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An Expansive Conversation with an 'Ultimate Hiker' Turned Author: Andrew Skurka

The recent Olympics did not include long-distance wilderness hiking, but if they had, Andrew Skurka would have been a gold-medal contender.

The 31-year-old Skurka—twice named Adventurer of the Year (Outside magazine, 2010, and National Geographic Adventure magazine, 2007) as well as Person of the Year (Backpacker magazine, 2005)—estimates he has walked more than 30,000 miles in the past 10 years. “That’s 1.2 times around the Earth’s equator (24,901 miles),” he calculates. “It takes a while to walk 30,000 miles.”

That’s an eye-popping total for someone who 10 years ago was athletic but not particularly outdoorsy. At Duke, where he was an economics and political science major, Skurka ran track and cross-country and once placed seventh in the 10,000-meter run at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships.

But in wilderness skills he was essentially a novice, with just 2 short-haul overnight backpacking trips in Yosemite to his credit.

So why, largely on a whim, would someone so minimally experienced elect to hike the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail during the summer of 2002?

“Because I was young and dumb,” Skurka says in his customarily direct manner. “The idea was romantic. Walking from Georgia to Maine, step by step, spending 2,100 miles in the woods. That’s pretty romantic to me.”

His AT hike, squeezed in between his junior and senior years at Duke and zoomed in just 95 days, launched what has become a legendary hiking/exploring career. Consider this sampler of Skurka’s solo feats:

  • Alaska to Yukon expedition (2010): 4,700 miles in 176 days. The trip involved hiking, skiing and packrafting, with more than 2,100 miles covered off trail. Featured in National Geographic magazine (March 2011).
  • The “Great Western Loop” hike (2007): 6,875 miles in 208 days. He connected 2 Triple Crown trails (the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail) with the Pacific Northwest Trail, Grand Enchantment Trail (Phoenix to Albuquerque) and Arizona Trail plus a 675-mile California-to-Arizona route of his own making to form an unprecedented loop. Average daily distance: 33 miles.

  • Sea-to-Sea hike (2004-05): 7,775 miles in 11 months. Starting in Quebec in August, Skurka liked existing long-distance trails (AT, North Country Trail and Pacific Northwest Trail) to reach Washington state the following July. He traveled 1,400 miles via snowshoes through the Great Lakes States during winter.

PDFollowing his Alaska-Yukon odyssey, Skurka has devoted much of the past 2 years to writing a book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, giving slideshows and clinics and cultivating his guiding business.

“It didn’t take the form of a trip, but I worked harder in 2011 than I might have worked in any prior year,” he says.

This summer he just bought a house in Boulder, Colo. Has civilization finally got its grips on Skurka? Will he ever go long in the wilderness again?

“I definitely expect some big trips going forward,” he says. “Next year I’ll probably do some personal trips and would consider doing a big trip in 2014.”

Skurka swung by REI headquarters near Seattle earlier this year while on a 55-day speaking tour. That's him swapping expedition stories with REI CEO Sally Jewell (who climbed Antarctica's 16,050-foot Vinson Massif last year) in the photo to the right. Below are some highlights from my conversation with one of the planet’s elite hikers:

REI: Like many Olympic-caliber athletes, you appear to be a normal guy who discovered and cultivated a particular talent.

Skurka: No, I wasn’t born in the Swiss Alps. I’m pretty average.

REI: What’s your family background?

Skurka: Born in Seekonk, Mass., just outside of Providence, R.I., on March 25, 1981. My parents still live there, same house. Two sisters—one older, one younger, both married. Dad’s a personal loan banker. He gives money to local guys who want to make widgets. Mom’s a retired special needs teacher.

REI: Are the folks outdoor types?

Skurka: We car-camped and day-hiked because they were inexpensive activities, and New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine weren’t too far away for us. But we didn’t backpack. We skied maybe once a year.

REI: What caused you to get serious about adventure?

Skurka: I don’t think I made a conscious decision about getting serious about the outdoors. I just increasingly became consumed by it.

I always loved the outdoors as a kid, but I didn’t really get into it until college. The bigger thing that fed it was this realization that I was in my early 20s and I had to make a decision about the kind of life I wanted to lead. I needed to do what was going to make me happiest and what I was most passionate about. All of the pressures of parents and peers and society be damned; I needed to make a decision for myself. For me, it was some form of the outdoors.

skurka-chugach


REI: What gave you confidence that you would succeed?

Skurka: Long hikes are huge projects, and I’m a project-oriented person. I love big goals. I was also expecting that my background as a Division I runner would sort of offset the physical rigor of a trip like that (his initial AT thru-hike).

REI: What’s your edge that other hikers might lack?

Skurka: My endurance background helps in 2 ways. I’m probably more physically cut out for it (long days on a trail) than your average bear. The second thing, maybe more importantly, is that I value the mental challenges inherent in one of these big trips.

I know how to push myself. I’m not a masochist, but when I evaluate the worthiness of a trip, I consider the backcountry/wilderness experience as well as the mental/physical challenge. To me it’s a little of both, which is different than a lot of backpackers. Most backpackers look at that trip purely from an aesthetic point of view. Or, if it was a group trip, from a camaraderie point of view. I definitely appreciate and value that part of it, but my objectives are slightly different.

REI: When you’re in your zone, what’s your satisfaction level?

Skurka: I don’t think I have a sense of satisfaction until after I’m done, because I still have all these miles to do. I’m always hustling a little bit when I’m out there. [Note: Skurka finished second overall in the Leadville 100 ultramarathon in 2008, his first 100-mile race.

REI: What’s been your toughest trip?

Skurka: The Alaska-Yukon expedition. If you just look at it as a pure skill-set test, nothing else comes close.

It wasn’t just hiking. It was also skiing and packrafting [carrying a packable, inflatable watercraft], with 2,111 miles of off-trail travel. The logistics—resupplying, bailout options, communications—were very challenging. When I started I was 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It was the middle of March. The low temperatures the first 3 days were all lower than -20. The bugs up in the Arctic in the summer were worse than any bugs I had seen in the Lower 48, like 2 or 3 times as many bugs as any other place.

REI: How well did you adapt?

Skurka: I think maybe the biggest challenge of being up in Alaska is the mental piece. For 6 months I was in a place where I wasn’t on top of the food chain most of the time. There was this raw risk level that I could never get away from regardless of all the things all the things I would try to do to mitigate risk.

It’s the most exposed, vulnerable place I’ve experienced. You’re not in control up there. You’re not comfortable. At any one point, there are a couple of things that can probably kill you if you’re not being careful. You can’t really say that about a lot of places in the Lower 48.

REI: Any harrowing experiences stick in your memory?

Skurka: I scared the [poop] out of a grizzly bear. I was walking upstream, on a bench above the creek, and this grizzly bear comes charging at me. By the time I saw him he was about 10 yards away. I didn’t even have time to get my bear spray or take the safety off.

So I just yelled and threw my trekking pole at him, and it landed right in front of him. The bear is so scared that it takes a 90-degree turn and starts running away. It must be thinking, “I don’t know what the hell you are, but I want nothing to do with you.” Then as it runs away it leaves this 30-foot streak of red berry [poop] along the creek bed.

You’ve probably heard about people who have had a near-death experience and all they can do is laugh about it? That was me. You can’t control yourself. I was giggly.

Three miles later went to bed. Never before had I felt like just another creature in the landscape. I realized I’m not anything special.

REI: You’ve written a popular book about gear. People think of you as an ultralight specialist. Is that label correct?

PDSkurka: No, that’s inaccurate. From my point of view, there are 2 distinct activities on a backpacking trip: hiking and camping. Some backpackers go backpacking in order to camp. Others, including myself, go backpacking in order to hike, and camping is simply an 8-hour opportunity to recharge for another long day of hiking tomorrow. In my book I label these backpackers as "Ultimate Campers" and "Ultimate Hikers."

Neither style is superior, but they have major implications for the gear, supplies and skills that one must have to maximize their experience. The Ultimate Hiker must travel efficiently and light—but not "stupid light." I think that the conventional lightweight/ultralight/super ultralight labels are not useful or helpful, and I've stopped using them entirely.

REI: Give me an example of “stupid light.”

Skurka: Stupid light is not taking something you actually need in order to save weight, or taking an item that is too light and that lacks sufficient comfort, durability, reliability, ease of use, or efficiency.

For example, during my thru-hike of the Sierra High Route with Buzz Burrell [2008] we left behind mosquito headnets, thinking we would exit just before the first hatch. In an effort to save 1 ounce, we endured misery. Another example: I used to use closed cell foam pads exclusively because they are lighter for their warmth. But now, if I know I'll be sleeping on hard surfaces such as Appalachian Trail shelters or designated campsites in Rocky Mountain National Park, I’ll bring a heavier air mattress because I will hike better tomorrow after a good night of rest.

skurka-grand_canyon


REI: What’s your approach these days?

Skurka: Backpackers pack their fears instead of doing some pre-trip research that will allow them to accurately assess what they need to be prepared against.

We all want to be safe. We all want to be comfortable. We all want to have fun. But if you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, then you put yourself in the position of, “What if this happens?” or “Just in case that happens.” So people just take a tremendous amount of stuff. They look at gear as their safety net.

My approach is fundamentally different. Before I go on a trip I really understand what I’m getting myself into in terms of temperature, precipitation, sun exposure, water availability, wildlife, insects and so on. Then I put together the most minimal kit that I can that still keeps me safe and still keeps me comfortable. But nothing more.

Very few items in my pack are what you would describe as ultralight, because it’s just not practical for a 6-month trip—it’s too fringe, the fabrics are too delicate, there’s too much user-care involved. I think I’ve found my sweet spot.

REI: With the books and the guided trips you’re establishing yourself as a backpacking sage, sort of a nouveau Colin Fletcher.

Skurka: After the Alaska trip, I made this conscious decision to stop and make Alaska my last trip for now. For a lot of outdoor athletes, you’re only as good as your last climb, your last ski descent, your last expedition. I decided to write a book, start a guiding business, give all these presentations. The last year and a half I’ve been able to cement this thing as a legitimate livelihood instead of it being a marginally sustainable lifestyle.

REI: What’s a dream adventure high on your lifetime to-do list?

Skurka: If I ever meet Richard Branson, I’m going to pitch him on a thru-hike of the moon.

Expedition photos courtesy of Andrew Skurka. Top to bottom: Skurka in the Brooks Range of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; in the Chugach Mountains of southern Alaska; in Kenai Fjords National Park; in Grand Canyon National Park. Other images by T.D. Wood.

Skurka-brooks-ANWR-507

Posted on at 12:15 PM

Tagged: Andrew Skurka and Hiking

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