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Salt, Heat, and Snow: A Death Valley Trek

clairewsmiley 2 years ago
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The lowest of Death Valley to the highest in Polartec fabrics

By Matt Hage

The four of us pile out of the SUV for another predawn start on the side of the road. Shoes are tightened, trekking poles extended and packs are hefted as we prepare to walk out onto the flats.

Not just any flats. These are the famed salt flats of Badwater in Death Valley National Park, a place of extreme terrain and extreme conditions. The rugged evaporated lake is worn smooth by thousands of visitors who walk out a thousand feet for that obligatory selfie. Our trek will take us quite a bit farther, up to the snow covered peak 20-miles distant. We can see that morning light already bathes the 11,048 foot summit of Telescope Peak, the highest peak in the Panamint Range and Death Valley National Park. We’ll save our selfies for up there.

The vertical rise from Badwater (-282 ft) to Telescope Peak is one of the greatest on the planet. Add in some false summits and a roller-coaster ridgeline, we’d climb about 14,500 feet when it’s all done. We can see the entire route while trekking across the salt flats. It seems so simple, but when researching this route it was difficult to estimate how long it was going to take us. “You know it doesn’t add up,” I say to friend Mike Barcom as we cruise the tourist-buffed flats. He responds with a quizzical look. “The stats. They don’t add up for us to pull this off in an overnight,” I add. Alex Stoy chimes in, as the only member of this team who has done part of this route on a previous adventure. His account of getting off course and spending an extra night out doesn’t inspire confidence.

But we’re making short work of the Badwater segment, completing half of the six-mile crossing in about an hour. Then the salt crust starts to give way under our weight, plunging each step ankle deep in a sticky mud. We have three miles of this and sunrise has begun heating up the salt flats. “Yeah it doesn’t add up,” jokes Mike as he plunge steps past me through the mud.

There are few things more demoralizing than hiking empty stretches of gravel road in the desert. But after escaping the breakable crust mud bog of Badwater, there isn’t too much grumbling from our team. Having regained sure footing at Shorty’s Well, we started up the enormous alluvial fan leading into Hanaupah Canyon.

Fragrant desert blooms and Polartec Delta on our backs helped relieve the sting of hot hours spent walking up the featureless gravel. By the heat of the day, we had reached the canyon’s massive outflow wash, thick with Desert Gold wildflowers. The beauty lifted our spirits as we dived into the wash. An hour later we came across a 4×4 parked in the wash while its owners went for a day hike. A shiny silver cooler and large tank of water sat on the tailgate with a note for “the backpackers” to help themselves. We toasted these trail angels with ice-cold Coronas in the ninety degree heat. The hot, dusty monotony of the past three hours quickly faded from our memories.

Hanaupah Canyon is one of a handful of oases in the harshness of Death Valley. A natural spring gushes from the canyon’s South Fork creating a good sized creek up canyon. It’s a surreal sight to behold once you reach it; gurgling water flowing freely in the desert. Watching a rattlesnake drink from the waters was also pretty surreal.

The lush valley surrounding Hanaupah Spring is the obvious place to make camp as there is not much flat ground on the route above us. But at a meager elevation of 3,700 feet our decision to bivouac in the proximity of fresh water meant saving about 9,000 feet of climbing for tomorrow. With the alarm set to four o’clock in the morning, I zipped up in my sleeping bag for six hours of shut eye. From across the flat gravel, Mike got my attention. “It doesn’t add up,” he whispered referring to our mega hike tomorrow.

We started our slow grind up the ridgelines as early dawn gave the sky a bit of light. Few hikes can match the relentless climb of these ridgelines. For about 10 hours, we worked hard for each thousand feet of gain. A steady progression of scree, scrambling, and route finding challenged our progress.

We reached the snowline at about 7,000 feet, further slowing us down. Glancing up at our summit goal brought dismay in its continued distance, but also exhilaration when we looked back down through thousands of feet of sky to the Badwater salt flats.

Finally the snow was continuous enough for us to don traction and we kicked steps in the spring snowpack to Telescope’s summit. The last thousand feet to the top had drop-away views, like sitting in an airplane window seat on the decent to the runway. We spent on hour on the summit, taking in the 360-degree views, passing around a flask, and marveling that we didn’t smell bad thanks to Polartec Power Wool. Our three o’clock arrival time surprised all of us. “How did we get here so fast?” “I was sure it would have been later.” “I thought we’d be busting out the headlamps for sure.”

“It just doesn’t add up,” added Mike, in his best deadpan manner.


Check out the Polartec fabrics that made this grueling trek in Death Valley possible:

Outdoor Research Gauge Tee made with Polartec Delta cooling fabric for amping up your body’s natural cooling system (sweat).

Mammut Klamath Tops made with Polartec Power Wool, for the benefits of wool without the itch.

Outdoor Research Deviator Hoody insulated with Polartec Alpha for breathable warmth during activity.

Marmot Dark Star Jacket insulated with new Polartec Alpha Direct, for the most breathable warmth by weight that sits against the skin. (Available Fall 2017)

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