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Death, Fright and Photography   -   2005/07/11Viewed 263 times this month, last update: 2005/07/13

Saturday morning, I took off alone to go back to Racetrack Playa in Death Valley. Since it's the middle of summer, and the death valley daily report said daily highs are in the 115 degree range, I went extra prepared. Eight gallons of water, 10 gallons of spare gasoline, several days worth of food, three radios, a satellite phone, a third battery (in addition to my normal two under the hood), and a plethora of tools, just in case. I had a mission in mind: I wanted to take two photographs of Racetrack Playa I had not gotten on my first trip, and also some photographs of the rocks at dawn or dusk. I also wanted to check out more of the area around the racetrack, and possibly some other interesting sites in the area.

I've been to the Racetrack once before, and to the Death Valley region three times before, so I was confident that I was experienced and equipped well enough to go alone.

I made the trip to the Playa in about six hours. 450 miles of paved road, and 27 miles of washboard dirt road. Since washboard has been rough on me in the past, I took extra steps to lessen it's effect: I dropped the air in my tires to 20psi (from the normal 45/55) and drove extra fast, (~40mph) to try to keep on top of them. I made good time, and had no ill effects, that I could tell. It was only 110 degrees at the Playa at about 1:00pm. I slathered on the sunscreen and chapstick, packed up my camera gear, extra water and started the 1/2 mile trek across the lake bed to the rocks.

It was a beautiful day. The wind was up, taking much of the sting out of the heat. I was sweating profusely, but it would evaporate immediately, which further helped to cool me. I was very happy, the Playa is an extremely peaceful, almost spiritual place for me. I took dozens of pictures, and made a few interesting findings: I was at the Playa just a year ago, and much had changed! The tracks I remembered from last year were muted, starting to dissolve, and there were many brand new tracks! This means that the rocks move frequently, rather than every few decades or centuries. Perhaps as often as every time it gets a good dump of rain (as it did this winter). I'd love to go out there when it's raining, to stand on the southern shore with a telescope and actually see (and film) them moving!

On my way back to the truck, I noticed another new feature, a small system of drainage ruts. These were not here last year either, and are quite beautiful to me.

I got back to the truck, and started planning out the rest of my day's exploring when another truck pulled up next to me. I smiled, and they smiled back, but then turned around and drove off. Very odd. It's a long, bumpy road to just turn around like that. I decided to continue south, to see where else this last bit of road would take me, then double-back to check out Ubehebe mine, Lost Burro Canyon and Hidden Hills Canyon. I stepped on the brake and turned the key. Click-click-click-click... I let off the key. Uh oh. I tried again: Click-click-click-click... Possible causes raced through my mind: Starter's bad, solenoid's fried, relay's rattled loose, engine's ceased... I turned to see where that couple was, they were long gone.

Quite unnerved, but not panicking, (remembering I had the satellite phone, and the ranger station's phone number) I popped the hood, and started checking for loose connections or relays and continuity. Everything looked ok, but the voltage out of the battery bank was low, just 10 volts. I tested some more; yep, when I tried to start the car, the voltage dropped down to zero. Batteries are dead. Probably shorted or broken from the vibration of the washboard road. No problem: I brought that third battery! I got it out, plugged it in, and checked the voltage of the new three-battery bank: 12.5 volts. Yeeha! Back in business. I turned the key: Click-click-click-click. Check the voltage. 10 volts. Un-clip the jumper cables and click them together: No sparks. No amps. It's dead too.

So, it's 110 degrees, I'm about 60 miles from any human being (except for that couple, currently driving away from me), my truck won't start, and all I need it a jump. Probably. (maybe a loose connection somewhere hard to find? Maybe I'm misdiagnosing, and it really is a ceased engine?)

Still had the satellite phone though. So, hat-in-hand I called the ranger. I told him I had more than enough food, water and shade to stay alive, so it was calm, and he was very understanding. He said they'd be able to get to me in a few hours. Terrific. It takes over an hour just to drive the 27 mile access road, so that means they're coming for me almost immediately.

I called Chris Bell to check my diagnosis. He agreed, probably just shorted batteries. A jump should get the engine running, and I should be able to make it to a gas station where I could buy a new battery. I was very releived to have some confirmation. We could both still be wrong, but in all likelyhood I would not have to pay thousands of dollars to triple-A for a tow.

A while later, the ranger called me back: They wouldn't be able to come for me until the morning. I said "fine", I was more than able to hang out that long.

Nothing to do now but wait. The sun was about to set, and so I decided to walk back out onto the Playa to get those "sweet light" shots. I took a few dozen more pictures, and was satisfied I had completed the photographic part of my trip.

I returned to the truck and made camp. I had a good dinner of steak and baked beans, then called Vanessa. I told her everything was just fine. No reason to freak her out. (She thanked me for this later.) Then I put up my tent to avoid getting eaten alive by the bugs while I slept. As I stood there, stranded, in one of the most remote parts of one of the most hostile environments in the world, I realized something: I was scared. Sure, I had food, water, even a working phone, but I really was stuck, powerless. My fate was out of my control for the first time in years and years. I hadn't felt that way since I was a young kid, and it had a great impact on me.

Eventually I slept, and in the morning the ranger came and gave me the jump-charge I needed. It was dead batteries after all. I followed him out, and thanked him profusely. Both rangers (John Fish and Randy Bittle) were amazingly nice and would not accept any tip. Not even replacement tires. (Randy blew out two that morning.)

Ranger Bittle told me that he had recently rescued another man who got stuck at Racetrack Playa, and who had only a cooler of Coke with him. This man walked the entire distance back to Ubehebe Crater, where he was found. He had to be evacuated by helicopter and spent three weeks in the hospital recovering.

I drove to the nearest gas station and bought a new battery. With that I could start the engine on my own. I drove home and collapsed. The experience as all very draining. I told Vanessa the whole story, and she re-affirmed that the only reason she lets me go out alone is because of that phone.

As I said before, this trip had a great impact on me. The Mojave had a set of lessons to teach me, and now Death Valley has a whole new set of lessons for me to learn. It's humbling and exciting.

Update: 2005/07/13
Total damage and cost report for this trip: Three new batteries: $429, One cracked exhaust manifold: $380. Gasoline: ~$200. I should probably stop thinking of these trips as quick and cheap.

Matt Bell (2005-07-11): Wow! I guess the heat just cooked the electrons right out.. At least you got some great pictures though. I'm glad you made it back ok. Who would have thought that that much could go wrong at once!

Mo !!! (2005-07-11): Vanessa lets you go out ALONE???!! (heh, heh, heh....)

Erik (2005-07-11): Matt, yep I was surprised (to say the least) too. Well, now I have three brand new batteries. I'm also planning on adding some vibration dampening, and heat protection to my battery holder.

Mo, yep. Hard to believe huh?

Steve Kehlet (2005-07-12): Erik, that's an awesome story. And some great pictures. You should feel very good about being so well prepared!

Erik (2005-07-12): Thanks Steve!

Charlie (2005-07-26): Good story, Erik. I have been thinking about it after reading it a couple of days ago, and it reminded me of an incident sailing offshore with a friend. The batteries (3) died, and we couldn't crank the engine. Fortunately, it was a sail boat, and it lived up to its name! Since then, my friend has adopted the strategy of changing a battery each year, whether it needs it or not. At least it reduces the risk of all 3 batteries dying at the same time. Would this work for you?? Regards.

Erik (2005-07-27): Thanks Charlie! Yes, buying brand new batteries frequently will reduce the chance of failure, but the cost of such a procedure would be pretty high. I think I just need to be more vigilant about checking my spare (third) before such risky trips. I think my primary two Exide Orbitals got killed by the vibration, but my third, a generic, died due to neglect. If I had kept it charged as well, and as frequently as I should, and tested it properly, I would have been OK. Perhaps I, like you, should pack a spare sail!

mom (2005-08-22): I always knew you were an artist. I am very excited to see that you've found your outlet!! What beautiful photographs. They capture the sense of timeless space, serene expanses, and that knowledge of spirit that is out there, that you mentioned. Beautiful.

Erik (2005-08-22): Thanks Mom!

(2005-12-11): Have you ever thought about integrating photo-voltaic cells to the top of the Rover as an alternative power supply?

Erik (2005-12-11): Yes, I definitely have. I still have not yet figured out the roof rack system I want, but when I do, solar panels will be going up!

See also: Nikon D70


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