Death Valley Traverse: Day One- Suck it up Buttercup

  • 3.24.2022                                                             
  • 20 miles                                                          
  • Harry Wade Rd -> Buckwheat Wash                                                                            
  • Features: Ibex Sand Dunes, Ibex Spring & Mine, Buckwheat Wash, Wildflowers

I swore I would never go stoveless again.  After the first 500 miles on the Arizona Trail, I hated it. But here I am again, deciding at the 11th hour to go sans stove. I hiked 9 of 10 days on the L2H stoveless, and that seemed fine, surely I can do it again, right?

I’ve been watching the weather forecast for the past week. While Furnace Creek was reading 70F  ~10 days ago when I cached all my water, I have been watching the temperature trend slowly creeping up. At first it forecasted highs in the 80’s then started reading highs of 95 and at last check the high was up to 102. Crap.

My body is pretty water efficient and I know my needs well. However, with these higher temps, I feel the water I cached will be just enough and nothing more. Hence the decision to go stoveless. If I don’t cook my dinners, don’t need water for breakfast and don’t drink tea at night, I can save a lot of water for just plain staying hydrated, which might be important in 100+ heat. So I am opting to give up the stove and the comfort of a cooked dinner, a hot mug of tea at night as well as a hot cup of joe in the mornings, three things that I really relish while out on the trails.

Furnace Creek, March 13th

The trending weather for this week looks like this at Furnace Creek:

  • 3/24 High 99 Low 65                                       
  • 3/25 High 102 Low 68                   
  • 3/26 High 102Low68                                       
  • 3/27 High 97  Low 64

Ironically enough, the day after I finish my hike, the temp drops to a high of 86 and shows a chance of rain showers. Haha!! I happen to be hiking during a little heat wave. I have to be prepared to endure temperature swings from 35F up to 105F depending on my elevation, which bottoms out at -282 ft and tops out at 4,500 ft. On day three and four I will have to cross the salt pan, or Death Valley proper (I will be crossing it twice) which is the lowest point on my trek and it also happens to be on the two hottest days. It might suck. Suck it up buttercup.

Morning. I am under slept because I arrived here at almost 11pm last night driving here after work. The drive felt long, but I made it! I’m watching the sun crest the horizon as I sip my coffee, feeling under motivated. It’s my birthday afterall, I get to sit and enjoy the morning a little, right?

Birthday Sunrise

By the time I am at the Harry Wade Monument it’s around 8:30am, I drive the four miles down the washboardy dirt road toward the start of the route. My car wedges neatly into a pull out with gravel and sand. I grab all my gear, place a note in the dashboard about not taking my ride, and I lock everything up after taking a few extra long swigs of water from my hydroflask.

Harry Wade Monument
The Beginning…

The morning is a beautiful 70F and I am happily walking finally by 9:00am. My pace is decent for the first few hours save for the pockets of sand that collapse under my feet. It’s much like post-holing in snow, some of the pockets sink past my ankles. This makes for a little extra work and I believe several of them are due to underground dens from animals. It must be a fascinating world under there.

I walk along the Ibex Sand Dunes for a couple miles. I am awestruck at their sexy shapes and curves. I could play all day in them but I don’t divert as this would waste prescious time, energy and water. I am focused and determined to make Ibex Spring/Mine in time for a shaded lunch break. I know I have to play this smart.

Ibex Dunes
Gorgeous curves…

From many miles distant I can make out the little outcropping of palm trees at Ibex Spring. Two hours later, I am still walking and staring at my destination, feeling like it is just not getting any closer. I am reminded of the first time I hiked the JMT making my way up to Muir Pass. It seemed like forever to get to that little stone hut! I know this feeling well, I always get there, wherever there is…

The final mile to reach Ibex is a bit of a slog, I am feeling the heat now for sure. When I arrive, I glance at my watch, it’s 12:38pm. I’ve hiked 9.6 miles already, ot a bad start. The mining trash remains are quite fascinating and I snap a few photos but honestly I just want shade.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure…

While there is no water at Ibex Spring, as the name would indicate, there is actually good shade under a large Tamarisk tree just waiting for me to arrive. It is perfect yet the air temperature in that shade is 90F. I sit staring into the sky, the wavering palm fronds, the backdrop of ragged rock walls that have been scarred from mining, bleeding white talc. I watch giant vultures circle the lanky palms looking for prey. I eat my lunch of a tortilla & cheese even though I really don’t have much of an appetite.

After an hour I feel pressured to keep going. It is a long way still to Salsbury Pass where my first water cache is. The exact mileage eludes me, but my goal for today has been to get as close to Salsbury Pass as I can today. By my maps I guestimated it to be around 25 to 27 miles from the start of the route. While I navigated here with only my map and compass thus far, I mistakenly take a wrong dirt track leaving the Spring. I realize this when I am suddenly climbing toward another mine which I know the route does not go near. I pull out my GPS and sure enough, I have to turn around, losing a little time. Something you have to get used to when you are not following an actual trail.

The correct dirt track shoots me through a short narrower canyon and then spits me out across the massive Buckwheat Wash. It is a lot larger than I expected and just as the heat is reaching it’s apex for the day I realize I am about to walk across this massive expanse with absolutely zero shade for the next few hours. I now have my new Montbell sun umbrella fully deployed and while it does take the edge off the heat, it is still so darn hot, claustrophobic almost. If only that Spring had had water I could have wet my clothing and my head. Alas, the Spring was not a Spring.

Dirt track leading to Buckwheat Wash

I make my way across the wash towards the sand dunes on the other side. I am starting to feel a little desperate after less than an hour, and finally, by 3pm, I spy a large stone next to which offers about 2 ft wide of shade. I drop my pack and scoot up next to the rock, tucking my body into a ball to fit inside the shade. Along with the help of my umbrella propped above me, I get a little relief, but within about 5 minuts its really no use, so I start walking again.

There will be no shade…

By 3:30pm Im across the wash and find actual shade casting off the side of some rock walls that are about 20 ft high. When I see this I make a beeline to it. My pack falls with a thunk to the ground, my shirts are soaked with sweat across the back and arms, my feet are boiling. I remove the shoes, socks and long sleeve shirt, sit down and stare off into space for a few minutes.

I am definitely going through the process of heat acclimating, as back home we are still getting snow. I am not woozy, just a little out of it. I stuff my shirt under my head, curling up on my little sit pad, leaning onto the slanted rock, allowing my body to just lay down and rest. Eventually, I get a genius idea and move my neck cooler to my forehead. This is amazing. I don’t sleep but within about 30 minutes I do start to cool down and it feels really soothing to let my body relax. I experience Relief in knowing I will not die of thirst on my 45th Birthday, hooray!

Neck Cooler on the Forehead!
The “edge” of the shade…

I give myself permision to stay here as long as I need to, just resting in the shade. Finally I am able to eat a little more and now I am realizing how much I really have to ration my water. During my rest break, I finish what is in my bottles and pull out my reservoir of 2.5L and start to fill my empties. I leave 1L in the reservoir for later. I pour water into my dinner to hydrate it for later, and I am left with 1L to get me through the rest of the afternoon, then 1L to get me through the night plus however many miles I have to hike to my water cache in the morning. It’s not great. But I know I will not die of thirst, it will just be uncomfortable and I will be dehydrated. I have never been so low on water on any of the desert hikes I have done in the past, not the Arizona Trail, not onany of my Grand Canyon adventures, not the L2H. Clearly, I am crossing into new experience territory here and I am learning!

I rally to start walking again at 4:45pm. I rested an hour and fifteen minutes, but it’s still so damn hot. There in the shade it had dropped to about 93F but once back in that sun, oof! It’s radiance is just so intense, just scortching. I trudge onward, trying to hug the edge of the slopes that occasionally produce shade. There are so many beautiful wildflowers out here, espeically the yellow buckwheat flowers, they are lining the wash and there are tons of tiny flowers on the ground, I have to be careful not to crush them. I even spotted teeny little poppies about to unfurl, their flowers the size of my pinky nail, even smaller. I am aware of what a gift all these wildflowers are as I cruise along, but it is hard for me to really appreciate them when all I am thinking about is the heat and when the sun will dip below the horizon.

A pocket of shade + wildflowers
the teeniest of poppies!

From here on out for the rest of the day, water, and the lack of it, dominates my thoughts. I am truly low on water. I pre-hydrated and carried 4.5 L from the start, but it’s not enough. I should have carried 6L. I was anticipating temps in the 80’s today, not 95 in the shade, this is such intense heat. Why did I not just carry more?

I briefly consider night hiking, but the route will soon take me through a much narrower canyon which the author warns of being careful of flash flooding. If I were to, say, try to camp there it would be an added risk I don’t need to take. I decide to just get as far up this wider section of canyon as I can and find a ledge to climb up onto for the night. When I make it to my campsite at 7:15pm, it’s dropped to the mid 80’s and I can feel a few little whooshes of cooler air skimming over the surface of my skin. This is promising.

Narrowing Canyon

It’s just dusk when I find a great flat ledge to camp upon, it is a perfect spot, really, and for this I am thankful because I am beat. I made it 20 miles. I have exactly 1L of water to get me through tonight and what I estimate to be 7 miles in the morning to my water cache at Salsbury Pass. I am so thirsty I could guzzle that entire liter right here on the spot. I have to really practice self control here. I know rationing is in my best interest because what if I get to my water cache tomorrow and something has happened to it? I would not want to be stuck there with a dry bottle, and then truly nothing, so I can’t even finish this liter in the morning. I just have to wait.

When I get to camp I strip down naked, letting the soft breeze brush over my body and I feel really free in the balmy temperatures in the dark in the middle of the desert as stars emerge like diamonds above me. I take a mini pack towel, drop it into a zip lock and add a few drops of my precious water. This is enough to wipe down my salty body and then sitting there bare naked drying out feels so amazing. I am actually refreshed from just that little wipe down and it did my morale wonders. I really wish I could chug en entire liter of water right now but I cannot. Have I mentioned that?

Right now, part of me thinks I can still make it all the way on this trek. Part of me thinks it’s just not a good idea in these temps. But I won’t know until I make it to Salsbury Pass tomorrow. I’ll see what time it is, how hot it is, and how thirsty I am and what my instincts tell me. I feel like I am going to need to drink a liter immediately upon my arrival, which will only leave me three more liters to get me to my next water chache about 17 miles away. I really hope it is intact when I get there!

I suppose my plan B would be to flag down a vehicle an ask for water, right? I start to imagine this scenario. Surely people would have extra water in their vehicle. Maybe even another cold beverage like a coke, a gatorade right? This would absolutely save the day! I need to manifest help. That’s the plan. And worst case scenario, I get a hitch out. At any rate, I will make the choice that is safe when the time comes and I trust myself to do so and I trust the Universe to guide me. Fortunately, the route will be climbing a little higher in elevation tomorrow, so there’s potential for cooler temps, so if I could just manifest one or two extra liters of water, I would be all set. Fingers crossed!

Despite all the angst about the heat and the water, I am having a wonderful time.There is nothing I would rather be doing, no place I would rather be. I came out here for this and I embrace the unforseen challenges. I got myself here, I will figure this out. The stars alone tonight are worth every bit of suck I endured today, and the feeling of freedom, being out here alone in this wide open desert, the silence, the stillness penetrates my soul. I am in my happy place. It’s a happy birthday indeed!

11 thoughts on “Death Valley Traverse: Day One- Suck it up Buttercup

  1. Oh boy, I have anticipated this post from you! My goodness, though. The temps and lack of water is frightening. I’m so glad that you have the courage, strength and tolerance to heat.

    What a starkly beautiful landscape! I too love the desert. It can be very surreal and quite a contrast to our “normal” environs.

    Looking forward to post number 2!

    1. Thanks Arrow for your wonderful comments! Yes, I am glad I tolerate the heat well, I really do love the desert too, there is a special energy in such vastness…post #2 coming soon 🙂

  2. Enjoyed reading this information and more or less following you along given that latest sojourn and hot sands and desert backpacking trip. Are you still working on the writings that you thought I would be interested in reading someday just to get another pair of eyes on your writings?
    Sent from the all new AOL app for iOS

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