Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Death Valley IV: Surprise!



When planning our trip, Jon and I had intended that our crowning achievement of our sojourn in Death Valley would be at two nights backcountry camping, preferably two. Our delay to pump hot lead into (or rather, in the general vicinity of) paper targets at a gun range in Vegas rather threw off our schedule, so we were left with only one night.

We followed Jay Stone, Death Valley Park Ranger’s advice and decided to do our greenhorn best to make it in and out of Surprise Canyon, the opening to which was actually outside the park on Bureau of Lands Management territory. We would drive up an old mining access road, park the car, and hike six miles into the Panamint Mountains, and hopefully make camp in the ruins of Panamint City, a gold mining ghost town.

Sounds simple, right? Surprise! It was not.

First, getting to the trailhead required driving up 3 miles of what was marked as a road on the map, but was a seemingly unending series of three-foot craters guarded by menacing rings of razor-sharp stones. I’m fairly certain some of those craters were miniature ecosystems hosting Rock Monsters, as every once in a while one would scrape their prettified claws along the chassis of my poor Civic, or terrify us all by suddenly punching the muffler in their rage at having been disturbed.

After whiteknuckling our way though what seemed like an eternity of shrieking, banging metal, we found ourselves at the trailhead, marked by an abandoned and fire-destroyed mill. Since we were only out for one night, we agreed to lighten our pack of absolutely everything that we could, leaving it in the car. Sadly, this included my camera, which had died the day before on the sand dunes.

There were a few things that we had read about Surprise Canyon that did not, apparently, register with us. It was located in the Panamint Mountains, for instance. It apparently boasted several springs. It lead to the Surprise Pass.

All of that sounds pretty innocuous, unless the logic part of your brain is working. If a canyon is in a mountain range, and leads to a pass, that means there will be hills – large ones, much like mountains - and they will trend in the up direction, requiring you to climb.

The presence of springs meant water, of course, but for some reason Jon and I both had the frankly bizarre idea, probably imprinted on our youthful brains by Road Runner cartoons, that these springs would behave something like city fountains: the water would be squirting merrily into the air, landing in a pool or something, in which it would stay. That is not how springs work: while you are working your way up the mountain, the water will be making its way down, burbling and chortling at you, the idiot in wet boots and carrying 8-kilos of bottled water on his back.


Natural Bridge Canyon, not Surprise Canyon

Within 20 minutes or so of starting our hike, we were confronted by our first obstacle: a small waterfall, about six feet high. Not impossible to climb, but slippery and not offering much of a handhold. The real challenge had been carved by some condescending wag across the rock face: “There is no limit to human stupidity.” Jon and I looked at each other. “Oh yeah? We’ll show you the limits of human stupidity, buddy.” We then proceeded to do so by scrambling up a waterfall rather than investigating for the 10 seconds it would have taken us to find the perfectly servicable footpath going around it.

Onward we hiked. Because the canyon had hosted many a mining operation over the years, and those mining operations were, from time to time, wiped out in cataclysmic flashfloods, there was some interesting debris along the way. We passed a couple of heavy trucks modified to serve some inscrutable ends of heavy industry, and lunched by a rusted out, bullet ridden pick-up dating from the late 60s, I think. Near that were the gnawed over remains of one of the canyon’s wild burros. What had gnawed it, I do not know, and we did not linger to find out.

Another unsurprising surprise of Surprise Canyon was how lush it was: it was positively choked with vegetation in the early going, thanks to the aforementioned springs. It was full of what I assume were Pinyon trees, sagebrush and cacti. None of them were tall enough to provide any shade, but they did provide plenty of resistance as we made our way higher.

Did I say higher? Because I didn’t realize it at the time. The thing about climbing a canyon is you lose your perspective: you’re walking up a giant hallway, keeping your eyes on the step in front of you. We only realized that we’d been climbing when we cleared the vegetation level and looked back, only to realize we were halfway up a mountain range (again, what did we think hiking in the mountains would lead to if not massive elevation gains?)

In any case, due to a late start caused a failed attempt to buy batteries in a ghost town in the Valley (they had some, but they were all dead. Ha! Ghost town… dead batteries… hey! Come back!) it was now approaching sunset and preliminary scouting further up the canyon revealed no Panamint City within a ten minute walk. And we were tired. And it was hot. So, we set up our tent next to what we later figured must have been a trash dump for a later mining camp (it boasted a large pile of rusty cans and a smashed television).


This photo is near Golden Canyon, not Surprise Canyon

Now, here is the real wonder of this trip. Men the world over are gearheads – we’re just gearheads about different things. Some of us love cameras, some cars, some tools. My friends Jon is a gearhead for camping stuff. When we were younger, his gear fixation served him well; he always had spacious, superlight tents, sleeping bags that could be compressed to fit into a woman’s change purse, a backpack of such unfathomable capaciousness that I am convinced that Jimmy Hoffa may yet be found in it.

Now Jonathan has a family. A lovely, hardy, adventuresome family, but a family nonetheless, and thus containing members with interests and ideas of their own, and whose interests and ideas are not as unquestioningly fond of outdoor life as is Jon. Given that Jon wants to share his passion with his family, he tries to make camping as comfortable as possible for them. He has therefore upgraded from a set of battered tin pots like what I use, into a fully equipped camp kitchen: boasting a full set of cutlery, several pots and pans, A PORTABLE KITCHEN SINK, and a cutting board.

Back at the car, while I was jettisoning the unneeded weight of my spare under-roos, Jon was bus rifling through his pack. I thought he was ridding himself of his superfluous crockery, but no – he quite literally, brought everything but the kitchen sink. Meaning that as we were preparing the only dinner we’d brought: canned beans, Jon looked sadly at his kitchen kit and observed “I guess I didn’t have to bring the cutting board, did I?” Given as how we had absolutely nothing to cut, no. Of course, this snarky observation is coming from a guy who insisted on wearing his fancy hunting knife on his belt for the entire time, even though the only time it ever came out of its sheath was when it snagged on a cactus (it's a nice knife, and I didn't want to get it dirty).

We watched the sun set in the west, painting the canyon walls every hue between gold and red, until night marched up the ravine and overcame us. Exhausted, counted the stars, and waited for a moon that never appeared, probably because it was afraid of being crushed under the stars, of which there are approximately 2.5 billion more visible to the naked eye in Surprise Canyon than elsewhere. We heard animals of some sort – burros maybe, maybe coyotes, it didn’t matter. We’d done Death Valley. Surprise!

3 comments:

kiscodad said...

We traveled through Death Valley on our first Cross Country trip in 1994. It's harsh beauty is amazing. My only advice is that if you drive up the long way from Las Vegas as we did, make sure you get gas at Furnace Creek no matter how much it costs. We almost ran out of gas on the way out...

Jul said...

And you lived to tell the tale. Impressive.

Victor Chisholm said...

Mark, it's been a long time since I looked at your blog, and I'm delighted to have some new (or new-to-me) items to read. I especially like your adventure postings. Thanks for sharing your blog.