Safety: Survival Expert Successfully Crosses Death Valley In Summer

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 16 September 2011

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 Above: Thomas shows us his pack and gear before departing Badwater Basin at Sunset.


The Trip 

Thomas Coyne just hiked from Badwater Basin at the bottom of Death Valley to the top of Mount Whitney during mid-Summer. 

This route goes from the lowest point in the US in Death Valley to the highest point in the US at the top of Mount Whitney.

Death Valley is most enjoyable during Winter and early Spring. Death Valley is hell during Summertime... Climbing Mount Whitney is always challenging. The steepness of the climb up Mount Whitney is harshly complimented by the effects of its altitude. Adding the one to the other is a pretty good definition of epic. It gets harder yet.

  Thomas did not pack any food or water. Thomas completed his epic voyage using only natural resources he could find to eat and drink along the route. This hike would be hard fully supplied with food and water.        

Thomas' trip was an incredible feat, and much more.  No, Thomas is not crazy. He's good. Let's take a look at Thomas and his trip.


Thomas is a survival expert and instructor. We can learn alot about his natural survival technics and watch experience in action on the series of videos Thomas made during the trip, as well as through his survival school,  Survival Training School of California .

These videos are most interesting and informative. And I imagine were very painful to make for Thomas, as well as very rewarding.

I expect that Thomas suffered regularly and deeply during this journey. The long stretches between "supplies," and the oven-like terrain in very low calorie conditions indicate to me that there are a few survival issues that Thomas did not discuss.

I expect that Thomas is not just experienced and knowledgable, but he is also in top physical condition. Along with excellent conditioning comes a high degree of metabolic efficiency, and the capacity to suffer for extended periods of time while performing hard work.


Not quite my style. I am a long distance backpacker. We don't have to chase pain. It is our trailmate. As a long distance backpacker I feel obligated to assure I have proper supplies. But Thomas' approach and information is especially valuable to backpackers. Sometimes trips just don't work out like we backpackers planned them, and we end up in a situation like Thomas'.

Thomas' approach, knowledge, and experience are valuable to all backcountry travelers. Each will enrich your ability to successfully engage nature.


Proper supplies do not just fend off hunger, but fend off the pain and fatigue that hunger brings. You may think that our style, as backpackers, is different than Thomas' approach.

True, but the average backpacker crossing the same terrain is only one disaster away from being put involuntarily into the survival situation that Thomas voluntarily put himself into.

Anyone who has lost their food to a bear, during a river crossing, or just plain screwed up their food planning knows the depth of pain and fatigue I'm talking about, and well-understands the gravity of Thomas' undertaking. The information and experience that made Thomas' epic voyage possible could save a backpacker during a disaster.

Information and knowledge about local terrain and wild life expands your safety, and enriches your trip, if not supplementing your diet.

The requirements of Thomas' trip were dictated by his understanding of the terrain and the distance between resources. Thomas' trip reminds me how important it is for backpackers to have a deep knowledge of the terrain. If you do not understand the parameters of the terrain and climate you cannot properly plan or prepare for a trip. 

Thomas' planned his trip for night travel between oasis, where he could find water and food, and protect himself against the daytime power of the sun.  Thomas' whole trip demonstrates that knowledge of the conditions will determine the level of experience and fitness we will need to deal with the conditions. This informed approach is vitally important to all backcountry travelers.

 Thomas's trip, his planning, and his execution of the trip were all based on more than just the terrain and conditions Thomas expected to encounter. Thomas' experience, knowledge, and fitness were carefully balanced against the demands of the terrain to create his incredibly ambitious trip plan.

Hanging within this balance of factors was Thomas's life.

Thomas uses this trip to give us insight into the common sense of the desert. Night travel. Proper gear for the sun. Understanding available resources. Besides revealing the common sense practices of desert travel, Thomas brings us much deeper, showing us how to locate the resources necessary to survive harsh desert and mountain conditions.

Quite a feat.

Thomas shows us that all backcountry travelers should approach trips with a clear understanding of the nature of the terrain and climate we are entering balanced against our level of fitness and experience. I have a much more extensive list of gear and food than Thomas'. Though the backpacker's approach is different that Thomas' survival-based approach, I believe they compliment each other.

Thomas made a very  interesting series of videos during this trip that are fascinating, informative, and just fun to watch. The videos are the "Badwater Walkabout" videos. The first few are at the top, but you have to dig down the list to find all the videos in the series.

Check out a written news report of Thomas' trip too:

Survival Expert Successfully Crosses Death Valley In Summer
Brings No Food Or Water
, YubaNet, Sept 15, 2011.

Lessons for Backpackers

Those of us who are backpackers should be fascinated with Thomas's deep observations, understanding, and engagement with the environment that made his feat possible.

Backpackers prefer to carry high calorie food rather than rely on natural resources and extreme physical effeciency. Nonetheless, Thomas' common sense advice, when linked to his naturalist and survival skills imparts very important information and principals which brings home to us all to the importance of understanding the nature of the terrain and climate we are traveling through.

Things go wrong. And when they do, you will be happy to have access to the depth of knowledge and experience that Thomas offers in his videos and through his school.

Send your congrats to Thomas, and check out his school.


Thomas Coyne is the modern founder of Survival Training School of California.


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