Christian Kemp's USA travelogs

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I awoke around 6am this morning, and after a brief stop at the rest rooms, I set off on Emigrant Canyon Road, towards the Charcoal Kilns and beyond. I arrived at the Kilns before the sun even hit them, and decided to try driving up to Mahogany Flat. I was pretty sure there'd be too much snow and ice to hike any meaningful distance towards Telescope Peak, but I wanted to at least take a look.

This proved to be a questionable idea. While the snow was still quite low towards the start of that final 1.6 mile stretch between the Kilns and Mahogany Flat, it gradually got higher. Not many people had driven on it since the last major snowfall, and one by one I could see the places where people had turned around. After a while, there was a final spot where someone had turned around, and the tracks ended a hundred feet further up. I went just as far, and then couldn't get any further because the spot where that driver had become stuck had iced over and I was unable to go beyond.

I was still able to reverse out of it, though. I soon passed the spot where the driver had turned, but decided that I didn't like the look of the car's tracks - it seemed to have been a smaller car, so I would have needed more space; but once more the tracks were iced over and I was concerned that I'd get stuck either in them or beyond as I'd require more room.

Stuck in the snow while trying to turn around on the Mahogany Flats access road in Death Valley National Park Then, as I reversed back towards the next best spot to turn around, in a moment of inattention I inadvertently created a new track, just parallel to the ones going up. The two tracks were only separated by a foot, but the fact that there was a solid wall of ice around the previous tracks meant that I couldn't just cross over into the existing ones again. Of course I hadn't realizes that yet - it had been disguised by the snow on top - so when I tried to get into the right tracks again I suddenly stopped moving. Okay, no big deal I thought, I'll just slide the transmission into Drive again, move up a few meters, and then try again. Except when I did that, he car didn't move up either. I realized of course that "rocking the car" or just any attempt at forward or backward movement would only dig in the car deeper; and therefore opted to shut off the engine rather than spinning my wheels and getting myself in deeper trouble still.

I was thankful I had thick gloves, so I put them on and started digging out the snow and ice behind the wheels. This was pretty straightforward, so after a few minutes I decided that I'd done enough. Sure enough, the car moved! But of course I was still in the wrong tracks, so inevitably I got stuck again just a few feet later. Same procedure as before - get out, start digging - except that now I also put on my hiking pants with reinforced knees, that way at least my legs wouldn't get wet as I was crouching half-way under the car.

After several more minutes, I had cleared away enough ice and snow, once more; but this time I had also gotten rid of those ice walls that prevented me from entering the main tracks. With that being done, a bit of rocking back and forth actually got me out of that spot, and onto the main tracks to boot. But my ordeal wasn't over yet, for I had to either turn around the car or risk getting stuck in the same manner many more times; for I had maybe half a mile of similar snow and ice still ahead of me and thus plenty of potential to slightly misjudge the direction to take when reversing and getting stuck again.

Thankfully, there was a clear patch on the right side that was big enough to reverse back in. Unfortunately, the snow that covered it was quite high. As such, I was almost prepared to get stuck again, especially since I'd need to move forward and back a few times to be able to make the turn without hitting the deeper snow; and obviously getting stuck is just what happened. Two times I had to kill the engine and dig out the ice in front of the tires, but then I was finally free and facing downhill.

From here, it was relatively straightforward driving back down to the Kilns. Or maybe it wasn't so much driving as controlled sliding; but it was never really dangerous and I was never running the risk of losing control. But still, I was glad to be back at the Kilns, even though this entire episode could have been much worse. As is, the digging I had to do was still relatively minor, and I probably spent less than an hour on that part of the road. In my paranoid mind, I had already envisioned myself spending the rest of the day digging, but even that would not have been overly dramatic - I had enough warm clothes, and enough food and drinks.

But needless to say, I had lost all desire to hike to Mahogany Flats through that particular snow that had trapped the Commander, and if there was so much ice on that road then the conditions on the Telescope Peak trail and its exposed ridges would be worse still. I still wanted to get some hiking done in that area, however; so I decided that I'd try the hike to Wildrose Peak - it would be 2000 feet lower than Telescope Peak, and from what I'd seen of its slopes there was considerably less snow. It wouldn't be Telescope Peak and it wouldn't be quite as long a hike, or quite as tiresome; but at 4.2 miles one-way it still wouldn't just be a walk in the park. I filled my backpack with everything that I needed or might need; and set off at 8:30am.

On Wildrose Peak trail in Death Valley National Park Towards the start of the hike, quite a bit of the trail was still in shade, but the snow that covered maybe half of the trail during that first part of the hike was firm and easy to walk on. I actually made good progress during the 1.5 or so miles that it took to reach the ridge that overlooked Death Valley. Starting there, the snow got deeper in places and at times I had trouble finding the trail. By this point, there were no fresh foot steps whatsoever - there had been new snow recently and I was thus the first to use the trail after that snow fall. Route-finding was still quite easy though, since I knew that from the point where I was the only way to go was up.

The snow got deeper as the trail got steeper, and I was disillusioned for a minute when I checked my GPS and it indicated that I was still nowhere near the peak. But I pushed on, and my pulse definitely increased on the switchbacks, bringing back memories of the Telescope Peak trail switchbacks in 2003. But that was then and this was now, and after what seemed like an eternity I could finally see some sky and nothing beyond. I really hoped that this was no false summit! It was actually, but it wasn't bad - the real summit was just a few feet higher, across a wide ridge. But of course being on a ridge, with no more trees to offer shelter from the wind, it was bitter cold; and I resolved to make a retreat before too long; especially as I didn't like some of the clouds that had been building up in the distance.

So after a few minutes, I set off again, downhill this time. The going was actually much easier than I had anticipated, for the snow offered much more grip than I'd have thought; and for some reason I even managed to find ways around the worst parts that I had encountered on the way up. As such, there isn't much more to mention about the hike down, except that the bad weather that I'd been concerned about didn't happen and instead I was able to finish the hike in the warm sun.

Once at the car, I realized I had a headache. I took some Ibuprofen, browsed through my guidebook to see what I could do next, and then drove down a mile to get changed because a bunch of cars had arrived at the Kilns and spewed out enough people to not give me the privacy I needed to get changed.

Taking a small dirt road into Grotto Canyon I didn't have any big destination in mind, so on a whim I decided to do Grotto Canyon. I drove down to Stovepipe Wells (after stopping a few times on the road to explore nothing in particular) and then another 2.4 miles to a turn-off on the right side. From there, it was 2 unpaved miles, although I walked the last half (but wouldn't have had to, as it turned out). What I had neglected to read in my guidebook was how soon I'd encounter the first dry falls: right at the start, unfortunately. So I couldn't do much in Grotto. I still scrambled up a side canyon for half a mile, climbing over many boulders in the hope that maybe the side canyon would offer a way back into the main canyon, but the side walls were too steep for that.

After this, it was still not even 4pm, but I decided I'd had enough for the day. I pondered for a while if I should wait for sunset at the Stovepipe Wells Sand Dunes, but then I decided that it was more important to me to still get a camp site at Emigrant Canyon (which was free and wouldn't be freezing cold in the morning) - all I'd get at the Sand Dunes would be more pictures that a thousand other photographers also have, and that therefore would never sell as stock photographs... so with that in mind a 4pm picture just for my own personal use would be just as good as a 5pm one.

At Emigrant I managed to get the last available camp site, although later on an Asian woman who was also car-camping turned up so we're now sharing the same site which is big enough for two cars. The frame of my glasses broke as I was writing this log, and the sun glasses look kinda silly at night (especially since the eyes have to work harder to get enough contrast), so I predict yet another early bed time. Except that I also predict that I'll leave the camp site later, too - it wouldn't be wise to drive with sun glasses before sunrise. [I ended up using some tape to fix the frame.]

Miles driven: 85mi (137km)

Accommodation: Emigrant Canyon Campground (Death Valley National Park): $0.00

Written Thursday, February 21st 2008 at Emigrant Canyon Campground in Death Valley National Park