Impossible Odds Episode 7: On the Edge
Sammy ponders his thru-hike motivations after he receives difficult family news. He is also nervous to tell Jackson he wants to redo some of the CDT.
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Impossible Odds is Backpacker’s podcast about two hikers’ quest to complete the Triple Crown in a calendar year.
In this episode, Sammy grapples with his decision to take an alternate route on the CDT, and learns some difficult family news that makes finishing more important than ever. 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: On September 20, Sammy and Jackson finished the Continental Divide Trail, having hiked from New Mexico to the trail’s northern terminus over 66 days. In the last episode, we talked about an alternate route that they took called the Big Sky alternate, which allowed them to avoid wildfires and shave off some mileage.
Sammy: For those who don’t know, once you get up to the west Yellowstone area on the CDT, there’s an alternate that cuts off a pretty large number of miles—it’s 200 or something—that continues more directly north than the official route, which goes along the Idaho and Montana border for a while and then cuts north and then cuts back east. We connected around the Helena area. I’m in a state of turmoil to be honest. Most of the people I talked to who were on the Continental Divide Trail this year took the Big Sky alternate as we did because there are so many fires this year, and the smoke along the Idaho and Montana border was pretty bad. That was the basis that we made our decision on somewhat, based off of the smoke. Inherently, that almost felt serendipitous for us because it allowed us to cut off a fair number of miles. I just wonder if, subconsciously, I was actually making a decision not based on the smoke and the fires, but based on wanting to try to get to the end quicker.
Zoe: On the CDT, alternate routes are an inherent part of the experience. Without a continuously blazed trail from New Mexico to Canada, most thru-hikers meander in places and the same exact path is rarely taken twice. By CDT standards, Sammy and Jackson’s divergence onto the Big Sky still makes for a legitimate thru-hike. But, Sammy is still left with an unsettled feeling about it.
Sammy: Something I believe really strongly is that what’s important is not just getting to the top, not just getting to the end, but how you do it. What’s important, I think, is how you do it. It’s what’s most important. Part of me feels as though we cheapened the attempt in a way by doing that. Obviously, we still hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Continental Divide Trail. As things stand right now, we are getting relatively close to the end. I mean, that’s insane. The end.
I’m basically questioning if things still could have worked, even if we had taken that harder route. Really, I’m being super hard on myself. I’ve been up both of the last two nights, which sucks because I need to get sleep. I only got like four and a half last night and six the night before. I’m pretty reluctant to mention this dejection right now because I think there’s a lot of excitement around finishing and I just need to think about this more before I bring it up to him. I don’t want him to feel as though I’m discrediting what we did or what he did or anything like that. But, I want to feel satisfied with what we’ve done at the end of this. I just need to think about whether I’m going to be satisfied with what we’ve done and finishing the PCT or whether I’m going to need to go back and redo that 500-mile section on the official CDT route.
Zoe: Redoing 500 miles of trail is no small task. Especially with fall in full swing and winter on the way, Sammy and Jackson are on a race against time that only gets more urgent every day. If they find themselves in Washington’s Cascade Range come winter, they could face dangerously cold temperatures and snowstorms that would expose them to risk and dramatically slow their pace.
Sammy: I also just wonder why I’m feeling like this. Two biases I have right now…or one. I’m just not ready to be done for so many reasons. Because I’m just not ready to be done. I love this so much. It’s all I know right now. While I’m excited for life beyond this, I just want to stay out here. I want to keep doing big miles and seeing beautiful places and pushing myself and feeling all the purpose and satisfaction I felt throughout most of this journey. Then secondarily, I think I’m just starting to feel a little bit less satisfied. I wonder if I’m just searching for a reason for why that might and be assigning this reason to my dissatisfaction. Because if you told me at the beginning of this that’d we be close to finishing right now, I’d be so amped. I’d be like, “Yeah! We basically are almost at our goal. That’s amazing.” We are almost at our goal, but it doesn’t feel as perfect as I expected it to feel. I can’t point to exactly why.
Zoe: They may be close to their goal, but that doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing from here. Sammy and Jackson still have nearly 1,000 miles to hike from the trail’s northern end in Washington to where they left off in Oregon. Then they’ll hop down to Northern California to finish on a 40-mile section that they skipped due to raging wildfires earlier in the year.
Sammy: Absolutely banging out miles the last couple of days. My golly, banging out miles. We got to the border of Hart’s Pass after a 30-mile hike and that was … let me back up. We drove through the night after finishing the CDT around 2 p.m. on September 20. We drove through that night, from the northern terminus of the CDT and Montana to the access point for the northern terminus of the PCT in Washington. The access point I say because you can’t just drive directly to the terminus of the PCT, you have to drive to Hart’s Pass, which is 30 miles south of the terminus. That day, we got there at 1 p.m. or so, hiked 20 miles in, and didn’t quite reach the border. The next day, we hiked, touched the border, the famous PCT northern terminus, turned around, and hiked back. That day was 38 miles, the following day, which was yesterday, 35 miles, and today is going to be about 33 miles.
We’ll see if we can keep this pace. It’s sort of a balance because I’m praying to God that we get out of Washington before a big snowfall comes or before seasonal rain comes in and doesn’t leave. Because I know that’s what happens. The rain comes in, and it can rain for a month, two months. It can rain nonstop for a very long time. Right now, we’ve been blessed with some beautiful weather. We cannot take this for granted. At the same time, I do not want to get injured. I would rather spend one or two days in tough conditions because we went a little bit slower than go way too hard and get a stress fracture with just 700 or 800 miles left to go. The name of the game, I think, is aggressive steadiness, not steadily aggressive, aggressive steadiness. I guess it’s hard to know where that line is because we could do 35-, 36-, 37-mile days consistently right now, even with this much elevation. But I think that could risk injury, but it’s also absolutely beautiful. There’s a reason they call this God’s Country.
Zoe: We’ll be right back.
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Sammy: Just made it to the top of the second pass of the day in the northern cascades and feeling great. Just ran into someone actually I saw back in the desert earlier hiking the PCT literally six months ago. He got off-trail as well. He’s a performer and he performed in a play for about six weeks and then got back on trail. As luck would have it, we had a serendipitous run into each other about halfway up this pass. He was on his way down; he’s going north, and he’ll be done a few days, but it really fucking boosted my spirits. I have 6 miles left on this 35-mile day, and I feel good. Have a couple thoughts gnawing at me right now unfortunately. Well, I won’t say unfortunately, I just have a couple of thoughts gnawing at me. One is that things are going super well right now. I’m just wondering if they’re going too well, and we’re getting a little arrogant and that’s gonna result in injury or something going on. I was getting hurt and messing up this good streak we’ve got going.
As they say, pride goeth before the fall. In this case, man it could be a literal fall. I’m just probably being paranoid, but I don’t know. If there’s anything I’ve learned from studying Greek tragedy in my high school English class, it’s that hubris is the biggest folly a man can make. It was the downfall of Odysseus, countless other tragic figures. I don’t know why I’m comparing us to them. God, I really am being arrogant. But we’re doing huge days, and I’m starting to feel the effects of it a little bit. My feet hurt a little bit, just a little bit. I’m quite stiff. It’s super tempting just to keep sending it. The other thought gnawing at me right now is that I’m just not ready to be done with this.
I love this. I fucking love this. As long as I feel good and healthy, there’s nowhere I would fucking rather be than on top of a mountain. I’m looking at Glacier Peak across there, and now we’re at 6,000 feet and that’s a couple 1,000 feet higher. Hella snow now on that one. Maybe the only other place I want to be right now is on top of Glacier Peak, but then I wouldn’t get to look at it. Anyways, it’s addicting, and we’re closing on 800 miles until we finish. At this rate, that’s gonna be less than a month. I don’t know, man. It’s hard to describe. What the fuck is next? How do you go up from here? Alright, I’m going to shut up now.
After we hit White Pass tomorrow, we will be going over something called Knife’s Edge. So many things in the United States are called Knife’s Edge, but it’s also looking like the weather’s turning south a little bit for us. Rain’s coming in a pie at that elevation, it’s more than likely it will be somewhat snowy. Could this be it? Could this be the dreaded winter that we’ve been thinking about for so long. We’re about 600 miles away from the finish. This could be the winter we’ve been thinking about for so long. We’ll see; it looks like it’s gonna get sunny again for a couple days after tomorrow. I don’t know; I don’t want to get my hopes up. I just have to be okay with the fact that there may be winter coming upon us right now. It’s unavoidable if it does.
Zoe: Eventually, the boys finally do meet winter in full force as they traverse the Knife’s Edge through the Goat Rocks Wilderness in Washington. Here’s Sammy.
Sammy: So my fears about Knife’s Edge were about on par with what it ended up being. The day started at White’s Pass at around 5,000 feet. It began raining around 10 a.m. We had sort of a gradual climb up to the treeline. That’s when things started getting really steep. As you ascend in rain, the higher you get, the more frozen it is going to get because it’s colder and colder and colder as you go up. This started out as rain. When we got to 6,500 feet, it turned to freezing rain. When we got above 6,800 feet, it turned to snow. The Knife’s Edge stands between like 7,000 and 7,200. Once we got up there, it was basically a complete whiteout. Winds going from 20 to 40 miles per hour, which are alright when they’re consistent, but when there’s gusts, it gets quite sketchy.
Zoe: Here’s a clip Sammy managed to record while on the Knife’s Edge.
Sammy: Just scrambled up some scree. There was 3 feet on either side of me. My adrenaline is pumping a lot right now. Just gotta stay calm, keep pushing through. The only way out is through. My buddy Philip said that to me a couple months ago, the only way out is through. It looks like I’m basically at the middle point of Knife’s Edge, there’s four big ups and downs and I’m on the way up to the third one. One of the lower points on the section, I think it was about 2 miles until we started going downhill for a while. The snow was coming down so quickly that Jackson, who was no more than a half mile behind me, told me it were covering up my tracks. He couldn’t see my tracks by the time he got to where I was, which means the snow’s coming down pretty fast.
When we turned this one corner and I saw a Knife’s Edge, I got the first glance of it. The wind was going so fast, whipping these bits of freezing rain and snow into my face. This spot seems pretty clean right now. But the last mile took me 45 minutes, something like that. I’m trying to keep a really low center of gravity on those sections because I’m just worried about getting blown or losing my footing. The thing that felt so sketchy about this was there were drop-offs on either side. At some points, the drop-offs were only 20 feet and other places, they were more like 200 feet, or at least enough to know that if you fell, that would probably be the end of you. That’s one thing, but at the same time, we’re basically scrambling over this ridgeline. At a certain point, going up at almost 70 or 80 degree angles, with scree coming down so you can’t really get a solid footing. There was like 30 percent visibility. I have these pair of ski goggles that I was wearing because I was just getting blinded by the snow, ripping in my face.
Goat Rocks Wilderness is usually considered one of the most beautiful places on the Pacific Crest Trail. You can get a view of Mount Rainier and then sculpture-like rocks and formations that are sort of otherworldly. But for us, with the visibility so low, I really just saw what was right in front of me, and how big the drop-offs were. Frankly, that’s all I really wanted to see because it wasn’t focusing during the snowstorm. Man, it could have been bad. Finally got to the other side of the Knife’s Edge, and it’s a big campsite area there. Tons of flat spaces and stuff like that. But the trail is really hard to find right there. I was just going down following my map for about 20 to 30 minutes. Finally I saw some cairns, which indicate where the trail goes. I had one of those moments where for a bit, I thought the sketchiness was over. My adrenaline calmed down, I started to feel pretty fatigued. I was right back on high alert, realizing I had no idea where to go. But I knew above all, I just had to keep moving. Because honestly, I felt like the most dangerous thing was how cold it was up there.
In retrospect, I feel bad for not waiting for Jackson. Initially, we had discussed maybe getting together right before Goat Rocks. He had told me if it gets really sketchy, would you mind just waiting for me? The problem with that is, it’s just very hard to judge in the moment how sketchy something is. If you’re in a sketchy situation, you don’t necessarily want to stop because that could cause more danger. I ended up telling him that I would just wait for him before the trail exit treeline, which is what I did. He passed by me, and he stopped, I passed by him, and at that point, it seemed like we were close enough to me, within a half mile that we could just keep going.
When I ran into him at sunset, he told me it was feeling pretty sketchy. I guess the snow picked up right behind me, so it snowed even harder on him. I feel bad for not waiting. I want to just be there when anything is feeling sketchy. Even to me, the danger felt relatively marginal, but it’s completely subjective. I know, there have been situations where I thought it was more dangerous and Jackson felt more lax about it, in the opposite scenario. I think it’s sort of incumbent upon each of us to be there for each other. That’s the whole point of having a partner among a lot of other reasons. I think it’s pretty late in the game for me to make a mistake like that. Just has me reflecting on that I want to be the best partner that I possibly can. This is definitely weighing on me. He didn’t make a big deal out of it, but I could just tell that he had wished that I waited. I’m 100 percent going to do that in the future—be better than I was this time.
I’m really leaning toward wanting to do the Big Sky right now. If there’s any chance that I’m going to regret having not done it, then I want to do it. I think the amount that I’m thinking about it right now is a good indication that I will continue to have mixed feelings about it. If we don’t go back into it. At this point, I think I need to bring it up to Jackson. I think I’m gonna do it today and just gather my thoughts a little bit. Because it’s a pretty consequential conversation. I think I got to do it, at least talk to him about it.
I slept on my thoughts about the Big Sky alternate last night. I actually woke up thinking about it. It was the first time I’d woken up thinking about it. I am wondering whether I compromised my values and compromised my morals by taking the shorter route. I also feel guilty at this point for not having brought it up to my partner, Jackson. Because I know he’s looking forward to being finished and having some time to recuperate and eventually go back to school. But I feel like this is something I’m seriously considering. I want it to be something he’s aware of, so hopefully, he would come with me and we’d do it together. I feel like it’s only fair to give him a large heads up, but I also am very hesitant to bring it up because I know it’s a pretty emotionally charged conversation to have. If nothing ends up coming of it, and we both independently decide to not do it and be satisfied with the way we finished the Continental Divide Trail, then at that point, there’s no purpose to just creating an emotional rollercoaster. I don’t want to rock the boat if I don’t necessarily need to, but I also just feel as though it’s sort of unfair of me not to let him know what’s going through my head because I’m sure it’s impacting the way we’re interacting. My mind is pretty occupied by this.
Just took an off day and got news that my grandfather’s not doing so well. I had known he had some issues, and I thought that it had gotten a lot better. I guess it has gone really downhill in the last week or week and a half. It’s not looking very optimistic. I can’t really even fathom the thought of him passing. It just made me think about a lot of things. The first is that I have been on trail for so long, like 10 months. I’ve missed so much. I feel guilty that I haven’t seen my grandparents in so long. I haven’t seen any of my cousins or extended family in a long time, only seen my sisters and my parents twice. That’s all because of me and the decisions I’ve made. I feel guilty about that. It’s not that in this situation, I would have been helpful at all, but just I feel bad for not being there.
My grandpa is somebody I look up to so much. He’s probably my biggest role model growing up just for his steadfastness, his steadiness, his love of family. He’s the hardest worker I’ve ever met. I think I’m trying to emulate his work ethic in my life. He’s such a big part of who I am. I feel like I have so much more to learn from him. Time is so precious. He has lived an incredibly rich life with so many ups and downs and has made such an impact on the people he’s lived and worked with and the community around him. I’ve always just wanted to make him proud, always wanting to make my parents and my family proud. Especially him. I called him yesterday. We were able to talk about some really special memories. I think he takes a lot of pride in what we’re doing right now. I think a lot of my motivation comes from him. It was really special to hear him say how proud he is of what I’m doing and what we’re doing. It just made me want to finish for the purposes of trying to go and see him as soon as possible. Secondarily, it made me want to finish this to make him proud.
Zoe: Next time on Impossible Odds.
Sammy: We made it to where we left off in Oregon. Let’s go! We finished the Calendar Year Triple Crown! But wait, we actually didn’t. You remember that forest fire started while I was hiking, they closed the trail right after I passed through the trailhead? Remember that? What that meant though, is that we had to skip that section. If you want to finish Calendar Year Triple Crown, you have to thru-hike each of these trails. To us, that means connecting all your footsteps.
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.