2175 Miles


(This 765th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on November 27, 2005.)


About ten years ago Ellen Gibson became interested in backpacking and decided to attend the Adirondack Mountain Club's classes for beginners. Little did she know that her decision would grow into a hiking obsession and a remarkable accomplishment.


Left to right: Diane Lawrence, Ellen (with sunglasses), Wilma Cipolla and Annette Brzezicki


On August 17 this year, Ellen finished backpacking the full 2175 mile Appalachian Trail. On that day she and a group of friends, including her husband Jim, climbed the final peak, Maine's Mount Katahdin, to celebrate her accomplishment.


After attending those classes, Ellen participated in several regional backpacking hikes but then in 1997 she traveled to southwestern Virginia to begin the first of her long treks, most of them alone.


Yes, alone. If you were asked to pick from a crowd of a hundred people the one who would accomplish this feat by herself, I suggest that you would pick Ellen dead last. She is tiny, not more than an inch or two over five feet. Her occupation: University at Buffalo law librarian. And her age is indicated by the fact that she retired from that role in 1999.


But she did it. She didn't hike in 1998 and 1999 but every spring or summer since then she added to her mileage total. That means that she averaged over 300 miles per year. That's about the distance from Buffalo to Albany and Ellen carried a pack weighing at times a third as much as she does.


And, having hiked sections of the Appalachian Trail, I can attest that it is not like walking along the Thruway. Ellen was hiking in the Appalachian Mountains.


Was Ellen ever frightened? No, but she did worry sometimes about bears. Sleeping under an open tarp, she awoke one night to find a cub within a few feet of her sleeping bag. She also carried a whistle that she used once to warn others away from a mother bear and her two cubs that she came upon eating berries near the trail.


But Ellen's only real worry about being alone was falling and being injured.


Now admittedly, none of the Appalachian Trail involves rock climbing, but there are a few places that come close. Here is Ellen's own story about her experience in one of those places, Mahoosuc Notch in Maine. She had been warned that she was too small to get through this part of the trail unassisted and she had already taken a nasty fall when she came upon -- I'll let her continue -- a "smooth domelike rock that was just too high for me. I couldn't see over it, I couldn't see around it, and there wasn't a handhold or toehold in sight, either. Uh-oh. Oh, wait! On the rock's far left-hand side, there was a toehold. How to get to it without falling into the abyss? I tethered my pack to my trusty 6-foot paracord line and threw the pack up onto the rock, holding onto the line to make sure the pack didn't fall to an uncertain fate on the other side. Then I somehow threw myself up onto the rock, spread-eagled and face down to maximize my purchase on the smooth surface.


"Here's where the hip check came in. A hip check is a move in ice hockey in which the defensive player uses his or her hip to knock an opponent out of the play. Women also use this move to close car doors. Staying spread-eagled, I hip-checked my way across that rock until I was about one foot above the little toehold. A few downward scrunches and -- She shoots – she scores! My boots landed on the toehold. I lowered my pack to a safe spot, and then lowered myself. Congratulating myself on this small victory, I hobbled on."


Those worries were balanced for Ellen by the removal of restraints hiking alone provides. She could go at her own pace and savor the wildlife. She loved awakening mornings to the chorus of bird song and she was most impressed by the flowers along the trail, especially Virginia's trilliums and azaleas and rhododendrons.


What's next? A hike with Jim into the Grand Canyon and after that the famous trek around the Alps' Mt. Blanc.


Kudos to this mighty mite.-- Gerry Rising