Sunday, April 8, 2012

Death Valley April 2012 - Part One

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We awoke before dawn Monday, April 2th. The wind had blown steady and hard throughout the night, rocking us back and forth as we slept. A pack of coyotes had visited in the night, their haunting chorus of howls and yips erupting right next to the truck. We were high up in Gold Valley in southern Death Valley National Park.

Although Death Valley was in our plans for the Lady’s spring break, it had been a chore getting here. A numbingly busy week, the county boys volleyball tournament Thursday and Friday nights – the Lady’s JV boys took the championship, and unexpected challenges conspired against a Saturday getaway. So Saturday was for planning and packing and a surprise visit with our niece, up to visit her grandparents. And then we had to deal with the weather. Snow level was predicted to lower Saturday night but it started snowing here at 10 am, and snowing hard. It was amusing to be shuttling supplies and gear out to the garage in a blizzard getting ready to visit Death Valley. At dusk, as the storm slackened a bit, I was out with the snowblower clearing 8 inches of snow and the Lady was shoveling walkways and decks. If only the storm would hold off overnight so I wouldn't have to burn any snowblower gas in the morning.

We awoke at five in the morning and found only a couple of additional inches, not enough to hamper getting the truck up the road without clearing. We brewed some coffee and headed out after checking on chain controls – all our routes under restrictions including 395 until just north of Bishop. At the posted 25 mph maximum speed limit, this was going to be slow going.

One of the nice things we enjoy about an early start is the lack of other travelers on the road, especially with snow and ice. We were alone on the road when we pulled up to the first chain up point and the young man climbed out of his warm camper to check us out.
“You’ve got great tires. Do you have it in four wheel drive?”
“Yes I do,” I answered.
“I’m curious; do you know how much your rig with the camper weighs?” He asked.
“I got it weighed down at the fruit growers association scale. Loaded as it is now for our trip, I’d say 5300 pounds.”
“Yeah, I figured you were below 6500 pounds.”
“Is there something special about 6500 pounds?” I asked.
“Yeah, any vehicle that weighs 6500 pounds or more is required to chain up even if they have four wheel drive. That surprises some folks with bigger rigs than yours.”
“Wow, I didn’t know that, thanks for the info.”
“You two have a safe trip.”

Breakfast in Gardnerville and we headed south on 395 finding all chain controls lifted. It was a beautiful drive. Surprised with our luck with time we continued into Death Valley and found ourselves on the rugged road heading toward Gold Valley in the late afternoon. The road tops out on a pass in the Black Mountains and then drops steeply into broad Gold Valley. Three vehicles were climbing out, filled with young people who we suspected had enjoyed the marvels of Willow Canyon on a day trip. That left us alone in this high basin.

Morning dawned clear with a lingering wind.

Our objective for the day was Sheep Canyon accessed by a high gray pass visible behind the red knob with a plan to drop down the side canyon into Sheep Canyon, descend to Sheep Springs, and then climb the main fork to the crest of the Black Mountains with a possible side jaunt over to the summit of Funeral Peak.

We made good time on the four miles to the pass and looked down into steep Sheep Canyon and the bottom of Death Valley below.

We talked. “You know, my energy seems low for some reason. My heart and lungs are great; I’m not out of breath climbing up here. My muscles feel good but I just don’t feel like hiking.” I told the Lady.
“A week ago you were in the hospital for three days on morphine and intravenous antibiotics that are now switched for two oral antibiotics prescriptions. It’s okay if you feel a little out of sorts. Doc said we could still go to Death Valley but pay attention to how you feel,” she added.
“I went over everything we planned to do with the Doc. He said he wished he could get the week off and come with us.”
“So how do you feel?” The Lady asked me.
“Like this is a great place to hang out, have a snack and water, watch the world for awhile, and take a nap and ease into these explorations we want to do the next several days.” I answered.
“Let’s drop a little out of the wind,” she said as she moved off the ridge.

We enjoyed our leisure and the walk back to the truck. We packed up and dropped down to the end of the road at Willow Springs and the beginning of wonderful Willow Canyon.

We decided to drive out and over to Hole in the Wall Road and make camp above the gap.

After dinner we wandered to enjoy the evening light.

And the moonrise......................

..................and the sunset.

The evening air was wonderful and the Lady sat out and enjoyed her book.

The next morning, with of mugs of warm coffee, we watched in awe as the new sunlight washed over the land.

What brought us here was the opportunity to explore Slit Canyon, a dark notch 1.5 miles away in the Funeral Mountains.

We got our usual early start the next morning. After climbing the alluvial fan we entered the mouth of Slit Canyon.

Around the first corner things get interesting as passage is blocked with a polished dry fall and above that is the grotto around a higher polished fall. Here the Lady is looking down into the grotto. The steepness of the canyon’s gradient is evident.

Above, the canyon is mostly down to polished bedrock.

In short order the canyon’s namesake “slit” is encountered. In the middle is a tall overhanging boulder obstacle that must be climbed…………

……………….and above the boulders the walls narrow even more.

The slit soon ends with a 15 foot polished pour over. It is visible above just beyond the Lady. It can be climbed on the right side but I expect many will find the experience unnerving.

The canyon opens up briefly, you round a corner, and are stopped by a majestic 50 foot polished fall.

You can see why we wanted to get up into this glorious canyon.

The fall is bypassed by a high steep route up loose talus and high ledges.

It is just as nasty descending back into the canyon but the reward is looking back down this narrow chute in polished rock.

The narrows above the high fall are just fun and exciting, especially in the morning light.

Above are the second and third narrows.

We found the third narrows to be one of the highpoints with three polished 9 foot falls one after another, each with their own climbing challenges.

We continued all the way to the end of the canyon, finally climbing out and heading for the ridge top.

At the top we were rewarded with a great view of Schwaub Peak (yes, as in Charles Schwaub) and the crest of the Funeral Range.

We worked leisurely back down the canyon, enjoying the climbing challenges and the ever changing character and moods with the slanting light. We were in no hurry; our camp was set up, ready for our return. We lingered, snacked, and napped, and just enjoyed our opportunity to visit and travel through this canyon.

After our showers and dinner, we looked forward to another display of evening light in the desert. We grabbed the tripod and camera and wandered.

We were topping off all our water tanks the next day so we splurged this evening with a hair wash for the Lady and a little rinse of our hiking clothes. It the morning the lady pulled down her makeshift clothes line.

Go to Part Two as we continue our explorations of Cottonwood and Marble Canyons.

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