107°, eh? That's about what I expected for our first day out. The place is called Furnace Creek, after all. Though, the actual starting point is about 16 miles south of here at Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America at ≈280 feet below sea level. Over the next 10 days we (my hiking partner, Caroline (trailname: Puppy) and I) would be working our way across Death Valley, over two mountain ranges, and up a third. Piece of cake.
For months Caroline had been tempting me/attempting to scare me off with emails peppered with phrases like "hike out to die," "death march," "drinking from puddles," and "type-3 fun." How could I pass that up?! So, flash forward 10 months and here I am at the Furnace Creek Visitors Center killing a few hours while I wait for this girl I'd met twice -briefly- to show up so we can start walking across Death Valley together. Normal people do that, right?
Puppy's friend Shotput (a.k.a. Ariel) had been helping her deposit water and food caches along the route and had driven her out to deposit her at the "trailhead." They scooped me up and we cruised on south to Badwater to begin our death march. It was around 6:00 pm when we finally got our packs slung on our backs. We snapped [more than] a few photos of us at the Badwater Basin sign before planting our shoes in the sandy wash that led off into the expanse of the playa ahead. Though the sand proved fleeting. Soon, we were high-stepping through some of the oddest terrain I'd ever seen. Everyone has seen photos or film of the cracked earth playas and saltwater flats, but this ground was unearthly. Much like those other playas I'd seen on film the ground had cracked into approximate hexagonal shapes, but here the evaporation was so intense and the salt content so high that these hexagons curled up at the edges into little cups of tiny stalagmites of crystalised salt. And it stretched on for miles.
Starting at 6:00 meant that we'd only have about an hour and a half of good light to work with, so we hustled. You know, when we weren't stopping for photo taking and gawking at the weirdness. But we made good time. We just pointed ourselves at the wash on the other side of the valley that formed the mouth of Hanaupah Canyon, our entry to the Panamint range. By the light of our headlamps we started encountering scrub brush, then full on bushes. This slowed progress for a bit as we had to navigate through without losing course, but soon enough we came to the jeep road on the west side of the valley which meant we had knocked out about 6 miles already. We hooked right and kept on until we came to a signed fork in the road pointing us towards Hanaupah. From here the road climbed up into the foothills of the Panamints with a gentle slope. We both agreed after a few more miles we'd call it a night, so we found a flat-ish spot to cowboy camp and spread out our gear under the milkiest milky way I'd ever seen. I forgot how great desert camping can be.
Morning dawned over Death Valley and lit up the salt flats now behind us to the East. I snapped a few quick pictures, but hurried to get a little deeper into the canyon where the walls would offer shade from the rising sun. In a few hours it would be miserably hot hiking down at this elevation and I was keen to get a little higher up before that happened. After a few short miles the road quit and a basic trail picked up. Not long after, we came to our first water at Hanaupah Spring. It was flowing strong, but according to the map we were still a ways from the source. This low down there could be plenty of animals and manimals leaving "deposits" near the water, so getting closer to the source of the spring is beneficial. So we carried on until we lost all trace of the trail and the plants surrounding the water became dense. We would need to get to the other side of the creek/spring, grabbing water in the process.
Bushwhacking our way across we managed to slice up our legs quite a bit with the reeds and brush lining the water. Despite stepping right over (and sometimes in) the water, we were at a loss for where to access it to pull water out. After a few minutes walking up and down its bank, I just resolved to dive right in. I stomped my way to where I could hear a good flow then started ripping branches away so that I could get enough access to get a bottle in. In this process I managed to grab a fistful of reeds and slice between most of the fingers on my left hand. I always say "It's not fun unless I'm bleeding," but I'm not used to getting the equivalent of dozens of paper cuts in my masochistic outdoor endeavors. I couldn't wait to start sweating and get some salt in those!
We rested for a bit and enjoyed the fruits of our labors, Puppy quite literally with a packet of pineapple Kool-Aid and some desiccated pineapple. I decided I was going to call her Pineapple Express from then on, and she didn't object. And so it was. Fully loaded with 8 liters of water, we looked at the mountain behind us that we'd be needing to summit. We scanned the area for any semblance of trail. Supposedly there was some use trail to follow (think animal tracks and a vague "something went this way before" sensation), but from here we saw nothing. There was a ridge to the north that we knew we needed to be on top of, but there was about 2,000 feet of vertical between us and it and no obvious way to tackle it but straight. So straight we went
Once on the ridge we managed to pick up a use trail for a bit, but we would inevitably lose it again and have to backtrack to find where it had gone. I started singing an ode to the use trail to the tune of Hall and Oates "Rich Girl" wherein our hero despairs of ever actually finding it. Frustrated with all the time wasted doing this, it became obvious that the easiest way to stay on course is to just follow the ridge line to the highest spot and look out to where the saddle ahead connects to the next rise, even if this meant more ups and downs and more energy expended. This worked until we entered more dense foliage. Scrub turned to scattered juniper and pine, then pine took over and we waded through a couple miles of pine forest. We leaned heavily on our GPS to make sure we were still on course and not adding extra work by going too far down one gully before ascending the next hill.
It was right around mile 7 1/2-8 that I started to unravel a little. Puppy and I stopped for our third break since reaching the ridgeline. We'd only covered maybe 4 miles since the spring, but the physical exertion of the climb had taxed my legs, and the now 8,000 foot elevation was sapping my energy. I'd never experienced any sort of altitude related fatigue or illness before, so I was slightly concerned, but mostly frustrated. I'm tougher than this!!! Seven-ish miles over 10 hours with numerous breaks is not my style. I was used to eating 25 mile days for lunch on the PCT. Even with Puppy's warning of low-mile days, I still had it in my head that we'd be able to at least crank out 20 every day. Now here I am, sitting on a rock for the 4th? 5th time today? I'm exhausted, light headed, my heart is beating at my running pace and I've been sitting still for 10 minutes. This is humbling, I thought.
Pineapple checked the GPS and estimated that we had something like 2,000 more feet to climb in about 1 1/2 miles. The topo map didn't show anything promising in the way of campable terrain between our current location and the ridge we had to crest. It was stop for the day there or make it those extra miles and camp on the ridge. I laid there for a few more minutes, focusing my zen and wondering if I'd be able to do the Telescope Peak side trip we were planning for the morning. And if I'd be able to handle the altitude of Mt Whitney in a few days time. After a few more minutes I hopped to my feet and suggested we move. Pineapple looked at me skeptically, but didn't fight me on it. She knew I was on a timetable with my flight to catch in 9 days.
That last mile was the single most brutal walk I've ever done. Not only was the grade 45˚, possibly more at points, but it was mostly shale and scrub brush with weak root systems. This means for every 3 steps you're taking, you're taking one back. If you're lucky. Your quads seize when you compensate for the sliding. You can't rely on the plants to hold anything in place for you, and you can't use them for leverage. You just dig in and hope you don't slide too far with each step. Factor in the skull pounding headache of doing anything mildly aerobic at 8,500 feet and you get one frustrating misery-fest with a sprinkling of fetid deer carcass.
That's right, deer carcass.
Legs cramping, brain throbbing, energy waning, I stumbled up to the crest of the ridge and hit a trail. An actual trail!! I was so excited I screamed "Traaaaiil!!!!" back to Pineapple. I immediately dropped my pack and almost as immediately began to shiver violently. Standing still at 9,000 feet, dripping with sweat, and suddenly hit with a strong wind coming over the ridge from the west, it was decidedly no longer warm. After frantically digging my puffy jacket out of my bag, I decided to walk around, both to keep warm, and to suss out a possible camp. A few scattered trees dotted the ridge line to the south, towards Telescope Peak, but no flat land presented itself. To the north was all exposed ridge line. Under one lone pine tree I found enough space to put the two of us side-by-side with only a gentle slope. Once Pineapple made it up she looked around as well, but found none better than the tiny scrap I pointed out. Which was good because I had not a scrap of energy to move to another spot.
So we unrolled our camp mats and dove into our sleeping bags. The wind had picked up since we first summitted, and the temp had done the opposite. While Pineapple cooked her dinner I put on my neck buff, balaclava, and beanie and put my sleeping bag's hood over my head. "Are you not going to eat?" she asked, too which I replied in grunts and mumbles, unmoving. "Do you want some chocolate cake?" she offered. I rolled over and muttered an affirmative. She fed me a spoonful of some chocolate cake she had in a ziploc and I rolled back over and proceeded to snore.