One Crazy weekend: Telescope Peak to Badwater Basin and Mt. Whitney via the trail

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)

Emigrant Campground, the start or end to many a good Death Valley backpacking trips
Our group stands atop Telescope Peak
Badwater Basin, over 11000 feet below looks close but is actually over 20 miles away

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.

Matt Noe and I just before dropping off the trail and down towards Death Valley
The alpenglow over Death Valley as we started our descent

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.

Every so often we would stop and I would take a long exposure with my phone to get a better idea of where we were

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.

sunrise over Hanuapah Canyon

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.

5 miles from the salt flats but looking deceptively close

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.

Same beautiful scenery for two straight hours on the crossing

Finally we reached Badwater Basin just as Jared and Kristian were starting to worry that we had become lost out in the desert.

Tourists walking on the salt flats, Telescope Peak, 11000 feet above can be seen in the distance over 20 miles away.
Very tired but heading to Mt. Whitney nonetheless

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.

Whitney barely visible in the distance about 7000 feet above us
luckily the full moon was there to help us hike (again) late into the night

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.

Matt trying to break the ice in order to get water. Unfortunately the ice was too thick.

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.

Kristian came over prepared with mountaineering boots and an ice axe, used to the harsh Norway winter and not the tame California November
The view east over the Sierras from around 14,000 feet
Matt on the summit, telescope peak is visible in the distance
Top of the lower 49!
Looking North from the Summit, Mt. Russel and Mt. Williamson dominate the skyline
Heading down the switchbacks
Once again the sunsets on the way down and the full moon rises, night hiking was a big theme on this trip.

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.


Rae Lakes loop in two days

Luckily I met Noe the first day of my Freshmen year and a few weeks into the semester we decided to head out of Berkeley to go on a backpacking trip. I’m very glad we did as this trip was longer (in terms of miles per day) then any other trip I had done so far. Because of this it really expanded my conception of what was possible in a weekend backpacking trip.

We posted this trip on our school’s hiking club CHAOS (cal hiking and outdoor society) email list and of the 1000 people on the list we only got one reply from Matthew Morrison, another person I would later go on to do many more trips with. We drove until we were almost into the park and at 2am we found a pull out on the side of the road.

(all pictures taken on my phone as I did not have a camera back in 2016)

our camp spot on the side of the road just outside King’s Canyon
The majestic King’s Canyon

The ranger was very skeptical of our plan and did not believe we could complete the 44 mile loop in two days. The whole trip her doubt motivated us to keep going. Finally she relented and gave us the permit, however she wouldn’t tell us where the no camping zones were as she was afraid we would sleep there if she told us. She also carefully inspected our bear cans and was very critical of our choice to not bring a tent.

Finally free from the bureaucracy of King’s Canyon National Park we set off into the open wilderness.

some tasty elderberries that we found growing along the trail at the lower elevations
As we climbed higher and higher into the mountains the view around each turn made me question why I even bothered taking the last picture
10 miles in and going strong, we had not yet learned the wonders of ultralight backpacking
Almost to Glen Pass after almost 7000 feet of climbing
looking south from Glen Pass
looking North from Glen Pass
we descended Glen Pass and found a campspot a few hundred feet above Rae Lakes
Matt taking a dip in the frigid Rae Lakes the next morning
Starting to descend down the other side of the loop
Getting back into King’s Canyon

By 5pm the next day we were in the car and headed back to Berkeley, sore but inspired to do many more trips.

Alpenglow on King’s Canyon from the road out

Death Valley II: Ballarat to Badwater

I finally decided to start writing trip reports about my past trips in May of 2018 as I am about to depart for the PCT. Of course I do not have time nor interest to write about every single trip, but I decided to start with this one as it is the first trip that my friend Ira and I planned completely on our own. I have very fond memories of this trip and it gave me the confidence to go on many trips since. This was also my first real experience hitchhiking. I would highly recommend this trip to anyone and would like to go back one day.

What is really cool about this trip is you walk from Panamint Valley across the Panamints and into the truely massive Death Valley. Just driving through these valleys does not reveal their true scale. Also although surprise canyon is fairly crowded (by death valley standards at least) we saw no one after Panamint City. Thus we were left to contemplate the massive desert on our own.


The grand finale of this route was a crossing of Death Valley. Although we could see cars the night before moving along the road on the other side of the valley we still had six miles down the endless alluvial fan and 5 miles across the featureless salt flats. This was mentally the hardest part of the trip as it felt like we were not moving at all. When we finally reached the road Panamint Pass and the alluvial fan looked so close, but we were not deceived, we finally understood how truely massive Death Valley was and why the Panamints were originally mistaken for the Sierras by the poor travelers who got stuck in Death Valley almost 200 years ago and gave Death Valley its name. After taking a “shortcut” to California a large group of settlers got stuck in Death Valley for months as their food and water dwindled dangerously low. Many mistakenly assume that this was in the 120+ degree heat of the Summer but it was actually in the mild temperatures of the winter.

Completing this hike was only half of the adventure. When we reached the road we still had to hitch 100 miles back to the car. The first ride took 3.5 hours to get and we got quickly discouraged sitting beneath the shadow of a signpost in the 100 degree heat. As we didn’t have much experience hitchhiking we did not yet know to always trust in the thumb. We also did not know that if we had gone a few miles north onĀ  the road to Badwater there would have been over ten times as many cars and we could have gotten a ride out much quicker. Finally a nice women stopped gave us a ride on the condition that we would not murder her to which we quickly agreed. However after the long wait for the first ride our fortunes took a dramatic turn for the better.

She dropped us off just outside Furnace Creek, the first cell service we had had in days. Normally this is not something that I would place much importance in but it was then that I found out I had been admitted to UC Berkeley where I would eventually end up attending. I jumped up and down and screamed in joy. Not soon after a Spanish man in a nice convertible picked us up and whisked us through the hot desert at 60 mph. This was a very different way to see the desert.

He took us to stovepipe wells where we quickly got a ride to Emigrant campground, a free first come first serve campground where we stayed the night. The next morning we quickly got a ride to the northern end of Panamint valley just twenty miles north of our car.

Our last ride was perhaps the most memorable ride out of the 87 I have gotten as of May 2018. A women by the name of Elaine picked us up and after about 20 minutes moving all of her various belongings around in her trunk there was finally enough room to squeeze our packs in. As she drove us she told us she grew weed up in Alaska and traveled back and forth between there and Death Valley. It turns out when she was much younger she used to live at Panamint City and she even claimed to have raised her daughter there. She told us some crazy stories about her time there and what it used to be like. She drove us straight to Ballarat as she was going to a gathering there to which she invited us but we politely declined. As the settlers who were trapped in the valley said when they finally found a route out, good bye Death Valley!

(all pictures taken on my phone as I did not have a camera at the time)

Ira hitching a ride out
Our camp the first night after walking a few miles from Ballarat towards the mouth of Surprise Canyon.
Theres not much to see in the small ghosttown of Ballarat, but a year after taking this picture I learned that this is Charles Manson’s old truck.
Suprise Canyon
The mysterious Panamint City, where Elaine lived for 18 years.
Our first view of Death Valley from Panamint Pass.
looking back up Johnson Canyon
Random VW high up on Johnson canyon road, still not sure why this car was here as we never saw its driver.
Crossing Badwater Basin
The superbloom, in hindsight not a bad place to be stranded for three hours.