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Impossible Odds Podcast

Impossible Odds Episode 4: Chill Hiking Never Lasts Long

Sammy and Jackson complete their first trail, but not without solving logistical challenges, rehabbing injuries, and outrunning snowstorms.

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Impossible Odds is Backpacker’s new podcast about two hikers’ quest to complete the Triple Crown in a calendar year.

Springtime sees Sammy and Jackson back on the east coast as they aim to tick off the rest of the Appalachian Trail. But New Hampshire and Maine dish up plenty of hurdles on their path to Mt. Katahdin. Hear their story below or subscribe to Impossible Odds on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Zoe: Two friends. 8,000 trail miles. One year. This podcast follows Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell on their attempt of the Calendar Year Triple Crown of Hiking. I’m Zoe Gates, and this is Impossible Odds.

Sammy: Merrell exists to share the simple power of being outside. Hell yeah, love that. No matter who you are, where you came from, who you love, or how you move, everyone should be welcome in the outdoors and wherever life takes us. Merrell strives to inspire because, together, we can help protect the trail that we love. Our goal is to provide thoughtfully designed, rigorously tested outdoor products that overdeliver on performance, versatility, and durability. This is important not just if you’re thru-hiking, but for everyday walking or running as well.

Sammy: So, sort of left you all with a little bit of a cliffhanger, if you will. The doctor who I was in touch with in no certain terms told me that I “must take 10 days off.”

Zoe: If you don’t know what Sammy’s talking about, let me give you a little recap. In early April, Sammy and Jackson reached the Mexico border on the Pacific Crest Trail, capping off a huge milestone for their trek. But Sammy had been experiencing terrible pain in his feet and a call with a doctor resulted in an unfortunate prognosis. He had macerations between his toes, basically softening of the skin that resulted from wearing the same shoes for too long. Taking any time off the trail, let alone 10 days, will send Sammy and Jackson drastically off course for their Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt.

Sammy: I mulled over this decision for I don’t know how many waking hours, but I didn’t sleep for the first night after the PCT. Not just because I was excited, but also because this was a very tough decision to make.

At the end of the day, I decided that this was a risk that frankly I was willing to take. I know I’m going to have to keep really good tabs on how my feet are doing from this point forward in hopes that issues don’t persist or come back. In the three days, two and a half days that we took off in between Southern California and returning to Pennsylvania, these issues almost completely dissipated.

I was wearing flip flops and hardly walking around at all. I felt as though I was willing to take this risk because I was feeling so good. Take it slow, monitor what’s going on and keep sending it on the Appalachian Trail.

Zoe: So, Sammy and Jackson head back east to where they left off on the AT in late winter. With much of the snow melted, they hope to hike from Pennsylvania all the way to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, completing the AT and taking off their first full trail of the Triple Crown.

Sammy: As we left the Pacific Crest Trail for the time being in the beginning of April, for the first time we had some clue about what each trail was going to be like because simply we had now been on each trail.

Obviously northern sections are completely different from southern sections, but there’s a level of familiarity that you grow as you’re on any trail. I think the biggest jump in familiarity that occurs on any trail is in the first 200 to 300 miles. At least it feels that way to me so far.

So it’s a huge boost of confidence just having even stepped on all three of the trails and really being at the point that we are right now. Returning to the AT, it feels like home in a weird way. That’s where we started this year on January 1, all the way back down at Springer Mountain, at what feels like forever ago.

And we head back to the Appalachian Trail to hopefully finish it out on this second stint going north from Boiling Springs, just over 1,000 miles left to go. The mid-Atlantic states of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut have frankly been the definition of hell. When you’re in the dead of winter and constantly climbing up and down big things, just worried about making it through the day or making it through the next three days with enough food and enough sleep, that’s enough to occupy your mind and maybe seem overwhelming. With this level of pleasant walking, my mind has actually begun to wander a little bit and I’ve been pondering some sort of larger questions. For example, returning to the reasons that I’m out here, which I think have begun to evolve a bit.

I wrote a lot about this prior to coming out on this journey because I wanted to be able to, in those deep moments of struggle, be able to clearly tell myself why I am doing this. The overall answer is that I want to live and I want to feel emotional depth and breadth and physical depth and breadth, and go to the deepest parts of myself in order to accomplish something. That still remains completely true. But I also think when you have opportunities such as this to hike 25 pretty easy miles and not listen to music all day, really just listen to the sounds around you, at some point, you go in and out of a state of flow. It’s inevitable that you’re going to be present at times, but also sink deeply into memories and reflections of past life. Sounds both deep and irreverent at the same time—or maybe nonsensical is the right word. But frankly it’s incredibly peaceful to be out here right now, and I’m so grateful for that.

Zoe: But on the Triple Crown, chill hiking never lasts long. As Sammy and Jackson push north, there are still plenty of challenges to keep them on their toes.

Sammy: Well, that is some fog right there. A whole lot of fog we’re walking into. Holy shit, that’s some snow. The minute we entered New England—Connecticut, to be exact—from New York. April 22, who would have thought. There’s some snow coming down. A little bit, but it’s noticeable. That is snow.

The White Mountains were one of the craziest experiences that I think I’ve ever had in my life. I’m just now getting a chance to finally record this because throughout the entirety of the White Mountains, I have gotten next to no sleep, maybe four or five hours.

So day one, we’ve been in New Hampshire for a bit, we head up on top of Mt. Moosilauke, which is the first 4,000-footer that you go over in the White Mountains on the AT. Absolutely beautiful views, really, really stunning. Come down Moosilauke, immediately go up onto Mt. Wolf followed by the two kinsmen: South Kinsmen, and then North Kinsmen. These take us far longer than expected, and we actually don’t get down to the trailhead until 12:30 a.m. This probably wouldn’t be a problem if we were just on a regular schedule of getting eight hours of sleep, waking up, and finishing the day at 7 or 8 p.m. or whenever we decide to finish. But, because of the nature of the trail right now, it’s going up and down over and under treeline every few miles.

We really need to plan out exactly where we’re going to start and where we’re going to finish each day throughout the section. Additionally, at that point, we saw that two days out from there, a storm was brewing through the White Mountains, specifically a storm was going to hit Mt. Washington.

Mt. Washington is the tallest mountain in the White Mountains, the tallest mountain in New Hampshire, and it has unbelievably bad weather. People die there all the time. It can be super warm 3,000 feet below and be a hailstorm up on top of Mt. Washington. That is a very regular occurrence.

That’s all as a means of saying that when there is a storm, Mt. Washington is not the place that you want to be, and based on the schedule that we were on, we were on pace to go over Mt. Washington on the day that the severe storm was coming in. Estimated 40 to 50 mph winds and a possible snowstorm as well.

Zoe: So they decide to improvise. In order to avoid Washington on the day of the storm. Sammy and Jackson decide to skip ahead. They’ll hitch a ride with their friend Philip to the Presidentials and tag Washington and the surrounding peaks a day early. Once that’s done, they can backtrack to the section they missed and connect the dots.

Sammy: If we’re going to do the Presidentials in this way, we know we’re going to do it in one day, a single day, and that is 26 miles, over 10,000 feet of elevation gain, and 10 different peaks. Naturally we got to get a good night’s sleep beforehand. Jackson just turns to me and goes, “Why don’t we get a clean four hours of sleep and then send it?”

We kind of burst out laughing at that, at the absurdity of being rested on four hours of sleep. I was just super grateful to have a partner with me who was just that amped on such  little sleep and can just ride that wave of adrenaline. I’m going to see if I can name each one of the Presidential peaks that we were going over without looking at a map.

Okay, so you got Madison. Adams, Jefferson, Clay—Clay isn’t really a Presidential, but we went over it anyway—Washington, Monroe, Eisenhower, Pierce, Jackson, and Webster. We get started on Madison, get up there around 8 a.m. There is not a single soul in sight. A snow-covered mountain with very little coverage and quite windy, but the experience of being above treeline in the White Mountains is just unlike any other because you can see so far. I’m riding on like four hours of sleep right now. A lot of vert left to go. A lot of vert behind us. My knees are absolutely jackhammered right now, but somehow, somehow I feel alright.

And I think these 360-degree views and wind to my face has a little bit to do with it. This place is something special.

Zoe: We’ll be right back.

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Zoe: The Presidential Traverse crosses some of the most rugged hiking in New England. The tremendous elevation gain is only the start of the challenge. Almost all of the 20-some miles of the traverse are above treeline, exposing hikers to the vicious weather that this part of the White Mountains are known for at every turn.

Sammy: We get up at Jefferson, and that’s when the fatigue really starts hitting me. I crank out some tea that I brewed up earlier in the morning just to get that caffeine boost a little bit. My heart starts beating a little bit faster and it really gets me amped for the climb for Washington. I’ve been up to Washington at least five times in my life, and while being up there, it’s a pretty intense climb to get to the summit. We reach the summit; in the summer, it’s usually packed with hundreds of tourists who can drive up there, but in the winter that road is closed and there’s literally one person who is manning the weather station there who we didn’t even see.

Being up there by ourselves is just such a special and intense experience because it really feels like another planet. The rocks in cairns have ice coming off of them because of the way that water and snow freezes on them, and then the wind whips so fast that it almost creates sculptures on itself.

I started to feel like we ourselves were turning into alpine frost because it was fricking cold up there, even in early May. We descended somewhere around Pierce, and the sun began setting. We’re just unbelievably fatigued at that point.

Zoe: After Mt. Pierce, there are still two peaks and about 5 miles left of the traverse. Since Sammy and Jackson got a ride from a friend who they’ll link up with later, they’re not carrying full packs.

Sammy: It got very dark as we were approaching Jackson, and it was also quite snowy. We didn’t have our microspikes with us. We probably should have, but we wanted to go super light. We really just sent it through there. I think where it started to really hurt for me was actually coming down from Webster. After going over Webster, the trail just drops off into a cliff with roots and crags. I could really start to feel it on my knees, my joints. We got to the bottom, and Phillip was picking us up, which is really nice because he was picking us up to bring us back to the other trailhead to connect our footsteps and make sure we didn’t miss any sections of trail.

When he picked us up, Jackson and I were just completely deliriously tired. The stage of delirious where anything is funny. We were just laughing our ass off like we were on laughing gas or something. In total, it took us like 16 hours to do the Presidential Traverse. We felt wasted after that day, just absolutely wrecked by the beast that is the Presidential Traverse: 26 miles, 10,000 feet of vertical elevation, 10 peaks. The most special piece about the entire day for us was reflecting on where we were just eight or nine months earlier. When we hiked the Presidential Traverse together this past summer, that’s when we decided that we were going to hike the Calendar Year Triple Crown together. To return to what feels like old stomping grounds and reflect on how far we’ve come since then, and how much further we have to go, but just how naive we were at the time when we first thought of the idea, was really, really special.

Zoe: With the Presidentials behind them, Sammy and Jackson cross into Maine, which is special both as Sammy’s home state and the final state on the AT. Eventually they run into their first logistical challenge in Maine: the crossing of the Kennebec River. During peak thru-hiking season, a canoe ferry shuttles hikers across the river every day because random hydroelectric releases make it unsafe to ford. But Sammy and Jackson aren’t hiking during peak season.

Sammy: The Kennebec River is a logistical challenge for every AT hiker. It is one of the only rivers on the AT that is really recommended for you not to ford. This early in the year, we didn’t know what the river was gonna look like. It’s too early in the year for the ferry service to operate. We need to figure out our own way across the river. I was able to coordinate with one of my family friends, an incredible dude named Dennis, and he came up with a canoe of his own and helped shuttle us across the river. It was awesome getting out of the woods, coming down to the Kennebec, seeing Dennis on the other side; he made his way over in the canoe to get me and Jackson over. When we got to the other side and had already put the canoe back, Jackson’s like, “Oh shit.” And I’m like, “What’s going on?” And he goes, “I left my poles on the other side.” We’re like, “Okay. Let’s just go grab the canoe. We’ll go back over, do this all again.” But Jackson’s like, “No, no, no. I can swim it.” I’m like, “What?” He strips down and proceeds to backstroke all the way across the river to the other side, gets his poles and backstrokes back. I just thought that was super badass.

We’re at about mile 92 of the 100 Mile Wilderness. We got word today that Katahdin is opening the day after tomorrow. It’s incredibly exciting because we don’t have to wait.

Zoe: Seasonal closure has happened on Mt. Katahdin every year when winter conditions settle into Baxter State Park. For most northbound through hikers, the challenge is to reach Katahdin before it closes in late fall. But for Sammy and Jackson, they’ll arrive just around the time it’s opening in spring.

Sammy: So our plan is to camp at the final shelter of the 100 Mile Wilderness, which is about 3 miles outside the entrance of Baxter State Park. Wake up tomorrow, get some food, and make our way to Katahdin Stream Campground, which is 5 miles below the summit of Mt. Katahdin tomorrow.

We should have plenty of time to do that. Get a little bit of sleep there, wake up around midnight—this is tomorrow night—and get up to Katahdin for the summit at sunrise on Friday morning. There’ll be a hopefully beautiful and a dramatic, dramatic finish for us. We’re pushing pretty hard to make it happen.

It’s 8 p.m. already, and we still got 5 more miles to get to the shelter. It’s going to be a late night and then hopefully we get enough rest and have things be chill tomorrow, so we can set up for a good sunrise summit and not have to rush and just enjoy it.

It feels like the stars are aligning a little bit, and we are finally going to finish our first trail. Finally going to finish our first trail. We’re finally, finally going to finish our first trail at the end of the fifth month. I don’t want to jinx it though. We’re about 1.3 miles from Katahdin Stream Campground where we’re going to camp tonight. It’s about 7:15, so I estimate we’ll get there a little bit before 7:45, and we’re going to camp for about five hours. Wake up, eat a little bit of breakfast, if you can call it that at 1 a.m., and start heading up Katahdin. We’ll be doing it all in the dark.

It’s going to be pretty cold. It looks like the summit is going to be like 20 and 30 mph winds, so probably a lot colder with wind chill. It’s starting to dawn on me just how crazy this experience on the Appalachian Trail has been for the past really five months.

No, we haven’t spent all five months on trail, a good month and a half plus was spent on the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, but really from January 1 to now, which is the end of May, a constant in my mind has been the Appalachian Trail, and it’s coming to a close.

Every day has been different; every day has been beautiful. Every day has been difficult at one point or another. Some days are a lot more difficult than others. For example, today has been an easy trip down memory lane whereas yesterday I got over 150 bug bites, was chafing everywhere, and feeling disgusting.

This trail has really taught me a lot. I don’t think I can really begin to unpack that quite yet. I think one of the biggest things it has taught me is composure, taking things as they come, and understanding that how you feel in this moment will probably not be how you’re feeling in an hour or the next day.

I’m also just feeling that sort of anxiousness that you get before something big is about to happen. Summiting Katahdin, hopefully around 4:30 a.m. in the freezing cold, it feels like a big thing. We’ll be the first northbound finishers this year. I’m a little nervous about how tomorrow is going to go.

I don’t want this trail to end because it feels like the real world is going to hit me once this trail ends, even though I know that I have a couple other couple other trails to finish off and a long way to go on those. This is big.

Amazing, glad to be alive, baby. I can’t believe it’s 5:30 a.m. That’s fucking wild, man. Whoo!

I’ll have to drink this beer on the way down. Katahdin, baby! I’m just gonna take 30 seconds, I’ll be sad if I don’t. I’m just gonna take 30 seconds. I’ll catch you up to you guys.

Zoe: Next time on Impossible Odds.

Sammy: I don’t even say this, but in case this fire catches up to me, I love my family so much. I love my family so much. Nothing I love more than my family and my home.

Zoe: This podcast was written and hosted by Sammy Potter with contributions from Jackson Parell. Our producers are Louisa Albanese and me, Zoe Gates. Woolly Music is our composer and sound designer. Tim Mossa is our assistant story editor. If you enjoyed this episode of Impossible Odds, please subscribe and leave us a review.

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