Face the Dawn

Matt is walking home from San Francisco

Into the Valley of Death, part 1: Up and down and up

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Panamint Valley sunriseDays 48-49, Panamint Valley
Panamint Springs to Aguerreberry Point Road, 22.8+17.3 miles
total miles traveled: 568.7

My alarm went off and it was still dark. I made a last few preparations, drank the cold coffee I’d snagged the night before and started down the road to Death Valley.

I had spoken to Ranger Charlie about my route; it involved a trail clearly marked on my old Death Valley map but which had vanished from newer vintages. Charlie told me this road had been washed out by winter storms sometime in the 80s but that it was still hikeable. He also told me he expected the weather to break soon and then highs would be in the mid-80s or low 90s.

This had not happened yet, so for my climb over 4950 ft Towne Pass I was looking at highs near 100 at the lower elevations, so I needed climb quickly and get off the west-facing slope before the sun could focus on it.

The road from Panamint Springs dips 400 ft to cross the playa of Panamint Lake, then climbs 3400 ft to Towne Pass, where a cache of water and food was waiting for me. My plan was to cross the pass, descend into the next valley, and camp close to a cache near Wildrose Road, which winds up towards 11000 ft Telescope Peak, the high point of Death Valley National Park.

Panamint Dry LakeI walked down the easy slope and across the dry lake as the sunrise painted the mountains behind with shadows and color. The sun came over the mountains ahead as I reached the far shore of the lake and started up the road toward the pass, and now my walk was a race — would I climb fast enough to stay cool, or would the sun bake me into a heatstroke cake first?

At 9:30am the temperature at 2000 ft felt like the mid-90s, and I was sweltering in the hot breath of the diesels crawling up the slope. Seeing the National Park ambulance come down to the boundary and transfer a patient to the Ridgecrest ambulance was a reminder of what happened to the losers in this race …

Looking back at Panamint SpringsThe temperature broke at 3000 ft — suddenly it was not getting hotter, and then it began to cool just a bit. When I reached my cache in the heat of the day, it felt like the low 90s and I had plenty of water and a long descent in front of me. The cache also had some favorite foods in it and I was still celebrating when I decided to take a last look and found the Newman-Os. That disturbance you felt in The Force? That was me yodeling — inwardly, of course.


Elated but tired, I slumped down the backside of the pass and started cross-country toward my next cache to cut off a 3-mile wedge of road. I watched carefully for rattlesnakes as I negotiated the rough rocky ground and the many wash crossings. I reached the area I was looking for and made camp behind a little hill where I was hidden from the road. TAMI helped me find the cache, which I approached from the back, and I settled in for a quiet night, knocking on the gates of Death Valley.

The next day was another race against time and heat, but easier since I started higher. Passing Emigrant Spring I debated with me:

Me: “I want to go look at the spring”
Me: “Climbing all the way up there will take too much time”
Me: “But I want to go look at the spring”
Me: “You’ve got 15 miles and 2000 ft left to go today — better keep moving”
Me: “But I want to go look at the spring”

This last argument proved persuasive, and I put my pack down and made the short climb up past the locked-tight spring house to where water drips steadily under a rock shelf. It was a beautiful magical place, and then I saw the creature.

On one of our first trips together, Lori found a piece of desert driftwood in the shape of a friendly Lizard King. It lived in her car for a while, and took up residence in the garden when she moved to Prescott. We hadn’t seen it in a while, and Lori seemed to miss having the king around, so I was determined to find a creature for her in my travels. And here it was, waiting patiently at Emigrant Spring. It was in the form of a snake coiled to strike and didn’t look too friendly to me. I hesitated: could I, should I give this to my beloved? Then I realized that snakes have been associated with wise women and especially with healers for thousands of years, and Lori is both. So the snake rode with me for the next three days to Furnace Creek, where it could meet Lori and begin its life as her familiar.

The goal was to meet the road to Aguerreberry Point and go out through the narrows of a canyon until I reached the supercache (much more food and water than usual) at the junction of the defunct road that would take me down into Trail Canyon, which leads out into the main valley and Badwater Basin. It was a long steady climb along a good road, and rangers stopped twice to check on me. Mostly they wanted to know if I had enough water and some clue about where I was going. They all confirmed what Ranger Charlie had told me about the road I planned to take, raising my confidence level even higher.

The tourist traffic fell off as I turned onto Aguerreberry Point Road, named for a Basque miner who worked claims in the area. According to legend, he built the road just so he could show his friends his favorite view over the valley. I went out to the point on a caching expedition and it certainly is impressive at sunset — you can see the whole sweep of the valley from Badwater Basin to the lights of Furnace Creek, then turn around and see Stovepipe Wells and over to Towne Pass. In good light you can probably see the Sierras, 70 miles away.

Sunset near Aguerreberry PointCampsite near Agurreberry Point
I stopped short of the point, picked up my cache, and camped just beyond a gate which closed the jeep road into Trail Canyon. The wind had picked up during the afternoon, but now it was calm, and at 6000 ft, it was quite chilly. Not what I’d expected to feel in Death Valley, but fine for a clear quiet night looking forward to a long day into Trail Canyon on an impressively steep and wild road.

Written by walkingman

December 1st, 2008 at 11:59 am

Posted in Desert

One Response to 'Into the Valley of Death, part 1: Up and down and up'

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  1. Nice to see an update Matt! Glad you made it to the spring too :-). Sounds worth it to me!


    1 Dec 08 at 7:18 pm

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