Hiking: Phaneendra Kollipara gears up to conquer The Great Western Loop

He has completed the three major American long distance hiking trails: the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, spread across a length of around 7,900 miles (12,700 km) but Phaneendra Kollipara will not stop walking! The finishers of the three trails win the Triple Crown (instituted in 1994). The American Long Distance Hiking Association–West (ALDHA–West) recognises this hiking feat and as of November 2018, has awarded 396 hikers the Triple Crowns.

The 27-year-old techie from Vijayawada moved to the US after acquiring a degree in Mechanical Engineering from a local college. While in Michigan, he went on a day-long hike and heard fellow hikers discussing the 2,184 miles (3,515 km) long Appalachian Trail (AT), between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine, traversing through 14 states of the US. “I had never backpacked and wondered how people could hike thousands of miles,” he says. To figure it out, he set out for AT in March 2017.

But after finishing two third of the trail, he suffered a knee injury at Pennsylvania when he fell over a boulder and his knee hit a rock. He took a break for a couple of days and pushed another 400 miles but the injury got worse and he was forced to quit the trail as his knee had swollen to the size of a football. “I couldn’t take any further risk with the knee which already had a titanium pin implanted in my ligament through a surgery after my motorcycle met with an accident in Vijayawada in the past,” he says.

Sad and dejected, he was confined to bed for next two months but he utilized this time to plan his next voyage to the 2,654 miles (4,270 km) Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) which covers Washington, Oregon and California, between Mexico and Canada following the highest portion of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade range.

In March 2018, he started his new expedition at the Mexican border. In terms of scenic beauty, PCT is the most rewarding trail, he says. “The best part of long distance hike is that you have a plan and yet you can completely deviate from it. The magic of the trail and serendipity are some of the most beautiful parts,” he says. Like most trekkers, Phaneendra also fondly talks about the overwhelming kindness and generosity of total strangers, often referred to as “trail angels” in hiker parlance.

Contrary to the AT, Phaneendra did not get to see many fellow hikers on PCT. “Perhaps because I had started early.” This trail took him through long waterless stretches in the south, before ascending to trace the often snowy spines of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountains further north. After five months he landed in Washington State and learned that the last 60 miles of the trail had been closed because of forest fire. “It was a difficult pill to swallow but I told myself that the journey is important, not the destination,” he recounts. Technically, he had completed the trail.

When fellow hikers on PCT asked him if he would take up the 3,100 miles (5,000 km) Continental Divide Trail (CDT) next, Phaneendra was almost sure he wouldn’t. It is between Mexico and Canada following the Continental Divide along the Rocky Mountains and traversing Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. “CDT is wild and untamed. There is constant route-finding and poor logistic supplies. The weather in Rocky Mountains is unpredictable, lightning and thunderstorms are a constant threat and the path has exposed ridges. There is a wide possibility of encounter with grizzly bears, rattle snakes, wolves and mountain lions,” he says.

But after a thorough research, he set off to walk from Mexico to Canada on April 28 this year. He waded through knee to thigh-deep water in the Gila River, drank water from algae-filled cattle ponds in New Mexico, faced the difficulties of the high alpine terrain of Colorado, dealt with rains in Montana and traversed through the long waterless exposed sections in Great Basin of Wyoming.

Interestingly, towards the end of July in Montana, a friend and fellow hiker Dennis asked him if he wanted to hike the last 60 miles of the PCT, a stretch he had skipped earlier due to the forest fire. Phaneendra grabbed the opportunity, took a three-day break from the five-month-long CDT to finish PCT.

He finished the CDT on September 23 but the thought of the northern terminus of the AT that he had missed due to his knee injury haunted him. On September 29, he started hiking south to finish what he had left incomplete in 2017. He summitted Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of AT, and concluded his three-trail hiking. Technically, Phaneendra has done the Appalachian Train in two sections. But he has no regrets. Walking continuously for 25-30 miles a day, not bathing for a week at a stretch and wearing the same clothes for days on end are the least of his worries . He says, “The biggest prize I have got from this experience is discovering what really moves me forward. ”

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