Death in the Valley – Team AWOL
Words by Erik Nohlin, Garrett Chow, Dylan Buffington, Sean Estes
Photos by Erik Nohlin and Dylan Buffington
“Let’s ride into the middle of the desert on our bikes.”
It was plain and simple. This was the brief that convinced a few friends to dive into Death Valley head first. We planned the trip in three weeks, the drive took 7 hours, and all of a sudden our feet were planted on the dirt of the Inyo Mountain Range that would lead us into Death Valley. We were set for an adventure but what we found was an epic one.
On long rides, moments and memories start to blend into each other, making it hard to differentiate this mountain from the next, that turn from this bend. As part of the Team AWOL spirit, there is a responsibility to tell a story. Whether that be with photos or reports, every rider will explain the pain of a climb a little differently than the next. This is something that is taken to heart especially when riding with a group. In this report, we are including everyone’s voice as a way to adjust the method of storytelling. We find this to be essential to understanding the bigger picture. Not only do we view and take in the photographs, but the style and reflections in each of their writings bring unique perspectives to understanding the truth in the story…
ERIK NOHLIN’S RIDE JOURNAL
The route I mapped looked like this: 3,5 days of riding. 372 km total (230 miles) 7130 m climb (24.000ft) 7129 m descent. Stage 1 Tuesday – 85 km – Sleep outside Saline Hot (water found here) Stage 2 Wednesday – 125 km – Sleep outside Racetrack Playa (no water) Stage 3 Thursday – 100 km – Sleep somewhere random (no water) Stage 4 Friday – 60 km – Drive home via a big ass dinner in Bishop.
I deliberately left out a lot of details to the crew. Nowadays you can go everywhere and see every view and zoom behind the next crest in a second on Google Maps. You can ruin any adventure in advance and we opted for the unknown. To me, not knowing what’s next is crucial to a good adventure and a huge part of what it is going AWOL. A paper map, 4 gallons of water, a big knife a Sindawg and we’re ready to go. With 3 other strong riders used to pushing long and hard miles, I had the feeling it would just be slightly outside our comfort zones, but I was so wrong. Looking at distances and elevation is one thing. Adding the weight of the water, mechanical breakdowns, broken panniers, racks, water bladders, flats and the countless setbacks our equipment faced during our first day of washboard mayhem on the endless jeep roads of Death Valley.
I constantly had to adjust the routes, targets, improvise and revise my ego along the route. My bike was intact and my mindset was on full throttle towards conquering the relentless mountain passes the coming days but our team was not convinced. – Can we even make it in the state our equipment is in, is it safe, do we have enough water having lost so much? The doubt made perfect sense. Having two ears and one mouth in a situation like this could be the difference between life and death. There is the aspect of us just doing stupid things like riding 373 kilometers unsupported through Death Valley and there’s the aspect of stupid and stubbornness that gets you killed.
On the third day, Thursday morning, I told the team I would accept any decision they were comfortable with but return to this fucking desert and own it. There was something compelling in the thought of riding the unrideable terrain over Steel Pass, especially since everyone we met told us it wasn’t doable. Other people’s doubt and prompt nos, triggers the most primal stupidity in me and I wanted nothing but to do it. I swallowed my pride and we returned back the way we arrived, through the North Western gate, riding less than a third of the distance. We all learned shit tons about ourselves, each other and how not to face death in the valley.
There is stupid and stupid – don’t be stupid!
We woke up at 0715h to catch the sunrise. A fully nuked sunrise is a tradition, and to us it was also the initiation to enter the mountains. With gear checked and water bottles filled there wasn’t much else to do. 100 yards in we were descending a 17% dry washboard hillside that roasted brakes, shook our bolts loose and left us with the reality of where we really were, in Death-fucking-Valley.
Only a few miles from the turnoff on Death Valley Road, is Marble Canyon. At the bottom of the switchbacks is an old mine that yielded gold in the late 1800’s. These mines tapped into placer deposits of gold at the bottom of a dried-up stream bed. Now, from the trail, there are still a few structures standing but the mines are closed off. When Garrett and Dylan visited the area in 2013, there were Hantavirus warnings. So be careful exploring the buildings and don’t breathe too deep. Also, keep an eye up and watch your ears, as the Air Force uses this mountain range for showboatin’. It’s not uncommon for an F-15 to buzz your brain bucket when rolling through these canyons.
GARRETT CHOW’S RIDE JOURNAL
“The journey is the destination…”. “Slow and steady wins the race…” . “That was some of the best flying I’ve seen to date – right up to the part where you got killed. You never, never leave your wingman, Maverick…”
These phrases turned over in my head, jagged rocks being polished in the stone-tumbler of my mind as I peddled up an interminable climb from the valley floor.
Prior to this trip, my M.O. for multi-day bike-touring had been a focus on simple, pared-down credit card camping, with an emphasis on speed. Where I’d ridden 10 days with just a small backpack and my 14 pound road bike with nary a saddle-bag strapped to it, I now found myself grinding a behemoth weighing two-thirds my body’s weight, coaxing it over washboard-rutted dirt and through sand-drifts. Gone were the days of pulling over at a road-side convenience mart to grab a mid-ride Coke when, and as I pleased. Death Valley found me astride a two-wheeled yard-sale including 4 gallons of drinking water, and all food and equipment needed for just three days in the desert. This was a different animal altogether.
Where before the ‘norm’ had been 10 days with maybe one flat tire, within the first 10 miles of this trip I’d managed total failures on all four panniers’ mounting hardware – including a crash when one pannier flew free from its rack and into and around my front hub – jettisoned water bottles, and a lost water-bottle cage; and flats too numerous to recall. That a guardian angel presently arrived in the form of a 4-wheeler who gave us bailing-wire to repair our broken equipment was not lost on the group’s collective realization that the stakes of this particular journey were upping with each passing mile.
By day’s end, we’d covered just 40 miles. A certain resolve is required to best manage distances hard-fought and wracked with difficulty and tribulation. The phrase, “the worst day on the bike is better than the best day in the office” comes to mind. However, an internal recognition that one has put himself in that particular spot of his own volition better frames things –I wanted to be there, in that moment. Fun can take on different meaning to different people, and we were having the times of our lives.
As the trail went on it became very clear that the washboard would be our biggest threat. The rapid oscillations in the dirt rattled not only our bodies and joints but also our bikes. It was these bumps that would single-handedly destroy our equipment piece by piece. A handful of zip ties, twisted steel wire, duct tape, and a tire-iron splint were the only way we could hold Garrett’s panniers together. After every descent we would come to a stop, mend our wounds and get back on. And of course someone would always say, “Let’s take it easy” but before we could react we were barreling back down the hill. No one could resist letting go of the brakes and letting these battleships smash through the wide turns that lead us into the valley floor. Coasting into the flats, our brake rotors would be torched, leaving them stained with a rainbow hue.
But, regardless of the constraints and conflicts we face, we really can’t take things so seriously. If four guys in the middle of the desert sing the entire Top Gun soundtrack and no one is there to hear it, did it ever happen? Can a hungry burro eat an entire book whole without leaving a trace? Are slingshots truly necessary? Can an entire Sindawg be eaten in under five minutes? These might have possibly been some serious conceptual issues we faced.
We spent some time exploring the Valley. The route through Steels Pass has been washed out in August of 2013, which had left a mess of the trail, making it only passable by experienced 4 wheelers. This trail would eventually lead to the Eureka Dunes which are a must-see for team AWOL. On the opposite side of the lakebed is the Lippincott Climb. Which is said to be very loose and primarily shale, is cautioned even to 4×4 trucks with high clearance. At the end of Lippincott is Racetrack Valley, a valley famous for its walking rocks. This route would turn any trip up to 11. These climbs were on the original route, but with our growing number of mechanical issues, we realized that we would have to reassess our plan. These are landmarks that are now hovering over our heads, leaving us with only one choice, to go back.
DYLAN BUFFINGTON’S RIDE JOURNAL
When I go on trips, the gear I have out in the middle of nowhere ends up being everything I was able to fit in my backpack before I left the house. Sometimes this can turn out to be an unfortunate ending. Not having the things you need can be very dangerous. Having checklists, repacking and repacking to jog your memory are only a few things you can do that can cover your tracks. But, it’s inevitable that you will forget something behind. But this can also turn out to be a blessing in disguise. I knew the weather in Death Valley was going to be clear for the entire time we were out there.
Temperatures ranged from low 50s to high 80s. – A few hundred miles later, the sun had set and we had been riding for nine hours into the desert. I pulled out my sleeping gear and sure enough, the sleeping mat I had planned to bring was sitting on my dining room table next to the two beer bottles that I now am blaming. I spent some time thinking about what I could do; laying out clothes, sleeping on a towel, using bushes. These were all bad Ideas, and the only good idea I had was to sleep on the damn ground.
There wasn’t a single moment that I regretted it. I spent the nights watching stars, feeling the warm sand underneath me. The sun would bake the desert during the day which would in turn keep me warm at night. And I would keep my eyes up watching the sky, following the meteors that had been streaking the sky for the past few days. Every morning I would wake up to a golden tear on the horizon, splitting the dark violet of the night sky and the black silhouette of the mountain ranges. It’s at this point that I wouldn’t mind if I had forgotten everything at home. Sometimes it’s ok to leave things at home.
The fight was not against the distance, but the terrain that defined it. Every mile on this gravel would feel similar to 20 miles on road. A day of 40 miles consisted of sparing every sip of water and eating calorie-rich foods. We would hide food in different pockets in hopes to trick ourselves to not gorge. A pro tip; A carrot at the bottom of your bag soon became a fresh juicy glowing holy grail since you had only been eating dry energy bars before that. Regulating your food intake and constantly considering your hydration became exhausting. It was your mind fighting your gut.
A lot of things can go wrong in the desert. It’s easy to strain your body and mind. It’s best to keep your mind clear, especially from negative vibes. If one person is stressed, it becomes infectious, only making the miles ahead so much worse. Make sure your whole group is informed, Talk to each other. Breaks, food, water, and jokes are all a necessity. We were lucky enough to have the most bad ass crew of outdoor legends. We all had experience in different fields, whether it be touring, repair, riding, exploring and we all knew what the next step would be.
SEAN ESTES’S RIDE JOURNAL
I’m no stranger to the outdoors – I’m fairly well versed in the arts of camping, backpacking, and mountain biking, in fact. But combining the three, riding a bicycle off-road and fully unsupported across Death-fucking-Valley? That was going to be a totally new thing for me, and no bullshit, I was more than a little bit intimidated. Based on the looks I got from some of my more hardcore outdoorsy friends when I told them of our plans, I think my trepidation was justified. I mean, there’s a reason they didn’t name the place Peaches & Cream Valley. They named it Death Valley precisely because it’s an incredibly inhospitable place, all but devoid of the basic elements needed to support life. Basically, a gigantic sponge sucking up life-force like so much spilled milk.
We left at sundown and drove straight through the night, arriving to the drop off point at 2am. After a short sleep in the back of the van, we awoke just in time to catch one of the more spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen. Light crept over the horizon, slowly stripping the granite walls of the jagged eastern Sierra of their jet-black nighttime cloak, exposing vivid hues of pastel orange, indigo and violet. Like a neon ‘open’ sign in a storefront slowly flickering to life after a long, cold night. We ate a light breakfast of oats, dried fruit and coffee, topped off our water, high-fived and set off into the valley below.
We would emerge 3 days, an abandoned mine or two, a dozen or so Burro’s, and countless miles of kidney-jarring washboard peaks and valleys later. We’d encountered, and more importantly overcome, no shortage of hardship along the way. Myriad mechanical issues, water shortages, flash flood ravaged mountain passes – you name it, we ran into it. It’s no exaggeration to say the trip was not at all what we expected. But that is by no means to say any one of us left there the least bit disappointed.
On the contrary, it was so much more than we ever could have hoped for – each trial and tribulation provided a chance to see, in an immediate and tangible fashion, the direct correlation between problem and solution, and even more importantly, it challenged us to combine forces and form a unit that was greater than the sum of its parts. Both of which were deeply satisfying feelings, particularly in this pseudo self-dependent day and age in which we live.
Not to be overlooked each hang-up, each test of patience, also served as a reminder to slow. the. fuck. down. and enjoy the now. There was no reason whatsoever to rush things out there. No clocks let alone deadlines, no ever-growing to-do lists, best of all no goddamned meeting requests. We had literally everything we needed to survive, right there on us. Nothing more and nothing less.
Once I’d let go of the real world and leaned into the brutal, beautiful simplicity of the great wild, I knew everything was going to be just fine.
Something that has come clear is that you can’t catch every moment. Eventually, you will realize that’s its ok to leave a lot of those memories behind. It might be because you can’t photograph, or maybe there’s no way to describe what you saw. Death Valley is full of these. We left a lot of secrets in that desert, stories that can only be found if you follow our tracks out into the wilderness.
We are excited to get out there again. The roads have been discovered, and the land has been surveyed, but to us, this is uncharted territory and Death Valley is our highway to the danger zone. There is so much to see in such a vast landscape. It is our promise that AWOLs will walk with the stones of Racetrack Valley, conquer Steel Pass and they will be lost in the Eureka Dunes, because this is where we need to be.