Fiery Death Valley invites comparisons with the Planet Mars. For most adventurers, just driving to Death Valley and hiking its scorching surface is challenge enough. The 140 mile-long California crater set some 130 miles from Las Vegas presents extreme conditions.
Death Valley is the lowest, driest and hottest place in North America. In 2001, Death Valley notched up daytime high temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) for 153 days running.
Still, some adventurers treat the spectacular rip in the earth as an arena for exploration. Find out what thrills that Death Valley offers besides the chance to zoom around it in a jeep.
1. Badwater Ultramarathon
One of the best-named events in the sporting calendar, the Badwater Ultramarathon happens in July every year. Said to be the world’s toughest foot race, Badwater Ultramarathon is run by the event production firm AdventureCORPS.
Badwater pits some 90 of the world’s fittest endurance athletes — triathletes, adventure racers, and mountaineers — against each other and the blazing heat. The course covers 135 miles. Running non-stop, competitors travel from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, California in temperatures soaring as high as 130 degrees Fahrenheit (55 Celsius). That is hot.
The heat and distance mean that runners must forget winning and just focus on surviving, after intense preparation. Getting ready to run through hell forces you to undergo vigorous sauna-training and desert-acclimatization.
Still, demand to compete in the invitation-only event exceeds availablity. The murderous hardship that Badwater Ultramarathon inflicts only whets runners’ appetites.
2. Furnace Creek 508
Founded by the godfather of ultracycling, John Marino, in 1983 and said to be “the toughest 48 hours in sport”, Furnace Creek 508 is an ultramarathon bicycle race.
Again run by the event production firm AdventureCORPS – usually on the first or second weekend of October – the 508-mile bicycle race features massive mountain climbs, severe desert scenery and barren roads. The course crosses ten mountain passes.
En route, riders whizz from Santa Clarita just north of Los Angeles across the Mojave Desert, through Death Valley National Park and Mojave National Preserve. The finish line lies at the gateway to Joshua Tree National Park, Twentynine Palms, California.
If you want to compete, you must pay a small fortune. Still, again, supply outstrips demand – a glut of hardcore athletes wants to face the Furnace.
Successful applicants are identified by animal totems rather than numbers, in a nod to the area’s native American Indian heritage. Death Valley hosts the Timbisha Shoshone Indians: resourceful people who have lived amid its sizzling heat for over a thousand years.
3. Devils Hole
Devils Hole has never been mapped. If you visit Death Valley, all you can do is get a tantalizing brink-side glimpse of the gouge in a gouge. Be curious because Devils Hole is bizarre for two reasons:
First, it hosts an endangered, iridescent ice age relic called the Devils Hole Pupfish, which only lives in the hole’s 90-degree waters.
Second, Devils Hole captivated the imagination of murderer Charles Manson. Manson believed that Devils Hole would serve as a shelter for him and his followers during Helter Skelter – an apocalyptic racial war he thought would arise from tension between blacks and whites.
Manson was mad. In 1964, in science’s name extreme diver Jim Houtz led a research team into the hole. Then 26, Houtz found that Devils Hole plunges about 160 feet, like a pipe, then opens into a “room” that is over 300 feet long, and some 40 feet wide.
“When I’m down there, all I can hear is the hiss of the oxygen and the whine,” Houtz told Associated Press. The whine is caused by pressure on your eardrums, he said, adding that the deeper you go, the shriller it grows.
But Houtz described Devils Hole’s as “beautiful”. It was clear too, displaying all the colours of the rainbow.
“There is nothing to be afraid of – except panic and stupidity,” he said, also admitting that to explore Devils Hole’s depths you needed to be “a little nuts” and know your body’s capability. In 2009, PBS followed in Houtz’s path.
Cover Photo Credit: esSarah / Flickr.com