At 130 degrees, Death Valley lives up to name


Late in the afternoon the other day, I checked the temperature online for Seymour and it read 93 degrees.

Elsewhere on the page was a phrase called “RealFeel.” The number next to that read 110 degrees.

Some synonyms came to mind: Hot. Heat. Meltdown. Scorching. Oh yeah, the temperature was projected to increase by 6 degrees over the next few days.

A few weeks ago, while I was out of town, my wife informed me the area heat index in Indiana was 111 degrees.

The summer of 2023 has been one raging inferno, from the horrors of the Hawaii wildfire to the explosive spread of wildfires across Canada, but also for those of us who just wanting to step outside to take a walk.

It was 110 degrees in Dallas-Fort Worth a few days ago. Phoenix hit 120 degrees day after day. I have walked around in 110 degrees in desert heat and often in the 90s.

Recently, there were reports referring to an all-time record high of 134 degrees in Death Valley. In 2003, acting as a journalist in 130-degree temperatures, I can say that is mind-bendingly, stunningly, don’t-touch-that-burner-on-the-stove hot.

At the time, I had been a longtime resident of Alaska and was used to attending events that took place in extreme cold, such as minus 25 with a minus 50 wind chill.

I began ruminating over what might be the hottest sporting event in the United States and determined there was a very good chance (since there is no official clearinghouse making such a declaration) the Badwater Ultramarathon might fit that description.

This is a foot race 135 miles long. The starting point is 282 feet below sea level at Badwater Basin in Death Valley and the finish line is on 14,505-foot-tall Mount Whitney. Calling itself “the world’s toughest foot race,” Badwater takes place in July. Yes, July, of course.

Arriving at Death Valley National Park (recognized as the hottest place on Earth) a day ahead of time, I found the temperature exceeded 120 degrees at a place appropriately called Furnace Creek. I felt the obligation to top my previous personal record of 112 degrees.

I set out for a 2-mile hike against the advice of rangers and with a story floating around my head from an acquaintance who told me he once really did fry an egg on a sidewalk in Death Valley simply by dropping it.

Having previously been a high school, college and hobby runner, I scoffed at a 2-mile distance, though I carried a full water bottle. That was far from enough fluid. I ran out fast, staggered back to the car, turned up the air conditioning to full blast and drank more and more. That taught me what exercise at 124 degrees felt like.

The race began the next day. Competitors were required to supply their own support teams, people who could pull them from the race if they became woozy and disoriented. Some racers just about drowned sheets in cold water and wrapped up in them for the midday portion of the race.

Miles into the race, I parked my rental car on the side of the road to obtain a good angle for snapping photos as runners approached. I wore a T-shirt and shorts and was heavily lathered in liquid sun lotion.

Standing at a road bend waiting for a runner, I felt a strong, burning, itching sensation on the backs of my calves. I figured I must have missed the spots with the suntan lotion. No other exposed skin felt that way.

Reports indicated the temperature registered 130 degrees where I was. I believe weather officials said that mark was reached again this summer. Got some photos, but discomfort urged me hurriedly onward. I determined what was bugging my legs was a hot wind. We are accustomed to breezes cooling the air. In this one instance, the low-key breeze was making the air feel hotter and burning my legs.

So in July, when I read about the temperature in the Southwest deserts topping 120 degrees or encroaching on 130 degrees, my 124-degree hike and my 130-degree picture-snapping expedition floated to mind.

I was reminded why they call it Death Valley.

Lew Freedman is a reporter for The Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected] or 812-523-7065.

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