Setting a Speed Record from Patagonia to Alaska
Holly "Cargo" Harrison survived a heart attack and a grizzly bear attack and now holds one of the most substantial FKTs ever
Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth fitness, nutrition, and adventure courses and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+.
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 Darien Gap into Panama and through Central America 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.”