Death Valley: land of extremes

Situated in the dry Mojave desert, Death Valley is a land of extremes – and extreme adventure.
Death Valley © Olivier Renck
By Josh Sampiero

Its claim to fame: the hottest temperatures in the world – although it's been 100 years since the measurement, the record high of 56 degrees celsius remains the hottest ever measured, making it one of the ultimate endurance and survival tests for adventures. 

Death Valley National Park - the highs and lows. © Olivier Renck

At one end, Mt Whitney, the highest point in the continental USA, towers above the desert floor of Death Valley, which sits 87m below the sea level, the lowest point. In between these two extremes is a sparse but beautiful adventurer's playground.

The Sierra Nevadas frame the background. © Olivier Renck

The Badwater Ultra
One of the biggest reasons to pay a visit? The annual Badwater ultra-marathon. 135 miles (217.5km) of leg-cramping, sweat-inducing hell, often run in less than 24 hours. Having just completed it's 26th official running, the race attracts ultra runners from all over the world, and remains one of the most notoriously difficult events on the ultra marathon calendar.

Badwater runners take heed of the warning © David McNew/Getty Images

The race – which traditionally starts at 6pm, to give athletes the advantage of cooler night air – usually sees a high amount of DNF's, but this year was even more brutal than usual. Why? At 9am the following morning the thermometer had already hit the 38-degree mark – which often doesn't happen until noon. Nevertheless, race winner Carlos Alberto Gomes de Sa finished in just under 25 hours.

Death Valley, end-to-end
This spring, up-and-coming endurance athlete Chase Norton did Death Valley a different way – his own. As part of his documentary film, "Death Valley: Chase's Way", Norton set out from the north end of the park, heading 228 miles (368km) to its southern border. The difference between Badwater and Norton's route? Norton spent most of his trek off-road – and did it all alone, carrying his own food and water in a rucksack that weighs 14.5kg, packed.

Norton hiked over sand and snow. © Olivier Renck

We know what you're thinking – water. While Death Valley is dry, natural water sources do exist – meaning with careful planning, the most water Chase had to carry was two day's worth.

So for eight days straight, he ran over a marathon a day, across sand, rock, gravel, and, in the high spots, even snow. While temps are guaranteed to reach 54 degrees on many days during the summer, during the spring, fall, and winter, it can vary between baking hot to near freezing.

Yes, there's sand – plenty of it. © Olivier Renck

"All of it was possible because of my gear," says Norton. “For fast, un-supported solo runs, you have to be light.” Chase kept weight down with ultra-light supplies, including the Caldera 35l rucksack from Berghaus, a minimalist shelter made from high-tech cuben fibre fabric, and even a fork made out of lightweight titanium.

Norton's entire campsite fit in a 35l rucksack. © Olivier Renck

After completion of the route in just eight days – with over 50 miles (80km) ran on the last day, Norton returned with photographer Olivier Renck to procure the images you see here. Will Norton do Death Valley again? Not anytime soon – “I’ve got my eye on new adventures,” he says.

Chase's lightweight load let him move quickly. © Olivier Renck

Red Bull Endurance research
For Red Bull, Death Valley isn’t just the hottest place on the planet – it was a temporary research facility for the Red Bull endurance project, where athletes’ energy output and efficiency were scientifically tested using various power meters, oxygen-conversion tests, and more. Check out the video and below – and stay tuned to find out what the scientists and athletes discovered about extreme endurance.

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