FKT: Sarah Estrella - Death Valley N-S Crossing (CA) - 2021-02-26

Athletes
Route variation
Standard route
Multi-sport
No
Gender category
Female
Style
Self-supported
Start date
Finish date
Total time
5d 22h 56m 0s
GPS track(s)
DVxing.gpx274.04 KB
Report

I’ve been a Death Valley enthusiast for some time, so a complete north to south crossing of it seemed like the next logical hike. In 2017, I hiked the Lowest to Highest, and I’ve crossing Death Valley in many places to explore canyons. I was not familiar with the first section at Last Chance Canyon or the last part, south of the Owlsheads.

The weekend prior to the start of the trip, I hiked up Last Chance Canyon from the turnout on Big Pine-Death Valley Road near Sand Spring to the start of the DVxing. I’m glad I did that, as it was much easier to navigate up canyon, following someone’s footprints, to the scramble up out of the canyon, about .3 miles.

At the top, there was very little evidence that this point was the best way down into the canyon. It snowed lightly that day and there was snow on the ground. I tried out all my gear for the night when I was 2 miles from the car, after hiking 30 miles, which was my daily goal. The next day, I left a 1 gal. water cache at the turnout where I parked at mile 16.

I arranged a ride to the start for the following Saturday via NV highway 266 and Pigeon Springs Road.  

Friday Feb. 19th, I drove down from Davis to start caching food and water. I had 5 more caches, all with 1 gal. of water, 4 with food. Friday night and Saturday morning, I finished the caches, sleeping on West Side Road in my car. Although I’ve done some desert caching, I followed this advice: https://www.postholer.com/journal/Desert-Trail/2019/buck30/2019-11-22/Water-and-Food-Caching/64842

Day 1

Saturday, I left my car in Independence and got a ride to the start. There is no sign for Pigeon Springs Rd or Death Valley NP. The last 4 miles of road were in rough shape and snow covered, so my ride let me off and I walked to the start and began at 3:46 PM. I made it down the steep scramble to the start of the canyon walk at 5:02 PM.

At about 6:30 PM, in the dark, I looked up and caught the eyeshine of a large animal with my head lamp about 30 yards ahead of me. For a moment I thought it was a mountain lion, but soon saw two other sets of eyes suspended in the night and realized they were bighorn sheep! So I said what anyone would say: “Are you guys sheep?” Unimpressed, they moved on. I camped at 8 PM. It was cold and my water bottles were slushy by morning.

My InReach tracker records fewer miles than what I actually hiked because it records points every 5 minutes. On some segments, I also used GaiaGPS, so I’ll either list actual mileage or estimated mileage. I hiked 10 miles that evening, not including the 4 extra to the start.

Day 2

Sunday, I began hiking at 6:06 AM. It was a beautiful day and I reached my water cache at 8:00. Hiking was easy all day down Death Valley Wash.

I loved watching all the passing canyons and other places I had hiked and memories of them flooded back. A few years ago, on remote Peak 6993 in the Last Chance Range, I signed on page 7 of a 3X5 notebook placed in 1979! I picked up my food/water cache at Ubehebe Crater Road

and camped after 29.5 miles, just south of Mesquite Spring campground at 5:55 PM. It was comfortably cold that night.

Day 3

Monday, I began at 5:34 AM, hiking down Death Valley Wash, which is much more interesting than I expected.

 I saw my first zebra-tailed lizard, then another and another. I started keeping count but soon saw dozens. I passed out of the wash and across Mesquite Flat and into the low dunes, where I cowboy camped on a dune at 5:49 PM after 26.2 miles. A coyote was cruising the dunes and while I sat next to my sleeping bag with my toes in the sand, a curious kit fox came up and inspected me. It then went around and looked at me from behind, then a third time, sniffing the head of my sleeping bag. A kangaroo rat checked me out a few minutes later. Predators and prey living their lives in such close proximity to one another. At 4:45 AM, I awoke, saw an amazing shooting star, and went back to sleep for an hour—a very restful night.

Day 4

Tuesday, I started at 6:05 AM, through the low dunes to the higher ones, bypassing the highest to the west. I saw so many tracks, including roadrunner, raven, lizards, kit fox, and beetles.  

I crossed 190 and easily found my next food/water cache.

The next section follows the transmission lines around Tucki Mountain. This was definitely my least favorite section. Ok it was horrible and seemed never-ending. I was slightly entertained by jets flying over, but it was hot and monotonous. Constant stepping down and up on loose large cobbles in gullies made my ankles ache.  I was glad to camp at 6:03 PM at the west edge of the valley floor (camping is not permitted on the valley floor itself). A bat emerged from one of the canyons. My InReach read 23.6 miles. I estimate 26 miles.

Day 5

Wednesday, I started hiking at 5:50 AM and found my food/water cache on the West Side Road easily. A few miles later, I found my water-only cache and took a desert shower.  It was already warm at 10 AM and it felt great! The rest of the day was spent learning the different types of salt-affected surfaces and which were easier to navigate on the valley floor. Tall and sharp, dried marshmallow, crunchy, mushy, and sometimes, thankfully, flat and firm.  I walked over sunken footprints, indicating that previous trekkers hadn’t been as lucky as I. When I hiked the Lowest to Highest in 2017, the Amargosa River was flowing several inches deep in the Badwater Basin, but today it was dry. A Stealth Bomber with an escort on a training mission passed directly over me 6 times. A quote came to mind. The infamous Donner Party found a note from Lansford Hastings before crossing the Great Salt Lake Desert. It read, “2 days-2 nights-hard driving-cross desert-reach water”. Of course, they didn’t reach water in 2 days, but I think I will.

Towards afternoon, I began to notice a cloud of sand to the north, obliterating views of northern Death Valley. Sand storms with high winds frequently make life miserable for those exposed in the open Mojave Desert. I still had a light south wind in my face though so I wasn’t worried. I planned to camp up a 4WD road off West Side Road, but about an hour before I planned to head over there the wind suddenly shifted from a light south breeze to an increasingly stronger north wind. Uh oh. I hastily headed towards the west side of West Side Road. By now, the wind was much stronger, so I unzipped my tent, threw some large rocks and my pack in it, and added the poles at 5:33 PM. A few minutes later, a cloud of fine particles enveloped me like a fog.  Gusts probably reached 40-50 mph and I didn’t sleep much until early morning when it calmed some. Fortunately, I wasn’t in or near a sandy spot—things could have been much worse! My InReach said 26.6 miles which was probably pretty close. I’ll call it 28 miles.

Day 6

Thursday, I started out at 5:47 AM with a steady north wind at my back, which was quite helpful despite the particles of sand covering my face and encrusting my eyes. I crossed West Side Road, hiked down the now sandy Amargosa River bed and found my last food/water cache at the Old Ashford Junction.  The rest of the day was easy, either hiking in the riverbed or above it, past the Owlshead Mountains, where I’ve enjoyed many long canyon treks.  Weather was perfect, the wind slowing as the day went on, to a perfect evening with a full moon. I cowboy camped on soft sand in the bone-dry bed of the river at 5:10 PM.  My InReach read 26.6 miles, but with the meandering, I think closer to 29 miles. I had a food cache nightmare: In my dream, I opened the bag that contained my food and found a maple donut covered in sand and a brown paper package of deli meat (I’m vegetarian). Oh god, I have the wrong cache! A variation on the typical anxiety dream of forgetting some critical piece of gear.

Day 7

Friday, I headed out at 4:28 AM, crossing Harry Wade Road at dawn. Roland Banas’s GPS line goes east here, bypassing the Amargosa River. I chose the river walk as described in Hiking Death Valley, by Michel Digonnet, since conditions seemed much drier than when Roland hiked this route in 2019. The first few miles were magical in the early morning with killdeer calling and the sound of trickling water through the river basin.  Soon, the river became braided and wide, with dense pickleweed patches and soft squishy ground in between. My shoes were soaked and caked in mud. Travel became slower. Eventually, I saw an easy way out of the river and decided to try my luck on the rocky hills east of the river. Unfortunately, I kept encountering large fissures that were difficult to cross, so I headed straight toward Roland’s line. I made a big U-shape! But I’m not sorry I saw that section of the Amargosa. It was one of the highlights of the trip. As I approached Saratoga Springs, I spooked ducks in the river and saw Saratoga Springs pupfish as I tried to ford the sudden channels that appeared through impossibly soft ground.  I soaked my feet and pants again and started to feel a blister forming under one toe. I never tried to remove my shoes that day and they were now sort of fused to my feet with fine sediment and salt. I veered towards the hills to the north and ate lunch overlooking the Saratoga Springs and tried to identify all the birds there. The rest of the trip was easy and I was ready to be done. I collected my 12th mylar balloon that read “It’s Your Day”! I used the rest of my water for a quick cleanup before meeting my friend Kathi, who promised cold beer and a ride back to my car when I was done. I reached the stop sign at the Harry Wade monument at 2:42 PM! InReach read 22.7. Estimating 25 miles.  

Notes: All my buried caches were intact and cool. None looked disturbed in any way. I found them all easily without GPS navigation. I used OPSAK odor-proof bags for all food caches. Two were also in RatSacks, which were unnecessary, and I would not use again as they weigh 4 oz. each.

At 6.5 gallons of water, I had enough to also do a little washing, and stay hydrated on days that reached the low to mid-80s. If one gallon had been missing, I would have been okay but less comfortable.

I had too much food. I was not very hungry most of the time. Drink mixes, such as Carnation Breakfast Essentials, which I drank most mornings, and electrolyte and other mixes were big hits. A bag of salted pickles in liquid was delicious. Dried soft bananas also worked well.

I should have taken the labels off the water jugs.

When in doubt, follow Roland’s line. It’s always safe.

I got lucky. No temperature extremes. Two days, it reached the 80s, which can seem pretty warm on the valley floor, but not too bad. The only high wind was in the best possible place and time, away from blowing sand and where I could seek shelter for the night. No rain and dryish ground conditions.

Shoes: I wore brand new Altra Lone Peaks, which usually give me about 400 miles of running/hiking. They were pretty much done after 170 miles on this trip. If I had worn shoes with 50-100 miles on them already, I’m not sure they would have held up.

I’m sure someone can easily beat my time. I hiked faster and farther than I normally do, but I was not completely exhausted or hurting much. I could have pushed harder, but it would not have been enjoyable.

Gear:  

Backpack: Granite Gear Virga 26  1 lb

Tent: Big Agnes Fly Creek UL1  2 lbs 1 oz

Sleeping bag: Sierra Designs backcountry bed 800/ 15 deg.  2 lbs 8 oz

Pad: Thermarest NeoAir 15 oz

Down coat: Western Mountaineering Flash XR 11 oz

Base weight: 7 lbs 3 oz

Stuff sack 1 oz

Tiny tripod 2 oz

Headlamp 3 oz

Extra light 2 oz

AAA batteries 1 oz

Utensil .5 oz

Pills .5 oz

Battery pack, cords (phone, headlamp/inReach, watch) 8 oz

Map 1.5 oz

Water bottle with squirt top 3 oz

500 ml bottle 3 oz

Water bag 3 oz

Toothbrush/paste/toothpick 1 oz

Lip balm .5 oz

Notepad and pencil 2 oz

Soap flakes .5 oz

Mirror .5 oz

Knife 3 oz

Guidebook pages 1.5 oz

Wipes 2 oz

Extra socks 1.5 oz

Squirrel’s nut butter 2.5 oz

Compression socks 3 oz

Tweezers .5 oz

Running shorts 3.5 oz

Cord for carrying empty water containers and scissors for cutting them up 1 oz

Light weight gloves and shovel for digging 2 oz

Added weight w/o food and water: 3 lbs 5.5 oz

From caches:

Ratsacks: 4 oz, 4 oz

Opsacks: 1 oz, 1 oz, 1 oz, 1 oz

Extra battery pack 4.7 oz

Extra socks 1.5 oz

Wipes 4 oz

Added by end: 1 lb 6.2 oz plus trash

“Wearing”:

Pole with duct tape wrapped around it

Wander Woman Gear pee rag/wash cloth

Sun shirt, Sun hat

Pants, T-shirt, underwear

Shoes, socks, gaitors

Phone

InReach

Buff

Hankie

Watch, “bracelet” made of cordage, ID bracelet