Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route From Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Three- Heat Exhaustion and Magical Desert Goldfish


(In the first week of October, 2014, I set out to hike the Lowest to Highest Route with NotaChance and Orbit. This is the third installment of my trip report. For technical information on this route, go here.)


Oct 4
20 miles

Since we got to our camp at the magical tree-spring late and had a short nights’ sleep the night before, we all decide to “sleep in” but really, we hardly sleep at all- it’s hot and none of us can quite get comfortable and there are mosquitoes bumping up against our faces and limbs, which we’ve flung out of our sleeping bags in an attempt to stay cool. Also, the animals? I can’t stop thinking of the animals that might want to come and get a drink. I drift in and out until after it’s light and when I wake up, Chance is nowhere to be found. Chance wins the award for fastest packer-upper- I remember one morning this year on the PCT I heard her wake at 5 a.m. and when I looked up again from my sleeping bag at 5:14, she was gone.

I’m rolling up my neo-air when I hear her shout-

“I found more water!”

Jess and I follow her voice and find her in a tangle of green brush, off to the left a little further down the wash- the water appears here, as well, and here it’s clearer and less sulphury, and some enterprising soul has stuck stones around the perimeter of the puddle to keep the muck out and make the water easier to gather. We all squat, filling our bottles in the trickle, and drink as much as we can. I already had horrible diarrhea this morning, presumably from the hotspring water I drank before bed, combined with dehydration. It’s twenty miles to our next water source, at Panamint Springs Resort. We’ll be crossing a hot, flat valley in full sun. How much water do I bring? I decide on four liters. Is this enough? Do I need more? I don’t know. Jess finds the sun-bleached skull of a bighorn sheep next to the spring, and holds it up like a mask. Chance says there was an actual living bighorn sheep on the ridge, before we showed up. There are also, apparently, wild burrows. We see their poop everywhere, like horse poop only different. Lots, and lots, and lots of wild burrows. But where?



The wash is a sort of canyon and it’s shady for a while and then the sun gets higher and the wash opens up into wide, flat gravel and it’s hot, hot, hot. Below us we can see the valley that we’ll cross, pale and bleary in the baking morning. The wash becomes an old rutted jeep road, and we shout with joy and relief- so flat and easy to navigate! We didn’t start hiking until 8 a.m., but maybe we’ll still make good time today. We pass an old mine, rusted bedsprings scattered about, a decomposing impala. We reach the flat, dusty valley and begin to cut north across it, towards some low mountains in the distance. The temperature rises considerably, and when we reach the deserted road that leads east towards a campground we take a break in the lee of it, crouching in the few inches of shade there, and eat our food and drink water. The sun is a bright strong animal, pure in that special desert way, an undiluted 100 proof ultraviolet wonderlight that will vaporize every living thing. This, this is the sun they warned us about at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center. I am wilting, sweating from every pore but after fifteen minutes we rise, and continue on our way, north along another rutted jeep track. The earth spreads itself out flat and warm and we expand to fill it until Jess and Chance are small figures in the distance and we are each of us alone in this heat, with ourselves, and our hopes and dreams and fears. I check my phone and discover that I have 4G in this shimmering-hot nowhere place and so I leave my body and hang out, instead, with Taylor Swift and Gossip. The sun swings in the sky and the heat radiates up from the ground and I begin to feel just a little sick. Brain too warm, tripping a little in the loose dirt. Just twenty miles today, just twenty miles… just got to make it to Panamint Springs Resort. I sit on the ground with my golite umbrella over my head and rifle through my food bag. I don’t really have any food left.

“You ok?” says Chance.

“I got too hot,” I say. I’m slurring my words. Chance gives me a couple of bars, and I eat them. I drink my water but it tastes bad. When did I last pee? I don’t know.


An hour later we’re crossing a broad “playa” made of featureless white sand and I start to panic a little bit. I feel sick, and my breathing is getting funny. I discovered my “heat edge” this year on the PCT, walking from the Saufley’s to the Anderson’s- it was 105 degrees that day. I made it the 24 miles, but had it been one degree hotter I would’ve had to curl up in the shade and wait like a little animal for it to cool down. Today feels hotter than that day- my brain is all sorts of slurry and my limbs are made of warm, heavy sand. My tongue is a big dead thing in my mouth. I can’t imagine using it to speak. Heat exhaustion, heat exhaustion, coming to get me. I fantasize about putting my head under the bathroom tap at Panamint Springs Resort. Head under the tap, head under the tap. I play it over and over and over. I move my legs over the flat, featureless landscape but the distant mountains grow no closer. I swallow more of my warm, muckish water. At last we leave the playa behind and cross an expanse littered with lava rocks of various sizes. It isn’t particularly difficult to work my way around these rocks, but right now it feels like a monumental challenge.

“I think I have heat exhaustion,” I say to Jess, right before we reach the highway. The highway is 1-90, part of the Badwater Ultramarathon race route. We’ll walk along it about a quarter of a mile to the resort. We’ve heard that during the marathon the runners “stay on the white line”, in order to keep their shoes from melting to the asphalt. We happily walk on the white line, pretending we’re in the race. I imagine a support van keeping pace beside me, dousing me in buckets of gatorade. Panamint Springs Resort shimmers in the distance, inching closer. Head under tap, head under tap, I think.

I am a beat-down, overexposed, sleep-deprived, sweat-fried creature and I drag myself up the wooden steps of the resort, collapsed sunbrella clutched in my hand, my needs radiating out from me in great waves. It’s 4:30 p.m. Norwegian motorcyclists crowd the deck, fashionably sun-kissed and clutching cold beers, laughing as though there is a great quantity of everything, enough for everyone, as if there always will be. A man heads me off as I reach the large double doors of the restaurant.

“Are you looking for the campground?” he says. I imagine I smell like a pair of dirty socks that has been buried in a damp locker for a hundred years.

“No,” I say. “I don’t know. I just got here.”

“The campground registration is at the store,” he says, pointing back into the desert.

“Ok,” I say. Fuck you, I think. Don’t you stand in the way of my desires. They are larger than you, and they will crush you. I summon great courage and push my way through the doors and into the restaurant. The woman behind the bar stares at me.

“Where. Is. Your. Restroom.” I say.

The bathroom is a crowded little closet around the side of the building and once inside I slide the janky brass latch and take off all of my clothes. I turn the tap on in the dirty sink and stick my head under it, feel the cool water like liquid gold on my neck and scalp and then I splash water on my face again, and again, and again. I fill up a bottle with water and drink the entire thing. I rinse out my shirt and my shorts and put them back on, wet, after carefully tending to the very brutal butt chafe that magically appeared in the last half mile of my hike. I wash my hands with actual soap. I brush my teeth. I stare at myself in the mirror, put my hat back on, and emerge an entirely rejuvenated person.

I find Chance in the restaurant, chatting with the locals.

“About how many people do this hike?” she asks.

“None,” they say, although they remember our friends, Bobcat, Swami and Dirtmonger, who came through in the spring.

“How hot is it in that valley right now?” I ask.

“110 degrees,” says the waitress.

We get a little table in the back corner of the restaurant where we won’t offend anyone and order one of everything on the menu. It’s eighty degrees inside but now that I’m not hot I’m suddenly very, very cold. I put on my down jacket and try not to chatter my teeth. I can’t seem to get warm. I’m happy, though, and that’s all that matters. I drink an orange gatorade and eat a burger with fries, part of a bowl of chili and a salad. I feel euphoric now, that post-bikram-yoga feeling. What is that? Is there some sort of connection between heat exhaustion and euphoria? Jess and Chance were pretty hot today, but not like me. So I’m the weakest link, when it comes to heat.


nice words on the wall at Panamint Springs Resort

The campground, a breezy chunk of desert across from the restaurant, is only $7 and has picnic tables and free showers. We get a site next to a couple on a motorcycle vacation and yardsale our stuff across the table. Chance finds our food cache, miraculously unharmed, in the bushes behind the store, and to celebrate I eat a bunch of gluten-free pretzels. Time slows to molasses as all the blood in our bodies flows to our feet, and knees, and calves, where desperate repairs are being done. I eat some more gluten-free pretzels. We formulate a plan to avoid heat-death tomorrow by camping here tonight, hanging around until late morning, hiking a handful of miles to a spring, napping there, and then night-hiking into the wee hours, to make a 27 mile day. The sun goes down and the moon comes up and I spread my bedroll in the sand and collapse onto it. Woo woo woo, goes the wind.

I wake to see Chance struggling with her tent. The wind has increased to great gusts, scattering objects into the desert. A row of white canvas wall tents stand empty at the edge of the campground and I unzip the front of one of them and find cots inside. The three of us take refuge there, figuring the tents aren’t likely to be rented out at this late hour, and so we’ll likely be safe until morning. Still, I can’t really sleep and I toss and turn, listening to the wind. The moon is bright, like a lamp. What is this place? What is sleep? What is anything?


Oct 5
27 miles

The couple on motorcycle vacation are Wendy and Peter and in an act of incredible generosity they take us out for breakfast at the restaurant in the morning. I eat sausage, eggs, bacon, and four bowls of fruit loops in protein-powder milk. I want to be social but the temperamental wifi at the resort is suddenly working, now, in this early hour before the Norwegian motorcyclists are awake, and I feel a great and pressing need to upload hiking photos to instagram. Jess is shy and so this leaves Chance to chatter at our hosts, which she does with characteristic randomness and aplomb. This dichotomy between the way Chance talks (belligerently) and the way that she writes (eloquently) is one of the most charming things about her. Watching Chance talk to strangers is like watching a traffic accident and great art, simultaneously. Sometimes I like to pretend she’s Hunter S. Thompson on acid.

There isn’t enough food to get me the two-and-a-half days to Lone Pine in our food cache so I go into the little store and poke around. I eat an icecream sandwich while I shop. The shelves are mostly empty but I find a handful of rice krispie treats and some packets of low-grade trail mix. There is powerade on fountain and I gleefully fill a massive styrofoam cup with sweet cold blue liquid. A huge bag of tortilla chips sits alone on a shelf.

“That’s eleven dollars,” says the woman behind the counter. I put down the chips.

“Does anyone ever buy it?” I say.

“No,” she says.

“So it’s just for display then? Like, a prop?”


I contemplate a sack of marshmallows but then decide against it and pay the thirty dollars, or whatever it is, that I owe. Back at the campground Jess and Chance are taking second showers and I do as well, poking at the hole in my knee. The hole is doing a good job at not becoming infected, considering. I squirt some more hand sanitizer in there. I am going to have the best scar.

We hike out at 10:30 a.m.- it’s only a handful of miles to Darwin Falls, our first water source, but I’m armed with three liters against the heat. I just want to know that I have it, you know? A dirt road through the hot bright desert takes us to a trailhead and a mucky trail leads us into a tall, narrowing canyon, at the apex of which is a cool, aquamarine waterfall. Jess and Chance jump in the water but I just rinse my shirt, afraid for my knee-wound.


There’s a small flat place to rest and we spread our bedrolls there to nap but just as we’re drifting off some German tourists appear. Our gear and shoes and crumpled food wrappers are spread everywhere and we sit up awkwardly, look at the tourists, and wipe the dust from our faces. In three miles is China Garden Spring, the last water source before our cache.

“Let’s go there and nap before night-hiking,” says Chance. “Maybe there won’t be people?”

We pack our things, stand in the narrow canyon, and look at our maps. It appears that our route goes directly up.

“I think we, ah, climb up this rock?” I say. There isn’t any trail but way above us we can see a single cairn. Rock climbing scares me, and I don’t know how to do it. I try and be brave as the three of us pick our way up the steep red rock, shouting to each other when we find a way through, discovering handholds and footholds and here and there a cairn, or a bit of an animal trail. And then another sheer wall with no way out, and one of us is staring up saying I don’t think this is a good idea, and another one looks for handholds, and we help each other up and there, like a miracle, is another cairn.

Me and Jess. Photo by Chance.

Me and Jess. Photo by Chance.

“This is, like, class four rock scrambling,” says Chance, at one point. We hear voices, and look down at the shelf below us. There are climbers there. The climbers are wearing helmets and carrying ropes. We keep picking our way up the rock. I am too scared to take any pictures. We take turns being fearless and holding up morale and finally we’ve crept our way to the top of the canyon, past another, secret waterfall and onto an animal trail above a stream choked with brush.

secret waterfall

secret waterfall

It’s a bighorn sheep trail- the invisible bighorn sheep that to go everywhere we want to go. It’s taken us 1.5 hours to go .3 miles.

Another third of a mile of easy walking over some hot bright hills and then a big swaying tree, a rivulet of mucky water and, miraculously, a deep clear pool, in which swims a number of large goldfish.

how goldfish?

how goldfish?

“How did these goldfish get here?” I say. In the shade of the big tree (what kind of tree? I don’t know.) is a slab of broken concrete- the remnants of a cabin? Nearby is another crumbling structure. Someone’s tagged it with China Garden Spring in big letters.

yours truly

yours truly




Who lived here? Where did they go? The whole place feels abandoned and sort of enchanted, like no-one ever comes here. Around us the desert rolls away into folds of hills and dried-up washes but for now we spread our bedrolls in the shade of the tree and lay down in the impossible peace, the air rattling in the leaves and the great open quiet of the desert saying rest, rest, rest.

Tonight we night-hike.

19 thoughts on “Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route From Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Three- Heat Exhaustion and Magical Desert Goldfish

  1. Awesome writing! Some publisher somewhere will surely take you on. In the meantime, I can’t wait to read the next installment.

  2. I’d be surprised if African antelope were hanging out in Death Valley. The “impala” was maybe a mule deer. And “burrows” are burros. Thanks for sharing your story.

  3. Wow, great stuff. I salute your bravery in just picking a route and going. That is truly amazing. Not sure I could’ve done that scramble up to the top of the canyon with a full pack. Gives me shivers just thinking about it. Well done. Looking forward to the next installment.

  4. That pic of the goldfish made me swoon. What beautiful randomness, the likes of which only the desert can provide. And it is hard to tell by the reflection, but the tree looks like a cottonwood. Thank you for doing what you and writing so eloquently about it.

  5. Beautiful. Simply beautiful writing and you make it even better with the awesome photos. I am sitting here on a cold, cold Minnesota night after the first snow of the season followed by arctic winds but feeling the oppressive heat of the desert through your picturesque writing. Thanks to you Carrot for taking us on another amazing journey! Can’t wait to read the rest.

  6. Pingback: Lowest to Highest, a Backcountry Route From Badwater to Mt. Whitney, Part Three- Heat Exhaustion and Magical Desert Goldfish | CARROT QUINN | Tjamrog's Weblog

  7. Not sure how they got there, but from talking to some old timers and Rangers, the fish appeared in China Garden Springs back in the 1940’s.

    About three years ago, after a bad breakup and heart ache, I took to hanging out in Panamint Springs just to get away from people that knew me. I met a lot of interesting people.

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