Bikepacking Death Valley

It’s been raining for three weeks straight in Amsterdam when I get an email from Chas and Alvin. They’re inviting me to go bikepacking in Death Valley. Three months of grey skies later, a group of nine find ourselves sitting in a restaurant in Lone Pine, California going over the itinerary for the upcoming week.

We begin our trip in Panamint Springs, a small dot on the map with a general store, a restaurant and a campground. While everyone fills up their bottles with the hose, I make a last-minute dash into the store to buy a pastry which I stuff into my already full feed bag. Once we get rolling, resupply will be incredibly limited.

Within minutes of setting off, we take a hard left onto a washed-out trail and start climbing almost immediately. No sooner have we left the comfort of Panamint, we’re surrounded by rock and scrub, with mountains in hues of yellow and red sprawled in every direction. We cycle for a few meters then hike for a few, the unforgiving terrain pushing back against our heavy bikes.

A few days previously I caught a chest infection on the flight to LA and my lungs still aren’t playing ball. I watch the group become smaller and smaller and then eventually disappear as I gasp up the climb. I glance down at my Wahoo for some reassurance, only to see the dotted line of the route surrounded by empty space. Realising I’ve forgotten to download the local map I momentarily panic. Over the coming days, I’ll come to appreciate the vastness of the USA backcountry, where a day's cycling might involve only a single turn.

At midday, we hit Darwin, a tiny desert commune in the hottest place on earth. We pass by abandoned caravans and sculptures assembled from old tins, and I try to imagine what life would be like so far from civilisation. Darwin is inhabited by about 40 people, they have a post office and a dance hall but very little infrastructure. We shelter from the sun under an impressive canopy and I shovel trail mix into my mouth and call it lunch.

Knowing our bikes would be at their heaviest on day 1, Chas & Alvin had prepared a 70L water cache just outside Darwin to make that first climb a little easier. We pass around the giant bags of water, filling up every bladder and bottle before downing the rest. The next water resupply won’t be until tomorrow evening.

Along with 9L of water each, we’re carrying 5 days of food. Living in the Netherlands, where even in the most ‘remote’ places you can still get to a supermarket in 20 minutes, this has been a steep learning curve. With new terms added to my vocabulary like ‘volumetric calorie density’ and a few spreadsheets to my name, I find myself in the desert with 10 tonnes of coconut chips and peanuts.

The afternoon has a more gentle elevation profile and I start to relax into the ride. The sun has already started to lower in the sky and casts a beautiful warm light over acres and acres of Joshua trees. We stop to marvel at a particularly large one and try to work out how old it is. At 1” of growth a year it must be well over 100.

We wake up just as the sun starts to peek over the mountains. It’s cold. Gregg makes coffee while still cocooned in his bivy and Joergen stokes the embers of last night’s fire. Our goal for today is Saline Valley hot springs and we start our ride with a 30km off-road descent. As we weave our way down the mountain we leapfrog each other, occasionally coming to an abrupt stop to pick up a precious bottle that’s rattled itself loose on the bumpy track. At the bottom, we scale a large cluster of rocks and relax in the sun while we wait for everyone to regroup. We learn that Quinda’s fork pack broke and went straight into her wheel, taking out a spoke entirely. Luckily Joergen, the resident wheel-builder was on hand to assess the situation and determine the wheel would survive to see another dirt road. 

From our rocky vantage point, Chas points at a salt flat in the distance. Barely visible from where we’re standing is a small cluster of palm trees sitting in the middle – that’s where we’re headed.

We reach Saline Valley in the late afternoon and set up camp before rushing off to the hot springs. There are several pools shaded by the palm trees and a warm shower that’s plumbed directly into the spring. It almost doesn’t feel real; a small paradise in the middle of nowhere.

To get to Saline Valley we had to take a 40km out-and-back along an exposed and washboarded dirt road. We pack up camp and retrace our tire tracks, with 9L of hot water in our bottles. This morning is tough, I still haven’t shaken the worst of my cold, and my stomach is rejecting my spreadsheet-infused diet. Luckily all I need to do is look up at the incredible views to remind myself why I’m here – if racing ultras teaches you anything, it’s that no feeling is permanent. Quinda and Joergen kindly wait for me and we catch up with the group who are squeezed into a tiny patch of shade preparing lunch.

Alvin, a connoisseur of bikepacking food, conjures up a tin of dolma and gives it to me. We’re using the same Tailfin aeropack but I swear his is 10L larger. Along with an impressive selection of condiments, he’s even made room for a game of Battleships. Eating something that hasn’t been dehydrated, that’s oily and salty, is incredible. If nothing else I’ve learnt a tonne about what my body needs several days into a bikepacking trip.

The day’s highlight is a steep climb up Lippencott Pass. The dirt road snakes around the mountain and we push our heavy bikes in the glaring afternoon sun. Occasionally we turn a corner into a sliver of shade before facing the heat once again. It’s hard but beautiful, and the rugged Martian landscape takes me back to racing in the Atlas Mountains.

At camp, we toss around a miniature frisbee before settling in around the campfire to rehydrate our dinners. Chas, John and Alvin get into a game of Rummy, the cards carefully laid out on a bandana in the dirt.

In the morning I open my eyes to find the thin mesh over my face has frozen solid. I tease slowly at the zip of the bivy and when I finally break free I inspect my sleeping bag, it’s soaked. I look around to see all the other bivy-dwellers come to the same realisation, while Meg and Mike stay cosily wrapped up in their tents.

Despite the frosty start, I feel like I've turned a corner today. Some power has returned to my legs, my appetite is back and I feel ready for a tough day of riding. Pretty soon into our day, we reach Racetrack Playa, a dry lake that gets its name from these huge stones that shift across its surface, leaving tracks as they go. We make our way to a rock formation in the middle, and our long skinny shadows stretch out behind us in the low morning sun.

Surrounded by our sleeping bags drying in the afternoon sun, we look out over Ubehebe crater and eat some of our dwindling supplies. Only 24 hours separate us from Furnace Creek where there’s a restaurant, a store, and a pool.

I spend much of the following morning daydreaming about all the food I’ll soon get to eat, and all the food in my bags that I no longer have to eat. The road to Furnace Creek is all on tarmac, and for the first 30km, we pedal like we’re vying for a yellow jersey. The excitement is getting to everyone.

Furnace Creek is a manicured oasis in the middle of the desert, and a strange contrast to the arid landscapes of the previous days. Whilst we sit on a grassy lawn with cold beers and ice cream, I apprehensively turn off airplane mode to a flurry of notifications. Not quite ready for real life, I stuff my phone back into my pocket. With restored access to the outside world, Chas is able to confirm the weather report he saw on his InReach – heavy rain is coming and it won’t be safe to do the last two days as planned. We discuss possible options over dinner while we marvel at the sight of a fresh salad leaf.

To ensure our trip still ends on a high, Chas and Alvin plan a beautiful route to get us back to Panamint a day early. The route consists of one very long and gradual climb that takes several hours. As we reach the top we meet a burro who watches us inquisitively before trotting off into the distance. After a beautiful descent, a tailwind aids us along the final stretch, and we soar into Panamint as the sun comes down.