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Health and wellness

An Appalachian Trail pioneer: first Hongkonger to hike full 3,500km on journey’s ups and downs and how he nearly quit

He almost lost all his gear before starting out, and encountered bears, rattlesnakes and dangerous ground, but Tony Or hung in there thanks to friendship, the kindness of strangers – and Swedish death metal

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 December, 2017, 8:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 December, 2017, 7:30pm

The moment Tony Or Hang-tat stepped outside his tent, he absolutely understood why hikers hang food and rubbish in bags on high tree branches before retiring for the night. The big black bear looking his way must have weighed 136kg (300 pounds). Or stood frozen as the bear turned and lumbered away.

This was in the northeastern US state of Pennsylvania, 13 weeks into an adventure of a lifetime: hiking the whole of the Appalachian Trail that stretches 3,525km (2,190 miles) from Georgia to Maine with just a backpack, a tent and a smile. It was not the first bear he had seen, nor would it be the last. But it was the closest encounter.

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“I was really lucky that I didn’t decide to cook breakfast 10 minutes earlier, because almost certainly the bear would have come to get my food – and get me,” Or says. “You can’t lock the smell in, so you put the food in a bag and hang it in a tree. So if the bear is going to get your food, he’s going to climb the tree and not enter your tent.”

In the autumn of 2016, Or, then 31, was considering a new direction in life, having worked for a Hong Kong bookstore for almost a decade. He decided to take a week-long hike in the US before finding a new job.

“My friend mentioned the Appalachian Trail and I researched it a little bit, and I started thinking it’s a really cool thing to ‘thru-hike’ [hike a long-distance trail end to end in one go].”

A little more than a year later, in mid-September this year he became the first Hongkonger to complete the entire trail.

The “AT” is the world’s longest hiking-only footpath, passing through 14 US states. The total elevation gain of 141,580 metres is equivalent to climbing Mount Everest 16 times. It attracts three million visitors a year, only about 5 per cent of whom are from outside the US. “Thru hikers” like Or walk the entire trail in a continuous journey; “section hikers” piece it together over several years.

Since travel writer Bill Bryson’s 1998 autobiographical book A Walk in the Woods was adapted for the big screen in 2015 (starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte), the trail has attracted growing numbers of adventurers. (Ironically, book-loving Or never read the book nor saw the movie.) Still, fewer than 4,000 people attempt a thru-hike in any given year, and only one in four successfully completes it.

Like Or, most walk south to north. They start at the southern terminus at Spring Mountain in Georgia in spring, and finish at the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine in autumn, taking an average of six months.

Or’s journey began on April 28 this year – two days later than planned. A driver of the coach he took for the 1,200km journey from Texas to the trail head had unloaded his backpack – containing all his vital gear – at a stop midway, triggering frantic calls from Or to the bus company to retrieve his bag and forward it. That was the first of many trials on what would be a four-and-a-half-month trek.

The backpack held about 14kg of gear, including a tent, inflatable mattress, sleeping quilt, lightweight but fragile hiking poles (that broke and were replaced after 800km), a cooking stove, food, and clothing. Or’s wardrobe consisted of three pairs of socks, two pairs of underwear, long johns for sleeping, a hiking shirt and a camp shirt.

Or met experienced section hikers at the hostel where he stayed the first night, and they set off together for the first few hundred kilometres. “They taught me a lot and we became good friends,” he says.

One of the first things he learned was that other hikers give you a trail name. For Or, it was “Tony the Tiger”, a cartoon mascot for a cereal brand. “Another hiker came by wearing a Tony the Tiger T-shirt, so they said it was fate.”

Friends he met included Tomahawk, who had got a large wound on his leg; Glow Worm, a young woman said to resemble one of the creatures; and Mr Clean, an American Korean. “Asians tend to be cleaner,” Or says. “There was a huge downpour; after that, everybody was dirty, muddy. He was the only one who looked pristine.”

Some people said one-third of their hike was in the rain, which is going to be miserable … If you slip, it’s going to be very dangerous.
Tony Or

Or averaged about 12 hours of hiking a day through some of the country’s most spectacular vistas before setting up “camp” for the night. He estimates he spent about half his time in the company of others, but even when he was alone, he wasn’t really lonely nor frightened. “I don’t meditate in the traditional sense, but I do think that hiking is some sort of meditation for me.”

When no one else was around, he would listen to his favourite music, Swedish death metal, “so the bears won’t come near me. They don’t really like noises.”

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Unlike most hikers who cook only dinner, or not at all, Or cooked three meals a day – usually instant pasta or noodle dishes, with tuna, salmon or pepperoni slices. He also snacked regularly on beef jerky and ate a “ridiculous amount” of Snickers chocolate bars and gummy sweets, to the extent that he was “afraid by the end of the trail I would be severely underweight and have diabetes”.

He did lose about 9kg because he was burning through about 6,000 calories a day and not eating enough to replenish them.

The many tiny towns near the trail where hikers go to restock, clean up and sometimes find a more comfortable bed are usually no more than three to four days apart. Those remote communities appreciate the business, even from the great unwashed. “The longest time I hadn’t had a shower was seven days, but I’ve heard of other thru-hikers who have gone two to three weeks,” he says.

Or’s face lights up when he describes “trail magic”, random strangers giving out free food along the trail, or free rides into town. He recounts the generous woman who approached him as he was heading towards a public toilet at a petrol station.

“She said her friend used to give money to thru-hikers to buy them breakfasts, and after she died last year, she decided to keep up this tradition in her memory.”

On parts of the trail close to highways, he said, people would just stop and ask if he needed a ride into town. “Some people set up tents at road crossings and have coolers filled with cold drinks, snacks and cook hamburgers for hikers for free. It’s a wonderful experience. One of the things I learned on the trail is to be nice to people. It makes that person feel good, it makes yourself feel good.”

Or regularly checked weather forecasts so he could plan to reach towns before any expected rain. “I didn’t really hike every day. If I reached a resupply spot, I could do a ‘near-ro’ – walk a few miles to town and stay there – or do a ‘zero’ – no hiking at all that day … If it started raining in the middle of the trail, then I just had to keep hiking until I reached a shelter.

“Some people said one-third of their hike was in the rain, which is going to be miserable. There are a lot of slippery rocks along the trail, too. If you slip, it’s going to be very dangerous.”

Mentally I felt that nothing can defeat me if I am determined and will not let myself be discouraged by any difficulties
Tony Or

He admits he fell often and that his tail bone still hurts after he once landed hard on a rock – but he had heard stories of people who had broken ankles, hands and even a thigh bone.

Or was lucky not to meet any more bears as he neared the trail’s end and grew lazy. “I kept food inside my tent, inside my stinky clothes, to hide the [food] smell. Sometimes it’s difficult to find a tree to hang it on.

“I’ve seen a lot of rattlesnakes, which I think are even more terrifying than the bears,” he recalls. “I nearly stepped on a couple of those.”

Only close to the end, in a remote place called the 100 Mile Wilderness where the trail is wild and supplies unavailable, did Or think he would not finish. Waist-deep in a river with a strong current after heavy rain, he had to do everything he could to find the strength to cross.

His first view of the mighty Mount Katahdin – another 15 hours’ walk from the river – took his breath away.

“The hike up is really difficult, though the last mile is relatively flat, and I could see the peak from an hour away. I was really thrilled – and so tired,” he says. He finally finished the long, long march on September 12.

Laurie Potteiger, information services manager for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy which manages the trail, confirmed that he is the only person from Hong Kong to report completing it.

“According to our records, no one else with a Hong Kong address has submitted a completion report to us. It is a notable achievement and we extend our heartfelt congratulations to Tony,” she wrote.

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After the hike, Or says his stamina has definitely improved, though he needs some time to rebuild his muscle strength. Still, just two months after his adventure, he completed a “recovery hike” in Hong Kong – the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker – with his friends in just over 27 hours.

“Mentally I felt that nothing can defeat me if I am determined and will not let myself be discouraged by any difficulties,” he says.

Or made a surprising discovery at his home on his return: the Stephen King paperback The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, about a girl getting lost on the Appalachian Trail. “So I had read about the trail 18 years ago, not knowing at that time that I would one day hike the whole thing.”