Road Crew

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Trying to Die in Death Valley

Very few sequels live up to the hype. That hasn’t stopped the industry from pumping out bad follow-ups to otherwise perfectly good stories. Rocky tried five or six times. Perhaps only Indiana Jones comes close to having a successful follow up but the pressure rides on a handsome leading man and some unexpected twists and turns. So in the Return to Death Valley, it was only natural for me to take a new cast of characters to create a whole new story.
            For the first time on my National Park Tour, I didn’t just take someone along, I took a whole party.  Not only did both my parents come, but so did Dwight and Susie.  Dwight and Susie are special friends selected for their good looks, intelligent conversation and not coincidentally, their Jeep.  Little did I know that a second jeep was my Dad’s entire back up plan, survival guide and escape route.
            My prior trip to Death Valley was limited by lack of appropriate vehicle to navigate some of the dirt/rock roads leading to some of the most famous landmarks. Expressing my frustration inspired my father to plan a trip back using his now souped up Jeep with extra large tires, high clearance and super powers designed to conquer anything…I thought.
            My goal was to see the Racetrack and Titus Canyon.  Knowing this, my dad put in a great deal of research into interesting routes and sites along the way.  He even went so far as to ask the ranger on arrival about the route.  The park ranger had no idea what to tell him because no one had been there for while which should have been our first clue.
            My father’s ambitious plan was to head out of Death Valley and take the back way into the Racetrack.  Death Valley is famous for being the lowest point in the US but it gets overlooked for the incredible mountains (11,000ft+) around it. While it may be warm and toasty in the valley, the peaks are in fact snow covered.  So much snow that Titus Canyon was closed due to snow.  This should have been our second clue.

            The view on most of our drive was a stark desert landscape, barely a green thing in sight, much less snow.  That was until Hunter Pass when we found ourselves on the north side of the mountain and into some snow.  The first snow patch went pretty easy.  We slid around the second snow patch a bit but made it.  With so much success behind us, we boldly started down the third. 
            Dad stopped 100 meters in to assess the situation.  I hopped out to run down the road and get a sense of how much more snow to expect.  There was no end in sight.  Finally we came to our senses and decided that this was probably a bad idea.  Let’s turn around.
            Easier said than done.
            The snow was turning to mush as the day warmed and all we could do was spin the wheels.  We spent three hours digging and spinning and going nowhere.  It was then that the little details came out, like we had no matches or saw to collect wood to start a fire.  No, my dad did not have a winch to pull himself out.  No, there was not anything that might do us any good if we got stuck on a cold mountain pass in the middle of nowhere.  In Death Valley they always warn you about dying from the heat but no one said that you might freeze to death stuck in the snow.
            Fortunately Susie and Dwight had not started down the third snowfield so we abandoned the Jeep and headed back to camp to figure out what to do.  As it turns out there is exactly one person that does back country towing but only for a small fortune.  This motivated Dad to be resourceful.  He wandered around the lodge and camping area until he found a vehicle he thought adequate to help out and then he tracked down its owner.  The one ton dually truck belonged to a good Samaritan who was willing to drive 45 miles out of his way to help us.
            I went with my father and our new friend and his wife.  After an hour of getting to know complete strangers, we rounded the bend for the first snow patch.  Our hero gunned it.  The wheels spun and we came to a complete stop.  My father and I looked at each other.  This was the easiest patch and we were already stuck. This was really bad.
            The heavy pickup simply sunk into the snow patch.  Chains and four wheel drive made no difference.  The more he tried, the worse it looked until finally he was precariously perched on the edge of the cliff, unable to risk moving the truck at all out of fear it would simply slide off.
            I ran up the mountain to the stuck Jeep to retrieve the shovel so they could get to work on the dually.  Then I ran down the mountain to the meeting place to retrieve the second Jeep.  I was glad I had not done my usual run that morning.  The chance of needing to run 17 miles back to the highway to retrieve help was looking more and more likely.
            Finally the gods smiled on us.  With the help of Dwight’s Jeep, they were able to pull the dually through the snow patch. It still didn’t make it through the second.  That was okay because after assessing the situation, they made a decision to deflate the tires on my father’s Jeep.  The snow was still frozen enough that they were able to back it up onto the crusty top and it made it out on its own power. 
            Flush with success, we thanked our helpers and waved goodbye.  We were off to the Racetrack.
            We returned to the cutoff that would take us to the Racetrack to find our friends waiting for us.  Suddenly they were out of gas according to the fuel gage. It was an hour back to camp and even further than that back to a station with diesel.  We wouldn’t think of abandoning them after helping rescue us, so we instead followed them back out to be sure they made it far enough to get gas. 
            In spite of the late hour and two days of digging trucks out of snow, we decided to give it one more try to see the Racetrack.  One long bumpy ride later, we stood on the mudflat to witness one of nature’s slow but ceaseless wonders.  Here boulders leave tracks in the mud as wind and water slowly push them across the mudflat.  The marks they leave take years to form.  A truly amazing piece of art by Mother Nature: worth every shovel full of snow.



  1. Hi. I'm a big fan of your blog - and your running (been in several races with you).

    Also a big fan of the racetrack, and DV - what a special park!

    Nice to see you writing again. I've missed your sarcastic wit and your heartfelt thoughts.

    1. Thanks! It has been a difficult spring so I have not been writing. Trying to get caught up. Stay tuned for a few more.