She Survived a Stabbing, then Climbed Mount Katahdin
In May, Kirby Morrill was nearly murdered during a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Four months later, she climbed Maine's highest peak, the route's terminus.
When Kirby Morrill called her husband, Allen Beck, on the afternoon of May 11, 2019, to say she’d been stabbed nine times on the Appalachian Trail, she could not yet tell him what state she was in, let alone the name of the hospital or how best to get there from their home in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. But she did vow one thing: despite a right hand that barely worked, multiple wounds to her left leg, and gashes across her face and fingers, she would get back on the trail to hike the remaining 1,640 miles in a month or less.
After being attacked the night before by hiker James Jordan, who was later charged with the murder of Ronald “Stronghold” Sanchez and the assault of Morill, all she could think about was finishing the AT. “My first thought in the hospital was, Damn, how long is this going to set me back? How soon can I get back on the trail? Do I have the money to stay in a hotel?’” Morrill says. “But as the drugs wore off in the next few days, it became clear I wasn’t going to be able to continue.”
Morrill survived more than 40 lacerations, held together by 51 staples. Doctors glued her neck and one finger shut and sewed layers of sutures into her face, which had been slashed to the bone by Jordan’s blade. Her attacker had missed her vital organs. She would live, and she would not require surgery, but she would need months of rehabilitation. Still, when she realized she wouldn’t complete the AT in 2019, she made another vow: this time, to climb Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the trail’s imposing northern terminus, when the group she’d hiked with for nearly 500 miles—her trail family, or “tramily”—arrived there. On September 10, four months after she played dead in the Virginia woods to buy herself time to run from Jordan, she made the summit.
Morrill loved the AT. In the six weeks she hiked 552 miles, she became “Tuque,” a moniker acquired when her American pals were mystified by the Canadian term for her stocking cap. She found both freedom—“It’s the idea and lifestyle of walking as far as you feel like going every day”—and the best sleep she’d had in years. At the end of 2018, four months before she left for the AT, Morrill, 28, had successfully defended her master’s thesis, a survey of sea lettuce species in Canada’s Bay of Fundy.
And in May, she hiked north through one of the trail’s most majestic sections at the perfect time, walking the stately balds of Tennessee’s Roan Highlands and the rolling greens of Virginia’s Grayson Highlands, where feral horses roam the wide meadows slung between mountains. As she crossed the southern border of Virginia, the browns and yellows of the late-winter woods were giving way to spring’s verdant sweep.
Spirits were high, too. Though Morrill had lost her supply of food to a prowling black bear two days before being attacked, she’d nearly finished the first 100 miles of Virginia, the trail’s longest state. Before setting up camp on the balmy, clear night of May 10, she had crossed the quarter-way mark only a few miles back, a major benchmark along the march to Katahdin.
But for weeks, Jordan had harassed hikers in North Carolina and Tennessee, wielding a guitar and a 17-inch knife and making violent threats, prompting his arrest near that state line. For him, it was just the latest in a lifelong string of legal troubles. Despite efforts to buy him a bus ticket and send him home upon his release from a Tennessee jail, Jordan—who had dubbed himself “Sovereign”—returned to the AT just south of the Virginia border.
Morrill survived more than 40 lacerations, held together by 51 staples. Doctors glued her neck and one finger shut and sewed layers of sutures into her face, which had been slashed to the bone by a blade.
Morrill had been hiking near him for weeks—his whereabouts and sporadic behavior were the talk of the trail, bits of information passed like bread crumbs between hikers—but she only encountered him for the first time that afternoon. She spotted Jordan from the window of a roadside restaurant, and she Googled his mug shot to confirm his identity. “I totally just saw Sovereign heading NOBO from the window here, beware guys,” she wrote in the trail register of the greasy spoon where she’d had a late lunch. A few hours later, she caught up to him on the trail and went, she says, “full Canadian,” pouring on pleasantries and petting his dog, Felicia. She texted her husband, who was in Nova Scotia, to say Jordan was nearby.
“I texted her back and said, ‘Run away. Have fun. Please don’t get murdered,’” Beck says. “Looking back, that was a poor choice of last words.”
Jordan arrived at camp later that evening and built an enclave for himself by stringing dental floss between spindly trees and strewing his belongings along the banks of the brook beneath camp. He threatened four hikers staying there, including Morrill, telling them he would set them on fire. Later that night, he attacked. During the assault, Morrill fell backward. Jordan climbed on top of her, slashing at her skin. When he paused and stood, she played dead “for the longest few seconds of my life.” And then, as he searched for his dog, she gathered her glasses and headlamp, lost in the scuffle.
Hobbling toward the trail, she turned on her light and ran six miles south across creeks and up and down steep switchbacks, cradling an arm that she could barely move and limping through the agony of a badly lacerated leg. Her face poured blood. Maybe three hours later, she spotted a pair of hikers camped near a major highway and pled for help. Morrill was shortly whisked away by ambulance and then helicopter out of Virginia and to a hospital in Bristol, Tennessee.
Two other hikers at her camp had escaped by running north. Sanchez, a former Army combat engineer who had set out on the trail to confront lingering mental and physical wounds from Iraq, was dead. Jordan was arrested the next morning.
Long before she was attacked, Morrill’s mix of toughness and tenacity was central to her character. A champion forward for her college rugby team, she’s the kind of person who breaks her nose (as she has twice playing rugby) and brags that it was broken downward and not upward, since the latter tends to leave you with a lifelong lump. She referred to her second concussion in as many weeks as “a light injury.” Her mother suggests that rugby’s lessons in powering through injury might be what kept her alive. They’re almost certainly what helped her recover in time to climb Katahdin.
When Morrill and Beck flew back to their home in Dartmouth on May 18, their first stop was an emergency room—one wound on her left leg had become infected and badly abscessed. Physical therapy began immediately, and she learned an extensive battery of exercises meant to stretch and strengthen her right arm, where the radial nerve had been mangled. As many as three times a day, she spent an hour turning her hand over and over or straightening her wrist while holding a dumbbell. Once a week, a massage therapist dug into her scars, helping to desensitize the tissue and push the muscle and skin apart. It was, she says, misery.
The worst part of the recovery for Morrill, though, might be her relative lack of physical activities and abilities. As much an athlete as an outdoor enthusiast, Morrill is a powerlifter who also loves to kayak the rivers and lakes of coastal Canada and cycle her province’s trails. But her right hand now prevents her from loading the kayak onto her car, and holding onto handlebars is too painful. Aside from her wrist exercises, lifting weights is out of the question, as is her postcollegiate rugby team. She knocks things off the kitchen counter and knows that working in a laboratory, where she’d planned to continue studying aquatic biology after completing her degree, requires manual dexterity she just hasn’t regained yet.
“If you can’t trust your body to do what you want it to, what can you trust?” Morrill says. “I’m watching my biceps melt before my eyes, but I’m doing whatever physical activity I can. I’m going to go insane if I don’t move.”
So even when it hurts, she goes running. Exactly a month after she was stabbed, Morrill laced her sneakers for the first time. As she began to run, the wounds in her left leg screamed almost instantly, as if a bruise were being continuously jabbed with a needle. She persevered for five miles but could barely walk for the next three days and only returned to running again a week later. She’s since joined a trail club in the capital city of Halifax and runs alone several times a week.
“I am statistically more likely to die in a car crash than I am on the trail. It’s just pretty bad luck, a complete fluke, that I got stabbed.”
For Morrill, the prospect of climbing Katahdin in September was the dangling carrot during her hellish recuperation. After all, Katahdin is what drew her to the AT in the first place. Raised just a few hours north of the Maine border, in New Brunswick, she’d heard people talk about the summit her entire life. In her hometown, it’s not a question of if you climb Katahdin, but when. Starting the AT without ending there felt like a letdown, no matter the reason.
In the hospital in May, Morrill promised Elena “Black Widow” Alves, who she’d met after a week on the trail and hiked with for much of the next 400 miles, that she would meet her there in September. They had spoken infrequently in the four months since the attack, but in early September, as Alves pushed through the 100-Mile Wilderness, Morrill drove to the base of Katahdin in Maine’s Baxter State Park, an enormous preserve without electricity or running water. She waited anxiously for Alves, fretting that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with someone who had spent the past four months logging 20-mile days.
The trek was immediately arduous. Due to a damaged bridge, Morrill had to ford the swollen Katahdin Stream beneath a waterfall just a mile into the five-mile climb, a precarious maneuver even for someone with complete use of both hands. And halfway through the hike, when the trail hits a field of boulders that requires the body to bend in unfamiliar ways, she grimaced as she pulled and pushed herself up a series of rocks and rebar holds.
When she made it to the summit of Katahdin, the northern terminus of the AT, she didn’t simply turn around and descend the mountain the way she had come. True to form, she bid her old trail-family member goodbye and pressed on, heading east across Knife Edge, the infamously steep, thin, and exposed trail that traverses two more of the massif’s peaks.
“Coming down the Knife Edge, I thought, Now this is Katahdin,” she says. “When I reached the bottom, I was exhausted. My knee hurt. My right hand was barely functional. Yup, that was a good day.”
Despite the climb, Morrill isn’t naive about her recent trauma. The physical pain has relented but not retreated—her healing muscles remain tight, resisting easy motion, and the skin above the wounds often tingles and itches.
Although physical therapy is mitigating those symptoms, her psychotherapy stalled when her first visit to a psychiatrist ended in frustration—they were talking about her feelings rather than developing strategies for sorting through them. Morrill wanted a plan of action. She’s looking for a new therapist.
She still reads every news report about the attack, and all the comments about it, too. Talking about Sanchez or digging too deeply into what happened that night trouble her, and she won’t call Jordan by name, referring to him always as “the crazy guy with the knife.” (“I know that’s not politically correct,” she says, “but in my defense, he stabbed me nine times.”) She’s not sleeping well. And the FBI still has her North Face Terra 55 backpack, which it has promised to clean and return.
Morrill hoped that climbing Katahdin and reuniting with some of her earliest trail friends might provide some of the closure she lacks, particularly since Jordan was found mentally incompetent and may never stand trial. Instead, the ascent was an emotional wrecking ball, an acute reminder of what she’d missed.
Standing on the summit beside the iconic sign that marks the AT’s northern end, and trying to fight tears from flowing in front of strangers, she realized that completing the trail in 2020 is the only real option, even if it means delaying a career and student-loan payments another year.
After all, she already has a new trail name—“Arlo,” a reference to the medical chart in her hospital room noting that the blood-pressure cuff would work on her “right-leg only.” Every time someone says her name next year, she’ll remember the work it took to get back to the AT.
“I am statistically more likely to die in a car crash than I am on the trail. It’s just pretty bad luck, a complete fluke, that I got stabbed,” says Morrill, laughing. “I wasn’t scared the first time, and I won’t be scared the second time. And even if I was scared, are you really going to let a little fear stop you from what you want to do in life?”