[3 day/2 night backpack trip to Cottonwood Canyon/Marble Canyon Loop (32 miles; clockwise); day hikes to
Desolation Canyon, Golden Canyon, Badlands Loop leaving Zabriski Point (twice; on first & last day)]
Tough call. Both Stephen and Cody Trinkaus, the only other hikers planning to join me, came down with a cold during the week before departure; the night before leaving they decided to bail. Major bummer.
Dare I go alone? At first the very thought was too edgy to even consider. But, thankfully, excitement overcame fear.
Forty years ago I did a glorious, solo 9 day backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District. At 65 though? Perhaps I’d simply go to Death Valley, do day hikes and bail on the backpacking leg? OK, me thinks, that’s a reasonable compromise… do the trip in general and delete the edgy backpacking loop?
I decided to go to the park, putting off the backpacking decision.
Day one: By mid-afternoon I entered the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley seeking out a ranger who had done the 32-mile Cottonwood/Marble Canyons Loop. Found one. ‘Probably no water except at Cottonwood Springs; no trail or cairns along the cross-country section connecting the 2 canyons; a wrong turn at a key spot would take you down the wrong canyon.’ Damn. I left the conversation convinced that the risk was too great; the very thought was too edgy to consider.
Overnight my excitement overcame my fear. Worst case, I figured, was having to turn around if I got disoriented along this connector ‘trail’; I could double back the same way I went out; perhaps reaching the car a day late. In that case Cindi would call for a rescue and they’d find me heading back to the car a day late, travelling counterclockwise instead. I could warn Cindi of this possibility, hoping to decrease the stress such an outcome would impose upon here.
I decided that if I went I’d carry water assuming there would be none in Marble Canyon. Information on availability was mixed but I decided to be conservative, assuming none… driving a pack weight on day 2 that would be five pounds heavier than planned. But since I scaled the backpack trip from 6 days to only 3, predominantly because of the lack of water, I’d be carrying less clothing and food.
Go… damn it! I could do it. But my anxiety of getting lost during the connecting trip leg remained strong. Could I make a rational decision amidst these competing emotions of fear and anxiety? I was knighted ‘Wrong Way Rick’ for a reason; I had to embrace and break through my fear of getting lost.
I felt prepared and ready; the prior year was spent learning how to rely upon Backcountry Navigator software offline. Download the topos; upload others’ proven tracks; track my own movements with the ability to then backtrack. I could do this.
I did do this… without getting lost; without running out of water. With the relevant orienteering skills and tools; with the proper focus and caring; with the right equipment throughout; with the proper leanness and fitness I needed to enjoy the ride.
Day 2 of my overall trip was day 1 of the 3 day backpack trip and it proved pretty boring, hiking on or aside a 4 wheel drive, high clearance gravel road the entire day. And it was a hard day; my quads grew very sore, enough so that because I had enough water in my pack I stopped shy of Cottonwood Springs. Little did I know that I stopped perhaps ¼ mile from the springs. I learned this the next morning when I set out on the journey to Marble Canyon. My game plan was to get to the upper springs, pack up a gallon of water, and make it to my Camp 2 at Marble Canyon where water was possible but not dependable.
When I reached Cottonwood Springs I ran into the only other people I encountered on the entire backpack trip. They were 3 dudes in 2 vehicles that had passed me enroute to Cottonwood Springs the day before. Now, though, they were spread out…car camping. I chatted with them and when I mentioned Bellingham the oldest guy lit up and said…’I know the chances are slim but do you happen to know John Miles?’ …a fellow activist, wilderness author, and prof I had at WWU’s Huxley College! I learned that John had moved from Bellingham to Taos, NM soon after his wife died of cancer… to where this guy lived as well, and that now they spend a lot of time together.
Soon after loading up my gallon of water the time had come to turn right onto the edgy cross country leg that would connect ascending Cottonwood Canyon to descending Marble Canyon, the part of the loop that would bring me back to my Toyota RAV 4 black rental SUV. The trail that was said to not exist was pretty darn clear so my transition was smooth… I found the dry wash described in the trail books, described by the rangers, and looking just like the photos I copied from the visitor center computer. I was very concerned, so redundancy prevailed. I had photos, topo maps, a GPX file from another hiker and narrative descriptions of my path. Damn it… I was not going to get lost.
The crucial next step was to find the pass pictured below with a red arrow. This was the photo I took of the ranger’s photo off of the visitor center computer.
Here’s how the Park Service’s narrative read:
About 300 yards beyond upper Cottonwood Spring turn right (north) up a dry wash, then hike another 2 miles looking closely for the unmarked pass on your right. This low spot on the ridge is where you start the route toward Marble Canyon. There is no marked route or clearly defined path, just zig zag your way up to the pass.
Along the cross-country route, the path on the east side of the pass is fairly clear, just follow it down into the basin, then cross the basin above the 4200 ft. spring (no recoverable water) to the ridge, then follow the path easterly along the ridge past the first steep descent into Deadhorse Canyon, then pass in front off a small hill, then descend 600 feet to Deadhorse Canyon (via a less steep drainage).
DO NOT try to descend the canyon that drains beyond the dry spring at 4200 ft., (it flows in a southeasterly direction back toward Cottonwood Canyon). It has impassable dry falls.
Seeing and getting to the pass was a piece of cake. The toughest piece: once at the pass I had to find the right spot to begin the 600 foot drop to Marble. This proved confusing and I began to get nervous. They used the phrase ‘…follow it down into the basin’. If they meant to follow it down the canyon I assumed they’d say just use the word ‘canyon’. So I took ‘basin’ to mean the general Death Valley basin, which was clearly visible from the pass. Based upon this assumption I didn’t drop into the canyon, fearing it was the one they warned hikers to avoid because it would reach impassable dry falls. I traversed left, very gently descending.
It didn’t feel right. Reality didn’t match the narrative nor the GPX file. I checked my altimeter watch and I was hundreds of feet above the 4,200’ mark. I concluded that I should be descending into the canyon, so I turned right and started to descend more aggressively into a rather mellow creek bed. I knew that if I were wrong I’d pay the price of the ranger’s warning: I’d reach the dry falls and know I’d blown it, then back-track to the pass.
One never knows if a captured GPX file from a past hiker is a safe route; it’s simply a saved path. That said Backcountry Navigator confirmed that I was atop the GPX file in my GPS. This offered some level of security but I remained nervous. I reread the narrative, locking onto the instruction to ‘cross the basin above the 4200 ft. spring… to the ridge’. Again I checked my altimeter watch and I was well above 4,200’. Cool; keep descending.
In what I consider the premier orienteering thought of my life, I realized this: my altimeter watch uses barometric pressure to determine elevation and I hadn’t recalibrated it since leaving the car over 48 hours ago. In that time the weather had deteriorated some; low pressure air had been moving in. So if barometric pressure were lower now, my altimeter would give a false reading, indicating I was higher than reality. So how could I find 4,200‘ accurately?
Then I remembered that Backcountry Navigator tracks elevation… via satellites, not barometric pressure! Hot damn.
Checking it I realized I had descended too far. And I could see a ridge at what appeared to be around 4,200’ that matched the narrative. Climbing back up there, reality began to align with my GPX file and the narrative. I reached 4,200’, traversed to pick up the ridge, and then ‘follow the path easterly along the ridge past the first steep descent into Deadhorse Canyon, then pass in front of a small hill, then descend 600 feet to Deadhorse Canyon (via a less steep drainage).’
I found the point of descent. It looked right with respect to the small hill, confirmed by a well-worn trail. Whew… I began to relax. But what a descent! 600 vertical in about ¼ mile, like plunge-stepping on steep snow! Every step down allowed more and more relaxation of mind…finally safe and secure, connecting to Deadhorse, which would run into Marble. Orientation was no longer an issue, something I’d been stressing over for months… then hyper-stressing over since Stephen and Cody bailed.
Coming down, literally and emotionally, levelled out to the oasis of the intermittent spring of Deadhorse. I came upon the confluence of a few drainages, just above the dense foliage of the spring, and decided to camp there. No need for water since I carried it. So this place would be a wonderful Camp 2… flat, with views of the Death Valley basin; up to the pass; up ‘n down Deadhorse. Beautimous. And only about 3pm, leaving me a good 3 hours of daylight. Time to rest and relax.
Skipped dinner; no hunger. Evening included dancing and singing; ear buds providing Elton John, Beatles, Moody Blues, Mary Black and Celine Dion. Plenty of water. Body felt fine. No aches or pains. My aching lifter muscles of the day before – my quads — had gone silent. Body and mind were at peace. All felt gentle. Peaceful.
The peace I feel in wilderness is unsurpassed. Civilization stripped away. No need to keep rubbing against the angst I feel when interacting with the general stupidity and misbehavior of humanity compressed. Chris Hedges nailed it when he said that “… the ten thousand year experiment of the settled life is about to come to a crashing halt.”
My urban/suburban life at home rubs abrasively against a mainstream culture that feels so toxic to mind and body; all stripped away when breathing in wilderness. I fit like a glove out here; I’m a misfit within civilization. ‘Outsider’ is so perfect a label for me: embracing the great outdoors; repulsed from civilization. Perhaps I’m feeling what a cancer patient feels when their disease goes into remission: stripped away is a veil of discomfort and dis-ease. DIS is dissed. EASE remains.
Darkness fell, exposing a night sky as bright as any I remembered.
Day three of my backpack trip. Woke up at first light and was hiking by 7am. All day to do the 10 – 12 miles back to the car… every step downhill, gradually. Through a canyon worthy of its name: Marble. Rock massaged by flash flooding; buffed; mottled; earth particles ever so slowly drawn down to the alluvial fan beyond the canyon’s mouth.
Marble Canyon lacks the boredom of Cottonwood. Tighter side walls, much like a slot canyon, both sides of which you can touch standing still. More intense colors and more of them. Everywhere the sign of water erosion; everywhere the lack of water. Water the stealth artist.
I hope to someday experience [and survive] a substantial rainstorm in this or some other desert. I want to experience erosion in real time.
Got to the car; drove back to Furnace Creek; reported the substantial water I found in the springs up Marble Canyon; set up camp across the road from the Furnace Creek Resort and used it as a base camp for numerous day hikes over the next few days: Golden Canyon (the site in which Star War scenes were shot); Zabriski Point; Desolation Canyon; Badlands Loop.
The second to last night of the trip brought wind and rain. Yeah, rain… in Death Valley, one of the driest places on the planet. The storm grew during one of the brief periods of time I wasn’t outside: I had entered a ranger talk about wilderness at the visitor center amidst a mist of precip. Got outside afterwards to gusts of 40 – 50 mph. OMG, better go check on my tent!
A half mile away, in the dark, amidst hundreds of tents and RVs, with everyone else already inside, insulated from the storm, I found my tent moments away from going airborn with my sleeping bag and sleeping pad within! I’m guessing only one of the dozen ground stakes were still holding. Wish I could use the word ‘flapping’ to describe the tent; more like slamming side to side. Staked ‘er down again, wondering if I’d be able to sleep through it. I knew ear plugs would solve the noise, but would the stakes hold this time? The engineered gravel campground had become loose mush in the rain. I figured they wouldn’t hold unless the wind died down… but what were my options?
I fell asleep. Three o-clock blew around and I awoke with the tent smacking my body here and there. The stakes had clearly extracted themselves yet again. I was now the stake! Clearly, though, this human stake could not sleep with tent and fly dancing around my body.
Got up, threw my tent and schite in the back of the RAV4, and drove 2 hours back to Vegas… through a treacherous snow blizzard in the mountain pass! Compact ice ‘n snow along with strong gusts testing an exhausted driver not familiar with this terrain, conditions or vehicle. Talk about an altered reality!
Then Vegas. Thankfully lodging is cheap, so I nailed a motel with an early check-in time. Crashed, exhausted. Awoke, dry at least. Wondering what in the world I’d do in this insane city with an additional unplanned day. My conclusion?
Nothing. Got in my car and drove back to Death Valley, a 2 hour investment into sanity. And chose again to repeat the hike I did on the very first day of my trip: Badlands Loop. Instead of wind and rain, stillness and warmth. Blue skies. A mellow, peaceful stroll, returning to the trailhead at dusk, then drove back to Vegas for my final night prior to flying back home.
I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of wilderness versus human development when I use Vegas as my gateway into and out of a wilderness adventure. My next blog post at work will discuss this in more detail. For now, consider this: National Parks are at times referred to as America’s most unique idea and gift to the world. I agree with that statement. Wilderness preservation. Protection from humankind.
Then there’s Vegas, the insane insertion of millions of humans into a desert. Not to worry, though: the hotels ask you to use your sheets and towels for more than one day. We’ll be just fine.
The best and worst of humanity separated by a two hour car ride.
The best: protected wilderness… a place I feel at home, stripped of the impact of my fellow man; in wilderness is the preservation of my spirit.
The worst: Las Vegas… a place that needs to be eradicated; vaporized. A place from which I want to run and hide. A place in which I know not how to relate or behave.
As I write these final words I’m back home two weeks after my journey ended. My left knee feels fully recovered after a bit of a scare: I injured it during my day hike up Desolation Canyon during one of my last days in the park. Nearing the turn-around point in the canyon a light rain shower had begun. Though concerned about flash floods, the mist didn’t concern me. This wasn’t a slot canyon; plenty of pathways to get uphill quickly and easily.
Still plenty of daylight when I reached the impassable dry fall, but to my right was a rather steep, sandy traverse towards a small summit described in the guide book. So I started up slope. The rain increased. As did my anxiety. How much rain could the ground absorb before surface water appearing? Would the ground turn into a slick, slippery surface, making the descent along the numerous dry falls back to the trailhead problematic?
Appropriate anxiety prevailed quickly, as did my descent, again like plunge stepping in steep snow. Reached the trail in short order as the ground surface began to take on a sheen indicating it wasn’t likely to absorb much more moisture! Easily passed through a few of the dry falls, moving quickly. The face of these falls had grown crumbly; mucky; loose.
Then I came upon a rather tall dry fall; perhaps 8 vertical feet. Steep as hell. Needed to down-climb facing the face of it. Eased through the first half and then could not see the remaining way down. My feet were about 36” above the trail. Should I go back up and try another path? None looked better. And the earth was gathering moisture quickly; I needed to keep moving. The face was deteriorating. My only option seemed to be to jump down this final 36”. Why not? Light pack. What’s 36”? So rather quickly I practiced bouncing on my knees; bending them to serve as shock absorbers. I needed to spin 180 degrees so as to face away from the face of the falls, then jump to the rather level plane 3’ down, hopefully taking the load in my bending knees. It looked and felt edgy but alternatives were worse.
I spun and jumped; nice execution. Felt my lower back compress; not a pain, just a mild ‘hello there’. All felt fine; gathered my wits; continued out to the Toyota. Done.
Well… almost. That evening my left knee felt injured. With no prior knee injury experience under my belt I was hard pressed to analyze my pain or how to respond to it. Rest and Alleve for sure. I figured I simply overdid the joint or perhaps I was experiencing referred pain due to lower back nerve impingement, much like I did prior to my second back surgery so many decades ago.
My moderate left knee pain seemed isolated to walking down hill, and daily it seemed to improve. I decided not to see a doctor assuming and hoping that babying it would do the trick. Cycling didn’t aggravate it so I could keep up my cardio. Being a baby did the trick. Daily improvement. To the point of no longer feeling it even after doing the hill climb to the lookout atop Sehome Hill. Healed. A final sweet spot to a wondrous and fulfilling Death Valley adventure.