Monday, January 13, 2020

Death Valley Encounter 2020

The weather the few days leading up to the Death Valley ride had me concerned about making it to the ride at all. On December 26th, even here in the mountains of San Diego County, we got fully 4 inches of snow. Our local freeway was briefly closed. I knew by the time we needed to leave on the 27th the roads would be in good shape, but I had a much closer challenge: getting the trailer out of the driveway. I have to keep it parked by the barn in order to keep it plugged in while not in use. Getting it out involves backing it down the driveway. The driveway is steep enough if it's iced over the trailer will drag the truck helplessly down the hill. Ask me how I know this. So we had to wait for the sun to do its job and defrost the driveway before I could get the thing out.

We did finally hit the road about 10am, which all things considered isn't bad. It's only about 270 miles to ridecamp. It's really rare for two days after Christmas to have particularly bad traffic. I usually make the drive in 5 hours or less.

Not this time.

Of course with all that weather and snow, people were out in force. We hit a lot of backups. It wasn't until we got past the Kramer Junction we were able to reliably make time. There was even snow on the mountains between Red Mountain and Trona. We made it to camp about 5:30.

Due to all that weather, there were very few rigs in camp. Maybe a dozen. Probably less. Never have I seen ridecamp at DVE so empty.

Because there were so few riders, the decision had been made to vet everyone in at 6:00am on ride day. Seeing as there was perhaps a total of 15 riders all told, it was an easy enough thing to accomplish. Our ride started at 6:30am.

Day 1

After a reasonably quiet night (Demon did yell a bit at one point, but nothing to cause me to think anything exciting was happening) I got up at 4:30am and fed the beast. He's a hay dunker, so I also refreshed his water. I went back inside to find my husband, Mike, started on breakfast and coffee. It's really nice when Mike is home and able to come with me to rides. He cooks for me and cleans up camp while the horse and I are off riding. He likes camping.

Since Demon's Tucker endurance saddle broke, I was obliged to go back to using the Tucker western style saddle I use on Hoss. It started out as Demon's saddle, until I discovered Hoss's saddle at that time no longer fit him, and the Tucker endurance fit Demon as well as DC. I didn't have much opportunity to ride in it before the ride itself, just enough to verify it works. So I'd really forgotten how difficult it was to ride Demon in this saddle. And I would pay for its shortcomings.

We started off very nicely down the trail right at 6:30am. A quick jaunt around what Heidi Helly and I would come to call "the stupid loop" before the week was over got us headed up into the hills and on our way to the ETI and down into the Panamint Valley.

Although I was doing my best to keep Demon to a more sedate pace, we found ourselves up with the top 3 riders when we dropped on the Panamint Valley. Demon was keen to be on the hunt, but I don't want him to be in the habit of chasing (or waiting for) other horses, so I pulled him back as I was able and kept him on a slower pace. I was happy with how we were doing, though, as I'm working to get him at a consistent 6.5mph average pace.

As we descended the ETI trail, several burros came into sight. There must have been a dozen, all told, watching us all pass by. In all the years I've done this ride, I've only ever once before seen a single burro, the very first time I attended.

After the vet check, it's a relatively flat trail back to camp. Demon had used up more energy than necessary wanting to go faster, so I had to encourage him a bit more than I had in the morning. He still did OK. He did lollygag and wait for another pair of horses to catch up before really picking up the pace.

We were behind Nina Bomar and Dave Rabe for a bit, until we arrived at a confusing junction. I had my GPS going, showing the track we were meant to follow, so I said hey, this way and kept going. It was now downhill and toward camp, two things which motivate Demon well enough on their own, and he was more than happy to leave the other horses behind. So we kept on trotting on down the trail. We arrived back at camp about 4:30pm.

While I was at the vet check, Annie told me Mike had asked her who was cooking, and went off to ask if he could help. She said Sarah, who was the week's cook, would be happy for the help, as her crew had not been able to attend the ride. I told her he'd be absolutely delighted to help out.

When I met back up with Mike, he told me he'd be doing some cooking that night, so he'd already prepared my dinner before heading back to the club house. By the time of the ride meeting, it seemed he'd already become the de facto head chef of the ride.

Day 2

Remember I said I would pay for the shortcomings of the saddle we were using? I paid early and often. Long before we finished on Day 1, I had raw spots on my right thigh and left upper knee. This saddle is poorly designed for the way Demon moves. It fits him. It fits me. It's generally a super comfortable saddle. But, it's just not super awesome for posting in, and the pitch of the pommel means if I'm not in just the right place when we slow down or stop I get slammed into it. So before I even mounted up on Day 2, I was dealing with open wounds. Ah, well, it's called endurance for a reason.

On this day we headed out opposite of how we'd finished on Day 1 to hit the Slate Range trail. Much of the Slate Range trail and the T3 are very technical single track. It's harder to get a good pace. So I planned to get as much speed on the first 8 miles as I could. Unfortunately I managed to screw up my math and we ended up much slower than I really wanted to go.

We made the ride over the Slate Range, overlooking the Panamint Valley. While on the power line road between two sections of single track, we encountered another herd of burros. We got back to camp at about 1:00pm. Had I done my math right, we should have been in by a little before noon.

After our hold time, we headed back out for 24 more miles. About halfway through, I had myself convinced I was staying in camp on Day 3. I don't like the Tower Trail, anyway. I was really sore. 3/4 of the way through, I had myself convinced I was doing the LD the next day. Then the sun dropped behind the mountains and it got dark. And Demon likes working in the dark. He picked up the pace. I had to turn on my headlamp to decipher trail markings and my GPS, and Demon is unruffled by the extra light. I think he finds it comforting, in a way. By the time we hit the last mile back to camp, I was back to of course we'd do the 50 on Day 3.

We got back to camp about 6:00pm. Made for a very long day.

Day 3

Once again we hit the trail at 7am. After a decent night's sleep I felt ready to hit the trail despite saddle sores and overworked muscles.

This day's trail took us straight up to the T3, widdershins to how we'd come down the day before, back to the Last Tower, and straight down the Tower Trail.

The Tower Trail is a steep and technical drop down into the canyon between two mountainsides. There are many dropoffs and very steep declines. In the past, the ride has taken us up the Tower Trail, which I prefer. However I seem to have been outvoted and now we go down it. It's steep and technical enough most riders dismount and lead their horses down. I, on the other hand, am far too crippled to walk down (or up, for that matter) this trail while also managing a horse. If my horse and I must descend or ascend a trail like this separately, it has to be really separately and someone has to catch him at the other end. So, as other riders dismounted and led down, Demon and I dropped off and rode on down.

Once at the bottom, the trail is quite nice for the few miles back to camp for the vet check. We did our best to make good time back to camp, knowing the bulk of our miles were after lunch. This loop, arduous as it was, was 21.1 miles. We would still have almost 29 miles to cover after lunch.

Heidi Helly and OP caught up to us somewhere before we got back into camp, and we decided to ride together for the remainder of the day, if possible.

After lunch, we headed out with Heidi for the last loop. It was set up on our GPS units as two loops, labeled loop 2 and loop 3, as it came back through camp before doing the by now infamous "stupid loop" before coming in for the finish. We gave bags with hay and feed for the horses to Heidi's husband, Pat, so we could take a short break when we headed back through and let the horses eat.

After the first part of the loop (which is pretty much a blur at this point) we got back to camp at about 4pm and gave the horses 10 minutes to eat. We were really wanting to be on the muscle because we wanted to get the "stupid loop" mostly done before it got full dark. Once Demon and OP had a chance to get a little in their bellies, we mounted back up and headed back out.

We did our best to set a good pace with the rocks, and managed to just get off the "stupid loop" before crossing the highway and hitting the last three or so miles of trail. The sun dropped behind the mountains and once again Demon started picking up the pace, although he didn't seem to want to do more than walk really fast. By dint of following trail signs and my GPS, we made our way back to camp for another 6pm or so finish.

By this time, Mike was doing the lunch and dinner cooking, reprising dinner leftovers for lunch and feeding the whole camp. I was a very well pampered rider, as he would walk over to bring me lunch when I came in, sparing me walking over to procure lunch myself. All I had to do was ride my horse.

Day 4

New Year's Eve. The 4th day always seems to be a little grim. It's hard to get in that saddle one more time. The horses, on the other hand, are on the upswing and feeling way stronger. I started out as usual, loosely riding with Heidi, who always starts out leading OP. Demon was feeling particularly good, and as I suspected he'd start sandbagging a little on the uphill slogs, I let him loose to get some distance done. We had a good go, crossing the highway and getting most of the way to Great Falls before he started to flag a little.

Coming out of Great Falls and on the downhill again, we picked up the pace a little. We made it 'round to the vet check area for the LD riders, got a quick checkup, and headed on down the hill. Still having a good go, right up until we turned left instead of right.

Demon was very much not happy about continuing away from camp, and uphill into the bargain. We persevered, and made our way back over the highway as quickly as we could. We continued on, setting a decent pace, until we hit the wash, where, due to deep sand, we were obliged to slow to a walk.

Once out of the wash, we picked up the trot again and alternated back and forth for a bit. We made our way back to within a mile of camp, where we had to turn away from camp and do a small portion of the "stupid loop" yet again. Once we got moving, Demon picked up the trot and it did not take him long to realize we really were heading back to camp and he kept his pace up to get back into camp about 11:30am.

Heidi and OP pulled in to the lunch stop not long behind us. Demon ate and drank well and we were off again to do the same thing over.

Demon was distinctly less than impressed to be doing the same trail a second time. We still managed to set a reasonably decent pace, although he really did think we should do something - anything! - different. He even tried to head on up to the Great Falls rather than take the shortcut as we had in the morning. But, we got going.

Heidi and OP caught us up as we were coming out of Great Falls. We continued on together, as much as the two horses were likely to stick together. Demon didn't want to trot uphills, and OP didn't want to trot downhills. So they would separate and come back together as the trail drove them. Back up the hill and across the highway and through the wash we went.

Demon was ahead when we got back to the little bit of the "stupid loop." We went to the water trough, and Heidi and OP were not far behind. I thought Demon would wait for them and we would head back to camp together.

I was wrong.

Demon stuck his nose in the water tank, decided he didn't really need a drink. He looked up the trail and decided this would get us back to camp, and the faster he did it the sooner. He picked up his head and off we headed to get it finished.

By this point I wasn't going to discourage him. I let him have his head and we trotted and cantered to within half a mile of camp. We got back just before full dark, making a finish at 5:30pm.

Overall it was a great ride. The New Year's Eve party, with Heidi and Pat performing was great fun. Those who were unable to make it, or chose not to try due to the weather, really missed out on a great event. I did come home with some spectacular saddle sores which are still rather raw. Fortunately Demon has a new Specialized Saddle we'll be picking up from Heidi in a couple of days. I can hardly wait.

***Since this writing, the new Specialized Ultralight has been procured and we are both extremely happy with it.

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