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What does the “hardest hike in America” mean?

The Princess of Darkness (of Trail Show fame) hanging on the edge of Vernacher Col
The Princess of Darkness (of Trail Show fame) hanging on the edge of Vernacher Col

In the past week, this article posted on Gizmodo has been going around claiming the Sierra High Route is the hardest route in the Lower 48.

My recent trip on the SHR really cemented in my mind an idea I’ve been toying with—that how difficult you find a trail or route to be is relative to the hiker—her/his experience, fitness level, skills and knowledge, and mental state.

Our group had some discussion about whether the SHR is more difficult than the Continental Divide Trail. Most of the group thought the SHR was much harder. Although objectively speaking, I know the SHR was more technical and required much more experience and knowledge than the CDT to complete it safely (which thank goodness, we all walked off the trail healthy and safe—a prospect we had put odds on before leaving for the trip), I couldn’t help but agree that I personally found the CDT to be harder.

Allgood descending 30 feet of Class 3 slab after Blue Lake Pass
Allgood descending 30 feet of Class 3 slab after Blue Lake Pass

The main reason for this was because when I hiked the CDT, I did not have the skills, knowledge, and experience that the trail required. I hiked the CDT during the shoulder season, providing me with additional challenges that I wasn’t prepared for. I was worried about not being able to make it through the snow in the San Juans, and tried to hike as many miles as I could, not giving myself adequate time for mental or physical recovery.

Meanwhile, my prep for the SHR was relatively solid (for me). The Sierras were my old stomping grounds and I had a wonderful group of mentors who taught me the skills and guided me through years of experiences in the Sierra that made me feel prepared for the trip. We hiked the SHR during a great season, and although we had some weather issues, I felt good about staying safe in those situations. Most importantly, I hiked the SHR with a great group of friends I could count on who were experienced and who made me smile all day. No matter how hard a trip, it doesn’t seem bad when you’re smiling.

If hardest hike in America means the one that does you the most bodily harm…
If hardest hike in America means the one that does you the most bodily harm…

 

Ultimately, a trip’s difficulty is an equation between you and what the trail and its conditions (especially weather) requires.

The bigger the gap, the harder you will find the route and the more likely you will be injured or find yourself in a life threatening situation. The smaller the gap, the more manageable the trip. Of course, you can always try to increase that gap by creating challenges—hiking the trail faster, hiking the trail in the off-season, adding an extension or yoyo-ing the trail, or hiking the trail with a group of troublesome people.

Walking on ridges during thunderstorms is among the challenges of the SHR
Walking on ridges during thunderstorms is among the challenges of the SHR

After a few days on the SHR, I noted that what our team of experienced thru-hikers felt must have been a little like how a normal backpacker feels when s/he first undertakes a thru-hike of the John Muir Trail. Doing the SHR felt a bit like learning a new “sport”; traveling the SHR has about in much in common with thru-hiking as dayhiking has with backpacking. It wasn’t quite thru-hiking and wasn’t quite peakbagging (or pass-bagging) and wasn’t quite rock climbing.

Steve Roper, the climber who developed the route, calls SHR-ers “travelers” and the term seems fitting for one who undertakes the journey. I felt fortunate that I felt knowledgeable enough about the three “sports” that “traveling” is rooted in, that the SHR was not the most difficult trail for me.

So when you read Gizmodo’s article, take it with a grain of salt to determine whether the SHR will be the most difficult trail for you.

 

Gear for Urban Hiking Denver

In front of the Denver landmark: Casa Bonita
In front of the Denver landmark: Casa Bonita

 

As Denverites are beginning to see the value of Walking Colfax, I was lucky enough to get interviewed by 5280 Magazine about my hike on the “longest and wickedest road in America.”

For people just getting into urban hiking, here a few tips on gear that I love when I’m taking to the road most travelled:

Go Motion Fusion Backpack Light: When visibility is key to your survival, this light makes sure that motorists know you are coming. This was especially important when walking the narrow-shouldered eastern part of Colfax later in the day (as a storm was rolling in).

Gossamer Gear Type 2 Utility Backpack: This comfortable and stylish backpack fit everything I need while also looking city ready. The convenient water bottle pockets allowed me stay hydrated. The Napoleon pocket made it so my wallet was easy to find and accessible. Lastly, I fit a change of clothes PLUS two pairs of Altra Zero Drop shoes in there. It was perfect for changing my shoes half way through the trip to keep my toes happy.

Altra Olympus 1.5 Running Shoes: My go-to shoe for urban hiking, this comfy shoe feels great when you’re pounding pavement for 50 miles. The wide toe box (Foot Shape Box) allows your toes to spread and be happy to prevent foot pain.

Altra Paradigm Running Shoes: Designed for ultramarathoners running the famed Badwater to Whitney 100+ miler ROAD race, this shoe had plenty of cushioning and was mind-blowingly lightweight. I switched to the Paradigm for the last half of my last day and my feet LOVED it. I’m never hitting an urban hike without the Paradigm again!

 

To check out the article on hiking Colfax from 5280 Magazine, you can read it here.

Initial thoughts on the Sierra High Route

Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa tackles the Sierra High Route
Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa tackles the Sierra High Route

Hey folks!

I’ve been out on the Sierra High Route these past few weeks, trading the blogging world for mountain time and the laptop for good ol’ fashioned unplugging.

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Now that I’m back, I’ll be covering the Sierra High Route in detail. It’s a hike that a lot of people have interest in, but that is viewed by many as a little intimidating (including a recent article referring to it as the “most difficult hike in the Lower 48”). Here are a few initial thoughts (snarky comments, really) about the Route and a teaser for the bigger details to come.

Felicia “Princess of Darkness” Hermosillo enjoying the SHR beauty
Felicia “Princess of Darkness” Hermosillo enjoying the SHR beauty

-Want to calculate your Sierra High Route average mileage? Take your biggest on-trail hiking day and divide by 5.

-The Sierra High Route has about as much in common with thru-hiking as dayhiking has in common with backpacking.

-Steve Roper, who wrote the Sierra High Route guidebook is a famous rock climber. He calls those who do the SHR neither “hikers” nor “climbers”. You are “travelers”, and if you can take that to heart, you’ll get a better idea of what it means to be on the Route.

-This route is not forgiving of those who rely on GPS. It requires map reading skills, using your eyeballs, and a sound head.

-The SHR can change how you think about trail and how you think about time in the outdoors, and how you think about your relationship to the landscape.

-This trip really cemented in my mind an idea I’ve been toying with—how difficult you find a trail or route to be is relative to the hiker—her/his experience, fitness level, skills and knowledge, and mental state. It depends on the person, but I’d venture to say a normal PCT thru-hike probably isn’t enough experience to tackle this one quite yet.

I’ll be posting more articles about the SHR shortly. Stay tuned!

Responsibilities of Being a sponsored athlete

Altra Running founder Brian Beckstead and I on the Chicago Architecture Boat tour put on by Altra at the Chicago Running and Fitness Event
Altra Running founder Brian Beckstead and I on the Chicago Architecture Boat tour put on by Altra at the Chicago Running and Fitness Event

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of serving one of my sponsors, Altra Zero Drop shoes, at the Chicago Running and Fitness Event for Women. During event, I was interviewed by Expedition News about what I thought was going to be an article about my Chicago Urban Thru-hike, which was sponsored by Altra. Much to my surprise, the article was actually about the responsibilities of being a sponsored outdoor athlete.

I’ve run into quite a few hikers who know that I am sponsored, and wonder what it takes to be sponsored. I would say there are two things

  • Genuine enthusiasm for the product and the company: I run into a lot of hikers who want a sponsorship—any sponsorship from any company and they don’t care if they’ve never used the product before. I get it. Hikers love free stuff. But too often, I hear stories about sponsored athletes bagging on gear to other hikers—even offering other hikers cash to trade one of their sponsored pieces of gear for another piece of gear that works better. It does you as a hiker no good to carry garbage gear. And it does the company a lot of harm when you openly complain about your sponsored gear. I would say always drop a couple Benjamins paying retail prices for gear, take it for a couple thru-hikes, and know that you love it before you even consider trying to get a sponsorship from the company.
  • Giving back: Sponsorship is a two way street. From a company’s perspective, by investing in you as an athlete, they want to know their money is well spent. By “well spent,” I mean that they are getting more bang for their buck than if they did traditional marketing. Andrew Skurka wrote an article about sponsorships back in 2011 that covers the topic well and writes about the different tiers of sponsorship, an important distinction. I always try to mention my sponsors whenever I talk to media folks and provide photos of me using the gear (that isn’t really hard to do…what with me actually using the gear all the time)
  • Be a role model: What goes around comes around. I know a few hikers who are really accomplished, but have the wisdom, foresight, responsibility, and class to realize that there is more to being a sponsored athlete than just getting free stuff. One friend specifically said that being sponsored isn’t it worth it to him because he would feel like he couldn’t party in town as much as he would like to if he we representing a company. I have the utmost respect for him for having the kind of honesty and authenticity to come to that conclusion. Additionally, I try to be a role model within the community by volunteering with several outdoor related non-profits.

 

For more info on this topic, check out the article from Expedition News about Jeff Blumenthal (who also wrote a book about sponsorships) and his take on giving back to sponsors.

Presentation at the Chinook Trail Association

 

Tomato, Allgood, and I at the northwestern terminus of the Chinook Trail
Tomato, Allgood, and I at the northwestern terminus of the Chinook Trail

In 1986, two buddies, Ed Robertson and Don Cannard, hiked up Silver Star Mountain and looked out on the Columbia River Gorge. They dreamed that one day, there could be a long distance trail that connected where they stood as far as they could see. The Chinook Trail started as a fantasy, but the two friends went the extra mile (excuse the pun) to get the Chinook Trail designated as a National Recreation Trail, to work with the Forest Service, to put pulaskis to the ground, and to establish the Chinook Trail Association. Last Sunday, Brian “Tomato” Boshart, Whitney “Allgood” LaRuffa, and I had the honor of speaking at the Chinook Trail Association annual meeting as the first people to walk the conceptual length of the trail.

Speaking to the CTA
Speaking to the CTA

Speaking at the Chinook Trail Association was the best speaking experience I’ve had in my hiking life. The Vancouver Water Resources building was filled with people who had miraculously given up the opportunity to spend a rare warm and sunny Sunday in February in the Pacific Northwest to hear us speak. Ed Robertson passed away several years ago, but his dream was clearly still alive in that room.

The Oregon desert on the Chinook Trail
The Oregon desert on the Chinook Trail

Don Cannard told us that for many years, he didn’t think he would live to see someone hike the Chinook Trail, so he was imaginably pretty excited to learn that this year, three people and a dog hiked his trail.  It was an honor to meet Don and tell him about all the fun times we had on our hike.

Most of the attendees at the Annual Meeting had been part of the organization since the trail’s conception and there were many senior citizens in the room. Tomato, Allgood, and I got the impression that a lot of people in that room were there to hear a talk they never thought would happen. As Don explained, “We always thought to complete the trail, we would have to be out there building hundreds of miles of trail. But these guys showed that the trail can be hiked now.”

The wet part of the Chinook Trail
The wet part of the Chinook Trail

At the end of our talk, the CTA awarded us with beautiful framed plaques congratulating our hike (even Karluk got one). We gave them a copy of our maps and promised them that within the thru-hiking community, the Chinook Trail is no longer a conception, but a reality that people want to do.

Allgood and I are working on putting out a guidebook and mapset for the Chinook Trail. We believe the Chinook Trail is an ideal trail for someone who wants a long distance hike experience, but can’t take more than two weeks of vacation. The Chinook Trail is close to a major airport, doesn’t require permits, and can easily be reached by friends and family for trail magic. In only 300 miles, the Chinook Trail takes hikers through diverse climates, offering hikers a CDT-like experience without CDT-logistics or CDT-commitment or the CDT-like near death experiences. It’s a perfect training hike to learn about navigation and get ready for more route-based trips.

 

When it comes down to it, hiking, just like any hobby, is kind of a selfish pursuit. Speaking to the CTA was the first time I felt that just by walking, I had done something bigger than just having a fun time. Allgood, Tomato, and I have realized what a cool experience it is as hikers to work with a smaller trail organization. There are probably dozens of smaller trails like the Chinook Trail around the U.S., waiting for hikers to turn conceptual dreams into realities.

Chicago Urban Thru-Hike: Initial Thoughts

The iconic Chicago skyscrape on the Altra Chicago Urban Thru
The iconic Chicago skyscrape on the Altra Chicago Urban Thru

Last weekend, with the support of my trail shoe, Altra Zero Drop Running, I undertook an urban hike that had never been on my radar: Chicago.

For one thing, Chicago is a pretty flat city and my urban thru-hikes thus far have been all about maximizing elevation gain and training goals within a city environment. That being said, I have done two urban thrus in Denver, but that was mostly because it was in my hometown, making transportation and logistics much easier.

Another reason why Chicago had never been on my radar is because, frankly, I was a little intimidated by Chicago. I had heard from others that parts of Chicago were not safe for a girl to walk through alone.

After hiking the Chicago thru, I found the experience incredibly empowering.

First—I was so fortunate to be accompanied for most of the trip by Altra’s VP of Marketing, Colleen, who lived in the city for 10 years and knew the architecture, urban planning, and history of the area like no other. Her thoughtful commentary accompanied with the incredible sights of Chicago made me really thing that Chi-town is one of the coolest cities ever!

Second, Colleen and I found the hike to be incredibly safe. I feel ashamed that I had been worried about hiking here.

Third, like I’ve found on many urban hikes, conceptually, it is a lot easier for me to think “I’m going to hike 60 miles through the mountains this weekend” than it is for me to think “I’m going to hike from one edge of town to another.” When I told taxi drivers that I was going to walk from McCormick Place all the way to Evanston, they gave me this crazed look like what I was proposing was impossible. It was so cool to see the city by foot and take it all in at a speed that the mind can process things at.

Here are a few photos from my trip! I’ll post the map and some tips soon for those looking to go on this sweet urban hike themselves.