On cold autumn mornings in Montana, Heather “Anish” Anderson would hike along wrapped in her sleeping bag, carrying a water filter she’d cuddled with all night to keep it from freezing. Each day, the number of daylight hours waned, and each day she raced south, trying to keep pace with fall as she thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail. She passed yellowing aspen leaves through the rolling hills of southern Montana and into Wyoming, all the while hoping not to see snowflakes.
“Autumn is one of my favorite times to hike, but there was a lot of stress,” Anderson says. “I still had a long ways to go, and so I was trying to do as much as I could, as fast as I could.”
The year had swung from one extreme to another, with an epic hike connecting it all. She was on a quest to hike all three of America’s great long trails—the Triple Crown—in one calendar year. That meant keeping pace with the seasons, hopping from one path to another when the conditions were right—or right enough—and finding herself in thru-hiker no man’s land, like heading southbound from Montana in the fall. She’d already beaten spring to the Appalachian Trail in March, and so hiked in snow. She’d traded ice in New Hampshire’s White Mountains for smoke on the Pacific Crest Trail, and slipped through just before a wildfire closed part of the route. Finally, she’d ridden the last dregs of autumn onto the Continental Divide Trail, her final path of the three.
She’d dreamed of doing the Triple Crown in a single calendar year for 15 years and spent most of that time collecting two “normal” Triple Crowns. But to finish, she’d have to push past injuries and exhaustion to cover more miles in 12 months than she ever had before. By July, she’d already walked 4,000 miles, exceeding her total mileage from any previous year. This time, it only brought her to the halfway mark.
There’s one climb on the Pacific Crest Trail that’s become something of a test piece for Anderson. It ascends 4,000 feet in a lung-busting 8 miles to the spires of California’s Sierra Buttes.
“It’s well-switchbacked, it’s well-graded—it’s the PCT—but it’s just a big amount of gain,” Anderson says. “The first time it was like the climb from hell. I hated it so much.”
When she first thru-hiked the PCT in 2005, she was in the early part of a career that has made her one of the most accomplished endurance athletes—male or female—of the last decade. Since that trek, she has covered more than 27,000 miles, and set self-supported speed records on the Pacific Crest, Arizona, and Appalachian Trails. Then, in 2018, she set out to become the first woman (and sixth person overall) to complete the Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails in a calendar year and the first woman to complete three Triple Crowns.
She discovered her love of thru-hiking on the Appalachian Trail at age 21, starting days after graduating college as a self-described “200-pound couch potato.” Her first effort at training was a quarter-mile run around a track. She could jog a slow 8 miles by the time she headed for Springer Mountain—with too-small boots that would pulverize her feet. Despite everything she’s since achieved, she still calls that first thru-hike the hardest thing she’s done. But in it, she found purpose.
“I just wanted to keep hiking all day,” she says. So she pushed past the 5 to 10 miles a day recommended for greenhorns. “There was just that curiosity of figuring out, Oh I can hike 20 miles and wondering where that would top out.” So she added distance, knocking off 25, 35, 40 miles in a day until she went for 50 in Connecticut, traversing the state in a single day. She finished the trail in four months instead of six.
A decade later, after completing the Triple Crown for the first time, she set the fastest-known self-supported time on the PCT in 2013. She averaged 40 miles a day, hiking through a knee injury and tears of exhaustion and pain. But when she returned to that ascent of the Sierra Buttes, it was not the crushing climb she remembered. Wait, I’m at the top already? she recalls thinking.
She went on to finish the trail in 60 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes, breaking the previous record by four days.
In 2015, she spent the first half of the summer mountaineering near her home in Washington to get in shape for an attempt on the AT’s fastest-known time. She linked up several mountains each hike and several trailheads over a weekend, cramming calories on the drive in between. That August, she hiked south from Maine, finishing in 54 days, 7 hours, and 48 minutes, to capture the self-supported speed record for a female. In 2016, she achieved the women’s record on the Arizona Trail. But even with those records in hand, she hadn’t explored the full extent of her abilities.
To prepare for the Triple Crown in a calendar year, she says, she mostly focused on recovering the previous summer’s CDT hike. On trail, she deployed her dialed-in injury prevention routine, sleeping in compression socks and taking anti-inflammatory supplements like turmeric and fish oil. And she used a mental strategy learned in ultramarathons: don’t think about the total mileage left, just focus on the next phase. “I’ve always trusted my body to stick with me, as long as I can stay strong mentally,” she says.
Chasing snow-free paths around the country mandates a patchwork approach. Anderson started the AT in early March, covering 1,750 miles before hopping over to New Mexico for a stint on the southernmost section of the CDT. Then she swung over to California, to join her fiancé on an end-to-end hike of the PCT.
While she’s used to struggling for the last 500 miles, she often woke up in tears on the PCT. “Physically, I felt drained pretty much every day,” she says. “I was run down and exhausted, especially in the desert.” This year, that climb at Sierra Buttes landed in the middle—not as hard as it once felt, but not as easy either.
From the northern terminus of the PCT, she went to the Canadian border in Montana and hiked the CDT south to northern Colorado, then detoured back east to finish the AT. When she returned to the CDT, snow pushed her to lower elevations. In early November, she walked into Grants, New Mexico, a small town off the interstate rimmed by pink sandstone cliffs—and the end of her quest. She’d decided previously that a tree standing in a median was the closest thing to an ending marker she would get.
Anderson averaged 30 miles a day over the course of her hike, travel days included. She rose before dawn and hiked well after dark, relentlessly covering 2.5 to 3 mph. Now, minor injuries and fatigue signal it might be time for a break, Anderson says, but her experiment is far from over.
“I don’t think that I’ve discovered what my limit is,” she says. “I’m sure there is a limit to what humans are physically capable of, but I don’t think we’re anywhere near it.”
Want to learn more about Anish’s big year? Check out her new book Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home, out now on Mountaineer’s Press.