From the United States-Mexico border, up through the high desert near Bishop, California is spotted with a number of unique locations that are now protected as public lands. However, as any history buff knows, these public lands were once a variety of wild locales marked by official and unofficial mining claims that were inhabited by scoundrels, mountain men, prospectors, and general never-do-wells. During these times, the men who lived in these areas were in some respects, bigger than life because of the lives they had lived, and the stories of those lives that may or may not have occurred. While John Samuelson of Joshua Tree, Gus Lederer of Corn Springs, and Shorty Borden of Death Valley all had fantastical tales and lives, the desert dweller with the most impressive tales that remain to this day was none other than Pegleg Smith.
Death Valley is a land of many wonders. While it is hard to pick just one thing that is wondrous and amazing about the park, to me it is the prevalence of water in the region, and the different ecosystems that the pockets of water support. Now, let us be clear – not all of the water in that can be found in Death Valley is potable, such as the highly saline pools near Badwater, or the water in Salt Creek. But, for each pocket of water that has high mineral contents in the region, there are also areas like Shorty’s Well that are small, green, pure oases year-round. Out of all these “green” zones in Death Valley, the most famous is Darwin Falls, which is also, aside from Badwater, one of the most accessible water features in the park.
In my opinion, the largest challenge of the Shorty’s Well route is determining the right gear to take for the climb. If you are considering the route, you should be aware that you will need a variety of gear to deal with the various conditions and temperatures from -262 feet of elevation to 11,043 feet of elevation.
Start in darkness. End in darkness. This is what I was thinking at 11:49 p.m. on March 14, 2015. At that point, David Wherry and I had been mountaineering for almost twenty-four hours straight. Minutes before, we had exchanged a few words about how it would be nice to be back at the car before the next day began at 12:01 a.m.; but despite this conversation, we are still shambling along at a crawl into the Badwater Basin our normally powerful gaits reduced to pitiful zombie-esqe shuffling. My legs hurt. My back hurt; and as of 11:32 p.m., my feet had finally started hurting. I felt more dead than alive. At that moment, a mere quarter mile from the car, I was thinking of nothing but two things: “Start in darkness; end in darkness” and its “not mountaineering until someone draws blood”. What we had been doing was mountaineering; there was no doubt in my mind about that. As we finally reached the car, there was one thing I understood fully though: the Shorty’s Well Route was indeed the “impossible hike” and the hardest mountaineering route in North America.
One of the many things that I like about Death Valley National Park is its enormous expanse of open terrain. Its enormous swath of desert and mountain wilderness ensures that you will have solitude to appreciate the park's many amazing geologic features; and it also ensures that you will have the opportunity to have an adventure, and if you're lucky, the chance to discover things that have been lost. For example, earlier this year, when thepeakseeker and I were attempting the Shorty's Well Route (Trip Report here) to the top of Telescope Peak, we came across an abandoned mine. While abandoned mines are common in Death Valley due to the park's mining history, the location of this mine was unexpected. We had backpacked into the Panamint Mountains from the Badwater Basin; and had passed Shorty's Well, and Shorty's Mine. From the mine, we had followed a foot trail which had gradually become steeper deep into the mountains. At the end of the first day of backpacking, we had traveled ten miles from the nearest "road"; and were truly off the grid.
While most of the mines in the park have been sealed by the National Park Service for the public’s protection, some of the mines in the more remote areas of the park can be found and explored by intrepid visitors. Such exploration is not for the faint-hearted: as the above sign states, abandoned mines carry a plethora of hazards. If those physical dangers aren’t enough of a deterrent, the Panamint Range of the park is rumored to harbor a series of large underground caverns containing strange creatures and even stranger relics. If you are interested in exploring a Death Valley mines safely, or just seeing an open Death Valley mine, despite the above listed hazards, the easiest mine to see in the backcountry is Shorty’s Mine.