The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 35 & 36: Surviving the Desert

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Desert Survivors take me backpacking in one of their favorite Mojave Desert stomping grounds. This edition of The WildeBeat; Surviving the Desert.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is a combined edition of programs thirty five and thirty six.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: Last week, Steve Tabor, the president of the Berekley, California outings group, the Desert Survivors, gave us some desert backpacking tips. I had a chance to learn and use those skills myself.

DAVE: Ready for orientation? [and under]

STEVE: We're in a wilderness area of desert to the north of Joshua Tree National Park, called the Sheep Hole Valley Wilderness. Our trailhead is just north of Sheep Hole Pass. To the north and East we see a vast valley. It's dotted with small bushes, but in the distance it looks smooth and nearly flat. Many miles across the valley there's a rocky mountain range. It looks dry, and from this distance, lifeless.

DAVE HALLIGAN: OK. Well, I think we've all met, but I'm Dave Halligan, leading this trip. And I've been in Desert Survivors since nineteen ninety two. My very first trip with Desert Survivors was to these mountains with Steve Tabor, and so this is an interesting place for me to come back to. Equipment, there's nothing really too out of the ordinary for this trip. Temperatures are going to be cooler than usual for this time of year for this area. So maybe mid-fifties in the day, and forties maybe high thirties at night. There's a thirty percent chance of rain predicted for the desert region, so everybody should bring rain pants, rain jacket, hat, rain hat, and a tent. Because temperatures are cooler than normal, you could probably get by with two and a quarter, two and a half gallons. Umm, let's see. Everyone should have boots, everybody should have sun screen, I see everybody's got long pants on, which is good, 'cause there will be cat's claw acacia that we'll be going through. It looks like it's very open country out here, but it's not. It is amazing how you can just go twenty, thirty, forty meters away and not see anybody. Because of the bushes, because of the rocks, because of the terrain. So do try to keep visual contact with somebody in the group. All right, so let's get get our packs together, and put on sun screen. It doesn't seem like it's sunny, but it is, and we'll get going.

[SFX, walking]

STEVE: Our route is an arc around the abrupt north end of the Sheep Hole Mountain range. We started out walking along a truck trail. After a while, we come to a gate across the trail. The sign on the gate says, "Wilderness Boundary, vehicles prohibited." The fence ends abruptly a hundred feet or so in each direction. Instead of opening the unlocked gate, we walk around the end of the fence.

Even though the land looks flat from a distance, our route dipped several times into gullies between 3 and 6 feet deep. The walls of these gullies are steep, but not so steep that we can't walk up and down them.

[Fade out walking]

After about an hour and a half, we find a wash gully deep enough to make a sheltered campsite. It has a flat, sandy bottom, and good wind shelter. Camping in a wash is often not a good idea, but this one is safe for a couple of reasons. Only a small canyon drains into it, and there's little chance of significant rainfall this weekend.

We set up our camp, and then take a lunch break. After lunch, we day-hike down the wash.

[SFX, walking]

Along the way, we see a variety of plants, including desert lupin, smoke tree, cats claw acacia, and many others. We find small caves in the wall of the gully. Our leader's wife, Simone, investigates one of them.

SIMONE: Found a home for these rats. Oh yeah, it's a burrow for them. Look's pretty good, looks nice and cool. Kangaroo rats -- yeah, you can see the droppings.

STEVE: But there's droppings for something much larger here too. See?

DAVE: That's coyote.

MAN: Maybe the coyote had dinner here.

SIMONE: Umm. Maybe not. I'm not going to stick my hand in there.

STEVE: We've hiked for an hour, and now the wash has opened out onto the plain of the Sheep Hole Valley. From our vantage point, the only sign of human impact visible around us is a railroad track through the valley, over ten miles away, and a jet contrail in the sky. After a snack and water break there in the shade of a large creosote bush, we retrace our steps back to camp.

[Fade-in stove background]

Happy hour begins as soon as we unpack our provisions. Wine and tequila make the rounds of the kitchen area. A relaxed cooking and dining session follows, lasting until after dark. Some of us brought conventional dehydrated backpacking food. But others brought fresh food, and food items that still contain a lot of water. After all, since we have to carry all of our water anyway, what difference does it make that some of it is in the food we brought? I thought it might be hard to be really frugal with water, but it really wasn't.

DAVE: Tomorrow I want to get up early, get going as soon as we can. Just as soon as it's getting light I'll get going. We probably have a six-to-eight hour round-trip day hike tomorrow. We're going to have to go up and over a little ridge -- this. It's not going to be that rocky, and then down and then up to the mountain. So it'll be a full day. We didn't make the peak in ninety two because we selected a route that was somewhat difficult and I've selected a route that's going to be easier I think, based on everything I know to date. It's the route the Sierra club takes when they go up to the peak.

STEVE: The temperature dropped abruptly at sunset. Everyone was in down jackets by five thirty. The conversation winds down, and we retire to the relative warmth of our bedding by seven.

The night is intensely quiet. I awake during the night, and hear the blood, rushing through my ears. That's interrupted occasionally by wind gusts that cause the tent fly to flap. I hear the screech of an occasional owl, and at one point, the low throbbing of a train.

In the morning, our gully is still shady after sunrise. After an expedient breakfast, we gather our gear for the ambitious day hike.

[SFX scrambling]

The route is steep. We climb over a saddle near our camp site, to the opposite side of the mountain range. The hillside is loose rock and sand.

Over the saddle, we walk down one shallow wash, and up another.

DAVE: We're going to continue on the flat wash here until we get to the base of the gully. You can see where the sun's shining on the rocks, then we're just going to continue up the gully that heads a little bit back toward the left. And then it's about a two thousand foot climb to the crest of the mountains and then we'll just continue on the crest. The crest is supposed to be fairly easy for about a mile, and then a little boulder scramble to the summit... Sheephole Mountain, it's about forty nine hundred foot elevation. Should be very nice views of Joshua Tree National Park to the south, and the Mojave desert to the east.

STEVE: The remainder of the climb is a hands and feet scramble. I stow my dangling audio gear into my backpack, so that I can climb.

STEVE: Since I'm carrying my audio gear, I've chosen to wait at the top of the ridge, rather than do the exposed bouldering on the last three hundred feet to the summit. But from the ridge, I see snow-capped peaks to the west in the San Gabriel mountains, a hundred miles away, and peaks to the north in Death Valley, a hundred and twenty miles away.

Paul is a member of our party, and another Desert Survivors leader.

PAUL: It was just awesome. It was just really, really beautiful. You know, three hundred sixty degree view with at least a hundred miles visibility in any direction. Seeing the incredible expanse of Eastern California. Just simply beautiful. From snow-capped peaks to lowlands near the Colorado River. All the way up to the north, almost to Death Valley, and south -- I don't know -- close to the border. It's amazing, simply amazing.

STEVE: And that's on a five thousand foot peak?

PAUL: On a, yeah, five thousand foot peak. Steep five thousand foot peak.

STEVE: Yeah, how was the -- It wasn't just a walk up there?

PAUL: No, you definitely had to work. It was a lot of big steps, having to use a hand to steady yourself. A lot of people would call that strenuous.

STEVE: About as steep as you'd get and call it non-technical, I suppose?

PAUL: Just about, yeah. You can get a little steeper, but there are no spots where you absolutely need to use both hands and both feet and climb. But -- still, it's rugged.

STEVE: Rugged it was, but we made it back to camp in plenty of time to enjoy another happy hour.

STEVE: So Dave, what makes you want to come out here rather than, you know, sit on a beach by some Sierran lake somewhere?

DAVE: Well this time of year [laughs] Sierran lakes are a little cold and icy. I first started coming out here shortly after I did a week-long trip in the Sierra. And I remember being plagued with mosquitos, and always having to hang food in the trees to keep it away from the bears. And I thought, well out in the desert, not only are there not any bears, there's no trees, no mosquitos, and that's what really started to intrigue me about the desert. And just started coming out here, and it's just wonderful. I love the Sierras too, can't beat the Sierra, but it's all part of getting outside and seeing the world. You can't just focus on one thing; the mountains or the beaches or the deserts.

STEVE: We hike out on a Sunday morning. In spite of the wind, the conversation is more lively than on the hike in.

DAVE: I don't know if I have the phrase right, but the indians when they were -- that lived out here were asked the question, "well, you know, isn't it just a waste land?" They said, "No. There's sources of water surrounded by land in between." What's the big deal? To them is was no issue.

STEVE: When you do encounter natural water out here, is it more likely to be like on a hillside, or in a low spot?

DAVE: Usually, there's not that much -- the water's almost always at the base of a mountain range or the canyon higher up in a mountain range. It's very rare to find it in a valley. The valleys have been filled-in with sediments from the mountains above. So the valleys themselves are typically waterless. So it's going from one mountain range to the other, from one water source ot the next is where you'll find water. You know, when you look at a mountain range, you look at two canyons next to each other, and there's no apparent reason why one canyon would have water and the other doesn't, it's just -- one will and the other one won't.

STEVE: Truck trails criss-cross the valley floor as we get close to the highway. We see several garbage piles. These piles look about the right size to fill a pickup truck. The ground is scattered with spent bullets and shotgun shells.

DAVE: The impetus behind the desert protection act if you follow the thread all the way back, started with a BLM ranger in California. He might have been one of the top officials in the BLM, became concerned about what off-road vehicle use was doing to the desert. This was back in the fifties, after world war two, people had more time, discretionary income, and people were buying jeeps -- a lot of surplus jeeps coming on the market after world war two and the Korean war and people were coming out here. The population of southern California was booming, and he became concerned about what all this activity was doing, particularly to the soil and the plants. They started some studies back in the fifties that ultimately lead to the passage of the California Desert Protection Act in nineteen ninety four. Try to keep areas free from disturbance of motor vehicles. They compact the soil. Displace it. Once the soil gets compacted it no longer holds moisture in the same way. Seeds don't germinate. Erosion becomes a problem.

STEVE: Well. Looks like we found some cars.

DAVE: All three of them. No bullet holes. No missing tires.

STEVE: So, now. How would you rate the trip compared to other moderate trips that the desert survivors do.

DAVE: Well.

STEVE: As far as difficulty?

DAVE: The backpacking was very easy. Normally we'd backpack for at least half a day if not all day the first day. The day hike we did to the peak was more strenuous than typical. More strenuous than I thought it was going to be. Every trip is unique.

STEVE: Do you have another one this year?

DAVE: I have a trip -- I'll probably do something in November. But I don't know where yet. It's time to go back into the Sierra for the summer.

STEVE: Thank you so much, Dave, for taking us out inot the desert.

DAVE: My pleasure. It's a wonderful place.

STEVE: It really is. Thanks again.

STEVE: You'll hear more about the Sheep Hole Valley Wilderness in a future edition. You can find out more about the Desert Survivors, see pictures from the trip, and download a consolidated high fidelity stereo version of both parts of this show, on our web site.

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Next time -- Backcountry Communications.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, combined program number thirty five and thirty six. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

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