Badwater to Mt. Whitney Run
October 21-23, 2002

by Blake P. Wood

I have nothing but respect for runners who compete in the Badwater race in July, but the thought of running that many miles down the highway just leaves me cold. However, the CONCEPT of running from the lowest point in the U.S. to the highest point in the 48 states fascinates me. So this past week I did something which I've wanted to do for years: run cross country from Badwater in Death Valley to the top of Mt. Whitney.

By "cross country", I mean following trails, dirt roads, and actual cross country travel - anything but pavement. I managed to pick a course (much of which I made up as I went) that kept me off pavement, except for a mile outside of Panamint Springs and a dozen miles between Lone Pine and the Lower Whitney Campground. Although I generally followed a straighter line on the map that the "highway" Badwater race follows, the mileages were about the same because of natural zig-zagging of the canyons, ridges, and trails I followed - about 150 miles, including the descent off Whitney. Lots more climb and much slower terrain than the highway route, but of course I wasn't running as fast because of that.

My Dad agreed to drive along and meet me with water and food every few hours. For safety sake, I felt I had to schedule the run as late in the fall as possible and still be able to get up Whitney. As it turned out, I did this perfectly - temperatures rarely rose above 80 in the day, and only got down to the mid-30s at night (except high on Whitney, which was below freezing). The weather was clear and the moon full - it was beautiful!

The general route took me across Death Valley (starting about 3:30 am on Monday, 10/21) and to the top of 11k'+ Telescope Peak - one heck of a climb! I descended to Panamint Valley down Tuber Canyon. The map showed a dirt road down it, but that was many years ago, and I had to follow the trails created by feral burros. This was a general theme: lots of dirt roads shown on the topo were only marginally existent, but there were lots of add'l marginal dirt roads that didn't show on the map. I followed another sometimes-there, sometimes-not dirt road that led to Panamint Dry Lake, and then cross country to Panamint Springs. I had originally planned to cross the Argus Range, but chickened out on that when I realized that I'd have to figure out a route at night - it didn't lok easy from Telescope Pk. Instead I followed the Darwin Falls road through the night to Darwin (a very rundown old mining town), where I caught an hour of sleep in my Dad's car just before dawn. From there I headed across the hills and across Lower Centennial Flat to the edge of the Owens Lake bed. I crossed Owens Lake from SE to NW (don't ever try this - more on it later), arriving at Lubken Creek Road and Hwy 395 in late afternoon. Here, due to fatigue, rough terrain, and darkness, I elected to follow the paved roads through the Alabama Hills to the Lower Whitney Campground (a mile below the switchback in the paved road to Whitney Portal.) There I got on the very steep (almost 3000' climb in four miles) old trail up to Whitney Portal. I arrived there 43:09 after leaving Badwater. Dad and I got six hours of sleep before I went up Whitney the next morning via the mountaineer's route (ascent and descent). The round trip to the summit from Whitney Portal took ten and a half hours, so the whole adventure was about two and a half days.

My route was utterly devoid of people. Except for my Dad, I ran into exactly one other person until I was nearly to the top of Whitney.

I'll hopefully write up a more comprehensive report later, but here were some highlights:

Crossing Death Valley under a full moon was a magical experience! There was not a light to be seen anywhere, save the moon and the stars, and not a sound to be heard, save the cool breeze ruffling my shirt. Much of the crossing was on strange polygonal slabs of white salt with raised edges. Good running, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was running across an ice floe that might collapse under me at any moment.

The climb up Telescope Peak was one of the parts I was looking most forward to - at 11,300+ feet vertical in 14 miles, it's about the longest continuous climb you can find anywhere in the country (interestingly enough, about the same in climb as Lone Pine to Whitney, although over a shorter distance). After I left the dirt road up Hanaupah Canyon at about 3400' elevation, it was all cross country to the summit ridge at 10k', where I picked up the normal hiking trail to the top. During the climb I collected handfuls of pinon nuts, which I feasted on for the next 24 hours. It took me 8:18 to do this climb from the west side of the salt flats. Dad hiked in to meet me on the summit ridge with 2.5 gallons of water - most of which I drank or used to refill my 3 quart Camelback. I had ran out of water an hour before on the climb.

I saw surprisingly few animals. No snakes. I could hear many feral burros running around me in the canyon while I jogged along the Darwin Falls road during the night, but couldn't see them in the surrounding brush.

I had never heard of anyone crossing the Owens Lake bed on foot. Now I know why - don't EVER do this! The south end of the 12 mile (straight line) crossing was soft dirt, like running across a freshly ploughed field. Then I started running into the dust abatement works, which included deep, uncrossable ditches that ran for miles without a break. Luckily, these didn't take me too far out of the way. The nightmare really began in the middle of the lake bed, when I started breaking through the salt crust up to my knees in stinking green mud. I managed to zig-zag my way to firmer ground, only to eventually find myself again breaking through the crust into the underlying brine, this time with standing water on three sides and no apparent way to get out except to backtrack 7+ miles the way I came. The salty mud stung the cuts on my shins from breaking through the sharp crust, and I shuddered to think what bacteria might be living in it. Just about the time I started imagining the headlines "Idiot tries to cross Owens Lake on foot. Rescued by helicopter", I managed to skirt a particularly soft area and find a "devil's golf course" formation - foot high pillars and ropes of hard salt crust. Ordinarily, I hated this stuff because it is impossible to do more than walk slowly over it, but I was glad to see it this time - at least I wouldn't break through it. After I finally found my way to the "shore" of the lake bed, I still had two miles of soft sand dunes to run over (old, ice age shorelines). I was pretty exhausted by the time I met up with Dad again.

The climb up the mountaineer's route was spectacular. This was my 8th time up Whitney, but my first up this route. I did a bit of extra class 4 climbing to get to where the serious climbing starts on the east face routes, just to have a look at it, but by and large the mountaineer's route was not too difficult - class 3 if you stayed on route. It took me about 6.5 hours up and 3.5 hours down the same way. The most amazing thing is that doing this climb took all the soreness out of my legs! They had been pretty tight after the run to Whitney Portal, and were sore the morning I started the climb to the summit, but didn't hurt on the descent and haven't been sore since. I can definitely recommend a 6k' scramble up a mountain excellent day-after recovery from a hundred!

I ran into a handful of backpackers while descending from Whitney. Several of them commented "You're going all the way up and down Whitney today?! That's a really long day!" I could only say "You have no idea how long a day it's been!"

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