Stanford students attempt 8,000-mile Triple Crown hike in under a year

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Not long after the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Stanford students were forced to return home, Sammy Potter ’22 began searching for an odyssey. 

Faced with the same routine day in, day out, Potter quickly grew dissatisfied with the monotony of online classes. He longed for a sense of fulfillment — one that staying home would not be able to satisfy. And so he dusted off long-neglected adventure books and plotted his own outdoor journey.

Raised in Maine near the periphery of the Appalachian Trail, hiking is second nature for Potter. While he had previously attempted parts of the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail, he decided to thru-hike, or hike from end-to-end, the entire trail. But when Potter learned about the Calendar Year Triple Crown, he was hooked and his plans changed — by several thousand miles. 

What began as a solo thru-hike from Georgia to Maine transformed into a nine-month adventure with classmate and friend Jackson Parell ’22.

The Triple Crown of hiking consists of the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails. While more than 400 individuals have completed a Triple Crown, only a handful have been able to do so in under a year. And the two believe they will be the youngest to accomplish this feat.

“Both of us are cognizant that this is pretty insane,” Potter said.

Wasting no time, Potter and Parell have already begun the first leg of their hike. The two are poised to thru-hike the three trails, which total about 7,900 miles and extend over 22 states, in 260 days. If they stay on schedule, they will end their journey just two days before the start of fall quarter. 

The two warned that their hike will likely present many challenges, especially when it comes to staying warm. They will start on the Appalachian Trail, where temperatures range from below freezing to balmy, and which presents the possibility of rain and snow.

“In the winter, one of the biggest dangers we have is getting wet, our gear getting soaked and then becoming hypothermic,” Parell said, explaining that starting in Georgia and traveling north means the weather will get progressively colder and snowpack denser. To mitigate the drastic effects of frigid temperatures, they plan to make as many town stops along the way as possible to recover and dry their gear. 

Potter and Parell have lined up sponsorships for their adventure. Outdoor companies, including L.L.Bean, are supplying gear and apparel, while essentials such as food and travel costs will be covered by funds they saved while working in the fall. 

While some parts of the trails intersect towns every few days, making it easy to restock on food, other portions are more isolated and hikers often have to go seven to eight days before finding a grocery store. The solution, they said, is using dehydrators and vacuum sealers to preserve food for as long as possible. 

Oatmeal and pancakes for breakfast, mashed potatoes for lunch and rice and beans for dinner will be dehydrated and sealed. Their families will mail them resupply packages as they progress through the trails. 

The two also said that the mental challenge hiking for nine consecutive months and forging forward for 12 hours a day will be grueling. Other hikers who have completed the Triple Crown have encouraged Potter and Parell to maintain a positive mindset. 

“There is no real way for us to prepare for that, except recognize that it is a challenge we will face,” Parell said, adding that “there are few other things that require as much focus and dedication.”

Mountain athlete Jeff Garmire, who completed a Calendar Year Triple Crown in 2016, told The Daily that while the actual trail conditions were not difficult, “thinking about the nearly inconceivable amount of miles was almost too overwhelming to really comprehend.”

Garmire said that “every day counts” and that even “waiting for an extra day for a package, or waiting out a storm can have consequences down the road,” when trying to complete the Triple Crown in under a year.

Potter and Parell, though, are hopeful that months of training will prepare them for what they will face on their trek. 

“We’ve both done funny stuff to prepare,” Potter said, though “a lot of it is just a mental adjustment.” Potter worked on a farm during the fall. To prepare for a hefty backpack, he wore his pack stuffed with 20-kilogram weights while working.

While on campus, they both had already trained for marathons, competing in races in Santa Cruz, Los Angeles and Sacramento. While the two have been able to do some hiking to prepare, public health conditions have limited their ability to travel, leaving them to focus on running and weight training. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Potter said he felt as if he was losing control of aspects of his life and saw this endeavor as an attempt to regain control, searching for meaning and purpose along the way.

“When I had this idea, it just seemed like one way I could control the outcome,” Potter said. “The idea of the Triple Crown feels liberating because all of the responsibility will fall on me.”

Potter and Parell said that while there will be time for audiobooks and exploring music as they move through the trails, they are focused on being present in nature and reflecting on their surroundings without media stimulus. 

“This trek will be my return to simplicity,” Parell said, adding that the hike presents a compelling narrative of what can be accomplished safely outdoors when the pandemic has brought society to a standstill.

They will be documenting their adventure on their Instagram account and in a podcast for Backpacker Magazine that will be released upon their return.

Contact Cameron Ehsan at cehsan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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