Similar to the International notice for the Mavericks Surf Competition in Central California, I sent out our annual 48 hour window of notice to friends, family and acquaintances from around the world on Thursday June 27, 2013 – indicating temperatures were forecast for record highs in Death Valley, California USA. This was a tough sell for a number of reasons – especially because it is always a last minute notice, it is quite early in the season for sending out this type of notice so people were not expecting it yet – and not to mention the extreme heat, which appeals to very very few people.
My friend who usually is up for Death Valley camping in the middle of the summer forgot to pay some taxes so couldn’t make it as he was working on these. In the past, he and I camped together in Death Valley during 127 degree daytime highs and temperatures that did not fall below 100 degrees.
With no takers, I had to go by myself. The pull and allure of experiencing this unique type of heat is indescribable – and has always been there for me.
I left at 230am so I would arrive plenty early on what was forecast to be a record setting 130 degree F (55 C) day in Death Valley. From Truckee at 48 degrees to Death Valley at 128+ – it was shaping up to be a 80 degree swing in temperature in about 11 hours. That is incredible!
I crossed the Sierra’s lowest and Southernmost pass – Walker Pass at 5,250 feet. Last time I was up there my friend spun us out across the highway when driving his “rabbit” way too fast around a curve. I took that same curve fast, but not as fast as he did. This pass often stays open when many of the other northern passes are snowed shut for the winter or temporarily closed due to storms.
Usually driving up in elevation equates to dropping temperature but in the 8am hour the temperature was slowly rising or holding steady as I increased in elevation. At the top I knew from here on out it was going to be extreme temperatures. I was craving these.
Passing through Panamint Springs Valley in the 9am hour – the temperature was already 108. Upon dropping down the long stretch of Highway 190 East to Furnace Creek – in the late 10am hour – the thermometer in the front of the Furnace Creek store was already maxed out at 120 degrees. My car thermometer became stuck at 118 degrees.
A day like this had attracted heat freaks from all over. Europeans seeking extreme heat are some of the most common International visitors in the summer time – especially Germans. Every summer I have been there, it seems to be the same visitor makeup.
Today, from about 2pm to 4pm – hundreds of people stopped by and “flash” gathered in front of the digital thermometer in front of the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center. Folks with Christmas wreaths and Santa Claus hats posed smiling. I would like to be a recipient of their Christmas card this year!
Jon, the gentleman dressed in black for his annual Darth Valley Challenge posed for some photographs and then promptly went on his annual extreme heat 1 mile run – sticking to the white shoulder line in the pavement so as not to melt his shoes and of course to not get run over. His driver was there – dressed as Chewbacca. I was having flashbacks of walking down Hollywood Blvd near TCL Chinese Theatre (formerly Grauman’s Chinese Theatre).
In the shade, the official National Weather Service Thermometer showed 129 for the day – the nearby National Parks Service Thermometer showed 129.2 degrees. The National Park Service has the final word. Death Valley has only reached 129 several other days in recorded history (including 129.9 on August 16th, 2020) – and the only other temperature higher than that was 134 degrees in 1913, currently the highest ever recorded temperature on the planet.
The 136 degrees in Libya, which stood as the highest temperature record for many years, was discredited in late 2012 – but that is another story.
I have been in some severe heat in the summer time in Death Valley over the years but the most intense heat I’ve ever experienced was this trip to Badwater. With Furnace Creek officially topping out at 129 degrees, Badwater was 130 and well over that directly above the salt plain. Badwater is typically a degree or two higher than Furnace Creek (it is lower in elevation – and is the lowest point in the Northern Hemisphere at 282 feet below sea level).
This was absolutely unbelievable heat, extremely dangerous heat – burning fiery heat that blazes right through you. This type of heat also sears the cognitive part of your brain and whenever you reflect upon this type of heat – you quickly remember what it feels like even years later. Your ears soon become red and painful in the sun. With the reflective properties of the salt beds, and water still exposed – there is also some humidity here.
The heat in Badwater actually felt significantly worse then at Furnace Creek, where I was 30 minutes prior. People ask me if a few degrees makes a difference. Yes, especially at these levels a few degrees definitely is noticeable.
CNN was stationed in the parking lot – I saw the leftovers from when they were filming an egg frying in a teflon pan. The egg looked to be very well cooked – with just part of the yolk still yellow. Another guy was trying to fry an egg in the sun at Furnace Creek – but only the clear edges were starting to cook. I read that eggs start frying in pans at 158 degrees. Wow.
Here at Badwater, I have never consumed more fluid in my life in a single hour and not had it pass through me as urine. The car was littered with piles of empty plastic bottles. I walked far out on the salt pan heading West – I suspect this is the hottest area of the entire park – the afternoon sun bakes both the mountains immediately next to Badwater and the reflective properties of the salt help intensify the heat. I took an underwater video in one of the holes in the salt. I stood up and immediately felt dizzy. I walked back to the parking lot quickly – and took cover in the shade of the bathroom. The door handle on the bathroom door was so hot I could not touch it for more than a second. The painted metal door itself was incredibly hot.
In this extreme heat and dry temperatures you don’t even know you are sweating – it dries as soon as you sweat. Based on the amount of water I was drinking I was sweating away more than I could actually keep inside me. That is why I was dizzy. I was already drinking enough to make a grown man cry watery Gatorade tears, but after the dizzy spell occurred, I just started sucking on water continuously – taking no chances – alternating with other sports drinks.
I walked over to the car in the sun (there is no outdoor shade at Badwater, other than from the bathroom as long as you are not here during mid day) reached for a bottle of water, 1/2 empty in the car – sitting in the sun. I poured it over my head without thinking – I screamed out in shock – it was nearly scalding – it was so hot. That was a first time I’ve experienced this before. During the heat of the summer, water in the campgrounds and outdoor faucets comes out not warm but rather HOT!
I remained here for about an hour to get a true feel for the extent of the heat on one of the hottest days ever recorded in the world – in a location that is even hotter then where the official Death Valley temperature is recorded.
While relaxing in the fiery heated shade of the bathroom, I saw one couple wheel out two strollers with two toddlers. TODDLERS? OMG. Those children may never be the same again.
Later in the evening after dinner I relaxed outdoors in the 120+ degree evening heat in the shade of a nearby tree watching crows hop down one of the fairways on the world’s lowest by elevation golf course in Furnace Creek. You know you are in a unique place when it is still above 120 degrees at 8pm at night – and already 110 degrees before 9am the next morning!
When driving, I need to turn the air conditioning on somewhere between 115 to 120 degrees otherwise I start becoming uncomfortable. Before those temperatures I am fine as long as I am drinking plenty of fluid.
Driving out of the park several days later I reached an elevation where it was 110 degrees. Incredibly, that felt quite refreshing. When I reached temperatures of 100 to 105 I couldn’t believe it – it felt like a cool breeze – natures air conditioning. 95 to 100 felt quite cool. And anything below 95 is just plain damn cold.
Here are several things I recommend the National Park Service in Death Valley do in regards to heat:
1. Fix the Digital Thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center so it shows the actual temperature, right now it seems 3-5 degrees too high which is misleading to people
2. The Digital Thermometer at the Furnace Creek Visitor’s Center needs to show both Fahrenheit and Celsius. International visitors make up a huge portion of the overall visitors, especially in the summertime
3. Sell high quality working thermometers in the Visitor centers – rather than the cheap souvenir thermometers
4. Install a real time working weather station at Badwater (Several rangers told me there is not one there now)
5. Build shaded parking at Badwater similar to what what was built at Furnace Creek in the past few years
6. Re-examine in detail the consecutive 5 day span in 1913 and everything related to the recorded temperatures of 129, 129, 130, 131 and 134.
7. And while not related to heat, the Timbisha Shoshone need to take a more active role in the visitor experience – either their own cultural/visitor’s center – offer cultural activities and or home-stay.