Seven days in Death Valley

  • Adidas evil-eye pro sunglasses
  • Black Diamond ATC-XP rappel device
  • Black diamond vector helmet
  • Death Valley
  • Death Valley's Mesquite Flats
  • E-Gear 10 day lantern
  • Ford F-150 SVT Raptor SuperCrew
  • Garmin Montana 650 GPS
  • Icebreaker quantum hood jackets
  • K-Way attack 18-litre hydration pack
Date:16 September 2013

Freedom of the road

Can you actually enjoy a week in America’s harshest environment? We were dying to find out, so we went for it full throttle. – By James Vlahos

Pictures by Dmitri Alexander

This is Luke Galyan’s idea of fun: take two novices on a canyoneering trip in California’s Death Valley National Park. From a diabolical line-up of gorges – Bad, Hades, Styx – choose the most ominous sounding one, Coffin. Lead the beginners from a 1 500-metre ridgetop into a treeless chasm of crumbling red rock. Warm up with a couple of 6-metre rappels. Then, when the canyon sides rise into cliffs and squeeze around a blind left turn, announce that “you guys should go first here”. I step around the corner and gulp hard. Three metres ahead, the ground simply ceases to be.

Creeping forward with my friend Tom Colligan, I peer over the lip of the cliff. Only hot, dry air separates us from the bottom of the canyon 60 metres below. Boulders strewn in the wash look like grains of sand. Galyan, an expert canyoneer who is leading the descent along with his buddy Mark Duttweiler, catches up with us and chuckles. Goofy and good-natured, with more than a little surfer dude in his looks, Galyan picks up a fist-size rock and chucks it over the edge. I count one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, and then hear the rock smack the ground. “Thanks,” I say. “You’re really helping.”

Higher. Bigger. Wilder. Death Valley defies moderation, in canyoneering and everything else. The mountains climb to 3 300 metres and the desert floor drops to 86m below sea level, the lowest spot in North America. There are claustrophobic slot canyons, sand dunes the height of skyscrapers, and a volcanic crater deep enough to stash Louisiana’s Superdome. Death Valley is the hottest place in the world, holding the record of 57 degrees. At almost 14 000 km2, or almost the size of Gauteng, it’s the largest national park in the Lower 48. Duttweiler, a studious-looking mechanical engineer, describes the scale as “awesome, gruesome, overwhelming”.

It’s an extreme place for extreme gear. Carmakers torture-test new models here; Nasa did the same with its latest Mars rover. It’s an extreme place for extreme people, from the unlucky gold miners who got lost here in 1849 and gave the valley its name, to the masochists today who compete in the Badwater Ultramarathon, 217 kilometres in temperatures that climb past 50 degrees. Travellers visit from continents away just so they can get out of their air-conditioned cars in midsummer and proudly suffer. Inhospitality, perversely, is the park’s biggest draw. The bonus is discovering that it’s also fun and beautiful.

The superlative that enticed Tom and me was that Death Valley contains at least 965 kilometres of dirt roads. With a week to take a trip in Ford’s burliest 4×4, the F-150 SVT Raptor SuperCrew, we reasoned that using a beast like that only on paved roads would be like hunting squirrels with a flamethrower. We loaded the truck with tents big enough to house family reunions, camp furniture more comfortable than the stuff in my living room, and enough sporting equipment for a desert Olympics. We figured that if you wanted to put yourself and your gear to the test – and have a blast doing so – this was the place.

Half an hour after reaching Coffin’s big cliff, I’m attached to a line and tilting backwards over the precipice. “Don’t let go of the rope,” Duttweiler says. Again, thanks. My right hand, down by my hip, has a death grip on the line. My descent is controlled by a palm-size rappelling device with metal teeth to brake the rope. The gadget seems too slight for the job, but it works. I lower myself slowly, toe-tapping the vertical face. Then the cliff veers inward and I’m dangling like a salami from a deli ceiling. As I slowly rotate, a dizzying tableau of rock, canyon, and sky drifts into view.

Furnace Creek, a palm-flanked resort area, recedes in the rearview mirror. The blacktop ahead slices north through the desert, drops over a distant swell, and disappears. A day after the Coffin climb, Tom and I are headed to the Mesquite Flat Dunes. We arrive after a half-hour drive and set out on foot.

Death Valley weather forecasts are daunting during spring and summer (“sunny and clear, with scattered lakes of fire”), but on this afternoon in early November, the temperature is agreeably warm. The plan is to go sandboarding. Our guide is Southern California sandboarder Jeremy Tutorow, who has the cropped haircut of a Marine and the bulging calves of a man who has done some serious dune climbing. He leads us along a sandy crest that snakes skyward. Reaching the peak, we look out at a sea of sand turned blood-orange by the light of the sinking sun. Dunes rise and fall like ocean swells, bright to the west and tailed by lengthening shadows to the east.

“It’s hard to stand on top of a dune and not want to slide down it,” sandboarding pioneer Lon Beale told me when I phoned him before the trip. The question is how. Starting in the 1970s, Beale tried everything from waterskis to snowboards, but found the equipment lacking. “It would be like if you took a baseball and threw it through a hoop – are you really playing basketball?” Beale says. He tinkered exhaustively, and in 1991 his company, Venomous Sandboards, released its first product.

We have a quiver of his boards with us now. Tom steps into his board’s bindings and points the tip towards the steepest face in sight. “I admire your fortitude,” I say.

“You might not soon,” Tom replies, taking off – and wiping out after 5 metres. Tom and I both know how to snowboard, but as Tutorow explains, sandboarding requires you to lean back, not forward, to avoid burying the tip. He demonstrates on a long, smooth run, spraying sand from the board’s tail as he arcs through the turns.

This fluidity is a testament to his skill and to the board’s design. Beale realised that sand behaves more like water than like a solid, so board tails must function like rudders. The other key is minimising friction while maximising durability. Beale found the ideal material in dense thermal plastic, which is like Formica but even harder. “That is what opened up the technology to allow the boards to glide at highway speeds,” he says.

I crash in my first run, but in successive ones manage a few shaky turns as I swoop downhill. The board parts the sand with a pleasing hiss. The sensation is light, swift, intoxicating.

The sign near the Badwater Basin parking lot proclaims 282 feet (86 metres) below sea level, but reaching the true location of that depth requires a long trek on the playa, which is as flat as a frying pan and nearly as hot. To avoid melting like pats of butter, Tom and I set out after sunset, when the temperature is in the high 20s.

Hoping to pinpoint the lowest place in North America, we check a guidebook and load the co-ordinates into a GPS. We’re glad to have electronic guidance as we traverse the salt flats, where the number of signs with terrain features is zero. In front of us loom the hulking black peaks of the Panamint Range. Overhead, stars fill one of the darkest night skies in America.

After hiking for a couple of hours in the balmy evening air, we reach the bottom of the continent. The event is less climactic than, say, planting a flag on the top of Everest, but we celebrate anyway with a late-night snack. The Moon rises from behind the peaks to the east, bathing us in brilliant lunar light.

The next day, after a long, dusty drive into the mountains, we look down on Badwater Basin from more than 3 kilometres above. We’re standing atop the 3 368-metre summit of Telescope Peak, the highest place in the park. In every direction, desolate valleys sprawl between lines of rugged mountains. I remember something that Duttweiler had said during the canyoneering trip, that the park is so vast you could walk away from someone and just disappear. “You melt into the landscape for no other reason than that you’re too small to be seen anymore,” he said.

“When I was driving last night I wanted there to be no laws.” Tom says this as I gun the Raptor along a strip of blacktop slanting through tawny badlands. I fully grasp his craving for illegal speed as we turn onto the Saline Valley Road Back Country – Byway, a 160-kilometre unpaved route that leads through some of the most striking and least visited terrain in the park. There’s no posted speed limit, but I’m pretty sure we’re breaking it as the speedometer needle creeps higher.

We blaze through sagebrush flats that stretch between arid mountains. Joshua trees blur in my peripheral vision while the 6,2-litre V8 roars – and I realise that we’ve truly entered Raptor territory. Inspired by Baja race trucks, the truck was made to go fast on nasty roads. Hefty, 35-inch tyres help to smooth out the byway’s stretches of washboard. The longtravel suspension absorbs serious body blows as we sail obliviously over a stream channel carved into the road.

This is a ride to inspire envy, which I realise when Tom and I stop to camp at a hot-springs oasis shaded by palm trees. After sitting by a campfire and listening to a trio of guitar-strumming men – “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be nude sunbathers,” they sing – we meet Jeff McLaughlin. He’s an easy-going guy in his 20s who says he loves hot springs so much that he drove down from Oregon, by himself, to hang out here for a week. Tom, who doesn’t want to brag, is cagey when McLaughlin asks what we’re driving, but the truth leaks out.

“You’ve got a Raptor?” McLaughlin says. He looks at the glowing embers and then back at us and jokingly asks, “Hey, could I come with you guys tomorrow?”

The next morning Tom and I head out on a rubbly road that climbs to 1 500 metres on Steel Pass. Heading downhill into Dedeckera Canyon, we are stopped by the first in what will be a series of stairstep ledges, each one presenting a drop of more than a metre.

Tom hops out, looking worried. “This is the type of thing you could raft out on,” he says. Using our hands, we build a ramp from rocks on the downslope side of the first ledge so that the Raptor’s tail can clear the ledge. It does – but just barely – and we repeat the ramp-building routine several times as we creep down the canyon, me out in front on foot, directing Tom with my hands as if trying to guide a 747 to the gate.

At the bottom of the canyon, the road spits us out onto a straightaway that runs alongside the 207-metre-high Eureka Dunes, the second-highest sand hills in America. Now at the wheel, I push the Raptor past 120 and feel the truck drift slightly on and off axis as we roar along the sandy track, a 1,5-kilometre cloud of dust rising in our wake.

Our final Death Valley adventure, after a week in the park, is a mountain-bike ride through Titus Canyon, perhaps the most dramatic gorge in the park. For this we’ve brought along two hardtail bikes that, like the Raptor, use brute force to handle extreme conditions. Mountain bikes traditionally have 26,5-inch wheels, but the Giant XTC Composite and the Focus Black Forest have 29-inch wheels. These make the bikes slightly less agile on tight singletrack, but offer increased stability and control when ploughing through sand and powering down rocky double tracks.

And that’s exactly our plan. We pedal to the top of Red Pass (1 600 metres) and begin the long descent into Titus Canyon. The canyon gets deeper, framed by jagged bluffs of orange and red volcanic rock and purple limestone. As we slalom through the canyon’s narrows, rock walls press in on both sides of the road.

We descend back to sea level and finish the ride at sunset. I fish a couple of beers from a cooler in the bed of the Raptor, which is so filthy that you can barely tell what colour it is. Blue, I think. But the vehicle is unscathed, and Tom seems disappointed. “Man, I really thought we were going to damage that truck somehow,” he says. I hop into the cab, fire up the motor, and listen to it reverberate in the dark, still canyon behind us.

Desert gear:
Before you embark on a Death Valley excursion, make sure you pack the necessary equipment for thrillseeking and survival.

Tech: 

Garmin Montana 650 GPS: Finding the lowest spot is easier with a rugged, waterproof GPS. Price: R6 200. www.capeunionmart.co.za

Olympus Tough TG-2 camera: Durable (survives 2,1-metre drops) and capable (25 – 100 mm equiv., f/2 lens). Price:

R5 000. www.za.olympus-mea.com

Gear:

Adidas Evil Eye Pro sunglasses: With their large-coverage lenses, these shades are great for easing eye strain when hiking up blindingly bright sand dunes. Price: R2 750. www.sportsmanswarehouse.co.za

Icebreaker Quantum Hood jacket: This Merino wool garment is more versatile than fleece when temperatures keep shifting. Price: R1 799. www.drifters.co.za

Bags: 

K-Way Attack 18 litre Hydration Pack: The air-flow harness system and hydration pouch make this ideal for desert exploration. Price: R600. www.capeunionmart.co.za

K-Way Evo Gear Bag Extra Large: This rugged, well-constructed 130-litre gear bag with lockable YKK zips helps when you’re storing clothes for a week in a truck bed. Price: R400. www.capeunionmart.co.za

Climbing:

Black Diamond Vector Helmet: Believe me, you’ll be glad there’s ventilation when the temperature hits triple digits. Price: R1 022. www.rammountain.co.za

Black Diamond ATC-XP Belay/Rappel device: Light, with metal teeth that slow the rope more effectively than other rappelling devices. Price: R243. www.rammountain.co.za

Camping:

Cape Union Lounger Chair: Solidly built and supremely comfortable for sitting up or lying back gazing at stars. Price: R699. www.capeunionmart.co.za

E-Gear 10 Day Lantern: Up to 120 lumens when you need it, and a dimmer when you don’t. Price: R300. www.capeunionmart.co.za

 

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