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Black Mountains Traverse

Jan 2022

After several solo trips in Death Valley, I was finally to have Anthony’s company for a weekend ripper. We had loosely planned a traverse of the Black Mountain Range, from its Southern tip North to Dante’s View. It was all very exploratory, and we didn’t know what would and wouldn’t go, so it was nice to do it as a pair. He showed up Thursday night at Emigrant Camp with an extra burrito in tow. It was a welcomed surprise after weeks of carrots, tortillas, ramen, and other food that kept well out in the bush. 


We took off for the route in the morning, and decided to head up Ashford Canyon instead of the relatively unknown Kaleidoscope Canyon we had also researched. We made it up the canyon and to the summit of Desert Hound Peak around noon. While the Black Mountains are the driest range of one of the driest places on Earth, this did not stop it from hailing on us as we made our ascent. The wind was also relentlessly battering us with intense force and a biting cold. This was troubling news, as neither of us brought any shelter, and I had no rain gear. I would have turned back if solo, but Anthony confidently said “better hail than rain” when it started coming down. That made me chuckle and continue on despite the weather. We followed some ridge lines North. The terrain was relatively manageable, and the landscapes were surprisingly green. It was beautiful, and much different in character than the badlands characteristic of the Northern Blacks. 


Coming up Ashford Canyon


The Southern sections of the range

Ridges gave way to broad valley floors, and we meandered along a combination of old dirt roads and off trail terrain to the next pass far in the distance. The storm seemed to be just ahead of us all afternoon, but as the sun dropped, we started to feel rain. Anxiously, we hoped to see some old mining ruins, a mineshaft, or some other form of shelter. Around dark, I pointed out a cave-looking rock formation to our West, we hiked up to it, and as we drew near, realized it was a perfect shelter. Boy, was that a good feeling — almost pure ecstasy (and that’s no exaggeration). We happily prepared our cold soaked dinners, laid out our sleeping bags, and basked in the glory of our dry and wind-protected cavern. I wonder how many a Timbisha native or miner also found comfort in this cave in centuries passed. At night, the section of sky visible from our bivvy cleared, and a magnificent blanket of stars covered the skies. It was all quite spectacular, and a definitive highlight of the trip.


In the morning, we rose with nothing but clear skies above us. The wind persisted, but we were to be dry, and so we were pleased. Our next objective was Funeral Peak, which was beautiful but windy as ever. We didn’t spend much time on the summit, and instead speedily headed to lower elevation for some protection from the elements. We linked up with some old dirt roads for a few miles, then cut up towards Coffin Peak. On the summit, we could see down to Dante’s View, less than a mile away. 


Anthony was leaning towards ending the trip there, and hitchhiking back to the car. My lazier (or saner) side felt the same way, but a part of both of us was itching to attempt the infamous drop from Dante’s View to Badwater Basin. A near 6,000 foot descent in a matter of a few miles. To our knowledge, only a handful of intrepid hikers had done it successfully. We scoped the line from Dante’s View, and to my surprise, Anthony was game. 


Vast landscapes


Looking down into Death Valley

We started dropping down into the main canyon, which proved challenging and slow going. Eventually we made it into the canyon proper, and scouted for the ridge we needed to attain. I had no beta on this route, and was deferring to Anthony for all navigational endeavors. Several details didn’t seem to line up as he described the route to me, showed me the map, and pointed out the prospective line in real life. I asked a couple questions to address my concerns, but didn’t prod too much as I really had no idea of the right route. 


We took a savage climb up to the top of a ridge which I thought might be the wrong one, but we made short work of the 1,500 foot ascent. At this point we were nearly back at the elevation of Dante’s View, but with allegedly one third of the distance to Badwater under our belt, it didn’t sit right with me. We were almost out of light, and so we charged down the ridge. Eventually, Anthony checked his phone, and we were on the wrong ridge. The light was gone by now, we were totally enveloped by darkness, totally lost, and nearly out of water. 


Ah, just like the good old days. We wasted no time groveling and feeling sorry for ourselves (well, maybe a minute or two), and headed back up the ridge. Eventually we regained the canyon, and located the proper route. It proved no easier than where we just were, and in fact, many of the sections were wickedly exposed, composed of terrible rock, and choked full of cacti. At one point, I impaled my heel with a two inch barrel cactus thorn. It took several minutes to dislodge from my foot, and hurt severely with every step following its extraction. But with a whole night of intense navigating and scrambling ahead of us, I had no choice but to crack on.


Ascending the wrong ridge, one of the last photos taken before dark

We got closer and closer to Badwater, but the terrain continued to get more severe. We soon found ourselves just a few hundred feet above the valley floor, but faced with steep, featureless faces, with pebbles as slick as marbles on smooth granite. Finally, we made a committing slide down a steep chute, and found ourselves on the gentler alluvial fan. By this point, it was nearly 1 a.m. and we were running on fumes. At the edge of our headlight beams, we saw what looked to be the road, then we saw a yellow line. We ran, yelling and jumping in triumph. One mile of road walking saw us to Anthony’s van. 


We may be getting older, but we learned that night that “we still got it”. As we drove back to my van, Anthony told me about people getting lost and dying on Badwater Basin only a few hundred yards from the parking lot since the landscape was so alien and disorienting. Seconds later, we found a lost hiker that we picked up and returned to the parking lot. Her friends were lost too and we eventually found them further down the road, looking quite disoriented. They didn’t seem too phased somehow, but all were quite grateful that we reunited them. Finally, we drove South to my car, made some grilled cheese sandwiches, and knocked out. 

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