when smsmh asked me what i wanted for my birthday this year, i easily responded with a desire to head out to death valley for some winter running. january through march are really the prime months to run out in death valley and each year i try to head out there and plan something epic. last year, i was able to pull off a great run through titus along with some running in the dunes and that experience was one of the most surreal experiences i’ve had. i was hoping that i could repeat, if not better it, this year.
the rough plans for the weekend were to run a long, partially un-marked route through some remote sections of the park on the first day, and then try to summit one of the peaks on the second day. i posted the proposed trip on the club website, but received no takers other than repete, who had previously agreed to join me.
so, birthday weekend came and with firmed routes and excited resolve, repete and i met up to get out of so cal and head into the wild california desert. our enthusiasm was quickly squashed as we landed in the middle of three-day-weekend-escape-so-cal traffic. the drive out of civilization normally takes about an hour and from there it’s a quick two to three hours of desert driving to hit death valley. this time, though, we sat in crawling, bumper-to-bumper for three hours before we landed on the relatively traffic free 395. the nice thing about the gridlock, though, was that it would just serve to increase the sense of remoteness once we started our run.
by 10pm, we arrived in furnace creek in death valley. exhausted from the driving, and encouraged by the warm temperatures, we just put our mats and bags down on the ground and opted to forgo a tent for the night. morning came quick and after a yummy breakfast of eggs and broccoli, we rolled over to the ranger station to pick up topo maps of our route and talk with the rangers about what we planned to do.
the proposed route was a southwesterly jeep trail through cottonwood canyon for about sixish miles, followed by a tighter, vegetation choked version of the same canyon for another sixish miles with little to no trail. cottonwood, at that point, would top out into a higher elevation basin with no trail or markings for a 10ish mile traverse over to deadhorse/marble canyon. deadhorse would drop into marble for an eightish mile run back to the start point. the canyons would be fairly straight-forward to navigate, but the basin, saddle and traverse into deadhorse were completely unmarked and required us to use terrain and compass navigation to find the correct route. all told, the route would be somewhere between 26-32 miles [based on documents provided by rangers].
equipped with maps and skeptical comments from brook, our ranger, we headed over the heavily washed-out 4×4 route into the mouth of cottonwood canyon. repete and i both packed about 120oz of water apiece [repete might have had quite a bit more, now that i think about it] and food for the trip. the weather was looking like it would stay clear and sunny and in the low to mid 60’s. and, off we went. within the first mile we caught and passed the only people we’d see until the end of marble canyon; back packers with heavily laden packs. the ranger had said that the route was typically done as a two or three day trip. i think that’s why we got strange looks when we said we’d be doing it in a day.
the canyon quickly tightened up and was soon only a mere 20-30’ across at it’s base with towering walls of sandstone, marble and sediment blocking out large portions of the sky. the run was comfortable along the jeep trail with a low grade elevation gain, easily marked route and mild footing. without much excitement or ordeal, we reached the end of the jeep track and took a short break to fuel up and check the map for what lay ahead. the ranger had mentioned that at this point, the canyon base would narrow and the route would become choked with vegetation. from what we could see at that point, it looked like there were some scattered trees ahead, but nothing of significance. the cottonwood spring must have been quite active at the canyon summit, because there was plenty of water flowing in the creek.
after double checking the map, we headed out on what looked like a faint trail. within 100 yards, though, we realized that the ranger was right and that the route was, indeed, heavily vegetated. the running through this section was tough and most of the time we were reduced to a shuffle, power-hiking or even the occasional heavy bushwhacking. we crossed back and forth across the canyon, following what looked like a trail, constantly moving up the canyon, making slow progress. every so often, the canyon would open up and we’d be able to run normally again, but within a mile or so, it would tighten again and we’d be back to more bushwhacking.
about half way through this section, we hit a portion of the canyon that widened into a sandy wash with a depression where the spring was flowing. along the banks, there was what looked like an established trail. as we ran along following this trail, i noticed that someone, actually, something, had recently been on the trail as well. with rain a few days before our trip, fresh tracks were easy to spot. the dry soil would be moved aside to expose the moisture just below the surface. fresh tracks would still show moisture, but after half a day or so, the track would be dry. the tracks following this trail were very distinct and occasionally showed moisture. they were fresh. i bent to look closer at them and realized that they were indeed cat tracks. no claw, four main toes with the m shaped pad. they were big for a bobcat, but small for a mountain lion. it was hard to gauge just what made them, but i was leaning to mountain lion and repete toward bobcat. as we ran along, it became clear that there were two sets of prints. one large set and a smaller set. mother and cub. we followed this obvious set of tracks for close to four miles. we would lose the tracks as we bushwhacked, but always regain them again once we hit the ‘trail’ in the canyon. it was good to see that we took the path of less resistance, just as the cats did.
as we neared the top of the canyon, we came across even more evidence that the tracks were recent. there was scat on the trail and it still had a damp mucous on it. the cats couldn’t have been through the area more than a couple of hours before us. i was comforted knowing that the prints were smaller than my fist, so if it was a mountain lion, it was on the smaller side and probably not something that would take a chance with two humans. we started a conversation about the similarities between domestic cats and wild cats, wondering if wild cats had a tendency to scrape or cover their scat like domestic cats do. no sooner had the question been posed and we spotted more scat at the summit of the canyon, complete with scrape marks. from this point, the tracks disappeared and i think the rocky summit of the canyon may have actually been the home for the pair. in hindsight, i do think that the tracks were bobcat, simply because the cat evidence we found later during the run had to have been made by some big cats, and this pair were no where large enough to take down a horse, bighorn sheep or deer.
the top of cottonwood signaled the beginning of our ‘unmarked’ section of the route. our course had us transitioning to the north and running up the basin along the base of the north-running ridge until we hit a low saddle/pass. the change in scenery was very welcome at this point. the basin was nearly a mile across and several miles long. it was wide open, remote and desolate. the running was very different from what we had been doing up to this point. we were now running wild, across the basin, through desert scrub. there was lots of weaving through the brush and adjusting the route to keep heading toward what we thought was the pass. every plant we came across out there was tough, though. everything scratched. everything had a ‘don’t eat me!’ defense or quality to it. even the plants that looked soft would tear up our shins. it was what you would expect of the desert. harsh.
as we ran through the basin we would stop occasionally to take a reading on where we were. we were quite confident that we’d mapped the pass correctly and knew where it was on the map, but deciphering that based on the terrain that we were seeing took some focus. initially, we thought our pass was the second of two low points in the ridge, but after running several miles through the basin, we determined that it was actually the closer of the two. this brought me great joy, as the pass never seemed to get closer for all the running we were doing. after several hours of running through a canyon without being able to see your goal, having your destination floating ahead of you, taunting you, was a challenging change. eventually we reached the wash that lead up to the pass that we wanted. as we went up the wash, we lost sight of our terrain markers on the ridge and it was a reminder to pay attention to how far we were drifting to one side or the other.
without too much effort, we gained the saddle, if not a little bit high on the north side. from where we summitted, we could look down on the saddle itself and see a small cairn. helpful, sure, but not visible until you were actually on top of it. i had hoped that we’d spot cairns along the way, but without any place to build them up, they would have just been lost in the scrub. repete added a couple rocks to the saddle cairn and we began to plan our traverse and drop into deadhorse canyon. we had been warned not to follow the wash from the saddle too far as it would naturally lead you to an impassible dry fall. our traverse called for following the wash for roughly over a mile and then doubling back to the north around a series of low hills on the ridgeline above deadhorse.
the running from this point was no longer work. sure we were still weaving through the scrub, but it was finally downhill and it was nice to let gravity help with our progress. dropping down into the wash, it was easy to see how following it always downward would be an easy mistake to make. we kept close tabs on the terrain features to our north and when we finally saw the series of small hilltops, we doubled back. the map had a small saddle that should have taken us to the top of deadhorse, and as we ran up to where we thought it was, we were happy to see what looked like a footpath worn into the side of the canyon. rather than zig-zag our way down the side, though, we opted to take the steep route and bombed down into the canyon like kids just released to summer vacation. we had successfully made the traverse and the joy was palpable. it felt so good to know that we could turn off the navigation focus and just run down the canyon.
shortly after dropping into deadhorse, we began to spot definite signs of cat activity. we came across the remains of several kills as we ran along the spring: bighorn sheep spine and ribs, deer leg and even a complete deer skeleton. deadhorse sported some more of the bushwhacking that we did in cottonwood, but it was much easier and the sections were significantly shorter. after a few miles, we finally exited deadhorse and spilled into marble canyon. at this point, the sun was beginning to set and down in the tight canyon, the light began to fade. as if by instinct, as the canyon narrowed and the light began to fail, both repete and i began to pick up the pace. we flew through the canyon at a very challenging, but fun pace. the canyon got tighter and more twisted and the walls soared overhead.
this section of the run was by far the most enjoyable. flying through the narrow canyon gave an increased sense of speed and the sharp twists and turns required significant focus on footing to pick a line through the rocks and sand that wouldn’t impact speed. we flew along for what felt like near an hour, but i know it wasn’t that long. we both ran along in silence, just soaking in the experience. with about six miles to go, though, i finally ran out of water. with the cooler temperatures, i had figured that just the 120oz would last me for 30ish miles. i had opted to leave an additional 32oz nalgene back at the car, thinking that i wouldn’t need it. running up cottonwood, though, i noticed that i was perspiring much more heavily than i had anticipated. i had begun slight rationing at the top of deadhorse, but satisfying my thirst ended up resulting in an empty water bladder well before the finish.
once i realized i was out of water, the joy of running fast through marble began to fade. i knew we only had a handful of miles left to go and that the route was easy to follow, but something kicked in and made me feel the severity of the moment. i was without water in death valley and miles from any source. that freaked me out a little bit and i began to grow anxious to get back to the vehicle. repete continued to enjoy this section of the run and flew, literally, the rest of the way through marble canyon.
with close to a mile left to go through marble canyon, the light finally faded enough that we needed to break out the headlamps. by the time we were birthed through the mouth of marble canyon, it was pitch black and the jeep trail connecting to the cottonwood jeep trail was actually quite difficult to follow. we finally met back up with the cottonwood canyon jeep trail and started heading north toward the vehicle. we lost the trail due to the highly washed out nature of the canyon floor. knowing that we had parked next to one of the walls made it easier to home in on where the vehicle was. as we got closer to where i thought we had parked, i pulled out my key fob and started mashing the unlock button every couple of minutes. eventually, the orange parking lights blinked on along with the dome light and like moths to a flame we made our final approach.
we were both pretty exhausted by the run, both physically and mentally. a good deal of our discussion as we drove to the wild rose campground for our second night, was how taxing that sort of run was compared to running a regular trail, or even a race. in both cases you have the luxury of putting your head down and just following where the trail leads. keeping the head on a swivel to keep alert of your location and scanning the surroundings for any wildlife takes quite a bit out of you, too. but, the bonus to running a route like that was the sense of immediacy that follows you. the need to constantly be on, constantly alive, constantly surviving. it was a brilliant change from the well traveled paths i am so accustomed to running.
the best part of the adventure, though, was the company. it’s rare that you come across a running partner that doesn’t need any managing or maintenance. having to support a weak link on a run like this would have been a huge drain on available energy. i can only imagine what calming someone’s mountain lion fears would have done to the experience. what a drain it would have been to have to listen to someone complaining about the bushwhacking or how painful the scrub was. repete managed all of that on his own and just ran what was set before us. along with the low maintenance, we were completely in synch as far as pace, effort and reaction to the environment. we seemed to speed up together, bonk together and show enthusiasm together.
for the weekend, i actually received two birthday presents. the first, from smsmh, was the freedom to head out to the desert for a full weekend. the second, was from repete for his company and perfect companionship. gifts don’t get any better than that.
check out the rest of the photos from the weekend:
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