Miles to Nowhere: Hiking Death Valley

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Tough Exterior

With an average of 15 daylight hours every day, summer is the perfect time to take your training outdoors and try new things. It’s ideal for trail running, hiking, rock climbing, sailing and mountain biking. Plus, outdoor exercise can fire your body up to recruit muscles you didn’t know you had, leading to new muscle growth.

And what girl doesn’t like a guy with a tough side? Take Bear Grylls, for example, who munches grubs on camera with their guts spewing wide angle, and college girls and cougars alike go crazy over him. Earn your wilderness cred (not to mention your six-pack) and you might have the same pull as Grylls come summer.  

No Idea If It Could Be Done

Thomas Coyne could take your girl for that exact reason. As a wilderness skills expert, founder of the Survival Training School of California, and former lead rescue Wildlands firefighter, he’s tested the limits of his physical and mental threshold—and passed with flying colors.

Last fall, he trekked 135 miles starting at the hotter-than-hell Badwater Basin of Death Valley (with the highest recorded temperature of 130 degrees) and ending at the top of Mount Whitney, 14,505 feet above sea level. He brought no food, water, lighter, matches, sleeping bag, or tent—just a 7-inch blade knife and a sun hat. Extreme? Absolutely. Find out how he did it, then strap your boots on to hit the largest gym around: the great outdoors.

NEXT: Our interview with Thomas Coyne >>

Death Valley

Tell us about that 135-mile Badwater Walkabout.
The walkabout took eight days. People thought I was a little crazy. And I had no idea if I could do it or if it could be done; my reputation was on the line. There was one spot where 40 miles separated me from the next water hole in the Death Valley area to the 395 junction. So I just applied the techniques that I’ve used on a small scale, testing them to see whether I was a true desert survival expert.

Quite a self-test, isn’t it?
Yeah, wilderness survival to me is not some fun gimmick. It’s a life-saving science. I planned my moves around the water points during the daytime, and I slept and ate when it was hottest. I actually learned a hard lesson on that trip, one night at 2:30 in the morning… I was down to only my unripened dates that were basically semi-ripened that I’d harvested from a palm. And dates are pretty astringent. They were making my mouth really dry, but I was chewing on small pieces. It was a bad idea. 30 minutes later I got dropped to my knees and violently ill, dry heaving. I didn’t know what was going to happen. Alone in the desert and I’m throwing up on my knees.

Thomas CoyneIt must get lonely, though, too, so what was it that kept you going?
The striking beauty of that landscape really helped keep me going, and the stars at night. Endless. People completely underestimate Death Valley and Mosaic Canyon. It’s so strikingly beautiful. It really came down to extreme physical and mental fitness—specifically, cardiovascular fitness and my full-body approach to training. I have a weight resistance program and strength training. But cardio gets all your systems firing high—your heart, your lungs, your legs—to do those over-20-mile distance stretches in 110 to 120 degrees. If you can only do one thing, cardio is it. 

What other extreme situations have you put yourself in to test your limits?
I guess my 100-mile Hike for Survival across the Sierras was a bit of an “extreme situation.” I kind of freaked out, but only for the first six miles, so that left the other 94 up for grabs. Once you get 20–30 miles back there, you could say, “I quit,” but that doesn’t make a cheeseburger appear in your hands, and you don’t get beamed into town. So once you’re out there with no food, water, or shelter, you’re in a genuine survival situation right there. When I was out there we had a map and compass, but some of the trails no longer existed. So, essentially, we were like free climbers and we’d have to go traversing down pass after pass, trying to find our way to the next trailhead. 

That’s the trek you did with a female stunt double, right? Sounds like good company to me.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I did. She wanted to come along for that trip. She was interested in getting into survival and adventure shows. She did our course and thought that participating in our first survival expedition would be a good way to help her survival career.  

So what’s next?
Next is 200-plus miles through the Peruvian Amazon with nothing but a knife and a water filter. I have always wanted to do something people thought was impossible, and finally I think I’m doing it. Also, people know that they can trust my word now. They know I am the real deal and I am passing the real deal onto them.

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