Thursday, October 6
Start: Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park
Stop: Hanaupah Canyon Spring
I meet Uncle Jay after parking my desert-dusted Tacoma at Dow Villa’s courtesy parking lot. A stop at Lee’s, the home of Lone Pine’s best breakfast burrito, has us armed with water and chorizo breakfast burritos. By 7:30am, we’re speeding off into the vastness that is Death Valley National Park. An immenseness so far-reaching, that when you’re faced with the dry playas and mountain ranges and you really think about surviving in such an environment, you know why it bears the name death.
I’m not just using speeding in a loose sense. We reach Badwater in 1.5 hours, a whole half hour faster than the car trip computer had figured. That’s because we average 76 mph with our top speed somewhere around 110 mph. I sure am lucky to arrive at the “trailhead” in such fashion.
I consume my chorizo burrito which has a giant pocket of melted cheese in the last bite as the sun slowly creeps toward the basin edge. It’s now or never. I march onto the salt which, because of all the tourist traffic, has been flattened and smoothed into an easily walkable surface. But the turistas only venture so far and at the edge of their safety zone I arrive at the real salt playa. Where rings of salt bridges arc as far as the eye can see and where it seems that no living thing dare venture. I point myself in the direction of Telescope Peak and soon the Hanaupah Canyon Road is visible. Looks like I’ll be there in about 45 minutes. Ha ha. I’m still six miles and three hours away from reaching the road.
The 20-30 mph wind pulls past me as my feet crush millions of salt castles. Watch it here. A brown line forms on the horizon which turns out to be a more moody version of salt with a hint of clay. My mind plays with the idea that one of the salt plates will just give away, swallowing me whole. To reinforce my fear, I soon reach soft, gooey playa that sucks my entire foot below the surface. I cringe at the footprints I leave behind, knowing that it will be many years before they start to disappear. I can see evidence of past footprints that have started to fill with salt but I know this is a very, very slow process and I feel bad for leaving a trace.
I stop a couple times to drink water but the salt flat is not really a place for a break. I just want to get to the other side as fast as I can. I’m almost there and then I get lost in sand dunes of Catclaw Acacia. I can feel myself start to panic because I’m desperate to take a break and the effects of dehydration and heat are really starting to permeate my consciousness. I find dappled shade underneath a creosote bush and despite the wind, force my sunbrella up. I drink a liter of electrolyte water and sip a bit of my breakfast essentials lunch even though I’m not hungry. I’m hot and thirsty and feel like taking a long relaxing break but I’ve still got almost ten miles until I reach water.
The 4000 ft. climb up Hanaupah Canyon is gradual enough. I use my umbrella as much as possible but sometimes I have to put it down because the wind is just too much. I take a break every hour and drink water, keeping a close eye on my water supply. I started the day with 4 liters and I’m reaching the end of that. At one point there is a giant bolder along the side of the road that is large enough to provide full shade. I immediately shuffle into the shade, close my eyes and let the coolness seep into my skin. I don’t feel like myself, I’m off. I know I’m in trouble. “You’ve got to keep going, you’ve got to get to water” is the mantra that gets me through the afternoon.
Hanaupah canyon feels like it goes on forever. Around every bend there is still another bend ahead. I get my headlamp out and hike the last hour in the dark. I see little eyes low to the ground glowing back at me. Looking behind me, I can see two headlamps headed my way. I start to see mule deer poop or maybe it’s bighorn sheep poop. Regardless, it can only mean than I’m on a good path to water. The gentle trickle of water is music to my ears. I push through the tall grass to collect water as hikers Pepperflake and Princess arrive. The canyon is full of river rock so I clear a small spot and set up my tent. I get in and collapse. I don’t feel like eating. I don’t feel like writing a blog. I don’t feel like thinking about tomorrow.
Check out more trip pics on my Instagram