First, Failed Attempt to Reach the Death Valley SA-12

How hard can an eight mile hike be, anyway?

51-001 in it's final resting place, Death Valley, California

I realized I had misjudged things when I looked up at the first ridge we would be hiking up to.

The view from the closest thing we had to a trailhead, looking up towards what we thought was the ridge we would be walking along

The three of us – Professor Plum, Tony Stark, and myself – arrived almost five hours past our ideal start time. We’d woken up in the wee hours of the morning, then made a lengthy drive with a long stop for a large breakfast along the way. Further complicating things, this would be our first strenuous hike since the COVID restrictions began.

There was no trail ahead of us. All we had between us and the wreckage was my best guess at a route, gathered from poring over topo maps, Google Earth, and the accounts of previous hikers.

The ridge looming ahead was taller than I had expected. Not tall enough to make any of us want to turn around and head back – or, at least, nobody said it out loud – but it was certainly tall enough to make me wonder when the others were going to start questioning how I’d tricked them into tagging along. 

After exchanging a few gripes and grumbles, we started off.

Our route was flat for the first 35 feet or so, then began an incline that didn’t let up for hours. It was also tough to find ground steady enough to step on. Most of the time, our choices were either rocks or thorny bushes. About half of the rocks were stable, but the other half forced us to test each step before committing to it – or to at least trail behind the leader and make a mental note of where they stumbled. Among the rocks were different plants with varying lengths of thorns. Most of the thorns were small, but a few plants boasted rather large, record-needle-sized skewers that would reach out and attack your shins if you failed to give them enough distance.

The going was slow, but bearable as long as we didn’t look up and see how little progress we were making.

The majority of the rocks were igneous, probably basalt. On quite a few of them, I noticed this strange stripe of bubbles:

I’ve seen basalt and I’ve seen scoria, but I’ve never seen both together with such a clear dividing line between them. My only guess is that the rock was subjected to some jet of gas as it cooled below (or above?) ground, but I don’t know how something like that would come to be.

This was also the time my hiking companions realized they could add a few minutes on to any break we took by pointing out interesting rocks. It took me longer than I care to admit to realize what they were doing.

We had been heading northwest along the south side of a gully, and needed to cross to the north side. For some reason, I got the idea that traveling up the gully itself would be smart. I really don’t know where this idea came from, or why it came back during the descent (more on that later), but it didn’t last long. The seasonal stream that created this gully had brought quite a few rocks down the hill with it, and wasn’t too careful about how they were arranged. The stability of the rocks in the gully made the precariously balanced stones elsewhere seem positively bolted down by comparison. After 20 or so feet of stumbling and tripping over ourselves, we made a scramble up the north side of the gully and back onto relatively stable ground.

As we drew close to the ridge, it became suddenly apparent that this was not actually the ridge we were aiming for.

Had I been paying attention to our position on the map, I would have seen this coming. But I wasn’t, so the appearance of another, higher ridge took me by surprise. This was the first of what would turn out to be two false ridges before the actual ridge. After a few moments to take a rest and get some therapeutic complaining done, we looked back down the hill at the cars below and remarked on how far we’d come.

We began uphill again, over the same loose rock and sharp bushes, and stopped for another break at the second false ridge. The cars were still visible from here, but only barely. Conveniently, the two false ridges were roughly ⅓ and ⅔ of the way up to the actual ridge, and made good rest spots.

Eventually, we did make it up to the real ridge, with the last few hundred feet being fueled purely out of a desire just to get there and be done with it.

The view that greeted us was impressive. We all took a few minutes to sit and gaze out across the canyon and down into the Panamint valley below. Mr. Stark was even able to get enough phone reception to get some emails. They were from work, of course, and we all had a laugh at the ever-increasing difficulty of avoiding our employers.

The wind rushing up the west face of the ridge was bitterly cold, and we decided that it would be best to move on, despite the view.

I didn’t think it would be possible to see the wreckage from this far out with an unaided eye, but I gave it a shot before we left.

51-001 hanging out in its final resting spot. It’s not quite this easy to see from the ridge; I had the benefit of a telephoto lens for this photo
A closer view of the above shot

Sure enough, there it was, perched precariously on the downslope leading into Dolomite Canyon.

I want to point out this strange, dark formation I noticed towards the northeast side of the canyon.

Other than simply “something mafic”, I have no idea what this might be or how it came to be here. It reminded me of Minas Morgal from The Lord of the Rings, so that’s what I’ve decided to call it. If any geologists have a better guess as to what this is, I’d appreciate them dropping me a line.

We moved down the slope, away from the ridge, until we were out of the worst of the wind. We had been traveling northwest up until this point, but now our path turned to the north, and flattened out substantially.

The hike here on the first part of the ridge was actually quite pleasant. We were out of the biting wind, off the steep mountainside, and away from loose rock. The going was smooth and we had a nice, big sky above us. Whatever rock was present was well-rounded and pressed so firmly into the ground that they were more or less cemented in place. The thorny bushes that had tormented us on the first slope were finally gone. If it weren’t for the rocky ground, this would have made an excellent campsite.

The ridge took us to what would come to be our first and last peak of the day.

Well, it was more of a hill, really. Not wanting to drag things out any more than we needed to, we made a beeline straight for the top.

On this hill and the ridge north of it were quite a few survey markers. Each marker was itself marked by a few nearby metal poles held up by some rocks. We began to use these as waypoints, though the color of the poles made them difficult to find in some instances.

As we began down the far side of the hill, the terrain ahead of us changed to sand.

This sand wasn’t deep and didn’t make crossing it any more or less difficult than the surrounding terrain, but we all still marveled at how often the ground beneath our feet was changing. Soon we saw that some kind of trail had been worn into the ground, and we followed it along the ridge, past several more survey markers.

We didn’t see any other footprints, so I’m still not sure if this is an animal or a human trail.

The day was getting late and, including breaks, we were averaging less than a mile per hour. A bit of quick math told us that if we continued on to the wreck, we would be back at the cars somewhere around 10 PM; well after dark, and well after the temperature had begun to plummet into the 40s.

Reluctantly, we made the decision to abandon the attempt and head back.

We stopped and had an MRE lunch on some of the roughest, most angular, and least comfortable conglomerate I have ever had the displeasure of using as a seat. It was better than standing, for sure, but we all decided that bringing seats next time would be a wise choice.

On the way back, we followed much the same trail that we had on our ascent, with a few exceptions.

We took a curving route around our first hill, intended to reduce the amount of altitude gain we would need to make while not going completely out of our way. This worked out quite well.

Unfortunately, I tried to make an “optimization” that I had seen in someone else’s GPS track by heading down the gully we had tried to go up near the beginning of our hike. The unstable rocks that had been a nuisance on the way up proved to be a genuine hazard on the way down. Much of our time spent here was devoted to finding footing and recovering from falls – so much so that our speed dropped to below half a mile per hour. It didn’t help to think that we were a long way from any help – possibly hours, even with a satellite beacon. At least we made our descent during daylight and our path was well-lit.

We threw off our packs and had a nice long break once we got back to the cars. All three of us were surprised that we didn’t feel exhausted or worn out, just a little tired. Everyone piled in to the vehicles and we headed west down the 190 to Panamint Springs for dinner. Over hamburgers, we started to work on plans for the next attempt.

Lessons Learned

  • Start early. Most estimates I have seen place the total hiking time at about 10 hours. Allotting time for breaks en route and exploring the wreckage brings the total trip time closer to 12 hours.
  • Keep an eye on the weather. Do not attempt a hike here in the summer, and be mindful of clouds. Should rain (or worse, lightning) find you here, there will be no cover.
  • Carry a topo map and use it. Keep your route as flat as possible and stay away from gullys.
  • Bring something to sit on. I’ve purchased a small, rolling camp seat for this purpose and will be testing it out soon.
  • Scarves and kleenex to deal with the wind would be helpful. The gusts near the ridge are pretty intense, and I can only imagine what they’re like towards Towne Benchmark.


Note that the final portions of the downhill route are broken due to problems with GPS tracking. Screenshot from © Gaia GPS and OpenStreetMap contributors.


Date: 2021-03-06

Season: Late Winter

Weather: Cool/Cold, 55F high, low wind, partially cloudy