Return from Death Valley

Sounds like a bad movie sequel, doesn’t it?  But – I survived the desert!  Death Valley ’09 holiday is now in the books.

It was a tough trip – more physically demanding than I thought it was going to be – but there was still a lot of fun to be had amidst the mutual moaning and groaning about sore calves and other assorted aching body parts.  

Death Valley was new territory for me.  Generally, I’m drawn to mountains and lakes and other green parts of the United States, so this was my first foray into the desert.  And I have to say, I was surprised at the variety of landscape to be found there!  Much more than just dead stuff, amazingly enough.  And a wide range of temperatures as well – down at sea level it often easily topped 90 degrees, while up at elevation (5000′ and higher), the cool breezes kept the temperature in the very comfortable 60-70 degree range.

We set up camp in an out-of-the-way canyon near the aptly named Hole In The Wall:

Hole In The Wall


There were twelve of us in the group — plus 2 leaders — and we spread out our tents, trying to pick the smoothest, levelest piece of land possible.  It’s absolutely amazing how one little pebble feels like a boulder when it decides to rest right under your sleeping bag… after the first night, I considered sleeping in the van, for that matter – I mean, how much more comfortable would that have been?!  Of course, then I wouldn’t be getting the whole Authentic Outdoors Experience, now would I?

(one thing I’ve found, though – while my brain thinks the whole camping thing is pretty cool, my hips and back actually prefer the creature comforts of a real mattress.  I think I’m getting old…)

Even without venturing out into the rest of the park, there were some beautiful sights right from camp. Sunrises and sunsets, in particular, were stunning, and the pictures don’t even do them justice.  Here’s a shot of sunrise over camp, with the half-moon still hanging around:

Sunrise over camp

I’ve experienced it before, but was once again amazed at how many stars are out once you get away from the light pollution of the city.  Just hundreds and thousands of twinkling lights up in the sky – I could have stared at the sky all night (you know, if I wasn’t drop-dead tired from the hiking, that is).

So… a short(ish) synopsis of my trip:

Day 1:  The first day of hiking set the tone for the rest of the week:  we were an “off-itinerary” kind of group. It’s not like the itinerary was completely off-base, but as a group we voted to tweak it up a little bit, get off the beaten path a little more.  And – as it turned out – mostly beat ourselves up just a little bit more.  Case in point:  the first day of hiking, we added about 4 miles to our day.  Was it worth it?  Heck, yea.  Did it make for an insanely long, and VERY warm day (hiking at about sea level in 90+ degree temps)?  Heck, yea.  We hiked out of our campsite rather than driving, stopping along the way to note different bushes, flowers and rock formations (which – now – all are name “Death Valley bush” and “Death Valley flower”… you get the idea).  Then we hit Gower Gulch and Golden Canyon to round out the day – very barren, sandstone-ish terrain – seeking shade wherever some of the rocks offered it.

Day 2: Only 5 miles of hiking!  A breather!  Uh, well… no, not really.  We went explorin’ – off-itinerary again – Grotto Canyon, a wonderful little slice of Death Valley that sees very few visitors.  And why hasn’t the public found out about this gem yet?  It just might have something to do with the three sections that need to be rock-climbed to progress through the canyon.  Or maybe the treacherous, loose-rock trail up to the rim.  Or perhaps even the steep-downhill path to get out.  Maybe.  But, was it awesome?  Oh YEA.

Of course, having a healthy fear of heights (really – don’t you think this is a very practical fear?  I know all about how falling can hurt…), there were some points that had my heart in my throat and sweat coming out of my scalp, practically.  Funny – as with swimming, rock-climbing while hyperventilating is ALSO a tricky affair.  But – I made it.  And have only a few bumps, bruises and scrapes to show off for it.

The easiest of the three climbs and me “chimney-ing” it.  Can’t you see the palpable stress in my body?

But – worth it for this view, no?

The evening was topped off by Margarita Night back at camp (hey – all work and no play… you know how that goes), and this spectacular sunset:

Day 3:  And on the third day, the campers… recovered.  And it was good.  Whew.  Of course “recovered” takes on a slightly different meaning in camp terms.  Instead of slogging through loose gravel with big elevation gains in close to 100 degree temperatures, we decided to head up – up to about 5000′ to hike the Dante’s Peak ridgeline trail.  Very cool.  Literally.  With the cool breeze blowing, it was a quite comfortable mid-60’s temperature.  What a difference 5000′ makes!  The hike going out was easy schmeasy – some loose rock to contend with, but all downhill.  And the view made it easy to forget that we somehow to climb uphill to get back to where we started:

See – it’s views like this that make uphills (in mile-high elevation, no less!) totally worth it.

Day 4:  The big day.  The reason that day 3 was a day of rest.  The summit of Thimble Peak.  (hmmm… that doesn’t sound nearly as daunting as it should, does it?) 

Anyway, the goal… Thimble Peak:

At this point where I took the picture, we were at what we called “Decision Point” … meaning, stay put and watch the rest of the group summit or venture forth and bag the peak.  I almost decided not to go – there would be a bit of rock climbing and some fairly exposed areas with loose rock to scramble over – and that didn’t necessarily sound like a good time to me.  But as a recent Dove Chocolate wrapper told me:  Be Fearless!  And bearing this advice in mind, onward I went.  Feeling only slightly like a lemming who might step off a cliff to her death.

The climb up was breath-taking.  Or perphaps that was me hyper-ventilating.  Six of one, half dozen of another, I suppose.  Either way, it was exhilirating.  From Decision Point, we descended about 300′ just to climb back up (in the photo, our path kind of brought us just out of the shot to the right), a strenuous uphill made a little harder by the elevation involved.  And then it seemed like magic:  we were ready to tackle the last, challenging part of the climb and summit.  After this point, my memory is a little blurred; all I distinctly remember is mumbling, “don’t look down don’t look down don’t look down…”  and then, POOF!  We made it!

What a sense of accomplishment!  Granted, it’s not like climbing Mt. Everest, or even one of Rocky Mountain’s 14er’s even, but for me on this day – I felt dang good about myself.  

After (very!) carefully making our way down the mountain (which was just as treacherous as going up), we met up with the group that had stayed behind at Decision Point and then made our way back to the trusty old van.  From there we twisted and turned through Titus Canyon, enjoyed a celebratory beverage in the parking lot after the canyon and then headed out for our last hurrah:  sunset dinner on the Mesquite Sand Dunes.

What a great way to kind of round out the trip – our guides had prepared another kick-ass dinner (really – I’ve never eaten so well on a camping trip!) and we hiked over a few dunes to get to a secluded spot on the sand to set it up and enjoy.  And then we watched the sun go down, relishing the achy muscles and accomplishments that went along with them:


And – that’s the trip in a nutshell.  Okay – a rather LARGE nutshell, but a nutshell nonetheless.  On the way out the next day, we did touristy stuff — stopped at the visitor’s center and a couple of the drive-in sights to see — and generally relaxed and enjoyed the company and comraderie of the group

Because, after all, while everything I just wrote about made up the trip, it still doesn’t tell the story of what really made the trip memorable:  the people I met, the stories we can now tell, and the friendships that will endure long the bruises, scapes and sunburns have healed.  Our guides were top-notch — patient, knowledgeable, great cooks and had an awesome sense of humor.  The group itself was a diverse mix of people from around the country (and out of the country, even!) and I truly enjoyed getting to know some folks that I never would have met otherwise.  

I’ve been asked several times now, “What was the BEST part of the trip?”  And while I started by saying things like the peak we summited and the tasty dinners, it really was the people – they added a depth to the trip that otherwise would not have been there.  Made it so much more than just a hiking trip, you know?

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