Owens Valley Part 1: Panamint Range of Death Valley National Park
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
The first stop on my trip is to the Panamint Mountains in Death Valley National Park. I had been to Death Valley in January before, which is when most of the park has relatively pleasant temperatures, however the mountains of Death Valley in January are snow-covered and require mountain climbing gear (ice picks, crampons, etc.); not quite my cup of tea yet. I really want to get to the top of Telescope Peak, from which you can see both Mt. Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous US, as well as Badwater Basin, the lowest point in North America. Specifically, I want to watch the sunrise from Telescope Peak, thus I am to hike up there with my pack, sleep somewhere near the top, and come back down the following day. Lol. Not quite how it would pan out.
On the way into the mountains, I have to pass through Panamint Valley, next door to Death Valley, and I’m seeing my car thermometer read 118˚. At one point I turn off the air conditioner just to see what it feels like, and within literally 2 seconds the car is a toaster. A minute later my iPhone ceases to work, telling me it has to cool down before it can function again. This is by far the hottest air temperature I’ve ever been in so I figure I have to step out to see what it feels like…
Oh my god, that is incredibly unpleasant! It’s windy, and the wind stings to the bone the same way that Minnesotan winds do at -40. It’s awful and I can’t fathom how some people live and work here, which it can reach even 10-15 degrees hotter on some summer days. Gross. After a few seconds, I get back in the car and make my way into the mountains where it’s a refreshing 88˚.
The trailhead to Telescope Peak is at the end of a road that at a certain point becomes too rough for cars without high clearance, so I make it to that point (the Charcoal Kilns), get my pack together, and start heading up the rest of the 2 mile road to the trailhead, which would then be another 7 miles to the top. This is my first time backpacking (excluding canoe-packing) and I am incredibly excited to be here after months of planning! I make it about 100 feet before I need to take a break. It occurs to me then that in my original itinerary, I had myself sleeping at 7,000 feet to acclimate to the elevation. When I postponed the trip, this feature didn’t quite make it in…whoops. I had never had problems with elevation before though, so I should be fine, right?
I hear a car coming, and I quickly pick up my pack and start hiking as to not look like I needed to take a break .2% of the way into my hike like a n00b. A pickup truck slows down and a woman hollers, “Want a ride?!” I accept, outwardly coyly, but inwardly I’m dying to get in the car. The occupants are a man and a woman whose spouses don’t like camping, so they’re camping buddies but not a couple, they tell me several times. The woman is middle-aged and has a somewhat beefy build, with bright red hair about as short as mine, glasses, and a large tattoo wrapping around her right forearm. She comes across as very warm though a bit kooky, but in an endearing way. The man, Jim, is also middle-aged, black, with an average build, a white mustache, and a slightly disinterested expression, as if in a constant state of just waking up from an afternoon nap. We barrel our way up this disaster of a road with me in the passenger seat, wide-eyed and clutching the oh-shit bar for dear life. They drop me off at the trailhead, wish me well, and I begin to make my way, now at 9,000 feet.
Still nowhere near acclimated, in less than a mile in I have to stop three times to catch my breath. By the third time, I’m feeling very lightheaded, loopy, and downright sleepy, as if I’m being anesthetized. It occurs to me that I while I’ve never had issues with elevation, I’ve only actually hiked anywhere near this elevation once, where I had all morning to acclimate, and the path was mostly level. I realize there’s no way in hell that I’m going to make it to the top of this mountain at this rate. I didn’t want to be that guy that needs to use his satellite phone on Day 1 of his first backpacking trip ever, so I decide to cut my losses and turn back on the first hike of a trip I had been looking forward to for months, a little crestfallen.
I make it back to the trailhead where I catch up with the duo who gave me a ride earlier. The woman is cooking and they invite me to sit down and hang out for a bit. She’s a retired librarian from San Jose and he a retired Air Force intelligence officer. They’re not a couple; their spouses just don’t like camping, so they’re camping buddies, they remind me, again. She’s apparently quite the Death Valley aficionado and comes every year, sometimes multiple times a year. The heat doesn’t bother her, so she was down in the valley that afternoon in 120+ degree weather in the sand dunes, looking for desert iguanas. “They don’t even come out until it’s over 110,” she tells me, as if I would ever, ever, ever, ever be caught dead in 110-degree weather looking for desert iguanas (for context, I start complaining when it reaches 80 in San Francisco, nevermind 110). They’re planning to summit Telescope Peak the following day. She tells me that this will be her third attempt, which actually makes me feel a lot better. The last time she tried she was a quarter mile away from the top, but every time she stood up she would get into a coughing fit. Sometimes you don’t make it on your first try, and that’s ok. She insists I eat with them since they prepared too much and have to finish it all before they head to Comic-Con the day after tomorrow. Only in California does one hunt for desert iguanas one day, climb a mountain the next, and head to Comic-con the day after that. God, I love this state.
Now well-fed, watered, and in much betters spirits, I make my way down the two-mile road back to my car. Not wanting the day to have gone to total waste, I decide to hike Wildrose Peak instead. It only goes up to 9k feet, and the path isn’t as long or strenuous. Maybe I could see Badwater and Whitney from there too? So up I go. The path gets steep quickly, and setting sun shines brightly on the hills. After a long time of steep, I put on the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack, which is a great pick-me-up – I feel like Indiana f-ing Jones, a real adventurer (got the hat and everything)! I then remember that when I was planning my sunsets and sunrises, I had the wrong time zone plugged in. I realized this a few days before and had adjusted my sunrise times to be an hour earlier, but forgot about sunsets. Damnit. About two-thirds of the way in, it’s dark. “Whatever, I have my headlamp, I’ll be fine,” I tell myself. A few minutes later I get to a spot where I can’t see where the path goes. Is it this way? Or this other way? Unclear. I pick a direction and go about 20 feet. Hmmm…this doesn’t seem like the path. I head back to where I was, but now I can’t even tell where I came from or where any path was. Fuck. “Oh well, I’m not THAT far from the top [WRONG.], I’ll just go uphill and I’ll get there eventually,” I tell myself. It’s now pitch dark save for the stars and crescent moon. The going is slow, and the elevation is approaching 9,000 feet, about where I had to turn back this afternoon. Jesus, it just seems to keep going and going. Miraculously I find the path again; now it’s on switchbacks, oh god, the switchbacks. Feel the burn!
I finally make it to the top at almost 10pm. The night is in full swing, and I can see lights of the town of Furnace Creek in the valley, twinkling in the distance in the east, and Venus, shining like a spotlight to the west. Exhausted, I sign the register at the top of Wildrose Peak, set up my tent at the summit, and go to sleep. It isn't quite the mountain I had hoped for, but nevertheless, it is my first real mountain, and in hindsight a great warm-up to the events that were soon to unfold in the following days.
[Listen: The Planets - Saturn, bringer of Old Age]
I wake up at about 5:30 and prepare myself for the rising sun at 5:42. It’s hazy from nearby wildfires, so with the pre-dawn light I can see Badwater Basin, but not the more distant Mount Whitney, unfortunately. I probably wouldn’t have gotten what I was looking for anyway if I had climbed Telescope. I had a special soundtrack for this morning’s sunrise: “Saturn, Bringer of Old Age” from The Planets, an orchestral work by the British composer Gustav Holst that consists of seven movements, each one about a mythological Roman deity, whose names are shared with the planets. I’ve found the best pieces for sunrise are ones that start quietly and slowly grow to a magnificent climax. Pairing such pieces with sunrises has given me some of the most awe-inspiring and euphoric moments of my life. “Saturn” does have this trajectory, though instead of the glorious, exuberant climax that my usual sunrise pieces have, Saturn’s is powerful in an oppressive way, a perfect pairing for the oppressive general conditions of Death Valley, I figured. The piece starts off with flutes and harps alternating slowly but incessantly between two chords that have an unsettling quality to them, like the feeling of when you’re somewhere and things just seem a little…off, but you’re not sure why. Under and over these chords are melodies that start in the basses, not often heard without their cello brethren. These melodies get passed around to a few other instruments including the cryptically esoteric bass oboe, an instrument few ever lay eyes on. These melodies aren’t even melodies as much as just a few long, drawn-out notes, weary-sounding and suspicious somehow. Their rhythm with respect to the unrelenting but unobtrusive flute chords further seems off-kilter somehow, and it’s disorienting. The texture changes abruptly, with the piece beginning to unfold more sincerely in the brass and strings, as if being regaled of the wondrous tales of the past by this arcane “bringer of old age.” This steadily builds in texture and orchestration, the off-kilter rhythm from the beginning of the piece returns in the lower voices of the orchestra. A wonderful array of chords in the brass reveals a wisdom of the ages from our mystical acquaintance. This keeps pressing onward until it morphs into a kind of terrible wisdom, like that of someone who has seen far too much for their own good, peered into the depths of the universe which aren’t meant to be seen, and driven to madness in the process.
Thus is my accompaniment to the rising sun, its muted reddish-orange glow peering above the Amargosa Mountains through the haze and filling with light Death Valley, one of the most inhospitable corners of the globe. It really is the perfect piece for a hot, desert sunrise.
As I gather my things and prepare for the descent, I hear out of the usual chorus of flies, gnats, and mosquitoes that have followed me up the mountain a new chorister. It has a low buzz, which can mean only one thing: it’s big. Coming into view is an enormous, jet-black, wasp-like creature, and it has it out for me. What I did to instill this thing’s fury I will never know, but there I am, on the top of this mountain at 9,000 feet, running around in circles like a fool being chased by this beastly horror. After a certain point, I have an epiphany and think, ‘Hold on. FUCK this. MY MOMMA DID NOT RAISE A VICTIM!” I unfurl my bandana in one hand and dart to my pack and grab whatever is on top, in this case, a washcloth. Now with a weapon in each hand, I begin to whirl and twirl my arms like a windmill in a hurricane, and soon the tides of battle turn. The winged monstrosity from hell, now on the defensive, ducks and dodges, swerving and swooping like a Jedi Knight on a mission to destroy the umpteenth reincarnation of the Death Star. Fortunately for me, it’s no Skywalker, but rather one of those filler bitches with maybe one line of dialogue whose sole purpose is to die a horrific death thereby ramping up the plot tension. I land a blow with the washcloth, and the ominous buzz turns to a sputter. I highly doubt I killed it, but at least now it knows not to mess with me before I’ve had my oatmeal.
[Research after the trip would suggest that this was a tarantula hawk. That's right honey, a wasp that preys on tarantulas. They have among the most excruciating stings of any insect on earth. X_X]
After catching my breath and regaining composure, I make my way down the mountain, the sunlight a welcome change from my previous trek. I get to the car largely without incident and prepare for the next leg of the trip, which is to go off-trail to the Inyo Mountains opposite the Sierras to watch the sun rise onto the tallest mountain in the lower 48.
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