Walking the Walk One day Brian Robinson dreamed up the preposterous idea of conquering hiking's Triple Crown in a single calendar year. He's not out of the woods yet, but he just might do it

July 23, 2001
July 23, 2001

Table of Contents
July 23, 2001

Cover Story [bonus Piece]

Walking the Walk One day Brian Robinson dreamed up the preposterous idea of conquering hiking's Triple Crown in a single calendar year. He's not out of the woods yet, but he just might do it

On a crisp summer afternoon near Crater Lake in Oregon, Brian
Robinson steps off the Pacific Crest Trail, the 2,655-mile
footpath that runs from Mexico to Canada, slides out of his
backpack and gingerly removes the running shoe from his left
foot. Grimacing slightly, he runs his finger over the back of his
heel, where a deep, inchlong fissure has opened inside a callus.
Sitting cross-legged, he wipes the crevice clean, and as if
sewing a patch onto the worn-through knees of a pair of blue
jeans, squeezes it together and covers it with a square of gray
duct tape. Satisfied with his handiwork, he pulls his shoe back
on, shoulders his pack and heads off into the Oregon wilderness.
The pit stop takes only five minutes, which is crucial
considering that Robinson hopes to cover another 14 miles before
dark. That will make 35 miles for the day, and 4,058 for the
year--which means he has about 3,365 to go to make history.

This is an article from the July 23, 2001 issue

The 40-year-old Robinson is in the midst of the mother of all
heel-cracking, quad-busting adventures. He is attempting to
become the first person to hike, in a single calendar year, each
of the three U.S. National Scenic Trails: the Pacific Crest, the
2,168-mile Appalachian Trail, which runs from Georgia to Maine,
and the Continental Divide, which has no official route or exact
mileage, and runs up the backbone of the country from New Mexico
to Canada. To appreciate the difficulty--many would say madness--of
such an endeavor, consider that fewer than two dozen people have
completed the Triple Crown of hiking in their lifetimes and that
no solo hiker has conquered even two trails in a single year.
"Doing the Triple Crown during your life is like doing the Seven
Summits," says Karen Berger, who has hiked all three trails and
is the author of Hiking the Triple Crown. "What Brian is doing is
like trying to do all seven peaks in one year."

Every day since Jan. 1 Robinson has risen with the first light
and gone to sleep with the setting sun. In between, he has
walked--through the 100[degree] heat of the Mojave Desert,
through the relentless rains of the Pacific Northwest, through
five pairs of shoes and 16 states. On some days, like in March,
when the Vermont snow was so deep it reached his hips, he has
fought to cover 10 miles. Other days, when the summer sun
lingers and the trail lies level, he has covered 40. "I don't
walk any faster than anybody else," says Robinson. "I just don't
stop walking."

So far, the only obstacle that has stopped Robinson is the
weather. After hiking most of the AT early in the year, Robinson
was forced by the icy New England terrain to skip the last 590
miles and abandon his hope of thru-hiking all three trails.
Instead, he took a Greyhound bus from Vermont to New Mexico,
where he squeezed in a 614-mile hike through the southern half of
the CDT before beginning the PCT in late April. He plans to
finish the final leg of the CDT, a perilous stretch that includes
the high country of Colorado and Montana, by late summer and the
rest of the AT in the fall. "Beforehand, I would have said what
he's doing is impossible," says Berger. "But considering how far
he's gotten, if he can get a little help from the weather in the
mountains, I think he can do it."

The first person to thru-hike one of the Big Three was Earl
Shaffer, who conquered the AT in a little more than four months
in 1948. Four years later Martin Papendick became the first to
finish what is now the PCT, and since then thousands have
followed their leads. (Debate continues about who is the first
person to complete the CDT.) Included among those trekkers are
Bill Irwin, a blind hiker who completed the AT in '90; David
Horton, an ultramarathoner who in '91 finished the same trail in
52 days by running most of the way; and Jim Adams who hiked the
entire Appalachian Trail in '90 with his cat Ziggy perched on the
top of his backpack, once logging 52.4 miles in a day. (Among
those who have tried and failed is author Bill Bryson, whose AT
attempt nonetheless became fodder for his best-selling A Walk in
the Woods.)

Until recently Robinson would have qualified as an unlikely
candidate to join the list. When he was growing up in San Jose,
his teenage Boy Scout excursions on the PCT inspired dreams of
someday hiking the full length of the trail, but for the most
part his passions lay in the classroom. He was an A student who
didn't get into Stanford because, as he laughingly says, "I was
lacking in the extracurriculars." Instead, he enrolled in
Berkeley's electrical engineering program, which helped him land
a job as a systems engineer at computer manufacturer Tandem (now
Compaq), where he stayed for 17 years, stationed in front of a
glassy monitor.

As he approached his mid-30s, Robinson realized that even
childhood dreams have expiration dates, or as he puts it, "It
couldn't be someday much longer." So in 1997, though he had never
covered more than 50 miles in an outing, he took a six-month
leave of absence from Compaq to hike the PCT, accompanied half
the way by his father, Roy, a seasoned backpacker. It was during
his many days of solo hiking that Brian dreamed up the idea of
attempting the Triple Crown. "You could say it was a midlife
crisis," he says. "I wanted to make my mark, and looking back, I
saw that the more I broadened my horizons, the happier I was.
This was a chance to really do something."

What followed was three years of the kind of methodical,
minutia-filled preparation only an engineer could love. To prep
his body, Robinson took up ultrarunning and began putting in 50
miles a week training on dirt trails, a regimen he upped to 90
miles a week last fall. In planning his route, he set up
spreadsheets plotting mileage, potential weather patterns and
resupply points near the trails--P.O. boxes for the most
part--places where his father and brother could send the 95 boxes
of food and gear he would need.

Last December, Robinson moved out of the apartment he shared
with two buddies in San Jose and quit his job, having saved
enough money (and sold enough of his tech stocks at the right
time) not only to fund the estimated $10,000 cost of the hike
but also to remain financially secure long after the trip. After
flying to Georgia, he spent New Year's Eve on top of Springer
Mountain, the southernmost point of the AT, bundled up in
10[degree] weather, his water bottle frozen. Still, Robinson was
itching to get started. "There are several inches of snow on the
ground, but it's sunny," he would write in his journal that
night. "I'd certainly trade the future for a whole winter of
days just like today if I could."

Seven months later Robinson's body is holding up despite a litany
of injuries that includes shinsplints, plantar fasciitis, ankle
sprains, a badly cut knee and a six-week case of Bell's palsy
that paralyzed the left side of his face and forced him to
replace his contacts with glasses. More daunting has been the
discipline required to keep going, day after day, alone on the
trail. "You have to resist the siren song of the towns and the
urge to stop, talk to people and have a pizza," he says. "You
have to stay positive when you're tired and wet."

To deal with the isolation of his journey--few other hikers can
keep up with him for long--Robinson keeps a journal (he mails
the entries to his father to post on his website,, speaks with
friends and family by phone when in town, sings to himself
("Whatever's in my head, or some old Boy Scout songs") and
spends a lot of time exploring his neural pathways. "Out here,
there's no escaping your thoughts, so you better deal with
them," he says. "This has been like a yearlong therapy session.
I don't think I have a memory that I haven't examined at least
once, and in the end I think I'm much more comfortable with who
I am because of it."

With his sanity still intact, at least for the moment, Robinson
is a model of low-tech efficiency as he chugs down the trail. His
custom-made pack, minus food and water, weighs a scant 12.95
pounds in the summer (18.96 in the winter to accommodate his
heavier winter gear), every item he carries possessing a
multitude of MacGyveresque uses. His trekking poles serve as the
support for his "tent," a 6-by-10-foot silicone-lined tarp (which
is also his raincoat) that he props up like a sideways taco.
Dinner is cooked over his alcohol-burning "cat stove"--two cat
food cans formed into a tiny burner. Instead of crampons, he
carries half-inch screws with hexheads that he pounds into his
shoes sharp side up to provide traction on ice. "Nothing I have,"
Robinson says with obvious pride, "is noncritical."

To fuel himself for 12 (or more) hours of hiking a day and to
maintain his 150-pound weight, Robinson eats every two hours,
usually on the move, and takes in a staggering 6,000 calories a
day. His diet is rich in Snickers and peanut butter ("I have no
use for salad," he says with disdain) as well as Flintstones
chewable vitamins, which he sucks on while walking.

When he comes into a town to pick up a resupply box every three
to five days, Robinson embarks on a junk-food bender fit for an
offensive lineman or three. On a recent evening he walked into an
Oregon campground minimart and in four hours devoured three
ham-and-cheese hot pockets (1,060 calories total), two pints of
Ben & Jerry's ice cream (2,160 calories) and two chicken
chimichangas (660 calories). Sitting there, a streak of stray
vanilla ice cream melting on the shelf of his thick brown beard,
he looked immeasurably content. "I get so hungry that I have no
taste buds," he says. "As long as it has calories, it all tastes
like filet mignon to me."

While gorging himself, Robinson must keep one eye on the clock,
so precise is his schedule. Every hour is critical, and a day
squandered can be disastrous. (During the winter he did allow
himself to stop for a day and a half to do his taxes.) On June
28, when he arrived at a campground post office at 3:30 p.m. only
to find that it had unexpectedly closed a half hour earlier, the
normally serene Robinson panicked. "That's half a day I'm
losing!" he exclaimed to the bewildered cashier at the
campground. After first blaming the post office, he pointed the
finger at himself, muttering, "I should have gotten up earlier. I
should have known this one closed at three." Finally, accepting
his fate, he resigned himself to an early night. "You have to
understand," he explained once he'd calmed down, "if I lose even
one hour at each resupply point, that's 95 hours of hiking."
Robinson ponders that point for a moment and says, "It's ironic,
isn't it, that time is irrelevant out here, but that I'm counting
every hour?"

Robinson's fight against the clock is really a battle against the
onset of winter. He plans to finish the PCT by the end of this
month but then must hike the CDT from Montana to Colorado, a trek
that requires climbing through elevations as high as 12,000 feet.
"He's got roughly 2,000 miles of potential snow problems, and you
can't hike that in a month," says Jeffrey Schaffer, a topographer
and author of a series of PCT guidebooks. Schaffer thinks someone
will pull off the calendar Triple Crown, but only with the aid of
an accompanying support team.

Robinson acknowledges the obstacles that await him but believes
he can avoid the worst snow if he arrives in Colorado by the end
of September. "If I can do that, I'll see snow but I won't be
slogging through it," he says. After the CDT, he still has to
finish his remaining 590 miles on the Appalachian Trail, starting
at Maine's Mount Katahdin, the AT's northernmost point, and
heading south to Bennington, Vt., where he left off in March.

If Robinson does complete the calendar Triple Crown, it will be
due in no small part to the support he has received. Friends and
other hikers have left him care packages on the trail, posted
messages like KEEP FLYIN' BRIAN in trail registers and sent a
stream of e-mails to his website, which his dad updates for him
every few days. "It's like the first attempt on Everest," says
Schaffer. "Even if Brian doesn't make it, he's a success because
he's spurred others to try. Either way, the race is on."

Says Berger, "We're a community that really appreciates the value
of physical exertion. We're all on these trips of a lifetime, and
there's a lot of respect for something like this."

Ray Jardine, a guru-like figure who pioneered the concept of
"ultralight" hiking, embodied this attitude when asked whether he
thought Robinson would succeed. "I don't comment on other
people's adventures," Jardine replied. "If those adventures are
fun and meaningful to them, then that is what is important."

Descending from the rim of Crater Lake as the sun burned through
the grayness, Robinson provided a similar perspective. "I'm not
doing this for anybody else," he said as he picked his way
through a rocky stretch with his trekking poles. "You couldn't
pay me enough to do something like this anyway. I have to be
doing it because I want to. I'd never make it if I didn't."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY COREY RICH Good footing By trekking some nearly 4,600 miles of U.S. backcountry since Jan. 1, Robinson (here near Oregon's Crater Lake) has converted skeptics.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY COREY RICH Low maintenance Robinson packs a light bag that includes little more than his "cat stove" and his trusty raincoat-tent.THREE COLOR MAPS: MAPS BY STEVEN STANKIEWICZCOLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY COREY RICH Trail mix "If it has calories, it all tastes like filet mignon to me," Robinson says of his frequent junk-food binges.


LENGTH: 2,655 miles
SKINNY: The most scenic of the three trails. Desert in the south
gives way to snowcaps of the Sierras and Cascades. Relatively
easy grades have allowed Robinson to cover as many as 40 miles in
a day. Perils include icy terrain at high altitude, long
waterless stretches and numerous river crossings.


LENGTH: 2,600 to 3,100 miles
SKINNY: Least-hiked of the trio. No official route, so GPS
devices and topographic maps are highly helpful. Mountains in
Colorado, Wyoming and Montana are impassable in severe winter
weather. Crucial for Robinson to finish the trail by early


LENGTH: 2,168 Miles
SKINNY: Covers 14 states. Constant up-and-down, rocky terrain
makes for slow going, especially on northern part of trail, which
Robinson must still tackle. Proximity to towns and roads means
more resupply points than CDT and PCT. Abundant trailside
shelters provide relief from weather but company of hungry mice.

"You have to resist the siren song of the towns and the urge to
stop, talk to people and have a pizza," Robinson says.