Outdoor Profile: Andrew Skurka
Outdoor Profile: Andrew Skurka
Ultra long-distance hiker Andrew Skurka was named Outside Magazine Adventurer of the Year in 2011, National Geographic Adventurer of the year in 2007, Backpacker Magazine Person of the Year in 2005, and was elected to the Men’s Journal Adventure Hall of Fame. His most recent journey was his famed Alaska-Yukon expedition in 2011, a 4,700-mile, 6-month, off-trail route circling the state of Alaska and the length of the Yukon Territory. Andrew also was the first to complete the Great Western Loop, a 6,875-mile hike linking the American West’s great long-distance hiking trails through 12 National Parks and over 75 wilderness areas, and the Sea-to-Sea Route, a 7,775-mile hike across North America from Quebec to Washington State. His lightweight hiking style has come to define light-and-fast backcountry travel.
Between adventures, Andrew is based in Boulder, Colorado and conducts clinics and presentations throughout the country. He also offers guided hiking courses and wilderness adventures, and authored the new book: The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide: Tools & Techniques to Hit the Trail.
You ran cross-country in high school and college, and cut your teeth on the Appalachian Trail. When was the jump from doing mostly normal things to the most ambitious hiking trips ever completed?
Every long-distance trip I have done has been a jump, given my starting point. Take the Appalachian Trail. Before starting it, I had never gone on a backpacking trip -- I had only car-camped and day-hiked. I suppose what differentiates me is that I have kept making jumps. This probably is rooted in my motivations for these trips -- I see them as opportunities to learn and grow, which happens most when I’m outside of my comfort zone.
You plan your trips obsessively—the Alaska/Yukon expedition took a full six months at 40 hours a week. What are the resources and tools that you depend on most?
Not all trips require that level of preparation. The Alaska-Yukon trip was tough because there was relatively little information available. I had to collect it from 50-year-old topographical maps, scattered blogs, race websites, historical books, and knowledgeable locals like fellow adventurers, natives, postmasters, lodge owners and bush pilots. It was also difficult because there was no existing infrastructure, so usually I felt like I had too many options (because there were several practical ways to get from A to B, and I had to weigh all their merits) or too little (because there was no obvious way to get from A to B and I knew of no one who had done it before). I compile all the information, plus my plan, in just a few files: a document, a spreadsheet, a TOPO! file, and some Google Maps.
Did you have an out on the Alaska/Yukon trip? Did you believe that you would finish?
I gave myself 60/40 odds, with a 10 percent chance of not coming back. I knew I had a good, viable plan, but there were a lot of variables that could have gotten in the way -- injury, sickness, death of immediate family member, freak bear attack, etc.
What are a couple of the most ridiculous things to happen out there?
The craziest event of the whole trip was in the Brooks Range, where a bear charged at me to within about 30 yards before I saw it. It was too late to get out my bear spray, so I threw my trekking pole at it and yelled at it, and the bear was so scared by my response that it took a 90-degree left turn and started running away. In the process, it left a 30-foot-long streak of red berry crap on the gravel.
Speaking of bears, how many serious run-ins did you have on the Alaska-Yukon trip?
Besides that one, probably another 4-5 that would be worth mentioning. When talking about bears, I compare them to driving. Every time you get in your car, there’s a risk that you might get badly hurt or killed. You can do things to minimize your risks -- e.g. go the speed limit, be aware of other drivers on the road, don’t run red lights, etc. -- but there’s always an inherent, unavoidable risk of something bad happening. By getting in your car, you accept that risk. Similarly, when traveling in bear country I can minimize my risks of an unfortunate encounter, but I can’t eliminate them.
While in northern Alaska’s rugged Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, you postulated: “Big Wilderness is a place you come to get humbled.” Please elaborate.
The effect of Big Wilderness on me was one of the trip’s big takeaways. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is so wild, so uninhabited and primal, that I stopped feeling as if I was some elevated species. Instead, I was just another animal out there. I was dealing with the same bugs, same rainstorms, same river fords, and same bears and wolves. I patted myself on the back every morning just for having made it through the day before. When was the last time you felt that way?
You finished your journey by returning to the small town of Kotzebue, Alaska, late on a September night six months after setting out. No one knew you were coming, who you were, or what you had just done. There was no welcome party. How was that experience?
It was very fitting. I didn’t need a ticker tape parade to know that what I had just experienced was very special. It had been an internal experience, so it was fitting that at the finish it was just me.
You’re 30 years old. What is your next big trip or project? What might the future hold?
I get this question a lot, and I wish I had a better answer to it. The reality, though, is that these big trips take a while to develop and plan. I had a 2-year gap between the Sea-to-Sea Route and Great Western Loop, a 2.5-year break between the Great Western Loop and Alaska-Yukon Expedition. I’m expecting at least a 2.5-year gap, if not a 3.5-year gap, before the next biggie, which would take me out to 2014. I’ve been keeping plenty busy, however: I wrote a book on backpacking gear and skills, started a guiding business that keeps me in the field for three months a year, and in 2011 gave 56 presentations, with another 50-55 expected for 2012.
Do you have any advice for people new to the outdoors, or those less experienced than yourself?
If you aren’t moving, then life is passing you by.
More information on Andrew Skurka is available on his website at www.andrewskurka.com.
A YouTube video of his Alaska-Yukon expedition can be found below: