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As most people try to escape the heat, 'heat chasers' seek high temps in Death Valley

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

First, we're going to hear about one place that's attracting visitors for that extreme weather. As Matt Guilhem of member station KCRW reports, there are some people who flock to California's Death Valley at this time of year just to feel the upper limits of extreme heat.

MATT GUILHEM, BYLINE: On Sunday afternoon, the Furnace Creek Visitor Center is buzzing with activity. People are outside, crowded around what's arguably one of the most famous and photographed thermometers on the planet. There's a chance that today could be one of the hottest in the park. With forecasters saying 131 is possible, John and Suzanne Oakes made a point to be here when there was a shot at a new record.

SUZANNE OAKES: A week ago, we decided, let's make this vacation happen. We packed everything, with lots of water - 4 gallons of water - and it just so happens that we're here on the hottest day.

GUILHEM: And that's the appeal, says John Oakes.

JOHN OAKES: There's something singular about knowing you're at a place on Earth that is unique in some way. And today, it's the hottest place on earth and probably the hottest I'll ever be in my life.

GUILHEM: The Oakes are among the heat chasers who descend on Death Valley every summer to experience the park when it truly lives up to its name. Most everybody is here to feel the ambient blast furnace. But some, like Ulysse MacGarry, who's visiting from Paris, had...

ULYSSE MAC GARRY: No idea. If I knew, I would have come, on, like - on spring or not on summer. But I didn't know it was so hot.

GUILHEM: That said, he's rolling with it and maybe even enjoying it.

MAC GARRY: I'm sending photos to my friend, texting everybody. It's kind of a one time in a lifetime, so...

GUILHEM: As temps peaked in the afternoon at Furnace Creek, Mike Reynolds, the superintendent of the park, stood soaking wet by the famous, yet unofficial thermometer with a few other rangers.

MIKE REYNOLDS: We just ran a 5K when it hit 130.

GUILHEM: Sunday's official high actually wasn't that hot - just a balmy 128. It set a record for that day of the year, but not the big one. The fun run by the employees and some visitors pales in comparison to the annual race that took place in the park earlier in the month. The Badwater Ultramarathon pushes the human body to its limit as runners endure the stifling heat and traverse a 135-mile course. An ultramarathon in one of the hottest places in the world may be fun to some, but standing inside the blissfully air conditioned visitor center, park ranger Gia Ponce says the rest of us should heed the signs across the park that urge visitors to minimize exertion.

GIA PONCE: So some people - they hear the name Death Valley, and they definitely prepare and bring what they're supposed to - their water, their long layers and sun protection and all of that.

GUILHEM: Big hats, sunglasses, omnipresent water bottles. The crowd gently roasting outside looks ready for a high-exertion day of watching the thermometer. The group is collectively dazzled by each degree, and that's the allure, Ponce says.

PONCE: It draws people who are looking to say that they've been here. They're looking for bragging rights. It's a very human experience, you know, that we can endure these extremes.

GUILHEM: Death Valley's baseline in the summer is extreme. The average high in July is 118. But these potential record-breaking moments are on the upswing as the climate changes, says National Weather Service meteorologist Alex Tardy.

ALEX TARDY: So we're not waiting 10, 20 years. We're having them almost every year.

GUILHEM: While the heat dome that sent Furnace Creek into record territory on Sunday ebbs a bit, models call for surging temperatures again this weekend. That has the forecaster watching the forecast and keeping his schedule open for a quick drive to the park.

TARDY: I have definitely chased heat. I find it weird but very rewarding.

GUILHEM: Weird, rewarding - and the bragging rights are pretty cool.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Guilhem in Death Valley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt Guilhem is a native of the Inland Empire. After growing up in the region, he went north to Berkeley for university and earned a degree in English. Matt's passion for radio developed late; he hosted a program while abroad in 2011 and knew he had found his calling. Matt started at KVCR as an intern in 2013; he now serves as both a reporter and host for the station. You can hear him regularly most weekday afternoons on All Things Considered, occasionally filling in on Morning Edition, and filing news reports for both programs.
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