a conversation that went something like this:
- Cyprien, I have bad news for you.
- What? You’re coming to California?
- How the hell did you guess?
- Just thinking of the worst news that I could think of right now.
Even though she was kidding when she first said it, my answer made irresistible her wish to kick my ass. I thus found her a few weeks later, riding her luggage in front of San Jose’s airport.
We started our trip on New Year’s Eve of last year, a Wednesday. Ahead of us an eight-hour drive, behind us a late night of exceptionally careful planning, we got up around eight o’clock in the morning. While I had an extended breakfast with two of the girls we were staying with at the time, Cyprien went to shop for our food for the next few days. After he returned, we grabbed all of our equipment and threw it into the van Cyprien had borrowed from a friend and that we needed to return before our trip. We rented a little red Chrysler, drove to said friend’s place, loaded our stuff into the little red Chrysler, left the keys to the van on the kitchen table for the friend who wasn’t home (I love thee, America!), and finally hit the road at a time that could be described as late noon with some squinting and optimistic euphemism.
The morning of our departure to Death Valley, we equitably shared preparative tasks: I would prepare the camping equipment and buy the needed supplies, and she would have breakfast with two friends. After renting a car and stuffing inside way more things than it was designed for, we hit the road.
Now, who is this Cyprien person I keep talking about? We met at the MDRS in Utah, where we started a quarrel that called for a revenge so loudly that I eventually decided to visit and haunt him in California. He’s French, working on his PhD in Rome, but at that time he was stationed at NASA in California. We exchanged a few skype calls and soon his ego was unable to decline the challenge and he agreed to put up with me for some three weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. Considering how lovely we had been to eath other in Utah, three weeks seemed like a scarily long time, but anything shorter would have resulted in unaffordable flight prices for me. ‘Twas the season…
People at the mansion where we were staying joked about who of the two of us would make it out alive. Cyprien is stronger than me, we would have no cell phone coverage for days, and Death Valley is not exactly bursting with people – I was not the one who people placed their bets on. I had put some hope in Carmel, another crew member of MDRS, and some of Cyprien’s friends at the mansion, but the closer the trip came, the more apparent it became that I’d have to be as nice as possible to Cyprien if I wanted to return alive. Ugh.
On the way to Death Valley we stopped a few times for fuel, firewood and food. Being exhausted from the short night and the extended breakfast, I was glad Cyprien refused to let me drive for a bit and I got to take a nap after sunset. I woke up when he stopped abruptly after seeing a fox, and both of us being curious, we left the car for a bit to hunt the fox. It was a clear moonlit night and the area was very inviting, but we were already running late for setting up our tent in the National Park before midnight and so we returned to our car.
Apart from the heat that I would not have expected on New Year’s Eve in this hemisphere (if a Venus Society was created and looking for an analog test site, I would have a few spots to show them between Cupertino and Death Valley), the ride was enjoyable. Driving on the wide, straight American roads when you learned to drive in Paris tends to relax you more efficiently than a spa. When the sun reached the horizon, it became obvious that we were in the right direction: evidence of civilization was scarcer and scarcer. Soon after the sun was fully gone, a small silhouette appeared on the road. A kit fox, licking something on the ground. I stopped a few meters in front of it and got out of the car to observe it (this woke up Christiane; her facial expression made me consider hiring a food taster for the next meal). I was expecting the fox to run away; but no, this arrogant little thing looked me right in the eyes. He clearly found me more annoying than scary. I took a few steps closer, but it did not start walking away until I was less than two meters away from it. I followed it and it didn’t speed up, walking away like a prince. After a couple of hundreds of meters, I walked back. It followed me. When I sat back in the car, it was already back licking the ground in front of us. I hurried Christiane, who was comfortably wrapped in various pieces of fabric and slipping back to sleep, to come outside and see the fox. She looked at me like I was some mold growing on her food. The fox might have been unusually confident, but it was not so daring as to stay in front of a just-woken-up Christiane. It ran for its life.
In the middle of nowhere, one and a half hours before midnight, we passed the sign marking the entrance to Death Valley National Park. There was no visitor centor and the surroundings were rather flat and exposed, so we continued without hesitation. Another half hour later we started ascending towards the mountain chain that still separated us from the actual Death Valley, the Panamint Range. We found a turnout suitable for leaving the car overnight, scrambled the most important pieces of our equipment into our backpacks, worried about the late time and hastily set out to look for a suitable camping spot. I originally insisted on a nice view over the valley behind us, but eventually we settled for a smooth spot just below the top of a small hill between us and the valley.
For those who would like to follow on a map: We stayed a few kilometers before Towne Pass, close to the “29km”, on the other side of the road. The pass is in the middle of the western border of the National Park.
Before we could finish preparing our tent for the night we had to drop everything and rushed towards the top of the hill. The ground was trickier than we expected, with sharp rocks strewn everywhere and the moon revealing basketball-sized cactuses split seconds before stepping on them. Consequently the final ascent took us longer than expected and midnight struck us in the middle of the slope. Cyprien was the one who had kept an eye on the time, and so it was him who stopped suddenly in front of me and made me almost fall over him. Luckily he caught me before I could step into a cactus and we wished each other a happy new year. Afterwards we continued to ascend to the top, drank some champagne and enjoyed the scenery.
From there Cyprien returned to the car to get some firewood, whereas I returned directly to the tent. Finding the tent turned out to be surprisingly difficult, as I could not see it from the distance in the moonlight and the landmarks looked very different from the other direction. Just when I started to worry about having accidently passed it, I could finally make it out about fifty meters ahead of me. I finished preparing the tent and started taking some pictures while waiting for Cyprien to return.
Then started the race against the clock: we wanted to celebrate the year-to-year transition in Death Valley, and midnight was close. If there had been a speed camera on this part of the road, I could have now stapled the ticket to my resume and applied for a test pilot position. When we started to think we were about to make it, we saw that the road we wanted to take was closed and we had to take a detour. We finally entered Death Valley National Park, found a suitable spot, loaded all the equipment we could on our backs, in our arms and between my teeth, and ran, away from the road and up a rocky hill. At midnight I stopped Christiane and breathlessly wished her a happy new year. I then ran back to the car to take some logs and ran even faster back to the camping spot, hoping to find Christiane and not a purple piece of ice. Fortunately she was only halfway through her freezing process, and I could thaw her with a fire.
After he arrived, he made a fire and we had a barbecue. Since we were on National Park ground, we could not make the fire directly on the ground, but instead we made it inside a grill. Lacking both small pieces of wood and the tools to cut some from the huge logs we had bought earlier in the day, we had some trouble starting the fire, and only managed by generously using blocks of fire starter. In the end though, we had an enjoyable barbecue under the starry nightsky, with nothing around us but desert, mountains, and silence.
It must have been closer to sunrise than midnight when we finally crawled into our sleeping bags and went to sleep.
We then enjoyed grilled sausages and Californian Champagne (yes, California labels some of its sparkling white wines “Champagne”) between our rocky floor and starry ceiling. If the rest of humanity had been eradicated that evening, or if the Le Pen family had started a foundation supporting the integration of immigrants, we would not have had any clue about it until late the next day.