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.
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!
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?
“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.
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?
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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