Hotfooting by Snowshoe : Outdoors: 2 men conquer Death Valley's treacherous salt bogs with odd footgear, then ascend Mt. Whitney.


Two Antelope Valley men have succeeded in a pioneering attempt to cross Death Valley's blazing hot salt bogs in snowshoes during a trek from the lowest point in the contiguous United States to the highest.

Outdoorsmen Lee Bergthold and Jerry Freeman used snowshoes to cross the eight miles of salt bogs during a grueling 14-day hike from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, said Chief Ranger Dale Antonich of the Death Valley National Monument. Bergthold and Freeman completed the journey a week ago, five days behind schedule.

U. S. Forest Service rangers said Friday that they will begin using snowshoes for rescues in the Death Valley salt bogs. Previously hikers have died, been rescued or turned back from the bogs, which have a treacherously thin crust above quicksand-like salt brine.

"They showed us it could be done," said Antonich, who joked in a telephone interview that Bergthold and Freeman had served as guinea pigs. "We figured it would work. We have snowshoes here, but we didn't have any we wanted to try out."

Bergthold, 54, a survival instructor at Antelope Valley College, and Freeman, 47, a self-employed businessman, spent the week resting and relishing their success. The 125 miles hit them with extreme heat and cold, dehydration, minor injuries and rough terrain. And a blizzard unexpectedly turned the climactic Mt. Whitney climb into an ordeal.

"We were worried about the salt bogs," said Freeman, who sprained a hand while climbing a rock face. "Mt. Whitney should have been reasonably easy."

Others have made the Death Valley-Mt. Whitney hike, but Bergthold and Freeman wanted to be the first trekkers to cross the salt bogs. They believed that snowshoes would allow them to slide across the delicate surface without breaking through. They were right.

Antonich said rangers will follow their lead during rescues. "That's the only reason we go out there," he said. "It's not like we do a lot of pleasure hikes out there."

After the salt bogs, temperatures of 110 degrees made eight days of desert walking an inferno, Bergthold and Freeman said. Dehydration and almost impassable canyons put them behind schedule.

"It was some of the hairiest climbing I've ever done," Bergthold said. "And the lack of water was a problem. Jerry had cotton mouth so bad his mouth was hinging shut."

Freeman's brother furnished the men with water and winter gear at Keeler, the beginning of the mountain leg. During the ascent of 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney, a sudden blizzard "nearly blew us off the mountain," Freeman said.

The expected two-day climb took four days, according to rangers who tracked the pair's progress. Bergthold and Freeman spent a triumphant night at the top of Mt. Whitney in a meteorological hut, with temperatures outside dropping to 50 below with the wind chill.

Bergthold said: "We were tired, haggard and we lost weight. But we felt we were in darn good condition after all the work we'd done" during the 14-day odyssey.

Officials at the Lancaster Museum and Art Gallery have tentative plans to feature Bergthold's photos of the trip when the museum schedule permits, probably in 1991. Bergthold and Freeman hope that the exhibit will also feature their gear--particularly the snowshoes.

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