2nd Death Valley Expedition – Ray Zahab, Will Laughlin 

mountains-Death Valley
Ray Zahab, Will Laughlin
July 6, 2019
Death Valley, CA, USA
July 7, 2019
Death Valley, CA, USA

In 2019 Ray Zahab and Will Laughlin traversed Death Valley National Park (DVNP) together for the 2nd time. In summer 2011 Ray Zahab and Will Laughlin traversed Death Valley National Park (DVNP) off-road, through intense heat every terrain imaginable. It took them 4,5 days to cross the roughly 250km, with limited crew access at road crossings. A tough expedition.

This time they decided on ‘attempting to transect’ Death Valley from West to East, which would mean crossing both the Panamint Mountain and Amargosa Mountain Ranges, and cross Death Valley.

They started on the western side of the park at Surprise Canyon. The terrain varied from washed-out road up to no trail, steep scree slopes, rock walls, high forest and cactus.
Luckily flowing streams supplied water to filter until they reached their first resupply cache, stashed dozens of kilometres away, over Panamint Pass at roughly 8,000ft.

“This place is deadly but gorgeous,” is how Ray describes the views.
“A bit freaky trying to stay focused without sailing off one of these cliffs, we took our time on every step, and had each other’s backs. Then, the insanity began. I knew when researching our designed route that there would be thick vegetation in the top of Johnson Canyon, but I had no idea how dense it was going to be. Will and I hit a 5 foot high wall of sharp, thorny, almost impenetrable mix of various plant life- all with the mission of keeping us out! We did our best to fight through, and spent tons of time scrambling precariously up the sides of the cliffs which the vegetation was tight against, side to side. Occasionally if we were lucky we would find a burro track, but most of our time was spent clinging to loose rock.”

They passed abandoned mining villages, had a few close calls with bee swarms and rattlesnakes before leaving the canyon to descend towards Death Valley basin. That’s when they heard a rumble…and then were hit by an earthquake! “The ground shook violently, and the rockfall in the mountains and canyon walls around us was scary…we found out later we were approx 20 miles from the epicentre.”

They had stored food stash and supplies to refuel for the next leg of their journey in a cooler, covered by rocks.
Next section was to cross the Death Valley Basin, heading in the direction of Badwater. They knew from their previous North to South traverse that the salt flats in the middle of Death Valley can be filled with salty water ‘streams’, piping hot and deep mud to cross.

After resupplying from their cache in Badwater, their next big challenge was crossing Amargosa Mountains through Sheep’s Canyon Pass with shimmering canyon walls and dry waterfalls with technical scrambling elements. The canyon felt like “a cooker- with all sides beaming heat on us”. Getting to the saddle took tons of effort. The scree was loose, and the pitch was steep. We took frequent breaks, and when we topped out we once again took a few minutes to rest, drink and eat something from our packs before continuing. “

After descending into the next valley the heat was beating them down and they were both low on fluids…”we had planned and prepared as best we could for every situation, but there are no guarantees in an adventure like this, and Death Valley proved once again how aptly named it is. With just a few kilometres to go before our next cache, Will and I discussed the very real possibility of an emergency situation…there was no way we were willing to die out here.’

Luckily they met up with their photographer friend who had been making his way up the 4×4 track from the opposite direction. “Will and I guzzled water and doubled up on our Electro2 hydration salts, getting in tons more sodium and minerals our bodies needed. We both felt like crap, but we knew that together we could get this done. We reached the area of our last cache, then hung a right turn onto a gravel road, then a left turn to continue on 4×4 track up Deadman’s Pass to finish our transect. The realization I didn’t have to go any further was a welcome relief. Don’t get me wrong- I do this because I LOVE it…but I was also so exhausted and beat up, I was glad we got this done.”

On July 7, 2019, Ray and Will completed their west to east transect of Death Valley in roughly 35 hours, passing over two steep mountain ranges, cliff scrambling around and navigating through dense (and at points seemingly impossible!) brush, across salt flats, rocky washes and 4×4 track.

Image by Pixabay

2nd Death Valley Expedition – Ray Zahab, Will Laughlin


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