Tommy Durso - One Day On The Mount Whitney Trail

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hi my name is Tommy Durso and my favorite thing in life is going out into nature, camping and hiking as much as I can.

I’m not a brand ambassador or sponsored athlete, just a college student who spends all his free time on the trail. I’m in my last semester at San Diego State University and have lived my whole life here in San Diego. My adventures started in elementary school when my dad, brother, and I joined the YMCA Indian Guides.

Trail up to Mount Whitney
Trail up to Mount Whitney

We went on a few trips a year, camping in the mountains, deserts, and beaches, which really sparked my love for the outdoors. Team sports like football and lacrosse consumed most of my time as I grew older but once I graduated from high school, leaving those sports behind left me with somewhat of a void in my life.

After a few camping trips to the local Cuymaca and Laguna mountains, I remembered just how much I loved being outside and I started spending all my free time hiking with my dog or out camping with friends. 

Summit of Mount Whitney
Summit of Mount Whitney

The more time I spent outdoors the more I wanted to explore new areas like the mountains around Big Bear and eventually the great Sierra Nevada. My first trip to the Sierra was to a quiet area called Coyote Flats, which takes about 2 hours of offroading to get to. Seeing giant herds of deer, hearing coyotes howl all night, and only seeing one other person all weekend really got me hooked.

Kearsarge Pass
Kearsarge Pass

The beauty of nature was on full display and that mixed with complete solitude made me want to come back as often as I could. I’ve now been on at least a dozen camping and backpacking trips to the Sierra Nevada, sometimes with just my dog or by myself and sometimes bringing friends along for the ride. While there’s a lot of places I love camping and exploring, the Sierra Nevada is my go to place and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what there is to do there. 

Cucamonga Peak
Cucamonga Peak

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

Hiking to the 14,505 ft. summit of Mount Whitney in just one day is still my greatest accomplishment as a hiker. At 22 miles round trip with over 6,000 feet of elevation gain, the hike to the highest peak in the contiguous United States is one tough adventure.

I did a lot of training hikes and had hiked at high elevations before but I knew nothing could truly prepare me for the trek that laid before me.

In early August 2017, we got to Whitney Portal a few days before the hike to help acclimate and do some extra training hikes before the big day. As prepared as I was, I was still very nervous to spend that much time on the trail and wasn’t sure if I should really be doing it.

Regardless, my friends kept my head high as we sat around the campfire the night before the hike, eating as much mac and cheese as we could in preparation for the next days adventure. 

The beauty of nature was on full display and that mixed with complete solitude made me want to come back as often as I could.

Just after sunrise we started at the trailhead, making good time with the switchbacks and numerous, roaring creek crossings in the first few miles of the trail. As we kept going, gaining elevation the whole time, the scenery changed dramatically with every thousand feet or so.

We kept a decent pace through the first six miles of the trail but got slogged down once we hit the 99 switchbacks. Arguably the toughest part of the trail, it’s a mix of switchbacks and steep stair steps that bring you up to Trail Crest at 13,600 ft.

Legs burning with each step, we weren’t even talking much at this point, focusing all our energy on getting to the top.

From Trail Crest to the summit is only two miles and 900 feet of elevation gain but it’s where the altitude really affects your breathing. Each breath felt like half of what is usually is which is straining physically but also messes with you mentally.

It opened my eyes to what I can actually accomplish and to this day reminds that when I put my mind to something and I really want to make it happen, it will.

More than a few times I had to stop to catch my breath and make sure I still had enough in me to keep going. Our pace had slowed considerably on this last stretch to the summit, but knowing it was right around the corner kept our spirits high.

With the summit hut in sight we pushed on and were able to reach the top after roughly seven hours of hiking. We were beyond stoked to reach the top, opening our much deserved summit beers and taking in the 360 degree view from 14,505 feet.

With the hardest part behind us we were relieved, but also knew it wouldn’t be easy getting back down. The 99 switchbacks were even tough on the way down but dropping elevation made it easier to breath and made us yearn to be back at camp, motivating us to keep going. The second best feeling that day, besides making it to the top, was finally making it back down, getting to eat some real food and pass out in my tent.

The day before the big hike I was doubting myself and at times didn’t even want to do it because it seemed like such a daunting task. Looking back though it made me realize something big that still sticks with me today: I’ve never been held back because I physically can’t do something, but rather because I told myself I can’t do it. It opened my eyes to what I can actually accomplish and to this day reminds that when I put my mind to something and I really want to make it happen, it will.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

Hiking and backpacking has taught me a lot about myself, both mentally and physically. I’ve found that everyone has their limits, but you have to push yourself and reach those limits to find out where they are.

I remember a few years ago when I first got into backpacking, my dad asked why I like putting myself through so much just to camp at some remote location. Trying to answer his question made me realize, among other things, that part of the allure for me was pushing my limits and really finding out how much I can take.

Through doing this, I also found out that your limits are usually way past what you initially think they are. Climbing Mount Whitney in a day really showed me that and many other tough adventures since then have driven home that point. 

While it’s good to push your limits and continually try to better yourself, I’ve learned to do so in the safest way possible. Even if your friends are trying to convince you to keep going or you just want to keep pushing, it’s best to listen to your body and know when enough is enough.

“The mountain will always be there” is a saying I remind myself all the time because it can be hard to turn around before reaching your goal, but you can always go back and have a second chance at it.

There’s no point in pushing yourself so much that you won’t make it back to the trailhead. I’ve had to turn around from summits just a half mile from the top but I’m always glad I did because I know it’s the smart thing to do. It can be discouraging at the time but it always ends up being motivation for me while I’m training for my next adventure.

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

My tent is my favorite piece of gear that I bring with me on every trip I go on. The first thing I do whenever I get to camp is set up my tent and sleeping bag and I know the fun can start after that. Whether I’m backpacking or car camping, I love sleeping in my bright orange tent because it always feels like my little home away from home.

It’s a Marmot Tungsten 2p and has kept me warm and dry for many nights over the last few years. I chose a 2 person backpacking tent because it can easily fit me and my dog Dennis during our many trips but is also big enough to share with my brother or a friend on cold winter nights. It’s so easy to set up and take down that I actually look forward to doing so when I get out to camp. Dennis is a pit bull german shepard mix so he’s not a small dog, the extra space makes camping with him a lot easier. 

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

When you’re first starting out its best to start small and work your way up to the bigger and longer hikes. Beginning with too lofty of goals can leave you discouraged when you aren't meeting them fast enough or at all.

Instead, start with small goals that you are comfortable with and that you know you can smash, building both confidence and endurance along the way.  Whether that’s a mile or two hike or just a stroll around the local lake, stay consistent with it and you will see yourself improving everyday.

Before you know it, a ten or fifteen mile day won’t seem so tough and the peaks around you will all seem very achievable.

Regardless of what your plan is, it’s easy to get discouraged when you aren’t improving as fast as you’d like or keep getting held back by certain things in life. For me, it always helps to think in terms of a longer plan instead of getting so caught up in what's happening right now.

Injuries have been held me back a lot and have made me rethink my outdoor goals many times, but thats when I’m just thinking in the short term. Thinking about my plans for next season or next year helps to put into perspective what I really want to achieve and not worry so much about what is currently holding me back.

One thing to always remember about getting outdoors and going on adventures is that you can constantly be learning from those experiences. Whenever I set out to do something; summit a peak, hike a certain amount of miles, or whatever that day’s goal is, I remind myself that I only fail if I don’t learn something along the way.

I may not reach the summit or my mileage goal but that doesn’t mean I have completely failed. You either learn something about yourself, learn new, more efficient techniques, or just learn how to handle certain situations better. 

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

Books have always been one of my biggest influences when it comes to hiking and the outdoors. Jon Krakeur’s Into the Wild was one of the first books I read about the subject and I always recommend it to anyone that hasn’t read it. Because it was adapted to a movie, many people know the story of Christopher McCandless leaving his family and wealthy life behind to pursue a reckless adventure across the country.

Although he ends up dying alone in a camp in the Alaskan wilderness, it is a story that encouraged me to get out more and pursue the life I really want instead of just doing what those around me expect me to do.

A Walk Across America is also a book that inspired me to get out more and spend more of my time backpacking. Peter Jenkins recounts his time walking across the country with his dog and eventually a girl who he meets and falls in love with along the way. He finds purpose in life during his walk and it made me think that backpacking can do the same for me. Spending more and more time on the trail really has helped me put into perspective what is important to me and what I should really be spending my time on. Reading this also made me realize there's a lot more out there that I have yet to see and motivated me to explore new areas.

Where’s your next adventure?

My Next big adventure is actually a series of hikes known as the Southern California 6-pack of Peaks challenge. The goal is to summit Mount Wilson, Cucamonga Peak, Mount San Antonio, San Bernardino Peak, Mount San Jacinto, and San Bernardino Peak all in the same year. To make it even more of a challenge however, I’m going to try and do them all winter/spring months when the trails are still covered in lots of snow. I’ve hiked half of these peaks already but not in one year or when there’s any snow on the trail.

I’ve wanted to do this challenge for a while now as some people call it a rite of passage for Southern California hikers. Having hiked much higher peaks in the Sierra Nevada, it should be achievable, but adding the winter conditions to the mix will make it that much more of a challenge.

I’ve recently been getting more and more interested in snow and ice travel, using things like an ice axe, crampons, or snowshoes and hiking these peaks will really help me learn how to use these tools effectively.

Doing this challenge in the winter will also help me get ready for one of my other big goals which is summiting Mount Whitey via the mountaineers route. This route was pioneered by John Muir as a more direct way to the summit that involves a lot of scrambling in the high country. I’m looking forward to knocking out all these hikes/climbs in the coming year.

Where can others learn more about you?

My Instagram, @td.adventures, is where I post about all my adventures and I always keep it very updated. I also love helping people out with questions on there.

Whether it’s about trails, places to camp, or tech questions about gear (I’m a little bit of a gearhead) I answer everything I can so feel free to DM whenever you have a question.

If you're not the social media type, you can always catch me on the trail in the Sierra or in the San Diego backcountry.

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