I Will Keep Up With Andrew Skurka

In which our writer spends three days tracking the world’s most relentless long-distance hiker—and finds that only half the battle is physical
November 7, 2012

It was seventy degrees outside, and my hands were completely numb. I was leaning belly-first against a steep, 13,000-foot mountain slope in Colorado’s Gore Range. The slope was covered with a frigid rind of snow, and my feet were carefully positioned in tiny, kicked-in toeholds. Apart from the toeholds—which could give out at any moment—the only thing keeping me from sliding hundreds of feet down the mountain were my hands— chilled to a medium-rare pink—which I’d crammed into the snow with a my-life-is-on-the-line grip.

“Don’t panic, Ken,” I whispered to myself. “Don’t panic.”

Panicking, I peered down the icy slope, which led to a bruising batch of boulders at the bottom. If I lost my hold, I knew that I’d slide all the way down and, at best, shatter a bone on one of the many rocks jutting out of the snow—or, more probably, have my mangled remains helicoptered out in a lumpy body bag.

Carefully, I took a step down. Then, about ten seconds later, another. Finally, I caught up to my guide, who was resting on a ledge beneath a cliff and warming his hands. I steeled myself for his assessment, which I was sure would mock the terror I felt and dismiss the icy slope as nothing out of the ordinary.

“If I knew it was going to be like this, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said matter-offactly, while violently rubbing his hands together. “We could break a coccyx if we fell.”

My guide was Andrew Skurka ’03, a god of calves, and arguably the greatest hiker the world has ever seen.

I’d been hiking with him for two days, but I still had a lot to figure out: Are we going to get down this mountain? What exactly is “ultimate hiking?” Who is the real Andrew Skurka? And—most pressingly— where is my coccyx?

“What sort of shape are you in?” he had asked me over the phone.

Skurka had agreed to take me on a threeday wilderness hike through the Colorado Rockies, but now he sounded skeptical. And maybe with good reason—at the time I was living on a farm in the low-lying piedmont of North Carolina, and I was worried about how my body would handle the high elevations of the Rockies. I told him that while I’d never hiked the Appalachian Trail from end to end, I’d logged plenty of miles on it during spring breaks in college—sometimes as many as twenty-five miles a day.

“Given where you live and that you’re not an endurance athlete,” Skurka said, doubtfully, “it’s more likely that you will struggle.”

Peaceful isolation: Skurka likes to hike off-trail, where he encounters few other travelers. Above: Descending a snowfield with an icy grip.

I had no pretensions I was in Skurka’s league athletically. A former track and cross-country runner at Duke, he’s become one of the premier endurance athletes in the world, a backpacker whose epic adventures have become legendary in the hiking community. He’s crossed the width of the continent on a 7,775-mile trek from Quebec to Washington; circled the western half of America in a 6,875-mile loop connecting parts of the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide trails; and bushwhacked, skied, and pack-rafted for 176 days and 4,700 miles across Alaska and the Yukon. Outside, Backpacker, and National Geographic Adventurehave each tabbed him for “adventurer of the year” awards. In the past decade, he’s logged some 25,000 miles, more than the length of the Equator.

In the process, Skurka has pioneered a new branch of hiking that he calls “ultimate hiking,” which relies on ultralight gear, efficient packing, and careful preparation to maximize the amount of ground a hiker can cover. Unburdened by heavy gear and with his cunning ability to read the landscape, Skurka is capable of hiking from dawn until dusk for weeks at a time. He’s championed this philosophy in a book, The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, and in more than 200 speaking events a year, including stops at gear stores, Boy Scout troops, trail associations, and higherprofile engagements with Google and the Explorer’s Club. When he’s not talking about the trail, he’s on one, offering guided hiking tours throughout the U.S. A hiker on one of his adventures described the experience as “like learning from the Yoda of backpacking.”

So, yeah, I was intimidated, and, to be honest, a bit stung by Skurka’s prediction that I’d “struggle.” Out of my league or not, I decided I’d prove him wrong. My goal was outlandish, immature—stupid, really—but I was determined to do the impossible: I will keep up with Andrew Skurka.

So began a rigorous training regimen of running eight miles a day (which instantly turned into five-mile runs twice a week), and going on a hike every weekend (reading Cormac McCarthy novels in bed). But on my road trip west, I did manage to hike a seventy-mile section of the Appalachian Trail, and, upon arriving in Colorado, I spent two nights above 10,000 feet without throwing up. No longer was I feeling completely hopeless. In fact, I was feeling downright confident.

But my goal wasn’t just about avenging my bruised pride. I wanted to know what drives Skurka to walk so far and so fast. I wanted to find out how he can even enjoy nature if he travels through it so swiftly. Most of all, I just wanted to learn how he’s able to do it.

And to learn anything, I knew I’d have to keep up.

In Denver, on the evening before our hike, I visited Skurka at the apartment he shares with his girlfriend so he could assemble our meals and outfit me with ultralight gear. As he expertly rolled Ziplocks of granola and taught me how to construct our stove (a tiny perforated cat food can into which we’d pour alcohol as our cooking fuel), I was encouraged to note that Skurka—of average height and build—wasn’t the imposing figure I’d imagined. But when he walked into the kitchen to snag some bags of ramen and Minute Rice for our dinner meals, I snuck a peek at his calves: two marbled speed bags of death, spider-webbed with a network of bulging veins that again reminded me of the absurdity of my goal.

He asked me to lay out all my gear on his lawn.

That's why they call them the Rockies: A stony descent off Red Mountain

“No, no, no,” he said, pointing at each of my items. “It looks like you got this stuff from the Duke Outing Club.”

There’s plenty of gospel around the subject of hiking gear, and for good reason. When camping outfitters started making light, weatherproof gear, it opened a world of longer, more ambitious hiking. According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, there were only thirtyseven recorded “thru-hikes”—the term hikers use for a continuous end-to-end trail hike—on the 2,168-mile footpath during the 1960s. In the decade of the 2000s alone, there were 5,866. Still, many hikers’ ambitions have been thwarted by clunky gear and poor planning. (The Appalachian Mountain Club estimates that only 20 percent of hikers with intentions of getting to the end of the AT complete it.)

And that’s where Skurka enters the picture. He’s turned efficient packing into a science, becoming an expert on the breathability of garments and the relative advantages of natural and synthetic fills. He calculates his daily caloric needs to avoid bringing any more food than necessary. While many thru-hikers set off with packs weighing thirty or forty pounds on their shoulders, Skurka has winnowed his load as low as six pounds on some occasions.

In place of the tent I owned, I’d carry one of Skurka’s seven-ounce bivy sacks, a mini-shelter the shape of a sleeping bag that adds a few degrees of warmth and keeps out bugs, along with a nine-ounce tarp, which we’d erect with his trekking poles and rope if we anticipated rain. In place of hard plastic water canisters, he gave me collapsible one-ounce Platypus bottles. And in place of my hefty sleeping bag, he gave me a sleek thirteen-ounce quilt, which went into a frameless, twenty-four-ounce backpack. With all its contents, the pack weighed a little more than ten pounds.

“What shirt are you going to wear?” he asked.

“This one,” I said patting my blue tee.

“What kind of fabric is it?”

“Cotton,” I said.

He looked at me aghast, as if I’d just told him I was planning on wearing plate armor and packing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. (Cotton, I would learn, is scorned by hikers because it is slow to dry compared to other fabrics.)

“Are you serious?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said matter-of-factly.

“No, I’ll get you a different shirt.”

He tossed me a Merino wool shirt, jumped in my van, and we set out west for the mountains.

We began our hike in the Eagles Nest Wilderness, just outside of Frisco, Colorado, on the 9,000-foot contour line. The mountains here are more bulbous than spiky, making hiking manageable. In the distance was the gargantuan hump of Buffalo Mountain, seated beside the volcanic ridgeline of Red Peak, each sprouting from a thick bed of spruce trees. The air smelled clean and cool, and the sky, colored a startlingly perfect blue, was a watering hole for a variety of cloud species, some ballooning atomically, others gently drifting like sleeping whales, and still others stretched thin into a rolling marshmallowy froth.

An hour into our hike, I was still acclimating and breathing much harder than I should have been on a relatively modest incline. Skurka, with a cocky smile, tapped me on my chest and asked, “How are you holding up, Ken?” Annoyed by the condescension, I gave him a curt “good” and continued to labor up the hill.

Gripping a pair of trekking poles and wearing a baseball cap with a long cloth flap to shield his neck from the sun, Skurka resembled a cross between a praying mantis and a sheik in ceremonial headdress. To get away from other hikers, we broke off the trail and headed toward Uneva Pass, where we walked along a hard ridgeline and viewed the valleys on each side of us.

“By physically challenging myself, [the hike] becomes a mental thing. It becomes a mental thing because of the physical thing."

I had grown more relaxed as my body adjusted to the altitude, and no longer did I feel like I was hyperventilating. I was relieved to notice Skurka was puffing, too, though not nearly as much as I.

“My god, this is amazing,” I said ecstatically, surveying the panorama of meadows dappled with yellow, purple, and blue flowers.

Along the journey: Hydrating with some of the Rockies' ample fresh water, above; Skurka making a quick read of the map, below right; Climbing Red Mountain with willow lakes below, below left

“This is a kinda ho-hum for me,” Skurka noted dryly, pointing out we could still see Interstate 70 in the distance.

Because I knew Skurka had spent so much time in nature, and because another writer had described him as a “Gen Y version of Henry David Thoreau or John Muir,” I’d half-expected to hike alongside some moss-bearded bard of the woods who only opened his mouth to spout the poetry of Wordsworth and sing the glories of nature. But Skurka hardly seemed romantic about his adventures. As we hiked, he talked about the business he’d built around hiking—his book, his speaking schedule, the guided tours. When I asked what future trips he might undertake, he said, “I wouldn’t do anything I couldn’t profit from.” I began to wonder what hiking and being in nature meant to him: Was nature an arena for him to test himself? Was hiking merely a means to build his brand? Does he enjoy being out here?

Hiking only recently had become a job for Skurka. At Duke, he was an economics major bound for a career in finance when he spent a summer working at a high-adventure camp in western North Carolina. The experience was “life-altering,” he said, and it prompted him to take a radical turn off the road to Wall Street. His coworkers at the camp weren’t worried about steady jobs and buying nice houses, he explains; they weren’t focused on earning a living, but just, well, living.

The next summer—between his junior and senior years—Skurka set off on the Appalachian Trail, and he discovered his skill for long-distance hiking. He finished the trail—typically a five- to seven-month venture, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club—in ninety-five days.

After graduating, he sought even grander adventures. For the most part, he lived what he calls a “dirt bag” life, storing his belongings in plastic tubs that he’d move from one friend’s home to another when he wasn’t on the trail. He gradually earned recognition and a few sponsorships, but it wasn’t until 2006—when he was hiking a 1,700-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail and averaging thirty-eight miles a day—that he realized he might be able to profit from all the lessons he’d learned on the trails. Now, he makes enough from his guided tours, his book, and appearances that his excuse for avoiding a regular job is his regular job.

“I think I just reached a sort of breaking point where I was tired of living out of tubs,” Skurka had said on our drive to the mountains. “I can’t get over that. And I also come from a family and background where, if I’m going to get married, the expectation is that I could financially support my family if I became the sole earner. I enjoy being a businessman. It’s been an interesting experiment for me this year: How much can I earn being an adventurer?”

Later, as we trudged through a field of tussocks, a lone mule deer loped away upon catching sight of us, and three elk, hoisting antlers as big as chandeliers, snacked on the verdure of one of the shadowy valley floors. I was mesmerized. Skurka seemed unaffected.

“Is it the joy of creating a great plan and conquering it?” I asked haltingly, trying to catch my breath between words. “Or is there more of a step-to-step enjoyment that you get from your hikes?”

“I kind of look at the goal as a motivating excuse,” he said. “The meat of the trip is what happens between the start and finish.”

“But when does the enjoyment happen? You could just be a camper and embrace nature.”

"Expanding your horizon. Pushing your limits. Understanding your potential. Those are all valid explanation for doing this stuff."

“No, you don’t end up with the mental challenges [when you’re just camping],” he said. “By physically challenging myself, [the hike] becomes a mental thing. It becomes a mental thing because of the physical thing. If you just go out and camp, you’re not expanding your comfort zone. You’re not putting yourself outside of it.”

“So part of the fulfillment of hiking is the personal growth and feeling like you’re becoming a different person?"

“Expanding your horizon. Pushing your limits. Understanding your potential. Those are all valid explanations for doing this stuff.”

We walked in silence for most of the evening, concentrating on our footing as we stepped on boulders to cross a talus field, descended a gravelly mountain slope, and crashed through brush before hopscotching across rocks over a small creek. At nightfall, we laid out our bivy sacks and sleeping bags within a pine forest because “the canopy will knock heat back to the ground” and allow us to sleep more comfortably, Skurka explained.

We woke early, with the sun’s morning rays filtered through clusters of pine needles. We quickly repacked our gear, devoured granola cereal with powdered milk, hydrated ourselves with cold creek water, and then set out to walk up Deluge Creek to its source, a blinding mountaintop lake from which we lustily drank.

After a day of hiking, a light-hearted camaraderie had started to develop between us. I asked Liam Doren, a professional photographer who had joined us to document the hike, “Can you take a picture of Andrew’s marbled calves glistening in the sunlight?”

“I didn’t know you noticed, Ken,” said Andrew coyly.

Later in the day, we reached the top of another spine of mountains, which we’d need to descend to begin our hike back to the trailhead. And that’s when we saw the snow.

I’d noticed that Skurka was always eyeing the terrain, sniffing out the best route, avoiding hazards. He’d often guided us down elk trails or alongside creeks because “water knows the shortest way.” I was impressed— astounded, actually—with his knowledge of geology and hydrology, which he’d taught himself on his hikes (or his hikes, rather, had taught him). Earlier, he’d led me over a series of giant boulders so he could giddily show me a chatter mark, a depression caused by scraping of rocks carried by a glacier.

Leading us to the treacherous, snowy descent was the first chink I’d seen in Skurka’s hiking armor. We managed to make it down without incident, although I didn’t get full feeling back in one of my fingers until months later. But frankly, I was a little relieved to see him in pain and rattled once I reached him on the ledge. He was human after all.

The next morning, we awoke amidst the buzz of mosquitoes around the Willow Lakes, a scattering of icy ponds above 11,000 feet enclosed inside a phalanx of towering spires. We traversed snowfields and climbed Red Peak’s rocky slope, reaching the pinnacle at the blindingly bright height of day. A promenade of mountain goats slowly ascended a gully, looking like white-robed religious pilgrims toiling up to their mountain-peak shrine.

Skurka, standing atop the summit, pointed out the route we’d walked, naming the peaks and passes and water drainages we’d traveled. For two and a half days and thirty miles, I’d kept up with him. But now, watching him read the mountain range like an epic poem of natural history, one written in a language that seemed strange and distant to me, I knew I’d never be the hiker he was. It wasn’t his knowledge of bivy sacks or the water vapor transport rate of different types of fabric. It was his curiosity—his embrace of nature as a giant textbook to read and master, his knowing that every curve in a trail and every bend in a river had significance, meaning, something to learn from.

We descended the mountain and hopped back on the main trail, walking toward civilization, where a cheeseburger and victory beer awaited us. In the weeks to come, I’d head off to Alaska (with Skurka’s wisdom and a new set of ultralight gear), and Skurka would lead ultimate hiking adventures in Rocky Mountain National Park and New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Still, I kept wondering where nature was in all of this. Did Skurka really love nature? Or just the challenge of it? Then, in the final few miles of our hike, as we walked alongside a placid lake in the heart of the Rockies, I think I got the answer I was looking for.

“For me, I like multi-month backpacking trips because I get really connected with the landscape I’m traveling through,” he said, for the first time since we’d set off, sounding full of Whitman-esque reverie. “You start to watch the seasons. And you start to watch water tables change, and you see different wildflowers come out and the animals start going through their annual patterns of mating and birthing and grazing. The fires kick up in August and September. And then the way the snow changes over the course of the spring.

“And you just don’t see that if you’re out for the day.” You have to work for it. And that’s what Andrew Skurka likes.

 

Ilgunas A.M. ’11 currently is hiking the track of the 1,700-mile proposed Keystone XL pipeline. His book, Walden on Wheels, will be published in May 2013.