Roland Banas has completed the first solo unsupported crossing of Death Valley, California in summer. The Frenchman walked the 290km in five days and seven hours, finishing on August 8. He pulled a cart that initially weighed 155kg — most of it, 110 litres of water. The heat reached an almost unbearable 46˚C, hence the bathtub of drinking water every day. He kept to roads and dirt tracks, because pulling a cart off-trail was not allowed for ecological reasons.
Roland Banas en route through Death Valley. Photo: Roland Banas
Banas had previously crossed Death Valley in winter and skied the length of Lake Baikal earlier this year, but he admits that the summer heat made this trek harder than anything he had done before. In July, he made a first attempt at this crossing, but his modified garden cart with small wheels sank in the soft sand under the weight of the water.
“It took all my strength and energy to creep forward,” he said. The next day, he deflated the tires to almost flat for better flotation, but he still working so hard that he was constantly on the edge of heat exhaustion, and decided to call it quits after 50km.
“I got back home, learned welding basics off YouTube, built a cart, and a week or so later, I was back there,” he said.
Banas also brought more water this second time. He drank 14 to 15 liters a day to stay hydrated, but struggled to get the calories in. He thinks his body was so stressed by the heat and focused on cooling that “everything else took a back seat”. By the last days, all he could eat was a few granola bars.
His walk started at the northernmost point of Death Valley National Park, deep in the Last Chance Mountain Range. It was already afternoon. He immediately had to tackle a 20km downhill -– no easy task with a 155kg cart. His rigid pulling wands helped, “but it was a massive core and leg workout,” he said.
During the descent, he also got the first of three flat tires. Repair made and downhill complete, he immediately faced an uphill to a pass. The 10 percent incline — much steeper than the Alpe d’Huez climb of Tour de France fame — was “absolutely brutal and slow” for the entire five kilometres. But he ended the first day in good spirits, under a full moon.
The route. Image: Roland Banas
Although he covered an average of 52km on subsequent days, none of them was easy. On the second day, some of the downhills were so steep that he couldn’t control the cart, which skidded crazily. He battled headwinds, suffered a nosebleed and spilled a litre of water, which he said was “stupid and clumsy”.
Day three ended in another nosebleed. Banas was too exhausted to eat, and although he constantly drank water, “the air was so dry that my mouth and throat were instantly dry after drinking.”
On day four, he suffered his second puncture and tackled “slow, boring roads that were up and down all the time.” Although it wasn’t the hottest day, the Santa Anna winds had picked up, and on the “endless” hills, he struggled to control his breathing and heart rate.
One perk of having to stick to roads and tracks was that drivers occasionally stopped to say hi and ask what he was doing. One even offered him a cold beer, which was “torture to turn down”.
Photo: Roland Banas
During the final two days, “I was wearing down, had less energy and was struggling to feed myself.” But since he had budgeted carefully and had lots of water left at the end of day five, he indulged by washing himself and rinsing out his clothes, which were stiff with salt.
It also gave him a lighter cart for day six. On this final day, he covered 62km. The day felt endless and he didn’t feel like eating, so he consumed only gels and electrolytes to fuel his final stint through the desert.After 16 hours of walking, he finished at 9pm on August 8.
Overall he walked “415,000 steps, had three nosebleeds and three punctures but no sunburn!”
Banas was lucky to have finished when he did: This week, Death Valley hit 54.4˚C, the hottest temperature on earth since 1931.
The “endless” tracks across Death Valley. Photo: Roland Banas