Sunday, January 2, 2011

Return to Death Valley - December 2010

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Return to Death Valley – December 2010

First off, a little apology to the Death Valley Wander the West rally folks. We watched your plans with interest but due to the holiday and snow/storm considerations here it was difficult to make a firm departure time and didn’t want to commit and then not show and have folks wonder what happened. So our plan was to watch for a group of WTWers and stop and say howdy.

Why Death Valley again? We had some unfinished exploration that was calling us and the opportunities for adventure are around every corner.

Santa delivered a white Christmas here starting on the holiday evening so the 37” blower got a work out in the morning and the Lady got around to cleaning the holiday stuff up. “Killing Christmas,” she calls it. This allowed for a leisurely pack up and plan for an early launch on the 27th. A 4:30 am start put us through chain controls ahead of the crowds, had the roads to ourselves, and we love the early morning. Breakfast in Walker and sunrise along the East Side of the Sierra. Life is good.

We had to make time so a hot spring soak at Bridgeport was out.  We needed to leave plenty of daylight to navigate a maze of dirt roads to our first campsite and we had a long drive to get there.


This first evening was the highlight of the trip. After setting up camp, we took a walk to orient ourselves for the next day’s cross country hike. Back at the camper at dusk we were visited by a colony of six burrowing owls, at least our tentative id. We had never seen owls so social in a large group and so curious about people. They circled and hovered overhead within 10 feet of us and swooped down around us at chest level, all in complete silence. It was amazing. There was no aggressive or defensive behavior, it seemed they were just curious. Their circles widened and they slowly moved away. A series of aggressive hoots from me brought them back to check us out again. One of those treasured rare encounters we will carry in our memories.

The next day we spent exploring a broad wide open very remote area with interesting geology.

And something to see around every corner.

Including a possible old tent saloon dump site

Being alpine folks, this reminded us of a glacial erratic

And when we saw chunks of basalt embedded in what looked like a mudstone conglomerate (we are only rough amateurs in geology, but love this stuff) possibly we are on the right track with the erosion of this material leaving the basalt chunks behind much like a melting glacier.

Too soon the day’s exploration was over and we headed back down country to the truck.

We had enough day light left – it sure gets dark early around the solstice – that we cleaned up with showers, packed up and headed to Texas Springs for the night. And boy was the campground full and busy and so unlike the solitude we had just left. Ah but that’s the beauty of Death Valley because the next morning we hiked from the campground around the corner to the north and didn’t see another soul on our adventure.

Our objective for the day was exploring a canyon that goes by the local name of Funeral Slot Canyon. It is always a wonderful surprise how much elevation you quickly gain walking up a wash when you turn and look back.

And it is always special to see water in Death Valley.

The canyon was beautiful, the solitude delicious, and we were like kids, excited about what might be around the next corner.

The Lady’s preferred direction of travel is up so after we turned around at a high dry fall we scrambled up a steep side gully to gain the ridge top where expansive views awaited. From here we saw we could connect sheep or burro trails down the ridges for a wonderful stroll back down to the Valley.

Back at Texas Springs we watched kites fly as we packed up.

“Where are we going next?” the Lady asked.
“We have talked about Gold Valley and Willow Springs, Scotty’s Canyon, Grotto Canyon, and….”
“Well, I was thinking,” the Lady countered.
And so it starts. This is always the fun part of the trip. The Lady works very hard at her job with her mind always busy. She takes part, but generally relies on me for planning. Two or three days into a trip I usually see a transformation as she relaxes, gets into the groove, and wants to take a lead in trip plans.
“Could we drive back down Greenwater Valley, find a spot to camp, and climb Funeral Peak tomorrow? I think I remember seeing a spot to camp when we were up there last month.”

Camp Wednesday afternoon along Furnace Creek Wash Road at around 4000 feet.

“It sure looks like something is brewing to the north. Think it will stay to the north?”

The wind picked up considerably as we made dinner. We usually take a night walk after dinner, let our eyes adjust, and just walk by starlight. The wind blew us back inside in short order. A little later the rhythm of raindrops on the roof started.
“It’s raining. There were no clouds overhead when I went out last.” I said.
“Not when I was out either, but there was a big flash to the north. I forgot to tell you.”
“That was quick, it’s already stopped raining. No more drops hitting the roof.”
The Lady answered, “That’s because it’s snowing.”
“How do you know that?” I asked.
“Because snow is hitting the window over the sink. Look.”
She was right. It was.

As others have mentioned, the wind blew this night, blew hard. The truck was rocked all night. The Lady asked several times if the truck would blow over. I learned something very practical this night. You know at night when you’re warm and cozy in bed and you have to pee, how you tend to put off crawling out of bed, especially in these wicked conditions? A word to the wise - if you wait until the last minute and you’re starting the “I really got to pee dance”, you just might find the door froze shut.

The morning dawned clear. The wind had died down to about 25 mph with some higher gusts. I estimated the temperature at around 15 degrees. Here’s first light on the Black Mountains. Funeral Peak, the Black Mountain highpoint, is the rounded peak to the right with the little summit block that looks like a coffin set on top.

We decided to go for the top, discussed the best clothing combination for the day, how we would need to stop often for a quick drink and snack, how the wind would probably be worse up higher, and the need to communicate clearly and often on how we were doing. We have much experience in travel in harsh conditions, more than enough to know you take conditions like this seriously. Honest answer, this day was brutal and this day was great fun.

Ready to go with Funeral Peak’s summit beckoning 4.5 miles away.

On the long walk across the valley.

In this remote country you never know what’s around the next corner. This is one of the nicest sheep panels I have seen. The skinny guy with long fingers holding his head in his left hand is extra special.

The Lady at the top of the short scramble to the top of the coffin.

The summit of Funeral Peak with the Panamints in the distance.

The winds were just bearable at the summit until you approached the Death Valley edge. Here they were close to 60-65 mph. I shot a few very quick photos from the summit as the Lady signed the summit register. We hunkered low and grabbed a quick snack and drink and it was time to go.

View down into Death Valley.

View to the east.

Back at the bottom of the east ridge, we found a spot in the sun and laying down in the wash we were able to get out of the wind. A nice break before the 3.5 miles back across the valley. We reached the truck around two, climbed in and turned on the furnace. Life’s little pleasures are the best. We warmed up, packed up, dropped the top and headed for lower elevation. Heading down the dirt road I glanced at the outdoor temp display.
“Look, it’s warming up!” The temperature read 34 degrees. It was 58 when we reached Furnace Creek.

Friday was to be a day of wandering. Thursday afternoon the Lady suggested turning up Hole in the Wall Road to check on camping possibilities. The road ascends a wash and we watched the odometer to determine where the magic two mile limit ended. At two miles there was a used spot up against the wash wall. Nice spot but right along the road as many spots in DVNP are. Good enough for us as we were anxious for a hot shower to thoroughly warm up and a leisurely dinner that we could enjoy outside in the chairs. With little wind and relatively alone, this was a nice evening as we watched the sun drop behind the Panamints to the west.

And turned to watch last light on the mountains behind.

Up before dawn, it was nice to stroll in the quiet with our mugs of coffee and watch the day brighten.

And then first light hit Telescope Peak.

After a relaxing breakfast outside in the sun we decided we needed to learn more about this Hole in the Wall Road, so after packing up we headed up the wash.

Four miles in from the pavement is Hole in the Wall.

Just past Hole in the Wall are several wider spots that would make good camping spots. Keep this road in mind if you need a spot to tuck away in for the night in central DVNP. The road continues up the wash, much rougher now, another two miles to its end at the Red Amphitheatre.

Lots of opportunity for exploring up in this area. We will be back. In fact on the drive back down, the Lady had Digonnet’s book open on her lap orienting a map to the real world and then pointing. “We can go up that canyon and that canyon. We’re coming back here!”

We wanted to spend New Year’s Eve in the Alabama Hills; it’s such a special place, home is an easy drive from there, and our friend Ted had mentioned he might be there. We stopped at Stovepipe Wells General Stove as the Lady got a yearning for fig newtons - they had them – and I wandered over to the campground.

We topped off with gas in Lone Pine and headed up to find a spot to camp. It was bitterly cold with few folks camping. We enjoyed wandering and climbing about in the late afternoon light.

And like Death Valley, you never know what you will find around the next corner.

The Lady asked if that was our friend Ted. I told her no; Ted has a fancy new white truck. Here is our spot with last light on the Inyo Mountains.

Light winds on New Year’s Eve, but it was cold. The furnace got a work out that night. We tried a night walk, the stars and milky Way above were fantastic. We made it 200 yards from the truck, looked at each other and said, “How ‘bout another game of scrabble?” In the morning it was colder but if the first sunrise of 2011 is any indication, this should be a great year.

Looked like it could be storming back toward home.

As the warm morning light finally hit the Hills, who could have wanted to be anywhere else?

Best wishes to all, wonderful adventures, and have a great New Year.

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