I am Phaneendra Kollipara, and I might be the only Indian to do the Triple crown ( Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail & the Continental Divide Trail). Overall, there are less than 400 people who have done this accomplishment, and I am fortunate enough to be counted among them.
I did the Appalachian trail (AT) in 2017, beginning on march 21st. I had never backpacked before starting the AT and the whole idea actually started by hearing about it from a stranger while I was on a day hike. I couldn’t believe that people could hike thousands of miles (Georgia to Maine) in one season, and so I went on to figure it out by myself.
I did 1500 out of the 2180 miles of the Appalachian Trail by July 28th (four months in) before injuring my knee. Quitting the trail after finishing 2/3rds of it was a nightmare, but I had no other choice. I was injured and it was time to go home. Fast forward a few months, while bed-ridden and depressed, I made the decision to hike The Pacific Crest Trail, or the PCT – a 2650 mile trail, running from Mexico to Canada. The idea came from learning about the John Muir Trail – a 211 mile trail that tracks along the High Sierra. After learning that most of it runs along with the PCT I decided to just do the whole thing instead. I started working on my knee and after two months of physical therapy I felt better. It was a tough period of my life, having surgery done previously on the same knee – motorcycle accident in India with titanium pins installed in my ligament – I began to doubt my abilities, coupled with the fact that my entire family opposed the idea of hiking again.
However, on March 18th, 2018, I started at the Mexican border anyway. The PCT was my way of seeing the American west, and the slower you travel the more you see and the more you develop a connection with the country and her people. It was a completely different experience hiking alone. A complete 180 from the previous year on the AT. It was mentally challenging, dealing with the elements all by myself. But after five months I made it to Washington State, only to hear that the last 60 miles of the trail had been closed due to forest fire. It was a tough pill to swallow, realizing that you have around 2590 of the 2650 miles under your belt only to be cut short of the Canadian monument. The finish. So I went home, and a couple of days later I received an email that the trail had reopened. I made peace with myself, saying, “It’s about the Journey, not the Destination.” And decided, that for all intents and purposes I had completed my hike.
But, while I was on the PCT, some of my fellow hikers had asked me if I had any plans to hike the Continental Divide Trial – a 3100 mile trail. I honestly didn’t think I would, having heard stories of long road-walks , poorly marked trail, and tough sections for resupplying food along the way. Every year, on average, around three to four thousand people attempt the AT, around 5000 attempt the PCT, but only 350-400 people attempt the CDT – a fact I found irresistable. Now, after some research, I had figured out that it could be done with just a little bit of planning and couple spots of luck. And so, I started the CDT on April 28th of 2019.
Skip forward a little bit, while I was in state of Montana, at the end of July, my friend and fellow hiker Dennis asked me if I want to do the last 60 miles of PCT with him. The opportunity had presented itself in such a way that I couldn’t say no. Together, we went on a 3-day backpacking trip, breaking from an already five month backpacking trip. Long story short, I finished the PCT, and after that I hiked another month and a half, finishing the CDT on the 23rd of September. All of my friends and family were finally happy for me, elated that I got to finish two trails in a single year. But there was still the Appalachian Trail, my last unfinished trail, calling out to me. So, after finishing the CDT, I flew to East coast and summited Mount Katahdin – the northern terminus of AT. Then, on September 29th, I started hiking south, looking to finish where I had left off of in 2017. I know it isn’t a perfect thru-hiking story, but it is unique and special to me nonetheless.
The AT, PCT, and CDT are all similar in the process, yet they are quite unique in their own ways. The AT is more of a social trail. You meet a lot of people: hikers, tourists, and trail angels (people who do trail magic – food, drinks, and offering rides to town, etc..). And there are wooden shelters to sleep in along the way, but do not make the mistake of thinking it’ll be easy. The Appalachian mountains are old and rugged. It rains a lot – and I mean a LOT – the bugs are insane, and you can only imagine the endless ups and downs.
Now, the PCT is loaded with black bears, copperheads, and long sun exposures. But the PCT is probably a little more rewarding trail in terms of views and overall beauty. It is very well-graded – since it is an Equestrian trail ( for use of horses) – but long, waterless sections (25-30miles) are very common. Dealing with the desert’s heat, the Sierra Nevada mountain’s snow, raging river crossings, and summer season forest fires are a bit of a challenge to say the least. But there is never an un-scenic day on PCT.
As for the CDT, black and grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves, and rattlesnakes populate various sections of the trail, so to put it mildly: the CDT is wild and untamed. It is loaded with unmaintained trails – with constant route finding – many alternate routes, and smaller resupply towns. And the weather in the Rocky Mountains is unpredictable with lightning and thunderstorms being an everyday threat. You’re forced to hike in knee to thigh-deep water in the Gila river, just to find yourself drinking water out of gross, algae-filled cattle ponds in New Mexico, before the high alpine terrain of Colorado, dealing with almost everyday rains in Montana, and the long, waterless exposed sections in Great Basin of Wyoming. There are just a few of the many challenges I encountered on the CDT.
But, after all of these hikes, and in despite of myself, I look back on all of these trails with fondness. The philosophy of thru-hiking – or maybe life in general – is very simple: It’s not the fall that hurts you, it’s stopping. And if I can do it, so can you.