Yo! I ride through the valley in the shadow of death

A quartet of intrepid mountain bikers tackles the far, unfriendly reaches of Death Valley National Park -- and learns some lessons about life.


David Darlington
June 5, 2000 11:00PM (UTC)

At the top of Lippincott Mine Road, I encounter a warning sign. "CAUTION," it advises. "Not recommended for vehicle travel. Route not maintained. Washouts and cutbanks ahead. No tow services available. Experienced drivers using 4x4 high-clearance vehicles only."

Beneath these admonitions, independent travelers have scrawled their own impromptu commentary. "It's true," one confirmed the previous October. "Total washout 2.1 miles."

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"Ford Explorer got stuck but our 4Runner pulled him out," another survivor reported in December. "One casualty."

"Death to Explorers," added another agitator in April. Then, to the point of my purpose: "A challenge to MTBs."

At the moment, I happen to be straddling an MTB -- a mountain bike that I intend to ride down Lippincott Mine Road.

Apparently I'm in a land of legend. Lippincott Mine Road connects the "Racetrack" -- a folklore-laden dry lake in Death Valley National Park -- with the floor of Saline Valley, an equally fabled desert basin in which nudist squatters rule the roost and people occasionally disappear. For years I've been curious about this route, which, in only three miles as the raven dives, descends 2,000 tortuous feet through a canyon rife with hairpins and drop-offs. It's not that I'm overly inclined toward daredevil comportment in my car, but I think it might be just the thing for a bike.

I'm not dissuaded by the fact that my cycling experience in these parts is minimal. Although I've been visiting this area -- the most dramatic topographical region in the entire basin-and-range desert province of North America -- for the better part of two decades, I've usually been content to camp and hike. At home I do most of my cycling on pavement, which requires a different set of skills from those demanded by dirt. When I have taken a mountain bike to the desert, I've found it a bittersweet proposition: I've had fun on selected jeep roads, but I've also known misery on sandy tracks and rocky slopes, where it can be a challenge just to keep moving with the front wheel pointed forward.

Nonetheless, as both dedicated cyclist and desert buff, I've been unable to shake the idea of riding through this place, which became part of Death Valley National Park with the 1994 California Desert Protection Act. In search of advance intelligence, therefore, I consulted a friend who had biked in the area before.

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"Unridable may be exaggerated, but not by much," he wrote me in response. "The surface is often loose gravel that is very difficult, at least going uphill. Going down isn't too great either. The problem with the Lippincott Mine Road will be roughness, I think. Many of the backcountry roads just beat the hell out of you, and the graded ones are often quite washboarded."

Under such circumstances -- i.e., questionable cycling conditions on roads that are open to four-wheel-drive vehicles -- it seems that the manner in which to attempt this mission is with motorized support. That way I'll be assured of water, and if the going gets too rough, I can simply get out of the saddle and behind the wheel.

If the route turns out to be worse on four wheels than it is on two -- well, I figure I'll just cross that washout when I come to it.

For the reconnaissance, I've recruited a group of people who are better mountain bikers than I. All are veterans of Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, Calif. (birthplace of the mountain bike), as well as other fat-tire hot spots like Moab, Utah, and Durango, Colo. They include Bob Schenker, quasi-beatnik designer and retro-equipment junkie, who despite pursuing a livelihood dependent on the latest computer technology eschews such modern cycling developments as clipless pedals and indexed shifting. His bike is a 15-year-old steel Mountain Goat, equipped with road-style drop handlebars, bar-end shifters and no shock-absorbing suspension.

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By way of contrast, Charlie Tondu -- proprietor of a bike shop in Berkeley, Calif., and a rider who places in Mammoth downhill races -- boasts a fully suspended aluminum Santa Cruz Heckler. Like me, he has previously explored many of the places where we're going (and doesn't particularly expect to find them ridable), but any excuse to camp there again is good enough for him.

On yet another hand, there's titanium-loving Boyd Watkins, to whom the desert is simply "another place to ride a bike." Boyd just wants to get out of San Francisco, despite an avowed disinterest in "flora and fauna and all that crap."

On our first evening in the desert, we make camp among the pinyons and junipers just inside the border of Death Valley National Park. My mates immediately mount their bikes to reconnoiter our first objective -- 7,000-foot Hunter Mountain. Since I'll be doing that tomorrow, however, I stay behind and go for a walk. Hiking up the slope directly behind our camp, I strike a trail with a sunset view of Panamint Valley -- Death Valley's sprawling sibling, and the escape route of the Manly wagon party that named the notorious mortuary basin in 1849. Despite a light cloud cover, the valley's dunes glow far below me while its playa shines in the dusk to the south. In the distant murk at the foot of the Panamint Mountains, overseen by the snowcapped summit of 11,000-foot Telescope Peak, I can just make out a heap-leach gold mine, its volcanolike tailings piles soaked with cyanide to separate precious metal from ore. At my feet are more authentic igneous artifacts: burnt-red rocks of every size scattered among the twisted sagebrush.

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Continuing up the slope to its crest, I get another view to the north: Beyond the depression of Saline Valley, bluish ridges recede to the horizon, dominated by the snow-covered White Mountains, home of the ancient bristlecone pines. In the foreground, yellow-blooming ephedra give the otherwise red-brown and gray-green landscape a greenish-gold cast. A kestrel wings its way across the yawning space, its wings beating fast against the breeze; in the distance, I think I see a pair of ravens cavorting in the sky, but I realize my mistake when I hear a roar. It's a couple of fighter jets -- a familiar fixture in the airspace here and, like the gold mine to the south, one that has gone undeterred by the advent of the national park.

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By morning the clouds have disappeared, bestowing us with undiluted sunshine. This is not entirely welcome, seeing as how it's already warm by the time we start riding. The previous cool and breezy evening, my companions found the 1,000-foot ascent of Hunter Mountain to be no big deal; now Boyd suddenly discovers that it has gotten harder. "Amazing how much a climb can change from one day to the next," he remarks, as sweat begins dripping steadily from the brim of my cap.

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Either way, it's great to be on a mountain bike in the environment it was designed for, rather than on the flat townscapes traversed by 90 percent of the machines that are sold. The claylike surface of Hunter Mountain Road turns out to be eminently ridable -- in the wake of a moderately wet winter, it's both firm and tacky, providing perfect traction. This elevation is the best-watered part of the desert, and the higher we go, the larger and thicker grow the trees, eventually enclosing us in a bona fide forest, where patches of snow persist in the shade.

Hunter Mountain was once a summer foraging ground for the Timbisha Shoshones, with plentiful pine nuts, medicinal plants and water from springs and creeks that enabled people to grow beans, melons and corn. As it happens, the mountain will soon support the Timbisha Shoshones again: As decreed by the Desert Protection Act, Death Valley National Park is forging a new management agreement with the tribe, allowing it to resume co-management of its historical territories, functioning within the park as a quasi reservation. As part of the tribe's "natural and cultural preservation area," Hunter Mountain could see facilities for seasonal hunting and harvest camps, causing some people to question whether the plan is consistent with national park policy. (Public comments on the Draft Legislative Environmental Impact Statement, currently under review, must be received by July 22.)

Scrambling up a last rocky pitch, we find ourselves on a rolling plateau with granite outcrops jutting up from the sagebrush. To the west is the Sierra Nevada, with Mount Whitney -- the highest point in the continental U.S. -- among its snow-covered peaks. In the other direction, 7,000 feet below us (and twice that far under the Sierra crest), is the deepest hole in the Western Hemisphere: Death Valley itself, yellow brown and hazy in the heat.

Not surprisingly, from this divide we haul some serious derrihre, tooling downhill on a modest grade over undulant sagebrush plains. But when the road begins to drop in earnest, plunging 1,500 feet through a steep series of switchbacks full of loose dirt and rock, I locate my Achilles' heel. You need some speed over rocky sections to keep moving, but whenever I let go of the brakes, I plummet like a meteor, requiring a lock-skid every few seconds to check my snowballing momentum. Thus do I proceed downhill in a halting version of hurry-up-and-wait: braking and accelerating, braking and accelerating, applying all my strength to the task of simply controlling my speed. When I finally reach the bottom of the hill, I find myself uncharacteristically grateful that a descent is over.

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To make matters even more tiring, the air is now downright hot. The pinyons and junipers have suddenly vanished, leaving only Joshua trees for "shade." Guzzling Gatorade and inhaling tortilla chips, we set up a tarp for lunch while debating the merits of the Tuareg wardrobe, that traditional Saharan costume consisting of dark robes and hoods. ("It's probably just that you don't have to wash it," Boyd opines.) Then, overtaken by post-dining malaise -- and the need to adhere to a daily timetable -- we opt for four-wheeled transit to our next camp spot, the abandoned site of Lost Burro Mine, still 10 miles distant.

The mine turns out to be carved from terraces -- yet another in the endless series of such impossibly hopeful projects undertaken in these parts. From the site, a footpath leads across a ridge with a partial view of the Racetrack to the west, the dry lake's dark surrounding slopes demarcating the edge of the playa like paint. The trail is decorated at intervals by scarlet Indian paintbrush; the better to behold the blooms, Boyd bends over and tears some brush from around a flower. I don't know whether to be encouraged by this apparent interest in "flora" or annoyed at the typical urge to manage nature for human amusement. Is this a hollow objection from someone who has transported himself into the desert on tires?

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The next morning Charlie, who drove his '86 Jeep Wagoneer over Hunter Mountain, has a chance to get his ya-yas out. Descending on his bike past Perdido Canyon through gravel-choked Lost Burro Gap, he finds that he gets bogged down if his speed falls below 25 mph; thus, he has no choice but to show his stuff on his state-of-the-art steed, careening through the deep mounds of scree, popping wheelies on hard-packed dirt and skidding to a spewing stop at Teakettle Junction, where a signpost is hung with every conceivable kind and color of water-boiling vessel, all contributed by passersby.

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At this point I mount my own demure mare for the six-mile approach to the Racetrack, which bears out my consultant's fears. It's Washboard City, offering only a sorry choice among soft sand, loose gravel and 3-inch-deep corrugations at right angles to our path. Having hoped that this ordeal would be less jarring on a bike than in a truck, I quickly learn that, on the former, bumps are transmitted directly to the body -- after a few miles, my limbs are worn out and my hands are numb. Perseverance is rewarded, however, by arrival at the Racetrack, where we're welcomed by some artsy tourists bearing cranberry juice. They seem to be practicing for the annual Burning Man ravefest in Nevada: Having been up all night, they've positioned an easy chair alongside the playa.

"It looks like a Dali painting," says Charlie, who has never seen the Racetrack before. Sure enough, there's something surreal about the deeply beige-toned dry lake with a black fortress protruding from the center of its surface. The rock "island" in the lake -- actually the peak of a mountain that stood in the valley before it was filled by alluvial deposits -- is called the "Grandstand"; supposedly Indians once gathered there to watch horse races on the playa, but since I'm not aware of an equestrian component in Shoshone culture, I think this may be apocryphal.

Almost as mythical, though more verifiable, are the Racetrack's rocks. Many people have documented skid tracks, some as long as 650 feet, made by stones across the lake surface; the rocks seem to move only when nobody's around, sometimes reversing their own trails and even traveling in circles. This was a matter of much metaphysical conjecture until 1968, when scientists determined that the area sometimes receives enough rain or snow to soak the surface of the playa, enabling 70-mile-per-hour winds to push rocks across the mud and ice.

About the same time that this rock study was happening, another mystery was solved in these parts. In September 1969, when some Park Service earth-moving equipment was burned near the Racetrack, a search for the arsonists followed our route in reverse, backtracking over Hunter Mountain into Panamint Valley. When the law caught up with the perpetrators, they turned out to be members of the Charles Manson family, who -- yet unknown to the authorities -- had committed the Tate-LaBianca murders earlier that year. They were holed up in the Panamint Mountains, from which they made forays on dune buggies into nearby areas such as the Saline basin. From there they'd gone up Lippincott Mine Road, which the Park Service had been working to close after two people died from dehydration when their vehicle got stuck there in 1967. The warning sign at the top of the road had only recently been erected when the Manson people came through.

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Lippincott Road has since been reopened, but where the sign once marked the western boundary of Death Valley National Monument, the road is now part of the expanded park. It happens to provide the shortest route into Saline Valley from Death Valley's northernmost ranger station, so during the recent El Niqo winter --when the main passes to the basin were snowed in -- the Park Service decided to improve the road, grading the surface with heavy equipment and repairing washouts by hand. This served to raise the ire of both four-wheel-drive enthusiasts (who want challenges) and environmentalists (who want access to remain difficult). To both sides, it seemed to confirm fears that the Park Service aimed to domesticate the desert.

To me and my self-interested cycling companions, the situation promises that the road is at least passable, though even this is an ephemeral proposition. As handwritten testimony on the sign reveals, storms damaged the route the previous fall, and even after the washouts got fixed, a disabled vehicle blocked the road for almost a month. A ranger has recently assured me, though, that the way is now clear. Indeed, some old hands have been heard to grumble that once-infamous Lippincott Road is now practically suitable for two-wheel drive.

This makes it slightly embarrassing for me to abandon the idea of two-wheeled travel within a few minutes of beginning the descent.

A mere hundred yards below the top, Lippincott Road consists entirely of stone outcrops: rough technical sections, sufficiently lengthy that my patented technique -- shooting quickly down over the rocks, then braking on the dirt -- is impossible. This terrain requires more skill, positioning one's weight far behind the saddle and picking a course carefully, but not too haltingly, else an "endo" inspire a somersault. Given a certain level of proficiency, this kind of riding is largely mental: "Abandon yourself to fate and you can do it," suspensionless Bob advises. "If you think about stopping, you're dead." But perhaps harboring the memory of a recent crash (on the infamous Repack Trail in Marin, resulting in a current case of poison oak), my fate looms too large in the rocks. Discretion being the better part, I dismount and trade places with Boyd behind the wheel of my truck.

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He and Downhill Charlie disappear right away. Gritting my teeth as I grip the wheel, I inch down at 2 mph in low-range four-wheel drive, hardly daring to look out the window, where a cliff falls 500 feet to the bottom of the canyon. Some of the switchbacks are so tight that multiple K-turns are required to negotiate them, and by the time the front wheels clear, I'm worried that a rear one might drop into the abyss inside the hairpin. After what seems like a very long time, the sprawling brown bajadas of Saline Valley finally become visible through the windshield, the Nelson Range diving in from the south to intersect the snowcapped Inyo Mountains.

We regroup at the bottom of the canyon. Boyd announces that he found the road "fun"; Charlie, who had earlier proclaimed that "terrain isn't really an issue" for him, admits that at one point he went over the handlebars. "I didn't get hurt," he reassures us. "I was going too slow. Most downhill racecourses aren't that rough." Crawling out from behind the wheel of Charlie's boatlike Jeep, Bob says that even in a car he found the descent exhausting. "My sphincter was contracted so tight that I went anaerobic," he explains.

The road has also taken a toll on the vehicles. One of my truck tires has a sidewall gash, and the Jeep's steering column is coming loose. But since both remain marginally drivable, we elect to hightail it out of Saline Valley, fleeing the 90-degree temperatures at the bottom of the basin. It takes two hours of washboard vibration to reach 7,000-foot North Pass, where we camp in the shadow of Waucoba Mountain, still sporting vertical streaks of snow on its forested northeast face. The pinyons are enormous here, filtering both the sun and the wind and providing plenty of branches for our gear: a Coleman lantern, a solar shower and a Camelbak hydration bladder. As we hunker down for dinner in the dark, Boyd says the best thing about the place is the sound of wind in the trees. I don't let on that this evidences any appreciation of flora.

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After detouring into Owens Valley to look after our limping vehicles, we revisit the desert over another route, following the Death Valley Road from Big Pine into Eureka Valley. At the top of the 7,000-foot divide that separates the two, Bob and Charlie mount their bikes for a paved descent. This is the kind of riding that you can't do on dirt: putting your face behind the bars, drafting each other into the wind, sweeping through curves at 40 mph. The sun is setting behind our backs as we head east into the gigantic landscape, the late light etching the world before us into glowing copper hills and dark violet canyons. When we reach the floor of Eureka Valley, the wind turns around and blows us toward the dunes at the far eastern end of the basin. By the time the sunlight leaves the desert, we're exhilarated.

Our plan for the final leg of the trip is to follow the so-called Eureka-Saline corridor, a 25-mile jeep path leading from the Eureka Dunes over 5,000-foot Steel Pass back to the Saline Valley hot springs, a noted destination for desert -- er -- "buffs." Along the way, it supposedly passes by Marble Bath, a spot that appears on local maps, probably referring to a seasonal tinaja that fills with water during rains. Reportedly, though, some desert wag, aiming to fulfill the promise on the map, hauled in an iron bathtub and filled it with 170,000 marbles.

Departing after the dawn does its number on the dunes (second tallest in the United States at 700 feet), we encounter a not-unpredictable impediment: On the valley floor, the road is so sandy that it's often impossible to keep riding. Except for the fact that it doesn't stick to your tires, sand is like mud in its effect; even on level ground, it requires a low gear and a lot of effort -- you just keep straining on the pedals, then break out cursing when you're forced to a stop. In such conditions, there's scant distinction between biking and hiking, except for the fact that you have to push a 25-pound machine.

As the route ascends the alluvial slope from the valley floor, the loose sand turns to loose rock. It gets softer yet as we enter the narrows of Dedeckera Canyon (named for Mary Dedeckera, a noted botanist from Owens Valley), where, a few years ago, a miner dumped several tons of gravel to ease the drive. That was a definite no-no, although the place (which has since been partially restored) is still clearly distinguishable from a freeway. Watching my truck bounce over the boulders with Bob behind the wheel, I worry about anything in the back that might be made of glass.

The corridor soon widens into a classic Western canyon, lined by brown volcanic cliffs and filled with singing birds. The two-track has a choice of colors: gray for gravel on the left, red for dirt on the right. I pick red and settle into a rhythm, sipping regularly from the water bag on my back and varying my grip so my hands won't go numb. Joshua trees reappear around me as I continue to gain elevation; it's hot riding south into the sun, but the higher I go, the cooler the air, aided by a breeze blowing down out of Steel Pass.

On completing the 2,000-foot climb, I find myself facing the hard part. In 10 more miles to the hot springs, the Eureka-Saline corridor falls 3,000 feet, at least a third of which elevation is lost within the first couple of miles. It's a very steep and skittish descent -- the kind of thing that spoiled Hunter Mountain and removed me from my bike altogether on Lippincott Road. Steel Pass connects the Saline Range with the Last Chance Mountains, and in light of my previous nonperformance, it indeed represents a final opportunity for redemption. Will I return home a mountain biker, or will I remain a road rider in my heart of hearts?

Cowabunga!

In seconds I'm sweeping through curves in cliffs that frame the ghost-white Saline playa, which shimmers like a fever dream 3,000 feet below. The route quickly becomes an obstacle course conceived in a fiendish conspiracy with gravity, dropping over big rocks into piles of pillowy gravel -- an unrelenting push-pull exercise that, counterintuitive to conventional wisdom, requires brute force through the soft stuff and delicate balance on the hard. Again and again I'm forced almost to a stop, but finally manage to shoot forward when the tires get a grip; summoning all my attentiveness and chutzpah, chanting Schenker's advice like a mantra ("If you think about stopping, you're dead"), grunting and growling like a pro wrestler as impediments threaten to halt my progress and send me sprawling over the ropes -- I mean, onto the rocks -- I somehow manage to stay upright and mobile even on the steepest pitches. I'm amazed anew at the psychological dimension of mountain biking, the main trick being to choose a line of attack and then look down the trail, not at the thing you want to avoid.

Eventually and inevitably, the grade gets more gradual, descending so gently over the bajada as to seem almost level. It's unmistakably an alluvial plain, composed of stones of every size, washed down from the mountains to create a sloping fan. The route follows a wash whose walls are as tall as I am, its eroded channel exposing the composition of the bajada, lithic deposits welded into the sand to establish an earthen travertine fortress. At the same time, delicate purple gillia grow up out of the roadbed, evoking that contrast of fragility and toughness so characteristic of the desert. Unfortunately, this exquisite paradox is lost on Boyd, who has regressed in his ecological appreciation: When we started in the morning, he'd admired some orange mallows in the road, but now the only flora he claims to notice are "the bloomin' rocks." He theorizes that if we factored in all the up and down we've done over the washboards, the trip would include several thousand more feet of elevation gain and loss.

Shaking and baking without cessation, we keep up a good head of steam all the way to the springs -- weaving around the lava, fishtailing through the scree, maintaining a light touch on the bars to lessen the effect of the bumps and allow the tires to track, finding their own path of least resistance. From start to finish, this has been an exercise in riding (as opposed to driving) a bicycle: allowing the land to dictate one's attitude, both physical and mental, on the machine. When we finally reach the valley floor, heralded by a giant peace sign scraped on a nearby cinder cone, the air temperature is almost 100; while it might not seem that 105-degree water would offer much refreshment, after we strip and shower at the oasis, the air feels utterly balmy.

Pretty soon Bob and Charlie arrive in the four-wheeled vehicles. They haven't gone any faster than Boyd and I on our bikes, although they testify to more fatigue. The Jeep has broken a front shock, and its transmission will barely make it home. This seems somewhat beyond the call of duty for the sake of a bike trip, but then we've learned a lot of lessons. I now understand, for example, that climbing can be more fun than descending, that a headwind isn't necessarily bad if it cools you off, that a bike will go over amazingly rough ground if you just let it roll and -- perhaps most generally useful of all -- that if you want to make progress without crashing, look where you want to go and not where you don't.

Belying the crowds that bespeak a need for greater control of the voluntarily maintained springs (the Park Service has been pushing for mandatory visitor registration, walk-in campsites, the shutdown of two makeshift airstrips and co-management by the Timbisha Shoshones, who disapprove of public nudity), there's nobody around in the middle of the week except for a small group playing poker in their birthday suits in the shade. But as we rest and rehydrate in the pools, gazing back up the bajada where we've been, we're joined by the inevitable intruders: A trio of burros ambles out of the desert to graze nearby, and a jet fighter comes screaming over our heads a few hundred feet off the ground.

Still, the place is such an ideal endpoint that I hardly mind. Watching the plane twist and turn over the mind-boggling basin, I wonder which offers a more revealing ride: the aircraft with its bird's-eye view and supersonic speed or the human-powered devices that take half a day to go two dozen miles, feeling every feature of the obdurate terrain?


David Darlington

David Darlington is the author of "Area 51: The Dreamland Chronicles," "The Mojave: A Portrait of the Definitive American Desert," "Angels' Visits: An Inquiry into the Mystery of Zinfandel" and "In Condor Country: A Portrait of a Landscape, Its Denizens and Its Defenders."

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