Friday, August 12, 2011

I had only been here an hour and already I'd gotten myself into trouble. When I arrived at the entrance station to Death Valley National Park I had a plan. First, I would find a water spigot which I could use to refill my canteen. Second, I would scout out a good spot to camp that night so that I wouldn't have to go looking in the dark. Third, I would get a map so that I would know the location and length of the trails.

I got about half way though my search for water when the gilded Manly Beacon caught my eye in the distance. Change of plans, I had to stop and walk up to the top of Zambriskie Point to get a better view. At the top there was a large crowd gathered looking out from this observation point. Zambriskie point looks out over a vast area of intricately eroded petrified saline mud, which collected at the floor of Lake Manly which existed until rising mountains to the west cast a rain shadow causing the lake to dry up 5 million years ago. The occasional rainwater passes through Gower Gulch from which innumerable dendritic mini canyons branch off. All this can be seen from the observation point.

As I looked closer I started to notice trails that had been pounded out by thousands of footfalls on top of some of these eroded forms far below. I looked over the edge of the stone wall encircling the viewpoint and found an entirely separate group of people that had walked down to get a better look. My other tasks could wait, I had to explore this immediately. I started off on one of the trails and soon came to the first of many forks. I chose the branch that headed towards Manly Beacon and continued my descent towards Gower Gulch. I reached the base with my legs already a little tired from easing myself downhill and faced another fork. I think it said "To Golden Canyon: via Gower Gulch 2 mi, via Golden Canyon 1.6 mi", which didn't make any sense to me because how could I travel via Golden Canyon if it was 1.6 miles away? I figured if Golden Canyon was what everyone was hiking to then traveling via Golden Canyon would be more scenic and chose that route.

This route immediately required that I climb back up another dusty hill to about half the height I had just descended. When I reached the top I stopped for a drink only to find my canteen nearly empty. I had been gulping water all day on my car ride, no longer feeling to the need to treat it as a precious resource while flying by convenience stores in my car. I looked back at the long climb up to the observation point and decided I really didn't like the idea of having come all the way down here just to climb back up and continued on my way. The trail seemed to be on a downhill trend and I guessed that I would find the entrance to Golden Canyon just over the next hilltop...or the next after that.

4 or 5 waves of climb and descent later with my canteen now empty I could see a sign in the distance, finally, Golden Canyon. I walked up to the signpost, it read "-> Golden Canyon 4 mi", that lying, no-good sign at the previous fork said 1.6mi! My resolve finally broken, I turned to retrace my steps but remembered the altitude changes in the route I had come by. No problem normally, but I wasn't so eager with no water. It's always been my dread that I'll be one of those idiots who wanders off without water and dehydrates himself and has to be carried out of the canyon by rangers, or worse, flown out. There had to be an easier route back, I had to find Gower Gulch and walk upstream to the observation point. The earlier sign had said 2 miles via Gower Gulch, and 2 flat miles were preferable to 1.6 hilly miles so I turned left towards where I thought the gulch would be. A few minutes later I found a signpost with no sign. I could see where a sign had been nailed to the post, but it had either been broken or stolen. I hoped it was a marker for hikers that were traveling via the gulch and headed upstream.

As I walked, the nagging sensation in my head that I was wandering farther and wasting more time would grow in my head until I managed to spot a footprint in the mud. Most of the gulch was full of gravel so footprints were rare and I could never follow a set for more than a couple of feet. Whenever I came to a branching in the gulch I guessed that the smaller corridor was the tributary and the larger was the main and followed the larger. This winding path continued and I sensed that I was headed in the right direction. The sound of gravel crunching as I walked began to grate on my nerves. I looked at my feet as a I walked, seeing the impression that my steps left in different size gravel, and trying to spot similar impressions made by other hikers that may have passed through. I weaved from side to side as the gulch curved, trying to weigh the benefits of shortest path against those of the path that stayed in the shade.

I was starting to lose confidence that I had chosen the correct path back to Zambriskie Point. I tried to visualize all of the walking that I had done on an imaginary map to see if it appeared to be approaching a complete circle but all the winding of the gulch had me disoriented. Suddenly I rounded a corner and there hill of the observation point stood, tiny photographers strewn about its sides. The going became easier now that I knew how much farther I had to go and I made my way back up the hill and back down to my car where my water jug was waiting.

This may seem like a trivial little problem that took place over just an hour and a half, but managing your water is extremely important. This is most true in dry environments like Death Valley. Not only does one lose water though perspiration but by evaporation inside the lungs to the dry air that is being breathed (more rapidly when hiking uphill). The symptoms of dehydration can make it more difficult to continue hiking, further prolonging your time without water. I hadn't begun to show any symptoms of dehydration, but if I hadn't found my way back and stupidly continued walking in the wrong direction, then I could have placed myself in a very dangerous situation without anyone having knowledge of where I was. My typical approach is to always start a hike with a full canteen, no matter how short the hike, and to turn back when its half empty. I'd like to think I'll continue to stick to this.

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