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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 the midst of a pandemic Sammy Potter and Jackson Parrell resolve to become the youngest duo to complete the calendar year triple crown of hiking. But before they even get out on the trail, they must contend with planning everything from permits and gear to meals, and training. Hear their story in their own words below in the first episode of our new podcast Impossible Odds, or subscribe to us 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.
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Sammy: Alright, 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 yeah, I’m going to be hungry the next 36 hours or so.
Zoe: That’s college student Sammy Potter. You might be wondering how he got here. Well, let’s rewind. Here’s Sammy at the end of last year.
Sammy: I spent way too much of 2020 inside. I know everyone’s in the same boat here, but I really can’t handle sitting stagnant in 2021. I just can’t do it. As a marathon runner, adventurer, and college kid who freaking loves the outdoors more than anything, I’m not going to let next year get away from me in quarantine. I’m not.
And seriously, I refuse to take another online class talking with my peers who looked just as unmotivated as me to be there in a watered-down discussion, taking place in a Zoom Breakout Room Four. This year, it’s time to send it.
Nice to meet you. My name’s Sammy and on Jan. 1, 2021, I’m setting out to attempt the Calendar Year Triple Crown.
No, not that Triple Crown.
The Triple Crown of hiking is made up of the three long trails in the United States: the Appalachian trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine; the Pacific crest trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada, through California, Oregon, and Washington; and the Continental Divide Trail, which also runs from Mexico to Canada through five states along the spine of the Rocky Mountains. In total, just under 8,000 miles.
Sammy: You heard that right? 8,000. Thru-hiking just one of these long distance trails is an enormous accomplishment. Hiking them all in a lifetime, it’s a great mission, but attempting to thru-hike, all of them in one year, certifiably insane.
The only goals worth going after are crazy or at least start out that way. Impossible though? Definitely not. The first person to complete this feat was Flyin’ Brian Robinson back in 2001. And in my research into this project, I found about 10 others who have done it.
So what makes this attempt special? Well, if we complete the journey as 21-year-olds, we’ll be taking the title as the youngest to ever do it. Ah, yes. I said we.
Jackson: You’re saying there are eight different permits that we would need to get?
Jackson: If you want to split, if you want to divide the work for that, I’m happy to have it to reach out to any state of…
Sammy: That’s my buddy Jackson. Okay. Would be we go to school together at Stanford. I first asked Jackson if he would join me for a portion of the Triple Crown while we were day hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. And within a week, we resolved to do the whole-ass thing.
Zoe: One of the most challenging parts of attempting the Calendar Year Triple Crown is organization. The planning process boils down into three main categories: the first is gear; the second is trail logistics, which includes things like food, free supplies, camping locations, water sources, permits, and more; and the third is physical training.
Sammy: We’re walking 8,000 miles. You know that song 500 miles? “I would walk 500 miles, and I would walk 500 more.” Yeah, I know I’m a terrible singer, but the bottom line is: That’s only 1,000 miles. We’re going to do that seven more times afterwards. Any minuscule gear issue, no matter how microscopic it seems becomes huge over 8,000 miles.
We’re starting the Appalachian Trail in winter, so it’s super important that we stay warm and have the necessary tools and equipment for winter. We’re bringing a hard outer shell. Upper body underneath-fleece down jacket, two synthetic T-shirts, synthetic long sleeve T-shirts lightweight fleece, base layer, long underwear, hiking pants, hiking pants with a fleece liner, hard shell rain pants, a face mask, a beanie for the daytime and a beanie for the nighttime, a huge mittens glove liner.
A spare pair of gloves. Mid-weight socks, heavyweight socks. I believe that is everything. That is a long list.
Zoe: Each of the three trails that make up the Triple Crown have sections that are easier or harder to hike in the winter. In order to avoid potentially dangerous situations, like high mountain country in the dead of winter with freezing temperatures, Sammy and Jackson won’t hike all three trails straight through.
Instead, they’ll break them up into sections. They’ll start on the southern portions, hiking those in winter, and then return to hike the northern portions as the conditions allow. They’ll start at the southern end of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia’s Amicalola Falls State Park. Then they’ll hike north, as long as the snow will let them.They when they’re, say, up to their waists, they’ll had west.
Sammy: Finally, my favorite part: training.
About, let’s say 6 miles into a 14-miler. Just woke up. 10 miles, feeling light as a feather. Just hit that stride where you’re like: “Oh, this sucks. This sucks. This sucks. Oh, wait. Now I feel good. These hills are no joke. My calves are screaming at me.” We’re both marathon runners, so we’ve got a pretty decent endurance. But thru-hiking takes a whole other level of stamina.
We’re running 60 to 80 miles every week, stretching constantly, and building up our leg and core strength. Plus, you know, hiking a bunch too.
Two miles down, 10 miles to go. I feel great.
Up to this point, we’ve only told a really small group of friends and family about this journey, and almost all of them have had the same question that I’m guessing you’re having.
People want to know why the hell are we doing this?
Jackson: I think, like everyone else, I’ve had a rough year. My parents were pretty close to going through a divorce. I had a breakup, I broke my wrist, and then coronavirus hit and I was booted from campus.
For me, there’s this simplicity to the outdoors and the pursuit of a single goal that you just can’t get anywhere else. I want to be out there to push my limits, to explore my potential, to see the United States. But I think I’ll mainly be out there seeking simplicity in this crazy, crazy world. For you, Sammy Potter, why are you going?
Sammy: I think you hit on a lot of the points. This past year has been wild, probably the hardest year of my life. As you were talking about having to leave school, having to question what our purpose is. I mean, I had one of my best friends pass away, all this crazy shit that I was going through.
I think everyone was going through so much this year. I kept going back to this one Thoreau quote where he says most men live lives of quiet desperation. There’s just been something so poignant about that phrase for this past year, when we’ve literally been stuck inside. We’ve been quietly desperate for something.
And that’s what I think this really boils down. We want to live lives of purpose, live lives of meaning and the operative verb here is “live.” I seriously cannot wait to take you all with us.
We just finished up our wilderness first responder course and happy to announce that we are both wilderness first responder certified now. And I had known a lot of this stuff, growing up in Maine and spending time in the outdoors.
But I think the biggest thing that this past eight days of this course did for me, it was kind of highlight how insanely dangerous the backwoods is. Depending on where you read about it, the AT and all these trails can seem super scary. Dangerous people, lightning, bears, mountain lions, snakes, spiders, ticks, lack of water, lack of food, getting lost, et cetera, et cetera. Some of these are big concerns, like ticks, which can give you Lyme disease, while others just linger in the back of your mind and you hope you don’t have to deal with, like running out of food. There’s ways to be prepared, either prepared for the worst or just prepared to make things not happen.
We want to think about these dangers, and we have, but we don’t want to think about them too much because it’s really easy to get in your own head. The trail is, in many ways, safer than society, as long as you know what can happen.
Jackson and I spent our summers and falls working our tails off just to make enough money to go on this crazy adventure. We’ve just bootstrapped this whole project ourselves. I worked at a homeless shelter and then about 80 hours a week on a farm. And Jackson got a job in local government. We left our Decembers wide open, so we’d have the final month to train together and put together our last preparations.
That was how much? $750? $759 of food?
We’ve got to eat about 5,000 calories per day per person, just to avoid losing tons of weight or risking feeling massive hunger pains. We’ll probably never carry more than four days or so of food at a time. Along each of these three trails, there’s a lot of places to get food, so most of the time we’ll be able to resupply in towns, but there are stretches where we go days and days without much access to big towns.
And in these cases, we’re sending ourselves food that we’ve dehydrated ahead of time. It’s about 72 days of food that we need to account for that we can’t get along the way.
Can we fit all this food in the car?
My favorite moment was when we bought all of the Brazil nuts that were in stock. Literally all of their Brazil nuts.
Jackson: I think my favorite moment was when we went to Hannaford’s and bought all of the Minute rice and then all of the Skittles. When we were checking out, they were just like, “So is this what you guys usually eat?”
Sammy: We just tested out our tent for the first time in the backyard. Basically the only way that we can fit in it, the other is if we’re virtually spooning. I’ve become really obsessed with the idea of trying to be as light as possible, but this might be my breaking point in terms of carrying more weight.
So I’m stressing out about our base weight a little bit and by a little bit, I mean, a lot of bit. It’s definitely a balance. My pack’s definitely not like Cheryl Strayed weight at the beginning of the PCT by any means. Our base weight is around 19 or 20 pounds, but I was talking to someone else who’s starting the AT on January 1 like we are, and their base weight is about 12 pounds. I’m just not, I just don’t feel confident enough in our winter abilities to not bring a stove or not bring a tent. I cut off half of my toothbrush yesterday because I was like, “That’s an extra ounce that I can save.” I realized I’m kind of insane. I don’t know what I’m doing.
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Zoe: Meal planning, going on training runs and poring over maps is hard work. And that’s before any of the hiking has even started. But, amidst all the preparation, Sammy and Jackson can feel some of the weight of 2020 drop away. Here’s Jackson.
Jackson: I feel like I’ve done this with more purpose than I’ve done anything in the past seven months just because I think that having this goal, having this light at the end of the tunnel has just brought a lot more substance.
Sammy: As our excitement for the hike began to build, so too did our nerves. Jackson and I sat down to discuss where we were most scared of in the weeks before setting out
Something that’s been brought up a lot in our conversations with other Triple Crowners and that at the end of the day, this is completely a mental game. The only way that you can see if you’re mentally prepared for something is to do it. There’s no way to replicate it. You just don’t know what it’s going to be out there. There’s, there’s so many unknowns there. And I think that’s the biggest thing I’m scared of is that there’s just something big that we’re totally missing
So today marks 11 days out. How are you feeling?
Jackson: Feeling good, man. Feeling every emotion that I felt so far, but all concentrated in this short timeframe. I’m nervous about our first day on trail and the 266 days that follow that. I’m excited at the prospect of spending so much time with you and in nature. I’m definitely a little bit worried but definitely thinking a lot about all the friends that I’ll miss and the family members that I won’t be able to talk to for quite some time, or at least not as consistently. All those things are at the top of my mind right now.
Sammy: I’m also glad that we’re vocalizing being nervous about it. You know what I mean? I think it’s pretty important because it’s very easy to not do that.
Jackson: I think it’s also very human. I think that a lot of times when people are approaching trips like this, it’s easy to put on a front of “We’re going to do this, and it’s all going to be okay.” I think that having enough perspective to embrace those nerves and at the same time also embrace all of the excitement and pleasure and joy that comes from starting a trip like this, I think is something that we’ve done really well. So I’m happy. I’m happy.
My perspective as I was hiking totally shifted. I was more conscious of how my mind would work for the next nine months and what exactly I’d want to think about and what I’d want to do. It was definitely a shakedown hike in terms of our gear, but I also felt as though it was also a shakedown hike mentally in a way just to get into perspective.
What are the things that I really want to focus on with myself?
Sammy: There’s really no, no way you can train for hiking except for hiking. I think that’s one thing I was thinking about yesterday. We’ve run a ton, and we’ve obviously hiked a bunch in the past. We trained a bunch, but our training is, it just doesn’t translate the same way.
When you have a backpack on your back and the snow is falling away from your feet and you’re almost falling, it’s so different than just even going for a 15 mile run. It’s arguably harder. Especially mentally, when you realize how long it takes to get from point A to point B when you’re hiking.
I am packing my bag and I cannot believe this is about to happen. Water filter. Should I bring a bigger one? It’s nearing the end of December. And after spending some time with our families over the holidays, it’s just about time to head down to Georgia and get the show on the road. It’s been a long time coming to this moment. I talked to a mentor on the phone earlier today and she said something that I’ve heard her say often. ” Take it all in without losing sight of the bigger picture.” I finished packing on my backpack for the airport and my mom asked me if I had any luggage that I was going to check. I pause for a second, but then we both laughed.
This is it. Just me and my backpack. After nine months of planning, it just boils down to a pair of hiking boots and the 20 pound backpack. All that’s left to do is what I came to do: hike.
unknown speaker: Go have the adventure of a lifetime. Until next time.
Sammy: Until next time.
We are about to sign in, which will make our AT attempt official. The beginning, the approach trail, baby. Let’s go.
My official pack on the scale? 32. Yikes. Of course, that includes a cold beer to celebrate the new year on top of Springer Mountain, through the ceremonial arch, up to 700 stairs by the waterfall and Roth.
Finishing up day one by road walking into the small town of Suches, Georgia. It’s about one mile into town from the trail. Rain’s pretty much been coming down all day, a little lighter at points, always just coming down. Not too bad, though. Kind of a fun way to start it. I wouldn’t really want it any other way to be honest. Woke up around 5:30 this morning. Didn’t sleep too well out of excitement, but felt really fresh in the morning.
Got out of camp by like 6:15-6:30, left the southern Terminus after we touched it at 7 a.m. Oh, another car let’s see if we can get a hitch. Nope.
Anyways, as we left the Southern Terminus, I felt a wave of gratitude come over me that kind of stayed with me throughout the day. And I just had this thought “I’m exactly where I want to be right now.” That’s not a thought I’ve had very often, and I think it comes pretty rarely, and it stayed with me throughout the whole day, even as my feet started to hurt toward the end.
That’s a beautiful thing. So really excited to keep us going, excited to get some dry clothes on and dry these clothes off and get back at it tomorrow.
It’s really coming down out there. I don’t know what that means. First-night rain, I’m taking it as a good sign.
Zoe: Next time on Impossible Odds:
Sammy: I’m really starting to see why people will usually do the AT starting in mid or late March. We’re just getting reamed 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.
This podcast was written and hosted by Sammy Potter with contributions by Jackson Parell. Our producers are Louisa Albanese and me, Zoe Gates. Wooly Music is our composer and sound designer. Tim Mossa is our assistant story editor. If you enjoyed this episode of Impossible Odds, please subscribe.