Death Valley: Tin Mountain loop

Discussion in 'Trips Reports' started by maddogs, Feb 4, 2019.

  1. maddogs

    maddogs Trail Blazer

    A desert backpack over Christmas.

    Map on Caltopo: https://caltopo.com/m/VNRJ

    D1. Boneshaker: Sunday 23rd December 2018 6.8mi/11km 2.5 hrs


    Bones were well and truly shaken on washboard gravel "roads" both placing resupply caches and all 18 miles along to Teakettle Junction.

    We abandoned the car with a sigh of relief and finally started walking at 2.30pm.

    Heading into the desert:

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    Looking back towards the racetrack and the Grandstand:

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    Fairly easy going off trail across the open desert, weaving between a few scrubby bushes to pick up an old track at a col leading North into the next basin,

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    We followed it down 200 feet or so onto the floor, and then left this old road (it can't have been used recently as several sections were completely washed away) as it turned West and we carried on North towards a valley, gaining about 1000 feet as the sun sank and the light faded.

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    We found a flat gavel pitch just as it turned truly dark and had dinner by torchlight. We spent a few hrs looking at the starry night sky before the full moon came out to keep us awake most of the night!

    D2. Tin Mountain Monday 24th December 2018. 10mi/16km +1600m/5250'

    Up with a 04.30am alarm (not as painful as it sounds, since body clocks were still on Boston time, +3 hours) and breakfast by moonlight. As we packed up the tent in the very cold pre-dawn air, K noticed a pair of eyes reflecting in our torches, stealthily circling the campsite and watching us. Bobcat or maybe Lynx? It was completely silent in the desert, no breath of wind, no sound of leaves or water. Very beautiful and almost eerie.

    Looking back down the valley we had ascended in the dark:

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    K spotted some birds and went off up the hill (sans backpack) for some wildlife photography:

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    After a few hours we emerged just above a dry lake bed

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    We crossed the dried, cracked and slightly smelly mud, and followed a narrow V-shaped valley East to pop out in a "forest" of Joshua Trees at the road we'd driven yesterday.

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    An easy 3k North along the road, with a brief chat with a nice lady in a Jeep heading towards the RaceTrack (she kindly offered water or a lift, but we didn't need either).

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    Second breakfast at the roadside before we cut off cross-country again, NE, aiming for the southern ridgeline of a valley which lead steeply towards Tin Mountain.

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    Although there was no obvious track from the road across the alluvial fan, once we gained the narrow ridge, there was a fairly easy to follow path which made gaining the required 1180 meters slightly easier. The sun was hot and strong on the lower slopes out of the wind and we took many stops to admire the great views.

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    Near the top of the ridge, the path cut north, avoiding some complex crags and lead to a false summit which was perishingly cold in the strong wind.

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    We contoured around from here into a higher valley, north of the 8660' top to the South, which was populated with some quite large and presumably very old pines, familiar from the Sierra Nevada, and a bit of a surprise to find at altitude in the desert.

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    Finally at the top of Tin Mountain (8950') freezing in the strong wind and the sun now hiding behind broken cloud,

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    We didn't hang around and set off on our descent to the North. While we had found online some reports of the ascent of Tin Mountain from the West which we'd just done, we had found no mention of a route off the North side so this was very much unknown territory.

    The initial descent slightly NW into the valley involved a short minor downclimb, then some unpleasantly loose scree/boulders. Once in the bottom of the very narrow and steep-sided valley, however, it was quite pleasant going, weaving around pine trees and losing height quickly. There was lingering snow here, though nothing to cause concern and we made reasonable progress, munching chocolate as we went.

    Eventually, we arrived at an even narrower section at around the 6600' contour. No obvious way down here. It was getting late (4pm) so with only half an hour of daylight left, we decided to camp. It took quite a while to scout out a wide and flat enough spot, and even then it was rather sloping. Beggars can't be choosers and we squeezed the tent in. Fortunately, it's not bear country so we were able to wrap up in our sleeping bags inside the tent (and wearing all our clothes) and keep warm while we feasted on home dehydrated chicken curry followed by Karen's Christmas cake washed down with tea.

    D3. Exploration Tuesday 25th December 2018. 22km +300m

    A white Christmas!

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    It snowed overnight. In Death Valley. Not quite what I was expecting. Had to punch snow off the tent a few times during the night, and re-set one guy line after the weight of the snow caused the peg to pull out. Not the most restful night's sleep.

    However, it was a new day and we had a plan to get around the narrows we'd come across last night.

    Two plans, in fact. Option 1 was to go up a little and gain the Western wall of the valley and make a long descending traverse to where we could see the valley bottom opening out again. Looked generally OK if a bit loose scree-ish. But there was one drainage line I couldn't quite see into to tell if it was crossable, and one band of crags which looked like they should go, but too far away to be sure. Option 2 gain the East ridge, to our right, and follow that along then down. We started off this way, the contours of the map suggesting it shouldn't be too steep down the nose. Unfortunately, the big crag on the end wasn't marked on the map. No way forward here. However, it was very easy to then take a descending traverse further East into the adjacent valley, which then joined up with our main valley ahead.

    Looking out the valley having made the descent round a steep dryfall

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    Obstacle conquered. Feeling both relieved and pretty chuffed with that. While we certainly had enough food to eeke out an extra day if needed, there is no natural water source on our route and we were unable to carry sufficient spare to allow for much messing around with navigation.

    Onwards down the valley now opening out a bit wider. As the main drainage turned NW from N, we'd plotted an ascending traverse over that Northern valley side to get us into the next drainage and keep going North. As we approached the wall looked almost vertical and very intimidating. Obstacle number 2 of the trip; I was feeling apprehensive. However, Karen had her positive head on and just blasted her way straight up some black and white broken rock, no problem

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    and easily gained the ridgeline. I puffed and panted my way up in her footsteps.

    From the ridge, looking back up the valley we had descended off Tin Mountain

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    From here it was possible to see our way forward, picking the best of 2 ridges to descend, crossing the valley bottom above a dryfall and weaving up and around the Western flanks of a hill. Easy to say, bit harder on the legs and lungs to execute, but not too bad really.

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    Elevenses at the top of our final northward drainage, looking at some beautiful white and pink rock,

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    then we picked up the main drainage heading East along a very wide open dry river bed towards Mesquite Camp Ground. Feeling really pleased to have pioneered a route here from Tin Mountain (I'm sure we're not the only people to have done this, but I could find no hint in guidebooks or online of this route).

    About 1pm we arrived at the rather windy and exposed campground and unearthed our cache of 26L of water, meths and 3 days worth of food. All nicely intact which was a great relief.

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    A brew and lunch at a picnic table. We were able to dump trash, but due to the thoughtful government shutdown caused by the delightful Mr. Trump, the toilet block was closed and the taps switched off, so no washing of selves or socks was to be had.

    And then the hard bits. First squeezing 26L water into our bags. 6x 4 gallon jugs for me. 3 for Karen. Plus the food bag. Just fits. Then there's the harder bit: picking the bags up! I propped mine on the picnic bench and sat down to put it on. Actually once strapped in it was remarkably comfortable. I'm extremely pleased with my new Seekoutside Divide. The old Exos wouldn't have been quite big enough, and there's no way it would be comfortable with 30kg.

    All it needed now was the leg power to move. Steadily SE along the nice and flat Death Valley wash. About 3 or 4 km.

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    Then a bit harder as we turned up hill again, working towards the entry to Big Horn canyon. Slow going, constantly picking our way down, across and up out of washes it was exhausting work.

    Again moving until nearly sunset. K spotted a smooth flat and sheltered pitch in the bottom of a wash. Too good to pass up; we called it a day, pleased with progress and glad to be out of the biting wind. More Christmas cake and tea was virtually inhaled.

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    D4. Big Horn: Wednesday 26th December 2018. 12km +1200m

    A freezing cold night.

    Wind down the valley was picking up the sand:

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    Another prompt start,

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    finishing off the last few crossings of really frustrating tangental watercourses before entering Big Horn Canyon.

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    Here the dry river bed was much easier going, steadily uphill all day. First in wide open gravel beds with the moon an ever present companion

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    then narrowing significantly to just a few feet wide.

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    There were three or four short dryfalls to climb. Generally quite fun two- or three- move wonders, but two of them were a bit too difficult to do with bags on and we strained and struggled to hand up the heavy bags. We did manage but perhaps should have taken a short haul rope. Certainly, it would have been exceedingly difficult to solo!

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    Just after one dryfall we came across some fantastic fossils standing out clearly white against the smooth, dark grey rock. A highlight of the trip for me; this was amazing to see in situ.

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    More steep scrambling:

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    Finally we met the 60' dryfall I'd read about online. Fortunately there is a steep boulder field to the North which, with delicate footsteps, lead around the blockage and brought us into a much wider plateau above the dryfall. Second lunch here, feeling pleased with ourselves having negotiated the length of Big Horn canyon. Final look down the canyon

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    We exited between two ridge lines, heading SW. Looking back towards Big Horn canyon:

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    Just 4km to pick up a 4-wheel drive track shown on the map. There were even a couple of cairns in the valley showing the way! Easy going, or so we thought.

    Then the valley narrowed significantly again, to just a couple of feet wide. We climbed a little then hit an impassable dryfall. I spotted a cairn on a sloping shelf on the North wall, so we headed up there. Beyond the dryfall, should we drop back into the canyon or carry on a rising traverse on the sloping valley side? We opted for the traverse, there seemed a vague hint of path. Unfortunately this kept leading us up and away from the desired SW line we needed. Frustratingly we could never get to a point with a clear view of the land ahead. Eventually, we decided to call it a bad decision and headed back down to the top of the dryfall, then continued up the narrow canyon....which got more and more narrow until we met an unclimbable dryfall. While K waited I had a quick scout up some very loose scree covered balconies....no obvious signs of previous passage and yet another dryfall chocked with a boulder above that one. This was not the way forward.

    We turned around (again!) and headed back to the top of the first dry fall. There was a spur canyon on the North side and on the return we spotted a cairn part way up there! hurrah a way forward.

    But then, to stay in that canyon, which we had seen from the previous dead-end traverse of the valley side didn't go the way we wanted, or head on to a fine ridge line between this canyon and the one we'd just attempted. No more cairns to see, so we split up to explore, K taking the canyon, me climbing on to the ridge. I could see K in the canyon 50' below. I thought I occasionally came across wear marks suggesting passage, but this could have just been animals.

    Eventually, my ridge descended a bit. Karen's canyon turned 90 the wrong way and was definitely not the way forward. Fortunately she could climb up the short slope from there to join the ridge and we moved forward together...to find another cairn!

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    Now, there was an option to effectively cross my ridge back into the original canyon, or for us to carry on along the ridge. The map wasn't a sufficiently detailed scale to even have the ridge shown as more than a single contour line. Along looked more friendly. Along and UP. Steep up.

    Revealing views of yet more rounded hillsides and lumps and drainages, none really shown on the map. We were really flying blind here, with only a compass bearing to show where we eventually wanted to end up. Getting a little stressful too with only 30 mins of daylight left and having seen nowhere flat enough to pitch the tent.

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    Eventually we rounded a corner and could see down into the valley we wanted to be in. It was opening up and much less craggy. Definitely a good place to re-join it. So we headed steeply down again and just as the light faded rejoined the desired valley, probably about 1km before the 4WD track shown on our map. But with light disappearing and the temperature plummeting, we were very happy to find a lovely flat, sheltered spot and equally pleased that this new tent goes up in next to no time.

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    It must have taken about 3.5 hours to make 2km of progress with all that turning around!

    Into all clothes and in to the sleeping bags. Brew. Rehydrated pork stew. Brew. Christmas cake. Brew. Bed. Phew!

    D5. Bailout Thursday 27th December 2018.  26.5 km +200m/-875m

    Brr. That was a cold night. Frozen water in most of the gallon jugs. Just enough liquid in the centers to squeeze out some tea and porridge. Beginners error: if it's going to be cold, put the water in the pan the night before. How many times have we done that in Scottish winter and yet I forgot here.

    Nice sunny morning. Easy going up continuing South up the valley and very quickly we came across the 4WD track marked on the map, just where we wanted to be. Internal sighs of relief after yesterday's shenanigans.

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    However, the cough and sniffle I'd been trying to quash since we flew out to Vegas was in full force today. I was pooped. Time for Plan B: Bailout. We could follow this track all the way back to Teakettle Junction and thence to the car. Bitter disappointment in not being able to continue down Dry Bone canyon. But 5 days out and still a nice big loop wasn't bad.

    So we had a very windy, cold (not sure if it ever got above freezing - the jugs of water never fully defrosted) but relatively easy walk down the gravel road.

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    We came across an old prospecting canyon, which didn't look like it would provide too much shelter from the cold North wind:

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    The landscape was starting to open out:

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    Very picturesque and pleasant.

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    Looking down hidden valley:

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    More evidence of early pioneers:

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    Finally back at Teakettle Junction and nearing the car as the sun was going down:

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    Back at the car, we were both disappointed not to have managed the longer, 8 day trip, but still rather pleased with the exploration of Tin Mountain and Hidden Valley. 4pm. A bit late in the day to drive 2.5 hours round to Stovepipe Wells, and we hadn't explored The Racetrack yet. We also weren't sure there would be space at the inn or commercial campsites given that the NPS campsites were shut.

    Way to windy, with no shelter to put the tent up. We'd passed a cave earlier...perhaps the tent would fit. So we drove 10 mins back up Hidden Valley to explore. Although somewhat out of the wind, the cave was too small to consider spending the night. Plan C: car camping. Literally. The pickup truck had a flat floor in the crew cab behind the front seats, big enough for one, and provided a comfortable bed. K volunteered to sleep across the 3 front seats, which I'm lead to understand wasn't very comfortable. The final "tent shot" of the trip then:

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    With apologies for the poor photo quality; had to compress quite heavily, but hopefully this time you can see them!
    higray, ClimbingUke, Robin and 14 others like this.
  2. dovidola

    dovidola Section Hiker

    That's really interesting, particularly to someone unfamiliar with that terrain. I'll never take the ready availability of water on the trail for granted again!
    maddogs likes this.
  3. edh

    edh Thru Hiker

    Great report; looks like fantastic and somewhat austere country,.
    maddogs likes this.
  4. WilliamC

    WilliamC Thru Hiker

    Very nice :). Thanks for posting this. And I liked the photos, some great scenery.
    maddogs likes this.
  5. theoctagon

    theoctagon Thru Hiker

    Fantastic :)
    maddogs likes this.
  6. DuneElliot

    DuneElliot Ultralighter

    For as much as I hate the desert I absolutely loved the week I spent in Death Valley NP this time last year (to the week actually). I only did a couple of day hikes and took the drive through Titus Canyon...but it was pretty epic, and so surprising
    maddogs likes this.
  7. tom

    tom Thru Hiker

    Thanks for this captivating report and pics. Deserts have their own magic...
    maddogs likes this.
  8. Ken T.

    Ken T. Section Hiker

    Really nicely done. Death Valley is wonderful certain times of the year. Telescope Peak is certainly worth a visit next time you are out there. I absolutely love the desert.
    maddogs likes this.
  9. Munro277

    Munro277 Thru Hiker

    thanks really enjoyed reading that rip report....sod carrying all that water tho
    maddogs likes this.
  10. ClimbingUke

    ClimbingUke Backpacker

    Thanks a lot for letting us take part in your expedition! Really enjoyed this lovely report. Great pics, short and precise narrative! Well done!
    maddogs likes this.

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