With Ed at the wheel and Peter Tellone riding shotgun (John Moore backed out at the last minute and will never forgive himself for missing out on all the fun), coolers full of water and electrolyte drinks, camera bags and tripods, shade tarps just in case, survival kits and snacks, we set out for Death Valley late Sunday morning so we would arrive mid-afternoon when we anticipated the temperature would be the highest. I would never do something this crazy with just anyone, all of us have years of desert wilderness experience, were well prepared and had a good idea of what to expect.
We went straight to Badwater, at -282 feet below seawater it is one of the hottest, driest places on earth. Well-hydrated we stepped out of the nice air-conditioned car straight into Hell. No joke. If you think you know hot because you've been out and about in 120° weather let me tell you that doesn't even compare. Badwater had a small crowd of people with temperature gauges and the general consensus on temperature readings on Sunday afternoon was 136°. The ground temperature recordings were coming in at 176°-200°F. Someone was cooking an egg in a frying pan on the ground. One man reported that he got a reading of 140° a mile down the road. It was surreal.
We were okay for the first ten minutes but CNN had a crew from Atlanta there and they asked to interview us. "Sure" we said...but they were broadcasting live and we had to wait, and wait, and wait. I made the mistake of taking a walk out onto the brilliant blazing salt flats and BAM it hit me. Back to the car to cool down, but an idling car doesn't cool down very well. Drink water, ice cold soaking wet bandanna on neck, more water and I finally caught my breath enough to head back out. At those temperatures it doesn't take long for your brain to start shutting down. Our cameras were too hot to touch within minutes but to Canon's credit they kept right on shooting even though they are only rated to 104°F (all of us are Canon shooters). I did however see significance noise with my 7D due to the overheated sensor and a marked loss in sharpness. The sharpness issue was most likely due to heat waves radiating through the air. The ground was so hot that if we tried to get low to compose a shot the heat hit us in the face like a ton of bricks and if we forgot and put a knee down it instantly burned. None of us could concentrate on shooting, we were just pointing our cameras and clicking. Bottles of ice cold water kept appearing in my hands like magic as Ed made sure we all stayed hydrated. I kept the wet bandanna around my neck and it would dry out within minutes. CNN finally did the interview and I let Peter handle it alone because I was afraid I might pass out on camera and he's a self-described media whore any way. I think Ed had retreated to the car by then. We were all ready to escape at this point.
On to Devil's Golf Course, a large salt pan on the floor of Death Valley that are the remains of a lake that evaporated over 2000 years ago. It was just as hot here; we took a few photos, posed for a couple shots, Peter cut his knee on the brutal surface and started bleeding. We still hadn't really recovered from Badwater so we didn't last long here.
We got the bright idea to drive up Artist's Palette on our way to the Visitor Center to photograph the thermometer. We were laughing and joking, having a great time as our core body temps slowly came back to normal when Ed announced that the car's temperature gauge was too hot. There was instant silence as we all stared out at the vast nothingness around us. This would not be a good place to have a problem. Windows down, A/C off, we knew we should turn on the heat but none of could bring ourselves to do it...we were almost at the top. There was no talking until we reached the summit. Once we started downhill the car's temperature returned to normal and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief as we settled in for the drive to the Visitor Center in Furnace Creek.
The Visitor Center was abuzz with excitement. People were posing for photos with the thermometer, media was there, the park staff was busy answering questions and every was waiting with anticipation to see if the record would be broken. We hung out chatting with people, taking advantage of the air conditioning to let our body temps return to normal. They have a very cool large 3D topographical map of the park inside and I had fun showing some of the trails I had done in my jeep. One of the park rangers put out a shallow bowl of water for a distressed bird and I remembered the story of an entire flock of birds dropping dead during the record-setting heatwave in 1913.
The thermometer at the Visitor Center showed 132°F but the rangers cautioned us that because it is directly in the sun it is not an official temperature. The official weather service thermometer is a few miles down the road. I don't understand why they don't have an official weather station at Badwater, which is much lower and hotter. Talk at the time was that the semi-official reading was 126-127° but it wasn't confirmed until later in the week that the official temperature on Sunday June 30 was 129.2°, and while it didn't break the all time record it did break the world record for hottest temperature ever recorded on earth for the month of June. We were there for a mini world record!
We decided to head over to Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark for sunset and arrived there to a cool 117° just as the light was turning golden. The Trona Pinnacles are amazing calcium carbonate (tufa) spires rising from the bed of the Searles Dry Lake in the Mojave Desert. The unique landscape has been used to shoot many science fiction films including Lost In Space, Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek: The Final Frontier. Without saying a word the three of us took off in separate directions, each doing our own thing, until it got dark. I still wasn't up to doing much hiking and climbing, the guys were much more ambitious than I was.
Here are my shots from the Pinnacles:
Peter Tellone does amazing HDR photography that I love because it is realistic, not overdone, and he got some truly gorgeous photos of the Pinnacles as well as some fun shots from our adventure. Go check out his beautiful photos and writeup about our trip Fahrenheit 136 Death Valley – Road Trip to Hell. Ed Bannister swears that he got nothing worthwhile. I don't believe that but if so it was probably because he spent too much time making sure I was okay and always had a bottle of cold water in my hand, thank you Ed. John Moore is still kicking himself in the butt for deciding not to go.
I can best sum up this adventure by sharing what I posted on Peter's blog:
Best road trip…Evah is right, and I’d do it again with you guys in a heartbeat. I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun! You got some really beautiful shots Peter, especially considering that it was hard to see straight (and think straight) and our cameras were too hot to touch haha! Pretty frightening that 117 at the Pinnacles actually felt good to us!
Things I learned about being in the desert in 136 degrees:
Walking out on bright white salt flats – BAD IDEA
Putting a knee to the ground to shoot – BAD IDEA
Driving up Artist’s Palette – BAD IDEA
Answer for CNN – Only if you can do it RIGHT NOW
Outhouses – Ladies remember to squat, don’t sit. (Sizzle…Why do I smell bacon???). I think I still have marks.
Thank you both for such a wonderful, fantastic, fun adventure, can’t wait for the next one!
hahahah I forgot one -