Alive in Death Valley: Beyond Badwater

The prize for second hottest place on earth* goes to Death Valley, where the temperature has exceeded 130 degrees during the summer months. What, then, convinces someone to spend time out there, much less run in those conditions?

Every July, about 90 hardcore athletes go there to participate in a 135-mile footrace National Geographic has called the toughest in the world, the Badwater Ultramarathon. Since my first showing in 1990, I’ve finished this race 17 times and won it four times, and I hold the record for the old course of 146 miles, which ends at the top of Mt. Whitney. I love this event and the people it attracts — they’re like a second family to me.

Death Valley has been a proving ground, too: years ago, I was the first to run the course four times in a row, and the first to conquer it unaided and unassisted.

Forgive me for reciting my resume. My point isn’t to brag, but to give you some context for this next part:

When my buddy, firefighter Dave Heckman, who also serves as a medic at the Badwater race, revealed his plans to make his way around the perimeter of Death Valley National Park, I thought, That’s f*&@ing nuts.

In other words, given all the time I’ve spent out there, given all the experience I’ve amassed in this and other desert races, this circumnavigation sounded insane. Over-the-top crazy, nearly 500 miles of lunacy. No, thank you. Good luck to you, my friend, and good day.

But the “impossible” tends to get my attention, and after some deliberation about the merits of this adventure, I decided to join him. So this July, we’ll attempt the first-ever circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park together.


To succeed, we’ll need to

  1. overcome the threat of deadly dehydration and severe heat exhaustion (both fatal in the desert),
  2. navigate through tough terrain and over several mountain ranges up to 5,000 feet (the exertion required to do this makes number 1 more ominous), and
  3. be self-reliant for the most part, as the route takes us into remote areas where medical or other support won’t be available. (Get stung by a scorpion? Best to wash with soap and water and hope for the best.)

“I have heard complaint that the thermometer failed
to show the true heat because the mercury dried up. Everything dries; wagons dry; men dry; chickens dry; there is no juice left in anything living or dead, by the close of summer.”

— J. R. Ross, for the first U.S. mineral resources
survey of Death Valley in 1868

But just because the desert is inhospitable, that doesn’t mean we can’t survive it.

Death Valley Mesquite tree

A mature Mesquite

Unusual desert creatures, like the nearly extinct Desert’s Hole pupfish and the Mesquite tree, have found ways to endure the arid heat.

The pupfish makes its home in shallow, hot water — or mud, when the surface moisture evaporates in winter — that can be three times saltier than the ocean. (Its population has shrunk to less than 200, however, since the introduction of groundwater pollution.) Mesquite trees sink their roots as much as 60 feet into the desert floor to find water.

People, too, have gotten by with much less than the food, water and other provisions we will have stashed in advance.

In the mid-1800s, when forty-niners pushed through Death Valley in search of a passageway to the promise of California gold, many people and livestock perished, but many made it. They lived by their wits, learned the safest trails, and prevailed on the wisdom and ways of the Timbisha Shoshone, the indigenous people of Death Valley.

Ancient petroglyphs

Indeed, the Shoshone were making their homes among the Mesquite more than a thousand years before the first white man arrived in the desert. Their story echoes that of so many native people: living peacefully off the land, they welcomed (however warily) the outsiders and helped them survive the harsh conditions. But their immune systems were unprepared for the attack of foreign germs, and many died from the “new” diseases brought into the desert. During several boom and bust cycles of mining for borax, salt, and various metals in Death Valley, the native people were also exploited for cheap labor.

Today, a reservation gives about 60 Timbisha Shoshone a home but little else. They struggle to support themselves economically, and the traditional ways have proven insufficient in modern times. The few remaining people, including a tribe historian, keep the customs and spiritual principles of this group alive, while their future looks as uncertain as that of the endangered pupfish.

The arrival of non-native people has taken its toll on Death Valley. Groundwater contamination, mining, and military bombing sites leave a lasting mark. Now, efforts to capitalize on the desert for more ecological energy resources, such as wind and solar power, raise new questions.

In and Around Death Valley National Park

As we depart from the lowest point in North America at Badwater Basin and head northeast to the perimeter, we’ll go counter-clockwise through the roughest parts of the trip first and make our way around the upright rectangle that outlines Death Valley National Park, and then finish back again at Badwater.

Dave running the dunes in Death Valley

The entire trip should take around a month, as we will be covering the equivalent of about a marathon per day. Some sections will require technical climbing (with ropes) to navigate exposed rock faces over the mountains. At all times, we’ll be carrying backpacks weighing between 5 and 50 pounds, depending on how much water we’re toting. (Water will be stashed every 25 miles, and we’ll need 5 gallons of water between each stash. Each gallon weighs close to 8-1/2 pounds.)

We’ll be expecting daytime temperatures between 110 and 130 degrees Fahrenheit in the lower elevations and in the 80s and 90s in the mountains. Nighttime temps may dip to the 40s or 50s at higher elevations, which will feel bitingly cold, as Dave and I will have become acclimated to intense heat during the day. We’ll sleep on the ground in bivy bags.

Unbelievably beautiful, the scenery in Death Valley National Park offers strange attractions, too. For example,

  1. The Death Valley "racetrack"

    On the “racetrack” in the valley between the Cottonwood and Last Chance mountain ranges, big boulders seemingly move under their own power — or is there some other force that rearranges them periodically? No one has ever seen the rocks move, but they leave tracks.

  2. Stark and dramatic, at Ubehebe (Timbisha for “big basket in the rock”), a 770-foot deep and 3000-foot wide crater formed after a volcanic steam explosion thousands of years ago.
  3. Police captured Charles Manson at Barker Ranch, the last hideout of the mass murderer and his “family.” At the time, they took him into custody for vandalizing the national park. It remains a site of dark tourism.
  4. The great tramway over the Inyo Mountains once carried as much as 24 tons of salt per hour, up and out of the Saline Valley mines. Yet the cost of constructing the tramway stripped “the world’s purest salt” company of its profits, and when the depression hit in the 1940s, it ceased operation after just 7 years. However, the structure still stands.
  5. Badwater Basin, the second hottest place on earth, the lowest point in North America, and the starting point for the annual Badwater race floods periodically, covering the salt pan with standing water that then evaporates quickly. The “bad water” (too salty to drink) provides habitat to such flora and fauna as the pickleweed and Badwater snail.

As we make our trek around Death Valley National Park, we’ll wear head-mounted cameras, as well as carry a small HD handheld, to capture even the most remote parts of the trip. We’ll make contact with support crew as needed at stash points, though we intend to stay as self-reliant as possible, most likely seeing another human about once every other day, or every 50 miles.

To help us prepare, we’ll interview survival experts and people who are especially knowledgeable about the detrimental effects of the desert, such as my longtime buddy and Badwater’s official coroner, Ben Jones.

We’ll store our caches of packaged food (MREs), water, and camp supplies along the route in April and May to prepare for the journey, which will begin around July 21, 2012, less than a week after I will have attempted my 18th Badwater race and 24th Death Valley crossing.

Stay tuned for details. We’ll have a SPOT Tracker, so those who are interested can follow our progress, and we may have other ways of communicating what’s happening while we’re “out there.” Wish us luck!

* Updated 9/13/12: Death Valley now holds the record for hottest place in the world.

A run below Death Valley's Funeral Mountains. Photo by Sean Arbabi.

This entry was posted in Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley National Park circumnavigation July 2012, Expeditions, Excursions & Other Outdoor Explorations, Hydration & Nutrition. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Alive in Death Valley: Beyond Badwater

  1. ruben cantu says:

    Good luck my friend. I don’t have vacation enough to come assist the race and will miss seeing you and heather. I will track your next crazy adventure with envy.

  2. Todd J says:

    Marshall, this is sh*t-crazy, but you’re the only one I’ve ever met who has the moxy (and the experience) to pull this off.

    Good luck to you and Dave. I am rooting for you!!
    Todd J´s last blog post ..A Day of No Wine And No Roses (but it was a sweet run!)

  3. Matt Nelson says:

    For you to call it “nuts” really caught my attention… If anyone can do it, you will be the one. I really look forward to seeing you put this in the history books – good luck, God speed!

  4. Rich Humber says:

    I truly love your lust for life. You are an inspiration to us all. I look forward to monitoring your success. Best of luck.


    PS. If you keep taking on these monumental challenges, when are you going to have time to write the next book we are all anxiously awaiting?

  5. AWESOME! Had to laugh when I read your email. I totally didn’t see it coming. Best of luck to you and Dave. I’ll be tracking your progress also!
    Tammy Nickerson´s last blog post ..Welcome to Walk Across Ohio!

  6. John Vonhof says:

    The announcement is made. I wish you and Dave the best. What a challenging and audacious goal! Let’s get those feet in shape.

  7. Mark macy says:

    As always unbelievable !

  8. Alene Nitzky says:

    This sounds like an awesome adventure! I wish you & Dave the best, and look forward to hearing all the stories along the way.
    Alene Nitzky´s last blog post ..Gerry Z and the Snow Peeps

  9. Josh says:

    Ridiculous! I love it. Be well, I’ll be tracking your progress as well!

  10. Vince says:

    Good Luck to you both and be safe! All the guys at Woodside Fire

  11. Tracy Thomas says:

    Go have an adventure of a lifetime! I was so hoping that you would continue your adventures after “Running on Empty!” So happy to see you alive and going strong! Love you, Marshall! Tracy–who you don’t even know!

Comments are closed.