This Couple Created a New Thru-Hike in the Northwest

3 Jan

What if you could spend a full season hiking to more than a dozen hot springs, photographing petroglyphs, and camping in the most remote wilderness in the lower 48? Well, you can do all that and more, thanks to a new thru-hike created by Ras and Kathy Vaughan. 

Full-time adventurers, the Vaughans, married for 22 years, have made a habit of setting only known times where they establish never-before-recorded routes. They call themselves Team UltraPedestrian, and they named their new trail the UltraPedestrian (or UP) North Loop. The thru-hike combines parts of four established long trails to create a 2,600-mile loop through the best of the Northwest. 

The idea for the trail came about after the couple looked at a map of America’s long-distance trails and realized that there was a near complete loop in the upper-left corner of the country, created by the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Idaho Centennial, and Oregon Desert Trails. Longtime residents of Washington State, the Vaughans had hiked sections of the PCT and PNT before, but the Idaho and Oregon trails offered something fresh. “The Oregon Desert Trail and the Idaho Centennial Trail were both completely new territory,” Kathy, 52, said when I spoke with her and Ras, 47, about a month after they’d completed their 174-day journey.

They plotted the details of the UP North Loop for a year before embarking on the journey, spending more than 100 hours poring over official trail maps, satellite imagery, and GPS tracks. Ultimately, they created a purist GPS line to follow and shared it on their website

They decided to begin the hike on an isolated stretch of land between the Idaho Centennial and the Oregon Desert Trails. “The other three trails—the PCT, PNT, and ICT—all overlap each other, so it’s a seamless connection from one to the other,” Ras says. “But the Oregon Desert Trail just floats ... out there in between the ICT and the PCT.” 

hiking
(Courtesy Ras Vaughan)

To navigate this remote section, they relied on a track conceived of by thru-hiking triple crowner and Oregon Desert Trail coordinator Renee “She-Ra” Patrick, who had mapped the route using extensive research. The catch: neither she nor anyone else had actually hiked it before. Even on paper, the Vaughans knew it would be rough, requiring a 35-mile water carry between sources and a possible 200-mile food carry. (A friend ended up being able to drop a resupply for them midway.) Their first day on trail, Ras carried a 72-pound pack, primarily full of food and water, and struggled through tall sagebrush and dry, dusty heat waves. Monsoons hit them every afternoon like clockwork for nearly two weeks.

Not all of the Vaughans’ challenges have been of the human-versus-nature variety. In 2017, while attempting to complete another only known time by yo-yoing the Grand Enchantment Trail in the Southwest, Kathy started experiencing symptoms of high blood sugar and was later found to have Type 1 diabetes. The UP North Loop was the first major undertaking since her diagnosis and the longest thru-hike of her career. Steep climbs in Washington left her shaking and sweating as a result of low blood sugar. While high blood sugar was dangerous for her long-term health, anything too low could be instantly fatal. She learned to monitor how she felt and react accordingly, and she also traded in much of her dehydrated meals for heavier fresh ingredients from towns. She injected herself with insulin twice daily using alcohol swabs for sterility in a dusty tent. “Each time we changed the terrain we were in, or the climate changed or the elevation, my numbers would fluctuate again,” Kathy says. “It was a constant area that I needed to pay a lot of attention to.”

Of course, not every day was brutal. The couple spent hours soaking in natural hot springs in Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands and swimming in the Burgdorf Hot Springs in central Idaho. In Washington, Kathy said, the Goldmyer Hot Springs, near Snoqualmie Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail, were magical. “You actually step into a narrow cave in the top pool,” she says. “You feel like you’re in a womb.” They lodged with hunters near the Wilderness Gateway Campground in Idaho, staying in cozy canvas tents with wood stoves. A detour took them on a 55-mile walk along an abandoned railroad. “[It] turned out to be one of the most special sections of the hike,” Kathy says.

Their biggest disappointment happened in central Idaho after coming off the Lolo Trail. They’d intended to follow the Idaho Centennial Trail to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness through to the Frank Church–River of No Return Wilderness, the largest wilderness in the contiguous United States. But the area had been hit hard by snow, Kathy was out of blood-test strips, and their weather window for completing the circuit was running out. So instead they routed around the wilderness areas, completing the trip at lower elevations.

That means the purist line the Vaughans conceived of is still up for grabs, although they hope that people will take their route as a guideline and then make it better—linking more hot springs, passing by more petroglyphs, seeing even more remote wilderness. “It’s easy to get caught up with these artificial lines that we’ve drawn, whether it’s Washington or Oregon or Idaho,” Ras says. “But when you connect it all on foot, and you find these hot springs and lava flows, you realize that there’s this geological underpinning to the entire area.”

Though much of the loop is rugged and less than ideal from a scenic perspective—it includes at least 200 miles of road walking and several areas with limited water resources—Ras hopes the planned improvements on the Oregon Desert and Idaho Centennial Trails over the next handful of years will encourage people to try out the circuit. Kathy is hopeful it could off-load some of the traffic that the big three thru-hiking trails have seen in recent years. But mostly, they’re glad they had the opportunity to see their home region, one step at a time. “You don’t know what the American Northwest is really like until you do something like this,” Ras says.

Heather Anderson Completed a Calendar-Year Triple Crown

20 Nov

The Triple Crown is often considered the pinnacle of the thru-hiking world. To complete the feat, a person must hike the 2,190-mile Appalachian, 2,650-mile Pacific Crest, and 3,100-mile Continental Divide trails—a task that typically takes at least three years, with five or six months dedicated to each effort.

But for a select few, there is an even more impressive Triple Crown to be had: Hiking all three trails in a single year, a challenge that’s dubbed the Calendar-Year Triple Crown. At nearly 8,000 miles, you could hike across the U.S. from coast to coast twice with still a quarter of the trip left. On November 8, seasoned hiker Heather “Anish” Anderson became the sixth person, and the first woman, to claim this elite crown.

Anderson is a recognizable name among long-distance hikers. Before this trip, she’d already Triple Crowned twice, setting the overall self-supported Fastest Known Time (FKT) for the Pacific Crest Trail and the self-supported FKT for the Appalachian Trail. (A new FKT for the Appalachian Trail was set by Karel Sabbe in August, but Anderson still holds the women’s record.) After this season, Anderson is now the fastest woman to ever Triple Crown and the first woman to triple Triple Crown.  

“These trails have been really important in my life and in my hiking career,” Anderson says. To walk the three longest national scenic trails, one after the other, seemed like a good way to honor them on the 50th anniversary of the National Trail System Act, she says. 

The trip began on the Appalachian Trail at the southern terminus on March 1. But there was another surprise in store before her hike could really begin: her partner had a question for her. “He proposed on Springer Mountain right when we got to the top,” Anderson says.

Right after that, she started walking. First, north on the Appalachian Trail until May, exiting at the Connecticut River in New Hampshire. Then a couple of weeks on the CDT before starting the Pacific Crest Trail northbound on May 22, where she walked with her fiancé as he completed his first Triple Crown. After finishing the PCT in August, Anderson made her way back to the CDT, trekking south from the terminus in Glacier National Park to northern Colorado. Then in October, she went back to the Appalachian Trail to hike south from Maine to New Hampshire before her last miles through Colorado to a small, nondescript tree—chosen for its accessibility rather than its significance—in Grants, New Mexico.

The trip was not without its challenges. These national trails are full of pristine wilderness, yes—mountains that have been made famous by Ansel Adams and John Muir, alpine lakes, deep woods that break for huge vistas. They are also full of cow troughs from which Anderson needed to extract a day’s worth of water and miles of viewless summits and descents (which hikers call “PUDs”, for “pointless up and downs”).

But the real challenge was not the terrain or the distance, but having to hike in less-than-ideal weather windows. Spring and fall are hazardous seasons in the mountains. In Virginia, Anderson thought she could reach shelter before a storm hit, but instead was caught in icy rain, her clothing drenched before she could get her rain gear on. “I was trying to hike to stay warm but I wasn’t staying warm enough,” she says. She reached a campsite, but couldn’t get her stakes down in what she learned was an old road bed. She found another spot, but as she crawled inside, the tent flooded due to the slanted ground. By the time she finally reached a suitable sleeping area, her tent was completely soaked and the only thing dry in her kit was her sleeping bag. The rain turned to snow. She spent the night shivering until she could hike out in the morning and make it to town to dry her gear. “The thing that thru-hiking has taught me (more than anything else) is acceptance,” Anderson wrote on her Instagram in March. “Acceptance of what is and what is not and to not waste mental energy on wishing things were different.”

Physical pain was another factor that had to be accepted. For the first 2,500 miles (“which seems like a really long time, but in the scope of the whole trail…” Anderson says), she struggled with a nagging foot pain that seared when she stepped the ball of her foot on an exposed root or rock. Toward the end of the trip, long road walks flared IT band syndrome and shin splints. Yet none of these issues stopped her. “Overall my body held up much better than I thought it would,” she says.

The last thirty miles felt like any other day on trail. She woke at 5:30 a.m. so she could be hiking by first light. She packed her gear in the dark, and as the sun rose she put one foot in front of the other across a long mesa in the Cibola National Forest. There was a dusting of snow at the highest elevations, but nothing compared to the storms she’d faced early in the year. It was a clear, sunny day in the mid-40’s.

Ten miles before the end, “Flyin’” Brian Johnson, the first person to complete the Calendar-Year Triple Crown, stood on the trail waiting for her. He’d driven 15 hours to surprise her and walk with her to the end. “When Brian showed up it was really like, oh yeah, this is the end of the hike,” Anderson says.

In October, I called Robinson and asked him to describe what it takes to tackle the route in fewer than 365 days. “Think of the hardest thing you’ve ever done physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually,” he said. “I’m really, really impressed with what she’s doing.”

All told, the effort took Anderson 251 days, 20 hours, and 10 minutes. Mostly, as she reached the tree in the middle of nowhere, Anderson felt relieved. She’d accomplished what she’d set out to do. She was ready to enjoy the comforts of climate-controlled rooms and regular showers, to start planning a wedding, and to get ready for an upcoming book tour.

As for the most important lesson she learned while hiking? “The hard stuff never lasts that long,” she says. “It’s just temporary.”

Tackling the 7,000-Mile Great Western Loop

13 Oct

Thank her or blame her, Cheryl Strayed and her mega-popular book Wild have turned thru-hiking into a mainstream national pastime, with trails like the Pacific Crest, Appalachian, and Continental Divide getting exponentially more popular—and crowded.  

But there’s one great U.S. thru-hike that’s been mostly spared the influx. Few people have heard of, much less attempted, the Great Western Loop, a 7,000-mile route that patches together portions of the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Continental Divide, Grand Enchantment, and Arizona trails, with sections of trail-less walking through the Sonoran and Mojave deserts. No official designation exists for the Great Western, which traverses some of the West’s most beautiful, rugged, and remote terrain, dipping into nine states, 12 national parks and more than 75 wilderness areas.

Only one person has ever completed the epic—professional backpacker and guide Andrew Skurka, who started the Loop in California and ended in Arizona. Jeff Garmire, a 27-year-old from Vancouver, Washington, plans to be the second. And judging by the more than 5,100 miles he’s already completed, he’s got a pretty decent chance at success.

Although the Great Western Loop reaches some of the highest elevations in the U.S.—Garmire chose to summit 14,505-foot Mount Whitney—it’s not the terrain that makes it so daunting. “The biggest challenge of the GWL is a mathematical one,” Skurka told me this fall. The Sierra and San Juan mountain ranges stay buried in snow much of the year, raising the risk of blizzards and avalanches, and making long-distance backpacking gear untenable. “To do it in one shot, you have to complete about 4,600 miles of trail in about four months.” In other words, you have to hike the entire distance of the Appalachian Trail twice in less than the length of a single season.

 

Garmire has already met that goal, an achievement that brought him much relief. “Since starting on April 29, I’ve been nervous about hitting Colorado early enough,” Garmire said when we talked in late September during his rest day in Silverthorne. Now that he’s reached Colorado? “I feel really good about it.”

Garmire started his long-distance hiking career in 2011, when he completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. There he earned his trail name, Legend, for hitching to town and back to bring his hiking friends pizza. “I grew up with a path in front of me, which is, you know, do good in high school, go to college, get a career, have a family, retire, close scene kind of thing,” he said. “It opened up this whole side door.” In 2014, after graduating college, he hiked the still-rugged 1,200-mile Pacific Northwest Trail. The following year, he took a job in Colorado, and spent the summer hiking every 14,000-foot peak in the state on the weekends. There are 58 of them.

His biggest achievement to date came in 2016, when he hiked the three crown jewels of American long-distance hiking—the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail, for a total of nearly 8,000 miles—in 252 days. He was the fourth man to ever complete the Triple Crown in a single year. (Accomplished long-distance backpacker Heather Anish Anderson is attempting to do the same this year. She would be the first woman to do so.)

Then 2017 was a bust. Other than some trail running and a race, Garmire didn’t have any big goals. “I had pretty good depression all year just because I didn't have this big thing out there that I was chasing,” he said. He wasn’t sure his body was up for logging hundreds and hundreds of miles under a backpack, yet he missed his long days outside.

He found a path back to that life in February, when he undertook a 100-mile round trip traverse across Zion National Park. He wanted to see if his body could take another beating. When he completed the route in less than 48 hours, he started looking at what he wanted to do next. He was drawn to the Great Western Loop because of how difficult it would be to execute, timing-wise. So in April, he quit his job as a small business consultant and began walking.

It’s a good year for the attempt, according to Skurka. California had a dry winter, making the Sierra less daunting. But that didn’t make it easy. “The Sierra Nevada was probably the hardest I’ve ever worked through anything,” Garmire said. On his daily adventure blog, Free Outside, he described post-holing up to his knees with each step around Pinchot and Mather Pass, the falling snow adding inches as he walked. Meanwhile, a small cut created an infection in his toe that put him in ongoing pain.

Other factors presented exhausting challenges, too. On the Pacific Northwest Trail, old burn areas made for tedious work crawling over downed logs and navigating barely-there trails, his body blackened in soot. Colorado had been a real ass kicker, too. “There's a lot of 3,000 foot climbs stacked on top of each other,” he said.

Garmire comes from an outdoorsy family, and he’s used to the comedy of errors that often comes with wilderness adventures. “I got giardia when I was a year old,” he explains. Not long after that, his parents tried to drop him off at daycare after a family backpacking trip. “They wouldn’t let me stay because they thought I had chicken pox, but I just had so many mosquito bites.”

While walking, he tries to make himself laugh. He tests out accents on himself—Liam Neeson, Donald Trump, Steve Buscemi. “These are only good enough for me to laugh at them,” he says. This year he ordered a sweatshirt with a large tiger face, which cracks him up when he sees himself in photos. He chuckles a little when he tells me about a family of hikers who saw him relaxing naked in a creek.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that fun is the only thing he’s after. After we get off the phone, Garmire decided to add an additional challenge to his route—hiking Nolan’s 14, a challenge to hike and scramble fourteen 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado on trails and cross-country scree slopes in less than 60 hours. He nearly fell asleep while hiking. He cliffed out multiple times, rolled his ankle, missed a junction, and lost the trail often. But he finished. “Toughest thing I have ever done,” he texted me the day after.

Skurka says there are two challenges ahead for Garmire: the Grand Canyon and the Gila Mountains in southern New Mexico, both of which, despite being desert, can hold their fair share of snow and make hiking treacherous. But that shouldn’t stop him, he says, because there are plenty of alternate options that would put him at lower elevations. “He's come a pretty long way to quit now,” Skurka says. “If he's hit with something, I think he'll probably figure it out and keep going.”

Now in New Mexico, Garmire was met with winter’s approach. Temperatures stayed below freezing and wind blasts covered half his face in icicles, frosting his glasses. But when I texted with him earlier this week, he sounded confident. “I have done a lot of snow hiking the last couple years, so I’ll make it through this one, too,” he writes. Meanwhile, he’s still got two states and 1,900 miles left.