Fire and Ice: Badwater 146: Part 4

The Crux of the Crossing

After another pretty much sleepless night, we awoke at 3:30 a.m. to start the day. I asked Bob how he felt and he replied that he was anxious and ready to go. If we got too far up the mountain and one of us felt that we needed to turn back, we would all have to come down to stay safe. Once again the climb was steep and being on snowshoes was starting to wear on me. I much prefer to be on crampons, even if it meant breaking though the crust of the snow and having to do a bit of post holing. We continued to a point less than 1000 vertical feet below Iceberg Lake and the terrain flattened out for a short distance, Bob said that he had enough and wanted to turn back. As upper Boy Scout Lake was just over the ledge we had just come up and would be in sight, we felt it safe for Bob to head down, which would take about an hour and text us that he was down safely when he arrived. Amazingly, we had reasonably good phone and text service for much of the time we were on the mountain as the view down the mountain kept Lone Pine in sight.

I couldn’t help but think about how great it would have been to have Mace up on that mountain as he would have been in his element, on snow shoes headed up a steep incline on snowshoes, his forte. Mark at one time had held the record for the Alaskan 100 mile Iditashoe snowshoe race. He would have liked the cold crisp air and the crunching of snow beneath his feet. He would truly be in his element. I missed him terribly.

So upwards we went and as we approached the mountaineers gully we could look over and see Iceberg Lake, completely frozen over. This lake could be seen in previous years as I climbed Mt. Whitney and peered at it though what they call the pinnacles. Even in the summer it was rimmed with snow and ice and had a strikingly beautiful turquoise shade to the water.

Looking up, I could see the route that leads to the notch, what we would be aiming for and will signify reaching the top of the chute and the most difficult part of the climb would be over (barring coming down that is). We swapped out our snowshoes and clipped on our crampons and roped up tethering ourselves together hoping to stop one or the other from falling if footing or our ice axes gave way. Strangely, I felt more secure and as we made our way over and started up the chute it seemed doable. And it got steeper and we would zigzag our way up past a huge rock outcropping that lay near the middle of the chute. That’s something a person would want to avoid if he started to tumble. And it kept getting steeper as we would lean into the hill and drive our crampons and Ice Axes in deeply to the snow. I did as I had learned, always keeping two points of contact on the hill, either both feet or the ice axe and a foot would keep me safe, in theory.

Step and breath, plunge foot forward and plant ice axe. Two to four steps and rest as the effort was intense. I loved the rhythm timed with breathing, it connected me with the mountain as we kept on climbing. Iceberg lake seemed to be dropping beneath us and the notch keep getting closer and closer. The wind kicked up in our faces, I’d estimate 40 mph. It was annoying, but nothing I couldn’t deal with. We just had to be more careful. Time dissolves and focus brings me clarity. After about 3.5 hours of climbing I was wearing down, having to stop more frequently to catch my breath. I could see the notch a couple of hundred feet above me, but it was drawing near me so very slowly. Finally after another 30 minutes we made it to the notch and as I said at the start of the story, it brought me to my knees. Trevor looked at me and could see how exhausted I felt and I knelt, bent over as if I was broken. I looked up toward the top of Whitney, I knew it was there another 400 feet up. Trevor asked if I was okay and I told him I needed to “take a breather”. I was SO close.

Okay, this is really a bitch, I thought to myself. Trevor said something to the effect, you know you have been up to the top many times before, and we have to think about getting down. He was right, but I knew if I made it up, I would get down. I thought to myself, I’m at about 140 miles and I should be wasted, but I kept that thought to myself. You see, to utter something negative only serves to stand in the way of success. I told Trevor, trust me, I’m going to slam down a GU and I’ll be fine all the while looking up at the mountain and down at the ground. Heather, Mace and Dr. Bob have seen me many, many times like this and I always come back, just like I had at Panamint. Dr. Bob had told Heather back then that “if it was anybody else besides Marshall”…

So we looked at the options for routes and we could either go up a class three climb or a class 2 climb that would hook around the mountain to where the regular route leads up to the top. I told Trevor that even though hooking around the mountain would take more time and we would have to toe in to cornices to skirt around the mountain, that would allow me to recover and so we did. 30 minutes later after dancing on snow and boulders we joined with the regular route. I knew we were going to summit now and so did Trevor. We clicked axes and stripped ourselves of backpacks, crampons and left the ice axes and rope behind as we hiked up to the summit hut. We had done it; Heather, Bob, Trevor, Mark and I. It always takes a team in life to succeed, no one can do it alone and if they did, it would be bittersweet as there would be no one to share the success with.

The top was surprisingly void of snow, and after snapping a few pictures in spite of a brisk wind, we decided to head down. We had made reasonably good time going up and I felt confident that we might be able to get down in the dusk. We retraced as best we could around to the top of the notch and it seemed like the wind had intensified and was gusting more. We were roped up and started our way down the mountain on the sometimes crusted, loose and unpacked snow being careful to set our ice axes and crampons firmly in the snow.  As we zig-zagged our way down, the gusts became more pronounced and Trevor said he thought, after we were down, that some were upwards in the 60 mph range. It didn’t surprise me as there was a good half dozen times we would have to stop facing uphill leaning into the wind and hang onto our ice axes for 20 or 30 seconds until the gusts would subside. At one point as I was changing directions headed down hill, a gust knocked me off my feet and I was able to catch myself before sliding too far feeling the tug of the rope as Trevor was helping me to stabilize myself. There is nothing better than to feel that tug of rope as it is better than a security blanket.

And so down we went, carefully and deliberately until we reached the bottom and transitioned to our snowshoes taking only one break at the bottom of the mountaineer’s route. We made good time going down and passed the spot where Bob had turned around. 45 minutes and we were back at camp and the sun was just dropping behind Mt. Whitney and the Sierra Nevada range. It was about 4:00 p.m. Trevor mentioned that it would take 9 to 14 hours and we had made it in about 10 and one half. Bob was outside the tent and said that he had talked to 3 climbers that were just below us waiting to head up the next day. I breathed a sigh of relief and stumbled around camp for an hour or so, getting my bearings, savoring being down from the mountain and getting cold.

The next day we broke camp late, strapped on our snowshoes and headed down the slope to lower Boy Scout Lake. My snowshoe bindings where they mounted on the platform were tearing away, my cleats were worn and not grabbing the snow well and I was having trouble getting purchase on the snow. Bob was having problems with his snowshoes also and we switched over to crampons even though we were breaking through the snow in many places. Our progress was slow, but eventually just after noon we dropped onto the regular trail and ditched our crampons. The trail had little snow on it and Trevor said “this is where I relax now”. Being the consummate guide and having babysitted for three and a half days. He could now breathe easy.

The remaining five-mile hike down past the portals and onto the road was reasonably straight forward with the exception of Dr. Bob falling on the icy road and almost doing it again about a half mile from the bottom of the switchbacks. He was slipping and sliding and at times it reminded me of something akin to break dancing.

As we approached the lower gate, Ben and Denise Jones and Heather were there to greet us after 6 long days of crossing the desert, climbing and descending the mountain and successfully completing the first winter Badwater to Mt. Whitney, with a summer crossing just six months prior, making it also the very first “Fire and Ice” challenge. Needless to say, it was nice to have it over and I couldn’t help but think that Mace would be proud.

So, after having done the Badwater 146 in the summer numerous times and the winter crossing once, I’m sure the question will be asked, which is harder? A summer crossing involves 24 hours of extreme heat and a straight forward route up Mt. Whitney along with many people. A winter crossing on the other hand, crosses Death Valley in moderate to much cooler temperatures with even more traffic than in the summer to deal with, even cold temperatures as Towne Pass was below freezing as well as other spots leading into Lone Pine. And then running into ice and snow starting up the switchbacks and spending days on the mountain on ice and snow to get to the top of Mt. Whitney and back down. That last 18 to 20 miles was by far much harder than the first 131 miles across the desert. I think to answer that question a person would have to do both the full 146-mile Badwater in the summer and a shorter but steeper version during the winter to compare for themselves. All I can say is to some steal words of wisdom from Ken Chlouber, the iconic race director at Leadville: the hardest thing to do is the one that you are tackling at the moment. How true.

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Fire and Ice Badwater 146: Part Three

Beginning of the Ice – Mount Whitney

Having completed the “easy” +130-mile part of the Winter Badwater, the cooler (than a Fire crossing) desert portion, Heather drove us back down to Lone Pine and the awaiting showers and beds at the Dow Villa. After a short and restless night, Dr. Bob and I hauled our gear into the rooms and laid it all out on the beds and alongside the walls. I am always amazed at the amount of equipment it takes to summit a snow laden mountain. Although I’ve done a good bit of mountaineering, I still worry about having everything I need and question whether or not I remember how to tie figure-eight and prusik knots. As I’ve gotten older, remembering some of these skills has become more of a challenge. Then, I think of Mace and realize I need to be grateful that, at least for now, I can still tie these knots, while he can no longer tie his shoes. I’m also incredibly angry that he has Alzheimer’s. So angry I . . . have to shake my head to chase the thoughts away and refocus on the task at hand.

Mountain Gear and Clothing

It takes a lot of gear and clothing to climb Mount Whitney in the Winter.

As I insisted and they require, Trevor Athnes, our guide from Sierra Mountain International (SMI), stopped by in the afternoon to go over equipment. When he arrived, we greeted him and shared the usual pleasantries, but he wasted no time, starting with my gear. Helmet and hats; goggles and sunglasses; down, fleece, and gortex jackets; long underwear, warm jumpsuit, and wind pants; gloves and glove liners; sleeping bag and pad; boots, crampons, and snowshoes; harness with locking carbineers; ice axe; and backpack. Check, check, and check. My sleeping bag is rated to 30 below zero, as I learned early on in mountaineering that you don’t scrimp on your sleeping bag, or a good sleeping mat. We moved on to Bob’s room and gear, with another thumbs up. Trevor gave us each an avalanche beacon even though (thankfully!) conditions are such that the risk is low, and our share of food. Finally, we split one of the heaviest things, the two-man tent Bob and I will share, which is an absolute necessity to stay comfortable during the night.

 

My Whitney Backpac

My backpack ready for Whitney, weighing at least 45 pounds.

After he left, Heather commented that he looked the part: probably in his mid-forties, maybe 5’ 10” tall, slender and sinewy, quick to smile, with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. She also had to laugh, commenting that our questions – “Are you going to take your heavy down coat, or a lighter one and a fleece? Are these wind pants okay?” – reminded her of having a friend helping her cook in her kitchen: if she were by herself, she’d know exactly what to do. But, with another person she’s apt to ask things like: “Should I use this pan, or this one instead? How long to do you keep the turkey in oven, at what temps?” When I’ve led expeditions, I’ve been the “expert.”  But now I was deferring to Trevor. “That’s not a bad thing,” she said. “We can all use another set of eyes, just like with writing; we all need an editor.” I agree! Nothing wrong with having confirmation that your equipment is okay especially since, in this case, our lives could depend on it.

 

Bob and Marsh ready for Whitne

Dr. Bob and Marshall have different faces as they prepare for Mount Whitney.

We agreed to a 6 AM meet up at the hotel. From there, SMI owner Kurt Wedberg would drive us up to the Portal closure point where I had stopped, drop me off, and I would start walking. With a 4WD and in daylight, they felt comfortable driving up the mountain to the point where snow finally blocked their path. That turned out to be a couple of miles, near the campground at approximately 8,000 feet. I met them there, changed into my 6,000-meter mountaineering boots, and Trevor, Bob, and I started off on foot, walking a mile on the snow-covered road to the Portal trailhead. Both Bob and I are used to carrying our own weight, but we were still a bit surprised to guess our packs weighed at least 45 pounds. We were also impressed that Trevor’s pack was probably at least 60 pounds! Is youth wasted on the young, I wondered? I was 40 the first time I won Badwater, and 45 the fourth, and last, time I won. Did I appreciate it fully then? Maybe. But I can say that I was glad Trevor had the youth and strength to haul all the kitchen gear and everything else we needed.

Marsh BW solo 1999

For the first ever self-contained solo BW, I had almost everything, except Vaseline to stop a severe nosebleed.

I often say, “If you don’t have it, you don’t need it.” Hopefully. As we started on the Whitney Trail at the Portals my mind wandered back to my self-contained solo trek across Death Valley to the summit in 1999. One of the things I forgot was Vaseline to coat the inside of my nose to keep it moisturized. Consequently, as I approached 119 miles and crossed the Owens River, my nose started bleeding. Soon both nostrils were gushing, which made it difficult not only to eat, but to breathe. It continued to bleed for over 22 miles, up the Portal road, and past Mirror Lake on the Whitney trail.

 

Marsh Dave DV circumnav by Ben

I thought Dave and I had buried everything we needed . . . except soap and first aid. Photo by BW Ben Jones, who came out to see us during the endeavour.

Now, at the Portal trailhead, we started along the same Whitney Trail I had hiked so many times before in the summer. At the North Fork of Lone Pine Creek, we veered right to start along the mountaineers route that I had taken a couple of times but, again, only in the summer. Here we had to put on snowshoes. As a distraction from breaking through the snow and willows, forcing an exhausting lifting and detangling before being able to step forward again, my mind took me back to the 425-mile self-supported circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park I did with my friend Dave Heckman in 2014. We had buried caches of everything we needed at approximately every 13 miles around the border of the park. Huh . . . except . . . we forgot soap and first aid! The first made for an interesting odor throughout the trek, while the second would have come in handy for blister care. There are many other instances that I can recall of things not packed, but we always made do with what we had.

Stray Dogs Eco Australia 1997 finish

Me, Chaz, Mace, and Dr. Bob at the Eco Australia 1997 finish, where we faced numerous challenges.

The mountaineers route heads pretty much straight up to the top of Mt. Whitney, gaining 6,100 feet in just five miles. Bob paused from his position in the back, looked up the trail, and declared that he would be going back down. He was having a hard time keeping up and felt like he was slowing us down. I implored him to take it one step at a time and stay with us. We promised to slow down, as I felt we were going too fast anyway. I thought about how many things we had been through together, along with Mace, including meeting at the Utah Eco-Challenge, creating Team Stray Dogs; “fending off” grizzly bears during Eco British Columbia to keep Lisa safe; literally riding out the storm in the Coral Sea during Eco Australia; and watching Dr. Bob change into what Heather dubbed “Zombie Bob” due to illness during Eco Fiji, while still moving forward without one word of complaint. Friendships forged through extreme challenges, that have lasted a quarter century, cannot be broken. I was also grateful to have him with us because of his skills and experience – we have hiked up Whitney together several times, he had climbed the Mexican Volcanoes with me; he has also climbed Rainier a few times and has climbed on Denali – along with his always good humor. For all these reasons, it was important to me to have him at least go up to the Lower Boy Scout Lake where we would camp for the night. In true Dr. Bob fashion, he agreed to carry on.

Marsh, Mace, Dr. Bob Mace 65 bday

Me, Mace, and Dr. Bob at Mace’s 65th bday party, shortly after he shared his early-onset Alzheimer’s diagnosis with us, his Stray Dogs teammates and friends.

So, the three of us continued to plunge through the snow and crash through the willows. The snow got deeper, and the trail got steeper and more obscure. If Mace would have been with us, he would be swearing right along with, well, at least me, as Bob hardly ever utters a swear word. But when he does, you know he REALLY means it! God how I missed Mace and his ways. While we were always grateful for our good luck to be able to travel and do the sports we loved, the best part was being together: that meant much more than I can say. Looking back, I realize that I was beyond lucky to have met such extraordinary people. Both Dr. Bob and Mace have set a good example and been mentors to me over the decades I have known them. As I detangled my snowshoe from what seemed to be a most persistent willow, I realized that these friendships make the effort of slogging up this hill all worth it.

Me and Dr. Bob Lower BS Lake

I was so grateful to have Dr. Bob with me at Lower Boy Scout Lake on Mount Whitney.

After a few hours we could see a ledge. We had made it to Lower Boy Scout Lake! We had only covered 2.5 miles but had climbed 2,350 feet to 10,350 feet in just over 5 hours, arriving at 12:25 PM. (I had covered another couple of miles and another 1,000 feet or so, but on the road, in running shoes, with no pack). We discussed options: stay here or continue two more hours to climb to Upper Boy Scout Lake. Bob and I looked at each other and I think we both realized that the day had already been more than we expected. Trevor had downplayed the difficulty we would face on Day 1 for good reason: he didn’t want to psyche us out. He did (easily!) convince us to take the recommended four days, rather than the three I had “planned” to spend on the mountain. So, we would take our time, try to get a good night’s sleep, and have a short Day 2 tomorrow to either Upper Boy Scout Lake or just beyond. Stay at the selected camp that night, attempt the summit push on Day 3 with return to that camp, then Day 4 to descend.

Sunset, looking east, and moonrise Mt Whiteny

The photo doesn’t do justice to the amazing beauty of the sunset and moonrise, looking east, from Lower Boy Scout Lake.

It was great to be up high on the mountain, where I feel more alive than any other place on earth. As the sun set around 4:00 PM behind Mount Whitney, it instantly became cold and begged us to dive into our tents. We were the only ones on the mountain that night, making the quiet something to behold. The silence was broken by Trevor beseeching us, “Guys, you have to come see this.” I crawled out of our tent, joining Trevor, while Bob stuck his head out for a look. Even though the sun had set, the reflection cast on the clouds and valley to the east were like from a rainbow. The clouds burned brightly pink and orange. Red and green hues embraced the foothills, while the full moon hung over the valley pointing down to Lone Pine where we had started this morning. I fantasized was just for me and could hear the mountain gods whispering to me that all was well. Always, I look for strength to be derived by paying attention to what nature provides, which is a fantastic source of motivation. This was one of the most spectacular displays of beauty I had ever seen, set in juxtaposition with power, shear power, that would propel us upward to the top.

Whitney Moutaineers Route Chute

Photo from SMI showing a climber going up the steep mountaineers chute, with Iceberg Lake below.

Through the night the stars shone for us and rotated over the valley and mountain tops as if to say, “You are at home to roam as you please.” It was such a peaceful and simple existence. As the moon rose overhead, its light shown brightly through the thin yellow walls of our tent. Bob seemed to sleep reasonably well despite my shuffling about every five or six hours to re-inflate my sleeping pad, which had developed a slow leak allowing the cold to radiate up from the ground when it go too flat. It really didn’t matter as I was mostly awake anyway, fretting about what the challenges we would face in upcoming days. Looming large were thoughts of the last less-than-a-mile up the mountaineers chute with angles between 25-45 degrees, gaining almost 1,500 feet from Iceberg Lake at 12,620 feet to the top of the Notch at 14,100. That’s some serious climbing in snow and ice. Would I be up to the task?

Dr. Bob and I climbing from Lower to Upper BS Lake.

Dr. Bob and I climb the steep trail from Lower to Upper Boy Scout Lake.

The sun began warming our tent around 10 AM, signaling us to get moving. We broke camp, packed up our gear, and started heading up the steep route in our snowshoes, laden with still-heavy packs. While it was difficult, I love the challenge of climbing, focusing on my breathing, and settling into a rhythm as we continued ascending through the cold, crisp, clean air. After a mile and about 1,000 feet of elevation gain, we reached Upper Boy Scout Lake at 11,300 feet. It had only taken a couple of hours, just as Trevor had predicted, and we discussed whether we should continue to an optional second camp between here and Iceberg Lake. Doing so would make summit day shorter, but a water source would be further away. Dr. Bob was feeling “a little beat up” and exhausted from the steep climb, and I wasn’t opposed to nice afternoon of rest, so we decided to call it a short day.

Upper BS Lake, Trevor and Bob

Trevor and Dr. Bob at Upper Boy Scout Lake, our home for the next two nights as we prepare for, and hopefully recover from, the summit push on Mount Whitney.

This  would be our base camp for the next two nights, before and after what I hoped would be a successful summit of Mount Whitney and the first ever Winter Badwater to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of Mace. He’d love it here, I thought. I wish he could have joined us, completing the Stray Dogs original male trio. But, in a way, he was there, as Bob and I talked about him all tThe time, sharing stories of misadventures we’d shared. Trevor had to feel like he almost knew Mace himself.

 

Part of the route from Upper BS Lake

As I looked at part of the route to the summit from Upper Boy Scout Lake, I wondered if my spirit would carry me to the top.

As I looked up at the part of the route we could see, my mind wandered as I recognized how these challenges are creative outlets for me. No one had ever tried a Winter Badwater before, so here I was, giving it a go. Just as no one had ever attempted a solo-self-contained crossing, a Badwater Quad, or a self-supported circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park before I created these, and other, challenges. I always marvel at how amazing the human spirit is and thought, as they say, “If something like this was easy, everyone would be doing it.” I would find out tomorrow how durable my spirit just might be.

 

 

Coming soon . . . Fire and Ice Part 4 – The Crux of the Crossing

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Fire and Ice Badwater: Part Two

Father Crowley to Portal Road Closure

After we called a temporary truce with the desert and Badwater Lean at the 3,000 foot elevation sign heading up to Father Crowley Vista I willingly, although not happily, climbed into the van for the short drive back down to Panamint Springs Resort.

Cinder Wolff was a key person for both Pete Kostelnick and Sandra V in setting their Guinness World Records for running across America.

We secured a cabin at the RV park where I dutifully showered and climbed into bed. Dr. Bob and Heather unloaded everything we needed from the van, got me a drink and something to eat, then continued their efforts to illicit help from our friend and master massage therapist, Cinder Wolff, who had earlier correctly diagnosed the problem as my psoas muscle. Cinder had crewed for me and the Stray Dogs at other events, and she was key in caring for both Pete Kostelnick and Sandra Villines when they set Guinness World Records for running across America. When things start unravelling, she is the go to person to put things right!

Marshall Ulrich Badwater Lean

I was unable to walk straight down the road, as my balance was off and I was leaning to the right.

As I tried to sleep doubts flooded my mind. I couldn’t stop calculating time, distances, challenges. It was around 10 AM on February 22nd, 28 hours since I had started at Badwater, and I still had 56 miles to cover just to complete the “easy” desert portion. But, what about Whitney? I knew my condition would have to improve for me to complete the journey. The funny thing is, as I was lying there, my back didn’t feel that bad. But I knew it was because my body had contorted itself into a lean to protect the injury. Everything had gone so well until I descended Towne Pass into Panamint Valley. While I hoped I was standing up straight, I kept on wandering towards the centerline of the road. Why? And why hadn’t the painful treatments – deep, penetrating, painful massage of my psoas through my abdomen and groan – only worked for a few moments until it shortened and froze again? If I couldn’t even walk down the road, how could I wield a heavy pack and ice ax on the mountain? Was the back pain I’d been experienced the months prior been a warning sign I had foolishly ignored? Would all of this mean the end to the journey?

Mark Macy (Mace) Pam and Grandkids

Mace continues to be a role model, now for his five grandkids, with the love and support of his wife Pam.

“It’s all good mental training. Don’t quit,” I heard Mace say in my head. Since meeting him in the early 90s I knew from experience that Mace took pride in finishing his races. He often talked about how it wasn’t so much for him, but to set a good example for his kids: Travis, Katelyn, and Dona. It was also for his wife, Pam who had supported his racing either by crewing or holding down the fort at home, sometimes with as many as five kids, as they were also foster parents. About three or four days into a 6 to 10 day Eco-Challenge adventure race we would joke about not wanting to go home and just staying in the mountains of New Zealand, British Columbia, or Patagonia; the deserts of Utah, Australia, or Morocco; or even the jungles of Borneo or Fiji. While the races were physically challenging, everyday problems faded away, and life became very simple: just keep moving forward. Now with Alzheimer’s disease Mace is dealing with much more than we ever could have imagined. But, he’s still not quitting. And, despite our false bravado, there was nothing we wanted more than to get back to our loved ones. Mace always, and still, sets a good example for me; and for his grandkids.

Panamint Springs Bunkhouse

I spent 20 hours receiving treatment in the Bunkhouse Cabin at Panamint.

Bob and Heather had been able to talk to Cinder again. Now she prescribed some different, less invasive, massage; high doses of ibuprofen; rest (what a concept!); as well as HOT towels wrapped around my abdomen, groin, leg, and glute. But, where would we get nearly boiling water? Bob talked to the women at the gas station – the only other thing open in Panamint – and devised a system to take a bath towel, in a trash bag, and run it under the hot water spigot on the Bun-O-Matic coffee machine. For several hours, Bob and Heather ferried back and forth to the station to bring a fresh, hot towel every 20 minutes. Each time, they would grab my right ankle, pull my leg to ensure it was elongated, align my body as straight as it could be, then wrap, cover, and set the timer. Repeat.

 

How long could we stay here? I had planned on finishing the desert portion in about 48 hours, or around 6 AM tomorrow (the 23rd). How could we possibly stay here, 16 hours from the Portal Road closure, until then? Especially if we were supposed to start climbing Whitney early on the 24th? Could we “move the mountain”? Well . . . maybe?

Bob Marshall Ulrich Panamint

Bob and Heather had tried to treat my psoas, but I was still off balance.

There are no landlines at Panamint, so all texts and calls from our cell phones went through their satellite internet service, which was only (unreliably) available over at the gas station. Heather had – somewhat miraculously – been able to talk to Cinder. Twice! But connecting with Sierra Mountain International (SMI) didn’t happen. Bob sent a text, saying that Marsh had an injury (“What would they think about that?” I fretted in my head, “They’ll never believe I’ll recover from an injury in time to climb the mountain. In the winter!”) that would delay our arrival in Lone Pine until early on the 24th, the same day we were supposed to start on the mountain! “Gads, this will never work out,” I silently thought, but never said out loud. Best to not put those ideas out into the universe. Bob texted, “Would it be possible to start Whitney on the 25th instead?”

Stray Dogs Mace, Marsh, and Bob

I had to finish. For the Stray Dogs. For Mace-left and Dr. Bob-right, with me on Evergreen mountain in 2021.

Around 6 PM Heather finagled a hot dinner, with help from the women at the gas station (thank you!), and even scored a heating pad! There is always kindness and hope in the world. Heather reminded me that, when I announced this journey, I specifically said that I was not attempting to set a speed record, but rather prove that such an expedition could be done. That eased my mind some, but I still spun bad scenarios in my head. “Even if SMI is willing to start climbing Whitney on the 25th, what if a storm blew in and we had to lay low on the mountain a day or two? By my own established rules, I have to be on the top of Whitney before the clock struck midnight on February 28th.” Heck, I didn’t even know if all of this treatment would allow me to walk (straight), much less climb a mountain. But how could I possibly explain to all of the people who had already donated to the Alzheimer’s Association that I wouldn’t be able to finish?  I have to finish. For Mace. It was a hope and a prayer, but what else did we have? Heather adjusted the heating pad, set another timer – as she would do throughout the night, to put the heating pad off, then on again – and I tried to quiet my mind and get some sleep. 

Heather and Marshall Ulrich restart

I restarted my journey at the 3,000-foot elevation sign, with Heather by my side.

Around 4:30 in the morning we woke and, in our PJs, went out into the parking lot to test my body.  Gingerly I walked around, trying not to kick a rock to upset my unsteady balance. We had decided we wouldn’t leave if I looked the least bit crooked. After about 10 minutes I passed the eagle-eye test, and I wasn’t in pain, so we decided to give it a go. My amazing support crew had already re-loaded the van, so we drove 10 minutes up the road to the 3,000-foot sign where I had stopped 20 hours earlier. I stepped out of the van and, with Heather shadowing me as the sun was rising, carefully started up the hill. How odd! It was as if I had to relearn how to walk with my back straight up, not leaning to the right. The muscles in my back felt foreign to me, and I had to seriously concentrate on contracting my lower left back muscles, while not over-compensating by raising my right shoulder too much. If I was the slightest bit off, Heather would gently touch my right side to get me perfectly aligned. “Think about a string from your tail bone, all way up your spine, and through to the top of your head, being pulled straight up by . . . god?” Heather advised.

Marshall Ulrich normal stride

Near Father Crowley Vista, I was able to reclaim my normal stride.

The cool brilliant morning air touched our faces as we continued for few miles, making a brief stop at Father Crowley Vista. Then, Bob jumped in and did the same for another couple of miles. It seemed to be working! I still felt like a toddler learning how to walk, but was gaining comfort and confidence, as did Bob and Heather. They started spacing stops to every half mile, watching as I walked toward them and then away, yelling corrections as needed.

Marshall Ulrich and the DV experience

I definitely had an interested, twisted, experience in Death Valley this time across.

I made it 10 miles, and hammed for a few photos at the Death Valley National Park sign, pointing in particular at the word “Experiencing” on the exit-side of the sign. Yep. We had quite an experience, that’s for sure! The sun on my right shoulder and the ever shifting wind kept me busy adjusting my clothing so I could stay mostly warm enough. I moved carefully, but with purpose, starting to calculate when I would pass the landmarks I knew so well. I made it 15 miles, as I rolled past the Darwin turn, then almost 25 miles where Heather was doing a small victory dance as I crossed the 100-mile mark along the route. At this point, cell phone signal finally returned. Bob and Heather’s phones starting dinging and beeping with messages; including one from SMI. They were willing to “move the mountain” back one day! We could start on the 25th. Our wing and a prayer paid off! Thanks to a lot of work on the part of my crew, and the kindness and flexibility of the folks at SMI.

Yiannis Kouros with Marshall Ulrich 2005

When I met Yiannis Kouros, I was jealous of his ability to “leave his body” to do the work of running.

It was a relief to only concentrate on my footsteps and keeping my back and shoulders straight. My mind drifted, finally at peace, and I recalled one of my first crossings when I watched the sun set in front of me when I had slipped into – another dimension? – where I was flying about my body as it ran down the road. Thirty miles later the sun rose behind me and it was as if I had sliced effortlessly through the night. For many years, I never shared this surreal experience, afraid people would call me crazy. When I had the honor of meeting Yiannis Kouros in 2005, I summoned the courage to ask if he ever experienced something similar. “Oh, yes, all the time,” he replied matter-of-factly. Maybe that’s been a key to his many, many records: being able to leave his body to do all of the work while his mind takes a dreamlike vacation. I, myself, have not been able to repeat the experience; but wish I could.

Marshall Ulrich Keeler

I was happy to stride past Keeler; and didn’t stop to look at any lots.

As I headed towards Keeler I recall the point where I passed out due to dehydration one year; and another point where a rain storm, and small mudslide, had almost interrupted the race another year. Now, I felt that nothing should get in my way from reaching the Portal closure; how presumptuous is that? [Photo: Keeler Lots for Sale]

 

 

Badwater Ben with Marshall Ulrich approaching

Badwater Ben mugged for a selfie as I approached on the road behind him.

Badwater Ben Jones surprised me with a quick visit just past Keeler and, of course, took a number of photographs. The support I’ve received from Ben, The Mayor of Badwater, and Denise, the First Lady and Blister (prevention) Queen, has been such an important part of everything I’ve been able to achieve in and around Death Valley. Just as they have played a huge part in Badwater crossings for thousands of people. They embody the spirit, and true family, of Badwater. Something that, sadly, seems to be sorely lacking for all too many these days; and that saddens me, as I wish those runners could experience that extraordinary support from others that truly care.

Marshall Ulrich Sierra sunsent

It was strange for me to see snow on the Sierra Mountains, something I never saw during a Fire crossing.

Continuing on, I was able to vividly pick out Mt. Whitney – covered in snow! Now, that was something I never saw during a Fire crossing. In the summer it hardly separated itself from the flanking, tall peaks rising from the desert floor above the Owens Valley. Seeing the mountain forced me to think again: how would my body react to a 45 pound pack on the mountain? My back and psoas were behaving as I walked down the road, but would I be able to swing and Ice ax, and kick my crampons into the ice? Humility returned, in a big way. A sense of sorrow flows through me again, as I mourn the fact that almost all “Badwater” runners these days stop at the 135-mile benchmark at the Portals. They disregard and, to my measure, disrespect those who went before them, like Al Arnold and Rich Benyo, by not honoring the spirit of a true crossing: going from the lowest to highest points in the lower 48 states. That means 146 miles, from Badwater to the summit of Mount Whitney. Unfortunately, the essence of the challenge – that can elevate the human spirit as high as the mountain top – has been lost. As the sun set over the Sierra I hoped runners would once again rise to the challenge, just as I knew the sun would rise tomorrow.

Marshall Ulrich Portal Road Dinner

Nothing better than a cheeseburger and chili cheese fries to fuel me up to the Portal Road closure.

Soon the smells of moisture from the Owens River heightened my senses. Cow and horse dung and the sounds of trucks barreling down the road dominated my thoughts as I turned right to head into Lone Pine, cloaked in the comfort of night. Bob and Heather had picked up a to go order of cheese burgers and chili cheese fries, so I took a short break in the van just after making the left turn onto the Portal Road to eat. As I stepped out into the night, the almost-full moon lit up the sky and the mountains. No one was on the road. It was dead quiet. We had the universe all to ourselves and watched as Orion danced across the top of Whitney. It was as if the gods were finally on our side, beckoning me up, offering me a sigh of relief in the pristine cold. It was as intimate an experience as I have had with nature forever, it seemed.

Marshall Ulrich Portal Road closure benchmark

After spending 47 hours on the road, plus a 20 hour break, I was grateful to reach the Portal Road closure benchmark,

I was surprised how far we got up the road before we started to see snow along the road, at about 131 miles, just below the “Z” switchbacks, at approximately 7,000 feet. The road had a “soft closure” so we slipped through the open gate and up the steep incline. About three-quarters of a mile up the van couldn’t safely continue, as ice completely swept across the road. That was it. Just before 1 AM on February 24th, the “easy” desert portion was finally done. It had taken almost 2 days and 19 hours (or 67 hours), almost 19 hours longer than anticipated, due to the 20 hour rest and recovery break at Panamint. The challenges of climbing Whitney, especially the chute laden with snow that I knew would be the crux of the journey, loomed heavy on my mind.  But, before getting in the van to return to Lone Pine, I took a look at the mountain and reflected upon how lucky we were to have been able to pull it off, at least so far! Later, Heather and Bob would both admit that, had it been anyone else, they would have been certain it was over on Father Crowley. But they had also known not to say it out loud at the time, as it’s best to not put those ideas out into the universe.

_____

Note: Until June 20, 2021, you can still help Mace’s “Alzheimer’s brothers and sisters” cope with and fight this horrible disease, as a part of the Alzheimer’s Association “Longest Day” national fundraising effort, by donating here: http://act.alz.org/goto/MarshforMace.

Next: Part 3 Beginning of the Ice – Mount Whitney

 

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