Ethan Gehl - Five Days Of Misery That Inspired A Lifetime Of Bliss

Photo credit: Jeffrey Furse

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Gee whiz, who am I? Well, I’m Ethan - long trail walker, amateur photographer, wilderness therapy guide, awkward introvert, and weirdo extraordinaire.

I hale from the Atlanta suburbs where I grew up in the poor neighborhood of an affluent community. I remember feeling deeply ashamed of my humble socioeconomic roots and working as hard at being invisible among my peers as I worked at being successful in school. Not having a sense of self, I believed that I was only as valuable as what I owned and only as worthy as what I had achieved.

I excelled in academics, pouring myself into books and formulas. Driven by the classical visage of the American dream - the happy family, the white picket fence, the 9-5 routine, and the promise of financial security - I surrendered to a fixed trajectory with only that end goal in mind.

Everything was going to plan until my senior year at Georgia Tech. I’d applied for a joint Bachelors-Masters program and been denied on account of two hundredths of a GPA point. I remember going to sleep that night feeling crushed by the unfamiliar burden of failure; but then waking the following morning feeling oddly relieved.

This was maybe the first time in my life that I’d hit a roadblock, and the screeching halt that followed brought with it the gift of clarity: I had no idea who I was or what I was about. I was a mosaic of others’ ideas and opinions, which we all are, but at that time, my mosaic didn’t include any of my authentic self independent of those influences.

I suddenly understood that I had to leave. There was too much about my life that wasn’t mine. I finished my degree because I had the sense that this thing I needed to do was either going to ruin me for the so-called American dream, or leave me so scared and alone that I’d come running back to it seeking the comfort of familiarity.

I tucked my diploma safely away and used my student loan money to buy a car and finance a 14,000 mile, 10 week, solo cross-country road trip. (Best money I ever spent, truly).

I visited dozens of national parks and day hiked hundreds of miles during that fall of 2008. I was eating ramen noodles and instant mashed potatoes, sleeping in the back seat of my car, and embracing a sense of self that was altogether new to me.

I felt overwhelmed and inspired by landscapes that I’d only ever before seen in magazine spreads. The natural wonder filled me up.

It was the grizzly bear I saw in Glacier National Park, the thunderous roar of Niagara Falls, the deep blue waters of Crater Lake, the rolling sands of Death Valley, the towering cliffs of Zion National Park, the California Condors soaring high overhead at the Grand Canyon, and the abstract natural sculptures of Carlsbad Caverns.

It was a thousand other moments and a dozen adventurous souls who spurred me along on my journey. And that was it: I was ruined.

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

My first long trail hike, which was a total shakedown, was along the Hundred Mile Wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail back in the fall of 2013. It was my first solo multi-day backpacking trip and a way for me to see whether my goal to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail the following summer might be attainable.

I'd underestimated the wild and overestimated myself. It was humbling.

Thru-hiking was something that no one I knew had ever done. That’s what originally drew me to it. Then there was the look people gave me when I told them that I was considering a thru-hike. Every time someone told me I was nuts, it just made me want to do it even more. I’ve been told that I’m argumentative. That resonates.

My outdoor experience to that point was largely limited to the woods behind my childhood home, a short spring break backpacking trip in college, the road trip I mentioned earlier, and a few seasons of trail work.

I really didn’t know anything about thru-hiking. I hadn’t read any blogs, listened to any podcasts, or researched any gear. When I feel drawn to something, I just sorta put myself out there and start trying things, learning more by trial and error than by study and mentorship. It makes for some hard, painful lessons sometimes. 

I started walking early on a brisk October morning and arrived at Spectacle Ponds a short while later. There were vibrant hints of the changing season among the evergreens that were so brilliantly reflected in the still water.

I was giddy at the thought of walking 100 miles through peak fall foliage in Maine. Wearing wide eyes and a goofy smile, I looked up a steep slope covered in roots ’n rocks and was surprised to see the famous white blaze of the AT marking the trail a few dozen feet up (can you spot it in the upper center of the photo below?). “Let the adventure begin,” I thought as I bounded up the slope.

Stoke carried me through the first few miles before the burden of my 60+ pound pack began to shape my mental narrative. I don’t remember ever thinking that I couldn’t do it, or even ever wanting to be anywhere else, but I struggled to understand how anyone could enjoy thru-hiking.

By the end of the second day, I wasn't just sore, I was in pain. I was taping blisters, wearing a knee brace, relying heavily on my trekking poles for balance and support, and taking way too much ibuprofen to mask the pain of my shin splints.

By this point, I was already about halfway through the wilderness section, so I could no more easily go back the way I'd come than press on to the finish. And if I was going to meet my friends in Baxter on Monday (as planned), I had to keep pace. At 22-28 miles per day for the first four, then nearly 15 for the fifth, it was a brutal challenge.

The AT through Maine is steep and unforgiving, and I hadn’t properly trained or given myself much leeway to adjust to the rigors of the experience. I was miserable but also empowered in the struggle. 

The wilderness is my gym, my canvas, my sanctuary.

My trek quickly became more about beating the wilderness than enjoying it. But really it wasn't me against the wilderness; it was me against my own arrogance, stupidity, and unpreparedness. I'd underestimated the wild and overestimated myself. It was humbling.

I really only wish that I’d given myself more time, that I could’ve slowed down and just been there, that I hadn’t had to push beyond my own comfort and enjoyment…that my decisions hadn't bonded this incredible place to my incredible pain.

I had the opportunity to give up on my fourth day. As I sat on a bridge over the river at a gravel road crossing nursing my shin splints, a passenger truck drove by. It was the only vehicle I saw in the wilderness, and I nearly stuck my thumb out to get a ride back to my car.

There I was, my gear sprawled out and drying in the sun, my feet bare and hanging over the lip of the embankment, my knees and shins throbbing. I saw that truck and wondered whether I'd had enough. I resisted the urge and instead watched the truck amble off in the distance.

Then I was alone again with the 18 miles that lay between me and the nearest paved road. Passing up on a prime opportunity to call it quits only hardened my resolve. I hadn’t come so far to only come so far. 

The next afternoon, I reached my friends at Katahdin Stream Campground. As I soaked my battered legs in the cold water, I decided that I’d had enough. I didn’t need to summit Katahdin only to turn around and walk right back to that stream. My ankles were severely swollen and my feet were numb and tingling.

Difficult conditions teach me resilience and humility while beauty teaches me gratitude and awareness. Somehow I always find what I need in the woods or the mountains or the canyons.

With each step, I wondered whether my knees might give or my shin splints might turn to stress fractures. Still. Lying in my sleeping bag that night unable to escape the throbbing pain in my legs, I was already scheming how I could make a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail more enjoyable. It was simple, really: start slower, allow more time, carry lighter gear, and commit to a pre-hike fitness routine.


Even after the incredible difficulty of this trip, I still look back on it with a deep sense of joy and gratitude. It was gorgeous, and rugged, and miserable, and lovely, and intense, and amazing, and empowering- all at the same time. Thru-hiking has been one of the greatest loves of my life.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

The wilderness is my gym, my canvas, my sanctuary. It’s a one-stop shop for my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The place I can turn when things are hard, and the place that challenges me when they’re easy.

I think what I love most about being outside is that nature treats us all the same. There is no malicious intent or careless offense.

Some might say that nature is ambivalent toward us, but I don’t believe that. At the risk of sounding like a crazy hippy, I feel connected to nature.

Difficult conditions teach me resilience and humility while beauty teaches me gratitude and awareness. Somehow I always find what I need in the woods or the mountains or the canyons.

It’s like I get to take the trip twice, then I get to share it through the medium that first inspired me to hit the trail.

Being outside is my peace and my solace. I’m betting that many of y’all understand exactly what I mean. 

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

I thought a long time about how to respond honestly to this question without answering the same way that most hikers in this digital age seem to…and I just can’t think of anything that I love even almost as much as I love my Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II mirrorless camera.

It’s not the lightest rig around, and the quality doesn’t match that of a full frame DSLR. But it’s weather-sealed and captures print quality images. A reasonable compromise for a thru-hiker like me.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Baker

Photos have played such an important role in my life and in my personal process. Sitting in a coffee shop editing trip photos for weeks after I’ve walked the final mile brings me as much joy as the walk itself.

It’s like I get to take the trip twice, then I get to share it through the medium that first inspired me to hit the trail. 

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

That first step - take it. Get it out of the way, because every one after it gets progressively easier.

You’ll learn more and more with every hike, especially early on. Start slow as you dial in your gear and gain some context for the trip reports that are out there.

Everyone’s threshold is different, so always do your research with a critical eye and have a backup plan in case the author’s idea of what’s manageable doesn’t end up aligning with yours. Don’t be too proud to turn around. It takes time to build comfort in the outdoors.

I’d recommend hiking with people at first. Hiking groups are a great way to break into the community and establish a support system. With time, you’ll develop a sense of where your personal comfort falls on the spectrum, and that will help you discern which trails, mountains, and canyons are for you.

That first step - take it. Get it out of the way, because every one after it gets progressively easier.

From there, you’ll find hikers whose interests and abilities are on par with your own. Before you know it, people will be looking at you feeling inspired to take their own first step. 

Trust yourself. Very infrequently is there a strictly right or strictly wrong answer in the outdoors. I’ve seen people prance and skip along a knife edge traverse with a thousand feet of vertical exposure on either side.

I’ve also seen people straddle that same knife edge and scoot across. I stepped off to one side and shuffled my feet along the sheer face while gripping the apex of the knife edge. That’s what felt comfortable for me.

I’m sure there were people who took one look at that traverse and turned around. The important thing is to make those choices for yourself. I think people get into trouble outside when they take risks that they’re not physically and/or mentally prepared to take. You just do you out there. You don’t need to impress anyone. 

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

My mom. Without realizing the profound impact it would have on me, she used to routinely lock me, my brother, and my sister out of the house while we were growing up. I’m sure that sounds harsh, but we loved it. And it was good for us. 

Outside is as much a part of me as the nose on my face. 

I remember building forts with my brother in the woods. And rollerblading with my sister along the bike path behind our home that bobbed and weaved through what felt like an endless track of undeveloped wilderness.

I remember wearing water boots and traipsing through the shallow creek that ran through our yard, splashing so carelessly that the boots - mine red, my brother’s blue, and my sister’s pink - were more for style than for function. 

It was there, stifled by that Georgia humidity, that I unknowingly developed my sense of wanderlust and my deep appreciation for the healing power of nature.

When I stepped back into that world as a young adult, it felt like coming home even all the way across the country. Outside is as much a part of me as the nose on my face. 

Where’s your next adventure?

I’m primarily a weekend warrior these days. I feel fortunate to live in beautiful Salt Lake City, so my free time often carries me either up into the Wasatch Mountains or down into the Utah desert. My weekends rarely disappoint.

I still keep an eye out for opportunities to get out of town, though. I’m flying to Kauai next weekend for a challenge hike to the Weeping Wall. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, I have some backup hikes that I’ll do instead. 

I also have a few more long trails on my radar - The John Muir Trail, The Colorado Trail, The Pacific Northwest Trail, and a few others - which I may start tackling as early as this summer. 

When I started hiking, I had no idea that there were so many incredible hikes all over the world. It feels almost impossible to choose. If I could, I’d just keep walking forever. 

Where can others learn more about you?

I write about my hikes on my website, And I share my favorite trip photos on instagram (@sochitreks).

Shoot me a message if you wanna meet up for a walk or a beer someplace here in Salt Lake - or halfway around the world!

Finishing the PCT, summer 2014. Photo Credit: Cassandra Phegley


Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

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