Sometimes our greatest lessons, our most valuable experiences, come from a place as dark as defeat.
It’s rare for me not to finish the adventures or expeditions I set out to do. My adventures take months of prep, and a team that factors all possibilities from a logistics perspective, whether I’m supported or unsupported.
The last time I had to make a “hard call” was in remote Kamchatka, Russia in the middle of winter. After nearly 20 days unsupported in the frozen Russian wilderness, my Italian teammate and I had to cease our attempt at crossing this incredible peninsula in February 2019. The rivers we needed to cross, that were ahead of us, were abnormally open. Spring had come early in this typically frigid place, making forward progress impossible. As hard as it was to stop, we knew we made the right decision.
Survival and resilience are a result of experience, humility, and a willingness to understand that taking risks comes with great responsibility and ownership. And that’s doubled in Death Valley, the hottest place on Earth.
My trekking partner, Will Laughlin, and I had already completed the first ever off-road north to south crossing of Death Valley National Park in summer 2011 and a west to east off-road crossing in July 2019. Both were completed in previous heatwaves. But this year, Death Valley was experiencing its hottest weekend ever recorded, and we were immersed in it.
We pushed through steep descents, rocky river washes, and deep sand on our first 80 kilometers — a distance that on any one of my other desert expeditions would be a normal daily mileage, but, in Death Valley, was an absolute slog. A day later, our team made the collective and difficult decision to pull the plug on our second north to south off-road crossing.
Extreme heat in Death Valley caused us to pause and delay after our first 24 hours of moving, but it was the fact that our remaining resupplies were 12-20km apart, reaching each safely without emergency access to crew was potentially deadly. Winds whipped up the extreme heat, and we were instantly dehydrating. Resupplies started 25km apart and were mapped out to be as close together as possible, with navigation to each point in as straight a line as possible. Because of limited access, and no driving off road in Death Valley National Park, reaching us in an emergency was at best, as risky as our adventure. Shortening distances of resupplies wasn’t possible, a result of that limited access.
We were on a razor’s edge, as the terrain was a much slower go from the extreme dryness as well. Sandy sections were super soft requiring more effort, and, due to the heatwave, our packs were loaded with several extra litres of water and other emergency gear. Temperatures soared. The official temperature was over 130°F, with winds making it excruciatingly hotter.
I’ve never been afraid of pushing my limits to the max or making a hard decision when needed. Our goal was to repeat our 2011 route but move more swiftly. Nature had other plans. Taking chances and risks that may put others at risk to rescue or extract us was a bridge too far.
We were super stoked to put a solid 24 hours of hard effort in, when Death Valley was in record breaking temperatures, and knew we had given everything we had. Will and I spent a lot of time talking about our kids on the adventure, and our obvious priority was to see them again.
I packed up to head home, not bummed as I know we made the right call. We will be back again, and now I begin preparing for my longest ever unsupported winter Arctic expedition, something I’ve dreamed of for years.
Ray Zahab wants people to know they are extraordinary. A former sedentary “pack a day smoker”, Ray turned his life around in 1999 when he decided to get in shape and enter the world of ultra-marathons. Since then, he’s gone on to inspire millions of people around the world by completing jaw-dropping journeys, including running 7500 km across the Sahara, and the Atacama, Gobi, and Patagonian deserts.
Ray shares stunning photographs from his travels during his presentations. Below is just a sample that capture his most recent trek to Death Valley as well as to the frozen Russian Wilderness.
Interested in learning more about Ray and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].