Andrea Vargova completed one of the toughest thru hikes in the world – the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail) in 2017. She battled altitude sickness whilst wedged to the side of an ice shoot thousands of feet in the air and even a hospital admission for a blood transfusion didn’t sway her commitment to continue and complete.
The decision to completely change the direction of her life lead Andrea to meet the love of her life whilst on the trail and ultimately move from the UK to the USA. I was glued to every word of her wonderful interview.
What inspired you to hike the PCT?
I’ve always been an outdoor enthusiast and got heavily involved with 100km ultra marathons over the last 5 years. 2 years ago I felt that I was starting to get into the “Slave to my teaching career rut”, constantly giving to others with nothing in the tank left for myself.
Did you ever have any doubts about being away from your career / life to do the PCT? How did you overcome that?
I started researching expeditions and hikes around the world and the PCT, a 2650 mile trail across America, spanning from the border of Mexico to the Border of Canada popped up in my search. It was a no brainer, then and there I was hooked, lined and sinkered! I wanted to do me for 6 months, just me!
My career had hit a turning point where I had to make a decision whether or not I wanted to climb the management ladder and to be honest I wasn’t sure it was the lifestyle I wanted for myself so leaving my job was not a difficult decision. I was extremely lucky that my Head Teacher encouraged me to go and pleaded with me to come back!
I was also leaving my relationship of 6 years that had sadly hit a stalemate and was not progressing so I talked myself into the notion that what will be will be. Of course the thought of being out in the wilderness on my own for 6 months did make the heart beat a little quicker, but in terms of leaving everything behind? It was what I needed, I needed a new perspective on life and what better view point than one from the summit of a 14,000fter.
Do you have a particular strategy for preparation and training before and also during the hike?
You cannot train for a 2600 mile hike. Of course you need to be relatively fit and physically healthy but you become trail fit on the trail. The terrain was ever changing, the weather was consistent for the terrain, however you have to consider that Desert Heat at 45 degrees Celcius is different to snow and gusty winds high up on top of a mountain top.
So how does one train for all eventualities? They carry gear for them all and pray that they can cope with what lies ahead of them. I suggest researching the hike and the terrain and I guess work on leg strength, as 6000ft elevation gain and loss, in heavy sand, snow, loose gravel, slate, mud and all other surfaces imaginable are all challenging negotiations.
The two things I did do before embarking on this journey was an orienteering course and a winter mountaineering skills course as I was faced with steep snow and ice sections where I needed to know how to work with an ice axe and crampons. To be honest though, the hardest part of the trail is the mental stamina it requires, the mind gives up long before the body fails you.
Can you remember a particular scenario during the adventure where you felt fear? How did you push through?
There were a few concerning moments during the thru hike. One was climbing Mount Shasta and I got altitude sickness, vomiting and ‘pooping’ on a steep icy section of the climb. I had to anchor myself onto the mountain with my ice axe and hope that the projectile movements of me being sick would not dislodge me and set me sliding down an ice shute. ( A woman died falling down an ice shute climbing Mount Whitney a day before I did the climb.).
It was the first time in my life where a flood of absolute numbing fear hit me in a quick intense wave. I had to shake myself out of it, and remind myself that I was strong and could get the job done despite the situation I found myself in at the time, I had to give myself a quick pep talk and carry on up the mountain as I was near the top of the challenging section of the climb. I was lucky enough to have the support of my climbing partner and now fiancé who felt the struggle alongside me. He was a pillar of strength the entire hike and especially in that hairy moment.
During the hike you became unwell and were hospitalised. What enabled you to finish the trail?
Im a stubborn cow, I set out to finish and nothing was going to stop me. I had a blood transfusion half way through the hike, at around mile 1700, having to take 10 days off to recover. It’s amazing what 100% Oxygen pumping around your body and a normal Hemoglobin level feels like. I was ready and pumped. I remember the first day back on trail after the break, I felt like a Gazelle bounding up the steep inclines. Dropping out was never an option. I was going to crawl to the monument in Canada if I had to. Like I said – Stubborn!
What was the most challenging moment during the PCT and how did you turn it around?
The day to day challenges were wanting to give up a thousand times a day because of the sheer pain your body is in 100% of the time. Overcoming the intensity was easy when you looked around at the magical, indescribable beauty that you were at one with and could only see from this inside perspective immersed in the wilderness, isolated from the rest of humanity. It was just incredible, I get goosebumps every time I think about the hike. I would do it over and over again in a heart beat!
Was there ever a moment that you wanted to give up? How did you manage negative self-talk?
Negative self talk was a part of the journey, self doubt creeps in when you are tired, hungry, thirsty, sore and unwell. I just had to accept that these mind games were going to be a part of the journey, because as much as you can physically remove yourself from a situation, emotionally and mentally there is no escape.
I cried, I pouted, I even took my pack off and kicked it around a few times but I kept reminding myself that I wasn’t a quitter and as long as my legs could carry me I would keep placing one foot in front of the other until I reached Canada. Zero rest days helped to put everything into perspective and made me realise that a day off trail was like taking my oxygen away. I wanted to be back on trail as it was becoming a massive part of my heart and identity.
How has the experience of the PCT impacted your life?
Living on trail for 6 months humbled me and made me realize the important things in life are the simplest moments and experiences of everyday, every breath and action creates memories that not all have the opportunities to live. There is beauty all around us if we just lift our eyes up off the ground and live in each and every moment.
I have become less stressed, less materialistic, less patient for pointless chatter and more spiritual for sure. I always make time for myself and nature no matter how busy I am. I actually love myself for the first time in my life and although I do love the people that I love I am now okay with not being liked or judged by others as I am actually living life and recognize how resilient and amazing I am.
What does creating a life you love mean to you?
Creating a life you love to me means to live as authentically and genuinely as I can. My path is different to many but equally as valid and meaningful. A life of travel and adventure however far or near gives me purpose and a sense of belonging. If it makes me smile and fills my heart with abundance of love and freedom then I am living a life I love.
What does success mean to you?
Success is loving each day and being proud of who you are, creating your own rules, values and realities. For me travel are my children I invest in, a tent is my Double Storey Mansion and my legs are my Aston Martin. My Success!
What would you say to someone with a dream who hasn’t made it a reality yet?
Feel the Fear and do it Anyway!
Andrea thank you so much for sharing your wonderful adventure with us. You are a true example that we create our life moment to moment and one decision can take our life in a completely new and exciting direction. I hope that your interview inspires people to take action in what ever they’ve been putting on the back burner and fulfil their dreams!
Emily-Rose Braithwaite ~ Life & Success Coach