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I Was There When “Hell Froze Over”

An Eye-Witness Account of Jay Birmingham’s 1981 Crossing

Tamara L. Dickey, stepdaughter and crew member for Jay Birmingham, the second person to complete the Badwater to Mt. Whitney course, back in 1981. Jay plans to race the 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of his record-breaking run. Jay was also the first person to publish a book about this run.

Note: this is a chapter taken from a longer work. To read the complete work, click here.

We are going back in time to the summer of 1981. My family consisted of five members: My stepfather, mother, two brothers and myself. We were a close family that operated under the standard rules of early bed times on school nights, curfews on weekends and finishing your plate before you get up from the table. As both my parents were teachers, we were not what you would call wealthy. Most of any extra income was spent on trips to various road races throughout the country, running gear and family “vacations.”

My Stepfather, Jay, is an ultra-marathon runner and has been since 1958. He joined our family and introduced us to the sport of running and taught us to appreciate all living things. The running involved competition and serious training. Appreciating Nature was something intangible that could only be achieved by exposing us to summers of hiking and tent camping all over America. It was our way of life.

My Mom is, by far, the most incredible person I have ever known. She has overcome personal obstacles and raised us kids in a clean and loving home. She maintained all of these things and, at the same time, worked full time as a teacher’s aid, attended and graduated from college (summa cum laude) with a degree in Education. She teaches fifth graders (crazy person) and loves every minute of it. She is an intelligent, strong, energetic and loving woman who is always there for her family and friends whenever they need her. Over the years she has instilled in me and my brothers strong morals and given us unending love and support. Although teens can be rebellious at times, we always had nothing but the highest respect for her.

My oldest brother Bob, age 18, is a quiet, shy and yet very stubborn young man. He has always been there to lean on when the chips were down. He is a very good runner and has won many races in his age group. He loves the sport and pushes himself very hard. He likes girls but is too shy to talk to any of them! I admire him for his integrity and innocence. His greatest strength is his loyalty. Bob never hurts anyone deliberately and never gets into trouble. A parent’s dream child for a teenager!

Scott is the middle child. He is a year younger than Bob and two years older than me. We aren’t much different in height and weight. Scotty runs too, but his heart isn’t in it. He enjoys Wrestling and is very good. He has a tendency to get injured easily though. He is as innocent as Bob and just as shy. He giggles when he gets embarrassed and his face turns bright red. He is very seldom in trouble except academically. But that’s okay.

Both of my brothers have a terrific sense of humor and we play tackle football or baseball together on weekends. Other than having the usual sibling rivalry, my brothers and I get along pretty well. They think I am spoiled because I am the “baby girl” of the family.

My name is Tammy and I am a “tom-boy.” I am also a very free spirited and independent person who loves romance, excitement and adventure! I run cross-country and track and play center halfback on the girl’s varsity soccer team. I can keep up with most boys my age when it comes to sports and usually surpass them when it comes to a battle of wits. I take life by the horns and to hell with the consequences. I am 15 years old for crying out loud! Life is too short to sit back and wonder what would have been like had I not taken a chance or two.

Being a family on the go and that being in many directions, we had two cars. The newer one was a 1976 Toyota Corolla. It was white with a black pin stripe. I called it Snoopy. I loved this car and was hoping it would some day be mine! It had a stereo, air conditioning, no mechanical problems and was great on gas.

We also owned a 1965 Dodge Coronet two-door sedan. It was a sun-oxidized, turquoise color with splotches of primer and rust scattered throughout the steel body. The driver’s side door did not open nor did the window roll down. You had to enter and exit through the passenger door. We kids had the delight of sitting in the back seat lined with a nylon fabric intertwined with a gold, metallic fiber that was unraveling in several places. This caused our legs to itch when we wore shorts. There were two pieces of plywood on the floor, placed there to cover the holes in the floorboard, which had rusted out over time. The universal was going bad and when you put the car in reverse and backed up it made a big thud and then went “clang, clang, clangety clang…” kind of like the warning bell of a large construction vehicle.. Fuel economy was not a consideration when the car was designed, let alone in it’s present state. Not only did it suck down gasoline, it consumed a quart of oil about every 100 miles. The carburetor was so far gone that the exhaust pipe spewed out a greasy black film of oil on the rear of the car. All you could make of the word Coronet were the letters O and N. The trunk was huge but took some jiggling and wiggling of the key to get it to pop open. We kept a roll of paper towels in the trunk to wipe the residue off of our hands. The tires on the thing were all re-treads and only one of them had a hubcap. When you turned the car off, it coughed and sputtered for another thirty seconds , which always made me wonder if it was going to start again. We nicknamed it “The Bomb.”

Which car do you think Jay decided to take on the ten-week long trip? You guessed it, “the bomb!” I couldn’t believe it! The thought of being seen at school in that thing was bad enough, but to traipse all over the country in that thing wondering if we would make it the next ten miles or not, did not exactly make us happy campers. But we loaded her up with our backpacks, tents, duffle bags and a cooler and headed out on our journey.

Our “vacation” was to include many stops along the way. We visited a running camp in Black Mountain, North Carolina, our family in Springfield, Ohio, another running camp in Manitou Springs, Colorado, saw the sights in Las Vegas, Nevada and ultimately wound up in Death Valley, California, where Jay would attempt to set a world record for a solo run from Badwater to the summit of Mt. Whitney. While my encounters are fully documented in a short story I wrote a few years back, I chose to focus on the Death Valley portion in the hopes of giving readers something to think about during their own experience here. With that said, I hope you will enjoy the following account.

We were all up and out the door by 7 o’clock. It was raining. As we headed out of LasVegas we heard flash flooding warnings on the radio. The storm was getting stronger and we feared what was ahead. Mom and Jay were ahead in a rented AMC Concord with their flashers on, we crept along behind them in the Dodge, sweating and steaming up the windows. The defroster only blew hot air on the floor. I had to wipe the windshield off with a T-shirt so Bob could see the road.

Just as we were approaching Bad Water, we saw brake lights ahead and then we were all stopped. The storm had caused a huge mudslide in the road and we had to take a detour around it. We drove an extra 20 miles or so in order to reach the resort in Furnace Creek. Was Mother Nature giving us some kind of warning as to what lay ahead in the next few days?

After a long morning of driving, sweating and arguing with my brothers about various things, I was not in the mood to go for a run. But we were coaxed into it. We discovered a lush golf course. It was like an oasis in the desert. The grass was so green against the now bright turquoise sky. It felt like carpet under my feet and I decided to run barefoot instead of wearing shoes. Jay frowned upon the idea, but I assured him I would be careful. Scotty and I lagged behind and tossed a tennis ball back and forth while we ran. Just as we were heading back, the sprinkler system came on! Water was being sprayed all over the place. We got soaked! It was a welcome relief from the heat so we decided to continue playing in them all the way back to the room. Some of the sprinklers were very high pressured as my brother found out while trying to jump over one!

We had a delightful home-cooked meal at a small “mom and pop” restaurant. Our desert was a delicious date milk shake! I usually have trouble eating dates because they remind me of the ever-abundant palmetto bugs (flying cock roaches big enough to vote) that plague the South. But this was very good. We were all tired and turned in early.

The next morning, a Park Ranger told Jay that the road was still closed because of the mudslide. He decided to run back and forth along the dry road to make up the distance. During his run, he was met by a group of running colleagues who told him the road was no longer closed! After having waited for three hours to get started that morning and not wanting to jeopardize the legitimacy of his record attempt, Jay decided to start fresh the next day and do it right.

At 7 o’clock am, the temperature had already reached 100 degrees. The boys and I waited for Jay to make his 18-mile trek from Bad Water to Furnace Creek. Three hours later he arrived. We kids all piled into the Dodge and told our parents we would see them at Stove Pipe Wells, which was 25 miles down the road and our lodging site for the night.

As we pulled in at the small dusty motel, we were excited to see a swimming pool! Yippee! After we checked in and unloaded the bags, we changed into our swimsuits and headed for the pool. Three big splashes sent the water up over the pool’s edges. As we all came up our faces showed the same agonizing expression. The water was HOT! It was like jumping into a hot tub without the bubbles. We grumbled as we got out. It was too hot to swim, no television to watch and we were in the middle of nowhere! We were like the children of Dr. Seuss muttering “Nothing to do but sit, sit, sit.” Bob decided to go for a little run while Scotty and I sipped sodas by the pool. I was working on my tan and he was adorned with sun block, a towel and T-shirt fashioned like an Arabian Sheik.

Mom and Jay finally showed up. We compared notes and after Jay took a brief nap, he commenced his running again with Bobby tagging along. Around 7:30 that night we headed out to the only restaurant in the valley. The maître d’ told Jay that it would be a 30 minute wait. He still had a schedule to keep and needed to resume running. He very seldom spoke his mind in public, but he let that guy have it and we were seated immediately. I was impressed. However, Jay went back and apologized to him and explained how tired and stressed out he was. There were no hard feelings and we all enjoyed a hearty meal.

After dinner and a brief ride back to the motel, Jay started back on the road. The clear night sky and the full moon lit up the desert. While it was still quite warm, the pool had cooled off considerably and my brothers and I decided to go for a swim. As we were leisurely floating around in the water, Scotty suddenly yelled out, “What the hell was that!?”

I jumped and screeched a little. I thought he was just kidding around and as I began to lecture him about making so much noise, I felt something “whoosh” past me. “Ahhhhhh!” I hollered. Then we saw them. BATS!! They too were enjoying the cool water!

It took no time for us to hop out of the water and seek shelter under the motel’s porch. We watched in amazement as the little black winged creatures swooped down into the pool to get a drink. Mom and Jay pulled in around 10:30 and shared in our amusement for a few minutes.

It was late and we knew we had a long drive the next day. The road had been flat and fairly strait up to this point. We were only 5 feet above sea level now (after having been -282). But our next stop would take us up to over 3,700 feet above sea level in just over 70 miles. Jay was already feeling some pain in his Achilles tendon. The hot, dry air had chapped his face. His fears of failure were suppressed but I knew they existed. We all worried about him out in the heat and pushing too hard, but we had faith that he would succeed and offered encouragement every chance we could. Our biggest responsibility was to behave and get along to avoid creating any unnecessary stress.

The next morning, after pouring oil into the car and checking her fluids, the boys and I headed out once more to face yet another hot day. The mountains we had viewed from afar, approached quickly now and the incline was taking its toll on the poor old car. Is wasn’t long before the car began to overheat. I finally talked Bobby into pulling over at one of the roadside water containers that we had seen throughout the valley.

Bobby can be pig-headed at times and doesn’t like to take orders from his little sister. But he knew we needed to stop. In a huff, he climbed over me and got out of the car. He opened the trunk and filled a milk jug with water. Without even thinking, he went to the front of the car, popped the hood and opened the radiator cap! Scalding hot water exploded out of the radiator and Bobby was screaming. Scotty and I ran out to help him. Luckily he was wearing sunglasses, which were now partially melted on one side. But his arm was not so lucky. He had burned it pretty badly. I escorted him back to the car and placed him in the back seat. Scotty and I pulled some sodas out of the cooler and we submerged Bob’s arm in the icy water. He was too quiet and I suspected he was in shock. I knew he was not fit to drive.

Scotty thought that he should drive since he was the next oldest. But I argued that he didn’t yet have his learners permit and I did, therefore I should drive. Needless to say, I won the debate and told Scotty to keep an eye on Bobby and to not let him go to sleep. It was six miles to Townes Pass, our rendezvous point with the folks and where we could possibly get some supplies to dress Bob’s burns. After filling the radiator, we headed out. The road was curvy and uphill the whole way. Scotty gripped the dashboard like a nervous cat holding onto a tree limb. I shrugged off his lack of confidence in me and got us there safely.

A couple hours later, Mom arrived and was informed of the day’s events. She was upset and felt terrible for having subjected us to all of this misery, but we assured her that we were okay and that it would all be over soon. We applied Solorcaine and gauze to Bobby’s arm and gave him some aspirin for the pain. I would have to drive, unlicensed and illegally, the remaining 64 miles to Lone Pine.

The road was narrow, curvy, and treacherous and continued to climb. Every once in a while the car would grumble and overheat. I would pull over and wait for her to cool down before continuing on. What should have taken just over an hour to drive ended up being more like three. Scott’s nervousness eventually faded and he was more attentive to Bob who kept his arm submerged in the ice chest. We both tried to keep light conversation going to boost his spirits and take his mind off of the pain. His burns were severe and the desert heat didn’t help matters.

As we limped into Lone Pine, we were all happy to see our reserved accommodations were not cheesy. It was a very modern facility with a pool, tennis courts, game room and a Jacuzzi! We checked in, unpacked the car and redressed Bob’s arm with fresh gauze. We agreed a swim was in order. Bob couldn’t go swimming, but was able to relax waist deep on the pool steps. We only had to wait a few hours before Jay and Mom arrived. Both of them were happy to see we had made it safely.

Jay had stopped in a little town in Panamint Valley. He was warned against doing so as it was once home to part of the Manson Gang. The locals didn’t take to kindly to strangers supposedly and Jay had doubts about going into this one gas station. To his good fortune, the woman was very hospitable and supplied him with the much needed water and supplies he asked for.

Facing the steep climb in the car was bad enough, I couldn’t imagine Jay having to run it. His muscles were aching but he needed to resume his endeavor. It was past lunchtime and we were all hungry. After a good meal and a short nap he and Mom were off again.

It would take two days for Jay to complete the never-ending hill up to Lone Pine. He would have to suffer through the hottest part of the valley before reaching the base of the highest peak. The surface temperature soared above 150 degrees and he recalled seeing a shaded thermostat registering 115 degrees.

We kids didn’t mind staying in Lone Pine. It was a beautiful tourist town. Souvenir shops and friendly people offered a great place for us to explore. There were numerous trails near the hotel. Scott and I ran together while Bob reluctantly stayed behind. He would need to stay off his feet if he was to accompany us all on the “big climb” up Mt. Whitney. He found pleasure in reading the sports page by the pool and secretly gazed at girls in their bikinis behind his new, mirrored sunglasses.

When Jay finally arrived at Lone Pine he looked sun baked and exhausted. Rather than call it a day, he took a short two-hour break and resumed his trek to the base of the mountain, Whitney Portal, which was another 13 miles up the road. I admired his determination and perseverance. I only hoped it would not be his undoing. He still had to tackle Mt. Whitney. His legs were fatigued and his Achilles tendon was getting worse. I wanted to help support him through this last stretch the journey. We all did.

It was 4:00 a.m. and we were all getting dressed for our morning jaunt up the mountain. Having experienced Pikes Peak’s 14-mile trail in Colorado, we were rather confident that Mt. Whitney’s 11-mile climb would be slightly less grueling. I dressed in my usual running attire of shorts and a t-shirt. Jay convinced the boys to bring their windbreakers and sweat pants just in case it was cooler at the top. I did not want to carry any extra baggage and as it was already 80 degrees outside and the sun had not risen, coolness was the furthest thing from my mind.

My mother, who is always prepared (former cub-scout den mother), decided to bring her rain gear, a sweat shirt and the camera to capture the “record setting” on film. At the last minute she, for some strange reason, grabbed the matches on the nightstand and shoved them in her jacket pocket.

Jay and Bob brought flashlights, fruit, granola bars and I carried a couple bottles of water. Scott carried the flags that were to be held up at the moment of triumph. We each wore a small nap sack to share the load. We headed out the door and drove to Whitney Portal. At 5:15, we headed out for the top.

We had to use the flashlights on the heavily wooded trail. There were several small streams to cross and as we were hurrying, we didn’t always stay dry. My feet were soaked as I was leading the way and didn’t see the water until it was too late. The trail itself was hard to follow as there were few markings and it was not wide or heavily trafficked like Pikes Peak.

At six miles, we reached “timberline” and the trail was less dirt and more rock. The rock sizes seemed to get bigger the further up we went. It got to the point of literally having to climb over them. The sky was growing darker by the minute and we could hear crashes of thunder echoing throughout the mountain range. The air was thinning out and my enthusiasm with it.

With about three miles to go, we passed two hikers dressed in “foul weather gear.” We asked them if we were on the right trail to the top and if had they been there. The reply was grim. “It’s too stormy! We are headed back to camp! You guys should do the same!” They hollered over the increasing winds.

We couldn’t turn back now, as much as I wanted to. We were so close to the top and Jay could still set the record. My body ached from the uphill battle and my feet were cold from my water-logged shoes. I slowed my pace and Jay and Bobby decided to go on ahead to shave off more time. I cried, feeling like I had let him down by not being in better shape. If only I had trained more seriously and listened to his advice when he gave it. As I drifted further behind the family, feeling more emotionally and physically exhausted, I saw Jay coming towards me.

He reached out, gave me his jacket, took my hand and said, “We are going to do this together or not at all! You can do it Tammy! Just keep moving and use your arms! We are almost there!” At that moment I felt a surge of energy inside and was determined not to let him down.

The wind howled in our faces forcing us backward at times. Sleet and snow began to sting my bare legs. My feet had become numb from the below freezing temperatures. Would we ever reach the summit? I kept looking for lights coming from a souvenir shop or coffee house like at the top of Pikes Peak. I saw nothing but snowflakes whipping around in front of me and the silhouette of Scotty struggling as well.

Suddenly, I heard Bob’s voice shouting. “Come on you guys! You’re almost there! You can make it! We have reached the top!”

After 5 hours of endless climbing, I was so glad to hear those words! I began laughing as I envisioned sipping a cup of hot chocolate and soothing my throbbing feet wrapped in a warm towel. My laughter was soon stifled by the sight of my brother standing upon a pile of snow-covered rocks that housed a small plaque. It read: “Mt. Whitney, summit 14,496 feet, highest point in the continental United States.”

“This is it?” I asked desperately. He pointed to a small rock shelter that looked like something out of the “Flintstones.” I found my brother inside gasping for air and shivering. We were all freezing and our teeth were chattering. Mom had taken photos of Jay with the three flags (two from his sponsors and a U.S. flag) and they soon entered the dirt floored dwelling. Mom tried to comfort us even though she too was cold and miserable. Suddenly she remembered the matches in her pocket!

As she pulled them out we all scrambled to find trash and small bits of wood or other flammable materials. Jay (a former Boy Scout leader) created a small fire and, to make it last a little longer, he burned the felt flags and wooden sticks (sparing the stars and stripes). As we choked on the smoke that lingered inside, we warmed our bare toes by the fire. I looked over at Scott and noticed he was crying. I asked him what was wrong and he whimpered, “We still have to go back down.”

The mere thought of it made us all groan. We were used to driving down Pikes Peak after such an undertaking. But there was nothing up here to get us back down except our own frozen feet. We were not dressed to survive the freezing temperatures, we had eaten all of the food, were low on water, and were out of dry materials to burn. We had to head back and soon.

The storm had eased up only slightly. With thoughts of being back in the desert heat and knowing it was all down hill from here, my brothers and I hurried down the path, leaving Mom and a hobbling Jay behind. We were assured that they would be fine so we didn’t feel guilty.

We had been zipping along at a pretty good clip and had left the snow behind. After about 3 miles or so, we could feel the temperature warming up a bit. We could see the green trees down below and knew we were approaching the halfway point. The trail was still quite treacherous and required tremendous agility. Our legs were beginning to wear out and we decided to slow down to avoid injury or falling off one of the many cliffs. The feeling in my toes came back and the sun was shining.

We were now on more even ground and about 3 miles from the bottom. As quickly as the sun emerged, thick dark rain clouds covered it again. Without warning, the skies opened up and the rain fell in huge drops. We were instantly soaked and more irritated than ever. Would this torture ever end? Was there a shortcut down the mountain? We didn’t want to take a chance in getting lost so we decided to stay on the slippery trail.

We ventured back through the streams we had crossed earlier, only larger now, and back down through the towering sequoia trees. In just under 4 hours, we were back down at the bottom and a few hundred yards from the car.

“Do you have the keys, Bob?” I asked. “No.” he replied sadly.

Scotty expressed his frustration with a few colorful metaphors. We tried to find a tree that would shelter us from the pouring rain, as if it mattered. We were sopping wet from head to toe, thirteen miles from civilization, locked out of the car containing a bag of chips and a few granola bars and too tired to stand up.

Almost two miserable hours passed waiting for Mom and Jay to come down. We had experienced the heat of the summer that morning, the coolness of fall later that morning, the Arctic conditions of winter at the summit and the rains of spring that afternoon. We were all tired, cranky and bewildered and wished we were back in the middle of Death Valley where it was dry and hot. Jay reminded us that we would soon have our wish as we would have to drive back through it when we headed home!

We celebrated Jay’s world record victory that night with another family and other running friends. It was a short-lived event as we were all extremely tired and were anxious to get some sleep. That night I sat looking up at the moonlit sky and reflected on our trip. The only great challenge remaining was to make it back to Florida in “the bomb.”

Anyone can have an adventure. Whether it consists of a vacation to a new place, a walk through the city, window-shopping or surfing the Internet. Whatever you decide, don’t just dream it, do it! Anything can be achieved with a little effort and a lot of determination. Don’t look at life as having “stumbling blocks” but rather “stepping stones.” Do not confine yourself with being too young or too old to try something. Let the world, and all it has to offer, be yours to explore, digest and enable you to grow old happily and without regret. If I were to die tomorrow, I can honestly say that I have led a full life and hope my children will do the same.


Al Arnold, 1977, First Ever Badwater to Mt. Whitney Finisher

Al Arnold, 1977, First Ever Badwater to Mt. Whitney Finisher

POL Magazine, Australia, July/August 1978 and Marathoner Magazine (predecessor to Runners World), premier issue, Spring 1978

Click any thumbnail, then scroll through with the arrows.

Click here for a PDF version of the POL Magazine story (much easier to read)

Click here for a PDF version of the Marathoner Magazine story

Click here for Al Arnold’s ongoing “Words of Wisdom”