Think Like a Thru-Hiker

Photo: Zelzin Aketzalli

Zelzin “Quetzal” Aketzalli, the first-ever Mexican National to complete distance hiking’s Triple Crown, shares tips for facing adversity on the trail.

Thru-hiking is hard enough. Now imagine starting the notoriously rugged Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) completely alone, with a crippling fear of heights, no backpacking experience—and zero knowledge of English. That’s the situation Zelzin Aketzalli (she/her) was in when she stood at the trailhead of the 2,658-mile PCT in 2017. Ultimately, she finished the hike and went on to become the first Mexican National to complete all three of America’s longest trails—the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail—a revered trifecta known as the “Triple Crown.” 

But back then, just 23 years old and fresh out of college, Aketzalli had no idea how it would all turn out. All she knew is that she wanted to go on an adventure, and she’d heard about the PCT from American tourists. The rub? Mexico didn’t have many established trails at the time, let alone long trails. Aketzalli had never had the opportunity to go camping for more than a night or two in a row. She’d also never seen snow, never dealt with icy tent flies or howling alpine winds, and never spent much time in the U.S. The first time she tried to climb a mountain (a dormant volcano about an hour from her home in Mexico City), she found herself clinging to the rock, terrified of the exposure and on the verge of tears. 

And before starting the PCT, she was nervous about all these things. Still, she had an even bigger fear: the language. Just a week before her departure to California, Aketzalli almost pulled the plug on the whole adventure because she was so afraid of having to learn English on the fly. Eventually, “I told myself I needed to learn,” she says. “This was my challenge: To speak English by the time I finished the trail.” 

Learn Resilience 

That ability to stand tall in the face of a challenge isn’t an innate skill, she says. It’s learned. And it’s one she’s been learning her whole life. Aketzalli grew up in Mexico City, where she started working in street stands at age 11 to help support her family. At the time, many sports were seen as off-limits to women—a culture which she says is only now starting to change.

“My mom never learned to swim or ride a bike,” she explains. But Aketzalli’s father was adamant about getting his daughter involved in sports. “He put me on basketball teams, gymnastic teams, swimming teams—I was everywhere,” she laughs. And when she went to university, she started racing mountain bikes. With this first foray into outdoor sports, she fell in love immediately, though it wasn’t always easy.

“I think racing bikes is what made me strong,” she says. “At the time, the team was all men. Sometimes they would say, ‘Oh, why don’t you go faster, why don’t you jump that?’ And I would try to keep the same speed as them but it just wasn’t working for me. Every day I was tired.” 

See Your Finish

Despite unending fatigue, she kept the long-range goal in mind. Her dream was to qualify for nationals, so she trained hard to make it a reality, all in between working and studying for her engineering degree. When she graduated, she realized that she’d scarcely stopped to take a breath her whole life. It was time for an adventure. Her gift to herself, she ultimately decided, would be the PCT.

From the minute she started the trail, she knew she wanted to finish. For one thing, she discovered that she loved hiking more than any sport she’d done before—even mountain biking. For another, she said it was important to her that she finish this challenge she’d set for herself.

“You have to be honest with yourself,” she advises. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want this or no?’ Because sometimes you see in the videos or you see on social media other people doing a hike, and if that’s your motivation, then that’s not going to work. You need to be able to feel very strongly that you want to do this, and you want to do it for you. You have to be able to see yourself at the finish line. No, it’s not going to be easy. Yes, you’re going to get scared. But you know that fear is going to pass if your objective is clear.” 

Stay True

Because social media accounts of trails are so likely to gloss over the hardest parts, Aketzalli recommends talking to real hikers as much as possible to get an idea of the challenges that lay ahead. Then, take stock of your abilities and be honest with yourself about what you can do—and what you’ll have to work on.

Take Aketzalli’s fear of heights or inexperience with snow, for example. She knew these weaknesses had the potential to hold her back on the trail. So, she looked at both challenges with curiosity. She wanted to see and touch snow, and get to know it. She wanted to resolve her fear of heights, even if that meant crossing exposed ridges one slow step at a time. 

Embrace the Process

As for learning English? Aketzalli had a plan for that, too. She brought a notebook with her and had other hikers write down new words so she could learn. She talked as much as she could to get practice, piecing together the phrases she knew and using hand gestures for everything else. By the end of the PCT, she had a pretty good understanding of English. By the end of the Appalachian Trail, she was conversational. Now, after five trails—she’s completed the Hayduke Trail and the Arizona Trail as well as the Triple Crown—she’s fluent. 

“Something I like about thru-hiking is that you are never 100 percent prepared for it,” she says. “You just need to start, and then you work on getting better and stronger every day.” Focusing on the learning process, not some idea of the shape you should be in, makes it easier to take setbacks in stride. 

“Sometimes, we fall and we don’t complete things,” Aketzalli says. “But when you have one objective, no matter how many times you fall and fall, you get up and you keep trying.” The problem, she says, is when you know you want something and stop trying anyway.

“When you have a dream, you need to go for it,” she says. “It won’t be easy, but nothing in this life is easy.” 

Zelzin’s Top 3 Thru-Hiking Essentials 

A strong mindset is mostly about your outlook, Aketzalli says, but what you carry with you can have a big impact on your peace of mind. Here are a few of the items that help bolster her confidence on the trail. 

  • Solid cookset: Aketzalli relies on a sturdy, stainless-steel pot without having to worry about it denting or breaking over the course of a long trail. Look for extras like bowls and cutlery that nest together into a tidy, packable kit. 
  • Ultralight sleeping bag: Weighing in at just over a pound, Aketzalli goes with a sleek, down number (from thru-hiking stalwart Zpacks) that leaves her confident that she’ll be warm and comfortable even on cold nights in the mountains. 
  • Lightweight filter: Water is a hiker’s most important need—especially on marathon days in the PCT’s desert sections. Throughout her hike, Aketzalli relied on a Sawyer Water Squeeze Filter for reliable filtration and easy backflushing.

— If you want to stretch your legs further to get into longer-distance hikes, check out  some preliminary thru-hiking guidance on wrapping your head around the initial planning, as well as advice on necessary pre-trip training.

 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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