I’ve always been particularly drawn to distinct landscapes and anomalies in geography. This appeal generally acts as the foundation to my pre-trip planning process. Tell me a route is the oldest, deepest, biggest, or driest and you’ve got my interest.
Which is how I came to be traveling from the lowest point in the continental United States, Death Valley, to the highest: Mt Whitney, 14,495 feet with a friend in October. We were following the fabled Low 2 High route, roughly 135 miles and is marked by extremes in elevation gain and loss; nearly 31,000ft. The sum of which is more climbing than Mt Everest from sea level.
A word about geography: Whitney towers over the Owens Valley, nearly 10,000 feet below, acting as a way marker to the Eastern Sierra. Death Valley National Park lies just 85 miles to the east, is home to the lowest point in the continental United States, and holds the record for the highest recorded temperature on earth; a balmy 134 degrees Fahrenheit.
(The Low 2 High route was largely conceived by fellow adventurer Brett Tucker and is loosely based on the Badwater 135 ultra marathon race.)
We began our trek in Badwater Basin on October 24th, just two weeks after a record-breaking rainstorm deposited 3 inches of precipitation across Death Valley in just a few hours. This was 150 percent above their annual rainfall.
In the wake of this flash flood, the former legendary salt flats of Badwater Basin were transformed into tranquil Lake Manly, a rarely seen body of water nearly two feet deep. Our route started, ironically, with longest ford of my life, a three-mile gaunt of mud and muck across Badwater Basin. It was an eerie feeling standing there alone, gazing across this body of water, not entirely sure how deep this ford was going to get. This level of uncertainty would be a constant companion for the remaining miles.
To start the hike we had a 3mi ford across Badwater basin due to the recent flash flooding that occurred in the park. Apparently the rarely seen lake is called 'Lake Manly'. All images: Shawn Forry
Texture of the 'playa' salt flats in Badwater Basin.
Scraping the mud and debris off my Oboz Switchbacks, 11,000-foot Telescope Peak towered above us. This cross-country trek up Hanaupah Canyon would be the next waypoint along our route. Hanaupah Spring, 15 miles into the trek, would be our first indicator spring to gauge how dependent each of our future water sources might be. Our primary concern was the upcoming 65 mile waterless stretch between China Garden Spring and the town of Lone Pine; yet another challenge along the route of extremes.
There's a pair of OBOZ under there somewhere! Our 3mi water ford across Badwater Basin quickly turned into an extended two mile mud slog.
Perched along a ridge top bluff, exhausted after knocking out 7000ft of continuous climbing, we set up our first of five campsites. Cooking dinner under the evening light, our extended solitude was briefly interrupted by a 400-pound bighorn sheep barreling down the ridge side, myself narrowly being trampled by mere feet. Equally startled, the muscular silhouette of the sheep caught its breath and moved on as is nothing had happened. We resumed our dinner as well, content with this exploit that only remote wilderness experiences can present.
Remains of a bighorn sheep deep within Wildrose Canyon. Likely the distant cousin of the sheep who nearly trampled me the night prior.
The route has an interesting mix of solitude and interface. Along the connecting ridge between Telescope Peak and Rogers Peak, we were greeted by early morning summit-hopefuls. Each friendly hello was juxtaposed by looks of confusion as we dove off the well-manicured trails into a sea of sagebrush along our descent into Wildrose Canyon. We also discovered ancient mining claims, relics, and trinkets along the way. Complete desolation could not have been more present as we traversed the moonscape playa of Panamint Valley, strictly under moonlight.
History is lost in the desert. You never know what you're going to stumble across.
Night shot of us crossing the playa slat flats to beat the heat. We timed the route perfectly with the full moon. It was an amazing experience to hike without headlamp across the barren moonscape.
It’s amazing to me what lies hidden just out of site from commonplace.
If you push on, just a little further from where most turn around, the greatest discoveries often exist. Darwin Falls is a classic example of this. Most people trek a quarter mile to the lower falls and feel content. Few realize that by scrambling past the perceived ‘point of no return’ delivers an entirely different immersion in Darwin Canyon.
We stood in awe at how the upper falls had carved a lush line of green over the course of millennia into the barren rock face. Despite our best efforts, the inaccessibility of the tranquil pools below left this beauty best observed from afar. Emerging from the upper limits of the canyon revealed open countryside; vastness best navigated by dead reckoning. We narrowed our sites on a distance landmark, only self-correcting by putting one foot in front of the other.
Surprises are around every corner in the desert. This is upper Darwin Falls, a reprise and oasis from the parched landscape.
Joshua Tree and typical cross-country travel across Death Valley. It’s intimidating and freeing to point a point far on the horizon and walk towards it.
By following long forgotten mining roads and right-of-ways we could feel the landscape evolving and taking shape underfoot. Linking into the Inyo Mountains, one gains a rare glimpse of the eastern flank of the Sierra. The abandoned mining town of Cerro Gordo stands as a distant reminder of the boom and glory that these hills once held.
The route passes through the historical ghost town of Cerro Gordo, which was huge silver mine in the late 1800's. The diversity in landscape and context is prevalent throughout the hike.
The magnitude of the Owens Valley is hard to perceive, let alone translate. From this vantage point we could tick off the silhouette of distant namesakes and recall prior experiences there within—Horseshoe Meadows, Mt Langley, Miter Basin. As the eye moves north progress is palpable as we neared Mt Whitney. I can’t help but think of early pioneers forging their way through this landscape under strict trial and error; the evolution of survival into recreation.
A rarely seen perspective of the High Sierra and Mt Whitney looking across the Owens Valley. The route incorporates long forgotten 4x4 roads to link into the Sierra Nevada.
Pushing the shoulder season into late October, we knew this trip would likely be the last of the season. In thinking of how we wanted to create a bookend to the experience, we opted to explore a few new areas in the Whitney vicinity over culminating on the summit proper.
Our route deviated from the Whitney Portal Trail and crossed over Russell Col into the upper reaches of Tulainyo Lake. Atop the col, our descent was punctuated by blustery winds and talus barely blanketed in snow, a dire combination that expedites the urgency of descent. Lower down in Wallace Creek drainage, the impending lure of winter was evident by the hues of amber across the willows.
Enjoying the solitude and fall foliage in Wallace Creek drainage.
Now well into the alpine, a stark difference what we found a mere 100 miles to the east. As the sun drooped behind a façade of granite peaks, a sense of being the last to exit the Sierra came over me.
Final sunset illuminating Hitchcock Peak.
We wrapped around Hitchcock Lakes Basin and I couldn’t help reflect back on the hordes of hikers that descend upon this popular area in the summer.
One last look in the Sierra before winter. Nacho's and my parting shot of the High Sierra for the winter.
With the last rays of sun hitting Guitar Lake, we had this place to ourselves; a curtain call of sorts and a fitting end to this wild and varied traverse between the lowest and the highest of terrains. As I, this place would lie dormant until spring
Shawn Forry is a California-based adventurer who has walked countless miles and who completed a winter traverse of the Pacific Crest Trail last season. Read more about his travels at shawnforry.com.