There’s the type of outdoorsy badass who accomplishes a noteworthy feat for the bragging rights. Then there’s the kind of badass who — like John Muir, Mary Austin or Norman Clyde — follows the tug of nature to the source of its extremes because he just can’t help himself, lives to tell the tale, and tells it beautifully.
Daniel Arnold is part of the latter group of badasses. His new book, “Salt to Summit: A Vagabond Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney,” combines his passion for adventure with his talents as a wordsmith. Eastside readers might be familiar with his previous work,
“Early Days in the Range of Light” (Counterpoint, $24.95), in which he retraces the footsteps of climbing legends through the Sierra.
In “Salt to Summit,” Arnold recounts his expedition from Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mount Whitney. 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 tallest point in the contiguous United States. Arnold recognized this poetic proximity of extremes as a teenager, thinking, “. . . this must be the perfect way to climb a mountain. Start at the very bottom, and end at the very top. What more could a mountaineer want?”
In a fashion familiar to readers of Early Days in the Range of Light, Arnold self-imposes obstacles to make is journey more difficult. Rather than travel the paved route from Badwater to Whitney, he forges his own path, avoiding roads and trails when possible. He leaves in April, a month when Death Valley smolders and Mount Whitney is still snow-capped. He carries little more than what the early travelers would have brought: no GPS device, no tent and a grown-out beard for sun block.
Schlepping 46 pounds of water, Arnold begins his trek from Badwater Basin: “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.” Fighting the tricks of the desert and mountains, Arnold makes his way across salt flats, through slot canyons, and up precipitously steep rock and ice.
Although he travels alone, Arnold encounters a host of ghosts from the Old West … Shoshones, ‘49ers, writers, climbers, entrepreneurs and Paiutes. With his signature gift for storytelling, Arnold’s narrative seamlessly transitions from anecdotes of his own journey to tales of people from the past. He also leads readers through the history of the landscape, from the time when the native population thrived, to the gold rush era, all the way to Owens Valley water wars.
With the observations of a philosopher and the artistry of a poet, Arnold’s impressive writing style propels the story forward. He breathes life into the area’s history and its notable characters. His descriptions of the landscape spring to life on each page, as he notes the changing color palettes, geology, flora, and fauna.
To some, Arnold’s feat itself might not sound entirely “epic” in a world where athletes are constantly breaking records free-soloing, speed-climbing, BASE jumping, and logging obscene mileage on foot or bike. But “epic” aside, this is a story of extremes, of hot and cold, high and low, and of the extremes people have taken to live in such seemingly uninhabitable conditions.
“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,” Arnold writes.
Copies of “Salt to Summit” can be found at the Booky Joint in Mammoth Lakes, and Spellbinder Books in Bishop.