Stuck in Death Valley

Off to the hottest place on Earth. During it's hottest season. At the hottest time of the day. Death Valley awaits!

Somewhat foolishly, I posted the above on my facebook page as I was nearing Death Valley National Park. I just spent a few days in Yosemite, saw the amazing tufa formations at Mono Lake in the morning and the freaky basalt tubes at Devil's Postpiles on the way to Death Valley. Few more hours later I would be in Vegas to pick up my friend from the airport and continue to Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks tomorrow. So far so good!

Grand Teton what? The Cascades on the way from Bishop to Death Valley

With full tank of gas, three gallons of water (and a gallon of coconut water), and the car running fine even as it was already pretty hot outside, I felt confident about getting through Death Valley quickly. Truth to be told, I actually felt a bit disappointed that I only had a few hours to spend there.

If only I knew what was coming my way in Death Valley

Entering from the west, Death Valley looked anything but a boring dessert. Hilly and colorful, with mountain ranges beaming ahead as well as behind me, it was a really scenic drive.

The colors of Death Valley - red in this case

An hour later, I passed Panamint Springs - a small outpost with the most expensive gas I have yet to see ($5.98 a gallon) as well as some lodges just on the edge of large Panamint valley. On the other side towered the mountains of Towne Pass. As I learned later, it is the steepest climb along the entire route through Death Valley, gaining about 4000 feet.

Towne Pass ahead. It didn't look that bad...

Sure it looked a bit steep and sure there were signs pointing out the obvious.

Turn Air conditioning off in death valley

But I still didn't think twice as I stepped on the gas, propped opened the windows and prepared for a slow ascent to the top of Towne Pass. After all, even the official Death Valley park website did not seem to convey much of an issue:

Modern well-maintained and air-conditioned vehicles usually have little trouble with desert travel, but summer trips do require extra planning and extra care.

It wasn't until I gained a couple thousand feet that I noticed the engine temperature starting to rise slowly. "Not a problem and quite expected with such a climb" I thought to myself. I was still going steady at about 40 mph without flooring it, had the air conditioning off and thought about downshifting the transmission but it wasn't doing much shifting on its own so I decided to leave it alone.

At this point I remembered that I wanted to read up a bit on proper driving techniques in the mountains after I experienced the same rise in temperatures while going up the Grand Teton Pass when crossing from Wyoming into Idaho. But I kept forgetting to do that. "Oh well, just watch that temperature" I thought. Mistake #1.

And then, almost at an instant, the temperature started to rise noticeably as I was passing a tight turn. With three cars behind me, I couldn't pull over right there but I promptly did so at a large pullover a couple hundred yards further. Mistake #2.

By that point, the temperature gauge was at the top of the "normal" range and not in the "holly crap" region. So I figured I would let it cool down for a bit before continuing and shot down the engine. Mistake #3.

Seconds later, the temperature gauge did jump into the "holly crap" region and white smoke started pouring from under hood. After propping it up, I saw coolant sprayed and steaming everywhere. But I didn't really know how bad it was. There was still plenty of coolant left in the reservoir so I figured if I would just let it cool down more, I'll be fine.

Trying to cool down in Death Valley

While sitting there, I grabbed the park's newspaper to see if they had any tips along that line. They did. Besides turning off air conditioning, it said to pull over and keep the engine running with transmission in Park or Neutral if the engine starts to overheat. Nissan manual seemed to agree and also suggested turning on the fan and set it on hot to help blast some heat out.

So I did both of those things.

And watched the temperature start to rise again.


Well, maybe I'll just let it cool down a bit longer and then start driving to get some more air flow going.

And I did.

And it started overheating again. So I pulled over.

Now it was time to crap my pants. I was in a vehicle that appeared to be majorly messed up. In Death Valley. Up the mountain. With no cell phone signal or a slightest idea what to do.

What have I gotten myself into? And what a great view in Death Valley

Oh, and my friend was about to get on the plane to Vegas so I need to be in a few hours to meet him.

Looking at the map, it seemed that Towne Pass is the highest one around - at least it was the only one marked on there. It looked like I made it pretty close to the top, so maybe if I could just go a bit more, then I will be fine coasting the rest of the way.

Or should I turn around?

Give up and head back down to Panamint Valley. And then another 60 miles to get out of the park. And go around Death Valley to the south. And not actually see the rich scenery that was hiding behind this treacherous pass?

It was time to make a tough decision.

To be continued...