This story appears in the March 2011 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Andrew Skurka was demoralized, and it was a new feeling. Since 2002, logging more than 25,000 miles on foot, the 29-year-old adventurer had become one of the best traveled and fastest hikers on the planet. But now, sitting in front of the post office in the tiny hamlet of Slana, Alaska, ripping open his resupply packages—filled with everything from the hiking sticks that he would swap for ski poles to precision-portioned bags of dried pasta, potato chips crushed to save space, and carefully weighed M&M's, along with maps marked with intelligence and instructions gathered and collated months earlier—he struggled to recapture his enthusiasm. It was May, and he was less than a third of the way into his 4,679-mile circumnavigation of Alaska by foot, raft, and ski. With months to go, he couldn't afford to lose heart.
The problem was the rotten snow—crusted chunks that couldn't support a skier's weight. In the Alaska Range, Skurka had struggled, sinking deep. He'd tried to gain altitude. Maybe the springtime snow would be colder and firmer higher up. It wasn't. So Skurka walked. He spent most of one day "postholing," every step plunging him knee-deep in the snow, and bushwhacking through dense willow and alder brush. He managed a scant 12 miles before darkness fell.
That is not a Skurka distance. In 2007 he'd walked 6,875 miles in a great loop through the American West, averaging 33 miles daily. Two years earlier he'd hiked 7,778 miles from the Atlantic coast in Quebec to the Pacific coast in Washington along the so-called Sea-to-Sea Route. Although his physical prowess and sheer will have contributed to Skurka's exploits, he's become legendary in ultrahiking circles for his preparation, for his precision management of every mile, every moment.
But Alaska wouldn't be managed.
At a roadside pay phone not far from Slana, having just set out on the long walking portion of his trip, he checked in with his family back in Massachusetts. The uncharacteristic stress bubbled through. Suddenly he was crying.
Alaska's backcountry is generally considered to be the province of grizzled mountain men, mixed, perhaps, with a few granola types. Skurka is neither, and even after weeks of solitude, mud, and torment, he emerges from the brush all-American, friendly, and often clean-shaven. Skurka gives off a strong "most likely to succeed" vibe, which he says comes from an upbringing that charted an absolutely traditional trajectory: top-drawer education, Wall Street job, comfort. When he entered Duke University in 1999, he was going in that direction. Then he changed.
Asking Skurka for deep analysis on this point isn't productive. There was a painful (now healed) break with his family, which Skurka talks openly about, but mostly he describes a growing love of the outdoors, which he says felt liberating compared with the office life he was bound for. It culminated in a thru-hike of the 2,179-mile Appalachian Trail. "And that was the end of the corporate thing," he says.
It wasn't ordinary hiking that appealed to Skurka. On the Appalachian Trail he quickly discovered the fast-and-light movement. There was the comfort of going with a half-the-standard-weight pack, he says, but also something more: "The challenge, the way you had to step up your preparation and skills for it." He loved the disciplined approach of the featherweight contingent, and it became part of a relentless data-mining process—another Skurka hallmark.
Hiking from the Atlantic to the Pacific was his "coming of age," Skurka says. But his "great western loop" in 2007 established his reputation as a superman among trekkers. The very idea of connecting two great thru-hikes—the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails—was unprecedented and audacious, and Skurka's pace, 33 miles a day, was stunningly fast.
The question was whether Alaska could be broken down into Skurka-like numbers. Normally it isn't done that way, says Roman Dial, one of the state's most experienced wilderness explorers. Covering huge distances on established trails is one thing. But doing it when you have nothing but contour lines, game trails, and graveled river braids is an entirely different task.
"There are only a handful of people who've ever tried that," Dial says, "and Andy's goals were as ambitious as anyone's I've ever heard of."
Skurka's plan was to cover 24 to 25 miles daily. To get to know the terrain better, he joined a team in the 2009 Alaska Mountain Wilderness Classic, a contest often described as the first in the adventure-race genre. His team won, and he went home feeling ready for 2010.
Dial was less sure. Skurka was "one of the fastest, if not the fastest, backcountry travelers I've ever met," he says. But Dial also sensed a rigidity in the young adventurer: "He didn't seem to know how to look around. He was focused only on moving forward, and that doesn't always serve you in Alaska." More important, could Skurka enjoy the experience—a capacity Dial says is essential to surviving months of hardship in the unforgiving northern backcountry?
Skurka's micro-measured world doesn't leave much room for reflecting on emotions. But over the long weeks of deep solitude, change came. Dial saw it when he joined Skurka for a segment that included a May blizzard. As the two crossed Wrangell-St. Elias National Park's Chitistone Pass, Skurka pushed forward with a grimness that bordered on bitter. "He didn't make it easy to want to spend time with him," Dial says. "And it didn't have to be that way."
But two days later they arrived in the town of McCarthy for what was meant to be a quick resupply. Instead, Skurka ran into an old friend and was drafted into an impromptu softball game. Not having swung a bat in years, he was suddenly anything but the superstar adventurer. He was just another guy, drinking beer and flirting with the local women.
"You could see him literally relax," Dial says. "It was as if he remembered what fun was."
A few months later, in the eastern Brooks Range, Skurka himself felt another shift. Bugs had swarmed him for two days. Then came a rainstorm with gusts that nearly ripped his shelter from the ground. His food supplies were low, and he felt emotionally thin, stressed by loneliness and the inhospitable locale. What began the transformation, through all that, was that he suddenly found himself not needing his maps. The route was evident, cut by the huge Porcupine caribou herd, a pathway so ancient and trampled it looked almost like a road.
Skurka began to wonder whether there was really any difference between him and all the other animals on the move. Accustomed to capturing his thoughts with a video camera, he recorded a stream-of-consciousness monologue about the caribou, the weather, and his sense of smallness, of being at the mercy of nature just as everything around him was and always would be. Tears flowed again.
"I haven't figured out why I'm crying," he says into the camera, "why the sight of these trails made me cry… I'm just like these guys. I'm just a creature on this Earth."
Even after the trip, he's still not sure. But he knows the tears weren't the same as the ones he'd shed near Slana. During the time I spent with Skurka, I never asked him what he was after, because he'd already shown me, in writing, in miles and ounces and hours. I don't know whether the moment with the caribou, so raw and moving, indicated that he'd found something deeper, but given how far he'd traveled and how difficult the journey had been, there was little doubt that Andrew Skurka had discovered something new.
"I was humbled," he says. And that small realization was as big as anything he's ever felt.