Death Valley National Park is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. In February, astrophysicist Cameron Hummels set out to hike it in just four days, cutting the previous record in half.

In an interview for “LA Times Today,” Hummels told host Lisa McRee about the grueling trek.

What You Need To Know

  • Cameron Hummels crossed Death Valley National Park in four days, cutting the previous record in half

  • The Fastest Known Time movement gained popularity during the pandemic when conventional races were canceled

  • Hummels only brought two liters of water with him so his pack would be light and found water sources along the way

  • By the end of the trip, Hummels was exhausted and began hallucinating

Hummels completed the trip in February, without encountering “any major disasters.” He said he has always been interested in exploring the outdoors and pushing his limits.

“One of the big focuses in doing a lot of ultra-running or ultra-distance travel is to have a really light pack so that you’re not weighed down," Hummels said. "You can cover more ground. It means cutting out a lot of the things that you might want to have, like hot food at the end of the day or an extra blanket if you get cold or these sorts of things. But it allows you to do a lot more ground than you would otherwise be able to do."

Hummels only packed two liters of water for the entire journey. He planned to find more water sources along the way.

“I carried only two liters of water with me from the beginning, but that sounds a little bit daft, right? But fortunately, I’ve done a lot of research as to where different water sources would be along the park," Hummels said. "Many people think, quite rightly, of Death Valley as being this desert and devoid of any kind of water. But I got out on 10 or 12 previous trips, climbing through vegetation and small vegetation patches to find out where there might be surface water. So, I knew roughly where there would be water along the way, about every 40 miles or so. I was able to take advantage of those water sources and not have to carry all my water with me."

The plan was to find and purify water along the route. Hummels decided that before he went out on the on the hike itself, he would practice at home. He made himself so sick from the treated water that he had to postpone the trip by a year.

“As you can imagine, the water sources in such a place aren’t purified in any capacity," Hummels explained. "They’re fully mineralized and have various different contaminants. Some of them were arsenic and uranium, and they were above federal levels that you’re supposed to consume. In addition, there are biological contaminants like bacteria and viruses and such. I was using a backpacking filter to filter the water. But evidently that wasn’t enough. I brought the water back to my house so I could consume it in the comfort of my own home and did so. By the end of the time that I consumed roughly eight gallons of water from different water sources in the park, a week later, I got sick. I got really sick. The sickest I’ve ever been in my life. I had nausea for eight, nine, 10 months afterwards. I was unable to do [the hike] when I planned to in 2021 and had to go back in 2022."

Once he made it out to Death Valley, Hummels faced physical challenges that come with the terrain.

“There were a lot of extreme challenges, including some that I had not really prepared for. Of course, Death Valley is known for its heat," Hummels said. "It’s the location where the highest temperatures in the world have been observed and measured. I was going in February, hopefully to avoid some of that [heat], but it still got over 100 degrees out on the salt flats. So obviously, you’re trying to drink a lot of water to make up for the dehydration that’s going on. I’m carrying light-ish clothing so that you can deal with those temperature extremes because at night it got down to near freezing as well. There was kind of a substantial windstorm that hit in the middle of the event on day two. On day three that kicked up what’s known as a haboob, which is just a word for like a wallop of airborne sand, like a sandstorm. So, 50 miles an hour winds picked up sand into the local atmosphere and blew them, and I got caught in the middle of that. I fortunately had an N-95 mask that I kept from the hotel the night before I started that I was able to put on. So hopefully I didn’t get too much particulate matter in my lungs and nose."

Hazardous desert conditions were not the only obstacle Hummels faced. As his hike neared its end, he became exhausted and started hallucinating.

“By the very end, I was so fatigued because I was only getting a few hours of sleep each night," Hummels explained. "And the final night I just did a 24-hour push to get all the way to the finish. I was so fatigued that I started having hallucinations primarily from sleep deprivation, but just the overall effort that I was doing over these few days. It was interesting, though, because I’ve dealt with sleep deprivation hallucinations in the past. I had visual hallucinations of seeing a child 20 meters away, or seeing a coyote run past me, or something like that. But I started to also hear things and smell things that weren’t real. I didn’t even know you could have auditory or olfactory hallucinations that way. They all went away once I got some rest and some food. But for a while it was a little wild."

By day three, Hummels texted “LA Times” reporter Lila Seidman, who wrote the piece about him, that he was starting to crack up because it is an emotional toll as well in that last 24 hours.

“I was super convinced that I was going to be able to make it through and I was going to persevere and get through. And in the final 24 hours, I was like, 'I don’t know if I can actually do this.' And I knew that Lila, the reporter, was going to meet me at the finish line, and I was having some doubts and expressing, 'maybe you shouldn’t come out here. Maybe I’m going to give up or not make it all the way.' But fortunately, I was able to persevere and make it through,” Hummels said.

The first thing Hummels did after his hike was take a nap in the car on the way to Barstow, where he had an extra-large pizza and slept for 12 hours. Hummels completed the crossing in 96 hours.

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