In school we learn that Death Valley is the lowest place in the Americas. Less than 100 miles away, neurologist as the crow flies, here is Mt Whitney, the highest point in the 48. Distance, elevation, extreme temps, and two mountain ranges is what lies between them. To visit both in a day on your own power, you need to think like Honey Badger.
The video is a YouTube classic. Honey Badger wants some bee larva, so he goes and gets it. He doesn’t care that he gets stung 100 times in the process. He’s hungry, he doesn’t care about anything, he just goes for it.
Starting at 282′ below Sea Level at Badwater, we had ~22,000′ vertical feet of climbing and more than 140 miles to go to Whitney summit at 14,500′. But you can’t think about the difficulty of going from the low point to the high point. Honey Badger decides that he wants to do something, and will endure anything necessary in the process. If you start thinking how tired you are, how much you hurt, etc, you gotta change your mindset quick. If we started caring about little things, there is no way we would make it.
Going from Badwater to Whitney on my own power has captivated me for several years. But I’m also obsessed with the single push in a day. The Badwater Ultramarathon is run on the same course, and has been done in 23 and change. But that’s just to Whitney Portal at 8300′. Marshall Ulrich went the whole way to the summit in just under 34 hours. But to go sub-24 hours would mean I’d have to get on the bike instead of running to Whitney Portal. So I began biking hills for training.
A year ago at the Intersection Rock BBQ I met Andre. I had been hearing about this beast’s endurance accomplishments for some time. When we met, I learned he had just in the last month biked from Lone Pine up to Whitney Portal (4700′ gain) and then summited Whitney, all told in less than 8 hours. Of course my goal was that challenge plus 120 more miles and 10,000 more feet, but this was the kind of guy who could do it: he thought like Honey Badger. The 24 hour obsession was also in his blood – if he couldn’t sleep in his own bed, he preferred not to sleep at all and do things in a single push. We made plans to do it the following year.
We planned our Badwater to Whitney challenge for a single push from San Diego on Sept 24. Andre was just getting over an illness and I could have used some more recovery time from Leadville– but guess what? Honey Badger don’t care.
We left San Diego late morning and got to Badwater at dark amidst a spectacular display of lightning bolts. The wind was blowing crazy, even blowing one of my bike gloves away for good as I tried to put it on–so I unfortunately adopted the style of Michael Jackson. It was a new moon so you could see nothing. The sand was blowing in our faces and stinging. Does Honey Badger care?
8pm, Badwater, Death Valley. Yes I’m wearing swim goggles. It was windy, ok?
Neither Andre nor I had biked through the night before. In fact, neither of us had done any substantial biking at night at all. When we started at Badwater in the pitch dark, it was still 104 degrees. Heat, impending storm, lightning, howling winds, pitch darkness? Honey Badger don’t care. The clock started at 8:10pm.
The first 40 miles were the hottest, above 100 degrees the whole time, but we also had the wind at our backs. Drafting made no sense –we’d just slow each other down– so we cycled side by side most of the time. Riding in the new moon was amazing; turning your light out meant you couldn’t see 2 feet in front of your face. It was an awesome experience, so peaceful.
We only saw half a dozen cars in that first stretch. For the rest of the entire night, we saw even fewer. We made it to mile 42, Stovepipe Wells village, in about 2:20, averaging ~20mph. No sweating, but our faces were caked with salt – the evaporation is fast in the desert. I had a headache so I decided to channel the Honey Badger psyche.
The road turns hard left and the winds were now working against us as the first major climb started (5000′ up to Towne pass). In the meantime we passed our crew, sleeping at Emigrant campground. We didn’t use them as a pacer car, but the next morning they were kind enough to pick up our empty water bottles that we stashed along the way. They also shuttled the car to Whitney Portal so it would not have been logistically feasible to do a San Diego to San Diego push without them.
Finishing up the bike at Whitney Portal, in 13+ hours at 9:30 am.
The second big climb, 3000′ to Panamint Pass, hit Andre hard. His experience, starting at the end of the Towne pass climb:
“Despite the headwinds and a constant steep grade toward the pass, first 10 miles went easily. It was in the last 5 miles of the climb that I began to realize that something was not quite right. I knew we had a long way ahead of us and I chose to stop a couple of times to catch my breath and recompose, which was quite uncharacteristic for me. As we crested the pass, the downhill was a blast, 30-40 mph on a windy road in the middle of the night was a special treat.
“Descending back into the heat, we made it to Panamint Springs. I drank some of the 100F Gatorade and we started up another 3000′ climb to Panamint pass. It was on this climb, that the Honey Badger got stung by a cobra. The climb itself wasn’t hard but my physical condition was killing me. In retrospect, I probably had too much salt. Together with dehydration, nausea and lack of appetite, I developed a wild combination of irregular heartbeat (potassium overdose?), muscle fatigue and mild bonking. I couldn’t even turn on my handlebar light or ride anywhere near Ben as any flickering/moving light threatened to make me puke. Ben was supportive and feeling good. To alleviate the nausea, I fell behind a few hundred feet but kept Ben within my sight.
“The grade eventually lessened near Father Crowley Overlook. Taking it easy on steeper sections, I rode hard on the gentler terrain. As we made it to the Saline Valley Road (85 miles), I went right for the stashed gallon of water and nearly drowned myself. This and some food made me feel better. It would take another few hours to regain my strength and healthy appetite, but at this point I knew I was coming back to finish the cobra. The next downhill section was gentle but very fast and it was exhilarating to draft off each other for many miles.”
Arriving at the Lone Pine McDonald’s right at sunrise after 10 hours, 25 minutes in the saddle and over 120 miles/10,000′ gain, we took an extended break (45 min), ate an unhealthy amount of hash browns, and got psyched for the Whitney Portal road. This is one of America’s hardest bike climbs even when fresh. We of course had not slept and had been up for 24 hours at this point.
As such, Whitney Portal road almost broke me. I wanted to do it without stopping , but in order to do so I had to make my own switchbacks, weaving back and forth (my first time ever needing to do this), on the sustained 13 degrees part. My whole body ached and it would definitely have been a good idea–and even faster– to take a couple breathers. But I am stubborn as Honey Badger and I wanted to do the climb with no stops. Andre was immensely helpful here, having done the climb before, he knew exactly where the hard parts were and was encouraging.
Definitively haggard shot, after 135 miles at Whitney Portal. The summit still 6000+’ more vertical by foot.
At Whitney Portal, 2:07 later, our crew was waiting. I was drained, having gone very deep into my reserves, and it took us almost an hour to get changed out of the bike stuff and retool for hiking. But we got back at it, 10:30 am, and headed for the Mountaineer’s route.
Hiking was a welcome break. My legs were tired and I stumbled occasionally for the first 4000′ gain, but mostly it was a new activity so I felt better. After Iceberg Lake, the gully was filled with gnar ice and snow, but that is always easily avoidable using the 3rd class rocks to the right. We made it to the notch in just over 4 hours from the trailhead. However, at the notch everything was completely iced due to the storms the day before. We saw many parties retreating from the route on our approach; no one summited that day via the Mountaineer’s Route. Except us.
The route was dangerously iced and we had no crampons or axe. They actually wouldn’t have been too useful – a rope is really what would have helped. We observed that the buttress on the right was light on snow and ice, with lots of places of bare rock due to its steepness. We were able to find a passable route and soloed this buttress, which felt about 5.7 (though was probably more like 5.5). Death exposure and lack of sleep made free soloing on icy rock mentally demanding. But Honey Badger don’t care, he solos everything. Plus it was a welcome change from the hiking. And it’s fun to hand jam!
We topped out 5 hours, 10 minutes after starting at Portal, 19:30 total. What a feeling! Some people at the top were celebrating their birthday. After only a few sips of champagne (literally) we were both out of our mind. This, and moreso the not so easily reversible moves back to the MR gully, meant we decided to take the trail down. We started down at 4PM and reached the car just after dark, 7:52PM, for a total time, Badwater to Summit to Car in less than 24 hours! We headed back to San Diego, arriving a bit after Midnight. And, of course, Honey Badger was already done and on to the next one…
Whitney summit, lowest to highest in 19 hours, 30 minutes!
Badwater (elev: -282 ft) 8:10 pm
135 miles/15,300 ft elevation gain
Whitney Portal (elev: 8300 ft) 9:37 am
~6 miles/~6300 ft elevation gain
Mt. Whitney (elev: 14505 ft) 3:40 pm
~9 miles/~400 ft elevation gain –
Whitney Portal (elev: 8300 ft) 7:52 pm
Back at Whitney Portal, under 24 hours! Credit to Ben M. and Liora for crewing and photos. Note the Nirvana T-shirt. It was the 20th anniversary of Nevermind. And I care about that, even if Honey Badger don’t.