While doing a routine check of passing vehicles in Muqdadiyah, Iraq, in 2006, Sergeant Trey Cate and his fellow soldiers were ambushed. Standing in the street, the initial blast—triggered by a suicide bomber—shattered his legs. Moments later, gunmen hidden on nearby rooftops opened fire, shooting him in the back, arm, and helmet. A stray bullet hit a barrel of gasoline, and fire enveloped the wounded soldiers, including Cate.
Remarkably, every soldier made it out alive. But when Cate got to the hospital, a doctor told him he’d never walk again. Cate didn’t accept it. “Watch me prove you wrong,” he told the doctor.
“They told me I didn’t understand how injured I was,” says Cate. “I told them they don’t understand my mentality.”
Thirteen years later, not only does Cate, 35, walk, but he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 2017 and the Pacific Crest Trail in 2018.
Cate was introduced to former Marine Jeremy “Mac” McDonald, 34, as part of the thru-hiking community. Together, the two veterans are organizing one of the most ambitious thru-hiking expeditions in recent years: a 12-person team that will take on the 6,875-mile Great Western Loop.
McDonald spent eight years in the Marine Corps, did three tours in Iraq, and was the head of Marine security at the U.S. embassy in Dakar, Senegal. “I’ve backpacked in some of the craziest places, just because I’ve gotten to travel so much,” he says. In 2014, after he left the Marines, McDonald hiked the Appalachian Trail.
But Cate has the more unusual thru-hiking conversion story. Stuck in the hospital as he recovered from his war injuries, Cate would spend hours daydreaming. “I’m in a hospital bed, and people are telling me I’ll never walk again, and so all I could think about was walking again,” he says. Not accepting he’d spend his life in a wheelchair, Cate forced himself to get out of bed and practiced putting one foot in front of the other.
“While walking around, the hospital aides would follow me with a couch on wheels for when I’d fall,” Cate says. “I’d lost a lot of weight at this point—I’m six foot three, and I weighed 140 pounds.”
It was Cate’s younger brother who first told him about the Appalachian Trail. When Cate saw photos of how happy his brother looked while trekking a 30-mile section, he immediately knew he wanted to thru-hike the entire thing. “I had already been daydreaming about doing something with my legs,” says Cate. “Why learn to walk again if I don’t do something incredible?”
But it wasn’t only the injuries to his legs that Cate was trying to overcome. The blast left him with a traumatic brain injury, and when he initially came to in the hospital, he had amnesia. “When I woke up, a woman was hugging me, and I thought, Wow, my girlfriend is old,” says Cate. “I shoved her away. But turns out it was my mom.” He recognized her after a few days, but his memories never fully returned.
After Cate retired from the Army and graduated from the University of South Florida in 2015, he decided to fulfill the promise he’d made to himself on the hospital bed years ago. He began preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, but Cate says a side effect of his brain injury was that it left him overly trusting of others. On White Blaze, a forum for Appalachian Trail hikers, an anonymous user played a joke on him, feeding him false information about what thru-hiking entailed. He told Cate that if he started hiking the Appalachian Trail in January, he wouldn’t need anything warmer than a 30-degree sleeping bag. (That is very incorrect; temperatures frequently drop to single digits.) Cate also believed it when the stranger told him that the backcountry shelters had electric outlets, and that he could charge his phone there at night. (Also not true.)
Cate completed half of the hike, starting in Georgia and getting off trail at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia because he wasn’t appropriately prepared. He then went home, studied what he did wrong, and tried again the next year. That time he successfully hiked the entire trail, and he loved it.
The two got the idea to tackle the Great Western Loop because they wanted to do more with their passion for the outdoors, “something really interesting that gets the attention of the entire thru-hiking community,” says Cate. Taking a dozen people on the longest thru-hike in the United States certainly qualifies.
The loop links together five existing long-distance trails: the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail, the Grand Enchantment Trail, the Arizona Trail, and the Pacific Northwest Trail. Its footpath follows the Sierra, the Cascades, and the Rocky Mountains and passes through 12 national parks and 75 wilderness areas. To date, only two people have ever hiked the Great Western Loop to completion in a calendar year, one of whom is Outside columnist Andrew Skurka.
To accomplish their goal, Cate and McDonald set up the expedition as an LLC called the Push Beyond and partnered with a marketing company for publicity and to acquire sponsors to provide supplies and funds to the hikers, which include McDonald. They spent much of the last year getting sponsors and now have a budget of around $250,000. With the plan in place, they are ready to start hiking in March, beginning and ending in Cuba, New Mexico.
Because of the logistics required, Cate volunteered to follow the hikers in a support van rather than hike himself. “This level of organization is what we used for military missions,” Cate says. “You have to consider everything down to the final detail: the weather, the supplies, the travel.” Two vehicles will follow the hikers, ferry them to town, and resupply them with food. Support staff will also assess pick-up points, respond to emergencies, and even do their laundry.
“There definitely will be a rate of injury,” says Phaneendra Kollipara, one of the thru-hikers selected for the expedition. Kollipara, a 27-year-old engineer from India living in Michigan, has hiked all three major trails in the U.S. “There are things we can do to help prevent injury, but bad luck can happen to anybody,” he says.
Seven men and five women between the ages of 22 and 36 and hailing from four countries were selected. All are experienced thru-hikers. Each selected a charity to raise money for, including the Pacific Crest Trail Association, the Semper Fi Fund, and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and they’ll be seeking donations while they hike as well as asking sponsors to support their chosen organizations.
Cate and McDonald initially spread word of their plans in person and by posting in thru-hiking Facebook groups, and soon enough, applications began flooding in. Experience in long-distance hiking was requisite, but not enough: Cate searched for individuals who were patient and easy to get along with and who followed directions well. “I tried to stay away from people who wanted to ‘race’ the whole time or would get angry the moment something didn’t go their way,” Cate says. They wanted people from different backgrounds, they recruited internationally, and they tried to balance the number of men and women. Because 12 people is an unwieldy number on a trail where campsites rarely fit more than four tents, the team will be divided into four groups of three people, with staggered start times.
Skurka was the first person to ever hike the Great Western Loop, completing it in 206 days in 2007. “It was complicated enough when I did it by my lonesome,” he says. “I can’t imagine what it would take to organize for 12 people.”
He points out that the biggest challenge the group will face will be hiking through the Sierra Nevada once the snow starts to melt around mid-May, and then booking it all the way to the Rockies, where it’ll have to exit the San Juans of southern Colorado before the snow falls in October. “You’re basically racing against winter the whole time,” says Skurka. “You need to throw down 30 or 40 miles a day. That’s the inherent difficulty.”
Even if you can handle the physical challenge, says Skurka, it can be just as tough psychologically.
“I would struggle to do that trip nowadays, because it’s got so many mind-bogglingly boring miles, hour after hour after hour,” he says. “You can’t do these things for fame and fortune, you have to love it at the end of the day. There are too many hours at some level of discomfort to make it worthwhile otherwise.” That said, Skurka looks back on the Great Western Loop as one of the best things he’s ever done. “I hope they can experience that, too.”
Cate and McDonald are hopeful that the success of this expedition will allow them to host new outdoor challenges in the future. But for now, they’re counting the days until the adventure begins.
“I am very excited,” says McDonald. “I wish we were starting yesterday.”