My friend Matt and I had our eyes on Mt Shasta for a while and the last weekend of the semester was a perfect time to go. We posted on our school’s outdoor mailing list and met Ellese and Louise who also wanted to climb Mt. Shasta. On the night of the last day of classes for the semester we drove 4 hours north to Bunny Flat at 7000 feet where we would sleep and acclimatize for the night.
We all made some mistakes on this trip, Matt and I especially but it proved to be a great learning experience.
We got to Lake Helen at around 3 and dug out a camp. There were about 50 people there that night and almost all of them planned to summit. Stupidly, Matt and I decided to go without a tent as there was no chance of snow or rain, we would later come to regret this decision.
As soon as the sun set the winds picked up tremendously. There were gusts over 80 miles per hour. Unfortunately this meant that snow was being blown onto Matt and I and we both got very cold and got very little sleep that night. It was so windy that when I stood up to go to the bathroom, my inflatable pillow blew away immediately and the wind ripped a huge gash in Ellese and Louise’s tent. We had originally planned to alpine start at 3am but it was clear that was not happening.
We woke up at around 7am and saw a lot of people higher in Avalanche Gulch turning around due to the wind. We met a guide and her client who had turned around when the client was in tears because of the high wind. We debated turning back but ultimately decided to give the summit a go. Luckily as the sun rose the winds died down slightly. Whenever a gust came we dug our ice axes into the snow and held on tight.
It was a long long slog up avalanche gulch but we finally made it to Redbanks, by this point we had split into two groups, with Matt and I in the first group. Misery hill was even more difficult due to the altitude, but finally around noon Matt and I reached the summit.
As we descended we ran into Ellese coming up, Louise had to turn around due to the high winds but Ellese pushed on and made it almost to the top.
Upon returning to Lake Helen I packed my stuff up and skied down to the parking lot. 15 minutes later I was at the car. Since the rest of my group was on snowshoes I waited for them for about two hours, and finally they got back and we all returned to Berkeley.
After going to Zion and completing my first 40 mile day hike(a story for another post), Evan(a person I met through the hiking club), Jeb(my roommate) and I decided to head to Death Valley in order to spend a few days backpacking in a much less crowded place.
On my high school’s trip to Death Valley we entered through Marble Canyon hiked to the racetrack, across Saline Valley, into the Nelson Range, back across the bottom of Saline Valley and eventually exited over Towne Pass. I figured that a trip entering at Marble Canyon, cutting down to Cottonwood springs and then out Towne pass would be a good introduction to desert backpacking for Jeb and Evan, without having to carry a ridiculous amount of water.
Emma and Powell, the other two people on the trip generously agreed to drop us off at the mouth of Marble Canyon and meet us at Towne Pass in three days time.
The Marble-Cottonwood loop is the most (and really only) popular backpacking loop in Death Valley. It is a good first route because there are two reliable springs, most of the navigation is in canyons and it is a loop so no hitchhiking is needed. As it was spring break we did see a few other groups out there, but none after deviating from the loop at cottonwood springs. Cottonwood Canyon is much wider the Marble, and has no narrows, as such I chose to exit over Towne pass instead.
Navigationally speaking, most of the route is quite simple because it follows Marble and Cottonwood Canyons, however the crossover can be quite difficult for those not adept at desert navigation. With a map and compass, we had little trouble finding the route but we met a group of people about our age that told us they had gotten lost in the hills between the two canyons for over a day. This potentially deadly predicament could have been easily avoid if they had brought even a map and a compass and learned how to use them.
We rested at Cottonwood springs during the heat of the day and then made our way south towards Towne pass. Just before setting up camp I climbed a steep hill and was treated to a beautiful view of Panamint Valley.
Once we made it up to the ridge of Towne Peak the next day we were shocked by how fast the winds were. Death Valley was experiencing a massive windstorm, much bigger then usual. It was difficult to move along the ridge and what should have been panoramic views were obstructed by the dust blowing around in the valley below.
Upon reaching Towne Peak Jeb was very tired and wanted to go down, Evan and I wanted to see the site of the Albatross plane crash only a mile south of the peak, thus wee split ways, admittedly not a good idea in the desert.
Upon arriving to Towne pass we did not see Jeb, I mistakenly thought he may have gotten lost on the way down. However it turns out that he had just gone into the closest town to get out of the wind. Evan and I were very worried though. Some people gave us a ride to a place where we could call him, and we soon found out he was safe. The moral of the story is not to split up, especially with a new backpacker. It was still very windy and it was getting dark. Emma and Powell were still nowhere to be found. It turns out they were delayed because they had to plow sand off some of the roads from the windstorm. We turned down multiple rides but eventually decided to go to Panamint Springs to get some food and wait for them. Unfortunately this caused more confusion but eventually they found us. Good bye Death Valley.
I met Tim and Eric through CHAOS (Cal Hiking and Outdoor Society), when Tim posted about a trip he wanted to do to Mt. Lassen. At this point I had some back country ski experience but no snow camping experience and not very much experience with crampons and an ice axe. I told both of them this before the trip and they were nice enough to teach me a lot during the trip. Because of this, I learned a lot on the trip, how to snow camp, and how to use crampons, an ice axe, and avalanche rescue gear.
We camped at the parking lot the first night about 10 miles from where the summit is. The next morning we set off and started skinning up the road covered in snow towards Lake Helen
By mid-afternoon we made it to Lake Helen and dug out a camp, there were a few other parties in the same general area also attempting the summit the next morning. Because the snow is more stable at night, we planned to get up at 3am the next morning to summit under stable conditions.
Upon returning to Lake Helen we rested for a bit and then skied down the road. It was mostly pretty flat but there was one shortcut we took near the end that resulted in a fun ski run. We then got back to the parking lot and returned to Berkeley.
My friends Ira Emmet along with my brother Connor and I all set out to go on a backpacking trip to Death Valley, one of my favorite places in the state. It was all of our winter breaks and it was great to see them after being off at college. We planned a very ambitious route from Panamint Valley, over the Panamint Dunes, up Mill Canyon to the southern tip of Saline Valley and then through Grapevine Canyon, up to the Racetrack, and then up White Mountain road and down and out Bighorn Gorge to Death Valley itself. Special thanks to Steve Hall from http://www.panamintcity.com without which we would not have been able to link together this route.
Well there are many reports of people doing part of this route, I have never heard of anyone doing the whole thing as backpacking is not very common in Death Valley. We pieced together a very aesthetic route in my opinion that hits most of the highlights of the Cottonwood Mountains. I would recommend that anyone who attempts it be in extremely good condition, and perhaps to travel faster and lighter then we did to lessen the hauling of heavy loads. There is only one spring on this route in Grapevine canyon so we had to be prepared to carry up to 12 liters(26 pounds of water) at a time. If one was prepared to travel lighter they could perhaps lessen that, but be warned off trail travel in Death Valley is typically at least twice as slow as on trail travel.
We all learned a lot on this trip, firstly to always check the shelter before going on the trip. Emmet brought a tarp on the trip but none of us brought poles so in the mostly creosote bush that fill Death Valley there was no place to set up a tarp. We soon came to regret this decision a lot.
On the first night we drove to the end of the road in Panamint Valley and camped there for the night. The next morning we gathered our gear and set off into the desert.
Most canyons in Death Valley have large dry falls that need to be bypassed. Sometimes this can be easy sometimes it can be difficult, most of the dryfall bypasses on this route were fairly straight forward. More information can be found on panamintcity.com
It got dark and the climb out of upper mill canyon was quite difficult, a few hundred feet straight up a hillside. Finally we made it to South Pass road which had a thin layer of snow on it. We walked about two miles down the road before we found a small clearing beneath the road to camp at. Unfortunately we did not set the tarp up out of exhaustion and woke up in the middle of the night to wet sleeping bags from the rain. We tried to jerryrig a setup off of a small bush but we were not very successful.
By the morning the rain had stopped and we decided it was safe to keep going, we were all still quite warm and we would dry out gear out that day.
We continued down south pass road for two miles until we reached grapevine canyon, the location of the first and only spring. We all came to Grapevine Canyon on a backpacking trip in High School so it was neat to come back at a different time of year.
We filled our backpacks with water and started the climb up to the racetrack. With full packs it was very slow going and the navigation was quite tricky, this part of the trip took many hours.
Suprisingly between the racetrack and grapevine canyon we ran into two people one of whom went to our high school. It is extremely rare to see people in Death Valley, but since out high school did a trip to this general area, it was actually not too surprising. After a few more miles heading North we finally got to the pass and got our first view of the Racetrack.
We neared the racetrack and camped for the night, the next morning we explored the racetrack and checked out the Sailing Stones. Unfortunately there is a lot of damage to the Racetrack due to people driving on it. Many of the Sailing Stones have been stolen. It is my opinion that it is far too easy to reach the racetrack. In recent years the road has been heavily graded so even some brave 2wd cars can make it out. I understand that not everyone can walk in as we did, but they should at least close the road a few miles down, and maybe have a few guided tours for people that are not physically able to make the walk. If they do not do this all of the Sailing Stones will soon disappear and it will be just another dry lake bed.
Furthermore NEVER walk on the racetrack when it is wet as it will take years to heal, unfortunately you can see a lot of foot prints near the sailing stones, evidence of people walking on the area during rain.
From the Racetrack we headed Northeast up into the Mountains via White Top Mountain Road, we mistakenly went up a side canyon in an attempt to save time but it ended up costing us a few hours. We walked into the night and didn’t arrive at the end of White Mountain Top Road until almost 11PM, this was one of the only sections of our route on roads but Ira had some pretty big blisters at this point, this combined with general fatigue slowed us down.
That night we awoke to about an inch of SNOW on top of our sleeping bags at 3am. Emmet quickly took charge and suggested packing up and resuming hiking to warm up. Luckily the snow soon stopped and we hiked down into Upper Big Horn Gorge into the darkness. Soon enough though it became light and our pace quickened.
Connor and I made it to the road around 3:30 after splitting up from Emmet and Ira in order to have a better shot at getting a ride out that day. Ira’s foot was really bothering him due to blisters which really slowed him down.
Still 60 miles from our car we were not out of the desert yet. We budgeted for a long wait for the hitch with lots of water, however we got very lucky and the first car that passed by stopped, a very nice family visiting from China, and they took us to Stovepipe Wells.
The next two rides came quickly as well and I ran the last 6 miles on the dirt road to the car while Connor waited with our packs, we then returned 60 miles to pick up Ira and Emmet who didn’t get to the road until around 7pm. We then headed home, goodbye Death Valley.
We were all quite exhausted from getting up at 3am that day so we switched off drivers every two hours in order to make it back home. Connor had school the next day which he somehow went to after getting home around 5am.
Looking back on this weekend it is still one of the craziest weekends I have ever had. We crammed two hard trips into one weekend in two of my favorite areas in the United States (Death Valley and the Eastern Sierras)
Veterans day is only one of two three day weekends in the fall term and I planned to make the most of it. Originally the Matt Noe and I planned to head to Death Valley and do a trip there. When we heard that our school’s hiking club was planning to do a trip to Mt Whitney, we jumped at the opportunity to meet some new people at UC Berkeley and also climb the highest peak in the lower 49. Matt Noe and I went to the planning meeting and we met Jared, another person i would go on to do many more trips with, and Kristian, a very adventurous and some would say crazy exchange student from Norway. We convinced them to still summit Whitney with us but also come along for a detour through Death Valley. We all drove in Matt’s car down to Death Valley where we planned to hike the 11000 foot Telescope Peak, the highest point in Death Valley. I had always wanted to hike from Telescope to Badwater and somehow I convinced Matt and Noe that it despite the limited timeline it would be a good idea.
Jared and Kristian wanted to save their energy for Whitney but they graciously agreed to pick us up at Badwater Basin some 20 miles east the next morning as they wanted to see the rest of Death Valley as well. We got to Death Valley around 4am and slept at Emigrant Campground.
(pictures taken on my phone and a few on Kristian’s pocket camera)
By the time we had hiked the 7 miles to the top of Telescope peak and descended to our chosen drop off point along the ridge it was already around 4pm and there was not much daylight left, however it was the full moon and we decided to descend anyway.
The descent was very steep and much slower then we anticipated. Although it was all downhill there was some tricky route finding especially at night. Although the section between the telescope peak trail and the Hanaupah canyon road looks short on the map, it takes a long time to descend. Most canyons in death valley end in steep and in passable dry falls so we had to take numerous reroutes.
The shear size of Death Valley makes things feel deceptively close, a similar effect to the lack of depth perception in the dark. The combination of the two was all the more deceiving. It is pretty hard to navigate in Death Valley as many of the peaks and other landmarks look very similar, this navigaational challenge was further compounded by the lack of light. Finally at 2am or so we finally reached the wilderness boundary meaning we had reached the 4wd “road” we still had over 15 miles to go though, but at least it was on an easy to follow and somewhat flat path.
We decided to sleep for three hours and wake up at 5 am in order to get to Badwater at a reasonable time.
Once we got to the mouth of the canyon we still had to descend 6 miles on the alluvial fan and then cross the 5 mile salt flats.
I’ve crossed Badwater Basin twice and both times were incredibly difficult both physically and mentally. The black mountains and the Panamints are both massive mountain ranges so even after walking for an hour it is impossible to tell that you have moved at all. People have died in Badwater basin after wandering a couple hundred feet from the road and becoming disoriented, unable to see the road and know which way to go.
Finally we reached Badwater Basin just as Jared and Kristian were starting to worry that we had become lost out in the desert.
Luckily Jared drove the 135 miles to Mt Whitney and Matt Noe and I got some much needed sleep. But by the time we packed all of our stuff, and stopped for food and permits in Lone Pine it was already 4pm. Nonetheless we began to head up Whitney.
As we got to Outpost Camp at 10,000 feet we ran into the group of 15 students from UC Berkeley who we had originally planned to go with. They had just summited earlier that day and were very suprised to hear about our adventure in Death Valley. We wished them well and continued up the mountain to Trail Camp at 12,000 feet.
It was 9 degrees that night but Matt and I were so tired we slept outside anyway. After two nights of just three hours of sleep we finally got a decent 7 or so hours. The next morning we woke up and had to melt water before proceding.
At around 9am we finally had enough water and we proceeded up the switchbacks, as we got higher we soon began to feel the altitude.
We got back to the car around 8pm and had an 8 hour drive ahead of us. We had to take turns many times on the drive back in order to stay awake. Despite this we still stopped at Manzanar internment camp on the way back and did the driving tour because Jared is a History major and wanted to see it. We finally got back to Berkeley at 5am Monday morning. Even though my outdoor skills have advanced a lot since this trip, I still maintained it is the most ambitious weekend trip I have ever done.