Andrew Skurka was demoralized, and it was a new feeling. Since 2002, logging more than 25,000 miles on foot, the 29-year-old adventurer had become one of the best traveled and fastest hikers on the planet. But now, sitting in front of the post office in the tiny hamlet of Slana, Alaska, ripping open his resupply packages—filled with everything from the hiking sticks that he would swap for ski poles to precision-portioned bags of dried pasta, potato chips crushed to save space, and carefully weighed M&M's, along with maps marked with intelligence and instructions gathered and collated months earlier—he struggled to recapture his enthusiasm. It was May, and he was less than a third of the way into his 4,679-mile circumnavigation of Alaska by foot, raft, and ski. With months to go, he couldn't afford to lose heart.
The problem was the rotten snow—crusted chunks that couldn't support a skier's weight. In the Alaska Range, Skurka had struggled, sinking deep. He'd tried to gain altitude. Maybe the springtime snow would be colder and firmer higher up. It wasn't. So Skurka walked. He spent most of one day "postholing," every step plunging him knee-deep in the snow, and bushwhacking through dense willow and alder brush. He managed a scant 12 miles before darkness fell.
That is not a Skurka distance. In 2007 he'd walked 6,875 miles in a great loop through the American West, averaging 33 miles daily. Two years earlier he'd hiked 7,778 miles from the Atlantic coast in Quebec to the Pacific coast in Washington along the so-called Sea-to-Sea Route. Although his physical prowess and sheer will have contributed to Skurka's exploits, he's become legendary in ultrahiking circles for his preparation, for his precision management of every mile, every moment.
But Alaska wouldn't be managed.
At a roadside pay phone not far from Slana, having just set out on the long walking portion of his trip, he checked in with his family back in Massachusetts. The uncharacteristic stress bubbled through. Suddenly he was crying.
Alaska's backcountry is generally considered to be the province of grizzled mountain men, mixed, perhaps, with a few granola types. Skurka is neither, and even after weeks of solitude, mud, and torment, he emerges from the brush all-American, friendly, and often clean-shaven. Skurka gives off a strong "most likely to succeed" vibe, which he says comes from an upbringing that charted an absolutely traditional trajectory: top-drawer education, Wall Street job, comfort. When he entered Duke University in 1999, he was going in that direction. Then he changed.
Asking Skurka for deep analysis on this point isn't productive. There was a painful (now healed) break with his family, which Skurka talks openly about, but mostly he describes a growing love of the outdoors, which he says felt liberating compared with the office life he was bound for. It culminated in a thru-hike of the 2,179-mile Appalachian Trail. "And that was the end of the corporate thing," he says.
It wasn't ordinary hiking that appealed to Skurka. On the Appalachian Trail he quickly discovered the fast-and-light movement. There was the comfort of going with a half-the-standard-weight pack, he says, but also something more: "The challenge, the way you had to step up your preparation and skills for it." He loved the disciplined approach of the featherweight contingent, and it became part of a relentless data-mining process—another Skurka hallmark.
Hiking from the Atlantic to the Pacific was his "coming of age," Skurka says. But his "great western loop" in 2007 established his reputation as a superman among trekkers. The very idea of connecting two great thru-hikes—the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails—was unprecedented and audacious, and Skurka's pace, 33 miles a day, was stunningly fast.