Caltech: The Postdoc Who Conquered Death Valley

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Up until this year, no one had ever hiked the entirety of Death Valley National Park from north to south in less than a week. In February, however, Caltech postdoctoral fellow Cameron Hummels covered the 170-mile route in four days—with six minutes to spare.

Death Valley, one of the hottest, driest, and least hospitable places in the world, is an unusual setting for a long-distance backpacking trip. But Hummels, a senior postdoctoral scholar in theoretical astrophysics, is part of the Fastest Known Time (FKT) movement, in which outdoor adventurers seek to traverse remote and difficult terrain as quickly as possible. Their efforts are authenticated using GPS records on exercise-tracking websites like Strava, leading to fierce but friendly competition with other athletes.

Hummels, abiding by the official FKT rules, traveled solo and unsupported, did not follow any trails or roads, and carried all of his food and equipment on his back. For water, Hummels relied on a few natural springs and seeps, some little more than mud puddles, which he had identified along the route and tested as part of his two-year preparation. Over the course of these four days in Death Valley, he experienced 60 mph winds, a haboob (an airborne wall of sand), temperatures higher than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a salt swamp, arsenic- and uranium-laden water sources, a poisonous gas vent, and devastating fatigue resulting in visual, auditory, and olfactory hallucinations.

Why would anyone do this? “I think it makes the highs higher to have the lows lower, but it hurt a lot and was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever put my body and mind through,” Hummels said. “It made for quite an adventure, but I hope to never do it again.”

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