A Death Valley Christmas

1 Dec 1997 - by Debbie Bulger

During the winter months the climbing is good in the desert. That's when I work on my Desert Peak List (DPS). This year, between Christmas and New Year's Richard and I headed for Death Valley.

After a day-long drive from Santa Cruz, we camped at Stovepipe Wells, December 25. The next day we needed our 4WD truck to make it to the trailhead for Canyon Point (5890'). The last 10 miles of the approximately 28-mile dirt road were of moderate roughness but open all the way unlike some years when it has been rendered impassable due to flash floods.

Canyon Point is an easy climb with excellent views of Stovepipe Wells and Death Valley from the summit. We spotted grouse and delightful desert dandelion in bloom. A good warm up.

We spent the night at the junction of Marble and Cottonwood Canyons and relaxed by hiking scenic Marble Canyon on December 27. There were some petroglyphs in this water-carved limestone narrows and graffiti from the early 20th century. We looked for "JB" reportedly from the Jayhawker party of 1849 and may have found it, but the letters were very faint, so we couldn't be sure. We returned to Stovepipe Wells and dinner with Massachusetts relatives at the Lodge.

The next day we drove up Goler Wash and over Mengel Pass. Perhaps I should call it "Mangle Pass." Several times I wasn't sure we would make it, even in low 4WD gear. The route was littered with abandoned wheels, axles and various car parts. There were drops of 2-3 feet, dips, huge rocks, steep inclines and narrow passages. It was adrenaline city, much eroded from two years ago when we turned back because of the ice on the steep downhill.

Each time we thought the fun was over, the road had another surprise for us. It is on this road that the Barker Ranch is found, the infamous 1969 hideout for Charles Manson and his followers. Since we had visited the ranch in 1995, we kept on trucking to remote Butte Valley.

It is worth the trip. Butte Valley is filled with interesting cabins, some with running water. "Welcome," read the signs on the doors. "In the spirit of the Old West, leave this cabin better than you found it." We explored Russell Camp, Stella's Cabin, which was built by Mormons in the 1860's, and others. We decided the Geologist's cabin, a one-room stone edifice with a fireplace and beautiful view of Striped Butte was just right for us. We built a warming fire using wood we had brought from home.

Before retiring for a romantic evening in front of the fireplace, we ran up Striped Butte. I had vowed to climb this strikingly beautiful peaklet years ago (before I ever know where it was located) when I saw it on a postcard at the Death Valley Visitor Center. It looks like a chunk of halvah (sesame seed candy) dropped on the desert. Unlike anything else in view, it sits alone in its chocolate, vanilla, and cream striped splendor.

Our friends from Hayward, Howard Steidtmann and Tobi Tyler were to meet us for a climb of Manley (7196') on December 29. We were on the trail by 7:30 a.m. with no sign of Howard and Tobi. There is a trail most of the way and a magnificent stand of pinyon pine near the summit. Some of the trees are quite large. Recent snow filled the spaces between plants and rocks.

The summit block is a puzzle to solve. The 20-foot high chunk of granite has an awkward crack/book with a gaping hole beneath it on the right and an exposed friction slab on the left. First I tried the crack. Easy enough with rock shoes, but for me too tenuous and slippery in boots, especially with the hole below. Next I climbed a boulder facing the friction slab.

>From its top I could jump onto the slab and walk up the ramp aided by inertia. I was thinking about it. "Any words of advice," I asked Richard. "Don't jump," he responded. I looked again. I know I could do it. Then I jumped. On the top! Then I spotted Howard and Tobi. When they arrived we set up a fixed line using my short 7mm rope, and Richard, Howard and Tobi came up. Good views of Panamint Valley and the Sierra peaks from the summit.

The four of us climbed Needle (5803') the next day. Route finding and the climb are more difficult than on Manley. Needle offers expansive views to the south and west where one can see Charleston Peak in Nevada, and Clark Mountain, and Kingston Peak.

That evening, Howard and Tobi left for Nevada. Richard and I returned to the Geologist's cabin. The next day was spent in decadent soaking at Tecopa Hot Springs, touring the Shoshone Museum (first time I have seen it open), and exploring the abandoned talc mine and warm pools on the Warm Springs Canyon Road which we used to exit Butte Valley to the east. Desert sunflowers bloomed profusely in joyous contrast to the rich brown rock of the desert floor. We spent the night on an old mining road near the trailhead for Stewart Point off Highway 178.

The route up Stewart Point (5265') follows several canyons with dry waterfalls and interesting rock formations. Once one climbs out of the canyon, there are numerous false summits. The geology is fascinating. My knees were not crazy about the loose rock slopes, however, especially on the descent. We could see our truck from the summit. Then we went back to Tecopa for a shower and soak before heading home.

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