No participation trophies allowed

September 30, 2017

Stacey Kozel via Facebook

It all started with the simple question posted by well-known trail angel, Donna “L-Rod” Saufley, from Hiker Heaven in California, “Did anyone in the [PCT] Class of 2017 see Stacey Kozel on the trail this year? Just wondering. No one we hosted mentioned a word about her.”

Since then, there have been an abundant number of articles and comments written about Stacey Kozel, the paralyzed woman who claimed—very publicly—to have thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) last year, and claimed again this year to have completed a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The woman known as ‘Ironwill’ inspirited many with her story of overcoming overwhelming obstacles to do what 1 in 4 fail to do. If you’re unfamiliar with Stacey Kozel and what differentiates her from thousands of others who attempt thru-hikes every year, in short, she’s paralyzed.

It quickly became apparent that nobody in the entire Facebook group ‘PCT Class of 2017’ had seen her hiking on the trail…not one person. Initially this raised some suspicion; however, as time went on, it became clear that there were some indisputable discrepancies. Further examination of her claims, and evidence presented by hikers on the trail this year, made it grievously clear that the entire PCT hiking community believes, unequivocally, that she did not do what she said she did.

I was one of the multitudes of people who found her story inspirational…and also one of the hundreds (and maybe thousands) of those who feel bamboozled by the misrepresentation of her accomplishment. The PCT hiker Facebook group has blown up this past week with bitter and angry sentiments about the whole case.

The backlash even started to raise questions about her 2016 AT thru-hike and now many news outlets,who heralded the achievements of the woman with the ‘iron will’, were now amending their previous articles with editor’s notes about the claims against her, while new articles regarding the accusations starting popping up.

In response to this year’s thru-hike scandal, there are two articles in particular that stood out in the hiking community: ‘Yes, Stacey Kozel’s PCT and AT lies matter‘ written by Clay Bonnyman Evans and ‘How Did No One Notice This Inspirational Hiker On The Pacific Crest Trail?‘ written by Patrick Redford for Deadspin.

“Yes, Stacey Kozel’s PCT and AT lies matter. Allowing Stacey Kozel to get away with lying because of her disability is an insult to people of different abilities. To excuse her is to say, ‘Well, it’s OK, dear, because you’re different.'” – Clay Bonnyman Evans

Is it a big deal? Yes, it is.

I bailed out on this year’s John Muir Trail (JMT) thru-hike due to this year’s extraordinary snow conditions that I felt we couldn’t safely handle (which mind you, she would have had to hike through most of the JMT to actually complete the PCT). As admiring as I was to hear of her personal victory on the PCT, I was exasperated (to say the least) to hear that she completed what I, a fully able-bodied person, could not. I felt like a real loser, seriously lacking perseverance, and utterly defeated. I gave up. I quit. I failed. Although anyone could say that I at least tried and I gave it my best, I continued to question myself…did I? Although I had my husband hiking with me to take into consideration, did I really give it my all? (My husband, being the person he is, would have continued if I absolutely insisted on continuing, regardless of the circumstances. He knew how important it was to me.)

I fell into a pretty bad funk trying to come to terms with my decision to leave the trail, one that I will regret for the rest of my life. That’s where a situation like this, where someone publicly distorts their claims, can be damaging. There’s a saying in the hiking world—Hike Your Own Hike. While everyone should aspire to achieve their own goals without comparing themselves to everyone else, there’s a sense of worthiness that can be attained by using others as an indicator of where you stand.

Now here’s the rub. Yes, I tried, but I did not meet my objective—to hike the JMT in its entirety at one go. I could have just as easily said that I completed it. I went in and out at so many trails and passes that I could have gathered a bunch of pictures to make it appear (and pretty successfully) that I completed the entire trail. But I didn’t. I also didn’t publicize my intentions garnering national recognition (my Facebook page and Instagram follower counts are pretty sad, and you are one of the handful of people who actually read my blog). Stacey did and she received almost celebrity status…maybe not intentionally the first time round while hiking the AT, but she definitely new what she was doing when making the PCT announcement this time around after having achieved fame.

Is just having tried enough?

Yes, it is…if your intentions are simply just to go out there and do as much as you can. When you set a goal to complete a ‘thru-hike’, but you do not hike every mile of the trail, then you didn’t complete a thru-hike—and that’s okay. However, to just say “I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail” (which Stacey declared in defense of criticism) after hiking only some of it when her intention was to complete a thru, that’s misleading and it matters. She made comments during several interviews with the inference that she completed the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail in its entirety. The implication devalues the accomplishments of everyone else out there who hiked every inch of that trail this year—especially this year.

Screen shot of post from Stacey Kozel’s Facebook page before it appears to have been closed off.

For me personally, I did not complete a thru-hike. I did not hike the 211-mile long John Muir Trail…I hiked a portion of it. I did not accomplish anything great (with the exception of summiting Mt. Whitney, which was one of my personal greatest achievements). I will not disillusion myself to think that the circumstances were extraordinary to excuse myself from carrying out my mission (although this year, they were in fact, unusual and rare). Nevertheless, I will celebrate what I did accomplish and experience—summiting Mt. Whitney, backpacking sections the JMT, seeing some of the most awe-inspiring landscape, visiting some of the greatest National Parks—I do not want a participation trophy, for I did not succeed at what I set out to do.

I set myself to a high standard when it comes to something like this, as does most everyone else who sets out to complete a thru-hike. However, when someone like Stacey says she did something that she did not, she owes an apology to the entire hiking community as well as every disabled person, for what’s the purpose in being inspired when you are just trying to live up to a lie?

I want to believe that she completed the PCT, but the facts just don’t add up:

  • She had reported that she entered Oregon, which is about 490 miles from the end of the Sierra Nevada, on July 31. That means, with an admitted “slow” hiking pace of about 1 mph, she would have been passing through the precarious snow-covered mountains of the Sierra in June, provided she was doing at least 16 miles a day. I can attest to the fact that the Sierra was indeed enveloped in snow. We summited Glen Pass—which was only the 2nd snow-covered pass of many to come going north—on July 21st and there was still a crap ton of snow there. Many of the PCT thru-hikers we met in Mammoth Lakes the first week of July had skipped the Sierra portion of the trail (to be returned to and completed after reaching Canada), due to the phenomenal amount of  snow and risky water crossings. Not to mention the fact that to continue through Oregon and Washington in the time she said she did, she would have had to have been hiking 30 miles a day, every day (which is not unheard of for someone trying to break self-supported fastest-known-time records).
  • She originally said she made it to Manning Park at the Canadian border on September 4th , but she then said she misspoke and actually finished in “late August”…which raised even more suspicion, because people who accomplish a feat such as thru-hiking remember the date…such as one would remember and celebrate their birthday.
  • She started at the southern terminus on March 28th, originally hoping to finish by mid-September. If she finished in “late August” as she claims, then that means she completed the trail in 5 months, the same amount of time it takes most able-bodied people to achieve (that’s almost 20 miles per day; she averaged only 10 during her AT hike…sometimes even slower). While that’s totally possible, she said that she “…did speaking events during my PCT hike, which I publicized on my social media accounts (and so I cannot and have never claimed I completed the hike uninterrupted)…”, which further complicates the matter of completing the trail in the time specified.
  • The new high-tech battery-powered braces she uses need to be recharged every two days, otherwise they will only work like their less-technical exoskeleton counterparts. According to ESPN, “…when the batteries ran out, the braces worked like the simpler ones, except they were so heavy that Kozel felt like she had cement bags strapped to her legs…” In addition to that, the braces would short-circuit if she forded a river (this year’s PCT presented particularly unsafe deep and swift water crossings). According to a KGW.com article, as well as a podcast interview by Wisp Sports, Stacey said she used her regular plastic and metal “stiff legged” braces on the hike. This assertion only fuels skepticism about the time it took for her to purportedly complete the trail since it was confirmed by Rick Grope, owner of Western Reserve Prosthetics, that in using the old braces, “…that would have been difficult…she would spend so much of her energy to do that…”
  • Video of her hiking illustrates the awkward gait she must take in order to make her rigid legs move. This corroborates her admitted “slow” pace.
  • To do this hike solo with nobody supporting her and not coming into contact with any trail angels, resupply outfits, or even scores of other PCT hikers, seems highly unlikely. No one has come forth to say that they’ve seen her (with the exception of three on Facebook, who’s accounts have either been deleted or suspiciously have no friends and been determined to be fake accounts). She had support during her AT attempt, so why wouldn’t she have any support on the more isolated, and this year’s unusually dangerous trail? And why hasn’t anyone seen someone who would most certainly be memorable?

“…nobody makes it to Canada alone.” – excerpt from Deadspin article written by Patrick Redford

If Stacey would have simply said that she hiked even a portion of the trail, with the challenges she had to face, that alone would have been monumental. Why she chose to tackle something as ambitious as thru-hiking, who knows? Maybe her intention was to attract attention? In an article by ESPN regarding her AT thru-hike, it was stated that “…Kozel hopes her long hike with those braces proves to insurance companies reluctant to pay for them that they are valuable.” Popular Mechanics also published an article about her intention to “…prove to insurance companies that these braces are worth the cost.” To knowingly attract attention, by attempting a thru-hike (especially after supposedly having already completed one), but have no factual evidence to prove you did what you say you did, is just absurd. To be writing a book about your first experience, but disregard the details and coverage of an even grander experience, it just doesn’t sound logical.

Why didn’t she leave it at having completed a thru-hike of the AT? Why would she say that she thru-hiked the PCT if she did not? ​Nobody was questioning whether or not she thru-hiked the AT, but now people are almost convinced she did not thru-hike the PCT, and are now even questioning her AT hike. By doing what she did, she’s doing a disservice to those who are hoping to have insurance cover the cost of these braces. Once insurance companies get wind of her stunt, they could be more inclined to decline the cost, because she’s potentially a fraud. Good intentions could possibly go very bad.

I concede to the fact that Stacey just could have gotten in over her head. I would like to think that she didn’t want to disappoint anyone and that’s why she just went along with all of the fanfare. There’s been a lot of people willing to give her the benefit of the doubt; however, she seems to have dropped off the face of the earth since all of the questions of validity surfaced. I, personally, would like to hear from her a bit more and have her explain why the accounts and numbers don’t add up. Everyone should be able to be given the chance to defend themselves, but she hasn’t. There have been only a few brief statements made to ABC News  and a blanket statement made on Medium.com; however, Kozel has blocked any comments from being posted in response to them, has since disabled her Facebook page and other social media accounts, and has also taken down her website. For someone who wanted to spread the message of hope and has exhibited such tenacity, why has she given up and gone silent?

“But there’s unfortunately an assumption in today’s world that silence means guilt, as compared to dignity. So I will respond this one time in a public forum.

I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.” – Stacey Kozel

I respect what she intended to do, which was to inspire those who face physical disability, to instill that sense of ‘iron will’ in everyone, to prove that if you set your mind to it and work really hard, anything can be achieved. However, to falsely give the impression that some of the most difficult terrain can be tackled by anyone, even one who requires leg braces, could potentially prove to be fatal. She dishonors those who were actually hiking the the PCT this year and lost their lives battling the extraordinary conditions. That’s why the truth matters and why I won’t give her credit for even trying.


I would like to acknowledge two incredible ladies who died hiking the PCT this year—Rika Morita and Chaocui Wang. They both perished trying to cross hazardous high rushing water resulting from this year’s epic snowpack. These are two women who rightfully deserve respect and admiration, for they were actually thru-hiking the PCT and unfortunately, lost their lives trying to do so. (Reportedly, there were 6 hikers who died hiking the PCT this year, while another was reported missing and presumed dead; however, I cannot find specific information for the other 5 hikers.)

Rika “Strawberry” Morita, a 5-foot tall 32-year old woman, came from Osaka, Japan to thru-hike the Pacific Crest Trail. She was traveling northbound alone and was reported missing on July 22nd. A group of  PCT hikers found her on July 23rd, submerged in the South Fork of the Kings River, a well-known extremely dangerous crossing in Kings Canyon National Park. She touched the hearts of many, as was evident by the substantial funds raised by the hiking community to send her remains back to Japan.

“We met Rika at The Hostel California in Bishop, CA while celebrating my birthday. She sang with us, was incredibly kind and gave us soup mix for our hike. Those few moments are now incredibly fond memories of a truly wonderful soul.” – Written by Kyle & Felicia Cuadal on a YouCaring fundraiser for Rika’s family.

Rika “Strawberry” Morita. Rest in peace.
Photo from Facebook.

Chaocui “Tree” Wang, of China, quit her job to fulfill her dream of thru-hiking the iconic PCT. She was last seen on July 17th at mile 977 (NOBO) in Yosemite National Park. She was found on July 30th in the Rancheria Creek in Kerrick Canyon, another treacherous crossing, downstream from where the PCT crosses the creek. She was 27.

“She was a sweetheart. She always had such an amazing attitude and smile.” – Posted by “Rhaven” in a comment on reddit.com

Chaocui “Tree” Wang. Rest in peace.
Photo from Facebook.

Sources:

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2 Comments
    1. An outstanding share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague
      who has been conducting a little homework on this. And he actually bought me lunch because I found it for
      him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU
      for the meal!! But yeah, thanx for spending some time to discuss this issue
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