Sat, Jan 19, 2008
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Day two of my four day visit to Death Valley started with the coldest temperatures of the trip, hovering around 22F when I woke up around 7a. I had slept comfortably enough in the back of the van with a sleeping bag and extra down comforter, but going outside in the chilled air was going to take some fortitude (as well as some warm layers). I started the van to warm the inside as I dressed and ate a quick breakfast. Thankfully, the sun was just cresting the eastern mountains and would soon be on its way to warming the new day. Bundled in fleece, jacket, hat and gloves, I started on my way around 7:30a. I didn't need the extra clothes for more than about 30 minutes or so.
Finding the trailhead described in the DPS guide had been no easy feat the night before. I'd spotted a Wilderness Restoration sign in the vicinity of Skidoo (an old mining town, now an empty valley preserved as an historical site) and correctly guessed it was marking the spot, though not mentioned in the guide. In the morning light I could see what was invisible at night - the faint road running off to the north just behind the sign. I followed this road up and over a low saddle, up to a second one shortly after that, than a long drop down a steep canyon. This up and down theme would be repeated for much of the day as the route has about half a dozen such oscillations as it heads generally north against east-west trending ridgelines. This first big drop is also the largest, almost 1,000ft to a rock-strewn valley below. At the steepest part of the gully I found vestiges of an old trail that had been built to make the excursion easier, probably by a mining concern back in the days of yore. At the bottom of the valley I picked up an old dirt road, now closed to vehicles, and followed it east.
After a mile of easy walking on the road, I turned left and headed north cross-country where the road crested over a broad saddle. Having a bit too much fun, I followed a snakey wash further than I should have and eventually had to climb out of it to the left to climb up to the next ridgeline. Now an hour and a half into the hike, I came over a shoulder to be greeted by the view of a much broader valley to the north, criss-crossing roads visible in the distance, the site of the Old Martins Crossing. Hiking through easy terrain down to a road, I came across a sign along the way that seemed far more precise than warranted, indicating the direction and distance to the cabin that might lead one to believe it was hard to find. In fact, the cabin could be seen from a distance of several miles, standing out in obvious fashion from its perch on a hillside. Further, a well-defined road led right to the front door. And for all that unnecessary precision, the latitude was specified as "East" rather "West," placing the specified location nearly halfway around the globe!*
The DPS route I was following bypassed the cabin by about half a mile, so I decided to deviate from the route, figuring I could visit the cabin and continue on to Tucki with a small modification to the route. The cabin, it turns out, was the most interesting part of the day. Built by a miner back in the day who maintained a claim on the hillside above, it was still managed as a common-use facility for the backcountry visitors. Though infrequently maintained (and all of that on a voluntary basis) as evidenced by the several pounds of mice droppings scattered about the floor, it had a working propane stove, emergency supplies of food, plenty of water in a dozen jugs, a sink that might even have worked (had there been water in the external tank), and a surprising collection of reading material dating back more than four decades.
Leaving the cabin after a short break, I continued up the hillside behind and north to the next ridgeline along the route. Another drop was followed by the largest climb, more than 1,000ft as I went up and over a couple high bumps on the final approach to Tucki Mountain. It was just after 11a when I reached the summit, the USGS marker curiously stamped with the ominous sounding "DEATH" (which also appears on the 7.5' topo). The summit was large and fairly flat, with views extending south to Telescope Peak, west to the snowy Sierra, north to the Cottonwood, Last Chance, and Grapevine ranges, east to Badwater and several ranges behind it. The register contained scraps of paper dating back to 1957 (though barely legible) with several register books of more recent origin. In a rare display of additional wording, Doug Mantle admitted to hating the route from Skidoo for 30 years, having first hiked it in 1973. Being his sixth visit as of 2003, one has to wonder why he repeated the hike from that direction a number of times. As Rick Kent points out in another entry, it was possible to climb the peak from SR190 to the west, and others had taken various canyons to the summit as well. I had originally planned to hike from the pavement myself, but in the absence of any definitive route information I had chickened out and taken the sure bet described in the DPS guide. Oh well, perhaps next time.
The return was largely uneventful, though enjoyable, retracing most of my previous steps, but bypassing the cabin and following the DPS route more directly. Despite the ups and downs, even on the way back, I enjoyed the route a fair amount. The route was too long to seriously consider a second peak for the day, but not too long to be exhausting - a nice leisurely effort under sunny skies with cool temps - near perfect, really. I got back to the van before 3p and then drove myself back to Stovepipe Wells for dinner (microwaveable burrito and philly sandwiches at the store) and a shower (conveniently located adjacent to the pool across the street). Even better, I got free Internet access in the commons room behind the registration desk along with a slide show by one of the park rangers. Who knew you could get so much in Stovepipe Wells?
* As Rob Mortensen points out via email, it's even worse than this. Latitude should be "North," not "East," and Longitude should be "West," not "North."
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