I've been intrigued by the splendid geology lying between Artists Palette and the Borax Benchmark since I discovered Death Valley nearly a decade ago. In particular are the gorgeous blue mountains sequestered in the watershed that dare the curious into the trappings of cliffs, canyons, chutes, narrows, scree, and washes that surround these blues.
After several failed attempts to approach the blues from their northern shield, The Borax Benchmark, I gave the westerly approach from Artists Palette a go on May 14th.
An early start allowed enough elevation gain to avoid the midday heat while soaking up a bright sunrise. Even with Google Earth and my observations from The Borax Benchmark I was not sure exactly which approach would work.
In my mind was a route to head straight east from the parking lot, up the first ridge, down into the wash and up the second ridge, down into that wash, hikes east up that wash, circle around the south base of Blue Mountain and scale its north face next to "the Z formation". This "intended route" is marked in video.
Upon reaching the first ridge and gazing east into the dawn light that I had no idea which of the main peaks in sight were the correct destinations because of their shapes and color not matching my expectations. So I tried to scale the first one (which I later determined to be Little Blue) but it was too steep so down I went into the wash to the south and headed east.
Coming upon a 25-foot dry fall caused a real conundrum because of the steep canyon walls providing no clues as to where I was in relation to Big Blue. With some dread, I chose to inch my way up a steep and slippery bypass to the south of the dry fall in the hope that this canyon would lead further east and up to somewhere near Big Blue without being stopped dead in my tracks by an impassable dry fall.
As pure luck would have it, the next few dry falls were passable fairly easy hand and foot notches for my six-foot-tall frame. If you're under six feet tall, these dry falls may be a real challenge.
I started to see evidence of Big Blue with the canyon wall becoming that familiar light blue until I gleefully realized I was standing in the drainage smack dab between The Borax Benchmark and the Z formation of Big Blue. I had no idea that Big Blue was so close to Artist Palette as I was expecting it to be set back much further east in the watershed. It was not until I stood atop of Big Blue with a 360-degree perspective that a complete orientation of the entire watershed came to me.
In summary, there is no easy route to the top of Big Blue. My accidental route is the fastest but steepest while the "intended route" appears to have no dry falls but means an "up and over" another massive ridge in order to circle around the south face of Big Blue. I attempted to descend from Big Blue's south face to join the intended route but was stopped by steep and crumbling drop-offs so had to backtrack.
Being tired, i decided not to take the time to descend Big Blue from the flatter south-east face, circle around to the south and then west and then back up the saddle of the intended route, down into the wash and joining up with my original route, back up the first ridge and down to the parking lot. I merely backtracked with a slight shortcut angling my way across the northeast face of Big Blue down into the familiar drainage, dry falls and scaling back up the first ridge further downstream to avoid the super steep south face of Little Blue, and then down to the parking lot.
Note to fellow hiking hacks: Elevation gains and losses are as steep as the angle of repose of the geology. I do everything to prevent falling over backward into a death spiral down by always facing the slope so, in case of slipping, the worst scenario is a belly slide with all fours stretched out to eventually grab a purchase. That 25-foot dry fall bypass (the dry fall is 25 feet tall but the actual bypass is more like 50 to 75 feet to get up, around and over to the south) is the most difficult I've ever undertaken in the park due to the soft and slippery dirt layer on top of a hard rock layer. It was even harder descending seeking purchase while avoiding the dirt giving way and starting a scratchy and bruising foot first belly slide to the bottom. Unless you are six feet tall you will be challenged to find safe foot and hand purchases.
I confess to a brief temptation of also bagging Little Blue from its northeast face on my descent back to Artist Palette, but that route was not clear and scrambling while being totally "gassed" is not safe. No guarantees here, but returning to Little Blue via Artist Palette from its north face is probably in order. Little Blue's waveform geology on its northeast face is eye candy. Here's a picture I took from Borax Benchmark in April:
The exhilaration of finally topping off Big Blue was worth the effort. The views are just beyond words to describe and I'm more in love with Death Valley than ever. Here is my best effort to share the fun with you.