National News

'This is on another level': They came, they camped, they baked at Death Valley

Posted June 20

What is it like to experience near 130-degree heat in direct sunlight?

As with most things these days, your iPhone knows.

Used for less than 10 minutes in the oppressive heat of Death Valley, the phone shuts down with an urgent warning: "iPhone needs to cool down before you can use it."

For Jenny Cary of Green Bay, Wisconsin, it's much simpler.

"My legs are burning!" she said Tuesday outside the Furnace Creek Visitor Center at Death Valley National Park, describing a sensation that feels like microscopic pinpricks coating your body.

"I've now felt 127 degrees down to 40 below," said Jenny's husband, Mike. The couple drove their family here from Las Vegas after hearing about the record heat that has already broken three records this week.

It's so hot in the West that the scorching heat is breaking records, causing massive power outages and prompting flight cancellations.

The official temperature here Tuesday was 127 degrees Fahrenheit, besting the previous record for the day by one degree. But to visitors of Death Valley, what matters most is a digital thermostat outside the visitor center. Perched directly in the sun, its scorching temperatures make for selfies that burn up social media.

"I've wanted to get a picture at 130 degrees, and today I got it," said Joe Harrington of Aurora, Illinois, who made the impromptu drive from Las Vegas (the official reading is taken in the shade).

While a visit this week does make for a story, the park warns extreme heat can be deadly without the proper preparation and precautions. And it doesn't cool down much at night. The low Tuesday morning was 97.

A few degrees from all-time high

The heat wave ushering in summer on Wednesday may be breaking daily records here, but it's not forecast to break the all-time record of 134 degrees recorded in Death Valley in 1913.

Park officials say that measurement is increasingly being scrutinized by scientists, but it still holds against the next hottest temperature of 129.

"I'll probably never feel this hot again in my life," said De'mond Singleton. And he knows hot.

As he stands in direct sunlight next to the thermometer reading 130 degrees, Singleton compares it to his experience serving with the US Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"This is on another level here, this will kill you," said Singleton, who drove from Lancaster, California. "I haven't felt the monster of all heat until coming here."

Like most people, Singleton is experiencing the heat and then getting out.

But Randy Humiston isn't like most people -- he's sleeping in it.

The lone camper

There are 136 campsites at the Furnace Creek Campground, but on this scorching hot night (the overnight low is 91 degrees) there is only one spot filled.

The camper filling it belongs to Humiston, an amateur geologist who splits his time between California and Hawaii.

"I never had this much space in Death Valley before," Humiston said. "I don't feel intimidated about walking out in my underwear."

Why is he here?

Humiston is on the maiden voyage in a camper he bought last year, and Death Valley is his "favorite place in the world."

"I figured why not test it in the extreme conditions and find out how she's doing," he said. "And she's doing quite well."

Park rangers reported a temperature of 110 degrees at midnight the previous night, but Humiston said his AC got it "down into the 80s."

"I had to pull the sleeping bag over me at one point," he said with a defiant chuckle.

Still, rangers are discouraging camping during this heat wave.

'Normally hot' is the most dangerous time

Surprisingly, officials say most heat-related problems occur in "normally hot" temperatures between 105 and 115 degrees.

"When it's this ridiculously hot people get out of their car and go 'Absolutely not,'" said park ranger Abby Wines.

Last year, two people died in "average" heat, including a motorcyclist whose GoPro video showed him pull over to the side of the road, become wobbly and then collapse.

Aside from drinking plenty of water (a couple of gallons, Wines says), rangers recommend light meals over large ones, which may be tough for the body to handle in a foreign climate.

"It's like going to a higher elevation for the first time, when you get short of breath," Wines said. "The same kind of thing can happen in high heat as well."

And this place is all about high heat. The National Park Service said the area in 1996 had 40 days higher than 120 degrees F (49 degrees C). In 2013, a sun-powered egg-frying tutorial video posted by the park sparked an egg-frying frenzy that left park officials cleaning up the mess.

Death Valley got its name in 1849 when prospectors heading to the gold fields got lost and stumbled into the harsh desert.

International intrigue

Despite the rush of "thrill seekers" wanting impressive selfies, Death Valley at this time of year is largely an international affair.

"I hope my shoes don't start melting," said Stefan Van Groningen of the Netherlands.

He and his friends are on holiday, and couldn't wait to experience both rugged terrain and temperatures they can't get back home.

By July, the park expects 70% of its visitors to be foreign-born; its brochures are printed in four languages.

Wines said locals can get heat by staying home, but that this is unusual for tourists.

"This is very special. It's so hot and the landscape," said Francesca, a tourist from Switzerland admiring the park with three friends.

For Van Groningen, one of the most dramatic parts of his American journey has been conquering Death Valley's tempting heat.

"So we can take it in the luggage with us."

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