Thru-hiking is hard enough. Now imagine starting the notoriously rugged Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) completely alone, with a crippling fear of heights, no backpacking experience—and zero knowledge of English. That’s the situation Zelzin Aketzalli (she/her) was in when she stood at the trailhead of the 2,658-mile PCT in 2017. Ultimately, she finished the hike and went on to become the first Mexican National to complete all three of America’s longest trails—the PCT, the Appalachian Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail—a revered trifecta known as the “Triple Crown.”
But back then, just 23 years old and fresh out of college, Aketzalli had no idea how it would all turn out. All she knew is that she wanted to go on an adventure, and she’d heard about the PCT from American tourists. The rub? Mexico didn’t have many established trails at the time, let alone long trails. Aketzalli had never had the opportunity to go camping for more than a night or two in a row. She’d also never seen snow, never dealt with icy tent flies or howling alpine winds, and never spent much time in the U.S. The first time she tried to climb a mountain (a dormant volcano about an hour from her home in Mexico City), she found herself clinging to the rock, terrified of the exposure and on the verge of tears.
And before starting the PCT, she was nervous about all these things. Still, she had an even bigger fear: the language. Just a week before her departure to California, Aketzalli almost pulled the plug on the whole adventure because she was so afraid of having to learn English on the fly. Eventually, “I told myself I needed to learn,” she says. “This was my challenge: To speak English by the time I finished the trail.”
That ability to stand tall in the face of a challenge isn’t an innate skill, she says. It’s learned. And it’s one she’s been learning her whole life. Aketzalli grew up in Mexico City, where she started working in street stands at age 11 to help support her family. At the time, many sports were seen as off-limits to women—a culture which she says is only now starting to change.
“My mom never learned to swim or ride a bike,” she explains. But Aketzalli’s father was adamant about getting his daughter involved in sports. “He put me on basketball teams, gymnastic teams, swimming teams—I was everywhere,” she laughs. And when she went to university, she started racing mountain bikes. With this first foray into outdoor sports, she fell in love immediately, though it wasn’t always easy.
“I think racing bikes is what made me strong,” she says. “At the time, the team was all men. Sometimes they would say, ‘Oh, why don’t you go faster, why don’t you jump that?’ And I would try to keep the same speed as them but it just wasn’t working for me. Every day I was tired.”
See Your Finish
Despite unending fatigue, she kept the long-range goal in mind. Her dream was to qualify for nationals, so she trained hard to make it a reality, all in between working and studying for her engineering degree. When she graduated, she realized that she’d scarcely stopped to take a breath her whole life. It was time for an adventure. Her gift to herself, she ultimately decided, would be the PCT.
From the minute she started the trail, she knew she wanted to finish. For one thing, she discovered that she loved hiking more than any sport she’d done before—even mountain biking. For another, she said it was important to her that she finish this challenge she’d set for herself.
“You have to be honest with yourself,” she advises. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Do I really want this or no?’ Because sometimes you see in the videos or you see on social media other people doing a hike, and if that’s your motivation, then that’s not going to work. You need to be able to feel very strongly that you want to do this, and you want to do it for you. You have to be able to see yourself at the finish line. No, it’s not going to be easy. Yes, you’re going to get scared. But you know that fear is going to pass if your objective is clear.”