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Learning about life in Death Valley
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I was near the top of Thimble Peak some 6,381 feet above the floor of Death Valley. What I saw before me was a bit unnerving. There was a section of Class 3 scrambling before I could reach the summit. I studied the ascent, the rock formations, and compared it to other challenging spots I’ve been in during the past several years on peak hikes much higher in the Sierra.

Then I looked to my left. Reports on the hike described what I was looking at was a “multi-thousand foot steep drop-off” into Titanothere Canyon. I’ve seen deeper drops before but not looking virtually straight down. I looked up at what was ahead of me. I was pretty sure I could make it up but coming down wasn’t a thought that was instilling a heck of a lot of self-confidence.

I am not a rock climber by any stretch of the imagination. I can scramble when I need to but that is tempered by the fact I am leery of heights. That’s right. High places unnerve me.

So you’re probably wondering if I am in my right mind given I go hiking on my own to places like Death Valley where I include hikes that require a bit of scrambling as well as a few peaks with interesting drop-offs if I get a bit careless.

Death Valley — perhaps more than any place I’ve hiked including the eastern Sierra — is a place I learn a lot about myself as well as whether my perceived limitations are a crutch or are for real. Save for a handful of the hikes I’ve done over the past 8 years in Death Valley, there are no established trails. Basically you rely on maps, broad route descriptions if you can find them posted by other hikers, a compass occasionally, and “reading” the earth you are covering.

Last Monday as noon neared I decided that the time I had invested in the hike in the Grapevine Mountains wasn’t going to end with me bagging the Thimble Peak summit.  In the words of another who had hiked the peak, I was one of those who “might consider the last steep climb a bit too sketchy.”

So I started retracing my steps until I was perhaps a half mile from where I left my Escape parked on Red Pass. There was a steep descent ahead down to the pass. I looked to the northwest and decided to have some fun. I opted to go off the ridge path that had been slightly worn by previous hikers and head down mountain cross country to the road that heads into Titus Canyon. The way down had plenty of sections approaching 45 degrees and areas of dozens of feet of virtually straight drop-offs.

It was a deliberate, controlled descent with plenty of loose footings where I started to slide. I worked my way around the drop-offs, over gully ridges, and other interesting topography. It considerably lengthened my trip back to the Escape since after I reached the small valley I had to hike up the twisty road the National Park Service recommends that only 4-wheel drive or high clearance vehicles use.

The descent was a joy. I was thinking of nothing else but my current movement and the next place I would move my foot. Occasionally I’d stop to drink in the view or gander at a rare vehicle moving at a snail’s pace on a twisty road far below.

Death Valley since I first ventured there 30 years ago when I was into road bicycling has helped me learn about myself.

It is where I first descended downhill on a bicycle at 62 mph. When I realized what I was doing after I looked down at the cyclometer fear took over in an instant. But after a reflexive tightening of the hand brakes and a momentarily violent wobbling of the bicycle that prompted me to release the brakes I started calming down and thinking about nothing but making sure I got to the stop sign at the bottom of the Beatty Cutoff in one piece.

Death Valley is where I got over fears of being in the middle of nowhere by myself hiking to peaks six miles from the nearest road or nameless canyons that required traversing alluvial fans for at least two miles before you could start searching in earnest for the canyon’s mouth.

That may sound crazy to most but there is something extremely calming and relaxing to see no signs of civilization as you stand on a ridge of a peak and scan the horizon 360 degrees or walk between the tightening walls of a canyon and look skyward and see nothing but the markings of pressure that has folded rock over hundreds of millions of years as it soars a thousand feet above you.

It helps you understand your place in the world. It is a place man doesn’t control as much as he adapts to the forces of nature that ultimately will defeat him.

At the same time it makes you realize just how precious and rare your appearance on this earth is.

Each of us are here despite tremendous odds. We defy nature just as much as a small plant that seems insignificant against a rocky windswept ridge at 5,000 feet above Death Valley that’s devoid of virtually all other life.

That plant has a foothold made possible by a long list of variables lining up just right at the right time.

We need to make the most of the gift we’ve been given. To do so requires us to test our perceived limits, forge our fears, and then make the journey through life with our eyes and hearts wide open.










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This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.