2001: I’ll Take the Low Road–Cycling Across Death Valley

Crossing the California Desert and High Sierra             Copyright Peter J. Marsh

A few days into the new year, we saw the pictures of the first ascent of the 3,000-foot Dawn Wall in Yosemite Valley by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson. They climbed “free”–without any artificial aid–a stunning achievement–and the way the media reacted. This marathon effort succeeded in putting their practically anonymous sport on the top of the mainstream news–a breakthrough that cycling made 25 years ago. (For you youngsters, that was when Greg Lemond won the closest ever Tour de France by eight seconds.) Coincidentally, the climbers’ tour de force also also took place over 18 days, just like the cycling grand tours, and the two leaders also relied on a dedicated team of helpers.

pm joshua tree 5.10For me, this brought back 20-year old memories of my first encounter with Yosemite Valley—the first on foot, and the second one by bike. My one and only big rock climb happened in Yosemite in 1995–on the easiest wall in the valley, the Royal Arches. My modest skill level left me at the bottom of the rope following the two leaders for the entire 1600 feet. However, I didn’t get an easy ride, I was appointed the porter or domestique for the day, carrying a backpack filled with the spare rope, plus water, food, spare clothes and hiking shoes for all three of us!

The next day I took a break to unwind from this high-stress outing. Luckily, there was room in our vehicle to bring my mountain bike along, so I could relax in the midst of this incredible geologic wonder while practicing my favorite sport. I rode beside the scenic Merced River, which is fed by the falls and streams that rush down the valley sides, until I reached the noisy highway, then re-traced my route to El Capitan, where I stopped to watch the hard-core climbers high above. This was the leading edge of the sport: a wall so big you climbed, ate, and slept up there for many days.

Many would-be heroes have had to bail out after a day or two, overwhelmed by the unrelenting nature of the challenge. This naturally led to me wonder how I ever let anyone talk me into the addictive sport of rock climbing. I loved climbing mountains not cliffs, and cycling was really where my heart lay. If you had told me then that I would one day return to Yosemite by bike after a harrowing ten-day ride across Death Valley, with a quick detour to climb Mount Whitney, I would have laughed out loud.

But it only took a couple of years before the seed for that journey was planted. It was 1997 and my 50th birthday was fast approaching. After a lot of hesitation, I gave myself permission to try combining biking and hiking into a “sea to summit” climb. At the end of June, I dipped my wheels in the Willamette River in Portland, cycled east on the familiar Springwater Trail, then joined the traffic on busy Hwy 26 on the climb to Government Camp. I camped near Timberline Lodge at 6,000′, then hiked to the top of Mount Hood in the morning. The Oregonian found out about this and columnist Jonathon Nicholas wrote a story about it. That gave me a boost for the rest of the summer.

I trained for the Big Hurt, the multi-sport endurance race in Port Angeles that combined mountain biking, road biking, kayaking and running. This was my first experience at the sport and it took me just over four hours. I enjoyed the cycling, and the abrupt change of diving into my boat and starting to paddle The best part was crossing the finish line alongside the fourth member of a four-man team from the local Coast Guard station.

It was the middle of winter before I wondered if I had the energy for another sea-to-summit climb. I made it easier by choosing a volcano in Hawaii, with no hiking needed. I completed the 13,760 foot ride up to the Mauna Kea observatories in 9 hours. (That left me two weeks to tour around the Big Island and play on the beach.)

I picked up the pace in 1998and in the next three years I ticked off all the major peaks of the North-west from sea level. The climax was the plan to climb the three 14,000 footers around the millenium. It began with Mount Rainier–in 48 hours–in 1999, joining with a climb group I found online, then Mount Shasta from Red Bluff solo in four days in 2000. That left Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states (+14,460 feet) with the added attraction of starting in Death Valley (-282 feet ) the lowest , hottest point in North America.

My research suggested the ideal time to start was after the hottest month of August but before snow fell in late September. I was checking the new web-based travel sites for cheap ticket to Las Vegas when 9-11 happened. A week passed and it was still hard to think about my trip, while all my friends tried to dissuade me from flying. The other issue was the airlines, which didn’t offer any discounts; they immediately raised their prices, ensuring their planes would be half empty.

When I finally reached the luggage carousel in Las Vegas, I was the only passenger in sight! I emerged into the afternoon sun to find it was so hot I could barely concentrate on assembling my folding Bike Friday on the sidewalk. I rode slowly into the city center and past the exotic sights of the Strip, then out into the desert as the sun set. Late at night, I slept well in the scrub land opposite a brightly-lit compound. At first light, I was up and identified this as the penitentiary, then rode off at a good pace until noon.

As the temperature kept rising, I reached my limit when I rolled into Death Valley Junction—a stage coach stop turned into a rustic resort with a famous small theater. I was able to find some salt at the counter in the restaurant, because I realized I needed to spike my sports drink mix. I drank copious amounts, sat around for several hours, and left after the temperature had dropped to a mere 90 degrees F. I had to climb up to the top of the canyon wall before I began the epic descent into Death Valley.

I will never forget the bizarre sensation: the lower I went, the hotter the head wind became. At the bottom, it felt like I was standing in front of a blast furnace! I finally reached aptly-named Furnace Creek, 174 miles from Las Vegas, around 8 pm. Luckily, the store was still open, and I lurked inside in the air conditioning until 9 pm, when it closed. On the porch, the thermometer read exactly 100 degrees. I took a photo of it, then found my way to the golf course and laid down under a tree, still sweating. It stayed that hot until well after midnight.

PM death valley lowpoint 001Looking back, I should actually have continued riding out to Badwater by moonlight. But I needed to rest, so at first light I looked around and found a place to stash my panniers in the resort office. I set off at a good pace down to Badwater, 18 miles and 70 feet lower. I didn’t note the time I arrived at the official low point., but couldn’t stay long on the white salt flat because I could already feel the heat building. I had a tough time on the return trip after I finished my third bottle of water.

At 11 am, the buffet at the resort’s restaurant opened: I drank a couple of quarts of juice then attacked the salad bar with a vengeance. The next step was obvious: buy a day pass and lay in the shade or the pool—with my hat on!The temperature peaked at 118 F. and I didn’t get dressed until it dropped toward 100 F., then reluctantly loaded the bike and took off into the sunset. The low and high points are only 85 miles apart on the map, by road it is 135 miles, with two 5,000′ passes to overcome. For the next four days I rode from sunrise to noon on a dull diet of snacks from the resorts and gas stations, washed down with lukewarm water, salt and lemonade powder. In the afternoon, I retreated into any available shade until evening. The one day I remember clearly was when I encountered a film crew working on a car commercial on the Panamint Flat. They adopted me for the afternoon and kept me cool and well hydrated.

When I reached Lone Pine (3,727 feet) in the Owens Valley, I was really dehydrated, and resorted to a giant milk shake at the drive-in, which did the trick, and checked in with the forestry office for a permit to climb Mount Whitney. The first step was the ride up to Whitney Portal—another 5,000 footer. (I was aware that some endurance athletes with nothing better to do jog this entire 135-mile route in the Badwater Race—one of the dumber ironman events—and a few carry on up the mountain to prove their superiority.) Trust me, it was no easy ride as a cycle tourist!

At the portal, I paid my fee, picked up my bear-proof food container, and hiked three miles to the camp in a meadow at 10,000 feet. It took over an hour, wearing my lightweight day pack with both hands full of stuff bags holding my camping gear. The next day I summoned my remaining energy and began hiking up the trail. When I slumped down at the top of the arduous switchback section, a cheerful young group of hikers arrived. I told them what I was doing and they encouraged me as we followed the winding route to the flat, wide summit.

I was on my own coming down, which is always hard on the legs. Back at the camp, I ate a little then fell asleep, only to be woken in the early morning by strong winds and snow flurries. I packed hurriedly and hustled back to my bike, still U-locked to a solid fence. After a fast but chilly downhill, I was soon back in the valley and warming up. I was hoping to find a bus to Los Angeles, but that service had ended long ago. So I continued north following Hwy 395 through the Owens Valley with dramatic views of the Sierra scarp to the west.

The next day I struggled over the 8,000 foot Deadman Pass, where I was caught by an Austrian couple touring the US. They made a witty comment about me “looking like a dead man,” paced me over the top and down into a campground at scenic June Lake, where they cooked and shared a real dinner. On my 10th day, we rode on to Lee Vining (6,780 feet) above Mono Lake. I was hoping this time there might still be a bus service into Yosemite Park–it too had ended for the winter.

For the second time, I was running on empty, and desperately tried to hitch a ride over the 9,950′ Tioga Pass. That was a total waste of time and made me feel pathetic, so I reluctantly mounted up and started climbing the busy cross-Sierra route. Now I was off the edge of my tourist map and riding into the unknown on yet another never-ending ascent. Two hours later, to add insult to injury, I had to pay a $10 entry fee when I reached the park gate at 9,950 feet. The ranger handed me a park map, but I didn’t pay it much attention—I just pictured the route as downhill all the way to the Sacramento Valley.

The road went round lovely Tenaya Lake, past outcrops of granite that were covered in climbing routes. But there were no climbers, it was fall at this altitude, and I needed to lose some elevation to warm up by nightfall. The sun was setting when I was surprised to encounter the sign pointing to Yosemite Valley. This gave a moment’s relief, but I wasn’t about to take a detour. I pushed on west into the night and another roadside camp.

After eleven days of non-stop effort over 600 miles and seven passes totalling in excess of 25,000 feet (plus the day on Mt Whitney) the journey ended in the Sacramento valley at the Greyhound Bus station in Modesto. All I had to do was find a cardboard box big enough to hold the folded Bike Friday–at the back of a furniture store a couple of blocks away. I stayed awake on the long ride back to Portland, where I had a comfortable view of the awful stretch of I-5 I had ridden the previous summer from Red Bluff to Dunsmuir on my previous Mount Shasta sea-to-summit epic.

Some time later, I reviewed the journey and added Mount Whitney to the list on my website. It was only then I realized I could include another sea-to-summit: Royal Arches from Death Valley–282 feet below sea level. Yes, it’s a bit contrived, but rock climbing is full of esoteric classifications of difficulty, so I’m making this my minor contribution to the Yosemite record book.

FYI Technically, Death Valley is not a “valley”, which is formed by the action of a river, but a “graben” formed by the action of block faulting in the earth’s crust.

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