Books: Going To Extremes

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Daniel Arnold breathes new life into the fabled Wild West as he takes readers on a journey of extremes in Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. Arnold blends history and adventure recounting his expedition from Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. With a distance of 80 air miles and an elevation gain of 14,787 feet, the 17-day journey takes him from the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere to the highest in the Lower 48 states. As a teenager, Arnold first recognized this poetic proximity of extremes. "This must be the perfect way to climb a mountain," he told himself. "Start at the very bottom, and end at the very top. What more could a mountaineer want?"

As in his previous book, Early Days in the Range of Light, Arnold imposes extra obstacles to heighten his experience. He leaves in April, a month when Death Valley smolders and Mount Whitney is snow-capped. He avoids roads and trails and carries little more gear than the earliest travelers did—no GPS device, not even a tent. Instead of using sunblock, he simply grows a beard.

Schlepping 46 pounds of water, Arnold battles the desert and its wiles: "Getting pinched between the salt and the sun here feels like hanging out in a jerking oven. It's the apocalypse written by a banana slug." He traverses salt flats, weaves his way through slot canyons, and scales precipitously steep slopes of rock and ice.

Although he travels alone, Arnold encounters a host of ghosts from the Old West—Shoshones, Paiutes and forty-niners, as well as the spirits of other writers. He seamlessly transitions from anecdotes about his own life to tales of the many peoples from the region's past. With the acute eye of a philosopher and the artistry of a poet, Arnold unfolds the landscape's history, describing Native American life, the gold rush era and the infamous Owens Valley water wars. Arnold writes: "More than a story of passing through, this is also a story of trying to stay, of people drawn to the harshest landscape in the American West and held here when the desert got into their blood."

Salt to Summit, A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney
Counterpoint, 2012
By Daniel Arnold
Buy It ($12.47 at Amazon)


This story first appeared in High Country News.