DOUBLE OR NOTHING: The Death Valley 300 (Badwater Double) by Mark Cockbain
'The greatest distance to cover in any race is the distance between your ears’
It is the 24th of July 2007, and I’m back in Death Valley. I’ve just managed to recover from severe dehydration yet again, as I shuffle out of the baking heat of Owens Valley towards Lone Pine with the help of my chief crew and pacer, Liam Douglas.
It’s near midnight, and I am approaching the end of my 3rd Kiehl’s Badwater Ultra Marathon, with just 13 miles left to go before I cross the finish line. Ahead of us, my other two crew members, Julia Gale, and Cheri Wold await with some food and coffee for me to give me a boost, before I make my final push up Mount Whitney towards the finish line.
However, this year it will be different for me, as I will attempt a ‘double crossing’. This means I will run the 135 miles back to the start where I have just come from at Badwater at -282ft, after summiting the 14,497ft peak of Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous USA. This is a total distance of just under 300 miles, and it is a legendary task amongst the world’s ultra running community.
This will be the toughest running challenge of my life, and as I get closer and closer to the race finish line, I start to wonder just how I will manage to push myself on, as I am already exhausted with my feet badly blistered.
I slowly move up around the Whitney portal roads with Cheri pacing me, and I eventually spot the finish line and cross it in a respectable 46hrs 12mins, to again receive a coveted sub 48hr belt buckle.
It was difficult to put celebrations on hold as I briefly stopped for photographs before being bundled into our crew van to go for some food and rest while my crew packed clothing and equipment in preparation for the big climb ahead.
It will be a long ascent up Mount Whitney, via the Whitney trail that starts at the portals next to the race finish.
Whitney is the highest mountain in America, and we will be likely to feel the affects of altitude sickness at some point.
My crew would carry most of the equipment that we would need, such as food, water, clothing etc.
I changed into my trail shoes, with thicker socks that gave some relief to my aching feet. I also wore warmer clothing, and I used a camelback for my water supply.
At the mountain café, we all tucked into a huge chicken breast sandwiches and chips, to give us energy before we headed off up the long winding trail.
The trail was beautiful, but the sun was up again and it soon got quite hot, and with the heavy packs that the crew were carrying, our progress was slow.
Hours passed by as we hiked higher and higher up the trail into mid afternoon. We then noticed that storm clouds were rolling in across the pinnacles of the mountain, and it wasn’t long before the skies darkened and we heard a roar of thunder and it started to rain heavily.
This could be huge set back, as if I couldn’t summit the mountain and sign the visitor’s book inside the summit hut, my race would be over.
We decided to temporarily take cover from the rain under some cliffs in the hope that the storm would eventually pass us by.
Then we met several climbers descending the mountain that had been caught up in the storm and they described terrible conditions of snow and hail and flooding up on the mountain top.
My double attempt looked in serious doubt, as there would be no escape from the elements up on the mountain crest, and it could be a fatal mistake with the threat of lightening being a strong possibility.
Also, we only had a small amount of mountain clothing per person, and not enough for all of us to keep warm and dry in a heavy storm.
Eventually the rain stopped and we decided to climb a little higher to evaluate the conditions, but as we got higher we realised that even being caught in a storm at this point could be fatal, and with at least a six hour hike back down the mountain it would be possible to get hypothermia if it rained heavily again.
We decided to discuss our options, and Liam decided that he didn’t want to risk it and he also felt responsible for Cheri, who after all was new to all of this.
I respected his decision, as I certainly didn’t want anyone to get hurt, but I was determined to get to the summit to continue with my double attempt.
I could feel my chances slipping away as darker clouds seemed to appear overhead, and Liam and Cheri headed down the mountain to a safer level.
So, I stood with Julia (an experienced climber), and I asked her honest opinion of what options we had.
She was not happy with the situation, but she was prepared to push on a little further and if the conditions worsened then she said we would have to turn around, but if we got trapped up there, then she had a bivy bag that we could both squeeze into.
I was prepared to try anything, and I was even contemplating going it alone. (although I’m sure my crew would have tried to stop me)
Just at that moment another unsuccessful summit crew and runner, Anita Frome was heading towards us down the mountain, and I actually saw a Cougar (mountain cat) moving stealth like down the rocks then out of sight to the side of them! This was apparently a very rare sighting, and I thought it could be a good luck omen.
They told us that they had to turn back just a mile from the summit due to freezing conditions, with hail and rain, and we explained to them our predicament.
I asked them if we could borrow any storm proof clothing they had and any rations that they didn’t need, and Anita was more than happy to let me borrow a Gortex jacket and her crew gave me lots of extra food. She also gave me a pen to sign the visitor’s book at the summit, and said that maybe it was my turn to be lucky this year.
This gave us both a boost, as we now had adequate clothing, emergency cover, and we also had a satellite phone that we agreed to call Liam with at 10pm, with a progress report.
It wasn’t an ideal situation, trying to climb to the summit in the dark, but Julia and I pushed on for a few more hours until we were above 12000ft, where Julia started complaining of feeling nauseous and dizzy. She told me that this was probably the early effects of altitude sickness combined with tiredness, and I tried my best to encourage her to keep going and I told her that it would eventually pass.
We made slow progress up the steep switchbacks that lead to the mountain crest, stopping to catch our breath and eat snacks to keep our energy levels high.
It was pretty cold as we reached 13000ft, and I put on more layers of clothing, but I could also detect a dull altitude sickness headache.
In actual distance, the summit was only a few miles away now, but the mountain crest trail was treacherous in the dark, as it veered up and down and around the mountain pinnacles, with sharp rocks underfoot, and a sheer drop which I nervously navigated on my backside clinging to the mountain side in some areas!
I was really tired now, with aching feet and legs and an altitude headache.
It was hard to concentrate on the terrain, but a fall here would be fatal.
We moved precariously around the pinnacles, which seemed to go on forever, in fact we thought we had gone around in circles, so I marked the trail with an X.
However, we were on the right track, and in the early hours of the morning we started to approach the huge ‘shark fin’ silhouette of the summit peak. Through a freezing wind we reached the summit hut at 4am, and both of us clambered inside it to shelter from the elements.
We looked for the visitor book to sign, which was outside in a steel box. We signed it quickly then got back inside the hut, and I huddled in the corner trying to keep warm whilst Julia mixed together some freeze dried cheesecake mix.
I was now halfway at 150 miles, and I closed my eyes and nodded off for a few minutes. It had taken almost three days to get this far and I was cold and tired.
We had a few mouthfuls of food each, and then we decided to get back down the mountain as soon as possible. We had been really lucky that the weather had held out and allowed us to summit, but we would both feel much safer on lower ground.
It was still dark as we left the hut to descend the steep winding trail. Luckily Julia had brought some walking sticks for me to use, as each step was agony on my blistered feet over the rocky ground, which twisted and turned my ankles and I yelled out in frustration, swearing and cursing at the mountain to Julia’s surprise!
This was my lowest point so far; as I knew I had had hours ahead of painful downhill sections across the mountain crest.
Eventually, the sun started to rise and our spirits lifted as we marvelled at the magnificent view across Owens valley far in the distance. This was the route that I would be running later on my return journey through Death Valley.
We checked in with Liam again via the satellite phone, who was thrilled that we had managed to reach the summit, and then we started our final descent of the mountain, then down through the Whitney park zone.
My altitude headache soon disappeared and it wasn’t long before I could feel the strength of the early morning sun, so I stripped back down to my running gear.
After a while, we both started feeling dizzy with the heat as we followed the winding river trail down through the park. We stopped to fill up our camelbacks with water from the river using a water purifier, and I took a few minutes to take off my shoes and socks and dip my feet in the cool mountain water. It felt fantastic as the swelling went down in my feet and I managed to pop a few annoying blisters.
It was mid-afternoon as we approached familiar ground towards the end of the trail, and we noticed that it had taken us just over 24 hours to summit and return to the Whitney portals.
We staggered towards the end of the trail feeling tired, dehydrated and hungry and we were pleased to be met by Liam and Cheri.
It was time for another huge chicken breast sandwich from the mountain grill café before Julia went off to rest at a nearby hotel, and I crashed out in the back of the van to elevate my feet and get an hour of sleep.