Former Vancouver athlete conquers Death Valley

Cameron Hummels, a 1996 Columbia River High School graduate, hiked from one end of Death Valley to the other, all alone, with no assistance, in four days.
Cameron Hummels, a 1996 Columbia River High School graduate, hiked from one end of Death Valley to the other, all alone, with no assistance, in four days.

A love for the outdoors that began in Clark County led Cameron Hummels to daring challenges in nature

Death Valley.

The name is not exactly subtle, huh?

Danger lurks in the desert, in the 100-degree temperatures, in one the planet’s most extreme environments.

Cameron Hummels is a 1996 graduate of Columbia River High School. Today, he is an astrophysicist who lives in California and pushes himself with extreme endurance challenges. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels
Cameron Hummels is a 1996 graduate of Columbia River High School. Today, he is an astrophysicist who lives in California and pushes himself with extreme endurance challenges. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels

Cameron Hummels, who grew up in Vancouver and credits his Northwest upbringing for his love of the outdoors, saw an opportunity.

Earlier this year, Cameron Hummels conquered Death Valley.

He hiked from the north end of the national park to the south, a little more than 170 miles, in less than four days.

He set out to make it in 96 hours, and he completed his mission in 95 hours, 54 minutes. 

He also did it with no assistance. Hummels wanted to top the previous best in what are now called Fastest Known Time competitions — athletes doing something inspiring (or crazy) in the fastest times ever recorded. 

FKT rules for this Death Valley excursion? No trails. No roads. No caches. No assistance. And no contact with anyone. One must carry all of his gear. One must feel like the only person on the planet.

The previous best time for this excursion was seven days. So Hummels is the new world record holder of sorts. At least, he has the fastest known time ever recorded.

“It’s a world record in something that nobody else wants to do. I joke that it’s like a world record for eating garbage. Not many people want to eat garbage,” Hummels said. “Does anyone really want to go as quickly as they can through this horrible environment of the hot, dry Death Valley landscape? No. I just have to take it with a grain of salt and not take myself too seriously for setting this arbitrary record.”

He added that it is a “silly accomplishment” and he is pretty much the only person who cares about it. 

“That’s fine with me,” he said.

Actually, there are many people who care, many who are interested in watching human beings test their limits. 

Hummels, who lives and works in Pasadena, has received a lot of media attention in Southern California, with numerous television interviews and a profile in the Los Angeles Times.

To Hummels, that is just a bonus. His prize, his reward to himself, was simply finishing the hike.

“Our efforts should be driven internally as opposed to externally,” he said. “I thought it was a totally crazy … kind of fun sort of effort. It meant something to me. That’s why I did it. It’s cool that other people think it’s kind of interesting and kind of crazy that I did that, but ultimately … it’s our own goals that we set and challenges that we set for ourselves.”

Hummels grew up in Vancouver, graduating from Columbia River High School in 1996. He was on the cross country team and played a lot of soccer. His pursuit of education took him to California, Connecticut, New York, Arizona, and back to California. Today, he is a computational astrophysicist working at Cal Tech University. (If you are into television sit-coms, think Big Bang Theory.) 

Hummels prefers the movie character Luke Skywalker. That’s what he called himself on Strava, another social media platform that runners, hikers, and other fitness enthusiasts use to track their progress.

In his younger years, Hummels was a Boy Scout, enjoying all things outside. He realized early as an athlete that he appreciated running in the outdoors more than on the road or on a track.

“In general, people growing up in the Northwest have a different appreciation for outdoor spaces than people who grew up in other parts of the country,” he said.

Over the past 10 years or so, he has dived into trail running. He can get away from it all quicker, to find the “real cool views,” to be even more isolated. 

“The seeds were planted when I was growing up in the Northwest but really embraced that in the last decade or so,” he said.

In 2019, he hiked the Pacific Coast Trail, going from Canada to Mexico. The journey was spectacular, and he also learned a lot about his abilities to hike with a light pack.

When he read about the Death Valley challenge, and the Fastest Known Time, it became a priority.

He called Death Valley a “weird and wild place” with the hottest temperature recorded on earth, and one of the driest in the world. He goes to Death Valley a few times a year to hike around and explore. When he read that someone hiked from one end to the other, alone, in seven or eight days, he knew he could beat that mark.

Cameron Hummels took several photos during his journey through Death Valley National Park in four days. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels
Cameron Hummels took several photos during his journey through Death Valley National Park in four days. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels

The key was water. 

The first hikers who accomplished the feat brought all of their own water, hauled it on their backs. Hummels figured if he could use what little water was in the desert, he wouldn’t have to carry a huge pack.

In his research, he used satellite images to find water sources throughout the route, and figured he could use filters to make the water safe to drink. (Interestingly, he was going to try the Death Valley hike in 2021 but got sick while testing his filters. The water from the springs can contain such matter as arsenic.) After using filters and chemicals to make the water safe, he was confident he could go for it in 2022.

On Valentine’s Day, he started on the north end of Death Valley. With a light pack. The most water he carried with him was 5 liters. He’d fill up every 40 miles or so at the sources that he found. He would drink a bunch while resting near a water source. Then fill up his containers for the next 40 miles or so. He called it “cammeling up,” like a camel in the desert.

Cameron Hummels took a selfie during a break as he hiked Death Valley in four days. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels
Cameron Hummels took a selfie during a break as he hiked Death Valley in four days. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels

On the second day, he found himself in the middle of a wind storm. He said it looked like a scene from the movie The Mummy.

He proceeded. He took pictures along the way. Some with his Luke Skywalker Lego that he carried with him. At times, Death Valley can look a lot like Luke’s home planet of Tatooine.

Hummels’ GPS device recorded his movements. He needed that to work in order to provide evidence of his journey.

Every hour, it seemed, got more difficult. He suffered from blisters. Nausea. He acknowledged after Day 3 that he was not sure he was going to make it.

It was 100 degrees during the day and close to freezing at night.  

“All of these things take a toll on your body and on your mind,” Hummels said.

Day 4 was a 24-hour push to the end. No sleep. Just go.

That is when the hallucinations started.

“When I think of hallucinations, I just think of visual hallucinations. You start seeing figments of your imagination pop up. Which did happen. But I would hear things that weren’t happening,” Hummels said.

Coyotes that weren’t there were there in his mind. Sometimes he thought he saw people looking at him from a distance. As he got closer, he realized those were just rocks.

What really befuddled him, though … the sounds. 

“It’s 2 a.m. in the middle of Death Valley, there can’t be a person within 25 miles of me in any direction. It should be dead silent,” he explained. “But the noise that I would hear constantly was as though there was someone behind me standing there with a leaf blower. I hate the sound of leaf blowers. Yet this was constantly in my ear. ‘What is going on with your brain, Cameron? Are you going crazy?’ For about 12 hours, I had this leaf blower in my head.”

Cameron Hummels described Death Valley as wild, weird, and of course, beautiful. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels
Cameron Hummels described Death Valley as wild, weird, and of course, beautiful. Photo courtesy Cameron Hummels

As he made his way to his destination, Hummels had to hurry. He actually willed himself to start running. 

Now keep in mind, the old record was around seven days. He could have done this in five days or six and he still would have recorded the Fastest Known Time. But Hummels told himself he could do it in four days. 

Yeah, he might be a bit competitive.

“I got there six minutes before my admittedly, totally arbitrary goal of four days,” he said.

An incredible achievement, of man conquering nature and time. An event worthy of fanfare, correct?

“It’s not like there is a finish line you cross and everyone’s … cheering your name,” Hummels said. 

Instead, he took a nap in a car with air conditioning turned all the way up. He drove to a nearby hotel.

“I bought an extra large pizza, and I ate it all, and then I slept for 14 hours straight in the hotel room. That was my celebration,” he said. “That was a glorious extra large pizza.”

His reports from his trip, with more detail of his struggles and triumphs, along with his GPS data and photos, can be found via the Fastest Known Time website, with links to Strava:  https://fastestknowntime.com/fkt/cameron-hummels-death-valley-n-s-crossing-ca-2022-02-18

“I’m proud that I was able to get through that. It was a lot of suffering. It was challenging,” Hummels said. “Now I’ve just moved on to making other plans for other kinds of adventures.”

A few weeks ago, in fact, he ran across the Grand Canyon. No big deal, right?

He is considering a backpacking trip across Iceland. Glaciers are a new challenge. 

No matter where he goes, and how fast he goes, he will always appreciate where this love for adventure started. He has not lived in the Northwest since he left for college, but he has a lot of fond memories.

“Growing up in Vancouver and Clark County, we have such an amazing gift in terms of the landscape around us and the opportunities to see the best and most beautiful countryside in the world,” Hummels said. 

“Having the opportunity to hike on trails and learn those skills young as a Boy Scout … I was really very lucky to have grown in such an environment and with a community that fostered those interests. I’m happy to continue to apply some of the skills I learned in Troop 343 to a broader scope of trails.”

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Dave Roberts
Dave Roberts
4 months ago

Wowza. Amazing what the human mind and body can accomplish when pushed and accompanied with training and planning. Good article 😊🤠

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