Monday, January 03, 2005

Death Valley Encounter 2004 - a true story

2004 Death Valley Encounter - a true story

Peggy Eaton

The DVE ride the year was truly a test of endurance for all horse/rider combinations that rode any day, any number of days, any distance, through any weather! Just getting out of bed in the freezing wind and rain each day to ride your horse, was an accomplishment in itself! Hats off to anyone who rode any part of the ride! And hats off to Jackie and her steadfast crew of volunteers! Most folks may have thought we were nuts for doin' it, and maybe we were, but was a great adventure and lots of fun despite the challenging conditions....

O.K. - enough of that stuff and on to the ride details.... at least on the LD, which we both rode every day on the same horses...

My husband Bob and I, our wonderful horses Yahoo! and Dakota, had a GREAT time enduring all these elements - it had its moments, but it was worth it, after driving 6 hours from Carmel Valley and wondering what we were in for....

Day 1 began for us sometime after midnight when we awoke to the sound of pelting rain on the roof of our LQ.... at 5am we got a slight reprieve from it to get our horses fed and grained for the 7am start we were planning...well, unfortunately the rain returned with a vengeance. We watched as other riders toughed it out and saddled their horses in the driving rain.... it didn't look like much fun to us, so we were thinking of sitting this day out. Poor Jackie, who had never had to deal with RAIN, much less this MUCH RAIN during the many years she's done the DVE ride, was at her wits end on what to do! It was decided the 50's would do the LD loop twice, instead of going over the Slate Mountain range, and on to Indian Ranch, as was usually done. The mountains were covered with snow and there was no way she was sending anybody out over them.

We watched as the bundled riders headed out at 7am, and it was amazing how many there were! The rain began to let up a bit and we decided our horses would be happier trotting down the trail than standing still in their pens in the nasty wind, rain and cold. We quickly saddled between raindrops and headed out down the trail, and soon the tracks were turning into streams and rivers.....we crossed the highway, rode past the junkyard, past the horse corrals and turned into the wind. This is when the rain really began coming down and we both could feel our feet getting deeper and deeper in the water that was collecting in our boots. Lucky for me, I discovered that my battery powered heated socks still worked in the rain, and I soon had warm water sloshing around my toes! Those suckers worked all 4 days too! I will be e-mailing the manufacturer about these socks to tell them my endurance ride story! Can't remember everyone we saw that day, but we do remember seeing Dave Rabe trot by, in his shorts, plastic bags wrapped around his feet flapping in the winds.... smiling and just as happy as ever! Amazing man, he is! We also saw Judy Long and Lucy Trumbull riding together, equally sodden as us!

Getting back to camp with soaking wet clothing and gear was the biggest bummer of the ride. My new saddle was no longer new.... the sheepskin that covered it weighed near 100 pounds as I removed it and laid it out to dry...Hah!
(It remained off my saddle for the rest of the ride). We cranked up the furnace to maximum in our LQ and had everything hanging everywhere to dry.....the weather held off a bit so we could put a few things outside to become "less wet". Bob's feet were frozen (he didn't have those battery powered electric socks which I must continue to rave about through this story...). I wrapped him in a down comforter in our 90-degree trailer and left him to "thaw". The weather got worse for a while in the pm and we really felt for those 50 milers that were still out there! But everyone returned safe and sound; most with smiles on their wet, wind-whipped faces and looking like a bunch of drowned rats! But we all were happy and felt good for our accomplishments! Yee Haw! On to Day 2!!!

Well, before Day 2 could begin, Jackie had to decide how the heck she could make a ride out of the day with the trail up the mountain buried in snow.... that was out of the question.... and the road between Ballarat and Indian Ranch was an inland lake. Then there was the fact that the rigs would probably get stuck in the desert mire at Indian Ranch, so one of the biggest changes right off the bat was that we would not be moving camp to Indian Ranch at the end of Day 1. Instead we'd all remain at Trona overnight, pack up and be on the highway to Ballarat by 6:30 am the next day, then in the saddle for an 8am start. That was kinda sucky to think about as there was a good chance we'd be packing our gear up in the dark, in the rain, freezing in the wind, early the next morning. That just really sounded awful...Bob and I had the added ordeal of loading our corral panels on top of our LQ, which majorly sucked...!
Well despite all these hitches, we all persevered and got it done. We even had time to pull our neighbor's rig out of the bottom of a small riverbed they'd become a part of the night before.

We all caravanned behind the Duck's trailer through the darkness, north up the highway, passing a rather large boulder that was sitting in the southbound lane (thank goodness we weren't headed that way). We arrived at Ballarat and proceeded to park off the side of the road - giant parallel parking situation for our rigs. Katie Alton was just behind us with her parents, and looked just as beamy and happy as ever, and just as anxious to head down that nasty but exciting trail as we were! Overnight, the "inland lake" on the road between Ballarat and Indian Ranch had reduced itself to "inland lakelets" that we were able to negotiate just fine with our puddle-sloshing ponies!
There was no rain this day, but there was plenty of wind to make up for it - especially after the Indian Ranch vet check when we turned and headed into the wind and back to our temporary parking station along the road. We unsaddled, loaded our dry horses into the rig and headed out to Panamint Springs...a day earlier than we would usually arrive.

Day 3 was real easy and the weather was GREAT, sunny all day.....we rode back down the highway we'd driven in on, turned right, and then did the jeep road back toward Indian Wells that we would usually do on the 3rd day, in the opposite direction.... to a vet check out off the road -the same one we got "buzzed at" by a jet fighter last year (some of you may so colorfully remember!).... no jets this year though! We LDers turned around and went back the same way...the 50's continued up the hill and did a loop out beyond, we believe it was the usual trail with the deep sand washes, and then returned back to camp the same way we did. We were lucky on the LD ride.....we heard stories of the 50 milers hanging onto their saddles - getting lifted out of them and blown sideways during some nasty gale force winds that developed in the afternoon. Back at camp, the afternoon went from balmy nice to nasty cold winds just before dark. The sky remained blue that day and we were able to get the last bit of moisture out of our soggy stuff from Day 1.

That night at the ride meeting, there was much discussion of what the heck we'd be doing for the next day. Jackie was busily reorganizing trails and volunteers with the talk of 6" of snow in Darwin and the even deeper snow out at the corrals that was the usual lunch stop for the 50's. Then there was the tragic news of the helicopter crash on the highway just beyond Panamint Springs which had it completely closed to traffic so the FAA could get in and do their investigation. They weren't sure they would have highway access to the vet check for an ambulance trailer and crews. It was decided they'd make a decision and let the 50's know what they'd be doing in the morning, but it didn't look so good to do the usual loop out to the corrals.

We went to bed to the sound of howling wind and knew the temperature outside was dropping as our forced air furnace was kicking on more often (man, we love our LQ!!!). It was tough to sleep that night, thinking of our poor horses out in the cold howling wind and thinking we'd have to endure it from the saddle in the early morning. I headed out for my usual chore of feeding the horses at 5am and noticed that not only was it extremely windy and cold...but there were no stars to be seen. That's when I felt a few drops of rain on my face and realized we were really screwed.... today we'd be heading higher in altitude, knowing we'd be hitting snow, and knowing that the worst was not over and that it had probably just begun! Sure enough, the trail from Darwin out to the corrals was cancelled for the 50's. Instead they'd be doing our LD loop with us, and then heading back down the highway to do some of the trail from the previous day.
We bundled ourselves up, just as heavy as ever (BTW, I must share with you that I was never cold, - the secret to my success was silk thermal underwear, both top and bottom, those FABULOUS battery-powered heated socks, thermal riding pants, International Expedition rain pants from REI, a turtle neck, fleece coat, Carhardt jacket, fleece head and neck cover, polar fleece riding gloves that stayed fairly warm despite getting wet, International Expedition rain coat with hood from REI, and my Troxel crash helmet....I probably weighed another 30 pounds, but it worked! I had Ariat Terrains which I will upgrade to the waterproof kind.).

We headed up the highway to the trailhead. The highway had fortunately been reopened to traffic although it didn't matter so much to us as the 50's would no longer be going to the corrals.

We climbed up that long rocky jeep trail though the scenic canyons.... lots and lots of rock as we remembered. It got colder, the higher we climbed. For a while the rains held back which made riding conditions more comfortable. Today, Bob and I were riding with Lucy Trumbull who was planning on riding fairly slow in order to finish on her young horse. I had the same plan with my youngster. We decided that Bob would part ways with us somewhere halfway down the trail, and that Lucy and I would ride the rest of the trail together, if I survived the "separation anxiety" that Dakota would subject me to when Yahoo disappeared from sight. Luckily he was vastly improved from the previous time and it really wasn't a big deal. We started up the long trail next to the asphalt road, which was less than 1/2 way from Darwin. This was and always has been the most boring part of that day.... in the cold wind, it was even more of a bummer trail. We began to climb towards the top of the hill that would take us down to Darwin, and the rain began again. This time it was blowing straight at us, freezing cold and stinging your eyes when it hit. I resorted to my sunglasses to protect my eyes and then wished for little windshield wipers on them.....but it was better than the pain! I will add ski goggles to my riding attire if I ever have to ride in weather like this again!

The sloshy wet ground turned to snow as we climbed. My first time riding in snow and it was pretty cool! My horse was born and raised in Eastern Washington so he didn't bat an eye at the change of footing. Yahoo's done Day 2 - and ridden the top of that mountain through deep snow so he didn't care either. We hit the top of the hill above Darwin and we agreed it was the nastiest moment of the whole ride, when that cold icy wind just ripped right into you. We braced against it, leaning forward against our trusty steed's necks - we could see the town of Darwin in the distance and that was all that mattered to us! Our last day of "enduring" was 1/2 through and the home stretch was in sight!

Didn't see much of the town this year - we just braced against the wind and headed for the vet check. They told us there was no hold due to the nasty weather conditions.... what horse or human wanted to stand still and "rest" under those conditions!? We quickly vetted, grabbed a sandwich and headed back down the trail. The horses must have sensed our thinking and knew that this was the final trail home for 2004. We trotted along a nice flat sandy road and joined back up with the long winding rocky jeep road down to the highway. Lucy and I opted to walk on the ground for this part. The weather improved substantially and the sun emerged and steadily warmed us up to the point of being uncomfortable. We stopped and shed several layers each and tied them to our anxious steeds....they were totally onto us now and knew they were headed down the last trail of the ride. We hit the flats, remounted and began a steady trot home on our dry happy horses!

Bob had arrived at camp about 1/2 an hour before me to the cheers of many supporters who knew he had broken the curse of being a 3 and 1/2 day rider! Now he would finally be getting that sweatshirt and we'd be returning next year for sure!

The party that night was great fun. Food was good, band was great, we danced and danced until the clock struck midnight and the beginning of a New Year! We celebrated the new friends we'd made over the course of the ride, the greatness of our mounts, the exciting and challenging moments on the trail, the conquering of the lousy weather conditions, the beautiful rainbows we saw among the dramatic cloud formations, the wonderful help and support of people who helped us get through those 4 days, and we appreciated the absence of 2 trail conditions the previous dust to eat and no sand to blow in your eyes!
Our only sorrow is that we have to wait a full year to do it all over again! Thank you Jackie -

Bob and Peggy Eaton

Carmel Valley, California

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