In summer 2011, Will Laughlin and I traversed Death Valley National Park (DVNP) off-road, through intense heat, in every terrain imaginable. It took us four and a half days to cross 250km, with only limited crew-access at road crossings. It was, and still is, some of the toughest days I have ever experienced on expedition.
For our 2019 Death Valley project, we decided on ‘attempting to transect’ Death Valley from West to East, which would mean crossing both the Panamint Mountain and Amargosa Mountain Ranges, and crossing Death Valley itself of-course. We knew it would be brutally tough but that’s the fun part, right?!
We started our adventure on the western side of DVNP, at Surprise Canyon, which was aptly named! As we started going up the canyon on a washed-out road, conditions changed from 4x4 track, to trail, to no trail at all, to rocky scrambles and flowing streams through thick brush. A great ‘surprise’ for sure, as we would need water to filter, until we could reach our first resupply cache, stashed some dozens of kilometres away, over Panamint Pass.
We made our way up to old Panamint City, a collection of abandoned buildings (some creepy), that used to make up what I think was a mining town. From that point forward it was a steep, off-trail slog, up through a canyon to the top of Panamint Pass, roughly 8,000ft elevation. We were stoked to have arrived at this point after 3 hours, but we knew the most difficult parts were to come! The views in the distance of Death Valley and our next mountain pass beyond were sick (in a good way), and the views behind us from the lower valley, where we had climbed up from, were equally stunning. This place is deadly, but gorgeous.
After a quick break, we began navigating the safest route possible down from Panamint Pass into Johnson Canyon...there were no trails, just massive, steep, scree slopes winding their way through high forest and cactus, sometimes ending in cliffs and sheer drops that we couldn’t see from above. A bit freaky trying to stay focused without sailing off one of these cliffs! We took our time with every step, and had each other’s backs. Then, the insanity began…
I knew when researching our route, that there would be thick vegetation at the top of Johnson Canyon, but I had no idea how dense it was going to be. Will and I hit a 5 foot high wall of sharp, thorny, almost impenetrable mix of various plant life, all with the mission of keeping us out! We did our best to fight through, and spent tons of time scrambling precariously up the sides of the cliffs which the vegetation was tight against, side to side. Occasionally if we were lucky, we would find a burro track, but most of our time was spent clinging to loose rock.
About the time we felt we were almost out of water (it was really heating up), we came across another mile long section of vegetation. It was so thick, it was a like a mat of vines, covering the canyon like a green rug, five feet deep and tightly wound. Underneath it we could hear water trickling, which we both knew we had to get to. Will ventured in first, and when he poked his pole through the mat, he realized the water was 4-5 feet BELOW him! He was literally suspended by this crazy vegetation! I had gone in a different direction and found an easier spot for us to filter the river water from, so we filled our bottles and continued along shredding our legs on sharp, tangly plants.
We passed through the remaining ruins (mostly old rock walls and nothing else) from the long abandoned Hungry Bills Ranch, which, after several hours of us thinking “maybe we shouldn’t be attempting this crossing”, came as a welcome and relieving sign of humanity...little did we know that another mile long patch of thick growth would begin just up ahead of us. This final section of thicket had a few animal tracks running through the 5 foot high growth...as I looked in the tunnel of green to see if we could pass, a rattlesnake made its way down this track directly towards me! Tail rattling, and I swear it was staring at me (the scared Canadian who doesn’t see a single rattlesnake where I live!).
Will has a lot of experience with snakes, so he calmly advised me to back away slowly, sure to know where the snake was headed. Unfortunately, the snake slithered directly into the brush we needed to go through, in our direction.
With snakes and thick brush behind us (and a few close calls with bee swarms), we left the canyon on a 4x4 track and began to descend rapidly towards Death Valley basin. That’s when we heard a rumble...and then were hit by an earthquake! The ground shook violently, and the rockfall in the mountains and canyon walls around us was scary...we found out later we were approximately 20 miles from the epicentre.
We met up with my buddy Jon Golden, for the first time. Jon was shooting photos of Death Valley scenery while we were doing our traverse, with the idea that he would eventually meet up with us at accessible cache drops so that he could also get a few photos of us.
Will and I stopped at our cache after a super gruelling day, approximately 13 hrs into our transect, and uncovered our cooler (which wasn’t at all cool inside) from the rocks we had placed over it. Our food stash and supplies for the next leg of our journey was stored within, and a few other items like electro2 hydration tabs and instant coffee packets. We had miso soup with coconut oil, we didn’t need a stove to heat the water, as the water jugs we had in our cache were more then warm enough! My legs were stinging like crazy from all the lacerations we sustained in the bushwhack, so we used a little bit of the water left to rinse them just a bit to keep the wounds clean.
Next section was to cross the Death Valley Basin, heading in the direction of Badwater. Will and I knew this area well from our previous North to South traverse, which meant we knew to respect and anticipate the worst case scenario. The salt flats in the middle of Death Valley can be filled with salty water ‘streams’, piping hot and deep mud to cross. Will took over navigating this section and we worked together to determine the best terrain to cross safely. It was 1am at this point but it was still freaking hot out! “It’s Death Valley! What would you expect!?” I thought to myself.
We hammered across faster then we estimated and reached Badwater road and our next cache. Resupplied and ready, we decided to rest for 45 minutes before tackling our next big challenge, Amargosa Mountains through Sheep’s Canyon Pass. We laid down on the gravel beside the road, just being horizontal for a little while felt awesome…
It was still dark when we took our first steps towards the entrance to Sheep’s Canyon, on what ‘could’ have been the most frustrating part of our expedition, tremendously rocky dry river washes and channels...no consistency of terrain, just a full-on hammering on our feet and tired legs. Keeping balance was tough, this wasn’t a place we wanted to fall! But we knew these conditions from our previous Death Valley expedition.
The sun came up and it instantly felt like a billion degrees out, and it sunk in to both of us that this could get dangerous very quickly if we ran out of hydration. I was navigating at this point, and luckily realized I had gone 100 meters or so past a narrow canyon turn we should have made. We corrected course, and headed up through shimmering canyon walls and scrambled up and over dry waterfalls on our way to the saddle.
Some of these dry waterfalls had a technical scrambling element and were a bit exposed. Knowing we were tired, we took our time to pass them safely. The last few kilometres to the top of Sheep’s Canyon we really started to feel the heat...it was as if this canyon was a cooker, with all sides beaming heat on us.
Getting to the saddle took tons of effort. The scree was loose, and the pitch was steep. We took frequent breaks, and when we topped out, we once agin took a few minutes to rest, drink and eat something from our packs before continuing. After descending into the next valley, we connected to a series of 4x4 tracks that should have meant an ‘easy’ finish in comparison to what we had just tackled… but Death Valley once again had other plans for us.
The heat was beating us down and we were both low on fluids...we had planned and prepared as best we could for every situation, but there are no guarantees in an adventure like this, and Death Valley proved once again how aptly named it is.
With just a few kilometres to go before our next cache, Will and I discussed the very real possibility of an emergency situation...there was no way we were willing to die out here. We decided to move ahead slowly, and with luck, hopefully meet up with Jon, who had been making his way up the 4x4 track from the opposite direction.
Within just a few kilometres, there was my old friend!!! Will and I guzzled water and doubled up on our Electro2 hydration tabs, getting in tons more sodium and minerals our bodies needed. We both felt like crap, but we knew that together we could get this done. We reached the area of our last cache, then hung a right turn onto a gravel road, then a left turn to continue on 4x4 track up Deadman’s Pass to finish our transect.
The realization I didn’t have to go any further was a welcome relief. Don’t get me wrong, I do this because I LOVE it...but I was also so exhausted and beat up, I was glad we got this done.
Our transect took us approximately 35 hours to complete and was for sure super difficult, but we also had an absolute blast in the challenge. Working together to achieve a shared goal, in conditions that at times felt impossible was truly rewarding. To make critical decisions and rely on one another, to trust one another literally with our lives, once agin solidified a 14 year old friendship. And that was the best part of this adventure.
Ray describes their hydration strategy during Death Valley Transect