You’ve the thru-hiked Pacific Crest Trail and the Appalachian Trail, and this month you’re setting out for a 1,200+ mile thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail. Such amazing accomplishments! How did you decide to do your first long distance thru-hike? What are some of the lessons you learned in your past thru-hikes that you’ll take forward to this one?
As an undergraduate, I organized and led excursions for my university’s Outing Club. One Thanksgiving break, I planned a four-day backpacking trip, which started at Springer Mountain in Georgia, the southern terminus of the Appalachian trail. One of my friends who came along had recently thru hiked the AT. Her stories convinced me to keep going, so the following spring I did! I was hooked and went back to do the PCT in 2012. I subscribe to the idea that you “either hike one trail or three.” It’s addicting.
Each trail is unique. The AT has a reputation for being physically challenging and, in 2009, was incredibly rainy. The PCT is diverse and requires preparation for many different conditions. The CDT’s motto is “Embrace the Brutality.” I guess I’ll find out exactly what that means shortly! But yes, my prior experience has taught me some lessons that help me prepare for any hike. For example, I used to carry 30-40 lbs and wear heavy boots. Now my base weight is 11 lb and I wear trail runners. I know the sleep system I like, I know how best to schedule my days with the weather and daylight, and I know that I can never ever pack a sufficient number of Snickers bars.
One big challenge of planning major adventures is the unpredictability of weather conditions. This year, above average snow pack and dangerous avalanche conditions will make parts of the Continental Divide Trail impassable. How are you adapting and rerouting?
My original plan was to begin in New Mexico and hike north this year. However, it would be a bad move for me to hike (or rather mountaineer) alone through Colorado with this crazy snow. So I took an extra week to plan an alternate route. I am currently in Missoula, MT getting ready to drive to Roger’s Pass and hike south. My new goal is to make it to Steamboat by the end of the summer. It will be gorgeous and I am equally excited for this section! However, one major downside of these snowy conditions is that many other thru hikers have also changed their plans to hike north or south from different points on the trail, making it less likely that I will meet folks out there with whom I can walk. This means lots of talking and singing to myself in grizzly bear country.
You just successfully defended your Ph.D. last month, and are kicking off a new chapter of life with a big adventure! Can you tell us about how your relationship with the outdoors has inspired your career path?
My career path in biogeochemistry and relationship with the outdoors are one in the same. Field work has introduced me to fabulous and challenging places that I’m sure I would not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise. Sometimes I wonder if would have made the choice to be a field ecologist if I had not already developed my relationship with the outdoors. Feeling at home and confident outside has improved and opened up my life tons of ways.
Your hike is raising support for The Cairn Project’s programs expanding access to the outdoors for more young women. What about this mission resonates with you?
It is partly selfish! Like pretty much anything else in life, experiencing the outdoors is better when everyone knows that they are welcome and realizes how capable they are. Many folks are able to make this discovery themselves, which is wonderful. However, some others, including myself, need an opportunity. I was fortunate to meet friends in college who brought me with them and taught me how to plan a backpacking trip, which sparked a life-long love of being outside. I have seen it happen many times for others after a camp or hike or story they heard. The more opportunities for young women to find their special connection to the outdoors, the better.