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Author Archive for Jason Hughes

Big Bend National Park 2014


We departed Austin, TX around 9am, Monday, May 26th.  We made several stops in near Johnson City and Fredericksburg, looking for last minute gear.  We passed through a storm front that was pretty strong and had dropped the temperature from the 80’s down to what felt like the mid 50’s.  We eventually passed through the storm by the time we reached I-10.  I’ve made the drive through west Texas once before and there wasn’t much new to see.  A lot of rolling hills with the occasional wind farm out in the distance.  From I-10 you head south on 385 near Fort Stockton.  A few miles south of the town of Marathon you’ll encounter a Border Patrol checkpoint.  We didn’t see any activity on the way into the park.

We had been watching the time, wondering if we would make it to the park by 5pm.  We read that the ranger stations close at that time.  Our goal was to grab a backcountry camping permit for the night.  I had set my phone navigation to the first station, what I believe is Persimmon Gap Ranger station.  We made it there by 4:45pm.  Unfortunately, the park does not issue backcountry permits at that station.  We’d need to go to Panther Junction, about an hour away.  The ranger told us we could stay at the Chisos Basin campgrounds, which costs $14 a night.  We made the drive and set up at campsite 49, right across from the bathroom with running water.  There were trees there, which meant I could set up my hammock.

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While Scott worked on dinner, Russ and I took a short hike down Window Trail.  We didn’t go far, as we noticed it was a constant descent, which meant a hike up on the way back.  Two things I noticed that I didn’t come across in my research of the park; the high winds at night and the large population of house flies.  The winds would get crazy at night.  You could hear the wind coming over the surrounding mountains, then time it before it hit the campsite.  The flies were abundant, but you get used to them after a while.  Quite a few other larger bugs come out at night if you have a lamp or other light source at night.

The next day we headed to the Chisos Visitor’s Center to speak with the ranger there.  Guy named Brian.  We got to talking for a bit, turned out he spent some time at Tulane in New Orleans a number of years ago.  He gave us suggestions on where to go and what to check out.  His computer was down, so he was unable to get us a backcountry permit.  We would need to go to Panther Junction for the permit.  A portion of the South Rim was closed off this time of year due to nesting falcons.  We wanted something along the south rim, so we figured we’d check on availability there before we planned anything else.  We checked out the convenience store next to the visitor’s center while we were there.  They have close to everything you’d need during your stay.  Beer, wine, Camelbak hydration systems, a full selection of camping supplies, etc.  None of it seemed overpriced either.  Definitely commend the park on that.

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We headed over to the visitor’s center at Panther Junction next.  The ranger there suggested we grab campsite SW4.  It was a few minutes walk from the South Rim.  Availability was open, so we chose the next night.  The ranger suggested that we reserve a second night on the mountain, for no other reason than it didn’t cost any extra.  We chose a site in Boot Canyon.

From Panther Junction, we proceeded to hike Lost Mine Trail.  We packed small backpacks with Camelbak bladders for water, along with walking sticks.  This trail is just under 5 miles round trip.  We stopped a few times on the way up for breaks and to take photos.  A guide is available at the trailhead which describes 25? marked points of interest along the trail.  There are many nice views from this trail and the end of the trail is spectacular.  There’s a view of the Lost Mine as well.

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The next day we broke camp from the Chisos Basin and headed over to the Chisos Lodge area, which is the beginning of the trail to the South Rim.  We packed for two days, which seemed pretty heavy.  I had a full 100oz Camelbak, as well as a MSR Dromedary hydration bag (DromLite; I believe it was 4 liters?).  Now that I’m doing the math, that comes out to 1.8 gallons.  A bit shy of the recommended “1 gallon of water a day” out there.  For food, each of us took one MRE (circa 2008) and a few canned goods.  We also took a number of energy gels and chews, as well as some trail mix.  We started around 10am.  The hike up was pretty strenuous.  At one point, we encountered a Mexican Blue Jay.  He was very talkative.  We stopped for a bit, then moved on.  The Jay continued to follow us, so at one point I stopped again.  I dug out some trail mix and offered him some.  He grabbed a raisin, then became very excited.  He flew off, chirping very loudly.  Apparently, he was calling the family.  Three more Jays appeared and landed all around us.  I was able to coax one of them to land on my arm and eat from my hand.  Likely frowned upon by the park rangers, but it was apparent this wasn’t the Jay’s first time.  We moved on and the trail became steeper.  I believe we reached our campsite, SW4, around 4pm.  We ate a small meal, then set up camp.  After that, we ventured off to see the South Rim.  Approximately 5 minutes walk from our site, the view is amazing.  We walked up and down the Rim, taking photos and video.  We probably stayed over two hours before deciding to head back to camp for dinner.  We wanted to be back at the Rim for sunset (around 8:15ish), but wanted to have dinner and camp stuff taken care of before dark.  There’s a compost toilet a few minutes walk from our camp as well.  We watched the sunset, took more photos, then crashed for the night.  Again, the wind was very strong.  I believe the temperature dipped down into the low 50’s that night.
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We woke up around 6:30am and had breakfast.  For me, that consisted of a can of steak and potatoes, and a pop tart that was in my MRE from the night before.  We made our way over to the Rim again to catch the sunrise around 8:15 or so.  Again, the views are amazing.  There wasn’t a view of the horizon where the sun rose, but the light and shadows over the hills and mountains in the distance made for a spectacular view.  We stayed maybe an hour or so, then returned to camp to pack up.  I had completely drained my 100oz Camelbak the night before, so I was already into my 4 liter water source.  The views along the Boot Spring Trail heading north were equally amazing.  There was some confusion as to the trail route when we approached the Boot Spring, but we eventually figured out the way to go.  Most of the portion of this hike was in the shade due to the time of day.  We made our way to the trailhead for Emory Peak.  There we stored our large packs in the bear lockers and took only water and small packs.  This trail was also pretty strenuous.  A lot of sections with steep inclines.  We eventually arrived at the base of the summit.  There are two summits.  I didn’t see a clear way to reach the top of the summit on the right, so I went left.  The climb was sketchy and had lots of areas where if you slipped, you were going to have a very bad day.  After reaching the top of the summit, I could see that the other summit was slightly taller.  They both have an antenna array and solar panels, but the one I climbed did not appear to have a survey marker.  Oh well.  The view was still impressive. I saw quite a few ladybugs huddled up in large masses in various corners of rock on the summit.  A number of butterflies along the trail as well.  Not much room for more than 3 people up there.  There was another set of hikers right behind us, and then two more showed up before we came down.  The hike down was certainly easier, but still rough.  I ran out of water about half way down.  That left me with approximately 6 miles to go without water.  From there, the hike was mainly just trying to get back to the Chisos Lodge area without dehydrating.  There are a number of Texas Madrone trees along the trail down; very pretty.  They look as if they were painted bright red.

Takeaway points: Bring more energy gels/chews, and definitely bring more water.

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That evening we had decided to leave a day early, which would cut out some of the activities we had planned.  No one was really up for more hiking, so we decided on some back roads we could drive on.  We broke camp Friday morning for the last time, then headed to Panther Junction to fill up the gas tanks and check in with the ranger station.  From there we headed down Glen Spring Road on our way to the Mariscal Mine.  It’s an off road trail that’s fairly easy to navigate.  There are a few spots that were a bit tricky, but doable if taken slowly.  We stopped for more photos along the way, then arrived at the mine.  We didn’t venture too far from the trucks.  I noticed a large collection of old tin cans that had been discarded many years ago in a nearby dry stream bed.  I believe the time was around noon by this point, so we decided to head back north.

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Mount Whitney

Part two of our 2006 California trip takes us from the bowels of Death Valley to the top of the country – 14,505 foot Mount Whitney. Once again, Jason Hughes is our narrator unless otherwise noted.

Taylor: If you want to climb Mount Whitney, then your voyage begins at the Easter Sierra Interagency Visitor Center where we acquired the necessary wilderness passes. These passes are incredibly difficult to obtain, but they are necessary if your party wants to stay in the “Mount Whitney Zone” overnight. To get the passes you must first enter a lottery system. I put our five names into the lottery in October ’05. It wasn’t until March 18, 2006 that I received a letter from the Wilderness Permit Office, stating that we had secured August 2-4 on the mountain.

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View of the Sierras from the Interagency Visitor Center.

Our next stop was Lone Pine. In Lone Pine, we rented bear canisters for our food at a local supply store. I inquired about bear repellent, and was told that “unless you plan on exchanging punches with the bear, the bear spray was strictly for Europeans.” After consulting with the team, we decided we were all Americans and placed the repellent back on the shelf. We took our canisters and headed across the street for dinner at the Mount Whitney Restaurant.

After dinner in Lone Pine, we headed off toward the Mount Whitney Portal. The sun was setting now. We arrived after dark at the portal. It took us a while to locate the camping area, then a little longer to figure out that all of the camp sites were occupied. We started loading our packs for the hike, and then stored our remaining food in the local bear safe. It was decided that three people would sleep in the Commander, and two would sleep in the woods near the parking lot. Bryce, Taylor, and I opted for the vehicle, while Dane and Trey laid out sleeping bags. We loaded our gear back on top of the Commander so that the rear seats could be folded down. I recall more than one vehicle pulling into the parking lot as we were trying to get some sleep. These people were facing the same problem.

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Mt. Whitney as seen from Whitney Portal Rd., between Lone Pine and Whitney Portal.

Morning came and we started to pile out of the Commander. Trey and Dane were still alive in the sleeping bags. We were going to wait until the Whitney Portal Store opened and check for camp fuel again. I saw this as my last chance to clean up, so I filled up a water jug and headed into the wooded area near the parking lot. I changed into some swimming shorts, doused myself in freezing water, and then lathered up with some soap. I had been swimming often in the Barton Springs pool in Austin, so it wasn’t too much of a shock, but still unpleasant. Dried off, put on some clean clothes, and then bought some souvenirs in the store. Everyone topped off their water supply. I had a 4 liter bladder I filled and was trying to attach to the outside of my already over weight backpack. I managed to punch a hole into my index finger with the D-ring on the bladder. Not fun. I dug out my first aid kit while my finger was bleeding profusely. Went down to the stream and soaked it in the freezing water for a bit. Great way to start the hike.

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Unloading the Commander, Waiting for the Whitney Portal store to open.

We started off on the trail up the mountain and within 5 minutes decided my load needed to be lightened. Bryce figured he could drop some weight too, so we headed back to the parking lot. I emptied the 4 liter bladder (over 8 lbs right there) and took out other miscellaneous junk from my pack. Bryce and I then headed back up the trail to catch up with the others.

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8,360 feet – The group poses for a photo at the beginning of the Mt. Whitney trail.

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Trey and Dane navigating over a shallow wash.

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8,500 ft. – the trail merges into the John Muir Wilderness Trail.

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It didn’t take us long to catch up. Bryce and I eventually pulled ahead, taking a break every 10 minutes or so. The incline was putting me to work. We arrived at Lone Pine Lake about three miles later and took a lunch break.

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9,850 ft. – Lone Pine Lake panoramic

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Notice the bear cannister.

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Spiraling Foxtail Pines adorn the edge of Lone Pine Lake.

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(At Lone Pine Lake) We used the water filters and iodine tablets to top off everyone’s water supplies. Maybe an hour later, Bryce and I headed out towards Outpost Camp. I gave Taylor one of the two-way radios so we could stay in touch. It took us a few minutes to realize we were going the wrong way. We got back on track. More uphill hiking, until the trail leveled out in what I believe was Bighorn Park.

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Lone Pine Lake after climbing a bit further up the mountain

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Bryce at Bighorn Park – a large, lush, bowl-shaped oasis that thrives in spite of being surrounded by granite.

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My head was banging. I assume this was due to fatigue and altitude. The Outpost Camp was just ahead. We found a log to sit on and debated whether we wanted to continue to Trail Camp 2.5 miles away, or stay here for the night. It was about 4:00 PM. Taylor and the other guys weren’t too far behind us. We eventually decided to wait for everybody, versus splitting up the group. We only had fuel for my stove and I was dead tired.

We set up tents and packed gear for the next day’s hike. Backpackers Pantry dehydrated food packets were on the menu this evening. After dinner, we set the bear canisters away from our tents and refilled our water supplies. There was a solar toilet not too far from the camp site, but it was taped off. The park wanted people to pack their crap (literally) out with them. There was also a fenced in area with a gate available. This provided one with a little privacy. Also taped off were several large garbage bins marked human waste. I won’t go into any further detail here.

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10,365 ft. – Outpost Camp. Jason and Bryce scope out the area as Trey sets up camp behind them. Notice the waterfall in the background.

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Jason preparing a Backpacker’s Pantry meal.

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Throughout the night we could hear hikers walking through the camp site, on their way to the summit. Without a camping permit, which took months to obtain, your only option was to hike all the way to the top and back in one long day. I think we got up around 5:30am. With just my daypack, it seemed like I was already carrying too much weight. I recall Bryce and me pulling ahead again. At some point Trey decided to head back to camp. The trail incline wasn’t getting any easier. The terrain seemed to be getting rough. I kept thinking there was no way I would have made it through here with all my gear yesterday.

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10,640 ft. – Mirror Lake and Thor Peak.

 

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We found this nice resting spot with Mirror Lake in the background.

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11,800 ft. – Consultation Lake

We eventually made it to Trail Camp, approximately three miles from Outpost Camp, where we could see several tents set up. You could smell another solar toilet just a few meters off the trail. We waited for Taylor and Dane to catch up then refilled our water again. We noticed several marmots in this area. May have been better off that we didn’t camp at this site.

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12,000 ft. – Trail Camp with a view of the ridge

Marmots. We saw a few of these guys popping out over the rocks. In doing a little research I found that they are of the genus Marmota in the rodent family Sciuridae with squirrels. Wikipedia says: The name marmot comes from French marmotte, from Old French marmotan, marmontaine, from Old Franco-Provençal, from Low Latin mures montani “mountain mouse”, from Latin mures monti, from Classical Latin mures alpini “Alps mouse”. Thay didn’t bother us, and we didn’t bother them.

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This small lake near Trail Camp is the last water source on the way up. We filled up here in assembly line fashion. Bryce pumped and Jason held the container. As each filled, Dane would get the container and as he held it, I would add the proper quantity of Iodine tablets.

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Above 12,000 ft. now and still climbing

After Outpost Camp we ventured into the infamous 97 Switchbacks – plus or minus a few. I had no intention of counting them. Basically, this is a section of the trail that switches back and forth close to a hundred times, with an unpleasant incline the entire way up. I couldn’t really see the trail from below, but looking down you could see the trail winding back and forth. After what seemed like forever, we made it out of the switchbacks.

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After climbing some ways up the 97 switchbacks, one of us turned around and snapped this photo. In the distance you can see Consultation Lake on the right and on the left, Trail Camp lake.

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At one point in the switchbacks, the drop-off is so dangerous that the park service has installed a guardrail constructed out of metal pipes and steel cables.

This is where the scenery kicks in. We passed through several sections of narrow trail, where one wrong step could really ruin your day. From here on my memory is spotty. Once we made it to the section where the John Muir trail meets up with trail we were on, Bryce and I decided to break for lunch. I think this was around 2:00 PM. We found some large rocks to sit on, and then dug out some MREs. We used the hydrogen packet heaters to warm things up. An old man stopped for a rest. His pace looked slower than mine. He mentioned this was his second time up. We talked a little longer, but I don’t remember the conversation. He eventually moved on. Below us, on the John Muir trail, we could see where someone had set up camp. The campers were returning to their site and noticed a marmot was rummaging through their gear. One guy threw a rock at the marmot and I believe he made contact. I told Bryce I needed a nap, so we passed out for about 20 minutes or so. I think Taylor and Dane caught up with us at this point. We decided to make that spot a water cache, and lightened our load a bit. This section of trail switched back several times, overlooking the Hitchcock Lakes, far below.

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Sign reads, “Entering Sequoia National Park – Trail Crest, John Muir Trail – Pets and Firearms Prohibited”

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Taylor: As we crossed through the switchbacks and over the trail crest, my head began to pond like a drum, and Dane’s stomach was tossing and turning with every bend in the trail. Retreating didn’t seem like an option this close to the summit, but I’m sure we were both thinking about it. Many breaks were taken between the trail crest and the summit.

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We could see the peak far in the distance, with an old shelter on top. I believe the shelter was constructed in 1908. We eventually came across a snow bank. The incline was something crazy like 45 degrees, but you could see where other people had crossed. We were so close now. Past the snow bank the trail terrain wasn’t difficult, but still had the relentless incline. Bryce pulled ahead while I took several breaks. I eventually walked passed the lightening shelter, and made it to the top of Mount Whitney.

Taylor: While this snowy trail may seem like a simple pathway, let me assure you that it was in no way an effortless pass. For me and my ceaseless fear of heights, this was the second scariest moment on the trip (I’ll get to the scariest later). What the above photo doesn’t show is that one slip here earns you a one-way ticket to the bottom of the western side of the mountain – the quickest route to Sequoia National Park.

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14,000 ft. – Bryce (left) and Jason (right) at “the windows” alongside Keeler Needle.

 

Taylor: These photos show Dane at his worst. It wasn’t until Dane saw these images that he realized how bloated his belly was while climbing – illustrating the level of sickness he was suffering at that moment. That’s Keeler Needle in the image below.

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Keeler Needle, only 494 ft. to the top!

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Lightening shelter atop Mt. Whitney.

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14,494 ft. – The top of Mt. Whitney! (left to right) Jason, Taylor, Dane, and Bryce.

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The old man I had talked to earlier was sitting next to the shelter. We congratulated each other. I could feel the UV burning up my legs. Shorts were a bad choice. I figured it was too late for sun block now. A few minutes later, a couple climbed over the east face of the mountain (see photo below at right). No trail here, they had used ropes and climbing gear for that route.

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Climber Jon Griffin of Portland, OR

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the registry

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There was a huge guest book next to the shelter. We signed it then snapped some more photos. I could see Taylor and Dane off in the distance. The altitude had been giving Dane a tough time, but he made it. At around 4:30 PM we headed down the mountain. The couple we had met earlier was going to take our route down, so they followed us. Bryce seemed to be sprinting ahead, determined to make it back before sunset. We were traveling maybe three times as fast down than our speed up the mountain. Past the snow bank, we retrieved our cached water. We passed the treacherous drop-offs, back down the 97 switchbacks, and past Trail Camp. By now the sun was gone. Maybe a mile or so from Outpost Camp, we needed to break out the flashlights. I had been talking trash to Bryce that morning, joking that he could save a few ounces by leaving his headlamp. I’m glad he didn’t.

We finally made it to Outpost Camp at around 9:30 PM. The climbing couple continued on. The trail was fairly easy to follow from here, so they should have been ok. We checked on Trey in his tent. I couldn’t reach Taylor on the radio. Bryce pulled out a can of Dinty Moore stew and I fired up my camp stove. I could see little mice coming out of the wood work – one near the spot where I spilled some food on the ground. Another appeared on my stove after I had turned it off. I definitely needed to clean my gear before bed. Taylor and Dane made it back around 11:30 PM – everyone still alive. I believe I read somewhere that the day hike takes anywhere between 10-14 hours. That’s from Whitney portal, to the top of the mountain, and back down. It took me approx. 16 hours, and that’s cutting out almost six miles of hiking. So much for being in shape. That mountain kicked my but.

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Taylor: We woke up at Outpost Camp on our last day on Mount Whitney. I rolled over in my sleeping bag, cracked a hole in my tent’s door, and snapped this photo of the day’s first sunlight spilling onto Thor’s Peak (see above).

Jason: We agreed we didn’t need to wake up at any specific time that morning. A few people grabbed a bite to eat, and then we broke camp. With all of my gear strapped to me, I felt ready to roll. With the exception of a few sections of trail, it was all downhill. I kept repeating that to myself – It’s all downhill. What took us nearly seven hours to cover uphill (four miles), we knocked out in approx. two hours downhill.

Back at the portal, I noticed the scale used to weigh your gear. I think at one time the park calculated your level of safety on the mountain using the weight of your gear. At 58 lbs total, I guess I was pretty safe. If I ever return, I’d like to shave it down to 40 lbs. There were several people taking surveys from hikers coming off the mountain, so we all participated. Bryce and I took showers at the visitor center, and everyone bought lunch.

Taylor: Under the vigilant surveillance of these ravenous bluebirds (below), we devour lunch outside the Whitney Portal Store. We also took some downtime to pour over maps of California. We were contemplating which route to take from our current location to Sequoia National Park: (1) north through Yosemite, over steady inclines and slow roads or (2) south around the corner of the Inyo National Forrest, via mostly level interstate. In the end, considering the Jeep Commander’s poor performance in lesser mountains, we opted for the flatter course.

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Once again, the Commander failed us. We stopped here for two reasons. Firstly, we had just driven down from Whitney Portal to the foothills – a steady and damaging downhill and loss of several thousand feet. The truck’s brakes were smoking up and needed… well, a brake. Also, our luggage was coming undone again, and one bag slid off the top and was dangling at the window. This break was fortunate though in that it allowed us one last glimpse, and photo opportunity, of the mountain. (see photo below)

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We strapped our gear back on top of the Commander, then headed back to Lone Pine to return the bear canisters. Our next stop was the Days Inn, in Visalia, CA.

Death Valley National Park

July 31, 2006. Houston’s George Bush International Airport. Five travelers converge for the first time, shake hands, check bags, and board a plane for Las Vegas. Ultimate destination – the backwoods and wastelands of California’s Death Valley National Park, Mt. Whitney, and Sequoia National Park. Jason Hughes was the only one of us to actually write down a complete account of the trip. Unless otherwise noted, you are reading his words. The photos were submitted by everyone on the team.

(Upon reaching Las Vegas) The first thing that caught my attention was the extreme heat I felt outside the airport building. No humidity, just an extreme blast of hot air, as if the covered areas for arrivals and departures were designed to catch as much wind as possible. After a quick bus ride, we arrived at the car rental site and picked out our ride. We decided to go with a silver Jeep Commander. It looked slightly larger than the Grand Cherokee and I thought to myself that the new model would be nice. We had to do some strategic packing to fit everyone’s gear into the vehicle. With the last row of seats folded down and all the gear jammed in the back, you could not see out the rear of the vehicle. We fit three people in the second row of seats and two in the front. We drove out in search of some quick dinner and enough water to last us for the next few days. A few miles later we passed by a health food store (similar to Whole Foods Market) where everything was generally overpriced. We stocked up on water, then drove to an In-n-Out Burger joint for dinner. From there we headed out into the desert.

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What a way to start the trip – Dane and I at Mabel’s Whorehouse near Aramagosa, NV.

(Near Amargosa) Hours later we stopped at what we figured would be the last gas station before entering Death Valley National Park. There was a huge billboard sign  stating that we were at the Yucca Mountain Travel Center, last stop before Area 51. Behind the gas station was the Cherry Patch II . Inside was an assortment of junk one usually finds at truck stops in the middle of nowhere, in addition to a wide selection of alien t-shirts, posters, postcards, coffee mugs, etc. I recall seeing a local paper by the door. The headline read something to the effect of “Local Residents Concerned with Blinking Traffic Light”. Headline news right there. I believe Taylor asked the store clerk if she had seen anything strange out here. She gave her UFO story, then we all left. Just outside, adjacent to the store, was what I suspect was Mabel’s Whorehouse. There was a plywood cutout of an alien and human where you could stand behind it for photos. We didn’t find any camp fuel here, so we crossed the street to the neighboring gas station. This place was a bit more disturbing than the store we had just left.

As you walked in, to your left were rows of video poker, manned by some scary truck driver looking zombies. To the right was your standard gas station junk. They had a life size Yoda atop some shelving, in addition to Watto. (A shrewd and gruff proprietor of a junk shop in Mos Espa, from Star Wars Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones) I don’t think we found any camp fuel here either. Taylor inquires about any strange sightings in the area and receives another UFO story. After picking up some postcards, I stepped outside with Trey. He points out an off-duty tumble weed, parked next to the Jeep Commander. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot an old, blue full-size pick up truck with the driver’s side door open, parked next to the fuel pump. Behind the truck door is a naked man pumping gas. This demanded a second examination, so I briefly glance again in that direction before quickly turning away again. Perhaps I was hallucinating? Trey sees the expression on my face and inquires as to what was wrong. I tell him not to look over near the gas pump, but there’s a naked man in the parking lot. Trey immediately looks over to the gas pump. We both decide to go back inside the store. I quickly spread the word to the others. “Time to leave!”

During the drive to the park, 11 o’clock creeps up, and the radio is tuned into the radio show Coast to Coast AM. The night’s discussions included secret NASA Moon missions (The Pilgrim Project) and Shadow People. Good stuff. If you ever felt you weren’t getting your daily level of weird, just tune into Coast to Coast AM. That show will fix you right up. We arrive at the entrance to the park and pull over for pictures. Being in the middle of nowhere, you can see millions of stars. The Milky Way band is prominent across the sky. Staring long enough, you could see shooting stars and even orbiting satellites. We managed to find the camp site afterwards and begin to set up our tents. Taylor was really hoping to check out the sand dunes at night, so we all piled back into the Commander for a 30 minute drive into darkness.

Taylor: When we stopped at the Death Valley entrance to snap a few photos of the sign, I expected to be in and out of the truck. Then someone turned the lights of the Commander off and the universe was unveiled! We stood out there for a while, all of us with our heads cocked back, fixed on the heavens. I don’t know about the rest of the guys, but I’d never seen the cosmos so clearly.

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I’m not sure how he determined we were in the right place (the sand dunes), but Taylor pulled over and we all piled out of the vehicle with our headlamps. We begin hiking out into the sand, crossing over several dunes. I couldn’t really see much, except for the sand in my shoes. Within ten minutes or so, we spot another light off in the distance. It seemed to be moving along, heading in our general direction. It appeared to be moving side to side, occasionally shifting quickly from one place to another. I wasn’t seeing any of our headlamps moving in that fashion. Someone suggested it was a vehicle on the road, but I didn’t recall the road stretching in that direction, nor could I hear any engines. At some point we all decide to switch off our headlamps. The light was still moving. We scurried across the sands, making our way back to the Commander. With a bit of relief being next to the vehicle, we decide to head back to camp. Dane wanted to return to the dunes to uncover the mystery of the light, but he was out-voted.

It was hot. Ridiculously hot. No breeze blowing through the tent. Every twenty minutes or so I’d sit up, then lay back down in the pool of sweat that had accumulated atop my sleeping mattress. At some point Bryce left the tent to sleep on top of a picnic table.

Taylor: The sun emerges over the Funeral Mountains and spills onto our camp at Furnace Creek – 196 feet below sea level! (The Funeral Mountains are a subrange of the Amargosa range that forms the Eastern wall of Death Valley)

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Left to right: Trey breaking down camp, Jason getting dressed, and Bryce organizing gear. To beat the heat at night, Bryce abandoned his tent and made that table his open-air bed.

We awoke around 5:40AM or so, with light just starting to creep over the hills. We weren’t staying here another night, so everyone got busy packing up their gear and tents. Breakfast consisted of MREs, provided by Dane. We decided to strap the majority of gear to the top of the Commander this morning, making space for one person in the last row of seats. From there we headed over to the Death Valley visitor’s center. We were a bit early; they didn’t open until 8:00AM. Some of us took a bird bath in the sinks of the bathroom. It was a relief to find cool air blowing from the hand dryers. I would find out later that even in the afternoon, when the temperature was over 100, that those hand dryers were still blowing cool air. Crazy. I’m assuming they must have disabled the heating element for that to happen. We collected more water from an outside faucet. When the visitor’s center opened, we went inside and bought miscellaneous stuff.

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Bryce posing before the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. We arrived before any of the other tourists, so the area was undisturbed. As we pulled up, a coyote slinked out of the parking lot, across the road, and out of sight into the desert.

From here we drove to Golden Canyon. I think this is where one of our bags decided to jump ship. We were cruising down the road when all of a sudden a bag swung down off the roof and slammed into my window. We pulled over and recalculated the method used to strap equipment to the roof. We reached Golden Canyon and hiked along the trail for a while, eventually deviating off onto what seemed to be a trail leading up through the hills. It looked as if we could reach the top, but after climbing for thirty minutes or so, we decided to head back down.

From the Golden Canyon Trail Guide: Golden Canyon preserves geological stories steeped in change. Like pages in a book, its rocks tell tales of ancient times when a lake once covered this land; they also speak of violent flash floods racing down the canyon, Golden Canyon is a fascinating showcase of the effects of water in an arid land.

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Dane and Trey

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Taylor and Bryce

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Jason

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Left to right: Taylor, Dane, Jason, and Bryce

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Trey and Dane heed the warnings and carry plenty of water – one gallon per person, per day.

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Bryce and Jason checking out a huge boulder.

The next stop was the Devils Golf Course. This was basically a huge field of dried up salt, with strange looking formations stretching in every direction. Taylor: I read in a guidebook, that after rains you can sometimes her the earth snap and crackle as the arid atmosphere sucks the land dry! Due to the incredible serrated and jagged spires, it is believed that “Only the Devil could play golf on such rough links.”

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Trey at Devil’s Golf Course

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The gang at Devil’s Golf Course – left to right: Jason, Dane, Trey, Bryce, and Taylor.

Next was a natural bridge formation. We hiked a mile or so into the hills again. We reached the bridge, and Dane proceeded to climb it. Taylor and Trey made friends with a man and his son who were sporting pith helmets.

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Bryce looking up at the natural bridge.

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Dane snapped this photo of the canyon from atop the natural ridge.

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The crew hikes out of the canyon and back toward the valley, where the Jeep is parked.

After leaving the natural bridge, we drove to Badwater Basin. Over 200 feet up, a sign on the rock cliff behind us marked sea level. There was a platform that overlooked the basin, which was barren, except for the tourists. There was a small pool of still water next to the platform. This platform provides visitors with a great view of the small spring-fed pool at Badwater Basin. The salt flats surrounding the spring deem the water undrinkable. This point marks the lowest elevation in the Western Hemisphere. Jason’s Dell Axim registered an elevation reading of -320.54 feet. We were at such a low altitude, I think the computer was confused.

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Past the platform there was a wide path that lead to the middle of nowhere. Everyone else was walking it, so we followed. The dried mixture of salt and dirt on the ground sounded like packed snow as we walked across it. After some unspecified distance, we took some photos, then headed back to the Commander.

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Salt flats at Badwater

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Taylor, Jason, Bryce, Dane, and Trey out on the salt flats at Badwater.

We returned to the visitor center for some lunch and shade from the sun. MREs were on the menu again. The visitor center parking lot was no longer empty and there were quite a few people walking about. Many Europeans and Asians, but very few Americans. After lunch, we drove to Zabrinskie Point. Taylor: As stated in the guidebook, “Zabrinskie Point is surrounded by a maze of wildly eroded and vibrantly colored badlands.” This, in conjunction with its proximity to the visitor center, makes it one of the park’s most visited spots. I remember feeling surprised by how difficult it was to walk even the quarter-mile to the scenic overlook. By this time, the temperature had peaked at 113º and the atmosphere was simply intolerable. I felt the danger of Death Valley like a giant hair dryer in my face. I took my photos and got back to the truck swiftly.

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Taylor: On our way out of Death Valley, I talked the guys into stopping at the sand dunes one more time. Maybe we could solve the mystery of the peculiar light from the night before. We all hopped out and examined the scene. Someone noted that, due to the road’s direction, the light couldn’t have come from there. I pointed out into the dunes and said, “I’m going to run to that big dune over there.” Everyone looked at me and simultaneously laughed and went back talking about the unidentified light. I took off straight for the dune. I crossed over the first ridge of dunes and instantly lost my bearing. I climbed up onto the next bunch of dunes and realized how much longer this excursion would take. Feeling the heat creep up on me again, I snapped a photo and ran back to the truck.

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Sand Dunes near Stovepipe Wells Campground

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(On our way out of Death Valley) There was a relatively small range of mountains (Inyo Mountains) we had to cross first. Here, the Commander’s performance began to suffer. We couldn’t drive faster than 40mph, and the transmission was constantly switching gears. A breakdown seemed imminent. We made it out though, and some time later arrived at the Easter Sierra Interagency Visitor Center. Next up, Mt. Whitney.

Lake Verret – Louisiana

by Jason Hughes / May 2004

Lake Verret is a large freshwater lake which drains an extensive area of freshwater swamps. It is one of the most productive lakes in Louisiana. Aquatic organisms are abundant here and support recreational and commercial fisheries for large mouth bass and channel catfish.

– The Barataria Terrebone National Estuary Program website

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