August 31, 2012

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The goal of our training hike #8, Telescope Peak, is located in Death Valley National Park and considered the highest vertical rises in the lower 48 states.  We left work Friday night, grabbed dinner, and hit the road knowing we would be arriving at the campground around 1:00 AM.  After several hours of driving we left the city lights behind us and were absorbed into the darkness.  With just a sliver of moon hidden in the clouds we crawled up the mountain arriving at a secluded and quiet campground.  The next day we woke up to find ourselves camped in a grove of pine trees with Death Valley one side and mountains blocking our view of Telescope Peak.

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We hit the trail early in the day wrapping around other peaks until we finally got a good view of the summit.

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The terrain quickly changed from pine trees to a vast open rocky area with short vegetation including cactus, which could make for a painful mis-step.

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The clouds were rapidly forming in the valleys below then would rise up over our heads and evaporate into the blue sky.  The process was mesmerizing watching the clouds roll and transform then disappear.

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After five miles of almost hilly terrain with a slight elevation climb we hit the dreaded switchbacks that would take us up the mountain.  The switchbacks were tough, but before we knew it we were hiking along the ridge to the peak.  Sadly the clouds became denser and completely blocked our view of Death Valley below.  Telescope peak stands at 11,050 feet, normally giving you an incredible view of Badwater (a salt flat and the lowest point in North America) and the surrounding mountains including Mt. Whitney.

We thought it was funny to hike to the top of the highest point in Death Valley only to find an Iowa Farm Bureau Federation first aid kit.

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It was now mid afternoon and the clouds weren’t clearing so we headed back down through the foggy bristlecone forests.  We had not see another person the entire day, which led to us startling some deer and a covey of quail along the trail.  Halfway back we did come across some a backpacker’s tent, but we were the only ones to summit Telescope that day.

We watched as massive thunderhead clouds built up over Death Valley wondering if (and worried that) rain might be in our forecast.  Instead we were treated to the most awesome light show nature can provide.  The clouds lit up with heat lighting like strobe lights. The sky wouldn’t be dark for more than 5 seconds before another white flash lit up the texture in the clouds.  This in its self was incredible but because of our high vantage point, the isolated clouds, and minimal moonlight, the stars lit up the sky above the clouds. The Milky Way was clearly visible.  This provided one of the most impressive backgrounds to a lighting storm that we had ever seen!

24mm, ISO 1600, f/4.0, 32 seconds

We took photo after photo trying to balance the light between the stars and the lighting.

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24mm, ISO 1600, f/4.0, 31 seconds

24mm, ISO 2500, f/4.0, 31 seconds

After a while we started seeing bolts break through the clouds and occasionally one reach for the ground.  We eagerly changed our strategy to capture a bolt but not keep the shutter open too long and get short star trails.  After many tries we were able to capture a few bolts without blurring the stars too much.

24mm, ISO 1000, f/4.0, 49 seconds

Once the lighting decreased and the clouds started blocking the stars we packed up the tripod and walked back to camp with our headlamps.  This was one of our most memorable camping trips not for the hike, animal sightings, or terrain, but for the incredible light show of lighting with the Milky Way backdrop.

The next day we left the 8,000 foot high campground at 70 degrees and headed into Death Valley at sea level, which rose to 110 degrees.  Since we’ve already been to Death Valley, we just quickly hit a few sites while jumping in and out of our air-conditioned car.

Charcoal Kilns

Badwater, lowest elevation in North America – 282 feet below sea level

Devil’s Golf Course

Artist’s Palette

Zabriskie Point

Storm Rolling Over Zabriskie Point’s Parking Lot