Shorty's mine - Hanaupah Canyon - Death Valley, California
November 13th and 14th, 2012
I'm about two years late in writing this trip report because my initial goal was an ambitions hike from the lowest point in North America (Badwater basin at 282 feet below sea level) to Death Valley's highest point (Telescope peak at 11,043 feet), but my inability to do so (as well as another failed hike of Jubilee Mountain a few days later) left me feeling like I hadn't accomplished anything of note and hence, no trip report! Pushing my pride aside, I've come to realize that this hike up Hanaupah Canyon to Shorty's mine was still a very beautiful and special hike for me, and so it's about time that I write about it in hopes that it will inspire others to journey out to this incredible area.
After reading about the dangers of getting a flat tire in Death Valley when one decides to head "off-road", I admit to some nervousness driving along the West Side Road to get to my parking spot at Shorty's well. All I had was a Ford Fiesta rental to get me there with one of its rims slightly bent out of shape from the get go, but in the end, all was fine and I made it to the parking spot by 3:30pm. I had brought along my cousins mountain bike thinking I would follow in the footsteps of another hiker I had read about who shortened the time of his journey by biking a big part of it.
Thinking I was in relatively good shape, it was a bit of shocker to feel my heart pounding away only after the first few hundred meters up Hanaupah Canyon road! I had felt so proud of my ability to pack light for this trip that it was hard to try and blame the weight of my backpack on this unexpected stamina issue. It must be the loose gravel road, slipping tires and deceptively "steep" incline of the road that was the main issue! I refused to believe my body was having as much difficulty as it was.
The further along I went, the less distance I was able to cover between much needed breaks. Was I really in this bad of shape?? I thought my jogging and hiking preparations before hand would have been sufficient, but apparently not. Biking was clearly using a different set of muscles that I had not conditioned or prepared for. Not really having a choice, it didn't take long to decide that I would simply walk my way up any difficult parts and use the bike sporadically. No matter what, I figured it would be worth dragging this bike up as far as I could because it would be such a relief on the way back down.
As I walked my way up in the falling evening light, a couple in a jeep passed me on their way back down, informing me of how rough and dangerous the road is the further up you go and to be careful on my bike. No problem, I thought... not much biking going on here, but as is often the case in life, it was a bit of foreshadowing.
At this point my plan was to just walk up as far as I could get before it got dark and pitch my new, light weight, Eureka tent by the side of the road. I'm not sure what kind of distance I covered, but I spent about 3 hours hiking up the road before I settled for the night at around 6pm (it was already dark by that point).
As would be expected out there at night, the view of the stars and Milky Way galaxy were stunning, other than that, it was an uneventful night and I seem to recall having a pretty good sleep. I was up and ready to go the next morning by 7am. The plan was to leave my tent where it was and somehow make the round trip journey (approximately 22 miles) to the top of Telescope Peak and back over the course of the next 12 hours. This seemed reasonable to me at the time due to the fact that I had read about others doing the whole journey over the course of one long day... even starting from Shorty's well!
One thing I enjoy so much about the desert is the silence and solitude. There aren't that many places on Earth where you can be in a natural environment that is as quiet and devoid of activity as a desert. I think I can understand Alexander "Shorty" Borden's love or need to be out in these kind of places. The very essence of this place is one of peace, though I'm not sure how much Shorty would see his life out there as "peaceful" considering how much work he did on his own in such a short period of time (7 mile road, mine shaft and water well all in the space of 6 months at age 65 with nothing but rudimentary tools... and, of course, some good old-fashioned dynamite!!). Also, I have never been to Death Valley in the summer, which I imagine is quite a different and challenging experience compared to my comfortable fall/winter weather sojourns. Yes, it seems quite easy for me to idealize someone else's existence when I have no true understanding of the realities of his everyday life, but I imagine Shorty must have loved something about this place to have lived out there like that... hopefully it wasn't just about silver because, in the end, he didn't make anything from it.
Anyway, it turned out I wasn't completely alone out there. One of the few spots where there was a downhill section for me to ride my bike on ended up leading past a hidden nook for a rather large group of campers, although they would be the last people I would see for the rest of the journey. As was the case the day before, I spent 95% of the time walking the bike along the road and was thankful there was no one around to witness this little absurdity. It's always easier to mock one's self than to hear others do it for you.
But who's going to mock me for this? I was only trying to conserve my energy, ok? And in case you didn't know, this massive hike has an elevation gain equivalent to climbing Everest from basecamp! That's right. You read correctly. 11,300 feet of pure ascending man power required! And I was gonna do this thing in two days, mister! Something that takes Everest peakers months to accomplish... altitude shmaltitude, I can hear your excuses a mile away. This is the real deal, Shorty's well to Telescope Peak, baby! Yeah!
So, yeah, I walked my bike for about 2 hours along this road that made it's way in to the foothills. The day was perfect, weather wise, and this section of the hike was uneventful and pleasant. At one point I passed a circle made of rocks that seemed to be a marker for what appeared to be a trail heading up the hills to my left for quads or motor bikes. I imagine this would be a pretty amazing place to do this kind of off-roading!
As I made my way further, I enjoyed the greater sense of movement as the hills narrowed in closer on both sides of me. It felt like I was getting somewhere and figured I would soon reach the end of the road and beginning of the foot path to Shorty's mine.
By 9am I reached the end of the road and the beginning of the footpath. I stashed my bike by the hillside, took a deep breath in preparation for the next long phase of the journey, and marched forward. Although the road continues a bit more beyond this point, you soon reach an area that really has no clear path anymore, not that it's difficult to figure out where to go or anything, but it does get a bit rougher from this point on. About 15 minutes later I reached the natural spring where I could fill up my water bottles. It's not hard to find, you just look out for the beginning of a denser shrub line to the left of the canyon. I got out my filter and took all the water I needed, taking a nice little break sitting by this stream and letting the warm morning sun reflect off of my face.
I wonder how long that spring has been running for, sustaining all sorts of life out there? Clearly, Shorty must have depended greatly on it, but how many countless other animals and plants have survived off of this life giving trickle of water over the years? In a place like Death Valley, it's easy to recognize what we take for granted everywhere else.
Ready to move on, I spent the next 30 minutes making my way through the rougher terrain and soon got my first view of the opening to Shorty's mine on the left hillside of the canyon. I knew time was of the essence now, as I was still only at 3500 feet, so I didn't want to bother with a diversion to check out the mine. I kept trudging along the north hillside trying to figure out where to begin the steeper ascent to reach the top of this first spur (from my research, this was where most people began to tackle the main ascent). I had waypoints set up on my GPS and was making slow progress to where others had indicated to start the climb. There was no trail to follow and the fist sized rocks I was contending with were quickly reminding me of a growing issue I had been trying to ignore since the beginning of this trip. Psoriatic arthritis.
There were other issues too. My GPS kept switching off for no apparent reason. It being such an old model, it also took a hell of a long time to reboot and acquire the satellite signals again. This lack of confidence at where I was supposed to be going (I started thinking I was on the wrong spur), the uneven footing and challenging terrain, the pain of the arthritis pronouncing itself with every wobbly rock I stepped on... all of it conspired in those last few minutes of struggle to break my will. So there it is. My sad excuse. The reason I turned back after going all that way.
Since I'm writing this two years later it's easy for me forget what the pain and challenge was like. It's easy to want to kick myself for not trying harder, but I have to trust that I made the right decision even if I can't remember how it felt at the time. I never turn around with an easy heart because it always feels like failure, but I also don't take stupid risks and ignore what my body is trying to tell me... at least most of the time!
To temper the disappointment, I decided to go take a closer look at Shorty's mine. I remember trying to just head straight across the canyon to the other hillside thinking I could easily cross the line of bushes following the spring. I soon realized just how thick and razor sharp the leaves of these desert plants were, all a little too late unfortunately. I found myself literally in over my head in the stuff. I could barely touch the ground struggling to walk through this stuff. From anyone on the outside it would have looked rather comical watching me trying to swim my way through this dense brush, for me it was funny and painful at the same time. Suffering only a few lacerations I finally made it to the other side and worked my way up to a narrow path carved in the hillside that leads to the mine entrance.
It's not a deep mine (maybe 15 meters in to the hillside) and it seems pretty safe and solid, but not a lot to see inside. Still pretty incredible that one man could have built this mine though.
It was only about 11am when I started to head back down the canyon with a heavy heart. I tried to console myself with the idea that I would drive to another part of Death Valley when I got to the car and would do an easier hike the next day (would turn out to be an unsuccessful attempt at Jubilee Mountain), which helped raise my spirits. Really, who could complain though? I was still hiking in one of the most beautiful regions I've ever been to.
Despite the extra struggle to haul the bike up the road, I was sure happy to have it for the way back down. I could finally rest my aching feet with a nice, leisurely ride down the canyon. HA! I have to admit that I pretty much bombed down the road once I got on that bike. It's pretty amazing how much speed you can gain on such a minimal grade, but I was still somewhat cautious as the road conditions were pretty rough. I was probably about 10 minutes in to the ride, making excellent distance and feeling a good adrenalin rush with the speed, when suddenly the back tire blew, instantly ending all the joy of the moment.
Luckily there was a spare tube and after an extended break I had it all back up and running again. Only now I was taking the ride much more cautiously. I was very aware of the fact that one more blown tire and I would be dragging this damn bike all the way back down again. Every hard jolt along the way made me cringe in anticipation for the worse, but in the end all went fine for the rest of the way.
I was back at my small camp by 1:30pm and soon had all of my gear packed up and was ready for the final few miles back down to Shorty's well. I was looking forward to getting back to the car and heading out to one of the magical spots in Death Valley I had found a few years before. The anticipation of exploring that area again as well as searching for more beautiful stones along the ground kept me from being too disappointed with this hike.
As is usually the case with me and any failed hike, I just told myself that one day I would be back to complete it... and so I keep telling myself.
Download my Google Earth shortys.kmz file [4 KB] to see my route and descriptive placemarks of the Shorty's mine hike. To use this file, download and install the free Google Earth software, then once it's up and running, choose File --> Open... and select the "shortys.kmz" file that you downloaded from here. A folder called "Shorty's Mine" should now be in the Places tab. Expanding this folder you will find all my placemarks and routes for the hike. Clicking on any of these placemarks will bring you to the exact spot on Earth.
Distance from Shorty's well to the mine: A little over 18 miles round trip
Elevation at the mine: 3750 feet (1143m)
Elevation Gain from the well to the mine: 4000 feet (1219m)
GPS Coordinates of Shorty's mine: 36º 11' 9.35" N; 117º 1' 10.76" W (NAD83/WGS84)