Episode 2: Hiking Toward Winter

Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell have to hike through multiple feet of snow on the AT. Are conditions bad enough to bail and transition to the CDT early?

Photo: Photo Illustration by Robs Sawyer

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

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

Sammy and Jackson set out on their first of the three major long trails, the Appalachian Trail. But there’s a reason most thru-hikers start their journey in spring, and the incessant snow forces them to question their plans. 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. 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: Damn, bro, 27 miles. That’s it. It’s going to be a big day. It’s day seven. We are waking up at 5:45. We are now starting an incline of about 3,000 feet, trying to make it 27 miles today. We’ll be alright as long as we get to Fontana Dam. This should set us up nicely, so we can have a shorter day going into the Smokies, which will also be a huge elevation gain.

Zoe: Most northbound thru-hikers of the AT start in spring so that as they hike north, the weather gets warmer. But for Sammy and Jackson, starting in January means they’ll hike straight into the dead of winter. Just a week into their journey, they’re already hiking more daily miles than a typical thru-hiker might ever complete in a single day. And that’s with less daylight, colder nights and snow.

Sammy: We’re ascending about 2,000 feet. I’m not that worried about ascending because that’ll actually warm us up. It will be fine to climb, but we’re going to stay at about 4,000 feet. If it is this cold down here, it’s probably at least three or four degrees colder up there. Plus, the winds from the ridgeline, and then the original ridgeline itself, and the dark will be a little bit sketchy.

So, it’s going to be an interesting last part of the day today. We entered the Smokies this morning, knowing that there was a likely snowstorm coming—estimated 4 to 8 inches. The first few miles going up a couple thousand feet in elevation, it was rain, and when we got above 4,000 feet, it turned to snow. Now walking in about 3 or 4 inches of snow, it’s not too bad, but nobody has walked on this before us. It was pretty slow going, and it’s also obvious there’s really no one out here right now, except for us, probably for many, many miles.

In 2001, Flyin’ Brian Robinson became the first ever person to complete a Calendar Year Triple Crown. I haven’t been able to find a ton online about Flyin’ Brian’s hike, but there is an awesome New York Times article about his dramatic finish at Katahdin, where he exclaimed on a blustery day “I did the impossible!” into the void of snow before him. Seriously, check it out if you can.
It’s pretty dramatic. And like us, he started by hiking northbound on the AT and made it all the way up to the Green Mountains in Vermont before the snow got too deep to keep moving at a good pace. So he decided to transfer over to the CDT. Of the 10 or so documented Calendar Year Triple Crowners up to this point, almost, with a couple badass exceptions, all have done it this way, flipping between trails in order to avoid the very worst of winter. Some days I look forward to not having my sweaty shirt freeze to my skin whenever I stop, and the change of scenery that will come when we transfer trails. But for the most part, I’m savoring our time on the AT.

Just passing by Humpback Mountain on our way down to Waynesboro where we’re going to take our second zero day.

Zoe: A zero day is what thru-hikers call a rest day. You know, zero miles? Zero days are for resting sore legs, doing laundry, and resupplying on food.

Sammy: So we have about 12 miles to go as the sun is setting. Jesus, that has to be one of the most expansive sunsets I’ve seen so far—everything from pink to blue to aqua green. I have to turn my back on the sunset to go over the mountain, but it seems almost evil to turn my back on the sunset this beautiful.

It’s always really fun to be able to see the mountains you just climbed over. You can understand the ridgelines in a new way.

Zoe: Every thru-hiker who takes on a long trail is eventually bestowed a trail name. Usually given by another hiker one meets along the way, a trail name becomes one’s alias while hiking. It almost always has a special meaning. A trail name might refer to a notable quirk or maybe a funny anecdote or something other hikers notice about you. Here’s Sammy.

Sammy: The problem for us is we started the AT before the popular thru-hiker season, and we really haven’t met any other hikers. Actually, we haven’t met any other hikers. So we decided to give ourselves trail names.

Zoe: Jackson became Woody, like in the movie Toy Story.

Sammy: I’m Buzz Lightyear. You know the guy. Not flying, just falling with style. An iconic duo, best buddies and always on a ridiculous adventure, getting into all types of shenanigans. Honestly, it only seemed fitting. So along with our trail names, we’ve also got a new catchphrase going: “To Katahdin and beyond.”

I’m really starting to see why people usually do the AT starting in mid- or late-March. We’re just getting creamed with snowstorm after snowstorm after snowstorm. You have a little patch today that’s just an inch of snow, but it looks like there’s another snowstorm coming in tomorrow, estimated 3 to 5 inches. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s fresh snow, and we’re breaking trail. We’re probably going to get 20 miles maximum, and that is just crushing ourselves. That’s insane fatigue for 20 miles going through that much snow.

So much snow today. It snowed last night while we were in Little Laurel Shelter. And when we woke up, there were about 8 new inches on the ground, which is in addition to 5 inches from the other day. So there’s over a foot in a lot of places. Having the first serious thoughts about transitioning trails.

We’re about 700 miles in, and I hate to say it, but I had really hoped we could make it to Harper’s Ferry, which is about the halfway mark of the Appalachian Trail. With this much snow, we can’t really make more than 15, 16, 17 miles a day, and we just need to be above that pace.

We cut today short and are stopping at an earlier point, so we’ll do about 15 miles today, and we’ll be about a day behind, which is not terrible, but if we continue at this pace, we’ll be well behind where we want to be. And this is a race against time. So the other thing is safety. I’ve fallen four times today. The ice is just really sketchy underneath the snow. If we keep pushing big miles and stuff like this, it almost feels like an inevitable thing that we’ll get injured.

This is the first time I’ve really been thinking of whether we’re going to have to leave the AT earlier than I’d hoped.

Zoe: If hiking upward of 20 miles a day through snow wasn’t hard enough, the first few weeks on the AT turned out to be a much bigger logistical challenge than Sammy and Jackson had anticipated.

Sammy: The biggest logistical piece is a food resupply because we’re trying to go pretty fast. We don’t like to carry more than three or four days of food, and that means every three or four days we either have to go into a town or get a package dropped off for us. On the AT it just feels like every two days we’re leaving the trail going into a town to get more food. I just want to be on the trail as much as possible. But we’ll go into a grocery store, we’ve gotten our routine kinda dialed at this point. I usually get snacks. Jackson gets breakfast and dinner but it takes us 20 minutes. Then we get back to trail usually within an hour and a half or so, but every three days or four days, that starts to add up. It’s just kind of draining when you just want to be on trail and getting the energy from being on trail. And it’s frankly kinda sucks to get off trail and go to the grocery store, but you got to do it.

We were planning to get a shuttle into Glasgow, Virginia, today from a place called Petites Gap. Midday, we got a call from the shuttle driver saying that Petites Gap was closed because of how much snow there is, but if we walked an extra 10 miles outside of town they’d pick us up. We decided around 3 p.m. to walk an extra 10 miles, putting the total of the day at 34.

We have about a mile and a half left now. And this is probably the most sore my legs have been thus far. It’s been a long day, especially considering we didn’t even start until 8 a.m. It’s now approaching 12:15 a.m. We’re going by a river and there’s just, there’s an incredible quietness to it that I noticed when I stopped to pee. Not the sound of anything.

Pretty windy up here on top of Unaka Mountain. At 5,100 feet, snow coming down. Can’t see anything. It’s cold up here. It’s gotta be less than 20.

I’m up on the top of Tinker Cliffs, it’s about a quarter mile long of cliffs jutting out of the side of this mountain. Wow, the view is just spectacular. You can see two ridgelines leading to the town of Daleville, all covered in snow. It’s windy as hell up here, just calmed down for a minute though.

Tinker Cliffs are the last of the places that make up the Virginia Triple Crown. The other two being McAfee Knob and Dragon’s Tooth, which we saw yesterday. It’s been a windy day. Wow, the sun is setting over the mountains in the distance being up on top of a mountain, you can only see the sun from this angle.

Geez. It’s moments like this that make me forget about what I’m doing. What the purpose of this is. The vigor of going fast, the goals. This moment exists by itself.

All right, today I am feeling hungry. We’re about 17 miles in. We’re trying to go about 30. It snowed a lot over the last couple of days. So going through snow as well, and we mailed some food ahead and forgot one day’s worth of snacks, so we’re trying to ration off of that until we get to the next town, which is now 33 miles away. And we’ll get there at the end of the day tomorrow. So gonna be a hungry next 36 hours or so.

Zoe: We’ll be right back.

Sammy: Not all shoes are created equal. Believe me, having a bad or unsupportive shoe makes a big difference. So when you’re heading outdoors, skip the sneaker and step into the Merrell Moab. Moab’s a sick place. And these are sick shoes. From crossing trail to crossing town and everywhere in between, you get more traction, more comfort. So next time you take a hike, get more out of every single step. Join us outside at merrell.com.

Zoe: About six weeks into their hike, as the snow piled up, Sammy and Jackson couldn’t help but dream about the sunny days that awaited them on the southern Continental Divide Trail.

Sammy: It is February 12. We are in Northern Virginia. It’s really cold out here. It still feels like the middle of winter; it is. And I would say we’re at somewhat of an impasse right now. We always knew that it would be a chance that we would need to transition over to the Continental Divide Trail prior to finishing the Appalachian Trail because of the winter.

I think what we’re considering right now is when we should do that. We set some goals for ourselves early on of, “Let’s make it to the halfway mark. Let’s make it to Harper’s Ferry, which is the unofficial halfway mark, and further if we can.” We’re approaching that now, and it’s not an easy decision.

If there was a huge snowstorm coming right now, it’d be a very easy decision of “let’s leave.” And it would also be a very easy decision to stay if the weather was amazing, not freezing cold temperatures all the time and no snow on the ground. Unfortunately we’re in between where the conditions everyday are manageable, but they’re pretty dismal.

We got a couple inches of snow on the ground. It’s super cold all the time. As I said, not too much daylight, but not a crazy small amount of daylight. We’re able to hit our mileage targets of 23 to 25 miles on a daily average. But doing so is significantly more difficult right now than it would be if the terrain was easier.

So, Jackson and I have been talking a lot about what we want to do. And the other thing to consider is that we don’t want to start the CDT too early because after the New Mexico section of that, we hit to the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, which if passed before April, or even sometimes May, can have a really significant amount of snow that either slow us down or make it near impossible and in that situation, we’d have to transition back to the AT.

We kind of come down on two different sides of this. I would personally like to stay on the Appalachian Trail as long as possible because while it’s manageable, we know what to expect. There is always the small chance that conditions could get markedly better over the next month then we could actually possibly thru-hike the entire go rather than having to transition and then transition back.

I know that’s a small chance, but I’m a dreamer and I would love it if that happened. I think it’d be the coolest thing ever. Jackson is on the other side of that, where I think he’s ready to transition over to the Continental Divide Trail. And we’ve talked a lot about it and had everything from brainstorm sessions to had our first fight yesterday about it.

I think we’re both kind of feeling the way we’re feeling based off of morale and what’s gonna make us the most psyched. I don’t blame him at all for being done with winter. But I would love to stay on the AT for just a bit longer and see if we can make it up into Pennsylvania. It’d just be so cool if we could make it all the way through the AT without transitioning and finish at the end of March. That’s where we’re at right now. I think we’re going to make a decision in the next few days or not, and just keep going and push the decision further down the road. We shall see.

Through the Roan Highlands, the snow was up to my knees, at least a foot and a half. We’re post-holing. And because of that, I had to go slower on those days. We ended up hiking at night and hiking at night in the snow is really difficult because the blazes on the AT are white, so it’s really hard to find. We got marginally lost one time and then slightly lost a fair amount of times, but ended up making it. We just had some 15, 16 hour days to get where we were going through the snow.

Zoe: After 51 days on trail, Sammy and Jackson left the AT at mile 1,123, just outside of Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania.

Sammy: So we have averaged almost exactly 22 miles per day up to this point on the Appalachian Trail. We will leave tomorrow to Lordsburg, New Mexico, where we will begin at the southern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail and head northbound.

Saturday, February 20, ends up being our final day on the Appalachian Trail for our first stint. It was kind of an emotional day for me. Honestly, the decision to transfer trails was obviously huge. There was part of me that really, really wanted to push through and try to winter hike the AT. That in itself is a huge challenge, and I think we could have done it. I think we had the possibility to do it, but it took a bit of maturity for me to understand that it’s not in our best interest because we wouldn’t be able to do it at the speed that we need to do it for the CYTC.

So our last day was somewhat emotional. I got really excited for each climb, knowing that entering the desert of the Continental Divide Trail, we wouldn’t have a climb for a while. And I’ve really grown to love the ruggedness and the difficulty of the Appalachian Trail. I’m hoping that we find ruggedness and difficulty on the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail as well. This is a really special place, and I imagine it’s going to be a much different Appalachian Trail when we come back for the second half.

Zoe: Next time on Impossible Odds.

Sammy: So you’ve only got about 10 days left to the border. I’m slowing us down right now. I can’t walk more than two miles an hour with this, even after taking ibuprofen. I may have to see a doctor. Geez, an infection would be terrible.

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, and Tim Mossa is our assistant story editor. If you enjoyed this episode of Impossible Odds, please subscribe and leave us a review.