Death Valley Traverse Day 3: the only way out is thru

March 26, 2022

  • 22 miles
  • Gold Valley to West Side Road
  • Features: Gold Valley, Sheep Pass, Sheep Canyon, Salt Pan
  • Temps: Low 45F  High 105F

Morning. My sleep was better, even though  I had crazy psychadelic dreams. Am I now hallucinating in my sleep? I hear my alarm at 5:30am, it’s still dark out, so I turn over and tuck back in. I am not under the same pressure today as I was yesterday, so I can afford to leave a tad later, right? Eventually I stir awake and am elated that I feel like I could pee, whoo hoo! When I emerge from my shelter I feel the chill, it is a sweet 45F. Wow, what a difference!

The sky is barely getting light, the perfect quarter moon hangs above the eastern horizon accompanied by a glowing planet. Venus perhaps? I am surprised how cold it feels, I tuck back into my sleeping bag to get warm. Gosh a hot coffee would sure hit the spot right now. Instead I mix up cold coffee and the first sip tastes pretty darn good. I eat a protein cookie to go with it and with this little buzz start my routine of packing up. It’s 6:50am by the time I’m walking and it is now about 50F. Believe it or not, I walk with my puffy on, because I can put up the hood and shove my hands down into the pockets. I am happy to be a little chilled because I know it ain’t gonna last.

The walk along Gold Valley Road is truly stunning in the morning light. There is a mellow, peaceful energy here among these rolling hills covered in soft grasses. The wildflowers lining the edges of the track pop into 3-D with their glowing color. Once the sunlight hits me, I am all too soon needing to layer down. Boy it sure heats up fast, it’s only been a mile and the temp has shot up to 65F.

Enjoying the cool morning…
Mellow walking into Gold Valley
Popping Indian Paintbrush~ Castilleja

My objective for the morning is to make it to Sheep Pass by 10:00am and eat second breakfast there. I estimate ~ 7 miles. Following along the dirt track for most of those miles is happy, easy walking. At a certain point, the route veers off trail for the final mile up to Sheep Pass. It is steeper, more effortful walking now and the heat begins to really intensify. Within a half mile of climbing, I am sweating, thirsty, hot and hungry. Trying to find the path of least resistance seems a little futile at the moment.

At the pass there is a warm, cutting wind. I stop to take in the views, as from here you can see down Sheep Canyon and out to the salt pan, Death Valley itself, where I will be by this afternoon. On the far side of the salt pan looms Telescope Peak, more than 11,000 ft higher and still holding just a little bit of snow. Such a contrast in a short distance. To think just three weeks ago I stood upon it’s summit in the wind with temps at 0F, it was honestly butt cold. That was a really fun day though and I would do it again in a heartbeat. I soak up the views for a few more minutes before dropping in.

Telescope Peak front and center
Looking down Sheep Canyon & the Salt Pan

The first 100 foot drop is on some loose scree that I can sort of ski down. The author of the route notes here that the first 700 ft is on loose, steep talus. I decide to take second breakfast break before tackling that, not knowing how gnarly it might be. I drop into a little fold in the Earth, finding the little bit of shade there is.

Skiing the scree

It’s 9:37am, I’m ahead of schedule. First order of operations is to make a 2nd coffee. I eat a stroop waffel with cinnamon almond butter, a handful of gorp and cleanse the palate with tangerines. SO grateful! Getting calories in before it gets too hot will be critical to maintain my energy levels today. I’ve got 1 liter of water tucked into my pack for later, and now I’ve got enough in my bottles to sip on for the next few hours.

2nd coffee!!

It’s all downhill from here, I literally have no more climbing on this route. Sheep Canyon looks much wider than I’d imagined, which means my chances for shade are slimmer than I’d hoped for. I can already tell it’s  going to be a very hot walk today. As the route drops 4,000 ft lower in elevation, it ain’t gettin’ any cooler.

I make my way along the rocks and as the long drop into the canyon unfolds my predictions become correct. It is hot, hot, hot. I am loving this interesting terrain however, the scrambles and little ledges remind me of places in the Grand Canyon. After tackling that first 700ft drop, the route description here reads: “Once the hard and smooth canyon floor is reached head West. Climb along the right wall of the canyon, navigating a series of three 30-foot dry waterfalls. From there, continue West down the canyon.”

fun little drop downs

Lower down the canyon there is a waypoint labeled ‘valley floor’ and on my GPS it looks far away. I have no idea how long it may take to get there. I anxiously approach the dry waterfalls, hoping I can make it thru. There shouldn’t be anything more than class 2 on this route, but you never know. I feel a little trepidation around every curve. If anything were to be impassable, I don’t have the water resources to turn back. This is a classic exmple of “the only way out is thru”.

Continuing, so far every spot that looks scary to downclimb has a work around to the right side as notated. There are a few spots where I need to toss my trekking poles down and use my hands, but probably just because I am so short! After skirting what I take to be the three dry waterfall sections, I start to feel more confident that I’ve made it thru.

Suddenly I am at a sheer drop off and looking down more than 30 feet. Studying it, I can see how one could maybe navigate down after lowering your pack first but I don’t have a rope. There is no way I can do this with a pack on. My eyes dart around, first to the left side, which looks impossible, then to the right side, which climbs steeply up. I can’t see a good work around. I am feeling really really hot and my patience is waning. The route description did not say anything about something this sketchy. This is way above my pay grade.

I try dropping down to the first 10 ft ledge and stand there to get a closer look at what’s below. It is still way too far to jump, too steep to get a grip or any traction, too few hand holds, even without a pack, it would not feel safe to me. Defeat washes over me and I imagine this to be the place I get stuck and have to call the helicopter. No, this can’t be how this ends. Maybe the heat is getting to me? I have to keep my cool and figure this out. I climb back up and look again.

The first 10 ft drop

I gaze back up at that steep right side once again and start climbing. Sure enough, from up on the ridge, I can see a work around that I couldn’t see from below. It takes no more than a few minutes and soon I am standing in the sandy bottom looking back at that tall wall. My defeat shifts to relief.

Looking back at that wall

The sun is scortching on my skin now. I pull out my umbrella for the first time today, and it is truly a godsend. I do not think I could do this hike without the shade umbrella. I put on my neck cooler and my long sleeve shirt now too, I’m all covered up, protected from the death rays. I believe the hardest part is now behind me. Time to cruise…

Shade unmbrella = Priceless

Afternoon: 2:08pm. I’ve been sitting under a rock overhang in some decent shade for an hour. I am killing time. I’ve hiked almost 12 miles and I can’t get out to Badwater Road anytime soon or suffer intense heat. Here in this shade, it’s 95F, yet I am surprisingly quite comfortable. I have not allowed myself to overheat, I think this is a good strategy. My appetite wanes, but this marinated salty beef jerky along with tangerines sure hits the spot so I eat as much as I can. What would I have done without these tangerines? I think I am going to have to change the name of this hike to the Tangerine Traverse, forget this Death Valley stuff, it’s all about the tangerines. It’s been a Tangerine Dream.

Sitting, staring, taking in these textured walls, listening to their ancient stillness, everything is still as stone. It is a hidden blessing to be forced to sit here and just stare, as otherwise I would only be passing thru, the silence would be lost in my footsteps, the stillness lost in my motion. I feel like I am a guest in the Canyon’s embrace, she holds me in her shade, her silence is deafening, her stillness unnerving.

There are signs of Bighorn Sheep everywhere, but I have yet to see one. I read in Michel Digonnet’s book, Hiking Death Valey, that seeps or springs can be found up here. Because of this I envision discovering a small pool of water. I imagine I would soak my shirt, plunge my feet and douse my entire head. Alas, it is dry as bone here, I am in one of the driest places on Earth.

There is evidence of flooding all around me too. A lot of water has barreled through here many times. It would have been cold, churning waves, crashing through the canyon, pulling boulders in it’s wake, taking no survivors. It’s like walking through a forest after a massive storm, you see evidence of it’s descruction in the downed trees, their thick trunks snapped in half. I am always amazed at the aftermath of these powerful events, it seems I am always passing by the inert matter wondering how it came to be, nature’s messy masterpiece.

Soaking up the shade…
Keeping my cool…

Canyon floor: 3:40pm. I packed up and moved on from my shaded ledge. The walking is easy now and I’ve made good time droping to the valley floor. I am stopped again and sitting in the shade again. From here, it’s only one mile as the crow flies to my water cache at Badwater Road, but I dare not hike out into that scortching heat where there is truly zero shade. If my water is still there, it will be sitting in the baking sun, I do not expect it to be refreshing, but it will be wet!

Here now in this shade, it’s 100F. There’s a soft breeze that picks up every once in a while. Its’ going to be really windy out on the salt pan and probably 110F right now. I won’t be able to use my umbrella in that wind either. I can think of no good reason to try crossing that beast now. My brain calculates this conundrum, what are my options? I could try to hitch out at Badwater Road and call it done. But I am not ready to be done, I am in this. Impatience burns at me wishing I could get to my water now. But I just have to keep waiting. By sunset, it will cool down some. I will just have to hike across the salt pan at night.

Canyon Curves

I blankly stare at my route that seems to go on forever. Nine miles of shadeless, flat, windy terrain. The Death Valley salt pan is a 200 square mile expanse carved out by repeat flooding. Presently it’s a mottled white and brown surface that stretches on and on. Hovering over it’s parched skin is a thin cloud of dust mixed in with billowing heat rays. It’s like I’m at an airport and my flight got delayed, I’m staring out at the hot tarmac. Every now and then I see a teeny tiny car drive along the road headed South. They are all headed South. They have no idea I’m sitting here waiting, just waiting to take my flight.

I am SO thirsty. I have 3/4 of a liter of unpalatebly warm water, and I can’t finish it until I know for sure my water cache is intact. To keep cool, I wrap my neck soaker around my belly, remove my shoes again, and nestle in against the rock wall, which is not cool. I pop open my Kindle reader on my phone, Nature’s Silent Message by Scott Stillman opens up where I left off. The first passage is remarkably perfect for the headscape I now inhabit.

It reads ” Wilderness is my church, my teacher, my mentor, my psychologist, my mother, my savior. The school of life—where we learn not from books, nor words, nor lectures. A classroom where we learn not from that which thinks—but that which knows. The lesson is Truth itself. I can no more explain this than I can explain the sparkle in a baby’s eyes, or falling in love for the first time, or the agony of heartbreak, the loss of a child, the death of a dream. Good, bad, or ugly—truth is undeniable. It cannot be run from, nor grasped by the mind, only experienced by the soul. Truth is what we come out here to find. It’s why we trudge through sandstorms, freezing rain, and howling wind; walking on blistered heels with callused fingers and sunburned lips. Why we endure the long dark night. Why would one leave the comforts of home, to wander off into the wilderness alone?”

4:44pm: I get up and start moving. The terrain at this lower end of the wash is tedious and if I want to try walking in any shade I am then walking over even more tedius talus. I give up on the shade, shifting my focus to efficient movement in the general direction of my water cache, two ridges north of Telescope Peak is how I set my trajectory.

The mouth of Sheep Canyon
My water is just yonder…

When I reach Badwater road I have about a tenth of a mile to walk to find my cache. I try to locate it just by memory, flashing back to the photo I made when I placed it. There was a rock and a bush I am suppose to recognize. I scout around as dry wind infiltrates my nose and mouth. I am so parched but my hopes are up as things are looking familiar. Soon, I spot the shrub, approaching it gingerly, I see my water is there. The moment is victorious. I have water!

Photo I made when I cached my water

There is more shade than I expected in the shrub where I stashed it, but when I take that first sip it is not cool at all. But it is wet! I stuff my long sleeve shirt into a zip lock and douse it with enough water to get the whole thing wet, then drape it over my body, it gives me the chills for a fleeting moment, luxury! If only it would stay this way, a wet cotton shirt would be a miracle right now.

It’s  not cool, but it’s wet!
Gettin’ down to shady business…

A few hours ago, I was honestly not sure if I would end up crossing the salt pan. It’s nearing 6:00pm now, the temperature in this shade is 100F. The sun will be setting in an hour and then it will begin cooling down enough to make it safer and dare I say more pleasant to keep hiking. I’m going. I’m going to cross the Death Valley salt pan at night!

I message my family to let them know I will be night hiking, then turn and step foot onto the salt pan, pushing against the wind. Whoo hoo! My stoke level is quite high, yet my mind calibrates to efficient movement. I embrace the possibility of a really unique adventure, walking thru sunset, forging ahead into the dark vastness. I am several miles south of Badwater, where the lowest point in the US sits at -282 ft below sea level. I am now walking under the sea. My objective is to walk across this beast of a valley to the West Side Road ~ 8 miles across. I reckon if I move well I can make it by 9pm. I got this, Im so glad I didn’t quit.

Just gonna cross Death Valley now…
Like being on the moon!!

I’ve really been looking forward to this section of the trek and glad I will get to continue. It presents a unique opportunity to put oneself out in the middle of such a vast, flat expanse, spreading out in every direction as far as the eye can see. I believe this is a feeling rare to the human experience. My feet crunch over the salt crusted surface and I am pleased with how the texture feels for the first while. A simultaneous crunch~squish with each step. As I veer further away from the road, the sense of expansiveness grows. The sun dips lower on the horizon, about to kiss the Panamint ridges. Soon, it will finally be gone. I anticipate the relief of cooler temps, a semblance of comfort.

The winds are fierce out here indeed. They are abrasive in the way they carry sand. It’s so arid. It’s whipping. It’s non-stop. Less then ten minutes go by before my shirt is completely dry again. That was a waste of water. I can’t believe how fast that shirt dried.

A couple of miles out, I stop and take off my pack. Before it gets dark out here I want to take a few minutes to be here now instesd of constantly focusing on forward motion. I imagine it to be like hanging out on the moon. Wouldn’t you want to soak it all in before the journey suddenly comes to an end?

It is now that I realize my hike will have  been a success. I am so grateful, so relieved I did not have to call it quits and hitch out. Belive me, there were several times each day the thought crossed my mind and every time it did, my throat would tense in sadness. I have wanted this to be a success all along, yet the heat played such a major role in how it panned out differently than planned. Uncertaintly was ever-present. On such an excursion when there was no certainty about anything, I was forced to be so present with whatever the trail dealt me. Coming up to every water cache, there was always a feeling of trepidation,as any one of them could be empty. I had to be prepared for that every time.

Looking back …
Gratitude Amplified

There are several sections where white salt braids curve across the barren flats and the light of sunset casts a faint pastel pink glow. The mountains from where I came are golden in that same light, it is my favorite time of day, the last of the daylight before I walk into the deep dark of space and time, warping to the dark side of the moon.

A River of Salt & Mud
Final glow of Sunset on the Amargosa Range
Textured Walking
Last light in the basin

I am able to still see enough for good footing until about 7:40pm and finally reach for my headlamp. By now the texture of the flat earth is quite lumpy, crusty and slow going. I have to place all my weight on the balls of my feet and lean into my trekking poles, getting into a dance-like rhythm, which is quite fun but it takes concentration to not fall down. I am pushing still against the fierce wind, which has only become stronger after dark.

There are optical illusions now. With my headlamp beam casting out in front of me, I have zero depth perception. On occasion, the cracks in the earth look like something sticking up out of the ground and I almost trip over nothing several times. There are deeper ravines I have to cross, like small rivers have carved through the basin. As I approach one, the bank on the other side looks to be a 30 foot wall. For a moment I get a sinking feeling like I will be stuck out here, but as I drop in and cross through the ravine, I realize it is only 4 ft high, to my great relief. That was wild!

A few times I stop walking, switch off my headlamp and take in the stars above me, feeling the black expanding space all around me. The wind is cutting, not comfortable to stand still for too long at all, but I want to take this in. I want to feel this space, how it holds me, enveloping me into nothingness, like being in deep space. I stand there wanting to be held by it, wanting to loose myself to it, yet instead, I feel on edge, and am pushed to keep moving.

Two hours in, I check my GPS to see how I am faring. I have no way to navigate without it. I find I am still three miles from West Side Rd. I hoped I would have been making better time but so much of the terrain has been quite tedious and that combined with the wind has made for drunken sailor walking. At least I have not fallen down! I continue with relentless forward motion for another 30 minutes. Then I realize I can cut over to the road sooner by changing my trajectory. It will make for a longer road walk, but it will get me off the salt pan, and into camp sooner. That’s a Yes!

I re-orient my GPS and put it into guide mode and now follow the red line. When I approach the edges of the Basin, the sand becomes deeper and now there is vegetation to work through and around. Mesquite trees begin to appear, now I know I am on the home stretch. When I finally reach the road I am awash with relief, I made it! I bend down and kiss the little dirt birm, setting my feet on solid ground. It is 9:01pm!

I text the fam to let them know I made it across and start scouting around for some tree cover. The options are extremely sparse. I can see no further than the beams of my headlamp and so choose a spot wide enough for my bed between two wispy mesquite trees. I don’t really know how this is going to work, but this will have to do.

I drop my pack, lay out my sit pad, and start eating my dinner. I find my appetite is low, I feel slightly nauseous and I can’t finish it. It is 90F here still, not exactly as refreshing as I’d hoped for. Still, I enjoy all the feelings of relief like sitting, taking off my shoes, and I even went pee! I have not peed since 3pm and before that was 9:30am, despite the fact that I drank over a gallon of water today. Scary.

Fortunately there are a lot of rocks strewn about that are easy to gather. I need 16 of them to lay down my tyvek ground sheet and pitch my tarp securely. This becomes quite the project in the incessant wind, but I am focused and actually quite enjoy the process. I get a pretty decent pitch, keeping it low to the ground and it seems like it may work. The Z Packs pocket tarp is the most minimalst of shelters, weighing only 6oz. The only downside is it allows for wind, water, sand and all the elements to creep through at ground level since there is no screen. It is no surprise that a lot of sand is blowing in on me, but I can deal with that.

Finally in my tent!

10:30pm. It’s too hot to cover my body with anything. The sand blows all over me, even in my face. The adrenaline in my system has not worn off and I am not tired. The tent body is flapping vigorously non-stop. There really is no break in the wind at all. At times I grab onto the trekking pole that holds it up, hoping it will not collapse. I toss and turn, trying to sleep for the next couple of hours, it is not happening.

I contemplate getting back up and walking again, but that serves no advantage, and at least right now I am theoretically resting. By 2:30am I must give up. I can’t hold onto the pole and sleep at the same time. I pull my opened sleeping bag over me to protect myself from the sand, roll over and finally let it all go. I figure if my tent comes undone, that’s it, I will get up and hike. But it doesn’t. It stays put miraculously and I sleep for three glorious hours.

8 thoughts on “Death Valley Traverse Day 3: the only way out is thru

  1. Wow! Thanks for this… it was almost like being there, without the heat, sand blasting, and extreme effort. As another “vertically challenged” woman (and I bet I’m shorter even than you…) your description of climbing down those dry waterfalls was wonderfully real. I also ordered the Scott Stillman book… thanks for sharing that sample! Walk on, Mary Poppins… you inspire so many of us!

    1. Hey thank you!! I peeked at your site and love the quote “walking is a primeval past time. I walk to keep my primitive self appeased”…..is that your quote? —and PS– I am 5ft tall 🙂

      1. Yep! My quote, from my deep truth… I really start to get frantic when I can’t get out and walk!

        And PS… You’ve got a whole inch on me… I am only 4’11” and at 68, I’m probably getting shorter! 😹 ❤️

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