Running Death Valley

December 23, 2012

By Will Grant

Death Valley is the largest National Park in the United States.  It’s also the hottest (average temperature: 77 degrees Fahrenheit), the driest (average precipitation: about two inches), and the lowest (282 feet below sea level). It’s an austere desert landscape not suitable for most plants or animals, humans included.

To some, the harshness of the environment presents a challenge. For a lot of those people, the only way to tackle the valley is on two feet, one step at a time. As far as that goes, Chase Norton plans to do what’s never been done: run the entire length of the valley alone and unsupported.

On February 14, the Hawaii-based Norton will begin his run at the north end of Death Valley National Park. Over ten days he’ll camp at a variety of primitive sites, cabins, and established campsites. He’ll run through sand dunes, over salt flats, and across alpine snow fields at 11,000 feet. He’ll carry everything he needs and he plans on running nearly the entire 228 miles.

Though no one has ever run from one end of the park to the other, there have been and are similar undertakings. Most notably, there’s the annual 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon that runs from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. The race calls itself “the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet.”

The fastest racers finish the Badwater Ultra in about 24 hours, and there’s a 48-hour time limit on all racers. Norton’s run will take ten days and cover 228 miles. The biggest difference between what Norton is doing and the Badwater: Norton will be carrying on his back everything he needs for those ten days.

“I like to push myself solo,” he says. “High mileage over difficult terrain. When it comes to misery, I welcome it.”

His pack will be heaviest on the first day, loaded with ten days’ worth of food, two days’ of water and weighing about 32 pounds. Of the nine nights spent on the trail, two will be without water. And it’s no secret that finding water in Death Valley is no easy task.

“Too bad the early settlers didn’t have Google Earth,” Norton says. “The nice thing about Death Valley is that there are all these hidden places where you can find water.”

Norton is no stranger to grueling runs. He’s run marathons, and last April made a grueling 8-day, solo ridge-line trek in the coastal mountains of Hawaii. But one thing that makes him particularly suited to running through the firebox of the Mojave Desert is his experimentation with water usage.

“I hate Camelbaks,” he says. “You can’t tell how much water you’ve drank and you can’t tell how much you have left.”

©Olivier Renck

Norton has devoted a lot of attention to water usage. Basically, that means he’s pushed himself to the brink of dehydration to assess his personal water requirement. Which has turned out to be three liters per day. When the body’s performing at a high level, that’s not much water. In Death Valley, gambling with water usage is dangerous territory.

But to Norton, not much of his run is a gamble. He’s never been to the area, much less run with a pack for more that a week there, but he’s planned as much of the project as possible. Really, the only unknown is the ascent to the summit of Ubehebe Crater on Day 3. A thorough investigation of the topographic maps, however, leads Norton to believe his way is the best. He’ll know for sure about the time he gets there.

The hardest day of the run will be likely be the climb from the bottom of the valley at 282 feet below sea level to the summit of Telescope Peak at 11,049 feet. That night will also be the coldest, though he’ll be sleeping in an old cabin (that he hopes is still there) used by high-country travelers for decades.

The overriding focus of Norton’s gear selection is minimizing weight wherever possible. He’s cut the labels and all unnecessary straps and pockets of his Berghaus backpack. His spork is made of ultralight titanium. His stove, the Trail Designs Gram Cracker is basically a small cube of solid fuel in a foil wrapper. It weighs less than his spork. His shelter by Zpacks is a fly made of the ultralight material Cuben Fiber and weighs less than five ounces.

For food, Norton will be eating a lot of spam, which is unusually popular in Hawaii.

“I wouldn’t touch the stuff when I first got here,” he says. “But now I could almost be sponsored by Hormel. I stick with Spam Classic. It’s high in calories, high in fat, and low weight.”

Norton has scheduled a 50-mile day to end the run on the tenth day. He’s never run 50 miles in a day, but as the last leg of an epic run, he’ll likely have it in his tank to finish out strong.

“If you can see a light at the end of the tunnel, you can will yourself to do incredible things,” he says.

Norton also has a Kickstarter project, called Death Valley: Chase’s Way, to create a film of the run. To do this, he teamed up photographer Olivier Renck.

Above image copyright Olivier Renck

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