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2005 Californium Expedition

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My last highpoint expedition had a chemical element connection, as I (practically) completed my collection with some samples I picked up in New England.  So what element should be connected to our planned trip to Mount Whitney, the highest point in the entire lower 48 states, followed by Death Valley, the lowest point, all in California?  Well, californium, of course.  First of all, it is named after the state of California.  Second, it is number 98, and one memorable feature of the trail to Mount Whitney is a series of 98 switchbacks up a large cliff.  (The number of switchbacks on this section vary from report to report, but I actually did count 98.)  Californium is not practical to collect for real, as it is highly radioactive, very dangerous, does not occur naturally, and is not legal for individuals to possess.  It is occasionally used in industry, so it is kind of theoretically collectible, but I don't have, and don't ever expect to get, any at all!

Californium bromide.

Our group totaled four people, Tom Buckley, Jim Buckley, John Gallen, and myself (Mark Kness).  We sometimes liked to pretend that we were Lewis and Clark.  When we were in this mood, I was William Clark, Tom was Meriwether Lewis, John was HackeySackajawea, while Jim got to be Sergeant Chowdahead.  My Honda Civic played the Green Pirogue.  That wasn't the end of the silliness, either.

Tom and I (not yet with the other two) left Austin on 16 July 2005.  The first objective, for the 17th, was Guadalupe Peak, the highpoint of Texas.  I had this one, but Tom didn't.  I had expected this one to be a chore, in the heat of July.  We got an early start, hitting the trail just before sunrise, and then the heat wasn't so bad at all.  I was cooler than I was last April when I was there last.  (I didn't get an early start then.)  We had the summit to ourselves for around an hour.

The next day we drove on towards Flagstaff, AZ.  On the way, we stopped at Petrified Forest National Park, an old phytosaur haunt, and took a look at its highpoint, meanwhile checking out the petrified wood.  The next morning, we had another fairly early wakeup, 3 am local time, and headed up the road to the Arizona Snowbowl ski area and the trailhead to the highest point in Arizona, Humphreys Peak.  Our early start again paid off, as we avoided a late morning thunderstorm.

After completing Humphreys Peak, we had an extra day to use before meeting others in Las Vegas.  We decided to head towards Zion National Park, UT.  Driving north from Flagstaff on US 89, then along Alt 89 north of the Grand Canyon, we had fantastic views.  We continued into Utah, the first time I had been in Utah, and into Zion.  While stopped at an overlook from the road, I noticed a Hawaii license plate, perhaps the first I have ever seen.  We continued on to the visitor center.  It turns out that the parking for the visitor center was completely full, there wasn't a single space.  So, we tried our luck finding a car camping space.  We did find a nice spot, with a big tree and a nice view of the gigantic rock towers around.  We are only a short distance from the visitor center, so the parking is no longer an issue.  We set up our tents, and after some debate, decide to put up the rain flies, even though we don't see a single cloud.

Most of the park is accessible only by the free park shuttles.  They leave frequently from the visitor center, so after lunch we grab one and head north into the canyon.  This really cuts down on the traffic jam factor, and seems to work great.  We stop for a few photo breaks, and a few short hikes.  First, we check out the Weeping Rock, and then hike up a narrow canyon along Riverside Walk.  This trail had plenty of people on it, most very non-hard-core tourists.  At the end of the trail, where it ends at the river through the canyon, we met a different sort of group.  They had started high up above, and descended through the canyons, often through deep water, coming out at the bottom.  I've never tried canyoneering like that, but it does sound fun.  They were a little concerned by cloud buildup (flash floods are very dangerous in narrow canyons) but the weather had held so far.

The huge rock faces of the walls of the canyons in Zion are very impressive!

We got back on the shuttle, headed back to our campsite, and I started cooking my dinner.  Tom, meanwhile, heads to the visitor center to call his wife in Mexico.  As I am cooking, I can see clouds building up, so I do my best to put everything away while the pasta simmers, as the evening twilight arrives.  As I finish cooking, and start to eat, the storm hits.

We were treated to quite a lightning show.  At first, winds led to heavy rain which led to lightning and thunder.  Heavy lightning and thunder!  Over and over, strikes are hammering the rock towers up above.  I try and eat fast, but when I see a strike hit the ground definitely closer than the towers, I decide that under the tree is no place to be.  I run for the relative safety of the car, and settle down to finish dinner in there.  The car fogs up really quick, so I turn it on and turn on the a/c to clear the windows, while I eat and watch the light show.  Tom has an even better view, not blocked by trees or the car.  When things settle down, the campground road is under water, and our tents are in puddles.  Fortunately, everything stayed dry inside.  We plan to get an early start the net morning (to beat the heat), so we head for bed, and a not particularly cool night.

The next morning, we get up fairly early, but 15 minutes too late to make the first shuttle at 5:45, and we have to wait 45 minutes for the next bus.  No disaster, though, we catch the second bus and head to the Weeping Rock stop, after a small delay from a group of turkeys in the road.  From there, we start up the Hidden Canyon trail.  This trail starts by switchbacking up from the bus stop, gaining plenty of altitude.  From there, it winds along steep sandstone cliffs, with parts of the trail protected with chains.  After this, it reaches the mouth of a small canyon.  The 'official' trail ends there, but it was easy to continue up the canyon for a half mile or so, with only minor rock scrambling required.  We return to the car campground, and still have time for a run along the paved Pa'arus trail, for a short dip in the river, before we have to leave at 11 am.  Next stop, Las Vegas!

Tom looking down Hidden Canyon.

Descending the chain-protected Hidden Canyon trail along steep cliffs.

Tom and I continue on to Las Vegas, where the rest of the expedition members would join us.  On the drive in, I am trying to reach John, who I haven't met before, by cell so we can figure out where to go.  The dramatic terrain of the Virgin River Canyon, in northwest Arizona, is blocking coverage, but I eventually talk to him.  We get his room number, and head towards the Aladdin.  Soon we are at the edge of the Strip.  After negotiating the dense traffic, we were soon inside the parking lot for the Aladdin. 

Our journey was far from over.  First, we had to drive through the huge parking lot, until we found a space.  Our gear was strewn into lots of little bags, so we grabbed a couple and headed, we hoped, towards the hotel.  We found ourselves inside a giant shopping mall.  We sort of kept going in the same direction, and after a quarter mile or so we found a sign indicating that we were on a route going around in a huge circle.  Eventually we found the casino and worked our way though the maze of slot machines, eventually finding the elevators.  After riding to the right floor, we still had to walk all the way to the end of the hall to John's room.  (Ok, suite.)  We had to hire the bellhop to bring all the gear up to the room, carrying all our stuff by hand would have meant miles of hiking, literally!

John played some roulette while Tom and I cleaned up and spread our gear all over the room, and then we all fought through Las Vegas traffic out to Hoover Dam.  Hoover Dam is certainly impressive, and it was certainly hot, probably over 110 F.  We returned to the room, which had a fine view of the faux-Paris casino next door, particularly the faux-Eiffel Tower and faux-Montgolfier Hot Air Balloon.  We were interested in checking out the in-hotel Aladdin buffet, which was supposed to be one of the best in town (or so said the ads!), but we soon discovered that this meant huge lines.  As tired as we were, we were in no mood for that.  So, we walked down the street a few blocks, forcing our way past ads stuck in our face, and found another buffet, which was fine.

After we got back to the room, I had my one chance to play blackjack.  The mathematics and history of playing blackjack well is very interesting, and I try and keep the basic strategy sort of fresh in my mind.  I would have liked to play a few hands, to keep sharp, but not while exhausted, and it was to pack it in.  The next morning, I still had equipment to sort through, before we left to pick Jim up at the Las Vegas airport.  With all four team members now assembled, we headed northwest, through the fiery hot desert.

A brief detour into Red Rock Canyon gave us a short break from the heat, but soon it was back into the hot valley.  We took a short lunch break under a rare bit of shade in Amargosa Valley.  The high was probably around 120 F, so a shade covered picnic table in front of a small store was welcome.  While we ate lunch here, we were actually near one of the few places on earth where californium could actually be mined.  The Nellis Air Force Range Complex encompasses (along with Area 51 aliens and other things) the Nevada Test Site where nuclear weapons were tested underground.  The intense neutron pulse from a nuclear explosion would probably form californium, as well as other exotic elements.  So there is californium in thar hills, buried by the atomic blasts!  Nonetheless, we decided not to sneak into the highly guarded military complex and prospect through nuclear wastes, and so let this opportunity go.

We continued on through remote Nevada, along the Queen Canyon Mine route up Boundary Peak, the highest 'peak' in Nevada.  The way passed abandoned towns, an abandoned casino, an abandoned ranch, and along an abandoned road to some abandoned mineshafts where we camped.  The next morning, we hiked up an abandoned road, past some abandoned ponies, then up 2000 feet of gravel, to a point that isn't even the summit of a mountain.  Great fun!  After we finished this hike, we headed to Bishop CA for one last night in a hotel, so we can sort out our gear, before heading to the California highpoint.

After repacking everything, it was on to Mount Whitney.  We picked up our permit (required and somewhat hard to get) at the Lone Pine ranger station, and drove on to Whitney Portal to car camp.  Even without a reservation, we found a site without trouble.  The next morning, we stashed all our remaining food, and anything else with a smell, into the communal bear lockers.  We put on the overnight backpacks, and started up the Main Mount Whitney Trail towards the highest point in the lower 48 states.  We stopped that night at Trail Camp, and reached the summit the next morning.  After a second night at Trail Camp, we returned to the Portal.

The highest point in the lower 48 states.  From l to r, me, John, Tom and Jim.

The expedition started to break up at this point.  John headed north towards Yosemite, wearing the Viking hat in his top-down convertible as he drove down from Whitney Portal.  Jim, Tom and I headed towards Las Vegas, and Jim's flight home, with an overnight stop in Ridgecrest, next to a Navy facility out in the middle of the desert.  The next morning, on the way to Las Vegas, we stopped in Death Valley.  Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park is the lowest place in the Western Hemisphere, at 282 feet below sea level.  It is also the hottest place on Earth, with an expected high that day of 122 F.  The true lowpoint is out in the middle of a salt flat, but the park service encourages cheating by placing a sign near the road.  (There is not much difference in altitude, really.)  We cheated and headed for the sign.  (We didn't cheat on the highpoint, though!)  I walked out on the salt flat for a bit, but not for long.  On the climb out of the park, the car started to run a little hot, so I had to turn off the a/c for a few minutes. 

The lowest point in the lower 48 states (almost).  Note the inverted highpointers pennant.
The group in the background is walking towards the true lowpoint.

Later that afternoon, we stopped at the Las Vegas airport, and dropped Jim off for his flight back to Colorado.  Tom and I drove on to Phoenix that night, and continued east the next day.  As we drove through West Texas, late in the day, Tom and I saw a fantastic rainbow display, on a cloud in front of us.  These were some of the nicest, prettiest rainbows I have seen.  A whole 180-degree arc, plus some of the second rainbow.  Bright, vivid colors.  It takes lots of big raindrops to make this kind of show!  And we were about to drive right into it!!  The rain, although heavy, didn't last long and soon we were in the clear.  We planned to stop for the night in Van Horn, as there looked like more storms ahead, and night was coming.  But the whole town was out of electricity - knocked out by one of those storms!  So we kept on to Fort Stockton, without incident, and got back to Austin the next afternoon.