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Cue up the all-knowing Greek Chorus as someone has died in Death Valley
dry fall
The two-stage, 40-foot dry fall that’s the first of a series of dry fall one encounters hiking up Willow Creek Canyon in Death Valley.

Death Valley is unforgiving.

It is nothing, however, compared to the armchair quarterbacks who ripped into the Tucson couple that opted to drive 22 miles in an all-wheel drive vehicle down a primitive road to camp and ended up getting two flat tires. The end result was the boyfriend died and the girlfriend was rescued several days later.

The story got my full attention for two reasons: I’ve been to Death Valley 24 times in the last 35 years and I’ve hiked Willow Canyon where the boyfriend met his demise.

The holier-than-thou postings on the story run the gamut from declaring the couple idiots, they should have stayed with the vehicle, accusing the girlfriend of murder, and — my favorite genre of wisdom spouting — “there is a reason they call the place Death Valley.”

Experienced campers or not it is clear the couple did not research Willow Canyon or even have a topography map with them. They went to camp, not go on a major hike. The odds are they never would have ventured into Willow Canyon if it wasn’t for the fact they had two flats tires.

They knew at least two things. They were 22 miles into the Death Valley backcountry from the closest paved highway and their map showed they were just three miles east of the relatively well-traveled Badwater Road.

They clearly weren’t novices and were not overtly reckless given they had a three day supply of water for an overnight camping trip. Their biggest failure was not telling anyone else exactly where they were headed and to have a daily check-in time.

I often go to the most remote sand dunes in the national park in the Panamint Valley. It requires a four mile cross country hike after driving down a rocky and essentially flat nine mile primitive road that requires a high clearance vehicle to go over run-off ruts. I am prepared to hike back to busy Highway 190 and then walk another three miles to Panamint Springs if for some reason I have car trouble.

The time of year I visit the Panamint Dunes I am more likely than not to be the only visitor that week. If you don’t let anyone know where you are going when you head into a remote area and don’t have a regular check-in schedule, staying with your vehicle as the blogging Monday morning quarterbacks have said the Tucson couple should have done doesn’t necessarily assure you would be found alive given Death Valley is a vast needle-in-the-haystack. That said it does increase one’s chances of eventually being found — hopefully alive — especially if someone knows where you are going.

In this case since it is clear they told no one their day-to-day itinerary while their only working knowledge of the area being the 22-mile primitive road they drove in on, you may have made the same decision they did.

I’ve hiked a mile or so across alluvial fans in the northern part of Death Valley proper just to reach the mouth of a canyon to explore. Rangers have told me to the best of their knowledge the canyons go unexplored for months, and sometimes years, at a time.

When I hiked Willow Creek Canyon, which can see hikers on a daily basis, I came in from the west. After several miles in I came to my turnaround point — a two-stage 40-foot dry fall. Based on research I knew I was going to encounter a dry fall. I also knew that that dry fall and the next one a little more to the east at 25 feet had been bypassed by rock climbers with a high level of skills and experience. The third dry fall in the canyon at more than 60 feet is one of the four tallest in Death Valley and can’t be conquered even by experts that have tried it.

This is the steep ledge that proved fatal by stopping the Tucson couple’s westward progress.

I would never try what they did, namely driving a remote road and camping in the Death Valley backcountry. That has more to do what I prefer and what I am comfortable and versed in doing.

I do day hiking. I use Stovepipe Wells as my base and drive to my starting point. I say driving point because in the vastness of the 5,270 square miles of the national park there are not even a handful of developed trails.

And I almost always go solo. That said, I do leave an itinerary with someone and check in nightly.

Death Valley, for the record, is a lot less deadly than Yosemite National Park, based on deaths per 10 million visitors. Death Valley is No. 15 on the overall list of “deadly” national parks with 26.69 deaths per 10 million visits compared to Yosemite at No. 14 with 28.52 deaths.

As for the name Death Valley, it was indeed named so after one member of the Lost 49ers who opted to use an unproven shortcut to the California mines died there in 1849. While it is true the rest of the party thought they would die there as well, they made their way out and to the San Joaquin Valley. Survivors of that party gave the valley its English name.

By contrast 44 people, or almost half of the Donner Party, died near Truckee where there was plenty of water but of course no food.

Based on the body count of unwitting pioneers it would be more apt to call Donner Lake “Death Lake” as opposed to calling Death Valley “Death Valley.”

Add to it the fact at its peak in the late 1890s and early 1900s more than 10,000 people connected with mining resided in the Death Valley region despite its heat, lack of water, fuel, and difficulty of travel.

As hard as it is for me to fathom even after 24 trips there Death Valley can sustain a surprisingly large population even if it is for fairly short times as mines played out. It has everything to do with respect for the land, being prepared, and planning for contingencies.

But even the best laid plans can fall apart either through execution or conditions out of your control.

There are those that believe I am pushing my luck hiking solo in either Death Valley or in the high Sierra.

So far I have yet to come across a bear lumbering down a trail with its ears and eyes glued to a smartphone hiking the eastern Sierra or a mountain lion with a short temper piloting a heavy motorized vehicle in a remote Death Valley canyon.

The odds of another human being — either distracted or wallowing in self-imposed rage as they drive — taking my life as I’m jogging or walking in a typical California city is much higher than it is exploring Death Valley.

And I’m willing to guess that those that are sharing their wisdom on how an Arizona man lost his life in Death Valley don’t exactly give 100 percent of their attention to driving or never let rage cloud their driving judgment.

I’m also willing to bet they just might engage in a somewhat more sedentary lifestyle coupled with a diet and partaking of habits that just might shorten their lifespan compared to the typical — as one blogger put it — “idiot” who heads into the Death Valley backcountry.



This column is the opinion of editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Bulletin or 209 Multimedia. He can be reached at