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Jul 29 2020

Mexico to Montana: Hiking the Triple Crown

Zelzin Aketzalli is the first known Mexican hiker to complete this monumental challenge

Zelzin Aketzalli, or “Quetzal” as she goes by on the trail, is an avid long-distance hiker from Mexico City. 

She completed her first thru-hike in 2017 when she tackled the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). By 2019, she had completed the Triple Crown - the PCT, Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and Appalachian Trail (AT). 

Completing the Triple Crown is no small feat. These three long-distance trails cover a combined 7,900 miles and cross a total of 22 states. Since 1994, the American Long Distance Hiking Association has awarded the “Triple Crowner” to just 440 people, and Zelzin is the first Mexican national to join that distinguished number.

Thru-hiking may be familiar to many Montanans, but in Mexico Zelzin finds herself having to explain the concept quite often, since long-distance hiking isn’t a common activity. She’s also a public speaker and shares her love for thru-hiking in talks at events and conventions when she isn’t out on the trail.

Other than having to learn English on the trail in order to communicate with other hikers and generous benefactors of “trail magic” (people who offer thru-hikers a place to sleep, a meal, or supplies), Zelzin says the biggest challenge she encountered on her first thru-hike was snow.

“All of my English is for hiking,” says Zelzin. “And my biggest technical challenge was the snow – I had never hiked in the snow.”

Having never used crampons or an ice axe before, she learned to use them on the fly while hiking the PCT through California’s Sierra Nevada. While trekking a stretch of the CDT in Montana last year, she encountered two grizzlies – an experience she hadn’t had on the AT, PCT, or in Mexico. And while she had to remind herself to carry bear spray, Zelzin is amazed at the amount of wildlife she sees while hiking through wild places in the United States.

“I’ve never had a bad experience with animals,” says Zelzin. “It’s something I really enjoy with all my hikes, because it’s something I never experienced before.”

This spring, before Covid-19 hit the U.S., Zelzin embarked on a team thru-hike challenge along  the Great Western Loop – a 7,000-mile trail that passes through nine western states through some of the most unforgiving landscapes in the West, including the Mojave and Sonoran deserts, 12 National Parks and 75 wilderness areas. That thru-hike, which was documented by a film crew, was cut short due to park and trail closures.

“It’s sad that the challenge was canceled,” says Zelzin “But I feel that things happen for a reason.”

While hiking in the desert between Grand Canyon to Las Vegas, they didn’t encounter anyone until they popped into town for supplies. Disconnected from the news, they only heard bits and pieces about the progression of the pandemic. Zelzin feels lucky that she has been able to ride out the pandemic in Montana with her partner (who she met while hiking in Utah a few years ago), and now in Colorado where she’s living for the time being, instead of a large urban area. 

Having completed the Triple Crown, her next goal is to popularize thru-hiking in Mexico, which, she says, will require a cultural shift. According to Zelzin, there aren’t very many connected trails that allow for long-distance hiking, and cartel activity in some parts of the country can make traveling dangerous. Still, she feels she can build support for new trails by sharing the benefits of outdoor recreation for local economies, something she’s learned about while hiking in the U.S., with indigenous communities in Mexico.

“My next plan is to start building a trail,” says Zelzin. “Maybe if people can experience hiking that trail, they’ll want to care for that environment because of their experience.”

To fund her trail project, she plans to fundraise while scouting her proposed trail in January of next year. She estimates it will take about a month to six weeks to scout, and then, with a little support and funding, the trail work can begin.

If you’re interested in learning more about Zelzin’s journey, you can visit her website zelzinaketzalli.com.

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Keely Damara
Communications Coordinator

Keely provides communications support for our chapters, programs, and campaigns and manages our social media channels. In her free time, she enjoys fly fishing on Montana's scenic rivers, hiking, camping, and exploring public lands in her home state.
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