The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is 2,650 miles long. Start in an arid desert at the Mexican border where temperatures soar and shade is hard to find. Eventually, you’ll make your way to the high desert of California and into the picturesque peaks of the Sierras. If you have the stamina to go on, you’ll vault over Donner Pass and into the southern Cascade range in northern California. As you head into Oregon, you’ll be rewarded with easier days and fantastic vistas. This all leads to Washington State, where the challenging icy passes of the northern Cascades deliver you to the terminus at Manning Park, BC.
Of all the people who attempted to complete the PCT, one stands above the others. On August 7, 2013, Heather Anderson of Bellingham, WA completed the entire hike unsupported (without people meeting her to provide supplies) in 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes. That makes her unsupported journey the fastest in the history of the PCT: faster than any man, woman or mountain goat has ever attempted the epic adventure. This astonishing accomplishment is made all the more surreal when you spend some time with her.
Heather (who took the trail name “Anish” on her first thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail) is a cheerful young woman with a calm presence and an amiable character. I asked her where she gets the willpower to do such superhuman feats.
“I have no idea. (laughs). I guess it comes from my Dad. He is the most stubborn and tenacious person I know aside from myself. But doing a hike like this, it’s 90 percent mental. Or maybe even more. Your body will go along with it if your mind is strong enough to keep pushing.”
For Anish, that “keep pushing” meant averaging an amazing 44.5 miles per day for 60 straight days. I asked her how she got into such epic hiking.
“I didn’t actually do anything in the great outdoors until I was 20 years old. I did some day hikes at the Grand Canyon and I gradually worked my way up to doing a few overnight trips there. They were very hard and very hot and I made lots of mistakes because I didn’t really know what I was doing. I hadn’t really hiked or backpacked before. But I just loved it so much that when I went back to school that fall I told my family and friends that I was going to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail when I graduated from college. And they were like ‘sure you are!’
“I was inactive at that time, I was overweight and didn’t exercise and didn’t really know anything about hiking. I started going to weight rooms and running and reading anything I could find.”
This desire to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) is a common one. Bill Bryson’s book A Walk in the Woods offers a fascinating insight into the trail, its hikers, and its rewards. Most AT hikers follow an easy pace, carefully plotting their course and overnighting at the shelters found along the way.
But not Anish. On her very first epic journey, she had her own way of doing things.
“When I first did the Appalachian Trail there were no other thru-hikers around because I had such a late start. I didn’t have a lot of information about the trail or about thru-hiking beforehand, so I had no concept of what an average hiking day was. To me, in my head, I thought, ‘I guess somewhere between 20 and 30 miles a day sounds reasonable.’ So I’m doing 20-30 miles a day and I’m blowing past everyone and they’re saying ‘What are you doing? Nobody does that! We all do about 15-20!’ So I responded, ‘Why do you guys only do that much?’ I didn’t have this artificial limitation on myself.”
Four months after her late start, Anish was atop Mount Katahdin in Maine. She had thru-hiked the AT on her first attempt. Back then, the success rate for thru-hikers was about 15 percent. The girl who had just discovered hiking did very well indeed.
While on her AT hike, other hikers told her about the Continental Divide and the PCT. She had never heard of them before. The girl from Michigan had never been out West at all. But it sounded amazing and she put the PCT on her short list of things to do. In 2005, she and her partner set out to conquer it.
Of this first shot at the trail she says, “It was more logistically challenging (than the AT) and we had bad snow in the Sierras. We were using ice axes and route finding, things I hadn’t done before. It was a growing experience, overcoming these new types of challenges.”
The challenges were indeed overcome. She and her partner made it to Manning Park alive and well, if a bit knackered. More importantly, she was sold on the beauty of the West. “When I hiked the PCT the first time, I fell in love with Washington and moved here. I hiked it again this year and yeah – Washington is still the most beautiful. I think the Sierras are a very close second.”
Living in Bellingham gave her plenty of opportunity to explore new trails and experiment with new gear. I asked her if she was a convert to the latest “ultra-light” fashions.
“My base weight was nine pounds. I don’t know if that puts me in the ultra-light category. But it’s close. I don’t really consider myself ultra-light because I carry more stuff than most of my friends who consider themselves ultra-light. But I do go very light. I have a fully enclosed tent. It’s just cuben fiber and bug netting. It only weighs a pound. On the other hand, I carry a 28 degree bag all the time because I sleep cold. I don’t want to be cold all the time out there. So I have some concessions to luxury.”
With her new gear and carefully planned food drops, Anish set out to do the impossible.
“I had maps printed out of the whole trip and I plotted out each day, like Day One I’ll do 42 miles and camp here, Day Two I’ll do 41 miles and camp here, etc. It was like my contract to myself. There were nights where I was a few miles short, some nights I went a few miles further because terrain was easier or harder than I thought. So I didn’t stick exactly to the itinerary but it was a 60 day itinerary.”
The first 700 miles of desert was trying. “In the desert I just didn’t want to eat. My body was under too much stress and it was too hot. I would try to put food in, and I was just not hungry. I’d eat maybe a quarter of a Clif bar. By the time I got to Washington I’d eat an entire Clif bar in two bites!”
Nonetheless, she managed to average 40 miles a day in the unforgiving desert heat, and stuck to her plan. “In the Sierras it was the same thing, 40 miles a day because the terrain was so much harder. Then once I get to central California, I wanted to do 45 miles a day. Then northern California, it’s 45 to 50 every day. In Oregon it was 50 miles a day. In Washington I was going to do just 40, but I ended up doing 45 to 50. So it was divided up based on what my body had to do. I knew I would be stronger by the time I got to Oregon, but then I knew I’d be dealing with fatigue once I got to Washington because Washington is pretty hard. But the desert was really the most difficult.”
Her epic race to Manning Park wasn’t without its bumps. “I pulled my hamstring in northern California. My leg would not bend. I couldn’t bend down to tie my shoes. But I knew I just had to keep walking, hoping it would resolve itself, otherwise I’m going to walk like this for another thousand miles. It took about a week, but eventually it stopped being tight. So, there’s a lot of dissociation between your mind and your body. At night I never got the kind of surge of energy you sometimes feel at the end of a foot race. I’d be like, there’s another mile to go…and just grind it out. The one time I got that huge surge of energy after a long day was at the very end, the last day…”
As she emerged exhausted from the dark forest and into the arms of her boyfriend, her tiny entourage confirmed her time. She had completed the fastest unsupported thru-hike of the PCT in the trail’s history. She had broken the previous record by a solid 4 days.
The very next day, hiker Josh Garrett completed the fastest ever supported PCT thru-hike (he had a team of helpers providing him with supplies along the way). He completed the trail in 59 days, 8 hours and 14 minutes. Oddly, Garrett and Anderson were not aware of each other’s epic hikes and had not met along the trail. Garrett’s time was impressive, but for me, Anderson’s unsupported journey, with all its insecurity and self-reliance, is the greater accomplishment.
I asked her what was next. “I have a couple of ultra-marathons coming up. I have a 100-miler in Hawaii, and a 100K in Virginia in December. I don’t have any more FKT (Fastest Known Time) hiking adventures planned. I’ve considered it. We’ll see what happens.”