Death Valley


By: Walt Wheelock


<<<<< DEATH VALLEY 1926-1991 >>>>>

My first trip to Death Valley was some three score and five years ago, on a Glendale High School Science Club tour on a spring vacation in 1926. Park Turrill, and excellent but tough Chem Prof had started trips the year before. We had about fifty students and teachers. Cars were 10 Model T's, one Dodge and one Cadillac. Four boys could pick up a Model T and set it back on the road. We loaded up at school with camp gear and food supplies for the week. We made Mojave by noon, and there the pavement ended. The road was good until Red Rock Canyon, where we plowed through sand, but made it. The only habitation was a small store and a RR station in Inyokern. Arrived at Johannesburg at dusk and camped on the concrete floor of an unfinished bank building. It turned out that I was the only one who had any experience in cooking on a Coleman gas stove, so I was drafted to be the camp cook for the entire trip.

The next morning we explored Randsburg and then on to Trona. It was then on to Searles Dry Lake and all 12 cars lined and we raced across the flat surface. Next we stopped to check out the ruins of the Epsom Salt Monorail, before crossing the well-graded Wingate Pass (all now closed to traffic). It was an easy downhill to the Ashford Mill ruins and up a side canyon to Bradbury Well for the night. Cooked again.

The next morning we gathered brush for possible sand at Bennett's Well. Made it with no trouble and on past the Eagle Borax Works to the site of Shorty Harris' recent grave. It was covered with horse bones.

Reached our goal of Furnace Creek, a working ranch after dark. The night ended with a dip in a swimming hole, built for the hired hands. This was years before "skinny dipping" so we split, the girls in the pool; the boys herded over behind bushes, for "decency". Unfortunately for the boys pleasure, it was the dark of the moon.

The next morning we took a rough water-washed road to the then working borax mine of Ryan. The commissary was opened up for us and a young lad started dishing out cones. To my amazement, he asked "and what do you want, Walt". Turned out we had graduated from Le Conte Jr Hi together a couple of years before. We then headed for Death Valley Junction, and a scooter passed us on the narrow gauge. Turned out that my friend had rushed down to man the soda fountain at the hotel.

At that time gas sold for $.50/gal at the Junction, so Turrill had shipped in several drums of gasoline, so we had our own. Cooked dinner at Shoshone, then drove over Salsberry Pass in the dark to camp again at Bradbury Well.

The next day we drove south past Saratoga Spring to Cave Spring. Here a couple were mining and crushed and panned some gold for us. Our route from here was over isolated territory, crossing Bicycle Lake in what is now Fort Irwin. Camped in the park in Barstow in a rainstorm, without proper gear. The next day was a rainy trip back home.

My next trip, a decade later in 1936, was comprised of two couples of UCLA math students. We had one Model A and one VW Bug. Headed for Las Vegas, and it had been a wet winter. Soda Lake was full, the water only being a couple of feet below the highway. Above Las Vegas, Silver Lake was likewise flooded. The highway was passable, but the railroad was closed. Spent a night at a motel in Indian Springs. This about the same time that Margaret Long was using this same motel, while she was scouting for The Shadow of the Shadow of the Arrow. We never met.

Our base in Death Valley was Bennetts Well. Then we drove up to Dantes View, where the road was under construction. The Model A made it without trouble, but VW bogged down. However the road crew came by and swept up the Bug with a bulldozer blade, along with a yard of gravel, and placed all on the upper road. From there we headed for Beatty. We were running low on grub, and the only store in town had a sign "FRESH FRUIT AND VEGETABLES". Having hopes for a fresh salad we entered. Yes, they did have fresh fruit and vegetables, if you consider apples and potatoes a good selection.

Visited Rhyolite, then across the valley floor to "Stovepipe Wells Hotel", which consisted of canvas huts. We exited via Wildrose Canyon. Camped in Skidoo, and were ordered off by a miner who claimed he now owned the area. After some discussion, he agreed to let us stay.

The Panamint Valley road had been just realigned and was quite rough. Crossed the Slate Range on the "new road" and it looked much better than the old, which wandered off to the right. If you drive it now, you can see an old road just east of the pavement. This old road is what is left of my "new road" and a set of faint tracks to the left is all that can be seen of the original Panamint-Mojave road.

When we got down, found that the rear spring on the Model A had broken along the road, but it still brought us home.

From then on, had intermittent trips from until the present time. In the l960s became active in the DPS, serving as chairman in 1960. After passing 80, found my climbing ability has fallen off. However, much to my surprise, find I am leading a DPS trip in 1992!

In the 1970s started work on a series of Desert Peaks Guides. These do not compare with the present DPS guide, being published by the Desert Peak Section. Frankly they are both more and less. The DPS guide goes into great detail on the peaks listed. In my case, I only gave brief information on the approach route and the climb. For, on many Desert Peaks, if you are pointed in the right direction, any seasoned climber would have no trouble climbing the peak. On the other hand, the DPS, by an involved process determines which peaks are worthy of being listed. For example, the peak must have been led on a scheduled climb. In the early days, this would have blocked scheduling the peaks, because we are often trying to explore new peaks. However, due to such a bureaucratic procedure, many worthy peaks are ignored. For example, Corkscrew Pk (5804) is listed, while higher and nearby Thimble Peak (6381) is ignored. Yes, Corkscrew is more of a challenge, but Thimble is a pleasant jaunt from Red Pass, above Titus Canyon! I have included most of the peaks in all the areas. Now, oft times, I have gained a "new peak", after the DPS has decided to anoint such a peak. Nelson, I climbed for the fun of it, and later led it for the section. It has just been climbed by Ron Jones as a list finisher! In 1975, published Desert Peaks Guide II. Death Valley Country. It covers 101 peaks, of which only 33% are "official" peaks. Many of the others were enjoyable climbs, and perhaps some of you will try these poor "orphans"!

Sometime later, I became active in the Death Valley '49ers and have attended most of the Encampments since then, serving as a Director. I have written three of their keepsakes, including the 1991 Death Valley Bighorns, and expect to do another Death Valley Indian Tribes in perhaps five or six years.

More recently, have acquired a 4x4 rig, and have been leading trips for the Backroad Explorers. A number of trips now driven with OHV, I had driven years ago with 2x4s -- often these were quite a struggle!

And so this comes to a close.

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