The first 10 days of Heather “Anish” Anderson’s hike southbound on the Appalachian Trail were so grueling she almost didn’t continue. The terrain starting from Maine’s Mount Katahdin was physically and mentally difficult, and she wasn’t making the mileage.
Anish threw away her itinerary, all the arbitrary numbers that she had scheduled pre-hike, and kept going: 40 miles here, 40 miles there, carrying her backpack, a 1 lb. tent, a sleeping bag, fleece sleeping clothes, a jacket, a headlamp, a cell phone, and food: Pro Bars, caffeinated chocolate, things easily consumed on the go.
For the next seven weeks she walked south through New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina before finally reaching Georgia. There, one day away from the end of the trail on top of Springer Mountain, Anish realized she was going to beat the record for a self-supported, 2,189-mile thru-hike by an astounding four days.
Anish’s trail hiking days had begun in college during a summer job at the Grand Canyon, and after graduating she decided to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail.
“It was a really steep learning curve, because I hadn’t done any actual backpacking up until that point,” Anish says, but she completed the hike going northbound: Georgia to Maine.
Two years later, on the opposite coast Anish thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. During that trip she also met David Horton, who was speed-running the trail.
“It was kind of this mind-blowing concept,” Anish says, “to do a trail fast, to have support, to run it rather than hike it. That’s kind of where … the idea for trying to set a record on one of these trails came from.”
Her first speed-hiking attempt was eight years later, once again on the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 2013. After starting in Campano, Calif., it took her 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes to thread her way up through California, Oregon, and Washington state to Canada, breaking the previous speed record by four days.
No woman had ever attempted the record before, and after that trip people started calling Anish “the Ghost,” for how she seemed to come out of thin air. But she wasn’t coming out of thin air: She was walking, at 3 miles per hour, for extremely long distances, covering 40 to 50 miles per day.
Anish took a break before trying to speed-hike the John Muir Trail in the summer of 2014. The John Muir Trail is another continental divide hike up through California. Due to altitude sickness, that attempt ended before she could complete the trail. But she wasn’t giving up on speed-hiking: The summer of 2015, she decided, would be the summer of the Appalachian Trail.
Her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail had been self-supported: No cars to pick her up from the side of the road to bring her to town; no one waiting for her with fresh meals when she stopped; no pre-arranged personal assistance of any kind. For logistical reasons, the AT attempt would be as well.
After announcing her intentions on the hiking forum fastestknowntime.proboard.com (“I formally state my intentions here … that I will be attempting to set a self-supported FKT on the Appalachian Trail beginning in early August,” she wrote), she brought a SPOT beacon to record her miles, and set off at 9:37 a.m. on Aug. 1.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy does not officially recognize speed records. Instead the records are on the honor system and listed online by Peter Bakwin, administrator of “Fastest Known Time.” The last person to set the AT’s self-supported thru-record had been Matt Kirk in 2013, when the former schoolteacher did it in 58 days, 9 hours and 38 minutes. Before him the record-holder for more than 23 years was Ward Leonard, who hiked the trail in 60.5 days at a time when the AT was still 30 miles shorter.
Part of the challenge of self-supported hikes is that you are on your own in the wilderness. Along the way Anish saw bears, copperheads, rattlesnakes, deer, and other wildlife – not to mention bugs. Thunderstorms raged for much of the first few weeks. But after the first 10 days, the biggest obstacle was business hours: Anish had sent her food resupplies to herself by post, but she sometimes struggled to get to the businesses to pick up the boxes before closing time.
“There were sometimes where I missed the box … I just had to camp early and wait until they opened the next morning,” Anish says, “So I lost a lot of time.”
By early September, Anish was back on track. She began to approach the end with elation and grief. “I was very content to know that I had done what I set out to do, and I was relieved to be done … but I also felt sad because it was over.”
She had been shocked to discover that she was beating the record time, and didn’t necessarily believe it even when seeing the calculations. The next day on top of Springer Mountain, Anish marked her beginning time and end time – 5:25 p.m., September 24th 2015 – on the trail log and posed for pictures, smiling. A trail that usually takes six months to thru-hike had taken her 54 days, 7 hours, and 48 minutes.
After coming down the mountain, Anish met a friend-of-a-friend in the parking lot and spent the night in a real bed for the first time in two months. The next day, she headed back to Seattle, where the celebration would begin.
Congratulations poured in as fellow backpackers absorbed the news.
“I’ve been completely terrified both times that I’ve started at the beginning of these trails. I knew I would be putting myself through something very difficult, mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually,” Anish said. “On the other hand, I also knew that I was capable of completing the trail, doing 40-plus miles a day, since I had done that before.”
Two days later, Anish was back in the mountains, working on her side-project: reaching the summit of the 100 highest peaks in Washington state.