Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Goodwater: Lowest to Highest (L2H) Adventure Run Report

Our proposed route.
Elevation Profile, about 37k of climbing total.
The Lowest-to-Highest Trail is a remote backcountry route from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the highest point in the lower 48: from Badwater Basin in Death Valley at 279 feet below sea-level to the summit of Mt. Whitney, the 14,495ft crest of the Sierra Nevadas.  The total mileage of this route (a link up of existing trails, some road, and some cross-country bushwhacking) is remarkably similar to the distance of Badwater, the 135 mile road race from Badwater basin to Whitney Portal.   Given that this route (with Jared's modifications) prioritized the remarkable geographical diversity and terrain features characteristic of this area, as well as the fact that we intended to complete it in one push (which had only been done once previously to our knowledge, by Blake Woods) we aptly named it "Goodwater."  Perhaps "Better Water" would have served as well.  While we did not complete the route quite as initially intended we still had quite an adventure.  

"The desert is no longer a landscape, it is a pure form produced by the abstraction of all others."      
--Jean Baudrillard.

A more realistic appellation might have been "No Water" (with a couple remarkable exceptions that I'll get to): the route traverses the notoriously desolate Badwater and Panamint valleys (with daytime temperatures still hitting 100F in October) and involves immense stretches without aid options or water availability. We had two crux stretches of this sort which we needed to hit at night so as to avoid the heat: a) Badwater Basin to Wildrose Rd (approx 35 miles up and over Telescope Peak and b) Hwy 190 crossing to Lone Pine (45 miles).  As such we planned to start at midnight which would hopefully put us most of the way over Telescope Peak before the temperature got too warm.  This would also set us up (according to our predictions) of hitting the 45 mile stretch at night as well.   Because Wildrose Rd. is currently closed given flash flooding earlier in the summer we revised our route somewhat to as to incorporate the spigot at Wildrose Campground further up the road: this precluded us from descending down Tuber Canyon but offered the possibility of intersecting Hummingbird spring, a small water source we noticed on the topo maps we were using but had no idea as to current flow.
200 oz of water in a PB Ultimate Direction Vest.  With added gear, food, sat phone, camera, gps our packs were probably about 18lbs apiece.

Said rented decrepit tent trailer and decrepit vehicle.
There were several elements to our plan that you might term inauspicious.  The vehicle that our support crew (Bethany and Mindy) would be driving (a borrowed '93 Chevy suburban) was overheating and leaking radiator fluid on our drive to the park.  Forecasted temps called for 100 degrees in Badwater during the day.  Our support crew involved 2 small children- 9 mo and 4 yo.  Said vehicle was towing a rented tent trailer that was on the verge of collapse and which we patched together with duct tape.  And Jared was fighting a nasty cold leaving him compromised in terms of energy and respiratory function.  
Last minute planning at a stopover in St. George en route to DV.

To better ensure water availability and crew and runner safety we made a few changes to the route and carried satellite phones with scheduled check-in times to give updates on progress.  In formulating our plan we relied on Blake Wood's trip reports as well as this available online resource on the Lowest-to-Highest route:  Otherwise there was a dearth of information to be found and limited valid beta to be gained from DV park service as far as reliable water sources.  Hopefully this report is helpful for future attempts at doing this route in a single push.

The best laid plans of mice and men.

Friday at midnight, starting at Badwater Basin.
After we set up camp in the tent trailer at Shorty's Well (6 miles into our route on the opposite side of the basin) we snuck in about 1.5 hours of sleep prior to our 11:00pm wakeup time.  Bethany then drove us out to the start at Badwater and we began our journey across the eerie endorheic landscape.  The prevailing metaphors that came to mind were predominantly integumental, perhaps owing to my being married to a dermatologist.  A conspiracy of evaporation and unseen briny tectonics, the salt-crusted carapace rose up in curled, jagged plates from the basin, necessitating steeple-chase leaps every few steps to clear the flakes: we were mites skittering across a vast epidermis.  (Given that we had left Bethany at the car the question of dermatologic pathology or normalcy was not adequately answered.)  Given the vastness of the landscape and the dark headwall of Telescope peak towering 11,331 feet above us, we were indeed inconsequential mites here in this unforgiving terrain.

Flakes of salted earth in Badwater Basin
Stock photo of Badwater Basin 
We stopped in briefly at Shorty's Well after about 1:15 of running to pick up our packs fully loaded with nearly 200 oz of water for the climb over Telescope.  We meandered up dirt roads and washes towards Hanaupah Canyon.  The silence was interrupted only by Jared's tuberculous coughing fits.  I silently wondered if we'd make it up Telescope peak given his condition, let alone complete the whole route.  Walking briskly without headlamps under the light of the bright moon we were astonished to discover a vertiginous cliff on our left dropping into an enormous eroded drainage that appeared to be several hundred yards across: this arid landscape is defined by water events that occur on the scale of every hundred thousand years.  Evidence of this water is both everywhere and nowhere.  Here we diverged from the traditional route and gained the ridge north of the spring which we thought would present a more direct line.  However it became clear as we slowly traversed the rolling ridge that the line from Hanaupah would have saved significant time.  We continued on, eventually coming upon a faint trail that climbed steeply to gain the final ridge to the summit of Telescope peak where it joined the trail from Mahogany Flat.  We dropped our packs, did a quick out and back to tag the summit, and then continued down the regular trail for a few miles before vectoring off across a talus slope to the ridge just north of Tuber canyon that allowed a steep descent to Hummingbird spring.  Finding this to be a running trickle was revelatory and we spent a good 30 minutes here drinking and saturating ourselves.

Route from the edge of the basin to Telescope Peak.

Looking back across Badwater Basin.

Climbing the last stretch up Telescope Peak.
Summit of Telescope Peak, about 9 hours and 20 miles into our trip.  

Hummingbird Spring.  Very, very happy.
 "'What makes the desert beautiful,' said the little prince, 'is that somewhere it hides a well..."              
              --Antoine de St. Exupery.
Our revised route (red arrows) to Hummingbird Spring and down to Wildrose Rd.  

 We continued down to join the road and ran pavement down Wildrose Canyon to the campground where there was another scene of aquatic bacchanalia.  We continued down the road to eventually join up with a poorly maintained dirt road which we intended to run all the way northwest to Panamint Springs.  Here we encountered a disconcerting stranded and badly-damaged rented SUV with driver (himself intact) who had improbably driven over what amounted to 6 seemingly impassable washes.  Unable to offer much we carried on.  We again diverged from our plans given how far behind schedule we were and how increasingly dire our water and fuel situation was becoming and we called crew to have them meet us on Panamint Valley Rd for much needed replenishment about 10 miles before the town of Panamint Springs.  It was about 4:30pm and we had been moving continuously with no support for 16.5 hours.  We bee-lined directly to the road across a landscape surreally littered with small, smooth black rocks and perfectly spaced plants about 15 feet apart, apparently the imposed existential limits of available water.

"Water, water, water... There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand, insuring that wide free open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation.  There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be."  -- Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness.

Running down Wildrose Rd.  

Looking like a real Badwater runner.

After this much needed resupply and family support we ran the Panamint Valley Rd. for 10 miles to intersect Hwy 190 and then Panamint Springs resort.  The sun was finally going down and temperature regulation was increasingly possible for this stretch.  We were only about 50 miles into the run.
Your typical crew stop at Panamint Valley Rd.  
10 miles of intervals up Panamint Valley Rd.

We consoled ourselves that this next stretch, a jaunt up Darwin Falls and then a cross-country section to intersect Hwy 190 again with a planned sleep break, was only 13 miles and would be fairly quick and straight forward.  Instead, it took a stressful 6 hours with plentiful desperate clutching exposed 4th to low 5th class rock and associated significant depletion of endogenous catecholamines (on my end at least).

 "Life is the desert, life the solitude, death joins us to the great majority" Edward Young.

Lower Darwin Fall
Darwin Falls is simply astounding.  While we had read about the year-round water availability here we had no idea we would find this veritable riparian rainforest framed between dramatic sheer rock cliffs.  Hummingbird spring with its meager trickle was an oasis: this exuberant flow was almost profligate, obscene in its surplus.  Suddenly we were canyoneering.

 If our journey in the desert was to align with the typically associated tropes (i.e. an inward- dare I say biblical- journey of self-realization and insight, of facing temptation or existential limits, of wandering forlorn in a barren wasteland in search of meaning) it was unclear how to interpret this plot development: either we had so sufficiently accomplished these abstract tasks that we were now being generously rewarded with aquatic manna or this represented an even more potent temptation to thwart our progress.  Interesting to note here that it wouldn't have changed anything either way.

GPS track not exactly fine grained enough to give a sense of what to do in Darwin Falls.
Not that any of this was on my mind at the time: I was more intent on not plunging off the cliff face to an absurdly watery death.  (At the very least this would be an ironic ending to this adventure.)   It was an interesting mental and physical place to be in the middle of the night, fatigued, and 24 hours in.  (There is a reason I don't have any good photos from this section- one of the most dramatic of the whole trip.)   Whereas postmodernists are likely wrong about nearly everything, their relativism is perhaps perfectly suited to capturing the discrepancy between Jared's reality and my reality through this period of time.

Wading through the middle portion of Darwin Falls

Google Earth image of Darwin Falls.

Post hoc analysis suggests that there is an alternate trail that leaves from canyon right as you ascend the falls that is likely more backpacker friendly (it is hard to imagine doing this scramble with a heavy pack).   This would be worthwhile to investigate further.

Finally emerging from Darwin Falls we then had what seemed to be an interminable backcountry tromp to meet back up with Hwy 190 where the girls had parked the trailer for the night.  I was pretty much glued to my GPS during this stretch to stay on track given lack of any clear terrain features to guide us.  There were a few short trail naps thrown in here for good measure.  At this point we both started doing some hard math on the implications of being 6+ hrs behind schedule given that the next stretch involved 45 miles without support and without confirmed water sources.  We had planned to hit this at night thinking it would be feasible to carry enough water to do this 16 hr stretch but doing it in the heat of the day did not seem like the best of ideas.  Having crew support at Cerro Gordo (an abandoned mining town) would be ideal but our vehicular set up was not equipped for this.  We made the decision here that to push onward in the daytime would be foolish and likely dangerous.  With time pressures to get back to SLC we did not have the option to wait until late afternoon or evening to start and the prospect of running Hwy 190 all the way  in seemed too abhorrent to seriously consider.  So we revised our plans, slept a solid 5-6 hours, and then all drove to Whitney Portal the next morning.  Inconsistency is the hobgoblin of weak minds, right?

Route from Hwy 190 to Lone Pine

Given the saintliness of our crew in supporting our sorry asses over the whole weekend it was only fitting that we gave them first dibs on running Mt. Whitney.  Upon their return Jared and I then set off at 6:30pm for our ascent.  We again diverged from the planned route here and went up the standard trail to the summit instead of the previously intended mountaineer's route.  This was entirely my call and my hesitation, based on lack of familiarity with the route, concern for scrambling possibly icy 4th class terrain in the dark, and accumulated fatigue.  While there is a part of my ego that squirms in situations like these I've learned that it is better to simply be honest about my own limits.  The spectrum of human physical capabilities is truly remarkable.  Here I was, a lifelong competitive endurance athlete who likes to consider himself hardcore, in the midst of an epic endurance adventure that puts me probably several standard deviations away from the mean of human functioning, and yet in comparison to Jared I felt remarkably pedestrian.  (This of course had nothing to do with Jared's attitude, which was fully accommodating and humble.)  I am truly privileged to have the chance to do adventures with this fellow.

At Whitney Portal, about to start our ascent.

All things considered we ascended fairly efficiently, reaching the summit in 3:59, en route crossing paths with a pair of climbers who had just ascended the East face of Whitney and were nice enough to snap a photo of us (Jen Scopazzi and friend).  It was cold and windy but incredibly peaceful and beautiful.  We lay down in a gap between rocks at the summit with our headlamps off and looked up at the brilliant sky.  It can take a lot of effort to reach a state like this but it is undeniably worth it.

The descent went by fairly slowly but we finally emerged at the trailhead in about 7:20 total time for our Whitney round trip.  It was about 2am Monday morning and we had covered about 90 miles in total and around 22,000ft of climbing (if my estimates are correct) since Friday at midnight.
En route to Whitney summit. Photo courtesy of Jen Scopazzi.

Phoebe, Ada, and Bethany in the sand dunes.