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Impossible Odds Podcast

Episode 3: Desert Tribulations

Sammy and Jackson face their first medical problem on the trail after hiking in worn boots for too long, and they have to decide whether to push through or rest.

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

Sammy and Jackson transfer trails to stay on pace, but desert hiking doesn’t mean smooth sailing for the pair. Then, on the first leg of the Pacific Crest Trail, they must learn to balance their safety with their speed. Hear their story below, or subscribe to Impossible Odds on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Sammy: [singing] Why don’t you poke your head through those clouds overhead? It don’t mean nothing. Your sunshine, sunshine come and warm me up, cause I’m cold as fuck. Come on, sun. Won’t you come on out? I would love to hang out with you.

Zoe: 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.

By mid-February, the snow on the Appalachian Trail had become too deep to hit their mileage goals. With half of that trail under their belts, Sammy and Jackson headed west for the milder conditions of the Continental Divide Trail.

Sammy: Already within the first 5 miles, the CDT feels so rugged. I’m carrying 12 pounds of water right now, 6 liters. I assumed that my bag would end up being lighter on the CDT because I switched out my big warm, sleeping bag for a lighter one, some other adjustments like that. But right now, this has to be at least 40 pounds. Geez. I’m just not used to this pack weight right now. Hopefully I’ll get used to it. Also we’ve lost the trail probably five times already within the first little bit. There’s just not that many markers.

This one’s definitely a lot more rugged. Technically I am on the trail, but I can see no trail and there’s no evidence of any trail and that’s just how it works on parts of the Continental Divide Trail. You can not see where you are at all. We’re just in open plains, and I’m just following my map because there is no marketing anywhere or evidence of a beaten path. But I’m on trail.

It’s taken us about an hour and a half to go 1.5 miles, so that’s like a mile per hour, and it’s 8 a.m. now. The river is so cold. We’ve crossed it 15 times already. My feet are so cold and wet, and we have another 48 miles to go on this river.

I’ve been thinking all day that this doesn’t seem like a place that’s meant for human habitation. Holy crap, I’m coming up on a dead cow. Oh, it smells terrible. That is so hard to look at. The desert is no joke. Thank God I still have a few liters of water left.

Zoe: Unlike on the Appalachian Trail, the desert sections of the CDT aren’t flushed with natural water sources. Instead hikers rely on caches, cattle troughs, and even tractor tires that have been repurposed into algae-filled water tanks.

Sammy: This is the sketchiest water source. The fish living in it are pretty sketchy.

Jackson: What are you talking about?

Sammy: You know what, if fish live there, it must be a great spot.

Jackson: I feel like the one yesterday was a little sketchier than this. Just because it was rusty, fishy. Way, way murkier.

Sammy: Very Into the Wild type. I wonder which one of us will get Giardia first. Maybe we’ll get it together.

I feel so fucking beaten down right now. I now spent two months on the AT, just freezing cold. Couldn’t catch a break with conditions. I know I’m complaining a lot, which isn’t good, but it’s supposed to be 10 degrees tonight and I haven’t had service in a while, so I haven’t been able to text my family and friends, let them know I’m alright.

It just feels so isolated and lonely for lack of a better way to put it. I want to lean into the remoteness of it, but damn it’s just fucking cold. I’ve had moments where it’s like, “What am I doing?”

So last night we had quite the ordeal coming into Silver City, we were running pretty late. It was like 8:45, 9, 9:30 p.m.. It was very dark. Jackson’s about 200 yards ahead of me, but all of a sudden I just see his headlamp stop moving very abruptly. I get a little bit closer to him and he turns around, says pretty calmly, but definitely with urgency, “Bear.” We’ve been in New Mexico for quite some time here, and we haven’t really run into any bears. The prospect of getting attacked by a bear at night is a hundred times scarier to me than getting attacked during the day. I catch up to Jackson, we started making a lot of noise, banging our poles, stomping on the ground, all the things you’re supposed to do.

And I’m looking at these eyes. I see right next to it there’s a second pair of eyes. Two bears? Now I’m really sketched out. I could feel my heart racing, adrenaline begins to kick in, and that’s when Jackson points out to me a third pair of eyes. And then I see a fourth pair of eyes. Then all of a sudden, we go from a very calm night of listening to Jack Johnson and Taylor Swift to the final scene of “The Gray” starring Liam Neeson.

So we’re making a lot of noise. We are doing our best to stay calm, backing away somewhat. It feels to us like they are approaching and getting a little bit closer. As we’ve been standing there, my eyes have slowly started to adjust. I can see the outline of it better. It’s at that precise moment that Jackson turns to me and goes, “That’s a fucking cow.” and I just repeat it back to him. “Yeah, yeah man. That’s a cow.” We began to see the outlines of all the other “bears.” So we felt pretty stupid; I’m not going to lie. I hesitated to even record this because misconception of wildlife is pretty embarrassing. I know probably some folks listening are reconsidering whether they should listen to this, but frankly, that was pretty scary. I will not hesitate to laugh at myself and look back on this with comical amusement. The stakes that surrounded this situation, I think were very real.

Zoe: After just three weeks in New Mexico. It’s time to transfer over from the Continental Divide Trail to the Pacific Crest Trail in order to hit their permit start date.

Sammy: Woke up today, first day on the PCT and 1 inch of snow has fallen over my head. It melted within a couple hours from the sun, but it just felt like a bad omen on the first day here to have snow. Let’s hope that’s not a trend. We are initially going to go southbound from Kennedy Meadows, about 700 miles into the trail, down to the Mexican border. Our reason for doing this is because when the permits for the Pacific Crest Trail came out earlier this year, we had hoped that we could thru the entire Appalachian Trail prior to switching trail. We applied for a much different permit than the one that we would need given that we needed to stop the Appalachian Trail halfway through due to snow.

At that point it was really difficult to get a northbound permit going from the border. We had to decide to split the trail into two, and that was very easy to get a southbound permit from Kennedy Meadows. Kennedy Meadows sits just at the base of the Sierra Nevadas, which means we won’t be going through the Sierra Nevadas on this stint.

We’ll be going on a later stint when we come back to the PCT. Since we’re going south, the hope is that the weather gets better throughout. It’s also very desert-ous. There are some mountains, and there is some elevation, contrary to most conceptions of the desert, but going south, we are hoping that we literally run away from winter instead of running right toward it like we’ve been doing.

It’s about 4:15 p.m. We’re going up to the summit of this relatively small mountain. It’s only like 8,000 feet. We were walking right into the storm. It’s the center of the snowstorm is right at the top of this mountain. We got to go up to go down, so we’ll hopefully buckle in for a couple hours and get over the top before sunset.

We crested that mountain and the storm finally caught up to us, and it’s windy. It’s cold. Snowy. My water froze again. If we are in Southern California, it just reminded me so much of being on the AT. I know it’s fun, but when are we going to be done with winter?

Zoe: We’ll be right back.

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Sammy: A little mileage update for you because at the end of the day, that’s, what’s going to determine whether we finish this trek or not. I’ve been keeping really diligent tallies of how many miles we’re doing, whether we’re hitting targets or not, and what we need to average. As of day 84, we have completed 1,123 miles on the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia, all the way up to Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania. Lehigh Road, that’s where we left off there. We have completed 403 miles on the Continental Divide Trail all the way from the border up to Grants, New Mexico. We have additionally completed 420 miles of the PCT from Kennedy Meadows down to where we’re camping tonight on the PCT. We are on pace at the moment of 23.18 miles per day including off days and travel days. Obviously not at the 30 miles a day pace that we had intended to do at the start of this entire trek, but I think we were hit with reality pretty quickly that winter and specifically the Appalachian Trail was not going to allow us 30 miles a day.

We’re keeping our spirits up. We’re feeling good for the most part. Generally we’re feeling super lucky, super grateful to be out here, still fighting. We’re still doing our best, and 23 miles a day is nothing to scoff at. We’re pretty proud of it, but we’re also faced with the reality that we’re going to have to ratchet up pretty soon.

And the PCT Southern California section is a pretty good opportunity to do that because it’s relatively flat. We are approaching San Jacinto, which is the largest mountain in the Southern California section of the Pacific Crest Trail, in a couple of days and pretty nervous about it. It’s about 10,000 feet of elevation over 25 miles.

And we’re about three days out from it. It’s the first day that we’ve met a couple of northbounders who have successfully passed through it. All the other northbounders who we had run into had hitched around it. Because of our parameters, we’re just not okay with hitching around it.

I’ve been looking at this mountain for months and months and really looking forward to summiting it. But I don’t want to do so at the cost of danger. We’re just going to have to use our best judgment, not worry too much about timelines, just worry about what’s directly in front of us.

Zoe: Eventually, it’s time for Sammy and Jackson to begin their ascent of San Jacinto. Despite some questionable conditions, they decided to go for it, knowing they can bail if things feel uncomfortable.

Sammy: We’ve got a bit of a late start because we were staying with our friend Ryan in Palm Desert, near the trail. He picked us up and brought us back the next day. We got about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, or about 16 miles or so. We had about 10 miles to go to the summit. We camped around 7,000 feet. Next day, we woke up, immediately hit snow. We were postholing for a good section of that. That was super fatiguing and also mentally fatiguing because it was slippery, and there were some exposed faces there.

We started feeling a bit of the altitude. We summited, which is very exciting. The view on the top was just spectacular. It was crazy sitting there in shorts because it was pretty warm out in 3 feet of snow. We started to make our way down the sketchy section of this descent of San Jacinto.

It’s basically a 10-mile stretch going southbound, which is the direction we’re going. It starts with a rock slide, and then you hit these really exposed cliffs called Apache Peak. When there is snow, really any amount of snow, it’s at super high risk of being very slippery. There’s a couple-thousand-foot dropoff from these ledges recommended to have microspikes and an ice ax.

What happens with the warming that we’ve had recently, is that early in the day, it will be very crusty. Pretty good for microspikes. You can get decent purchase, but as the day goes on, the ice underneath the snow sticks around and is very slippery, but the snow itself gets pretty slack. You can’t trust where you’re stepping really at all, because your feet are gonna go right through the snow and get to the ice.

So, that’s where an ice ax comes in handy. We did not have ice axes with us, which in my head, I am now punching myself for. Apache Peak is where a kid named Trevor unfortunately passed away last year. One moment, he’s just hiking. The next moment, he falls hundreds and hundreds of feet. It was literally within two days of the one-year anniversary of his passing that we would, would have gone through it.

We’ve run into, of the five people who went through it. Two of them had ice axes, three of them did not. We then ran into two more folks who did go through it with the ice ax and they were actually pretty encouraging that it wasn’t too bad.

And Jackson switched his mind a little bit and wanted to go with the other plan of okay, let’s go into it, but if it does seem too sketchy we’ll be comfortable turning around and. I think what really worried me about that plan was there’s multiple places along that 10-mile stretch that are sketchy. That’s just not a place I wanted to risk. We’ve got another 5,000 miles to hike this year, more than 5,000, and one small step can not only ruin that, but also ruin our life.

It didn’t seem worth it to me, especially when we can come back when there’s no snow and do that section. The heights will be the same, but it won’t be slippery. I made the decision that we wouldn’t go. But to be frank, that didn’t feel very good to me. I don’t like being the one to choose to not do something.

It was a blast on my ego, and my pride has somewhat been hurting a little bit since then.

So we skipped about 24 miles, basically one day’s worth of hiking. We will have to come back and do that at some point, of which I am not yet sure. We will cross that bridge later on. I know this will be on my mind until we do it, but now we got about 120 left to the border and can finish that in four and a half days. We get back to the AT on April 7 after that.

Zoe: As Sammy and Jackson approach the Southern Terminus of the PCT, Sammy begins to encounter the pair’s first real medical problem of the trip.

Sammy: One of the things that we need to plan out very meticulously is when we get new shoes. I started hurting and getting these bruises. There’s been just so much pressure on them. It is just absolutely brutally painful. It’s really nobody’s fault but my own. I should’ve planned this out. I wanted to do it every 500 miles or so, but I did a shitty job planning when I would get my next pair of shoes. We’re going on 700 miles now with the same pair. Around the 500 mile mark, I really felt them breaking down. The soles pretty much lack support and just get holes everywhere.

I mean, they’re great shoes, but any shoe only lasts so long. I’m just a little worried about getting an infection or something on my feet. We’ve only got about 10 days left to the border. I’m slowing us down right now because I can’t walk more than like two miles an hour with this, even after taking ibuprofen.

So I think we’ll still get there in 10 days, and I may have to see a doctor though. Jesus, an infection would be terrible.

Three days out from the border. Feet are just getting worse, and they get worse throughout the day. It starts off fine in the morning if I wash my feet the night before, but throughout the day, they get worse and worse.

We were taking three days off in between getting to the Mexican border on the PCT and heading back over to the AT linking up at Boiling Springs where we left off before. Actually really looking forward to that; that is my saving grace right now.

So we made it to the border, and my first thought was, “Thank God, I can finally see a doctor.” It’s funny that we had this sort of moment. Literally my only thought was about getting medical attention for my feet. Anyways, getting to the border was really interesting.

You can see the border wall from like 10 or 15 miles away. It’s this super ominous looking structure. At least where the PCT finishes, we didn’t really run into too many border patrol. Think we ran into one or two. But it’s interesting because there’s this big black wall.

I think it’s an inevitable thought they have when you’re there. This border is just a wall. That’s all it is. It’s a fun PCT tradition to put your pole on the other side of it. It’s the exact same on the other side. It’s grass. It’s farmland. It’s Mexico. It’s no different than 10 feet on the other side where you’re standing on the PCT. It’s so arbitrary, it really is.

So here’s where we’re at with these feet issues. I went to see my dad’s friend. He took a look at my feet and thought they were all right. I didn’t have a staph infection, he was sure of that, which was a weight off my chest. He sent the photos and he took it to his friend who is a podiatrist. The next morning I received this text from the foot doctΩor: “He’s obviously an experienced hiker, and in retrospect knows he should have gotten those new boots and changes of socks. He has maceration of the plantar toe web spaces. He absolutely needs to take 10 days off for his feet to recover, mostly bare feet with minimal walking. If he goes back out on the Northern Appalachians before they’re healed, it will recur rapidly and it will be cold and wet there into June.”

Yikes. Oh boy. He’s recommending that I take 10 days off. I just got a text from my parents being like: “I hope you will take this medical advice. It will get worse. Don’t be an idiot.”

10 days, though. It’s risk management in a way, right? Because obviously the less risky thing to do is to take some time off and let my feet heal. But it’s very tempting to just try to ignore that order, go with it, and see how we’re doing in a week or so. I talked to Jackson about it, and he’s obviously super supportive. Best partner I could ask for.

It’s my choice, really, of whether to heed this medical advice or not. My feet are feeling a lot better and part of that is probably mental and part of that is probably me just being a little bit naive about how bad it could get with a wet and cold environment on AT. I feel like so much of this journey and attempt is risk analysis and making decisions about whether to send it or save it for, for another day. This feels like a big one to me.

Zoe: Next time on Impossible Odds.

Sammy: A storm was brewing through the White Mountains, specifically a storm was going to hit Mount Washington. Mount 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 when there is a storm. Mount Washington is not the place that you want to be.

Zoe: This podcast was written and hosted by Sammy Potter with contributions from Jackson Parell. Our producers are Louisa Albanese and me, Zoe Gates. Woolley 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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