At 14,000 feet on the side of Mount Whitney, Marshall Ulrich leaned over, putting one hand on his knee, using his ice axe as a cane. He could see down the steep, snow-filled chute they had just climbed, with Iceberg Lake looking small in the distance. The rock and snow path ahead looked daunting, as the icy 30 to 40 mile-per-hour wind stung his face. Looking up at his guide, Trevor Anthes, he saw doubt in his eyes. “It’s just a fuel issue,” Marsh assured him, “I’ll eat this Gu and drink some water, and I’ll be okay.” Trevor didn’t seem too sure.
At 69 years old, Marsh has faced challenges before. He reached the summit of Mount Everest from the northern Tibetan side when he was – what now felt – 52 years young. At 57, he ran across America in just over 52 days, averaging almost 60 miles per day. He climbed the Seven Summits and many other peaks around the world. As a member of Team Stray Dogs, he competed in all ten Eco-Challenge adventure races as well as many other multi-day, multi-sport, over 300 mile events. He and a friend survived a self-supported, 400 plus mile circumnavigation of Death Valley National Park, in August. He completed the Badwater ultramarathon 20 times, always going the complete 146 miles to the summit of Whitney, and last year he completed his 30th crossing of Death Valley (DV), in July or August, 30 years after his first race, an event he called the DV 30/30.
This was different. This was his second crossing from the minus 282-foot Badwater basin to the14,508-foot summit of Whitney – the lowest to highest points in the lower 48 states – in just six months, the latter part of a new effort he dubbed Fire and Ice; a January or February crossing, including a winter ascent of Whitney via the Mountaineer’s Route. And, this one was for Mace.
In 2018, at the age of 64, fellow Stray Dog Mark Macy (Mace) was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. Now, the Alzheimer’s Association is conducting a huge fundraising effort called “The Longest Day” – and Team Macy Endure, led by Mace and his wife Pam, are raising money to help advance the care, support, and research efforts of the Association to help the millions of people around the world who suffer with dementia. Marsh signed on, using his Winter Badwater, as his own way to support Mace’s fight against Alzheimer’s.
The idea for a winter attempt was born when Marsh asked his daughter Ali (Dowd) if she would ever consider doing a crossing. Ali was out in the desert again, in July, crewing – stopping at least every mile along the route to provide water, ice hats and bandanas, cooling water spray, electrolytes, food, and anything else he needed – for her dad. “I don’t know. Maybe. But I would have to stop and sleep. And it would have to be in the winter.” Yep, Marsh thought, “Fire and Ice. Why hasn’t anyone thought of doing a Winter Badwater before?”
Marsh had started at Badwater at 7:59 AM on February 21, 2021, “planning” to walk the over 130 miles across the desert in about 48 hours, crossing Death Valley and reaching landmarks like Furnace Creek, Stovepipe Wells, Towne Pass, Panamint Valley, Father Crowley Vista, Darwin, Owens Valley, Keeler, Lone Pine, and the Whitney Portal Road along the way. Then take two days to reach the Whitney summit, with another day to descend.
The desert, the mountain, and his body, had different ideas.
Things started out smoothly. Marsh was walking four-miles-per-hour and was enjoying the cool temperatures. It was only about 70 degrees, compared to over 120 last August! On the top of Towne Pass in the middle of the night it was about 26 degrees, not over 100. His wife, Heather, and Stray Dog Dr. Bob Haugh – who were pulling crew duty again, just as they had many times before, including for the Fire crossing last August – appreciated how pleasant it was to enjoy the desert outside the van, and not having the (they now realized) ever-present worry about Marsh wilting in extreme heat during a summer crossing.
After 70 miles, as Marsh approached Panamint, Heather and Dr. Bob were distraught when they saw Marsh badly tilted to his right. They’d both seen it before; the dreaded Badwater Lean. But they’d never seen it in Marsh. The horrendous physical deformity was more than she took take, and Heather actually started crying as she hugged him. Something she never did during an event, keeping her feelings private so he could focus only on his efforts, not her concerns. Heather massaged his back, with no luck. At Panamint Springs Resort they were able to call their friend and master massage therapist Cinder Wolff, who told them it was his psoas muscle in his abdomen/groin. They tried the painful treatment Cinder described, several times, as well as other desperate measures, but Marsh was only able to stagger three miles up Crowley’s when Heather said it was time to fall back and regroup.
If it had been anyone but Marsh, Dr. Bob and Heather may have surrendered. But, they’d seen Marsh come back from the seeming-dead before. Like Mace always says, “Never quit.” It took a 20 hour break, continued and different treatments, and rest before Marsh could get back on the road.
So, almost two full days after he began, Marsh starting walking, very gingerly, at the point where he had stopped, with another 56 miles to go. He felt like he was learning to walk again, with Heather right behind him for several miles ensuring he stayed straight up. Thankfully, he did! The team moved forward and, after stopping to eat a cheeseburger and some chili cheese fries in Lone Pine, Marsh started up the Portal Road. It was incredibly quiet. No other cars or people on the road. The waxing moon lit up the snow-covered Sierras (something they had never seen!), with Orion standing guard right over the summit of Whitney. Just before 1 AM on February 24th Marsh reached his 131-mile benchmark just above the Portal Road closure gate at about 7,000 feet. All was well with the world. Except Mace still had Alzheimer’s.
Marsh and Dr. Bob started their ascent of Mount Whitney, with Trevor from Sierra Mountaineering International (SMI), the morning of February 25 with the “plan” of three days on the mountain, including a day for the descent. But the mountain had other ideas.
Marsh started walking up the Portal Road, meeting Trevor and Dr. Bob just below the Whitney Campground at approximately 8,375 feet. Hoisting their 45 pound packs (Trevor’s was likely closer to 60!) they walked on foot until the North Fork cutoff, where they had to put on snow shoes. The gulley was steep (ascent) and deep (snow)! They covered the 2.5 miles to Lower Boy Scout Lake at 10,350 feet in just over 5 hours. Marsh said, “It was hard.” He never exaggerates or embellishes, so it must have been really difficult! Challenging enough that Trevor convinced them to add another day to the expedition. So, on the 26th they only went about a mile to Upper Boy Scout Lake at 11,300 feet, leaving over 3,000 feet over less than two miles for the summit push.
On the morning of the 27ththey started out with crampons, ropes, harnesses, helmets, and ice axes. Dr. Bob turned around early-on to return to camp as he felt he would hold Marsh back. As always, the Stray Dogs do what’s best for their teammates. The steep climb up gulley to the Notch at about 14,000 feet took a lot out of Marsh, forcing him to lean over to rest. Looking up at Trevor, he realized that any and all physical challenges he was facing are nothing compared to what Mace and his family, and all of those affected by Alzheimer’s, face each and every day.
- Marsh chose this challenge; Mace did not choose to have early-onset Alzheimer’s.
- Marsh beat up his body, causing the painful, body-bending issue with his psoas muscle; Mace did not choose to start having difficulty getting dressed every day.
- Marsh decided to walk 131 miles across the desert before climbing Whitney in the winter; Mace did not want to have to stop driving almost two years ago, nor did he want to sell his travel trailer that he and Pam planned to use extensively in his retirement.
- Marsh made plans to carry a +40 pound pack on snow shoes, and use crampons and an ice axe, to climb the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states; Mace didn’t plan to have an increasingly difficult time remembering words or the names of people he’s only recently met.
- While Marsh could choose to stop now, and turn back before reaching the summit, Mace couldn’t choose to leave Alzheimer’s behind. At least, not yet; that’s why they were raising funds to help Mace’s “Alzheimer’s brother and sisters” and, one day, find a cure.
Marsh could hear Mace in his head, telling him, “It’s all good mental training. Never quit.” Meanwhile, Trevor was reminding him that they also had to be able to descend, something Marsh knew: getting to the summit of any mountain means you’re only half-done; summiting is optional, returning home is required. “I’ll get stronger on the descent,” Marsh assured Trevor. Not having seen Marsh return from the seeming-dead before, Trevor still decided to trust his client.
At 11:42 AM on February 27th, Marshall Ulrich stood on the summit of Mount Whitney. The first ever Winter Badwater! It had taken 6 days, 3 hours, and 43 minutes (two days longer than “planned”) but Marsh didn’t set out to establish a speed record, but rather to prove that it could be done. And, he’d done it!
His first call was to Mace. If you’ve watched the 10-part series “World’s Toughest Race: Eco-Challenge Fiji” on Amazon Prime Video, you have an idea how connected the Stray Dogs are. You understand how Marsh could tell Mace, “Man, you look like s#%*,” and know it’s one of the most loving, enduring things an athlete can tell his teammate. Their bond, forged in suffering and challenges, is unbreakable.
Marsh is grateful for all that he can still do at 69, and his heart breaks watching what Mace can no longer do. But, his heart swells with love and pride seeing that “Mace is still Mace” – which means Mace is still doing for others. Heck, he donated a kidney to complete stranger! When they’re out on the trails and someone recognizes Mace from the Eco-Challenge series, Mace always asks them how they are doing, what their story is. When Marsh and Mace get to the top of Evergreen Mountain, a place Mace has been thousands of times, they often walk over to “Bob’s Rock” to call Dr. Bob to check in and catch up. Mace faces his disease with humor and grace. If you ask him how he’s doing, he gets that Macy grin and kind of laughs when he says, “Well . . . not too bad for an old guy with Alzheimer’s.” Mace is only 67.
If you’d like to donate to join the fight against Alzheimer’s, in honor of Mace, visit Marshall Ulrich’s “The Longest Day” fundraising page at http://act.alz.org/goto/MarshforMace.
To read more about the first ever Winter Badwater go to Marshall’s blog https://marshallulrich.com/blog/.