Panamint Valley Days 2014: A participant's view

We got to PVD on Thursday afternoon and the weather started out beautiful – sunny but not hot nor windy and stayed like that all weekend.

On Friday we ran Cummins Cutoff up to the Defense mine, which is a 7-8 out of 10 rated trail. As a precaution, we took the doors off – which turned out to be a real aid to spotting for both the driver and passenger as visibility of rocks was dramatically increased on both sides of the Jeep. This turned out to be a tough but makeable trail with very few breakages in the group.  Having said this, all the participants had well prepared Jeeps with high lifts, lockers and well armored. Surprisingly few of the many well equipped Jeeps attempted the Bath – which is a vertically sided one side entry bath looking obstacle. This is a serious damage inducing challenge and all those that got most of the way up it had to be winched out at the top. One slipped sideways and put his hands outside his Jeep to try to keep the body off the walls – to the shouts of the guides to keep his hands inside the Jeep. Good news is that there was no damage suffered.

Going into the Defense Mine is always fun as it involves trekking into tunnels with flashlights on and making sure you keep up with the leader. This is because it is so easy to get lost in there with the multiple tunnels and levels. We kept close to the leader (who admitted he wasn’t sure which way to go to get out) and we found the ladder system to go up. These are rickety one at a time ladders scaling up about seven stories. One person goes up and calls out when he reaches the top for the next one to go up – as they aren’t strong enough for more than the weight of one person at a time. When you get to the top, you come out into the blinding sunshine about 100 foot higher than where you went in. Great views and then you have to scale down the outside scree without falling down. The rest of the group went back to camp and, as it was my friend’s first time there, we went on to Look Out Mountain. Spectacular views as shown in the phots attached. We decided to take Nadau Road home (rough dirt trail) as we were aired down and this would save getting back on the tarmac road. We won’t do this again as it turned out to be a long slow very bumpy trail.

Buoyed by our success on Cummins Cutoff the day before, and being reckless at heart (some would say foolish), we decided on Saturday to attempt Isham Canyon – which is without doubt THE most difficult run there. It is rated 9/10 and the description states “body damage is likely” – it should have stated body damage WILL happen somewhere on the trail. We thought we’d try it and if it got too tough, we could always turn around and leave. That was the second mistake – the first was going on it! There was nowhere to turn once you got into the canyon. Of the 151 entries to the event, only seven Jeeps signed up for this run, and three of them were guides! This was another indication that we may have been too ambitions here! As Mike Johnston and Sherrie Skare were good enough to volunteer all their time over the weekend for Jeep inspection duty, two related club members came with us to do the run – I think they may have regretted this later when they found out what was in store. 

The trail lays about 15 miles south of the campsite towards Trona and the start was easy leading into a winding and rutted canyon. When we got to what we thought was the first major turn we were thinking there must be a way out to the left as there was no way we could make it up to the right – but we were wrong as this was the only way forward. So started a series of incredibly difficult and large rock crawling challenges with multiple high boulders, very steep inclines, V notches, waterfalls and combinations thereof. Not one Jeep got away without any damage – but mostly this was limited to minor body dents, with one notable exception. In one particularly difficult series of offset three foot boulders, while getting over the ones on the left (which tilted the Jeep way over to the right), it forced my Jeep into the one on the right and I got scraped along the passenger side behind the door and ripped off my rear fender – aka battle scars – (thank goodness I took off my doors otherwise this would have been scraped as well). Upon surveying the damage when we got back to camp, Mike was muttering about me being the new proud owner of the Wrench Award! Another tough obstacle was a V notch which you had to crawl over to get into it and then bump around sideways to get up it. I had really good spotting from the guides and made it up fine. Then my guide attempted it and not only could he not get up it like he had directed me, but in trying multiple times to do so in a very well prepared Jeep, he broke his rear driver side axle and had to be towed out of this section. We were almost at the top but we had to wait for three hours while he repaired his Jeep to at least limp out of there. We then had to get up the waterfall (only a six foot vertical climb) and traverse another tough V-notch. Only one Jeep made this and all others had to be winched up it. I almost made it to within two feet of the top, but when the rear wheels are going up vertical you just lose all traction. Having gotten pretty tired of these heavy duty obstacles at this point, we attached the winch line and pulled ourselves over it. The next sideways V-notch was also a major challenge and the front axle was screeching as the passenger front tyre was well above head level to avoid sliding into the lower rock on the left. Relief – we had done it all and were on our way out! But we were wrong – one more challenge, which didn’t look like it would be. This was a very steep tracked hill trail which, relative to the previous challenges, looked easy. As a combination of steepness, very loose gravel and small rocks, we couldn’t get enough traction to get up this exit slope – we were all surprised. Fortunately, the leader had enough traction to make it and he was at the top ready with his winch. It was so far up that we had to take out all our winch line and attach it to his fully extended winch line and connecting them together, very slowly pull us out a long way up the hill. I think all the other Jeeps had to be winched up this final part. We were free and clear – except the guide who broke down then had a punctured tyre and he had to change over to his spare. By this time it was almost dark and we drove out on easy trails to the road and back to camp by well gone 6 PM.

This was without doubt the most difficult trail I have ever attempted and I feel fortunate to have done it without much damage. As a comment on the difficulty of these trails, I have had my winch for almost three years and only used it once to help a friend out. This weekend I used it five times to pull myself up or out!

Definitely a 9 out of 10 rated trail and not for the faint of heart nor for the not well prepared vehicle. What a thrill to have challenged and completed such a difficult run. Not sure I will do this one next year though – I think once may be enough – but who knows how you feel at the time! Definitely the toughest trail I’ve ever done.

Tags: panamint valley

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