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Impossible Odds Podcast

Impossible Odds Episode 5: Going it Alone

Sammy and Jackson decide to split up embark on 200 miles of solo hiking. Then, Sammy finds himself in the most dangerous situation yet on the Triple Crown.

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

In this episode, Sammy and Jackson decide to split up and embark on 200 miles of solo hiking. Then, Sammy finds himself in the most dangerous situation of the Triple Crown yet. Hear the story below, or subscribe to Impossible Odds on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

 Zoe Gates: 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 Potter: 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 everyone 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.

Zoe: At the end of May, Sammy and Jackson finished the Appalachian Trail when they summited Mt. Katahdin in Maine. Still left: the northern Pacific Crest Trail and most of the Continental Divide Trail.

Sammy: Coming off trail after Katahdin, Baxter Peak, and finishing the Appalachian Trail, was just this release of energy. All the responsibility I’ve been feeling for making sure these logistics work out perfectly, we’re in a good spot; we’re in a safe spot. I have just been on guard for really for the past few months. I live only a couple hours away from Baxter State Park, so with us taking a few days off between finishing the AT and heading back out to the PCT to do the Sierras in Northern California, it made sense for me to go home for a couple days.

Zoe: Here’s Sammy’s older sister, Arie.

Arie: When I first saw Sammy in our childhood home after he’d finished the AT I thought quite honestly, who the heck is this grown-ass man, and where did my little brother go? Lucky for me, he insisted on waiting to shower or change out of his trail clothes until after dinner. So I fortunately got to experience my fair share of whiffs of their journey. As a sister, I’m inclined to make some jokes about the insanity of his beard. But what really sticks out to me the most truly was the humbled confidence and the respect that he had cultivated for the trail and the reality that he had two more trails to go.

Sammy: So I’ve now been home for two-ish days, 48 hours, and I’ve eaten a lot of good food, cooked food with my mom, and seen a couple of friends and hung out with my sisters, all of whom I missed very much. But I woke up today with just so much energy. I feel so much energy, I think it’s because my body is just used to hiking. I literally woke up at 5:30, which is the time we’ve been waking up on the Appalachian Trail. My body is just cranked up, and it just wants to go. I’m missing the trail and missing that sense of like, alright, let’s get up this mountain. Let’s get up this climb. I mean, I’m just really starting to feel antsy. I feel like I’m going through withdrawal or something. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I mean, this is really far away, but at the end of this, this energy, I need to put it somewhere.

Zoe: Something you might forget about Sammy and Jackson, they’re still college students. The initial plan was to take one quarter away from school and hike from winter of 2021 through the summer. But winter on the AT didn’t go quite as expected and as they become more determined to finish the Calendar Year Triple Crown, the two come to a conclusion. College can wait a little longer.

Sammy: So we are now 100 percent not going back to school in September. We will go back in January for the second quarter. I actually feel really good about this decision. It was difficult to wrap our minds around at first, essentially being a dropout for the time being but I keep telling myself that it will still be there when we go back, that will still be there. For now we got to keep our heads on what we’re doing and stay 100 percent focused on this and only this.

I shaved my face right after we finished the Appalachian Trail. It is the longest I’ve ever gone without shaving before: five whole months. With summer approaching, I decided it had to go. It’ll grow back, of course. I went to see one of my friends and she literally didn’t even recognize me. I think my sister said it best when she said, I went from a 35-year-old to a 15-year-old in the matter of 20 minutes.

So, Jackson brought it up to me a few weeks ago that he wanted to do what he calls a solo. Anyway, so he brought up a couple of weeks ago that he was interested in doing a stretch of trail separately, and then meeting up at the end of said section of trail. I had really mixed emotions about this because on the one hand I think it would be cool to just experience something different, have a sense of solitude, and complete freedom because there is just so much compromise that you have to do in a partnership. It would be cool to get the chance to experience what it’s like to hike alone. But when I thought about it more, I realized why I was having some trepidation about it. To me, every decision that we make, throughout these nine or 10 months should be in the context of giving ourselves the absolute best chance possible, of finishing the Calendar Year Triple Crown. There’s just so many potential obstacles already, why would we ever do anything, in my opinion, that would create further obstacles. So that was kind of my feeling about going out on our own and doing a “solo.” It would either be net neutral, because we would meet up at the right time, or it could be a net negative, because one of us may get really far ahead of the other one and then we have to wait, which would be a potential waste of time. There’s also this impact of potentially not being there when somebody else gets injured.

I wasn’t into it at first, and I expressed that, and we decided not to, but Jackson brought it up again. It seemed like something that was super, super important to him and could actually have an impact on our overall partnership as well. One perspective that I did not see at the beginning that he brought up was that it could actually strengthen our relationship and our partnership. It would give both of us a chance to be social with other people, maybe reset a little bit and then come back together even stronger than before. In addition, I eventually realized when Jackson told me that he felt that he needed the freedom to make his own own decisions and feel secure that he can do these things himself and didn’t necessarily need to rely on a partner. With the dynamics that we’ve had throughout, I can sometimes have a tendency to maybe take control a little bit more than I should because I’m so incredibly passionate about this. I want to put us in the best position always. But Jackson has expressed that sometimes that can feel a little bit off-putting, big brother-ish is the word that he used. I remember saying when we met up in December that what I thought would make this partnership work so well is that we’re both crazy enough to do this on our own. He told me that he needed to do this to believe that. I actually really respect that a lot. I really respect that vulnerability and honesty. I think in the end, it’s gonna be good.

So we are going solo, and I’m a little bit nervous about it. I don’t know why I’m nervous about it. Safety-wise, I’m going to be totally fine. Food-wise, I’m going to be totally fine. Hiking is going to be fine. Maybe it’s just the remoteness of it? Or, this is petty, but just not having someone to talk to I guess. I spent plenty of time alone in the past. But, I’ve never gone on an extended hike alone, no more than 100 miles, and this is going to be almost 200 miles alone, possibly more if we decide to extend it. I guess there will be plenty of people around in the Sierras, so I have to make some friends. I’m excited; it’ll be fun to make some friends. Hopefully I can make some friends who are fast, so I can keep up a good pace, too.

My gear list going into the Sierras is everything that I normally have, plus a bear canister and then eight days of food. Yeah, I am carrying eight days of food. There’s a couple of ways to resupply through the Sierra Nevada section of the PCT. What most people do is they carry four or so days of food out of Kennedy Meadows South, which is the base of the Sierras. Then when they reach a place called Kearsarge Pass, they hike east about 7 miles off of the trail, and then hitch into a town called Bishop and then resupply there, hitch back, and then hike that 7 miles back up to the PCT and keep going. I do not want to do that extra 14 miles plus a 50-mile hitch. So instead, what I’m doing is carrying eight days of food from Kennedy Meadows South all the way to a place called Vermilion Valley Resort where I have shipped another six days of food that will get me through the rest of the Sierras. I reckon I eat probably about 3.5 or 4 pounds of food per day. Maybe a little less if I’m doing a good calorie-to-pound-of-food ratio, but generally around 4 pounds of food per day. So that’s 32 pounds of food in addition to my 15-pound base weight. In addition to a 3 pound bear canister, let’s do a little math there, that’s like 50 pounds. The good thing about the Sierras is that you’re not carrying too much water because there’s so many water sources. So probably maximum 1 pound of water at a time, maybe even less. So I’ll just camel it. That brings us to about 50 pounds. The views better be amazing.

Zoe: We’ll be right back.

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Zoe: Most of the handful of hikers who have completed a Calendar Year Triple Crown did it alone. If they make it, Sammy and Jackson will be one of the first pairs to finish. That partnership is one of the best things about their journey, but that doesn’t mean they don’t crave some independence now and then. For the start of their second stint on the PCT, Sammy and Jackson decide to split up and go solo for about 200 miles. Here’s Sammy.

Sammy: I haven’t seen a single other person all day. This happened multiple times on the AT. But I always had Jackson there, and I couldn’t really say that I had never seen anybody else. But it’s 6 p.m. now and I didn’t see anybody all day. I am finally at the base of Forester Pass, about 5 miles from the pass itself. I’ll hike that; I’m gonna try to wake up super early at 4 a.m. tomorrow morning and see if I can catch sunrise while I’m hiking up it. It was just such a unique peaceful feeling to see nobody else all day.

I just saw a bear. It was first bear I’ve seen this year on the PCT. I think I saw one on the AT, but it was just running away so I barely saw it. This was a big bear, Jesus. People said there were bears nearby, often they’d seen bears here, so kind of figured it was an area they frequented and maybe would see one but there’s a big difference between thinking you’re gonna see a bear and actually seeing one, wow. That thing was not scared of me at all. I’m definitely gonna be looking behind me for the rest of the day. I had my bear spray right on my shoulder here, so I unclipped that, took the safety off and had it ready to go. Luckily, the bear did not come anywhere near me. It just kind of inquisitively looked at me and went on with his business. But his business happened to be walking on the trail, literally following the trail for about half a mile. I just stayed where I was, watched it walk up there. When I got up there, it bounded off into the woods, and I kept going. Saw a bear, check that off the list. I’ll be OK with not seeing any more bears for a bit.

Today, I actually made a friend on the PCT. I hiked with someone for the first time who wasn’t Jackson. It was great to hike with someone new and learn about somebody and share with them who I am. I kind of forgot I’m somewhat of an extrovert. I definitely get a little bit of energy from socializing. That’s not something I’ve done all year, so I’m really enjoying spending time with strangers who are also hiking and understand what it’s like to be out here.

I am 25 miles into the Sierra Nevadas. It’s already been beautiful. I know it’s only going to get better as we get to the passes. The first pass is Forester, which I’ll get to in about two and a half days, but I’m camping by a beautiful lake called Chicken something, I’ll have to look at my map to see exactly what it’s called, but it is spectacular. I haven’t put down my pack yet. I did that purposefully because I wanted to try to convey the pain I’m feeling in my shoulders. I’ve carried 50 pounds all day today. I tried to stop as little as possible because I realized that as great as it is to take off the pack, it makes it even worse when you put it back on. Especially the process of putting it on is just hell for my shoulders. Agh, so sore. The only good thing is the views here are just so spectacular that it’s distracting me at least up to up to this point.

End of day three, my pack is still so big. Oh my god, even at this point, it’s heavier than any pack I’ve carried previously this year. It’s ripping because of the bear canister. I’m really worried about the one shoulder strap just completely slicing off. I honestly don’t know what I would do. I started to talk to it for some reason. I gave it the name Annalise, I don’t know why. I don’t know where that comes from. But in my mind, it’s a witch. It’s an evil witch like the Wicked Witch of the West. Every time I put it on, it hurts. Every time I take it off, it hurts. The only time it doesn’t hurt is like 20 minutes into wearing it because I’ll kind of get used to it and then I’ll wrap my head around it a little bit. Annalise, Annalise, you’ve been terrible to me.

Zoe: About a week into his solo, Sammy is around the halfway mark of the California section of the PCT, in the heart of the Sierra Nevada.

Sammy: The wind is rocking my tent back and forth so much that I cannot get to sleep. It’s 9 p.m., 26 miles today. Eight days with no shower, laundry, resupply. I’m looking at my hands right now and they’re just grimy. Just black with grime and sweaty. Everything’s kind of wet with condensation, and to top it off, I’m up at 10,500 feet, and the winds are howling tonight. Luckily we got 6 miles in tomorrow, and I’m going to do all the chores and get some more food. I’m running pretty low on food. I underestimated this resupply quite a bit. Instead of doing 5,000 calories a day, which is kind of a bare minimum, I’m probably doing like 3,000. I ate a little bit too much the first couple of days, so now more like 2,500 or 2,000. I can already feel the hunger pains start to come. The first eight days in the Sierras, carrying eight days of food are coming to a close, hopefully very soon. I need them to come to a close very soon. I am 98 percent out of food. All I have left is a tub of almond butter, and I have about half of that left. I also have a couple of packets of almond butter left. That’s about it. I’m not hungry right now; I just ate a bunch of other stuff that I was finishing off. You can kind of tell what the food is that I’ve been avoiding because I’m so sick of almond butter. I have 20 miles to go to get to VVR, Vermilion Valley Resort, which is where my mom sent me a package that we put together before this trip with all sorts of food. God, I’m just dreaming of ice cream right now.

Have you ever had this before? I’m talking to a phone. But where I’m from in Portland, Maine, we have these things called Sea Dogs biscuits. They’re just the most wonderful things in the world: cookies with ice cream, and you get them at Sea Dogs games. The Sea Dogs are a minor league baseball team. I woke up last night, and I was just dreaming of a Sea Dogs biscuit. Goddamn. They better have them at this frickin’ outpost resupply box. I’ve got about 20 miles to get there, and it’s about 6pm. I’m thinking I’m just fucking sending it through the night. And getting there at like 2 to 3 a.m. so I don’t have to wake up and hike on an empty stomach. On the other hand, I’m very tired.

OK, so I have now run out of food.

My plan of attempting to hike through the night to get to VVR at 2 or 3 a.m. was crushed when I ran into a buddy and got to talking to him and realized after a bit that an hour had gone by. I was even more tired, and it was pitch black. So I set up my camp, hung out with him. I ate the rest of my almond butter, which is the only food I have left. I think I had like 14 ounces left or something and I ate all of it within 10 minutes even though I’m very sick of almond butter. It tasted good yesterday. I still have 10 miles to make it into VVR. Luckily, it’s mostly downhill. I think Jackson is behind me. But I’m not 100 percent. But we’re gonna check in VVR before we continue going back out on our solos, as he calls them. Singing songs, just trying to occupy my mind with anything but food right now. I don’t want to stop talking because if I stopped talking, I’m just gonna start thinking about food. But I’m also thinking about food when I’m talking, too. Doesn’t even matter.

Zoe: After 20 days apart, Sammy and Jackson reunite, having enjoyed some alone time but eager to resume their partnership. Together, they begin their push into Northern California. Here’s Jackson.

Jackson: Once we reached Northern California, we thought that we had more or less avoided the major fires up until that point. It only takes one rogue fire, right? Sammy and I were walking separately, Sammy was about a mile, mile and a half ahead of me. I come across this crowd of people at the trailhead, and out of pure curiosity, I ended up going over to them. They told me that their camp had just been evacuated because a forest fire was threatening the trail. My follow-up question was to ask if they’d seen someone pass through and they said they had. I knew that was Sammy. At that point, I started to freak out.

Sammy: I will let no one determine my fate but myself. I will let no one determine my fate but myself. Not a fire. Thank you to my partner in crime Jackson Parell, there’s so much I want to say, that I will get to say because I will get to this trailhead. I’d rather pass out from exhaustion than let this fire catch me.

Jackson: The fire marshal ended up coming back down and said that they couldn’t find him. The next 20 minutes were some of the longest 20 minutes I think I spent out here on trail.

Sammy: Let’s go, baby. I don’t even want to say this, but I love my family so much. Nothing I love more in the world than my family and my home. I would do anything for them, there’s so much more I need to do. So many more people I need to hug. So much more I can do for my family and my home. Shit, I am dehydrated. There’s so much smoke around me. The fire started an hour ago or something. Jesus Christ.

Jackson: And I think it was one of the worst feelings in the world to be sitting there and know that there was really nothing to do.

Sammy: I’m going to get through this. I will get through this. I will get to the trailhead. I will survive.

Jackson: But sure enough, Sammy shows up at the trailhead, sweating bullets, panting; he had run all the way down from the top of a mountain, seen that wall of smoke, turned around, and ran. And I couldn’t have been more relieved.

Sammy: Next time on Impossible Odds.

I want to mentally go over info about grizzlies just to prepare for the worst. So, you should make a lot of noise while hiking, speaking low, and calm voice, keep eyes averted, back away slowly, get better spray. Already done all those things.

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.