September 27, 2017

September 2017: Badwater - White Mountain 24hr Attempt

        California’s geographic diversity is unrivaled. The Golden State is home to the nation’s lowest point, in Death Valley, and the highest* point, Mount Whitney, and everything in between.
The proximity of Badwater Basin (282 feet below sea level) and Mount Whitney (14,505 feet above) is surprising; the two are less than 100 miles apart. They are in fact close enough that one can see both locations simultaneously (Dante’s View), or even visit both on the same day.
This same-day visit is the inspiration for my attempt. The Whitney area is off-limits to bikes, but there is a sister peak, in a parallel range, that provides rideable terrain up to its 14,252’ summit. Nowhere else in the country, perhaps even the world, can you ride a bike through such a vast range of elevation in a single day. The net gain of 14,534’ is the most I’ve found in my research. Admittedly I haven’t proved this, but I propose that the ride from Badwater (-282’) to White Mountain (14,252’) is the largest net gain possible to traverse by bike in one day. Edit: as of October, I've found a larger possible contender, but it will have to wait for another time.
The challenge is simple: start at the bottom, ride to the top, in under 24 hours.
*Among the 48 contiguous United States. AK has higher.

Start here
The goal is obviously to complete the challenge, but also to push myself beyond my limits and test my mettle in the face of a daunting, if not impossible, endeavor. The idea of setting a national record, and a type of ‘first ascent’, is very appealing. The bragging rights would be precious, but secondary to the personal satisfaction of completion.

Death Valley
The route choice is simple. The easy* way is to ride pavement from Badwater, north through Death Valley, west across two mountain ranges, north through the Owen’s Valley, and continue to where the gravel begins, 187 miles later, at 10,000’ elevation. From there, continue north on rough undulating gravel until the path reaches the summit, at mile 210.
*There are no easy ways, but any shorter route would likely be slower, as the desert is mostly dirt.

Desert twilight
        People always ask Why?, but I don’t have an answer yet. George Mallory famously said about Mt. Everest, when asked why he wanted to climb it, “Because it’s there.”
Perhaps it is that simple, but there are other elements to my motivation. Expanding on my goal, I want to examine what it means to reach a breaking point. I know that during the attempt I will experience a time of regret, of despair, of broken will, and finally a desire to quit. I ask myself, what happens when you hit the ‘wall’?
Lastly, I rarely attempt things with uncertain outcomes. It’s time to take a risk and see what happens.

Early miles
While planning, I ride. To harden my legs and mind, I compete in bike races, join long group rides, and endure much solo suffering. Hill repeats, flat track laps in the dark, rides at 100 degrees, others at 30, and double days add flavor to my training.

Darkness approaching
       Death Valley is famous for its heat. An air temperate of 134°F was once measured, the highest ever recorded on Earth. As if the ride isn’t long and steep enough already, it begins, quite literally, in the hottest place on Earth.
On the other end, White Mountain gets a full dose of winter snow, and chilling cold winds even in summer.
The attempt must fit into a narrow weather window that includes the melting of high-elevation snow fields, warm (above-freezing) summit temperatures, cool (under 100) desert nights, clear skies, and if lucky, calm winds throughout. By observing historical weather data, the best chance for success comes in mid-September.

       The forecast for Sept 15, 2017, is perfect: 100 in Death Valley, 30 at White Mountain, clear skies and calm winds.
5:45pm, I begin. Over smooth roads, with minimal traffic, the first few hours are wonderful and exciting. My teammates ride with me, in alternating sections.
8:30pm, I hit the first climb, a five thousand footer up to Townes Pass. Similar to my training, I suffer the climbing alone. Still fresh and confident, it feels easier than expected. Riding uphill in the dark is an unusual experience. The road becomes a treadmill, with no sign of progress. I am stationary, while the pavement spins beneath me and disappears behind.

Night climbing
       10:30pm, I reach the summit ahead of schedule, to find the team fast asleep. It’s the first speed bump in my plan. I was hoping for a smooth transition, with food, water, headlamps, and a bike change. Instead, my mind races and the clock ticks. Another sloppy switch after the descent leaves me frustrated: a waste of time, effort and patience. The first negative thoughts creep in as I begin the second climb shortly before midnight.
12:45am, I dip into regret. The wind shifts, swirling through the canyon, buffeting my helmet as I ride the treadmill. The miles crawl slowly and my impatience only exaggerates the difficulty. I round a corner to see Brandon in the middle of the road, dancing. He joins me to ride the last few miles of the climb. Like steeping tea, his energy radiates and fills my cup. We summit with smiles and continue into the night.
3:00am, David pulls me through the flats, but it feels uphill. The wind will play tricks on you, like Winnie the Pooh. Friday becomes Windsday and for hours and hours and miles and miles, the wind is relentless.
Dark-thirty, despair. The plan is breaking, the transitions are lazy, the wind is my nightmare, food is repulsive, and the whole thing is complete shit. We pass a 24-hour casino, where I visit the restroom, put a quarter in the slot, and walk out lighter, fresher, and ready for another dose of suck. Rule V.

Dawn despair
       Sunrise-ish, flat tire. Hit a staple. Suck. Twilight pulls the heat from the air and the temperate drops 10 degrees. Shiver.
7:45am, we limp to Big Pine and I have my first serious doubts about the attempt. The headwind has cracked my optimism. Even the effervescence of Brandon and David can’t fizz my drink. We’re behind schedule, my legs are jello, my whole body shudders at 45°. My will is bleeding. Soup, oatmeal, fruit, drinks, and warm dry clothes stanch my decline. Dave proves to be an excellent cook. Nobody ever made a meaner Cup’o’Noodles.

Soup salvation
8:15am, Tyrel makes his mark. He has been mostly in the background for the first 12 hours, riding only a few miles, sleeping much of the night. But now he shows a skill that the rest of us currently lack: the ability to quietly listen. He absorbs my complaints, my excuses, and stoically reflects what I no longer see: strength and determination. Whether he says anything or not, his message is clear: get back on the bike.

Smash it
8:30am, refreshed, renewed, and out of the wind, I turn and face the final grade. I smash the first pitch, a paved climb from 4000’ to 7,500’. I am invincible. Onward, upward, I continue, stomping the pedals. Nearing 10,000’, I pass two motorcycles who give me a whoop and cheer. “Almost there,” I say. They respond, laughing, “The Hell you are!”

Pavement's end
Noon, where the pavement ends, mile 188, there’s a crowd of people who have glimpsed the attempt. They gasp at the 18 hours already served, and ponder the difficulty of the remaining miles. We’re a little behind schedule, but it’ll go. “Good luck,” they say. We continue, this time with confidence.

Last meal
2:30pm, only ten miles later, I crest a nasty pitch, 18% grade says the computer, and see 200 flash on the odometer. The effort is taking a cumulative toll. Lack of sleep, food, water, energy, makes everything wane xcept desire. It’s hard think clear. My rests longer. More. Ffocus! I bail and walk a technical spot, pushing my bike. Through all the dirt and rock, Tyrel is there, still listening, providing strength by example.

Two hundred
3:30pm, after countless false summits and infinite horizons, White Mountain finally comes to view. A rush of emotion hits me. It’s the first I’ve laid eyes on the target. After twenty hours, I can actually see the finish. My chest shudders and my mouth is instantly dry. We reach the locked gate below Barcroft Station and hastily load packs for the impending cold.

White Mountain
         4:00pm, the Wall. It has arrived, and it’s built of stone and cemented by wind. I never expected to drop at mile 205, but I can’t pedal fast enough to stay upright. I weakly stand and slump on the bars. The 1/2 mile to the station looks impossible. I walk. Push. Close my eyes. Stumble. Stop. Remount and pedal for… as long as I can… a minute? I dismount and lay where I fall, in the dirt. Alone and overwhelmed. Moments later the team arrives and I break down. Food! Water! Warm clothes! Give me your pack! Optimism! Support! But all I can do is sit and cry. I have bonked. I am broken.
5:00pm, the ride is over. There’s still some daylight, but the clock spins faster than my wheels. The four of us crest a small ridge and drop into the last depression before the final summit ramp. In other circumstances it would be a stunning place to watch the sun set across the peak, but today, in this high valley, all I feel is low. It is time to quit.

End there
5:45pm, I am racked by shivers. The agony of defeat is heightened by the cold wind. My emotions spill, my composure falters, I am barely able to mouth the words, I’m done.
I stop the clock, wipe a dirty mitt across my cheeks, and take a single photo of the foreboding peak. With a final glance, we turn. Downhill. I can’t look back.

Last look
        It’s easy to see mistakes in hindsight. Besides being fitter, faster, and tougher, the most room for improvement lies in efficiency. Much time was wasted on poor transitions. With better planning, I could have saved an hour or two.
        Also, I struggled to eat enough calories throughout the climbs. Food simply didn’t taste good and it was hard to force it down. Riding at an energy deficit can work for a few hours, or even ten, but at 24 hours, my body couldn’t continue.
Despite the perfect weather forecast, the headwind was an unexpected adversary. It slowed my pace by 10-20%, which when considered over 90 miles from Panamint Springs to Big Pine might have cost me an hour. The mental fatigue of an eight hour headwind also contributed to my overall degrade. (No excuses, right? Rule V.)
Lastly, if I had a chance to change one thing, I would have started the ride earlier. I was so committed to a 24hr limit that I didn’t leave enough room for plan B. Starting a couple hours earlier would have given enough time to fail the 24 while still reaching the summit for a successful* attempt.
*I made the rules.

Next time
        I certainly accomplished some of what I set out to do. I pushed well beyond my previous limits and experienced each of the predicted phases between regret and the wall. While I ran out of time to break through the final wall, I was able to negotiate the preceding low points. Most of the rebounds were mental boosts provided by my teammates, but other sparks came from food, clothing changes, and music.
The attempt did set some new personal bests: 207 miles, 13,000’ net gain (21,000’ total). These are impressive, but I think I can do better. When the snow melts, I’ll return for attempt number two.

       I am indebted to Brandon, David, and Tyrel for their tireless effort to keep me going. Their aid-station teamwork was invaluable, but their mental, verbal, and physical encouragement was priceless. I also owe thanks for the photos of this attempt, as seen above.
      As Warren Miller says, "hope to see you next year, same time, same place."


  1. Great write-up. What a "Windsday" it was (dad jokes!!). Impressive attempt. Thanks for saving it for me to join you next year if you need a suffer partner. I think you might have concocted a tasty challenge for others so don't publicize it too much or someone might snatch it from you before you get another shot. Charge on!

  2. I agree with Nate- we need to keep it quiet until we can finish it next year! What an epic adventure. I look forward to the 2018 attempt, and many more adventures like this. Onward and upward!