Report: Unsupported Joshua Tree Double Traverse

The Movie

To begin with, here’s a short movie clip with some impressions. I didn’t have much energy to film during the adventure.

The Idea

Since I did the unsupported single Joshua Tree traverse in 2014, I tossed around the idea of an unsupported double traverse (a.k.a out-and-back or yo-yo). There’s something pure and beautiful in doing such amazing routes in complete autonomy. In addition, it also makes the logistics easier because you don’t have to drop and retrieve supplies, which can be very time-consuming. However, the planning is more complex and small errors in your assumptions or during the adventure can quickly lead to failure.

By definition, unsupported also means solo. While the unsupported style technically allows you to take water from natural sources, that is just not an option in the Joshua Tree park because there is strictly no water along the route. In pure unsupported UltraPedestrian-style, I was also carrying back all my trash, which I could have otherwise dumped in trash bins at the trailheads.

My planning called for a West-to-East (and back) traverse, i.e., with a start at the Black Rock campground. The reason for going eastward first is the net elevation loss in that direction (see EG profile below). I figured that it’s easier to run downhill with a heavy pack first. On the way back, I would be much lighter.

I based my assumptions on what I considered a rather conservative projected 17-hour finish. It turns out I wasn’t quite conservative enough. I guess plans are more for the reassurance. Succeeding in highly unpredictable situations boils down to the ability to adapt when the plan—and possibly many other things you didn’t even think about—fail.

The Go-Decision

I needed a solid training on soft ground with a heavy pack in my current training block,  the Joshua Tree daytime temperatures looked unusually low this weekend, wifey was on travel, and I was able to take some time off during the weekend, so I pulled the trigger. There were no cheap flights into Palm Springs that fit my schedule, but I found some good deals into Ontario. I booked and started the packing. The planning had been ready for a long time, so it was just a matter of printing the right Evernotes and spreadsheets. Here’s the announcement.


Here’s the tentative timeline that I used. It pretty much happened in that way, at the exception of me finishing later than anticipated.

Fri, Mar 11, 2016:

  • 6:25pm: Flight to Ontario with layover in Salt Lake City.
  • 10:44pm: Arrival in Ontario. Get rental car.
  • 11:30pm: Start drive to Joshua Tree Park (~1h30min). Buy water on the way.

Sat, Mar 12, 2016

  • 01:00am: Arrive at Black Rock trailhead. Prepare gear, get ready.
  • 02:00am: Start from the Black Rock trailhead
  • 07:00pm: Projected finish
  • 08:00pm: Drive to Ontario
  • 10:00pm: Find hotel. Crash hard.

Sun, Mar 13, 2016

  • 06:00am: Flight back to Portland with layover in Salt Lake City
  • 12:13pm: Arrival in Portland

The “Cache-and-Carry” Technique

For this unsupported adventure I developed a “cache-and-carry” technique. Here is how this works: I started off with a full pack that had all my water, food, and gear for the entire adventure. However, as I made my way out, I cached parts of my food and water reserves for the return. That technique allowed me to go unsupported while minimizing the pack weight. Obviously cache-and-carry only works on an out-and-back route.

The number of drop points, the exact drop point locations along the route, as well as the water and food drop quantities were optimized with the help of computer simulations. The goal was to simply minimize the overall pack weight at every instant during my adventure. It was an interesting and non-trivial optimization problem to solve.

The Start

The car thermometer showed 42F when I left the Black Rock campground. The forecast also had a wind advisory in place and they were definitely right about that aspect. I get cold very quickly, so I started off with all the layers I thought I might need. I was happy I did because it got even colder and windier toward the morning hours.

The pack weight was just about 16lbs. I opted for the Raidlight Olmo 20l because you can add a front pack that allows to better balance the weight. I don’t think I ever ran with a pack that heavy. The load does all kinds of things to you while you run. None of them is good.

The first 7ish miles are uphill on soft ground. It was part of my plan to power-hike this stretch. I wanted to save my energy and not push with the heavy pack. And that’s what I did.

The night was gorgeous and the total silence very intense.

The Morning

After the first uphill I was able to move rather nicely and felt good. But I knew too well that this was not going to last. Despite the gorgeous night, I was looking forward to the sunrise and warmer temperatures. Eventually that happened and I was not disappointed. It’s the first time I saw the park during daylight.

As always, I carried maps, just in case. The trail is well marked in general. Yet, I ended up checking the map once at a confusing intersection. Knowing that the mind is not always clear on such adventures, I prefer to be on the safe side with maps and route checking.

After the Morning (not the morning after yet)

It quickly got toasty, toastier than I thought it would get.  I also realized that I was behind schedule. That led to worries about water and food and the overall timeline. Luckily I realized that I had consumed less water than anticipated during the night, probably because I drunk almost a liter just before I started. So I figured I would be fine. It was my intention to closely watch the water levels and to turn around earlier if I needed to, so that I would not end like Matt Riley.

From the Pinto Basin Road crossing it’s 7ish miles, mostly downhill, to the halfway point at the North Entrance trailhead. The first time I did this part in 2014 in the dark I did not realize how much soft surface there is on that stretch. I also got lost at night in the wash that the trail follows. This time I was able to follow all the markers and made it to the halfway point shortly past 11am. With the heavy pack, it had taken me 9h17min, that’s 2h5min longer than on the 2014 single traverse.

Mentally, I really dreaded the way back up through the wash in the soft sand. Also, it was around noon, so the heat and the sun was getting quite intense. Since I did not have much of a choice, I turned around quickly and left for the 2nd half of my journey.

The Return

A few miles into the climb up from the North Entrance trailhead I crossed paths with Michael and Justin, who, as announced on the FKT forum, were doing a single traverse. They still looked fresh and happy, but were eager to get to the finish.

UPDATE: Justin and Michael set a new unsupported FKT in 6:41:49. Congrats! See FKT posts for more info.

Later, I met three additional runners who did a single traverse. It seems the route is getting more popular. There were also many overnight hikers with massive backpacks on the trails late Saturday afternoon. Some were hauling two 2.5-gallon containers in addition to their packs. I wondered whether they were planning on taking showers…

On the way out, besides food and water, I had also cached the headlamp plus a set of spare batteries. Since I was running behind schedule, I was initially scared I would not reach the drop location before the dark. So as I made my way back, I decided to push myself harder than I probably should have. I think that contributed to me getting sick later. But not making it to the headlamp would have ended the adventure in disaster. Luckily I made it before the dark, but there wasn’t much time left.

The Dark

As the sun set, the cold hit brutally and I was back to wearing all my layers. Since I was exhausted, I was quite afraid of becoming hypothermic. So I pushed harder and moved faster to stay warm. That’s when things started to go down the hill with my stomach. Slowly but certainly I felt nauseous and sick. I started to regret that I only had water mixed with Tailwind, no plain water. The sugary taste was definitely not what I was craving. I also had no food options left besides gels and waffles. What I would have needed was some coke, maybe broth or hot chocolate, and something moist to eat, like a banana or an orange. But alas, there were no aid stations coming up. I was stuck with what I carried.

Things got quickly worse and after emptying my stomach a few times, I was unable to keep any food or fluids down. At least as long as I tried to run. So I power-hiked for a bit, but that led to me being too cold. I started to feel increasingly worse. Still more than 15 miles from the finish, I had no clue if and how I would ever get there. For about 4 hours, I was unable to drink or eat anything. I was seriously worried that I might collapse or faint in the middle of nowhere because of a lack of calories and dehydration. The SPOT satellite tracker gave me some comfort, but I did not know at that point that nobody was able to follow me because of a misconfiguration.

Once again, because of a lack of alternatives, I continued to make forward progress. Slowly, but surely. As the saying goes, all things eventually end. Some things just take a little longer.

The End

The end was plain ugly. The lowest point physically and mentally was just before the Upper Covington Flat, about 8mi before the finish. Somehow I had in mind that it was all downhill from there, but it actually isn’t. It took me forever. The only comfort was the stars and the beautiful night.

As I slowly approached the Black Rock campground, there was an intense smell of campfires in the air. That was great and it felt like home. Yet, as I got closer, I also started to hear loud music in combination with obnoxiously loud voices. I guess there are various ways of enjoying nature.

The GPS watch showed 19:23:37 when I stopped the clock. I had no energy for feelings at that point.

My car wasn’t stolen. I threw my pack in and drove to Ontario without changing. I figured it would be better to drive back right away as long as I was still wired up.

I made it to the airport just past 11pm, where I tried to find a hotel, but everything nearby was booked. After some hopeless and tired searching on, I found a great deal in a Best Western rather close-by. I didn’t realize it was the Presidential Jacuzzi Suite until I got there. All I wanted was a simple shower and a flat surface to sleep. I certainly had no energy left to fill a jacuzzi. I also assumed that nobody next door was interested to hear me scream in pain in the hot water because of sunburn and chafing. It was past midnight until I was able to hit the presidential sack. I had not eaten anything nor did I have a beer.

Because my flight was supposed to leave at 6am, I ended up with 2h of sleep (1 hour less because of daylight savings time!) before I had to get up, return the rental car, and ride a shuttle to the airport.

Shortly after lunch I was back in Portland. To end this weekend in a blaze of glory, a person in the row in front of me threw up on the bumpy descent into Portland. It was a good thing that I was already familiar with the smell…

Water and Fuel

I carried a total of 5,940ml/200oz of water at the start. Based on previous experiences, my consumption model was based on a 300ml/hour need at night and a 330ml/hour need during the day. So just the water alone weighted 13lbs. I carried almost 6,000 calories in fuel, mostly Tailwind, Trailbutter, gels, and waffles.

Because I was unable to eat and drink for about 4 hours, I had too much water and calories in the end.

The Results

To the best of my knowledge, I am the first person to complete an unsupported Joshua Tree double traverse, which would therefore count as an Only Known Time (OKT).

Temperatures and Weather

The temperatures were higher during the day then the forecast predicted. Also, as opposed to the forecast, there were strictly no clouds. I got sunburnt despite an SPF 50.

According to my Ambit3, temperatures ranged from 43.5F to 91.8F.

According to my Ambit3, temperatures ranged from 43.5F to 91.8F.

Map and Elevation Profile

Map of the Joshua Tree traverse.

Map of the Joshua Tree traverse.

Elevation profile of the Joshua Tree traverse.

Elevation profile of the Joshua Tree traverse. According to Strava, the total elevation gain on the double route is 7,674ft.


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