Sunday, June 7, 2009
Death Valley - 1st, 2nd June
The name Death Valley conjours up unpleasant images of harsh, life-threatening conditions, darkness and doom. So too do the names of places within the valley and neighbouring ones - Badwater, Furnace Creek, Funeral Mountains. It is the hottest (up to 54 degrees C in summer), lowest and driest (1.5 inches annual rainfall) place in the north american continent. Who would be drawn to such a place?
For the last 1000 years the native American tribe, Timbisha, has resided in the area and from the 1849, when the valley was given it's English name, mining of gold, silver and borax attracted hardy prospectors, miners and other folk. I was taken there by my Patagonian hiking friend, Irby, who resides near San Francisco. When Yosemite greeted us with snow, hail and heavy rain and freezing temperatures, he suggested a warmer destination....around 30 degrees hotter.
After the huge drive down, and overnighting on the floor a Irby's friend, Steve's, house, we headed into the hottest, driest, lowest point at Badwater in Death Valley, timing it perfectly with roasting sun and hot wind for the full desert experience. While the conditions, rocky ground and stubborn stubble of vegetation were familiar from travels in outback Australia, the mountain ranges created by volcanic action and great geological forces was far taller and more varied in texture and colour than anything we have on our ancient, weather-worn continet. Silky blonde dunes nestled at the base of the mountains in the junction between Death and Panamint valleys and faint lines of miner's roads and donkey triails criss crossed the hillsides behind. These dramatic ranges, painted with colours of chocolate brown, deep purple, cream, lime, pink, aqua, yellow, orange from rich minerals, brought back fond memories of cycling in the Bolivian Altiplano in 2003.
Itching to stretch my legs after the long plane flight and the very long drive (665km the previous day and 170km to and from Badwater), we headed up the Panamint Range - the rugged ridgeline west of Death Valley, with its highest point, Telescope Peak (3478m). This ascent (in the car) also reduced the air temperture by around 20 degrees C from the valley basin - life in the desert could be achievable. With the cooler temperatures, came trees and flowering plants - Pinyon, Limber and Bristlcone pines, Junipers, Lupins with purple blooms and vivid red Indian Paintbrushes - relief on the eye after the harsh, dusty brightness of the lower desert.
On the way up the hill to Mahogany Flat, we stopped off at the photogenic charcoal kilns built in 1879 by Chinese to a design by a Swiss engineer. Their stone beehive forms (almost 8m high x 9m wide) with stone-spiked crowns turned the Pinyon Pines into charcoal to fuel a smelter 30 miles away. The pine population thankfully seems to have made a recovery since 1882, when the kilns closed after their brief use. Being the first inspiring architectural form I'd seen in the desert, I snapped away with my cameras and imagined ways of occupying these magic spaces in their stumpy forest setting.
Time was running out before our rendezvous with our Ridgewater friend, Steve, so after a very late lunch, we headed up the Mahogany trail towards Telescope Peak, with no hope of reaching the summit. However, the extra elevation gave us great panoramas over the Death Valley Basin and Funeral Mountains and my legs got a bit of a workout. I met my second snake for the day on that walk, a striped racer - one of many reptiles encountered in the region. At my turnaround point, I was 3000m above Badwater - a huge change in altitude.
The icing sugar cloud puffs over the Panamint Range were slowly gaining volume. As we snaked down the mountain ridge, rain clouds illuminated by spears of sunshine through the clouds marked our evening destination of Minietta Cabin, nestled in Thompsons Canyon in the foothills. After a celebratory beer when Steve arrived, we hopped into his sturdier 4wd for the ascent to the cabin up the rocky road.
Minietta Cabin is one of 30 huts in the west California desert region - all free to use and maintained primarily by volunteers. Minietta, a former gold and silver mine, did have companion buildings until a few years ago when a couple of GI's decided to have a bit of fun with explosives in their free time. Without power or water but lots of indoor space cluttered with mementos and paraphenalia added by various guests, the hut is a character-filled retreat or base for mountain adventures. Despite the hospitable interior, we cooked outdoors to soak up the view in the last hours of daylight - Irby and me making lentil dhal and Steve, instant noodles to accompany his pop tarts. The view from the deck by sunset, moonlight and sunrise across to the Panamint Valley and wall of the Panamint Range was stunning.
Sleeping under the stars always seems like such a nice idea but with a bright moon and heavy air traffic, I had to blindfold and earplug myself. Fortunately, I removed the blind briefly in the night to see the Milky Way spread across the pitch black sky and two shooting stars.
At the suggestion of climbing Zinc Peak, I enthusiastically said "Yes please", to escape the quickly building heat of the valley floor and to burn up some energy before another long drive.
We drove around the arid Argyle Range, following Darwin Canyon to start the walk, after a hairy drive up a gravelly narrow ridge. We found the remnants of a zigzagging miner/donkey trail to follow, edged with rocks up the western flanks of Zinc Peak. A geologist's haven, this mountain is split in two hugely different halves - to the north, pale egg-shaped granite and marble-like stone and to the south, dark shaley, sharp rock with a crumble topping of small aerated stones.
Amongst the tough plants on the hillside were many delicate wild flowers which just like in Australia - a reminder that beauty can be found in the harshest of places. We also found a Horned Toad (an odd looking lizard, not unlike some of our reptiles), a Chuckwalla (a bigger lizard with a bright white tail) and swallows at the summit being tossed around by the wind.
The mountain range was very peaceful - just the crunch of our boots and the breeze....most of the time. There is a naval base nearby, which we could see from the summit, and from there launched fighter jets which tore around above and below us. Being boys, my hiking companions were in awe but I found their presence a bit unnerving.
For more photos visit the following link: http://picasaweb.google.com/EmtheScragg/USACaliforniaDeathValleyRegion?authkey=Gv1sRgCK6k_Y_uoM2p4QE#
Modern architecture - Brian Webb, Lone Pine