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.