What you can learn from a really long walk
Only five others—all men—have completed the thru-hiker’s Holy Grail in fewer than 365 days
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 Robinson, 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.”