Ras and Kathy Vaughan had just returned from what they call "the greatest fail of our life" when inspiration struck. It was summer 2017, and the couple recently had to abandon an attempted yo-yo (back and forth) hike of the Grand Enchantment Trail in Arizona and New Mexico after 98 days of hiking. In the wake of that disappointment, the idea for a new, even greater challenge materialized before their eyes.
The Vaughans, who call themselves Team UltraPedestrian, were looking at a map of all the long hiking trails in North America when they noticed something intriguing. Portions of several routes — the Pacific Crest, Pacific Northwest, Idaho Centennial and Oregon Desert trails — could all be linked together to form a roughly 2,600-mile (4,200-kilometer) loop through the inland Pacific Northwest.
They named it the UltraPedestrian North Loop, or UP North for short. And despite their recent setback in the Southwest, they couldn't resist the allure of this new idea.
"We easily spent 100+ hours researching the idea, gathering up GPS tracks from internet sources, mapping out the route, planning resupplies, submitting proposals to sponsors, and parsing every bit of data we could cull from the interwebs and personal connections," Ras tells MNN by email. "After breaking a seemingly impossible idea down into pieces small enough that they became possible, we concluded that the UP North Loop was humanly possible."
After that, he adds, the couple "became infatuated with finding out if we were the humans capable of doing it. Less than a year later, we were hiking south out of Hammett, Idaho."
Off the beaten path
The Vaughans are full-time adventurers, and their many treks on popular trails have given them a front-row seat for the "Wild" effect — a surge of new long-distance hikers inspired by the 2012 book "Wild" (and its 2014 film adaptation), a memoir about writer Cheryl Strayed's experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).
The effect may be most dramatic on the PCT itself — where the number of annual permits has soared in the years since "Wild" was published — but Ras says it's noticeable on several major trails, including the other two in the Triple Crown of Hiking, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.
"With thousands of new thru-hikers and section hikers pitting themselves against the Big Three each season, a subset of the hiking community has gravitated away from those now high-traffic trails," Ras says. "The same quest for challenge, solitude, and immersion in the natural world that drew people to long-distance hiking in the first place is now guiding them onto the lesser-known and less populated routes."
Some of those less crowded routes include the Pacific Northwest Trail (PNT), the Oregon Desert Trail (ODT) and the Idaho Centennial Trail (ICT), he adds, all of which factor into the Vaughans' new composite loop. The UP North Loop is comparable in length to the Big Three trails, but also stands out in a few key ways. It stays within the Pacific Northwest rather than spanning multiple regions, for instance, and its loop format allows thru-hikers to finish where they began.
And, as a new adventure devised by veteran hikers who've grown weary of higher-traffic trails, the creative spirit behind the UP North Loop "may very well be a glimpse of what the future of thru-hiking looks like," Ras says.
Only Known Times
Many wilderness athletes have embraced the challenge of Fastest Known Times (FKTs) in recent years, eschewing organized races to vie for the best GPS-verified time on a given trail. This offers the flexibility of choosing when and where you want to compete, including trails where a conventional race may never be held.
The Vaughans have played that game, but they've also pioneered an even more flexible twist on the trend: Rather than racing through the growing crowds on major routes, they chart novel paths where they can set "Only Known Times," or OKTs.
The Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier, pictured here in 2017, was one of the first places where Ras Vaughan developed his specialty in recording 'Only Known Times.' (Photo: pixelgerm/Flickr)
Ras traces the idea back to 2012, when he made his first FKT attempt at Wonderland Trail, a 93-mile (150-km) loop around the base of Mount Rainier. "I was poring over the Fastest Known Times for the Wonderland and wishing I could play the game at that level, so I was looking for a way to tweak the route and open up possibilities that played to my strengths," he says. "I had the realization that because the character of the trail changed so much depending on your direction of travel, the only way to fully experience the Wonderland would be to do it once in each direction."
That year, he became the first person to complete a "Double Wonderland" in a single push. He tried a similar approach the next year at Grand Canyon National Park, becoming the first person to complete six crossings of the canyon in one push. This caught the attention of Trailrunner Magazine, and while interviewing Ras for a 2013 profile, writer Tim Mathis referred to the unique feats as Only Known Times.
"That term is now a part of the adventure lexicon," Ras says, "and, more importantly, the concept is now part of the modern adventure paradigm." While an FKT attempt poses the relatively narrow question of "Can I do this faster?", Ras sees an OKT attempt as a broader question of whether the goal is even humanly possible.
"To us, that is a much more interesting question," he says.
One of those interesting questions led the Vaughans to the Grand Enchantment Trail in spring 2017. They hoped to complete the route's first-known yo-yo hike, walking 770 miles (1,240 km) from Phoenix to Albuquerque and then back again. They finished the initial thru-hike in 61 days, but problems began to mount during their return trip, eventually forcing them to abandon the yo-yo attempt in June.
"After nearly 100 days of struggle, the math and weather have turned against us so dramatically and definitively that we are left with no option but to call it quits," Ras wrote on Facebook, citing heat and wildfires, among other factors. Kathy had also been experiencing diabetes symptoms "for a number of weeks while hiking," she says, and soon after returning home she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes.
Undeterred, she began insulin therapy and "never looked back." Ras went on to record two OKTs that July, and Kathy joined him for a summit traverse of Washington's Mount Adams just five weeks after her diagnosis. They also wrote a book about their recent defeat, titled "98 Days Of Wind: The Greatest Fail Of Our Life." And before that fateful summer was over, a map sparked their aforementioned vision for UP North, leading Team UltraPedestrian to its next big challenge.
Closing the loop
On May 14, 2018, the Vaughans began hiking south from Hammett, Idaho, along the ICT portion of the UP North Loop. They had decided to start their trek by tackling one of its biggest question marks: a remote area stretching between the ICT and the Oregon Desert Trail. While the ICT, PCT and PNT all overlap at some point within the UP North Loop, the ODT "just sort of floats out there by itself," as Ras told the Idaho Statesman last year, not quite touching the loop's other components.
To cross this landscape, the couple tried a route proposed by Renee "She-Ra" Patrick, ODT coordinator for the Oregon Natural Desert Association. Patrick is a Triple Crown thru-hiker, yet while she had carefully mapped this line, she hadn't actually hiked it before — nor had anyone else. The Vaughans would be the first to test it.
They expected a hard hike, with long gaps between water sources and resupply points, but the route also threw a few curveballs. In Idaho's Little Jacks Creek Wilderness, for instance, they realized some connections that had seemed viable on satellite wouldn't work due to steep canyon walls or rattlesnakes.
Even for seasoned adventurers, scenarios like this were sometimes overwhelming. "There were times on the trail where I literally shook with fear and got worked up with tears, not knowing if I could traverse the boulder field ahead, or ascend the ramp from the canyon bottom to the rim," Kathy says via email. "I didn't know if I had the skills, or stamina, for some of these challenges."
Those doubts faded, however, and as the pair found their way through this and other dilemmas, Kathy began to see more puzzles than problems. "It seemed like the greater the challenge, the more intense the feelings of joy after having met it," she says, although the sheer scope of their project still weighed on her. "Having a love for these long treks does not eliminate for me the daunting feeling of having many miles left to cover, and there were times when this could cause mental distress."
On top of all that, Kathy also had to manage her diabetes on the trail. She carried a kit with lancets, blood-test strips, a glucometer and other supplies, and her mother sent prescription refills as needed. Insulin dosing became trickier than usual, since her blood sugar was affected by changes in terrain, elevation, climate and distance between food resupplies. "I had to be organized and diligent," she says.
The route rewarded her efforts, she says, with the "untold beauty" of its sage steppes, deep canyons, cedar groves and many other landscapes. It offered solitude — they sometimes didn't see other people for a week or more in the Oregon desert — but was also steeped in human history, from abandoned railroad lines to Native American pictographs. Thanks to the region's geology, hikers can also "soak in some wonderful hot springs along the way," Kathy adds, citing her favorites as Goldmeyer Hot Springs in Washington and the historic Burgdorf Hot Springs in Idaho.
"Our biggest disappointment came during the final 400 miles," Ras says, "when encroaching winter weather, dwindling supplies, and Kathy suffering some scary low-blood-sugar episodes forced us to route around the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness and Frank Church-River Of No Return Wilderness. We made the safest and most reasonable decision under the circumstances, but bypassing the largest contiguous tract of wilderness in the lower 48 states was a heartbreaking decision for us."
Finally, around 4 p.m. on Nov. 5, Ras and Kathy walked back into Hammett, concluding their journey after 174 days, 22 hours and 25 minutes.
Trails and tribulations
"The UP North Loop is a fascinating concept, linking together vastly different regions and remote trail and route systems," says Heather "Anish" Anderson, who recently became the first woman to complete a calendar-year Triple Crown, in a statement. Similar to the Great Western Loop, created by pro backpacker Andrew Skurka in 2007, "it has the added complexity and challenge of being entirely in the northern tier of the country, thus greatly limiting the weather and seasonal window of completion."
On long north-south trails like the Big Three, hikers can either start south early in the year and follow spring north, or start north later in the year and follow summer south. The UP North Loop is less flexible, with deserts on its southern edge that are only safe to cross in spring or fall, yet higher elevations in the north that must be completed after the spring melt and before winter snows accumulate.
"The UP North Loop makes some greater demands on a hiker than a highly traveled trail like the PCT, but they are exactly the sort of challenges to which human beings are uniquely well-suited," Ras says. A 2,600-mile thru-hike is just a series of shorter hikes linked around resupply points, he argues, although on this route, "the standard challenges of a thru-hike are amplified." Hikers must stretch supplies longer, haul water farther and navigate remote, rugged terrain, but also rebound and improvise as plans fall apart — "which they inevitably do on an adventure of this scale."
The Vaughans set an Only Known Time on the UP North Loop, but since they made some detours from their intended route, that "Purist Line" remains unclaimed. Yet despite their disappointment about missing certain areas, Ras says an odyssey like this is more about finding paths than following them. "Our hope is that the UP North Loop will never be codified into one official line," he says. "While the Purist Line is still very much up for grabs for a strict first send, our vision is for each hiker to design their own alternates and reroutes to truly make the UP North Loop their own."
In the process, he adds, this wilderness will leave a lasting impression on anyone who visits. "After covering upwards of 2,600 miles on foot, you end up back at the very point at which you began. But we envision it more as a spiral than a circle. Hopefully, when you return to your starting point, you arrive there on a whole other level."