Top 10 Expeditions of 2021: #10: Youngest Calendar-Year Triple Crown Thru-Hikers

Over the last 12 months, ExplorersWeb has documented incredible adventures in climbing, cycling, running, walking, skiing, and anything involving force of will and dedication to a dream in the outdoors. As this year comes to a close, we present our countdown of the Top 10 Expeditions of 2021.

Hiking on well-trodden trails isn’t usually our bag, but Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell — who go by the trail names of Buzz and Woody – recently pulled off the Triple Crown of thru-hiking all in one calendar year, and at an age when most adventurers are still in metaphorical nappies.

The Triple Crown involves a roughly 12,000km journey and completion of the three major long-distance hiking routes in the U.S. — the Appalachian Trail (AT), Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), and Continental Divide Trail (CDT). When they finished off the PCT at the end of October, Potter and Parell became the 11th and 12th finishers of the Calendar-Year Triple Crown, and at just 21 years old, the youngest to boot.

Appalachian Trail –- 3,529 km; Pacific Crest Trail –- 4,270 km; Continental Divide Trail  5,000 km. Photo: Adapted from original image by Molly Quinn/spokesman.com

 

Completing just the 5,000km CDT, the longest and arguably hardest trail, takes four to six months for the average hiker. Many weekend warriors only tick off shorter sub-sections of the overall trails. Potter and Parell finished all three in a little over 10 months.

The Appalachian Trail for starters

Starting with the AT on January 1, 2021, the pair opted for a winter payload of 15kg packs, which is heavy by ultralight hiking standards. They started in Georgia and headed north until diverting off-trail in March to avoid snow in the section above Pennsylvania. The two Stanford University students had at this point finished just half of the AT. While Parell and Potter acknowledged that this part of the route was passable, they needed to keep to a strict schedule to ensure a timely return back to Stanford by mid-autumn, so they switched trails.

Continental Divide Trail, New Mexico. Photo: Shutterstock

 

Deciding to head out west and pick up the CDT in New Mexico, Parell and Potter then sped north. Now in the warmer desert climes of the CDT, the young pair could shave off around 3kg from their packs by ditching heavy winter sleeping bags and other cold-weather items. This permitted longer days on the trail.

By April, though, the east coast had started to warm up, so the now well-grizzled hikers changed tack again. They set their sights on Pennsylvania and completing the second half of the AT. Parell and Potter managed to finish this at the end of May, becoming the first to do the trail in 2021. Neatly, their completion date was also the 100th anniversary of the day the AT was first proposed in an article by American forester Benton MacKaye.

Flip-flopping between trails

With one trail down, it was back to the PCT. All this trail switching is making my head spin, but it didn’t seem to bother Parell and Potter, though they have acknowledged that so much trail time was mentally as well as physically draining. How much of that came from the constant change of plans is hard to put a finger on, but it can’t have helped.

The practice of switching between sections of different trails to hike sections with more favorable conditions is known as “flip-flopping” and is common among many chasing the Triple Crown within a calendar year.

Dirtbag life on the trail. Photo: Sammy Potter and Jackson Parell

 

In 2001, Flyin’ Brian Robinson was the first to finish the Calendar-Year Triple Crown. Since then, fewer than 10 others have followed suit. The first woman to do so was Heather “Anish” Anderson in 2018. The first to do the Calendar-Year Triple Crown without ‘flip-flopping’ was Matt “Squeaky” Hazely. He hiked each trail in its entirety before moving on to the next one.

Although now into summer, the weather was still a concern for our friends Buzz and Woody. This time, it was the threat of wildfires. By July, they had finished the North California section of the PCT, but not without “100+ degrees for days on end, with cloudless skies and shadeless trail.” How close the pair got to fires is uncertain, but they did report one close call with fire, and some days with only a couple of hundred metres of visibility because of smoke.

Come mid-July, it was back to New Mexico, northbound on the CDT all the way to the Chief Mountain finish of the CDT in Montana. Here, they arrived a few weeks ahead of schedule in late September. By now, Parell and Potter had suffered. The CDT had taken its toll. “This was probably the hardest of the three trails for us to be on — not because of the terrain or trail conditions, but mentally. In the desert section, the wide expanses and seemingly endless views of sand felt real lonely at times.”

The Pacific Crest Trail, Cascade Mountains, Washington. Photo: Shutterstock

Never-ending terrain and the finish line

Their struggles with the immensity of the terrain are no shock when you consider that Potter was a thru-hiking novice before 2021. Parell had only the relatively modest El Camino de Santiago under his belt. Apparently, Potter’s previous record hike was a 300km jaunt carrying “a pack full of canned beans, three pairs of sweatpants, and a cast-iron skillet for cooking”. Oh, how ultralight hikers must weep at the thought of such a kit.

They hoped that the extra time they gained by completing the CDT a little early would be a cushion from the snow that would soon hit the Cascade Mountains on the next section of the PCT. And so it proved, with only small flurries of the white stuff during September.

Northward they powered, completing the northern terminus of the PCT on the Canada-U.S. border. However, to ensure completion of a continuous hike from Mexico to Canada, Parell and Potter returned to a section in Northern California they were forced to skip due to wildfire-enforced trail closures in July. But again fires closed trails, so instead they completed a 65km road walk around the missing section, celebrating the finish of their Calendar-Year Triple Crown atop Mt. Etna in California. Buzz and Woody made it in a time of 295 days.

 

Celebrating at the finish. Photo: LA Times

Twenty-four pairs of shoes and one cavity

Now we said at the beginning that thru-hiking isn’t the usual cup of tea for ExWeb, given the lack of technical terrain, the food and equipment support, and the well-maintained trails. But you only have to look at the stats to see this was quite a journey. Parell and Potter reckon that they burned through three million calories, 12,000km, at least 1 million feet of elevation gain, 7 bear encounters, 24 pairs of shoes, and 1 tooth cavity. That requires some seriously slick logistics, excellent durability and fitness, and of course some luck with the weather gods. To complete this at the age of 21 demonstrates a level of maturity and commitment to adventure that we deem worthy to place in this year’s top 10 expeditions.

The only nitpick is that Potter and Parell flip-flopped between trails for logistical reasons and to ensure more amenable weather conditions. A purer approach would be to complete each trail in one push. Easier said than done, though.

At the finish of the Appalachian Trail. Photo: Chris Shane

Ash is an outdoor and adventure writer from the UK. His words have featured in global outlets such as The Guardian, Outside Magazine and Red Bull. He works as a public health scientist by day and writes about the outdoors in his spare time. Ash's areas of expertise are polar expeditions, mountaineering, and adventure travel. For vacation Ash enjoys going on independent Arctic sledding expeditions. Read more at www.ashrouten.com


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Boomerang
Boomerang
4 months ago

Doesnt count in my book. Thruhike is from from end to end.
Boomerang
TT ’16/’19 SOBO (2 section hikes)
AT ’20 Thruhike NOBO
Allegheny Trail ’21 Thruhike Winter NOBO
Long Trail ’21 Thruhike NOBO
Trans-ADK ’21 Thruhike SOBO, #28 to complete

Last edited 4 months ago by Boomerang
hippiehikerchick
hippiehikerchick
4 months ago
Reply to  Boomerang

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy “How does the ATC define thru-hiking?
We define a thru-hike as a hike of the entire A.T. in 12 months or less. These 12 months are not restricted to a calendar year.”

If it’s good enough for the ATC, it’s good enough for me.

Eddy De Wilde
Eddy De Wilde
4 months ago
Reply to  Boomerang

Don’t be so negative.

Eddy De Wilde
Eddy De Wilde
4 months ago

Only praise for these two youngsters. There’s so much planning, organising navigation and schedule pressure. The fact that they are only the12th to accomplish this feat speaks for itself. Congratulations Sammy and Jackson