Thru-Hiker Heroes: Zelzin “Quetzal” Aketzalli

She came to the US to hike the best long trails it had to offer. Now, the first known Mexican national to finish the Triple Crown wants to bring the thru-hiking experience back home.
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Zelzin Aketzalli

Quetzal on the PCT

When Quetzal told her friends back home in Mexico about her plan to hike the PCT in 2017, they told her she was crazy. “’Don’t spend the money, they’re not going to give you a visa,’” she recalls them saying. Plus, hiking isn’t popular in Mexico the way it is in the U.S. But she didn’t let that stop her (she got the visa). She didn’t let a language gap stop her (she pantomimed with her hands when she had to). She didn’t let the exposed climbing, daunting snowfields, or unfamiliar feel of an ice axe stop her either (she learned as she went). And when she finished the PCT, she already knew: She was going to become the first recorded Mexican national to hike the Triple Crown. She leveled up until she reached the CDT, the most daunting of the three. To get ready, she grabbed a map and headed into the largely trackless Mexican backcountry for a crash course in navigation. Months later, the CDT lived up to its reputation, and so did Quetzal. Now, with the final trail complete, she’s taking her passion home. “What I want is for more Mexicans and Latinos to live the thru-hiking experience,” she says. “I’m determined to open up a trail in Mexico.” Read her Continental Divide Trail story in her own words.

International CDT

Chihuahua, Mexico

Unlike on the Appalachian or Pacific Crest Trails, there aren’t many trail markings on the CDT, so it’s easy to get lost. But I had good practice. I walked 64 miles in [the Mexican state of] Chihuahua with two others through the Western Sierra to connect to the CDT at Antelope Wells, New Mexico. That route doesn’t have a name because it had never been explored before and there was no trail or signs. I had to use my map and compass all the time.

Near Miss

Alpine Tunnel, CO

The storm was on us almost immediately. My friend and I tried to wait out the weather in some bushes, but the lightning kept getting closer, then it was snowing so hard we couldn’t see. We had been there five minutes when my friend said we had to get down immediately, because it was only going to get worse. We made ourselves small and rushed down the snowy slope. Then my friend said we weren’t going to make it unless we slid down the snowfield. I was scared, but he went first and told me it was safe. Then it was my turn.

Close Encounter

Grays Peak, CO

From the 14,278-foot summit (the high point of the trail), I could see a thunderstorm coming in fast. So I descended quickly below treeline and set up camp. Just 20 minutes later the storm had passed. When I came out of my tent, there were mountain goats right outside. I hadn’t seen them in my rush to set up. There were about seven of them, including kids. The babies slowly got nearer and nearer. I was frightened, but they looked really curious. I’ve never seen animals so close and in their natural environment like that.

Boomerang

Leadville, CO

Leadville is a small town, very pleasant and surrounded by big mountains like Mt. Elbert, the 14,440-foot high point of Colorado. I was so fascinated by it that every time I needed to rest in that part of the state, I hitchhiked back to Leadville. It is the ultimate outdoor town, because everything’s close by.

Mini Magic

Waterton Lakes, Canada

In contrast to the other long trails, trail magic is rare on the CDT. I remember hitchhiking in Waterton Lakes, Canada, to return to the U.S. after finishing the trail. We were there for hours before a native man picked us up. He said he wasn’t going to the U.S., he was going to his reservation, which was three miles from the border. When we got out of the truck, he gave us a soda for what remained of our walk back to the U.S. That little gift was a big encouragement as we walked the next few miles on the highway.

Interview and translation by Adam Roy