Circumnavigating Death Valley National Park During the Hottest Month in U.S. History

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Dave Heckman (left) with Marshall Ulrich. Photo: Rick Baraff

By now you've probably heard that July registered as the hottest month in the history of the lower 48 states since the U.S. government started tracking temperatures in 1895. As you'd probably guess, Death Valley was the hottest place in the country during that time. It had the highest maximum temperature for 22 of the month's 31 days. On July 23, it recorded the hottest maximum temperature for any day when it pushed thermometers up to 122 degrees. That was Marshall Ulrich and Dave Heckman's second day on a 16-day, 425-mile attempt to become the first people to circumnavigate Death Valley National Park, according to Ulrich's website.

By now, you've also probably heard of Ulrich. He's the ultrarunner who has raced in more than 100 races of 125 miles or more, climbed the seven summits, ran 3,063 miles from San Francisco to New York City, and had all of his toenails pulled out to prevent the chronic issues that come with so much running. “It looks like he has a bunch of bald-headed little men at the end of his feet,” Mark Macy, a fellow ultrarunner, told The New York Times.

Ulrich has spent quite a lot of time in Death Valley. He's run the Badwater Ultramarathon, which starts in Death Valley and winds its way 135 miles to Mount Whitney, 18 times, or, more than anyone else in history. Not long after this year's race, which he finished in 42 hours, he joined up with Heckman.

Heckman (left) with Ulrich at the finish. Photo: Rick Baraff

Despite burying 37 caches of water and food (MREs, Cheetos, and freeze-dried meals from Expedition Foods) at strategic spots around the park, both men lost a considerable amount of weight. The 5' 9″, 61-year-old Ulrich dropped 10 pounds, and the 38-year-old Heckman dropped 25 pounds. There was a lot of suffering. At a point during a hike up the Saline Valley, Ulrich started to hallucinate struggle. He took several naps with weird dreams. Heckman stepped in and carried Ulrich's pack in the final stretch. Ulrich said it was, “”an ass kicker, not one of my finer moments and in fact one of my worst.” At least the pair had the views offered by a mostly untrammelled landscape: one park ranger, a couple of cars, abandoned mining shacks, an operating gold mine, reptiles, and Charlie Manson's old hideout. When the pair finished, they immediately put ice cubes in their mouths and turned on the radio for their car ride home.

All of that's not to say the hike didn't have benefits. “When you strip away all the luxuries we’re accustomed to in day-to-day living, you realize how little you really need, how distracting a lot of that stuff is, and how it gets in the way of a certain peacefulness you can find within yourself without it,” Ulrich says. “Probably the most beautiful thing we experienced was waking up at night and realizing that our only ceiling was the stars.”

Ulrich and Heckman dedicated their August 9 climb up Mount Whitney to Michael Popov, the ultrarunner who died while training in Death Valley in early August.

Stars over Death Valley. Photo: HGHuman/Flickr

—Joe Spring

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