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A Successful Summer Transect through Death Valley National Park

"Some of the greatest things we achieve in life come with the greatest challenges we face.”

We were literally fried. Well done. Cooked.

It was July 2021, and Will Laughlin and I were 24 hours into a planned retracing of our 2011 summer crossing of Death Valley, north to south.

Things were going great up to this point. Will and I had done many projects together in Death Valley over the years—but this one was special to us. Our goal was to improve our navigation and move more smoothly, if possible, through this heinous environment. But Mother Nature had other plans for us. On this day—of all days—the hottest ever temperatures were recorded in Death Valley, and the hottest ever 24-hour period was recorded on the planet.

A landscape view of Death Valley National Monument terrain Image via Ray Zahab and Tucker Prescott

I try to explain to my friends who follow my expeditions and adventures what it was like. Up until this point, I’ve run 4,500 miles across the Sahara, 800 miles across the Atacama Desert, 1,200 across the Gobi, and over 1,100 miles across the Namib Desert. The latter three all occurred in the heat of summer.

So, this should be something I am accustomed to, heat and sand! However, this was next-level heat. I’ve never experienced wind so hot that my fingernails felt like I was reaching into our convection oven to grab a pizza out for the kids at home.

I’ve never been in a situation where it didn’t matter how much I water I consumed—my body refused to cooperate. I mean, like, eight liters every 20km (13 miles).

Bloated, hot and on the verge of heat stroke, we pulled the plug. The official recorded temperature was 134 degrees Fahrenheit, and with the wind, it felt like a furnace.

We knew we’d be back next year.

Planning the Next Trek

In early winter of 2022 Will and I began planning for our summer trek. We were stoked and had decided not to repeat our 2011 route, but instead, tackle a route that would be totally new to us, and enable us to collect some amazing data for a future impossible2Possible youth education program. (Back in 2008, I founded impossible2Possible (i2P)(Opens in a new window), an organization that aims to inspire and educate youth through adventure learning, inclusion and participation in expeditions. Youth Ambassadors are selected from around the world, and then participate, at no cost, in all aspects of the expedition, from logistics and running to creating educational content and team support. All of the i2P Youth Expeditions have included various challenge-based initiatives through an Experiential Learning Program, in which thousands of students participate as active ‘team members’ during the expeditions, from classrooms all over the world. This program and its technology are also provided at no cost to the students or schools participating, and there have been more than a dozen expeditions to locations all over the world- including the Amazon, Arctic and beyond!)

The goal for our July trek was one we had dreamed up while on previous trips—we would attempt a crossing of Death Valley National Park at one of its widest points, in the heat and beauty of summer.

Why in the summer, you might ask? There’s just something so magical about a nighttime desert sky in summer, something so incredible about experiencing a desert environment in its most desert-ish moment. We then get to share the content and data we collect with students, who in turn are mesmerized and inspired by the desert environment.

A spanning view of a starry night sky in Death Valley National Monument Image via Ray Zahab and Tucker Prescott

As we planned our route—every inch of it, I consulted with some amazing Death Valley legends who could offer details about specific sections of our route and made sure to read and learn as much as I could about the area we would cross.

I began training immediately after I returned from a winter expedition in Nunavut in the Canadian Arctic, and it all started with sauna exposure to get my mind and my body thinking hot—real hot!

Over the next few months we prepared, but as the departure date grew closer, Will concluded that he would be unable to make the journey due to critical, conflicting commitments. I would miss my Death Valley partner immensely and ultimately considered not going, but with Will’s blessing, I decided to ask my buddy and Namibia and Kamchatka expedition teammate Stefano Gregoretti if he was available. With the combination of heat, navigation, and terrain, I felt it was best not to go forward solo, and safer to collaborate with a teammate towards a common goal. Stefano was stoked to get on board.

Time to Trek

I flew from Quebec, Canada, and Stefano flew in from Riccione, Italy to meet me in California. We planned to move virtually non-stop throughout the trek, with a goal of completing the 135km route in approximately 48 hours. We gave ourselves that much time because as we knew from previous desert expeditions, the only thing predictable is the unpredictable!

The planned route would cover a mixture of cross-country terrain, some 4x4 double track, sand dunes, alluvial fans, slot canyons, dense brush, and some much-appreciated 4x4 road later on.

Bob Cox, my best friend, and co-founder of our foundation, impossible2Possible, would crew us every 30-35km, as that would be his only access to us in the earlier part of the adventure. Another buddy of mine, Tucker Prescott, a photographer from LA, would be Bob’s teammate and grab some pictures whenever possible of the surrounding landscape.

Respecting all of the National Park rules around motorized vehicle access and restrictions, we had to rely on specific locations to grab a resupply of fluids and food. If we had attempted the route in cooler months, we could have possibly foregone any support, but in the heat of summer, we would be carrying six liters each for each section, then at each cache or resupply, we’d sometimes drink sometimes an additional two liters.

A man wearing running gear and holding trekking poles jogging through Death Valley National Monument Image via Ray Zahab and Tucker Prescott

We decided on an early morning start on the far western side of Death Valley National Park and departed the Saline Alternate Road to start the ascent up Hunter Mountain. We traversed through what literally was the most incredible Joshua Tree Forest I’ve ever seen, and we began collecting weather data for use in a future curriculum about desert ecology, for an i2P Youth Expedition. Our data collection would include temperature, humidity, and relative humidity along the entire transect, and be attached to our route by GPS tracking.

The first 30km of the trek went fantastic, we felt great, and after reaching our highest altitude of the trip, we began descending cross country through some brush and river washes—carefully making our way. We’d been told rattlesnakes seemed to be ‘everywhere’ this year—and having had a past close encounter in Death Valley with sidewinders and rattlesnakes, I was super respectful!

As the afternoon wore on it got hot—very hot—and as we navigated the slot canyons temperatures climbed closer and closer to the 120 degrees Fahrenheit mark. We were feeling the heat, but rolled into our resupply and Bob was there, ready to greet us after we’d crossed an additional 35km.

We were tired, hot, and not especially excited to cross the alluvial fan of rocks that lay in front of us, separating us from the lowest part of our journey—the floor of Death Valley itself. We reached roughly 7,500ft in elevation, and now we were headed to just a few feet above sea level, but we would have to negotiate a nightmare of piles of rocks and ankle breakers. We were sure we would have to move super slow, especially since it was getting darker with each step. What kept our hopes alive was the possibility of these narrow, dry river washes that could cut through the rocks like winding highways. If they moved in our general bearing, we could make some great time up.

Darkness fell and the stars lit up like a million fireflies; the magic of desert at night was in full effect. It was 105 degrees, which ironically felt very cool at this point.

We jumped into a dry stream, and the footing was pan flat. With confidence we moved forward, each step getting us closer to our next resupply, which would be 23km in a straight line from us, across the valley.

It was one of those incredible moments that I have felt only occasionally on expeditions past. Everything just seems to come together, navigation seems to be working out, every decision made was for some crazy reason, but a correct one.

There was flow.

We both felt it.

Two men running through Death Valley National Monument Image via Ray Zahab and Tucker Prescott

And we moved through the night, and almost directly straight through the complex alluvial, the sides of our stream at some points four feet high of jumbled rock.

Eventually everything flattened out, and we found ourselves in the middle of small sand dunes. We stopped to look around. It was black out, but the sky was SO unbelievable. A warm breeze urged us on after a short break, and before long I could hear Stefano either talking to himself, or a mystery guest.

“What are you doing?!”

“I see a cat!”


“I see a cat…a bobcat is following us!” He said.

I cranked my head around and saw this cat with enormous paws but a small body, hiding behind some brush. Stefano wasn’t seeing things!

The cat kept its distance, but curiously followed us for an hour or so—probably wondering what these idiots were doing out here!

The Final Stretch

As we made our way across the valley heading due east, we started our ascent up the other mountain range—the Amargosa range—to eventually reach the eastern most point on our journey. As dawn arrived, we knew we were in a race against time. The heat of mid-morning sun would come quickly, and we had to ascend as best we could. Once we reached Bob and Tucker, we knew that we would now have terrain working in our favor. Our ascent to 4,500ft would be on 4x4 road, and meant all we needed to do was put one exhausted foot in front of the other.

We climbed. And combed. And climbed for hours on what was literally one of the most beautiful 4x4 roads I’d ever seen or experienced. Huge valleys of green—yes green—mountains were in the distance as we reached our maximum altitude and began our slow descent into Nevada, towards our eventual finish. We left the road and started once again cross country through thick knee-high grass and brush.

I honestly wasn’t even thinking about the snakes anymore. Let ‘em have me! I’m so exhausted!

Stefano took over the navigation at this point and we deadheaded it on our bearing to a signpost we knew was out in this immense wilderness on the furthest eastern edge of Death Valley.

Unceremoniously we arrived. And just like that, it was over. The level of stoke was on high—and although the crossing was so much more difficult than we could have imagined, we still finished hours ahead of what we had planned. Perhaps we were super motivated to get to some AC! But we knew we would once again miss this amazing place, just minutes after leaving the finish.

Two men standing near the Death Valley National Monument signage that reads Image via Ray Zahab and Tucker Prescott

Maybe over in the moment, but not in our memories by a long shot.

I’ve attempted and completed expeditions much longer than this. 111 days across the Sahara, 33 days to the South Pole unsupported, 32 days across the Gobi Desert and 20 very long days across the Atacama, to name a few—but there’s just something about this place, Death Valley, that keeps drawing me back.

In each and every one of us, is the capacity to do something extraordinary in our lives. Doesn’t mean we have to climb Mt Everest or K2 (we can!), but truly, we live the extraordinary when we are willing to step outside our confines of comfort and challenge ourselves in ways we didn’t think initially possible.

That can happen anywhere.

Even in a desert that is not far from one of the most populous cities in the world.


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