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Peter in the water

Peter Hochhauser

fm4 adventurous

FM4 Adventurous: Life On The Trail

Thru-Hiker Peter Hochhauser spent over 5 months walking up the spine of the USA. He says it was a reboot for his life.

By Chris Cummins

The longest hike I’ve ever been on, lasted for 5 days, taking me from the French Alps to the Italian Alps via a network of mountain huts. The combination of fresh air, mountain vistas and wildlife combined with all that time to think and reflect, made it feel like a transformative experience for me. I sorted things out in my head, and then came back to civilisation. But after only 5 days, I also felt mentally and physically exhausted.

Chris Hiking

Simone Bobbio

Chris Cummins hiking

That’s why I am somewhat in awe of the achievements of thru-hikers like Peter Hochhauser, who was on the trail for over 5 months on his 4,200km walk up the Pacific-Crest Trail.

This iconic trail takes you from the US-Mexican border to the Canadian frontier through deserts, high mountain passes and deep forests which are home to bears and rattlesnakes.

„Nothing is a rush“

Peter calls thru-hiking “a reboot for life” and says the slowness of travel is, in fact, the main advantage. “You really have time to let everything sink in. Nothing is a rush,” he told me. “You have time to get to know the environment and it helps you rethink your priorities. It helps you see what you really need in life. And, honestly, you can fit it all in a small backpack.”

Peter relaxing

Peter Hochhauser

Peter relaxing

That said, the beginnings weren’t easy. Peter didn’t have much hiking experience when he flew to southern California to start the trail. He just fancied a proper break from his busy job at a film production company in Vienna and thought that thru-hiking would provide the immersive, contemplative adventure he was looking for.

A Bloody Start

In the first days he was attempting 20km a day, a relatively modest target, but the desert heat was fierce and unrelenting, and his body was unaccustomed to the repetitive movement and the weight he was carrying. Peter’s feet began to swell up and his rucksack gorged a hole in the skin around his hips. Before he had really started, the adventure seemed in jeopardy.

Feet

Peter Hochhauser

The adventure takes its toll

Yet, having waved goodbye to his friends and told them he’d be away for half a year, he didn’t want to give up at the first hurdle. Day by day, he got stronger and more resilient. He soon got into the rhythm of trial life. By the middle of the hike, he was easily walking over 30km every day.

A Dentist’s Nightmare

Even as the muscles and tendons strengthen, that sort of sustained effort takes its toll in other ways. A thru-hiker can burn 5,000 calories in a day and Peter lost 15kg in the first few weeks of his adventure. Thru-hikers have to keep eating but the challenge is carrying all the food you need in your rucksack. There are often four to five days of trail through wilderness between opportunities to get to any stores.

“They key is to have the highest-calorific food in the smallest packaging,” says Peter; and dentists might get palpitations at his next comment. “I liked to have a tub of Nutella and dip my Snickers bar into it.”

Trail Angels

Sometimes there were treats. Thru-hiking has become such a trend in the United States that a related culture has emerged – the trail angels. These good-hearted people not only take the lift-thumbing hikers into nearby towns to stock up on supplies but also let them pitch their tents in their gardens for the night or even offer them a couch for the night and invite them for a home-cooked dinner.

Sometimes, near a settlement, hikers will come around a corner on the trail to find a trail angel barbequing sausages and burgers and handing them out, sometimes with a beer, to the long-distance hikers.

“That’s basically the best feeling you can get, when you have been out there for days and then you come across this generosity.”

New Friends

Like many thru-hikers Peter was alone for large portions of his journey, but, given that the trail is increasingly popular, you make friends along the route. Hikers, while maintaining their essential independence, choose to hike together for sections of the trail. They come from all over the world but, Peter says, are instantly recognisable for their tatty clothes, caked in grime, and their open-manner.

Peter and his trail buddies

Peter Hochhauser

Thru-hikers give each other trail-names – nick-names that are easy to remember for these casual acquaintances. Peter made a friend called “Danger Noodle” because that was his euphemistic name for a snake swimming in a river where they were bathing. Peter himself was called “Chopper” because, given his burly appearance and Austrian accent, he reminded his new friends of Arnold Schwarzenegger and his famous “Get to the Chopper” line from Predator.

Beautiful landscape

Peter Hochhauser

After the blistering heat of the desert, Peter had to camp amid the snow of the high Sierra Nevada mountains. By this time, he’d reduced his pack significantly. He insists to this day that one pair of underpants is enough for months of hiking; using the impeccable logic that, given the difficulty of washing, that any reserve pair would be dirty anyway.

Majestic Landscapes

It took three months of hiking to reach his first state-line as California met Oregan. Oregan was wild and scenic while Washington was wet, green and spectacular – like The Revenant without the violence. Then, finally, after all those weeks of walking he reached the end point. How did that feel?

“Actually it is really strange because it was always the goal but, by this point, hiking has become your life-style. You realise that the next day you don’t have to get up and hike. So, you are happy but also sad, because you’re losing this new lifestyle.”

Once bitten, the thru-hiking bug is difficult to throw off. A couple of years later Peter was back, this time with a small team and a documentary project to tackle a more remote, dangerous and adventurous thru-hiking trail: the Pacific North West Trail, from Montana to the Pacific Ocean. It’s mostly overgrown, requiring hours on pain-staking “bush-wacking”, there are more bears, longer gaps between settlements and you often have to scramble over scree and rocks.

Chatting to Peter about his 6-month underpants, his arduous days and frosty nights under the stars, I was going to ask if thru-hikers were a little bit crazy. But then I looked down at the studio set up in front of me; five screens, my mobile phone to one side and a clock reminding us constantly of time pressure. Which lifestyle makes more sense? My digital-dominated existence in the city, or the thru-hikers daily routine: walk, eat, sleep, repeat?

Peter Chopper Hochhauser

Chris Cummins

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