Asa pre-teen, I grew up in Arizona, and am an Eagle Scout to boot, so I know a thing or two about heat related illness. That’s why I felt pretty foolish when I endangered myself and my wife on a hike through Death Valley recently.
It started when I stopped at a Ranger Station and asked for hiking recommendations. There, a vivacious and bubbly young thing advised that we could do a “moderate” hike of 4 miles through the Golden Canyon called the Gower Gulch Loop that would afford us some great views, with an optional hike to a vista point adding an additional half mile. She handed me a topo map and wished us luck. As it turned out, we would need some.
The next day, we struck out early, at least for winos, as we knew temperatures that day were supposed to soar to 104 by mid afternoon. That is hot, but, I reasoned, I’d seen worse when I was a lad only 50 years ago, and besides, I figured we could beat the heat by starting at 10.
Everything went smooth for the first mile of the route. We hiked along with other tourists oohing and awing at the surprising grandeur of the rock formations as the sun cast amazing shadows across their faces. The colors and patterns this yielded in the rock and sand surfaces were simply otherworldly, which was also what George Lucas figured when he filmed some scenes from the original Star Wars here many years ago.
By the time we reached the first turn onto the loop trail at the base of a towering rock formation called the Red Cathedral, Lora decided not to proceed onto the optional spur that had a high degree of difficulty. I told her I didn’t think it would be too hard, since I have a bum knee and shoulder and am stupid. So, I left her waiting there on the main trail in the shadow of a boulder with some suntan lotion and 3 bottles of water while I proceeded up the side of the mountain with another bottle. That’s a total of about a half gallon for those who are counting.
Soon, I ran into a couple of young men who were turning around. They said they couldn’t make out a trail between the loose boulders that defined the bottom of the increasingly narrow canyon I was clambering up. This would have deterred a normally intelligent human being, but I continued on, convinced that the worst part was simply finding the trail.
After about 20 minutes of blundering through small crevices between monstrous boulders that were so narrow I had to squeeze through sideways, I found footprints in the sand leading up the side of what looked like an angled rock face. I took this “path”, and, after slipping and sliding a bit with my orthopedic New Balance sneakers (prescribed by my doc as excellent footwear for those suffering from plantar fascitis), I achieved the “summit”, which is really only the top of a spur at the base of the Red Cathedral but which did offer up some fantastic views.
Unfortunately, I found that getting down was going to be a challenge, so much so that I had to slide down the slippery gravel on my butt. After that ignominious retreat, I arrived back at the end of the golden Canyon trail only about 50 minutes after I’d left.
Lora had passed the time by talking to the few other hikers on the trail and developing a headache. At this point, it would have been a good idea to simply turn around and go back down the relatively well-traveled Golden Canyon trail, which would have meant only about a 3 mile round trip (3.5 miles for me including the spur).
Instead, we (I, actually) decided to continue on to explore the Gower Gulch, which added what we thought was only about one additional mile to our hike. It was a mistake.
The first problem with this was that the effervescent girl Ranger had given us bad info in two parts. Part one is that the Gower Gulch Loop is 4.8 miles, not the 4 miles she originally told us. Part two was that the Park doesn’t advise this hike during the “hotter months”, which I only found out later while researching this article. Maybe 104 degrees isn’t considered hot in Death Valley, but it’s damned near boiling even for a Floridian like me.
The second problem is me. I had taken only a half gallon of water for the two of us. That may seem like a lot; after all, the park only recommends one gallon per person per day, and we were only going to be gone a couple of hours. But that number should be increased for hiking, and really you can never have too much water in the desert. I also made the decision to continue with the Gower Gulch Loop in spite of the fact that not a single living soul had done so that day so far as we knew and Lora was already developing a headache.
In any event, up we went over a tall shoulder on the Red Cathedral where, unlike in the Golden Canyon, there was no protection from the broiling sun and, as an additional bonus, a simple misstep could easily lead to life-threatening injuries.
Then we proceeded down to the Gower Gulch, where at least occasionally we could find some shade. Lora advised me that she was feeling weak and had a queasy stomach by this time, so we stopped occasionally and drank some more of our dwindling water supply.
By the time we reached the last phase of the hike we were stumbling forward like zombies. It was after noon, and later I read it was already 104. But the good news was we could see the highway for the last 1/2 mile or so. At least our bodies would be found in the event we didn’t make it.
But of course we did make it, and instead of stopping all activity for the day we simply proceeded to a restaurant and had a nice lunch washed down with about a gallon of water. Nor did our exhaustion keep us from seeing the Artist’s Palette, Dante’s View, Badwater Basin, or the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center ( whoever came up with these names should get a prize).
This was also stupid, because in retrospect it seems pretty obvious that Lora at least was experiencing some signs of heat exhaustion and the best remedy for that is a week’s worth of rest and plenty of fluids.
So, the moral of the story? Don’t be stupid. Don’t be “that guy”, the Darwin Award winner, the 60 year-old who wanders off into the desert and whose bones aren’t found until years later. Seriously, the moral is that God must love foolish people because he made so many of them. Like me.
Y’all may think it weird that anyone would want to go to a place called Death Valley, and I suppose I can understand that, but at least take a look at the pictures and then tell me it isn’t beautiful. Was it worth it? Yes. In fact, I’d do it again. But the next time I’ll stay closer to my car.
If you go, I’d stay in the park, even though the prices there are eye-popping. The reason is that when you stay outside like I did (in Beatty, NV), it just takes too danged long to get in: an hour’s drive to Zabriskie Point, for example. The park is the largest within the lower 48, and the roads are few, so staying outside just wastes precious vacation time on driving. But anyway, don’t let any of that stop you from going.