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Our Goal Was to Hike the Entire Triple Crown in One Year. We’re Almost Done.

Two-thirds of the way through a monumental hiking challenge, there's still so much left to learn.

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Editor’s Note: Together, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail make up the Triple Crown of hiking; to complete them all in a lifetime is to join a group of hiking superstars.  To hike all three in a year? It’s almost unthinkable.

But not for 21-year-olds Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell. Potter, a former Backpacker intern, and Parell, his fellow Stanford student, set out on Jan 1, 2021 on a mission to hike the Calendar-Year Triple Crown (CYTC), an 8,000-mile feat that’s only been accomplished by a handful of elite hikers. If Potter and Parell complete all three trails by year’s end, they’ll be the youngest to do so, and they’ll join the ranks of thru-hiking icons like Heather “Anish” Anderson and Flyin’ Brian Robinson. Follow their entire Triple Crown journey in Backpacker’s new podcast, Impossible Odds, brought to you by Merrell, premiering in October. 

When I last wrote about the attempt my buddy Jackson and I were mounting to hike the Calendar Year Triple Crown, it was January and we had about 400 miles of the Appalachian Trail under our belts. Thinking back on that time—the headspace I was in, howI felt physically, the expectations I had—it seems like a world away. Now it’s mid-September, and our nine months of the trail feels more like nine years.

Prior to January, I was a complete thru-hiking novice. The longest hike Jackson had done was El Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage through northern Spain from town to town—and that was still quite a bit more impressive than my record hike of 200 miles, in which I carried a pack full of canned beans, three pairs of sweatpants, and a cast iron skillet for cooking (in all, tipping the scales around 60 pounds). The thought of carrying all that nonsense now makes me shudder. 

I still feel like a novice in some ways. Even after 6,000-plus miles and the knowledge I’ve gained through this experience, I’ve realized how much more there is to learn about backpacking. 

For now, though, back to the AT. With 400 miles under our belts, we approached the Virginia border. I don’t want to give away too much, because all the juicy details are included in our upcoming podcast Impossible Odds, but a major challenge as we continued on the trail were the heaps of  snow that began piling up. What started as a dusting quickly grew to 3-, then 4- and 5-foot drifts. Initially hoping to hike around 25 miles a day on the AT, we were only averaging a little over 20, and even that drained our energy. We knew it wasn’t sustainable, so we re-evaluated our plan. As we realized we couldn’t hike each trail straight through without interruption, we decided to split them up into sections and tackle each one in the optimal season. 

Hiking through snow in southern Virginia. (Photo: Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell)

On February 21, we left the AT behind in Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, trading sub-zero temperatures and winter winds for the cacti, cattle ponds, and sand of the Continental Divide Trail’s southern section, and later the Pacific Crest Trail.

With all the jumping around, we didn’t even finish a single full long trail until May 28, two months later than we expected. We ended our hike of the AT by sprinting up Mt. Katahdin in Maine to catch sunrise on the first day Baxter State Park opened the trail for the year. As we watched the blazing sun appear over the eastern point of Knife’s Edge, one of the first places in the country to see the sunrise each morning, we briefly took in all that we had accomplished so far. But my mind was itching with anxiety about just how far we had ahead of us. One foot in front of the other, I told myself. It’s simple. 

But it’s not so simple after all. Jackson and I are constantly thinking about both our immediate next steps and the overall plan to give ourselves the best chance at finishing all three trails. In the short term, we plan our resupplies (times when we briefly get off trail to get more food and canister fuel), think about keeping our gear in good condition, and work to stay healthy. In the long term, we’re strategizing about when to tackle each section of trail for the optimal weather conditions. 

Most importantly, Jackson and I communicate with one another constantly to make sure we’re on the same page. If one thing were to make or break this trek, it’s our relationship as hiking partners. We’ve spent nearly nine months in unbelievably close quarters (in winter we shared a tent), often going three to four days without seeing a single other person. We’ve had to work hard at keeping an easygoing friendship, despite the difficulties we’ve experienced together. We couldn’t have gotten to this point without each other, but that doesn’t mean things are always easy. We have our ups and our downs, but most importantly, we’ve remained committed to each other and this goal. Luckily, our senses of humor align pretty well, too. That’s most important when things are going wrong—and when you’re thru-hiking, things go wrong all the time. 

(Photo: Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell)

After finishing the AT, we hiked another 1,000 miles of the PCT, and then went straight northbound from where we left off on the CDT. As it stands right now, mid-September with about 200 miles to go on the CDT, and about 900 left on the PCT, we’re still in the thick of things—and by no means in the clear to finish. Every time I get phone service, I check the NOAA weather reports for the Cascades in Washington, and I’m praying heavy snow holds off for just another month. If snow does hit, it’ll be far from easy, and our mileage could slow down to nearly half of what we’ve been averaging. The clock is ticking, and as we enter fall, winter-like conditions are looming right behind it. We’re just going to have to move quicker.

Will Sammy and Jackson complete their Calendar-Year Triple Crown Attempt and become the youngest thru-hikers to accomplish the feat? Tune into Impossible Odds to find out.