Death Valley March 2009

March 22, 2009

My two buddies from UCLA, Jake and Kyle, and I have traveled many countries together but these days we don’t see each other too often. Jobs, wives, kids, and life have spread us all over but we do try to get together once a year for some sort of trip. This year we decided to travel through Death Valley NP in the LandCruiser to explore the northern part of that spectacular desert scenery.

After meeting up in Mojave and piling into the LandCruiser, we started our chosen trail on the eastern shore of the once verdant, then dry, now filling Owens Lake. It was so strange to see water in the lakebed since it’s been dry for so long as a result of the controversial project to bring water to LA. Now that water is slowly filling it, it looks like an enormous mirror sandwiched between towering mountain ranges.

Our journey nearly began in extreme disaster as the trail quickly gained elevation from about 3000ft to 10,000ft. The steepest section of the trail climbs an off-camber shelf road over rough, exposed bedrock covered in loose shale. The dizzying drop over the edge of the road to the passenger side required careful concentration as I methodically worked the truck up the trail. As we slowly climbed with center differential locked and low gearing, the edge of the trail suddenly crumbled under the right front tire and we lurched to the side, finding ourselves staring down a frighteningly steep slope covered in jagged piles of weathered black and grey bedrock. The view for Jake and Kyle must have been especially extreme as they were both on the downhill side, the effect being like they were hanging over free space. None of us moved. We didn’t even breathe. I nervously eyed the clinometer mounted on my dash. At 29 degrees we were already listed further than I’d ever pushed the truck and I knew that we were on the edge of the breakover angle.

The three of us sat rigid in our seats and exchanged a look that can only be described as “Holy Shit!” though none of us actually muttered a sound because of the instinctive understanding that the simple disturbance of air from spoken words might send us tumbling to our deaths.

The initial shock wore off within moments and our brains sprang into action. The first priority was to get Jake and Kyle out of the vehicle. Both have small children and this is not a way to loose a father. They certainly couldn’t swing their doors open to exit down hill as I was convinced that even the weight of the door leveraged further out over the precipice would upset our precarious balance. Plus getting out on the downhill side of a vehicle at risk for rolling would be suicide. Using my driver window controls, I lowered the window behind me and Kyle, in the back right seat, slowly climbed uphill, across the back seat, and crawled out the back left window. I asked him to stand on the running board and hang his body weight as low and far back as possible for counter balance. A quick check to the clinometer and things had improved a bit. Jake then climbed across me in the driver seat and out my window and added to the counterbalancing effort. With foot still hard on the brakes and muscles tense, I put the truck in reverse and held my breath. I told the guys to let go if it started to slide and I had my escape plan visualized in my mind – throw open the door and dive out hopefully before the truck rolls and it’s all too late. With the wheel turned to bring us back to the trail surface, I slowly backed up. For one terrifying instant, we seemed to slip a few inches further down but then the tires gained traction and I soon found myself back on solid ground. A quick inspection of the crumbled trail edge revealed that we were saved by the fact that the fallen wheel had settled on a flat rock which prevented the loose shale from sliding away all together.

Back in the Land Cruiser, nerves rattled but otherwise okay, we continued our climb. The trail quickly gained elevation, passing through junipers, then pines as we reached the first snow on the trail at about 7500ft. We plowed our way through the occasional snow drifts covering the trail and made great progress even as the trail became covered completely in snow. We were in a large snowfield on the north slope of a gentle hill and the sunny, snow-free south facing portion of the trail was clearly visible beyond the snowfield.

At this point I made the mistake of not mounting my snow chains. I have them for all four tires but forward progress was so easy through the 12in deep snow that I didn’t bother. Before I knew it though, the axel was plowing its way through deeper and deeper snow and the driving resistance was increasing. Eventually we were forced to stop and survey the situation and in those few moments, the sun went down and the tracks we had made were cast in shadow. Almost instantly, all the snow crushed into tracks by our forward progress turned to ice and we found ourselves in snow too deep to move forward and with tracks too icy to reverse. By then it was too late to put chains on as we also had ended up off trail and were off-camber on an icy slope. Any attempt to mount the chains would result in the truck sliding out of the tracks where we’d be hopelessly stuck in deep snow that was rapidly freezing solid. With our nerves still on edge from the harrowing cliff experience, we were in no shape to take any risks.

So, we spent the next two hours digging ourselves out and laying my fiberglass grid bridging ladders behind the tires to help us gain traction as we reversed out the frozen tracks. Eventually we made it to a level surface, put the chains on, turned around, and drove to a snow-free zone. We found a great place to camp in the forest at about 8000ft and had a great night hanging out and re-living the day’s experiences. It was another instance where we shared great memories drinking Nicaraguan Flor De Cana rum in the middle of nowhere.

The next morning we broke camp and decided not to push on further up the trail. With the chains we probably could have made it but again, after the cliff experience, decided to play it safe. We never got to see the old salt tramway that was our goal for this trail up close, but we did see it from afar and it looked like quite an engineering feat.

On the way down the trail we had to pass by the collapsed cliff edge again. Jake and Kyle opted to walk that section, leaving me to drive down, this time on the downhill side and I held my breath as I slowly crept pass the chunk missing from the side of the road. No drama this time and we were soon back on our way to join the Cerro Gordo trail which is at a much lower elevation and therefore snow-free.

We drove up the graded dirt road, enjoying the scenery of the narrow canyon and soon found ourselves in the Cerro Gordo ghost town. We chatted with the owner for a while about CA politics before heading down the eastern side of the mountain toward Saline Valley.

The trail through Joshua Tree forest and then Creosote eventually led us to the bottom of Saline Valley where we were awed by the expanse of the flat valley and the size of the towering mountains all around. Our destination was the hot springs which are so incredible no visitor to Death Valley should miss them. The setting is unreal and the water is so clean and hot that it’s just paradise. We checked out the lower then upper hot springs and decided to set up camp at the upper springs. The pools are made of smooth plaster and shaped perfectly for comfortable reclining. Every day, volunteers drain the pools, bleach and scrub them, and refill them with fresh hot water. It’s amazing.

An afternoon of perfect soaking gave way to an evening of even better soaking as a light wind rustled the palms overhead and we admired the vast splash of stars across the sky. For breakfast I made delicious Aebelskivers which are Danish pancake balls that I like to stuff with fresh blueberries and we enjoyed them as the sun warmed the chilly morning air. After another fantastic soak in the tubs we headed off toward Steele Pass.

The Steele Pass Trail is a rough trail that leads from Saline Valley to Eureka Valley and isn’t identified on some maps. The travel was slow as the trail wound in and out of a wide wash filled with river rocks that require careful speeds. At the summit of the pass we stopped to survey the vista over Saline Valley and continued down the other side. After crossing a wide plateau, the trail enters the beautiful Dedeckera Canyon. The steep decent through the canyon is dramatic and features some fun little dry falls that require some careful wheel placement. Soon the trail exits the canyon and the trail descends a wide alluvial plain toward the massive Eureka Dunes looming in the distance.

Past the dunes we joined the graded dirt Big Pine Road and headed toward Scotty’s Castle. The miles of washboard seemed to descend endlessly toward Death Valley itself but we made great time due to the robust LandCruiser suspension. When we reached Scotty’s castle I put the last of our gas in the tank from a jerry can and noticed a burning oil smell around the truck. A visual once-over of the engine revealed that my valve cover gasket had failed and the wind of the engine fan had sprayed oil over everything. I cleaned up a bit and topped off the lost oil before from my spares supply we continued down the valley.

A slight detour and stop at the Ubehebe Crater was interesting as the wind blew so hard we could almost hang in the air above the crater’s edge. This crater is a massive hole in the ground with a sharp lip that drops away in strikingly vivid colors of earth to the bottom.

It was getting dark and we needed a place to camp so we decided to head in the direction of Titus Canyon. Across the border in Nevada near the entrance to Titus Canyon there’s a vast expanse of desert brush intersected by dirt roads. We found a previously used campsite just outside of the park boundary so we could have a fire and enjoyed a superb bottle of Flor de Cana Nicaraguan rum while talking under the endless desert sky.

The drive through Titus Canyon is incredible and not to be missed. Dramatic vistas into the canyon and surrounding landscape make it one of the most beautiful destinations in Death Valley. The trail drops steeply into the canyon wash before winding through a deep slot canyon of multi-hued cliffs. The experience of driving a vehicle through such a tight and curvy canyon is incredible. It’s practically a gravel road chiseled through solid rock with sheer vertical cliffs rising high to meet the deep blue sky. There is a parking area where the canyon abruptly ends and the broad plain of Death Valley itself begins and looking back at the cliff wall, the slit of the canyon is almost imperceptible against the massive rock face of the mountains.

After airing up the tires, we headed out on paved roads. Passing through the crowds of tourists at Stovepipe Wells where we tanked up was a bit of a shock after the last three days of hardly seeing anyone but we didn’t mind the chance to grab a cold soda and wash our hands under warm running water. As we headed up the steep grade out of Death Valley for the drive home, we looked back and marveled at the incredible diversity of landscape we had covered from pine forest at 10,000ft to desert sand below sea level and all of the amazing sites between.