Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Death Valley No-Name

heart to the wind, 
mind to the raven, 
blood to the water, 
and my soul to the rock


Death Valley seemed an appropriate place to start. In the past week I have had to attend to personal matters and essentially slide into the proposed No-Name Route as if I had hiked it continuously. Since I had to pick up 2 packages within the area of Death Valley National Park, I basically had to recall what I had in store for the route ahead of me. This proved to hit me later on in this section. Nonetheless, I was afforded with incredible challenges, some even bordering stupid on my end; amazing scenery, and the freedom of creating something without any barriers or obstacles, philosophically speaking.

After getting things situated in a hurry, I left Stovepipe Wells into the teeth of an ominous storm. Because I could see the curtains of rain pounding in 'island' formation, I felt fine enough to push forward. Besides, the rain seemed to be hitting the highest peaks the hardest. I walked along the bajada of Death Valley as the world of rock and mountains loomed all around amidst the shadows and grayness of a huge thunderstorm. I was in the bottom of a basin and heading straight towards Marble Canyon.

After a couple of hours, I entered the first narrows of Marble Canyon. On the way up I marveled at the indomitable power of water and its erosion, its control over time. Indelible marks of water shown in the landscape surrounding yet the layers of rock showed characteristics of weathered times, like a classical statue that erodes and rusts over time yet the 'value' of the artist is still there and the meaning endures for eons. Nothing more shown the endurance of rock and the power of water than the narrows.  Smooth, polished gray and ebony stone with the occasional pearly vein. I stood astonished at the dizzying, narrows heights above me. All I wanted to do was to leave my hands feeling the marble rock. Echoes and weird sounds reverberated in the slot and I recognized baby crows squawking in a nest high above and out of sight.

Eventually, I came to the second narrows, which had a high flood mark about 20ft high. Unlike the first slot, caked mud spackled the white and black-lined marble walls. The slots meandered in a water slide fashion, where you can see the vestiges of careening water cascading and carving its way through utter rock virtually impenetrable. That is what baffles my mind, that something as meaningful to life, as precious and soft, and fluid and refreshing, like water, could etch itself forcefully through something so fortified as rock. I can understand water eroding the crumbly kind of rock, but marble!

I laid down on an elevated shelf under utter rock everywhere. Despite my emotional feelings of recent events I kept my eyes focused on the silhouettes of rock in the moonlight, the different layers and colors, the different tendencies of rock, until I fell asleep.

The next morning I bundled up with my wind parka and navigated up to the mouth of the canyon. At the head of the canyon I found an old mine, a first of many in the next couple days. I used a pretty large scale map of the area, the NatGeo Trails Illustrated version, and began a fairly easy navigable cross country section. I walked through Joshua Tree groves and up through washes where I found gastropods fossilized in a dark gray slab. I found these regularly while I found no footprints. I cherished thus easy amble through the high desert. To my nearest right stood menacing black, craggy peaks, while all around me low colorful hills dotted the scene. I could not help but think who has been in this area before.

I moved quickly though my water was getting low. My next goal was to crest the Cottonwood Mountains and venture down the rugged Bighorn Canyon. However, if the previous day held and truth was that the storm that raged through did not leave much water to be had. I recall taking a leak and seeing how fast the water sunk and disappeared into the sand. So, I set off up a gully to find a spring that was 'marked' in the map. I went up nearly a half mile before I turned around. I again noticed an awkwardly tall Joshua Tree. I kept eyeing it as I went by. Something strange it was. As I took my last glance I spotted the spring, well, an old adit of some sort pillared off with rotted wood framing. I threw a rock inside and heard a plunge. Sweet!

After my fill of water, I neared the Cottonwood crest and White Top Peak other high peaks showed off their pigments of rock. Looking at these peaks, I swore to myself that I will be a geologist someday. I wanted answers to why everything out here was so uniquely different. Pine trees, lush sage, and large juniper greeted neat the top before I lumbered down into Bighorn Gorge. Quickly, the route descended and before I knew it I clung along in some narrows. The level of difficulty escalated and before I knew it I came to the conclusion that I some how ended up in the wrong narrow. A rather large drop-off fell beneath me. I felt incredible. And a tad scared. I wasn't sure where I made the mistake. So rather than go back from whence I came, I climbed up and over a burly ridge to get a better vantage point. The gorge adjacent to the ridge looked more walkable. Somehow I made it up and over after clinging to rock and huffing it up, which is hard to do with 3 days of food and a gallon of water. Further down the line, slots continued and even some tinajas which only a tiny bit of water settled. The chasm to Bighorn Gorge suddenly was in front of me. Water and time took an immense gouge out of the mountain and split a gap right in two. Impressive to say the least. The canyon snaked incessantly and I had to down climb some tricky chutes. One large pour-off of about 100ft dizzied my head. I found a way down a nasty gully lined with huge, loose boulders. Something took hold of me, the feeling of route blazing, the adventure into the unknown. Shit, I had no idea if I was to get rim-rocked but I didn't care. I just gave my heart to the wind and prevailed.

The idea of a Death Valley No-Name Route blossomed in my mind as I bedded down in the gorge. Something that will rival any 200m route anywhere. It's in the works and I intend to finish the last half, hopefully, in the Fall. The route will be a popular challenge for very experienced hikers: very rugged, a ton of elevation change, dry, hot and cold, lack of water, and incredibly scenic and so different than anything. I'm finding all the water sources, breaking the route up for a thru, route blazing, gathering further ideas, etc. to make this route something special.

So, the next morning I continued down the gorge. I had a massive climb around and down some slots and narrows, which were littered with bighorn sheep spinal columns and skulls. The descent wasn't the most sensible thing I've done. I spent a good hour trying to figure out a way down and this chute seemed like my only option, as this route is not marked with cairns. Precariously slippery descent through scree and loose rock, in which I had to show ski or slide on my rear on 50-60 degree slopes for about 400ft down.

Out of the gorge I ambled up Death Valley Wash which proved to be great walking with a cemented bed from previous floods. The heat, of course, baked the ground like an oven, which is to say I had a 30m hike in the bottom of the wash with mid-90s heat. Scorched and sun-drenched I continued through colorful badlands, even some ancient sand dunes caked with volcanic dust and small pumice rock, and had endless views. In particular, I couldn't quite get enough of Tin Mountain.

I ended up spending a little bit longer in Death Valley and my mind drifted to my food supply. I maybe had 3 days max with 3.5 days left of uncertain hiking. I kept telling myself to get out of the park, then tally up. So, an easy walk up Last Chance Canyon turned into a pure white-knuckle adventure. At the headwall of canyon I hung a left when I should have stayed right up a lesser tributary. Once I figured it out, I again decided to push on through. The headwall had the terrain of the Badlands. Small ridges, large truncations in the land perforated the bowl in front of me. A kaleidoscope of earthy colors skewed my determination of climbing the blasted wall. 'Take the brain out, leave the heart in,' I kept repeating as I dug into the very steep slope. I would slide down, then zoom up. All this, at the end of a 40m waterless stretch. I kept at it, same mantra, until I finally hit a large, ribbon of a backbone that I hoped would take me to the top. I skittered on a catwalk about a foot in width that went straight up. I doggedly persisted; there was no turning back. Bushes and juniper and pine clung onto the crusty dirt. I dug in with my claws to keep me from tumbling 500ft. I grabbed roots, branches, rock that jumbled loose, anything to attain the top. 

I got it. Down to Willow Spring I went.


  1. Glad you're still at it. Super sorry to hear about April...
    Great writing, Ryan...this is exactly what I meant! Sounds spectacular down there. Enjoy