Even the coyotes are desperate in Death Valley. Descending into Badwater Basin, we see four of them limping across a stretch of burning sand called the Devil’s Cornfield. They’re emaciated, ghostlike creatures—ribs poking out of their thin coats, eyes blank, tongues drooping. The temperature is a suffocating 106°F. If coyotes can barely survive in this place, clearly humans don’t belong.
Which is exactly why my wife Sue and I are here. Death Valley ranks near the top of the planet’s most inhospitable environments. At 282 feet below sea level, it’s the lowest, driest, hottest place in the United States. The highest temperature ever recorded on Earth, 134°F, was registered in Death Valley in 1913.
Heat isn’t the only hazard. Hiking away from Badwater, we enter a stark, lunar landscape. The soil has fractured into hexagonal plates of white salt the size of car hoods. It resembles pack ice; where the plates’ edges meet, jagged, foot-high ridges jut up like saw blades. A slip would mean stitches.
And yet, the terrain is oddly uplifting. Extreme environments bring clarity to the essentials of life: air, water, shelter, food. Temperate environs attenuate the truth. They lull you into laziness. But wherever it’s unbearably hot or cold, high or dry, wet or windy, complacency is not an option. You must respect your surroundings and adapt to the conditions or you’ll wind up burned, frozen, or blown away.
Sue is so amped I can hardly keep up with her. I tramp steadily across the disks of salt, some of which quiver like sheet metal. When my boots break through the thin crust, the salt tinkles like broken glass. The austerity of the landscape is overwhelming; I’ve never experienced anything quite so alien. Most of the world has forests and fields and signs of life. Not here. Even the planet’s highest mountains have snow, which means water, and life. Yaks and wolves lick snow and humans melt it. But here there is no water.
Shortys Well, our destination today, is just a dry hole in the sand named after a swindling prospector. We reach it after three hours of hiking.
“Treacherous, wasn’t it?” Sue says excitedly when I catch up with her after nightfall by spotting the beam of her headlamp. “I just wanted to get through those plates before dark.” We have hiked all over the world together for more than three decades, and the truth is she has always been faster than me.
We eat in the moonless dark, but it’s still over a hundred degrees, too hot to sleep. We expected this. We just lie naked on top of our bags, silent and sweating.
A big part of getting along in extreme environments is expecting things to get tough, and then accepting it when they do. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be tested. At dawn, as we’re packing up after a sleepless night, a swarm of tiny bees attacks us. Our sweat is the only source of moisture for miles and they begin stinging us on our necks and backs and in our armpits. We swiftly dump everything into our packs and take off, slapping ourselves, alternately cursing and laughing.
Remarkably, Death Valley’s geographical antipode, 14,505-foot Mt. Whitney, is less than 100 miles northwest as the crow flies. It snows on Whitney every month of the year and the lowest recorded temperature is -13°F. Neither Sue nor I have climbed it.
The proximity of Death Valley and Mt. Whitney has intrigued me for years—the Lower 48’s lowest point practically adjacent to its highest. It’s a distance that could be covered on foot, although not easily: One would have to patch together a mostly off-trail route up and down bone-dry arroyos, around endless sand dunes, and over snowy passes. All in all, it would entail roughly 150 miles and 30,000 feet of elevation gain across three deserts and three mountain ranges.
I’ve been attracted to extreme terrain since I was a kid, but this journey was an unlikely obsession. I generally dislike heat. I am a mountaineer; I prefer cold alpine air. And I get no joy out of carrying a heavy pack, either. I’ve had three hernia operations from humping huge loads on long expeditions, so I only schlep monster packs out of necessity, and that’s usually because I need ropes and gear, not gallons of water. And yet, for some reason, I was drawn to the extremity of this endeavor—the searing heat, the bitter cold, the Everest’s worth of vertical. I didn’t spend a lot of time trying to understand my own motivation. Sometimes, at least for me, it’s necessary to do the thing to figure out why you’re doing it.
Naturally, I needed the right partner. Someone who was capable of not simply suffering, but finding personal gratification in the struggle. Someone who was capable of covering long distances on foot with physical ease and mental equanimity. Someone who could tolerate a know-it-all adventurer with poorly understood motivation. Luckily, I married just such a person. Sue Ibarra: mother, mountaineer, marathoner. Sue and I have climbed Aconcagua and Kilimanjaro and Orizaba together, bicycled across large swaths of Europe and Asia, backpacked in Tibet and Tanzania and Bolivia.
We guessed the 150-mile journey would take 10 days. The best season to do a Lowest-to-Highest (L2H) hike, we quickly determined, is late fall. In the winter and spring, the High Sierra is buried in snow, and in summer Death Valley is deadly. We would need to cache water and food along our route. We’d need umbrellas for the murderous desert sun and puffy down jackets for the high-altitude cold.
At 6 p.m. on October 2, Sue and I stepped out of the car at Badwater. We ignored the heat-dazed coyotes and quizzical tourists and set off across the desert toward Shortys Well.
Humans have come and gone in Death Valley for 10,000 years. The Timbisha Shoshone, who are believed to have lived here 1,000 years ago, moved with the seasons. They subsisted on pinyon pine nuts and screwbeans from mesquite trees, hunting bighorn sheep and antelope with bows and arrows, and conducting community drives of the long-legged black-tailed hare.
This traditional way of life vanished after the 1849 California gold rush. Twenty-six wagons and a hundred white people found themselves stranded in Death Valley that first winter. When they finally escaped, after one of the party died, one 49er is reputed to have said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”
Anyone who crosses the barren expanse on foot can be forgiven for expressing the same sentiment. And people do cross it. Despite the hardships, we aren’t the only ones to be tempted by the challenge. We actually shared a ride with one kindred spirit on the way to the trailhead. And on our second day, marching up Hanaupah Canyon, we’re surprised to run into another hiker, Adam. Both he and the previous day’s hiker are ultralighters, moving fast, trucking 18 hours a day, wearing only shorts, sneakers, and a little pack overloaded with water. We learn later that neither of them made it to Whitney.
The number of people who successfully hike from lowest to highest in an average year can probably be counted on one hand—less than a hundredth the number that summit Everest. Yet, like everything else, there’s a website dedicated to L2H, founded by Brett “Blisterfree” Tucker. Tucker’s website provides details of the route, free maps, even a series of blogs by L2H veterans. He describes Lowest to Highest as a “scenic, silent journey across the wilderness. Perhaps nowhere else on earth can a person so quickly travel on foot between markedly contrasting environments. . .” However, another website describes it as a trek that crosses “extremely dangerous, remote terrain susceptible to extreme weather. Due to the nature of the route, there is serious risk of losing one’s life.”
We only hike with Adam for a short distance. He’s speeding along Tucker’s published route, and we’re making up our own, one which weaves through more high country but passes no opportunities for showers or cold beer. We’re not racing, and we don’t want the natural rhythm of the journey interrupted. Sue and I veer up trailless, waterless North Hanaupah Fork. At 9 a.m., the temperature is almost triple digits.
Ten miles from Badwater, we’ve traversed the first desert and now must cross the first mountain range, the steep, scrubby Panamints. We hike in the blazing sun for an hour and then hide in the shade for 20 minutes—a system we’ll use for the next week. Clambering up one brushy wash after another, only careful map and compass work keeps us in the right drainage.
“Look at this!” Sue says suddenly as we’re moving along a conglomerate cut bank. At our feet lies the complete skeleton of a large bighorn sheep. The horns have a full curl and the front legs are broken. It appears the animal fell from the cliff above. The bones are sun-bleached and gnawed clean.
“I hereby christen this hellish ravine Dead Ram Gulch,” I say, and note it on the map.
“How much farther?” Sue asks.
“We’re at 4,100 feet, 4,000 more to go.”
Ascending more than 8,000 feet in one day is rare. Most Fourteeners only necessitate a 4,000-foot gain. On big Himalayan peaks, mountaineers rarely gain more than 3,000 feet in one day, which helps avoid altitude sickness. But this isn’t the first time Sue and I have tackled extreme vertical. She once ran up 5,000 feet on a race from Ouray to Telluride. On a climbing trip in the Grand Canyon, a partner and I logged 20,000 feet of elevation change in 24 hours. Which means we have a good idea of what we’re getting into and how we’ll react.
We eventually haul ourselves up into a thousand-year-old bristlecone pine forest and make Mahogany Flat by 6 p.m. The temperature is deliciously cool, but we’re sweaty and dehydrated and immediately pull on our puffies.
Sue stirs up one of our favorite backcountry meals—mashed potatoes with chunks of chicken breast—while I map out the next day’s hike. After a restless night, tromping 20 miles in the heat, and ascending more than 8,000 feet, it’s time for extreme sleep.
Homo sapiens evolved in largely low-elevation, temperate environments. We are not physically adapted to extremes. Unlike a polar bear cub or a kid goat or an antelope fawn, a naked newborn human is incapable of surviving severe heat or cold. However, according to paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, the head of the Smithsonian Human Origins Program, natural selection was not only a matter of survival of the fittest in the physical sense. Drastic environmental changes meant that evolution favored humans that were adaptable. Extreme environments encouraged us to develop the means to protect ourselves from the harshest conditions.
Still, some humans migrated to such harsh environments that they developed what are called micro genetic adaptations. Inuit tend to have shorter, rounder fingers and limbs and a rotund body, which is the most efficient form for conserving heat, essential for survival in the Arctic. Tibetans have lived at 12,000 feet long enough to have become genetically adapted to high altitude—one reason chain-smoking Sherpas do so well on Everest.
“Homo sapiens were the only group of early hominids to emigrate over the entire world,” psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, one of the early theorists in risk-taking, has said, “so I think humans as a species are characterized by novelty- and intensity-seeking behavior.”
Evolutionarily, for the survival of a clan or tribe, there was clearly an advantage to having some individuals willing to take risks—to hunt game beyond the mountain. But what is the benefit to the individual risk-taker? Psychologists have been inventing experiments to answer this question for 50 years.
Calling such individuals adrenaline junkies is tempting, but adrenaline is typically secreted as part of the fight-or-flight response. A dollop of adrenaline may be what drives people to ski fast, sky dive, or bungee jump—but this is self-evidently not the reason people climb mountains or walk long distances, because there’s sure no adrenaline in trudging along, one step in front of the next.
Some studies suggest this behavior might have something to do with dopamine, the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitter, but the connection is unclear. Does a naturally higher level of dopamine promote risk-taking? Or, in the act of taking risks, do we get a shot of it, which encourages us to push onward?
Or maybe it’s just about sex. In “Who Dares, Wins,” a study published in Human Nature in 2001, psychologists at the University of Liverpool found that “females prefer risk-prone, brave males to risk-averse, non-brave males and that men are aware of this preference.”
I don’t have high hopes for a definitive answer. As Francis Spufford wrote in his history of British polar exploration, I May Be Some Time, humans have wandered intentionally into extreme hardship for ages, and they “are notoriously bad at saying why.”
The next day, we drop down into the pebbly desert of the Panamint Valley, where cloud cover blesses us with a reprieve from the heat. By evening, to our surprise, it begins to rain, and the temperature drops almost 50 degrees. We erect our tent on an alluvial bench beside a small creek bed. The rain keeps coming. In the time it takes to boil dinner, the rain transforms the dribbling stream beside our tent into a river of rushing, mud-heavy water. It occurs to us that we are, in fact, camped in a flash-flood zone. We hurriedly move the tent to higher ground.
“It would be ironic to drown in the desert,” I say.
“And stupid,” Sue replies.
We relish the incongruity of drifting to sleep in the desert to the sound of pelting rain. In the morning, it’s still raining. The old road we had walked down the day before is ripped open, a reddish-brown river coursing through the freshly cut ravine.
We pop open our umbrellas and walk in one push all the way across the Panamint Valley, up and down countless sheer-sided arroyos. When we reach the foot of the Argus Range, just after lunch, it’s still raining. We’re both cold and tired. We put up our tent and take a deep, satisfying, two-hour nap.
By late afternoon, the rain has stopped and we continue on an old burro track, passing the rusted debris of the Minnietta mine. In the early 1900s, gold and copper were discovered here. Where native life had left few marks on the land—rock art, mainly—mining permanently altered the landscape. We discover old wagon roads spidering off in every direction and abandoned mines up every canyon.
Once, I stop and enter one of the dark, broken-timbered holes, following narrow-gauge iron rails by headlamp to the first collapse. I imagine the miners who dug deep into the earth here, the desperate souls who put up with the madness of extreme heat for the dream of a big payout. I wonder, Are we so different?
In their book Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits, authors Emma Barrett and Paul Martin write that “most people who operate in extreme environments are not big sensation seekers (and neither are they impulsive).” Rather, people who go on expeditions “display high levels of self-control and achievement orientation.” For a large variety of reasons—childhood experiences, chance, challenge, opportunity, identity, self-esteem—they may be unusually attracted to extreme environments, “but their ability to survive and thrive there will depend on other qualities.”
In 2016, Dr. Peter Suedfeld, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of British Columbia, was awarded the Canadian Honours Polar Medal for his research into the psychological effects associated with isolation in polar stations. According to the award citation, Suedfeld “has provided key insights into the leadership styles and personality characteristics of individuals who thrive in extreme conditions.”
Suedfeld has spent a lifetime understanding the difference between those who survive extreme circumstances and those who perish. He has studied concentration camp survivors, polar explorers, mountaineers, and adventurers. I called and caught him at his university office where, at age 81, he’s still working away.
Contrary to what Hollywood might have you believe, the most important character trait of an adventurer is not physical toughness. Instead, it is mental flexibility: “The ability,” says Suedfeld, “often under extreme stress, to think through and solve a problem.” Mental flexibility is defined by being willing to try multiple times, using different methods, to find a solution. In other words, it is the opposite of stubbornness.
According to Suedfeld, the second character trait of adventurers and survivors is emotional resilience. “When something goes wrong, some people interpret it as a disaster and lapse into catastrophic thinking. Others simply view it as a challenge. The latter don’t despair; they bounce back and find some way to cope with the situation.”
Suedfeld says the best adventurers are not just thoroughly prepared; they anticipate the unexpected and “overlearn” useful responses, so that in stressful situations they can do the right thing automatically.
I hear him laugh on the phone. “You know what explorer Roald Amundsen said: ‘Adventure is just bad planning.’”
Our journey is not an adventure by Amundsen’s standards, largely because of meticulous preparation. We just need to keep moving.
By the third desert crossing, I learn that walking in extreme heat can be surprisingly meditative. You can’t move quickly, only steadily. Your brain is baking. After a while your body does the walking for you and your mind detaches.
About 100 miles into our journey, as we cross the Coso Range Wilderness Area, I can clearly see myself as if from an airplane. I’m floating in the sky, looking down on this person walking along. I can see my path stretching out before me and behind me to both horizons. All the thousands of twists and turns over dozens of years are smoothed out. The trajectory is as continuous as the flight of an arrow. I can see the path of my childhood leading to the path of my adulthood, the path of my passion as a boy becoming the path of my career as a man. I can even see the end of my path, which does not disturb me, but actually gives me solace.
Our lives are always so rushed that it’s almost impossible to see where we’re going or where we’ve been. It’s like looking out the window of a train, the world chuttering by. But the mind reorients when you move at the pace humans were designed to move, one step at a time. Walk long enough, and the mind, as if set free, rises into the sky. It’s a form of detachment that can help you endure extreme conditions.
We cover 20 miles of desert that day.
At 11 a.m. the following morning, we reach Dirty Socks Springs, which stink badly, but support thousands of migrating birds. We then walk across Owens Lake, sucked dry by the thirst of Los Angeles. At nightfall, we are at the base of the Sierra, the last desert behind us, the highest mountains ahead.
First thing in the morning, we hike north and cross the Los Angeles aqueduct, the concrete-lined canal that transformed Owens Lake into a dust bowl. We march up between 10,371-foot Wonoga Peak and 8,625-foot Timosea Peak, passing from scrub oak into junipers and finally, gratefully, into cool glades of fat ponderosa pines. We gain more than 6,000 feet just in the afternoon and camp at 9,000 feet. It’s the first night I actually use my sleeping bag.
At daybreak, we hike through a forest of dead, gnarled, burnt-orange conifers. We lunch beside blue glacial lakes. Invigorated by the stunning landscape, we kick steps up the blanket of white and cross 12,300-foot New Army Pass. After more than 100 miles of desert, nothing is so glorious as snow.
We posthole through thigh-deep powder (less glorious), then camp near a pond at 11,200 feet. We stay up drinking hot chocolate, watching the granite peaks fade from pink to purple to black. In the morning, the surface of the tarn is frozen.
Hiking along the crest of the Sierra turns out to be a bit tricky. There’s 2 feet of snow on the northern aspects, with hidden holes between the boulders. With the extra weight of a pack, one misstep could break a leg. At times, I wish we had crampons and ice axes. It’s slow going, with a lot of up and down, and we only make 5 or so miles before dark.
Our last camp is right on the crest, at 13,300 feet, near Discovery Pinnacle. We have a 360-degree view. To the east we look down into the Owens Valley and the gray humps of the Inyo Mountains. To the west lies ridge after ragged ridge of the Sierra. To the south rise Mts. Mallory, LeConte, and Corcoran; and to the north, snowcapped Mt. Whitney. It feels good, familiar, to be back in the alpine: wind, granite, snow. Both Sue and I were raised in the Rockies, so this is our natural environment. But our comfort zone feels particularly surreal after going from one extreme to the other—from a vast furnace to an alpine freezer. Sure, we could have spent a few hours milling around Badwater Basin with the tourists, then driven to the Whitney trailhead and hiked up in a day, experiencing both places in short order. But then we wouldn’t have walked through the trance-inducing heat. We would not have understood the primal, barbarously beautiful appeal of the desert, and felt the relief of coming home to the mountains. I no longer wonder why I was drawn to this journey. As some sage once said: To do is to be.
That night the temperature drops into the teens, almost 100 degrees colder than our first night in Death Valley. Our bags barely keep us warm, and Sue has the stove going before dawn. We eat a big breakfast, lingering in our last camp. At sunrise, the air finally begins to warm. We’re in no hurry. It’s day 11, and we’re only a few hours from our goal.
Eventually, we pack up and begin plunge-stepping north. Within an hour we intersect the Whitney Trail, which has been smoothed into an ice luge from all the foot traffic. We’ve encountered very few people during our trek, so it’s a jolt to see a line of hikers. But I don’t begrudge them. If we wanted solitude, we could have targeted Mt. Williamson, only a few miles north of Whitney. At 14,389 feet, it’s only 115 feet shorter, yet it sees just a handful of ascents per year. If it was just about the experience, not the bragging rights, Williamson, a more remote mountain with a much more challenging trail, would see a lot more hikers. But I understand the allure of superlatives. Sue and I are doing the Lowest to Highest, not the Lowish to Highish.
We leave our packs at Trail Crest, 13,700 feet, and practically lope the last couple miles to Whitney’s summit. We snap pictures on the top, ballyhooing with our arms in the air.
Sue and I curl up together in the boulders, out of the wind but in the sun. Our L2H is over; we’re relaxed, enjoying the moment before descending. I recall another definition of adventure, this one by the writer Thornton Wilder.
“Sue, remember the book The Bridge of San Luis Rey?” I ask. “Wilder said that adventure is something you wish you were home reading about.”
Sue smiles. “Not for me.