Setting a Speed Record from Patagonia to Alaska

26 Jun

Only two people have made the hike from Ushuaia, Argentina, a town at the country’s southernmost tip called the “End of the World,” all the way north to Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay. The first was 35 years ago, when British explorer George Meegan finished in six years and 236 days. The second? Holly “Cargo” Harrison. On May 30, the 58-year-old completed the 14,481-mile trek in 530 days, 1,895 days faster than Meegan’s record and quite possibly one of the most substantial (time-wise) FKT takedowns ever.

Cargo’s relentless 27.3-mile daily average took its toll on his body. Raising his crutches in triumph at the Arctic Ocean last week, he proved there are still big FKT records out there for the taking—you just might have to survive a heart attack and tussle with a bear to beat them.

Before his hike, Cargo, who is from North Carolina, reached out to Meegan with his biggest concern: “I’m getting really old and don’t know if I can do this.” Meegan set him at ease, emailing back: “You’re probably the perfect age. Practiced determination is what will carry you through.” And it did—all the way up South America, through the FARC-infested Darien Gap into Panama, through Central American countries reeling with violence, and north through Mexico.

When Outside reported on Cargo’s arrival into the United States last November, it seemed like the last leg of his trip would be the easiest. It wasn’t. “Coming up through Arizona and Nevada,” Cargo says, “there were long stretches where I was alone, without any shops, and eating terribly.” On a freezing night near Reno, still without a sleeping bag, the lifestyle of the ultralight hiker caught up with him. “I woke with this terrible pain in my arm.” After popping some aspirin, he hiked in a daze through the night. The next day, in the relative safety of a motel room, Cargo had a major heart attack.

Emergency rescuers helicoptered Cargo to a hospital, and doctors inserted a stent into his coronary artery. Against his doctor’s advice, Cargo was out hiking within five days. “I want to say I built up slowly, but within another five days I was back up to my 30-mile daily target.”

A few habits may have caused the heart attack. Cargo was eating mostly junk food, like cheese, hot dogs, bread, and chocolate, all of which were easy to find along the trail. He’d also picked up an unhealthy habit on the hike. “I’m not a smoker or anything,” he says, “but down in Mexico, I was in such a hurry that I developed the strategy of having a cigarette just to force myself to rest.”

Then, in British Columbia this March, an injured hamstring delayed him for ten days. Tired of waiting for his body to heal and winter to end, Cargo set off into the snow on crutches. The four-limbed thru-hiker had already honed this injury-cheating technique on both his successful thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011 and during a previous, aborted attempt at the Patagonia-to-Alaska record in 2015. As Cargo walked 2,000 miles through the Yukon, his trick worked again. Later, he converted the crutches into litter pickers, which, because his brother-in-law was now tailing him in a camper van, Cargo used to collect discarded beer cans, earning up to $47 a day to help cover gas.

By May 28, with just 15 miles separating him from Prudhoe Bay, Cargo was alone again. “People had been stopping me on the road for days, telling me the bears were waking up.” A couple had even jumped out of their car, warning Cargo that grizzlies would use his crutches as toothpicks. Spurning advice to pack bear spray, the thru-hiker took shelter from the wind by bedding down in the lee of a remote outpost.

“I just had a bear encounter,” Cargo begins a video he uploaded to Facebook. He goes on to say how a grizzly “sat up on his haunches right in front of me…started snorting, shaking his head and moving his paw…at me.” The bear was after his food, and Cargo says he picked up a crutch and gave the animal a quick swat across the nose. Then he lowers the camera to show a trail of feces left by the fleeing bear. “I think I knocked the crap out of him, although I haven’t checked my own pants yet.”

When asked about Cargo’s FKT, Meegan told Outside that “his achievement and speed are extraordinary and aren’t likely to be bettered.” But the new record holder is not so sure. “Consistency is key,” Cargo says. “You’ve got to get up and walk 12 to 15 hours every day for 17 months. But without injury, it could be done a month quicker, maybe even more.”

Now that he’s finished, Cargo says he’ll write up the adventure in a book. While he’s glad to be done, he says there was something very soothing about walking all day that he’ll miss. Life, Cargo says, “is going to be more complicated now.”

This Man Is Hiking from Patagonia to Alaska

3 Nov

Holly Harrison had a goal: tackle the longest possible land journey across the Americas. The 57-year-old North Carolinian (trail name: Cargo) started on December 17, 2016, in Ushuaia, Argentina, and has already stomped through 12 countries, crossing both South and Central America.

Harrison arrived back on U.S. soil on November 3, and he won’t stop until he’s reached Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, in fall 2018—more than 15,000 miles from his starting point. He wants to reach Alaska by June 1, 2018, for a summer weather window. If successful, Harrison would be only the third person to complete the whole route—and the first to hike it nonstop.

“At night, I never veer more than 50 yards off the road,” says the former U.S. Army Ranger and kids’ camp program director. “I’m as efficient as possible.”

British hiker George Meegan was the first to embark on the trek, in 1983. Explorer Karl Bushby hiked it from 1998 to 2006 as part of his round-the-world walk. Others have tried it, says Meegan, but “they usually don’t finish because they fall in love.”

Harrison’s journey perhaps has less romance. In the same accelerated spirit of recent thru-hiking record attempts in the United States, his journey is about setting the FKT (fastest known time) from Patagonia to Alaska. It took Meegan 6.5 years and Bushby seven. Harrison is trying to do it in 20 months. “People are always telling me, ‘You should see this along the way,’ but I’m in a race,” he says. That’s not to say Cargo has lacked for adventures along the way.

Harrison caught the thru-hiking bug in 2011, when he planned to complete the Appalachian Trail. He suffered a serious horse accident that put him on crutches before he left, but there was “something about my brain that still made me go,” he says.

So Harrison set off anyway, hobbling along on crutches for the first 200 miles of the AT. “I was averaging ten to 15 miles a day. I would get into camp after nightfall but was keeping up with most hikers along the way.” Devising a neat way to carry his gear inside his crutches, he inscribed the word “cargo” on the poles. The name stuck. And while the crutches are now gone, today the ultralight hiker uses an adapted concept: carrying his five-pound kit inside his supersized hiking poles, which are hollow and made from baseball bats and leaf blower parts.

In 2015, four years after his AT attempt, Harrison began his first assault on the Patagonia to Alaska thru-hike. After 2.5 months on the trail, he’d hiked 1,700 miles. One rainy night, however, as he was trying to reach the shelter of a storm drain, Harrison fell in a hole and tore a tendon. “I tried for two days to continue on crutches, but it kicked my butt so hard.” He returned to the United States for surgery.

Once healed, Harrison opted against picking up where he left off and instead headed all the way south to begin afresh in Patagonia’s hurricane winds. “He is very competitive and tough on himself,” says his mother, Jackie Holmes. “Nobody could talk him out of it.”

Now Harrison is more than two-thirds of the way through, and he hopes the roughest miles are behind him. He says that crossing the Darién Gap—a 60-mile stretch of roadless jungle between Colombia and Panama—was the most harrowing part of the journey thus far. By the time he started that portion of his hike in June, FARC troops in the Darién Gap had signed a peace treaty to end their 50-year guerilla war. “Half the time, you are in the river,” Harrison explains of his illegal crossing between continents. “The rest of the time, you’re going up and down mud slopes or along rocky banks beside muddy torrents.” Whenever he tripped and fell, his hired guides rescued him from the current.

Traveling with ten other illegal immigrants, Harrison’s passport was confiscated—but quickly returned—by Panamanian officials when he reached the relative safety of the road in Yaviza, Panama. “The Darién Gap plays mental games on you,” he says, shaking his head. “It really wore me down.”

From here to Alaska, Harrison hopes the experience will be easier—and more familiar. “I’m looking forward to finding places to eat that I know,” he says. “I don’t want to be surprised anymore.”