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We Trek Miles Across the Desert | Hiking Death Valley #3

Our sleep was short-lived, the wind continuing to pick up as the night wore on. In fact, this chapter technically starts on February 15th, since it was 11:45pm when we awoke to the most violent shaking of the tent I've ever experienced - significantly more violent than the night I spent with Monte @Blackdawg and Mike @Digiratus at the base of the Henry Mountains in Utah. I'd already gotten up once to secure the ladder, tying it to a full 5-gallon jerry can of water and the slider of the truck to ensure that the fold-out half of the tent wouldn't make a second attempt on our lives. But as the gusts continued to increase, I finally decided that we needed to move in order to ensure the survival of the tent itself - and so it was that at midnight, we climbed down out of our cozy den and moved the truck nearer the valley walls... hopefully into a bit more of a wind-shadow.

Earplugs back in and ladder re-secured, we climbed back into bed for what would continue to be a restless night of sleep. We found out the next morning that while everyone else had fared a bit better, even Zane @Speedytech7 had resorted to bungee cords to hold down two corners of his rain fly despite having Ben's @m3bassman truck and tent as a direct wind-block. And Mikey @pizzaviolence once again retreated to Ben's cab, the night much too violent for his hammock-strung-between-two-trucks setup.

As morning broke, things had calmed down significantly and - as I climbed out of the tent - it was going to be a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky and the sun just starting to pour down into our valley.

Having been in a bit of a rush the previous afternoon when we'd been here, and then having arrived after dark the evening before, I was keen to explore around camp and see what I could find. Ben was up as well, so we spent a bit of time looking around - the highlight of our search a gypsum mine that had been carved deep into one of the mountains - apparently used from 1909 to the 1950's by the Avawatz Salt & Gypsum Company. The shaft itself had been securely blocked by a large metal grate, but it seemed to still be in reasonably good shape for it's age - likely the result of relatively little human activity at the site!

I spent a bit more time wandering up a nearby wash and finding a good place to avail myself of the luggable loo as Ben made coffee and checked out his brakes- topping off his brake fluid after his little incident the day before. The warm, early morning light making for some sweet displays of color.

Still early, we all had quick breakfasts and got back on the road - our plan for the day simple: park somewhere on the side of Harry Wade Road and head due west, across the desert. Once we made it the 3.5 miles to the other side and the Owlshead Mountains, we then had another 5 miles of hiking three different slot canyons before making the return trek back across the desert to our trucks.

I mean, how hard could it be, right?  

At any rate, I'm getting ahead of myself, since the trip out to the valley was spectacular in itself.

Having taken a different route out of camp than we had in, we found ourselves slightly further north on Harry Wade Road, but still about an hour south of our "side of the road" trail head. It was a beautiful day, and we all enjoyed the easy, secluded drive north - once again encountering the Amargosa River in it's flowing glory.

And once again, I made my way through with as little fanfare as possible - cognizant of the mud that could end up in my bed and all over the tent if I went too fast.

Ben - after letting us know over the CB that he was going to "take it easy" today, apparently meant that he was going to try to destroy his truck - which is exactly what it sounded like he'd done as he pulled out of the wash. Luckily for him - and to all of our surprise - he'd managed to "fold out" his wheel well liners on both sides, and they were making quite the ruckus.

Liners folded back into place (and secured only by "hope?"), we were once again on our way and it wasn't long before we arrived at our destination, technically known as: some spot along the road. We pulled off as far as we could - careful to stay within the grading berms - and prepped ourselves for the journey ahead. Lunches were made, water bottles filled. And then, we set off across the desert. Truth be told, it didn't look that far to the other side.

It turns out - like driving distances in Death Valley - hiking distances are also deceptive. It was in fact, that far to the other side of the valley, and in fact, the other side of the valley was simply the beginning of a long alluvial fan up the Owlshead Mountains. Perhaps 60% of the way across, we also encountered the same river we'd crossed in the trucks - now, our turn to stick our feet in water that few ever get to experience. It was cold!

As we continued up the alluvial fan - now nearly an hour after we'd started and not yet to the first slot canyon, we turned and looked for the trucks. Yep, there they were - three little ants crossing the valley, only just visible to the naked eye.

The trucks are in the very center of this photo. Seriously.

Here's the center, zoomed in with a mountain for reference. Trucks.

Eventually, we reached the first of the Smoke Tree Slot Canyons. Named for a few Smoke Trees that happen to grow at the mouths of the area, these slots were discovered and hiked for the first time in early January, 2016. As such, we were excited to be some of the first to experience the secrets they held as we finally approached the entrance to Slot #1.

As we made our way further up, the canyon split - to the left, the main canyon and to the right, a side slot - which we'd soon find was the real gem of the two.

Not knowing what to expect, we decided to do the slide slot first, entering and immediately realizing that we were in a special place. So narrow was this side slot that we all had to remove our packs and turn sideways just to make it around some of the turns.

At the end, a small room and a 50-foot-tall dry fall. Naturally, impossible for me to resist climbing up into as @mrs.turbodb took a dozen photos trying to get just the right exposure.

Relatively short, we headed back out and decided that we'd explore the main fork of Slot #1 before eating lunch and continuing on our way. Really this meant that we had to walk about 50-feet, where the main slot ended in another equally impressive dry fall (which you can see in the photo of us eating lunch).

Lunch was a fun affair - we were all hungry and whenever you eat lunch in a place like this, it's special. We shared food and laughs as we rested our legs and recharged our bodies from the hike across the valley before getting everything packed up again for the push to the next slot canyon. This push first entailed skirting up and around to the top of Slot #1, where we could not only look back down, but inch right up to the edge of the dry fall.

Then, we headed up the wash - the connector to Slot #2. While the wash wasn't a slot at this point, it was still quite beautiful - a fact that resulted in us following it for a bit too long and ultimately having to scramble up the side in a non-ideal location in order to get back on track. Worth it? Yes, definitely.

As we crested the side of the wash, we could once again see out and across the southern end of Death Valley - the weather sunny with a bit of breeze, and 63ºF - perfect!

And we got a glimpse of the namesake of the mountains in which we were climbing - the Owl's Heads, lined up in neat rows.

More rock scrambles, with lots of GPS tracking, eventually got us to the start of our next squeezy situation at the top of Slot #2. I don't know that I've ever explored a slot canyon in the "downhill" direction, but I wonder if that's actually a better way to go - after all, it is the direction the water took in order to create these wonders.

Not as narrow as Side Slot #1, Slot #2 was cool in it's own right - much longer than any of the slots we'd previously explored on this trip. To try and capture the scale of the canyon, I tried having @mrs.turbodb stand several hundred feet downstream, the sun illuminating her through the waves in the wall.

But, though longer than the other slots; like the others, it was not long enough - and before long we found ourselves at the mouth of the wash, a namesake Smoke Tree guarding the entrance.

It was here that we decided it was time to head back to the trucks. The remaining Slot #3 would nearly double the length of our hike, and we'd done quite a bit of hiking in the last three days. The fact that we had 3.5 miles just to get back to the trucks sealed the deal for much of the group and as usual, I was happy to leave a canyon unexplored... perfect fodder for a return trip!

Eventually, as the moon rose, the trucks grew larger in the distance.

Back at the trucks, everyone was happy to sit down and shed the packs we'd just hauled across Death Valley. It was mid-afternoon and we had a two hour drive to camp - our plan, for the moment, to explore Echo Canyon for the perfect spot. And so it was that we drove for a whole 2 minutes before Ben came over the CB radio, "Uhh guys... I've got a battery issue."

As he raced towards Zane and me, his voltage was dropping fast - 12.5V, 12.1V, 11.7V, 11.0V - he wasn't sure what was wrong, but it was clear that his alternator wasn't doing it's job. He soon skidded to a stop and wondered if turning off the truck and restarting it would solve his problem - perhaps he just needed to "kick" his alternator.

Nope, that wasn't it. His alternator had gone .

Luckily Zane had a spare with him. Only problem was, Zane's got the 2.7L engine and Ben's got the 3.4L V6. Zane grabbed his newly rebuilt Jaguar replacement anyway as we started tearing out Ben's alternator - Mikey and @mrs.turbodb napping in their respective trucks.

Oh, and Zane and I had parked side-by-side when we were waiting for Ben. We were pretty sure that wasn't going to pose a problem, so we just let it be.

Getting a 5VZFE alternator out is a pretty simple operation, so within a few minutes we were comparing housings to see if we could make Zane's replacement fit in Ben's truck. It was clear that we couldn't and so we started talking about alternatives - the best one we could come up with being a few repeated battery swaps, using my and Zane's alternators to charge Ben's battery as we made our way north and he destroyed ours.

But then, Zane had an idea. "Hey Ben, when was the last time you replaced the brushes in your alternator?" he asked. "I don't know - I've been meaning to do it for years, but never got around to it." the perhaps predictable response. And with that, we started disassembling the alternators just enough to get at the brushes - luckily, interchangeable between the two.

And as we pulled out Ben's brushes, it was immediately clear where the problem was.

His brushes were so worn that they no longer contacted the commutator bars on the armature, thus there was no longer any power being sent to the battery. Quite the recovery from an otherwise bad situation on Zane's part!

We got everything put back together and the alternator reinstalled in Ben's truck over about one hour's time, and then we were on our way north - our destination no longer Echo Canyon - we didn't have time for that, but instead, Hole in the Wall.

Sunset on the way was spectacular as ever, the light illuminating the sky as well as reflecting off the water and salt in Badwater Basin, and we paused momentarily to take it in.

As we knew we would, we reached camp in the dark and set about deploying tents and cooking dinners in a much more sheltered location than the night before - a lesson we wouldn't soon forget. As we ate dinner and discussed the day and trip, there was a bit of melancholy not present the previous evenings - we knew this was our last meal as a group and that tomorrow we'd be parting ways. In fact, the plan was for two trucks - mine and Ben's - to break camp very early the next morning - heading north in an attempt to make it home in a single shot.

And so it was that we eventually called it a night and climbed into our cozy hides. An amazingly different trip mostly behind us - an experience that I'd definitely love to repeat.

- - - - -

A Deer Destroy's the Hellas - and We Destroy a Deer - on the Long Drive Home

February 17, 2019.

The next morning we were up bright and early as planned - one benefit of the early departure was that sunrise was definitely something we'd get to experience. Just as I climbed out of the tent, the sky began to light up, the clouds a perfect canvas for the sun, as it rose on the horizon.

Ben was soon up as well, and a chorus of shutter clicks was all you could hear in that part of the valley for the next several minutes as the clouds transitioned from pinks and purples to a bright orange above our heads.

But we couldn't hang out forever - we had places to be and roads to travel, so we tore ourselves away from the sunrise and packed up our tents and a few remaining camp items before heading out, back towards the Hole in the Wall. Of course, we'd missed the namesake of the trail the evening before, and so we were sure to stop on our way out to capture the view - in all honestly, probably better in the morning than evening since you get to see Death Valley in the background when you're shooting from east-to-west!

Now just after 7:00am, we hopped back in the trucks and made our way down the trail and past nearly a dozen camp sites where folks had spent the night. Some were sedans and some were outfitted trucks, but nearly to a tee, all heads turned as we flew by - our suspension soaking up the relatively small bumps that the wash had to offer - it was a blast. Oh, and the closer we got to the trailhead, the more we could see - Telescope Peak still towering in the distance, it's white coat gleaming above all else.

Too soon we reached the end of the dirt and it was time to air up. We hadn't traveled all that many dirt miles on this trip, but those we had were fun, and the intervening hikes more than made up for it if you ask me.

As we turned north, a quick stop at Furnace Creek to pay our park fees and another in Beatty for fuel were all that stood between us and a loooooooong drive home.

Some 12 hours for Ben and Mikey, and 20 hours for @mrs.turbodb and me, I asked Ben to lead this part of the trip - I knew that his speeds would be more conducive to a quicker arrival than mine, and in the back of my mind I knew that every 10-mph increase in speed would cut nearly three hours off our overall travel time.

And so north we went. We paused only for bathroom breaks and quick bites to eat.

Then, as we were pulling out of a refueling stop in Winnemucca, NV, I heard a clunking. I wasn't sure what it was, but I mentioned to Ben over the CB that I wanted to check it out - it was probably just something in the bed rattling around, but better safe than sorry. And boy, was I glad that I took a quick look around - because I have a feeling that a few more miles were all I had before this situation became one that was much worse.

A quick tap with a hammer and a new washer and nut - which I'd picked up when I'd done the rear shock relocate, just for such a situation - and we were back on the road. At this point it wasn't long before we were parting ways - Ben and Mikey heading east to Boise and @mrs.turbodb and me continuing north and west to Burns, OR and then late into the night.

Most of that drive was uneventful, but about 30 minutes before we got to Burns, we spotted a deer on the side of the road. It was bouncing along at full speed next to us for about two seconds as I applied the brakes, knowing too well what was about to transpire. And then, unfortunately for all of us, it made a sharp left turn in front of us - it's small frame no match for the @relentlessfab bumper on the front of the truck.

Luckily for us, the deer went under - rather than over - the truck as we hit it square on with the center of the bumper - the strongest part by design, housing the winch and supported by the skid plate and all three hoops. In the end, a thorough inspection revealing that the only damage to the truck were the Hellas, which were decimated by the impact.

We arrived home at 3:00am - a long, 20-hour drive capping off an absolutely amazing trip. Hiking, wherever it may be, is definitely something I want to start doing more of on these adventures!



The Whole Story


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  1. Heather Gilbert
    Heather Gilbert February 8, 2022

    Love your report on the Smoke Tree Slots. Me and my hubby visit Death Valley yearly, and have done most of the on-the-beaten-path hikes in the park. But we have NOT done the smoke tree slots. And they look amazing. Would you be willing to send me a gpx file of the route? We won't post it anywhere - just looking for an awesome hike that we have not yet done.

    Heather Gilbert

    • turbodb
      turbodb February 8, 2022

      Hi Heather, glad to hear you liked the hike report - it was a fun one! I'm not big on sharing GPX files, for obvious reasons, but there are a bunch of photos and clues in the story that you can use to figure out most of the locations I go (including this one ?). You can read more about my thinking for GPS-based sharing, here. Cheers, and have a great time out there!

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