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Finding out about life in Death Valley

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POSTED December 8, 2014 1:52 p.m.

Black Friday was a tad grey for me — as in Grey Canyon.

Instead of fighting hordes of bargain shoppers I was by myself in the Grapevine Mountains in Death Valley hiking. It was the first of four days of spending five to eight hours hiking without ever encountering — or talking — to another soul.

That was until I was atop Corkscrew Peak at 5,807 feet just after signing the hiker's log when my i-Phone rang as I was getting ready to take some photos. Cell service in the middle of nowhere: You've got to love Steve Jobs and Verizon.

I usually don't answer the cell phone in Death Valley mainly because you can't get cell service in 99.99 percent of the national park

So I did what any red-blooded American male who can never completely wean himself off technology — hey I was taking photos with an i-Phone — I answered the call.

It was Ruth Ann Wood calling to request a photo shoot for the Manteca Moose Lodge's toy drive benefitting the Marines Reserve effort.

She was a bit surprised to find out where I was at. She'd even be more surprised if she saw exactly where I was perched — perhaps 50 square feet of ragged rocks just four feet from a 300-foot cliff.

I've got to be honest. The way up had been a bit sketchy. I took several wrong turns up steep canyons littered with dry falls as high as 10 feet until I realized I couldn't find the proverbial "hole in the wall' to access the ridge route. (OK, so dummy missed the cairn and the line rocks someone had nicely placed across the canyon pointing to the fairly hard-to-find climb out of the canyon and to the first in a series of ridges leading to the summit.) There were a few perilous spots on the way up including four that required me to sit on my behind and gently slide — OK roughly slide — a few yards on the way down due to the steepness.

The next day my hike to Mt. Perry turned into a mini disaster. Just as I started hiking it started raining. In 15 trips covering 76 days in Death Valley I never encountered even a mere sprinkle. This time around it gently rained non-stop. It made reading crossing a rocky outcropping near the start of the hike difficult at best. Then I walked into a low cloud. Instead of staying put for it to pass, I continued. Big mistake. I ended up on the side of a steep ridge with the rain making the loose rock and sand more precarious. Even with the help of hiking poles, I could not gain traction. After nearly two hours in a steady rain, I decided it was safer to drop down into a gully that led to a wash. Of course, it wasn't straight forward. Drop offs ranging from 20 to 50 feet forced me to gingerly search for another way down. At one point I thought I had found a safe way down only to be stopped by a 40-foot drop-off down to a field of boulders. To say I was on a step slippery incline was an understatement. I had no choice but to deal with my bad judgment. At one point I couldn't even crawl uphill. I was forced to dig in hand grips trying to brush away loose soil until I could grab onto something fairly solid. Then when I moved upward, I wasn't 100 percent sure that I wouldn't be sliding substantially backwards toward the ledge.

It's not an easy task holding on to the hiking poles with a death grip - without them I would really be up the proverbial creek. I also had to deal with a steady rain while carrying a backpack.

It goes without saying I made it down safely although I wasn't sure at one point that was going to happen.

It's kind of ironic. I planned the four most challenging hikes in terms of distance and terrain first and nailed them, Even when it started to rain when I set out to summit Mt. Perry I figured I was golden since I wasn't in a canyon where flash floods can happen in an instance either from steady rain or a sudden cloud burst. Yet there I was at 5,600 plus feet in the Black Mountains above the floor of Death Valley and not exactly in the world's safest situation.

That said, I was doing it for fun. That wasn't the case 165 years ago when the first Americans erroneously wandered into what they would later name Death Valley in early December of 1849 in search of a shortcut to the gold mines.

They did it without cars. They did it without modern hiking equipment and clothes. They did it without ample water and food supplies. And they did it without knowing how to get out of the place.

It's one of the reasons I keep going back to Death Valley. It makes you realize just how fortunate we are to live when we do. Our problems are minuscule. We don't wake up every day and immediately wonder whether we will survive to see another sunrise. Most of us do not spend our days struggling to secure water, food, and a safe place to shelter against the elements and predators.

It also makes you realize the world as it was created is much greater than anything man either has or can devise.

And being able to hike across such a place where man struggled to simply survive just a relatively short time ago is even more incredible.

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