Kilian Jornet Is Climbing Mt. Everest… Again

6 Sep

Spanish endurance athlete Kilian Jornet is famous for a lot of things: winning the hardest trail and ski-mountaineering races in the world, making daring (and speedy) alpine ascents, and holding the fastest known time on mountains across the globe. 

But possibly Jornet’s biggest—and most fiercely disputed—accomplishment is his back-to-back summit of Everest in 2017. That May, he went to the top of the world’s highest mountain twice—without supplemental oxygen or fixed ropes, and within a single week. At first, his team claimed Jornet had set a new fastest known time on the mountain. That turned out to not be true—Jornet later said he never claimed a fastest known time , and that his media team had made the error when they rushed out a press release. But even without breaking the record, Jornet’s accomplishment of summiting Everest back-to-back—despite getting lost on the mountain’s north face on the way down from his second summit—and then winning several ultra-running competitions that summer, stunned fans worldwide. 

The plot thickened when a climber in Oregon circulated a 19-page document that questioned whether Jornet actually summited Everest either time that May. The climber zeroed in on the uncertainty surrounding Jornet’s documentation, specifically the GPS data and images of the summit. Jornet responded to the allegations thoroughly in an interview with Outside—the GPS data is complicated, but explicable, he said. As for the inconclusive photos, “It was hard to film,” Jornet said. “It’s the last thing I was thinking about.”

This fall, Jornet is going back to Everest, though this time, he’s keeping his plans close to his chest. When reached for comment, his spokesperson said that, “Unfortunately, Kilian hasn’t planned to talk to the press at this moment. If he completes any relevant activity, he will communicate about it once he’s finished.”

What we do know is that before attempting Everest, Jornet intends to lead a three-member team to the top of Lhotse, Everest’s neighboring peak and the fourth highest mountain in the world. Jornet’s permit to summit Everest is one of two permits granted for the autumn season, as was first reported by The Himalayan Times.

If Jornet does set a record, there’ll hopefully be better proof this time. According to The Himalayan Times, photographers Francois Lebeau and Jon Glassberg will be documenting the climbers’ summit attempts this fall.

The Restaurant Stealing Miles from PCT Thru-Hikers

21 Aug

Morgan’s Diner might be the only eating establishment in the world that offers three meals a day, full-body massages, postal services, yard games, and a DJ—and doesn’t charge its customers a dollar. It only happens one weekend each summer in the middle of the woods somewhere along the Pacific Crest Trail. 

There is a catch. PCT hikers walking through Plumas National Forest in Northern California this year on the second weekend in August, not far from the trail’s halfway point, enjoyed those gourmet meals and free beer at the trailside pop-up diner in exchange for their miles. 

“Morgan’s Diner is a very expensive diner,” explains Morgan Goodwin, the diner’s namesake. “As soon as you arrive, your bill starts. And as you leave, you have to log in to the guest book how many miles we’ve stolen—or in other words, how many miles you would have hiked if you didn’t run into us.”

The goal of its founders? “Steal” enough miles from thru-hikers to have completed the 2,652-mile Pacific Crest Trail themselves.

(Photo: Morgan Goodwin)

This conceit—restaurant-quality food for miles—is as simple as it is devious. The longer a thru-hiker stays at Morgan’s Diner, the less hiking they’ll do that day. Given that most thru-hikers need every moment of sunlight to hike 20 to 25 miles daily, a couple of meals at the diner can throw off a strict schedule. 

But inevitably, many hikers stick around for one, two, or even three meals. Many stay overnight for breakfast in the morning. After all, the meals—Baja-style fish and shrimp tacos, caprese sandwiches, egg-and-chorizo burritos were served this summer—are difficult to resist after months of instant ramen and dehydrated mashed potatoes, the standard thru-hiker diet

Following the pop-up diner’s appearance this August, the eight friends masterminding the operation have successfully stolen 1,265 miles from more than a hundred PCT hikers over six years. 

It all started in 2014, when the diner’s head chef, Nick Lee, noticed that a friend of his was thru-hiking the PCT. That friend, Gabe Lewis, was using a SPOT satellite messenger to sporadically post his GPS position on his blog.

“I saw that he was near Truckee, [California,] so I threw some sandwiches and drinks in my pack and started hiking where he was, knowing I’d run into him eventually,” says Lee. At the time, Lee hadn’t seen his friend in years. Lewis could scarcely believe the surprise, and Lee had enough food to feed not just his friend, but Lewis’s trail buddies who were hiking with him.

“They were so shocked by that kind of random act of kindness,” says Lee.

The next weekend, Lee, Goodwin, and Megan Holmes—three friends who attended Williams College together in 2008—were debating what to do during the upcoming Fourth of July. That’s when they decided: Why not go out and feed more thru-hikers, only this time do it bigger and better?

As it happened, Lee had some experience with cooking. He teaches at the Edible Schoolyard, a program founded by Alice Waters that introduces school kids around the world to the importance of natural and sustainable food systems. “Wanting to share fresh, beautiful food, a lot of that inspiration comes from my work at the middle school,” says Lee.

So, on that holiday weekend, the friends drove up in Morgan’s RV—the inspiration for the pop-up's name—to Barker Pass, where the Pacific Crest Trail passes along the western shore of Lake Tahoe. There, Morgan’s Diner was born.

“We didn’t know if anybody was going to come through,” says Holmes. But soon enough, hikers started arriving.

“Right away, after the first burger we served, we knew this was something worth doing again,” says Lee. “Thru-hikers are the perfect people to cook for, because they’re so thrilled to be having a good meal. They always want seconds or thirds.”

But the team was not content with just serving burgers. In the following years, at various locations along the PCT in Northern California, it developed more elaborate menus, brainstormed new luxuries it could offer customers, and invited more friends to come along, until the founders had a crew of eight to ten people. In 2015, Rachel Fryke joined the operation, offering spa treatments, such as full-body massages and aromatherapy. The first year, she even offered free haircuts.

“Only one person took me up on the haircuts,” says Fryke. “He was the dean of the medical school at Johns Hopkins.”

Other amenities have include free postcards, which they will mail for you, a variety of yard and card games to entertain hikers in between meals, and henna tattoos. In addition to the cooking station, there’s a variety of camp chairs, snack-laden tables, and canopies to keep hikers comfortable. Plus, plenty of beer, always. It’s all a part of the plan to get hikers to stay longer and steal more miles. 

“When somebody is thinking about getting back on trail,” says Goodwin, “we’ll tell them what we’re having for dinner, let them know what they’re walking away from.”

The organizers openly admit how devilishly fun it is to force hikers to choose between hiking more miles and fish tacos. But stealing miles isn’t just mischievous, they explain; it also challenges them to offer even better trail magic year after year.

“It incentivizes us to do the best we can, because if we can get a hiker to stay another hour for a massage, then we can steal more miles,” says Lee. It’s also a great excuse to reunite with old friends. “The eight or ten people who show up year after year who love this, it gives us a shared mission.”

Although Morgan’s Diner is fun and games on the surface, the organizers take what they do seriously. This year, they spent about a thousand dollars on food and drink to feed thru-hikers, plus weeks of planning that go into developing meals. Lee even teased the possibility of a future, experimental Morgan’s Diner that would include white tablecloths, place settings, and a printed menu. 

The group of friends like to think of their pop-up diner as a kind of performance art. And they want people to know that there’s no monopoly on spontaneous, over-the-top kindness. “I would love to see copycats,” says Lee. “Just go out and do magic!”

And what will happen when Morgan’s Diner has finally stolen 2,652 miles, the equivalent of one thru-hike?

“Well, technically, that’s only one thru-hike,” says Lee. “And there are eight of us.”

Someone Cut the Cable on the Sea to Sky Gondola

14 Aug

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police believe a vandal deliberately severed the cable of the Sea to Sky Gondola in Squamish, British Columbia, on Saturday morning. Nobody was hurt in the incident, but nearly all of the gondola’s 30 cars crashed to the ground, shutting down the popular tourist attraction for the foreseeable future.

“We still are in the preliminary stages of the investigation,” says RCMP Constable Ashley MacKay. “We are canvassing for witnesses and asking people to come forward with any information they might have.”

The Sea to Sky Gondola has been a major tourist attraction in Squamish since it opened in 2014. The ten-minute gondola ride took tourists more than 2,900 feet up to a viewing point overlooking Howe Sound, where they could access hiking trails, rock climbing, and views of the area, a network of fjords northwest of Vancouver. Officials say they intend to fully repair the gondola and resume operations as fast as possible, but added that it will take a significant amount of time to replace the cable and a majority of the cars. The tourist attraction employs over 200 people, and some fear that those jobs are now in jeopardy while the gondola is inoperable. 

“This is a big deal,” says district council member John French. “At this point we don’t know how long the Gondola will be down. If it takes a significant amount of time, I imagine a fair number of those employees will be laid off indefinitely.”

Any question of motive is speculative at this point. But Mark Bee, the president of Doppelmayr USA, a subsidiary of the company that built the Sea to Sky Gondola, is doubtful that the vandal decided to cut through the heavy-duty gondola cable on a whim. “I suspect there was some planning and know-how,” says Bee. “He didn’t walk up with his pocket knife and do it.”

“There is no reason I can think of that would lead to anyone wanting to cause any damage to the Sea to Sky Gondola,” says Squamish mayor Karen Elliot. And both Mayor Elliot and Constable MacKay said that the town does not have a history of high-profile vandalism. 

French could only recall one major incident of vandalism in the area. In 2016, a company called Woodfibre LNG met fierce resistance from environmental activists when it proposed building a liquefied natural gas facility in the region. That November, the company’s Squamish office burned. Authorities concluded that it was arson, but no suspect was ever caught. 

The Sea to Sky Gondola also met resistance from environmentalists and wildlife advocates in 2012, during the initial stages of the project. Prior to that, in the 1990s, when a different company pitched the idea of building a gondola in the area, it met so much local opposition that the project never made it past the planning stages. But in 2013 the Sea to Sky project received a building permit, and according to local officials, opposition largely faded after the gondola opened and became a successful tourist attraction. 

For now, the plan is to replace as quickly as possible the broken cable and gondola cars, most of which were badly damaged in the fall. “We are confident that the Sea to Sky Gondola will resume operations,” says Mayor Elliot, “and we will be working closely with them to do whatever we can to support the Sea to Sky Gondola and their staff.”

How the Guthook App Revolutionized Thru-Hiking

12 Jun

In March 2012, the Pacific Crest Trail changed for good when Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, about her 1995 thru-hike of the trail, hit shelves and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. In 2014, Reese Witherspoon adapted and starred in the Hollywood version. From 2013 to 2018, PCT applications nearly quadrupled.

But Wild wasn’t the only thing that transformed the trail that March. The same month, thru-hiker named Ryan Linn quietly released an iPhone application called Guthook Guides. It took the entire set of tools needed for thru-hiking—a map, compass, guidebook, and water reports—and consolidated them into a single virtual location. It functioned off-line and crowdsourced updated information about trail conditions and campsites when online. Such an app might have been inevitable, but for ultralight-obsessed thru-hikers, it was a revolution.

Linn’s timing couldn’t have been more perfect. In the last three years, the app has been downloaded 337,000 times, and in 2018, a survey of 500 PCT hikers found that 85 percent used the app. Another survey from last year found that, for the first time, more AT hikers found Guthook helpful than David Miller's The A.T. Guide (a.k.a. the Awol Guide), the longtime king of AT guidebooks. What started in 2010 as a passion project is now a company that employs five people full-time and has mapped more than two dozen long trails around the world.

But as the the app’s empire continues to grow, many thru-hikers worry about its unintended consequences. They see themselves and fellow hikers depending on their phones to decide where to sleep and eat and to discover exactly how far, down to the tenth of a mile, they are from those places. They fear that American thru-hiking, once the ultimate test of self-reliance, is no longer as wild as it once was.

While attending Vassar College in 2002, Linn joined an outdoors club. The upperclassmen decided that the new recruits needed intimidating nicknames. One day, Linn and two other club members were driving past a hunting and fishing store and pulled over to wander the aisles for inspiration. Linn became “Guthook,” and it stuck through college and afterward, when he hiked the AT in 2007 and then the PCT in 2010.

It was while hiking the PCT that Linn met Paul Bodnar, a guidebook author who was collecting GPS data on trail with the intent of updating a PCT guide he published in 2009. In the era of “There should be an app for that,” it didn’t take long for the two to start talking about what a smartphone-based guide would look like. “We figured it would be something for us to do on the side, in between seasonal work,” says Linn, who since college had been doing various trail-crew and outdoor-education jobs.

In the Guthook Guides app, virtual icons along the trail designate campsites, water sources, intersecting roads, and trail-town information. (Courtesy of Guthook Guides)

After they finished their hike, Linn spent the next year and a half using the GPS data Bodnar had collected to create the first version of Guthook Guides, learning to code as he went. Visually, the app looks similar to the paper topo maps hikers have used for decades. Virtual icons along the trail designate campsites, water sources, intersecting roads, and trail-town information. But unlike paper maps, Guthook Guides is GPS enabled, and users can click on an icon to learn more or add a comment. The ability to leave comments, in particular, made Guthook Guides more than a guidebook. Hikers could tell other users whether a water source had gone dry, the quality of a campsite, and the friendliness of local businesses.

After the 2012 release, the app made just enough money for Linn to pay a friend to collect data while hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2013. (The app is free to download, but users must then purchase guides for each trail.) The AT guide was released the next year. In 2015, Guthook Guides became available on Android phones. By then, Linn and Bodnar, the app’s cocreators, understood that Guthook Guides was no longer a side project. They went all in.

A sense of surviving in the wilderness is a major reason why a 2,000-mile hike is more than just a feat of athleticism. Taking a wrong turn, getting lost, navigating back—all that misadventure and the intellectual challenge of sorting it out makes for better stories than does walking in a straight line dictated by an app. Yet thru-hiking the PCT last year, I had to stop myself from checking the Guthook app as often as every hour. At one point, my hiking partner even instituted a no-Guthook rule, with the hope that we’d reclaim some sense of agency over our endeavor. Our self-imposed app ban didn’t last, because pretending like we didn’t have this all-knowing resource in our pockets felt somehow inauthentic. Especially when most everyone else on trail was embracing it as reality.

It’s hard to understate the impact that Guthook has had on the experience of thru-hiking. I talked to nearly a dozen hikers and trail managers who all seemed simultaneously concerned that the app enables hikers to lose self-reliance and awareness of their surroundings but couldn’t deny the app’s supreme usefulness. Eric Lee, for example, has taken time off from his job as a software engineer every year since 2002 to hike a different section of the PCT. The 48-year-old completed the final segment last fall. Over that time, Lee witnessed smartphone apps slowly become ubiquitous in long-distance hiking. There was a PCT app called Halfmile that used GPS to identify your location on its companion physical maps (the developer discontinued the app this year). Later, an Android app called Hikerbot offered its own GPS-enabled maps for multiple thru-hikes. But none of them took off like Guthook Guides, which grew to dominate the space. “Guthook does make for a very different experience,” says Lee. “I can’t say it’s better or worse, it’s just different.”

Lee compares the impact of Guthook Guides to what Google Maps has done for driving. “We no longer have to think about landmarks and turns and street names. We just type our address into the phone and press go,” he says, noting that it undoubtedly makes thru-hiking an easier, more stress-free experience. But because of the app, he sees more hikers today who are not as viscerally connected to the trail. “They’re walking from waypoint to waypoint. It’s just a set of numbers.”

This effect has led to some pushback against the app. “I’ve encouraged people to not use it,” says Lucas Weaver, a 29-year-old fiber-optic technician who used Guthook Guides while hiking the Continental Divide Trail last year. “I’m not saying don’t get it, I’m saying don’t let it dictate, don’t rely on it.” Weaver is glad he hadn’t yet downloaded the app when he hiked the AT in 2015. “Being out there without any guide or technology makes it more adventurous,” he says.

The app’s popularity has coincided with the use of phones creeping into trails more generally. Now hikers have Instagram accounts to update with selfies, blogs to write, and loved ones to keep in touch with. “There is no question that people are using their devices more and more on the Appalachian Trail,” says Morgan Sommerville, southern regional director at the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. “You can now call an Uber or Lyft into town if it’s going to rain. It has altered the way people do their hikes.” Effie Drew, a 26-year-old nanny who has hiked all three major trails, now sees people regularly checking for cell service or taking videos. “Guthook Guides has helped make phones more socially acceptable on the trail,” she says.

Sometimes use of the app enters into the absurd. “We came across many hikers who would use the app to the point they would lose common sense,” says Jen Nicholson, a 29-year-old physical therapist who also thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail last year. She recalls hikers who insisted on walking five feet off to the side of the trail because their GPS told them that’s where the path was.

Then there are the stories of hikers relying on trail apps who lose or break their phone or even just run out of battery. For those who forgo paper backup maps to save weight (I was guilty of this myself), a dead phone makes getting lost more frightening than thrilling. Rachel Brown, membership-services manager for the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, recalls encountering this multiple times when hiking the trail in 2015. A friend of hers lost her phone, spent hours searching for it, didn’t find it, and had no backup maps. “She ended up camping out at a really confusing trail junction for three days until somebody else came,” Brown says. Another time, Brown hiked with a man who dropped his phone into a creek. “He ended up sticking like glue to my partner and me,” she recalls. “It was a little frustrating for us, because it kind of felt like we were babysitting. He was always there.”

Perhaps most telling is Guthook’s own experience. Last summer on a backpacking trip, Linn found he had drifted off of a poorly marked trail. “I stopped, and I was about to grab my phone,” says Linn. “Now I have to really consciously tell myself, No, no no. You just noticed you’re off the trail, go and find it.” Linn is pensive about how his app has affected life on trails. “There are downsides to every new technology in the wilderness,” he admits. “Probably people are using Guthook a little more than I would have wanted.”

But Linn has no regrets. The app, after all, has had many positive effects, too. For one, Guthook Guides has worked to conserve the trails it has helped make so easy to hike. Linn has collaborated with trail administrators like Sommerville and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy to find ways to encourage sustainable thru-hiking. Linn and his team have removed unapproved campsites from Guthook Guides at the conservancy’s request, reducing the impact on fragile ecosystems not intended for overnight use. And now when Linn codes a new trail for the app, he reaches out directly to trail associations for data, giving them the ultimate say on campsites designations, water sources, and so on.

The app has also helped make long-distance trails accessible to many people who otherwise might not have the opportunity, like Curt Ebert. The 47-year-old public speaker from Illinois dearly wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail but feared that being legally blind would put him in danger. Unable to accurately distinguish topographical features while hiking, Ebert found traditional maps to be of limited use. With Guthook Guides, he could simply use the GPS to check if he had veered off course. “It gave me peace to know I was on the trail, and it’d give you the direction to go if you did get off the trail,” says Ebert. “It gave me more self-reliance, which is a big deal with a disability. That almost brings a tear to my eye.”

For all the good and the bad attributable to Guthook Guides, the consensus is things are just different now. In 2003, Eric Lee accidentally turned off the PCT and hours later ran into another hiker who told him he was going the wrong way. Lee didn’t believe him. “We brought out paper maps and discussed it for 15 minutes” before the other hiker convinced Lee of the truth. Back then that was part of the experience, and maybe even charm, of the trail. “Today that would never happen,” says Lee. “But I’m OK with that.”