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From Tipperary to Mount Katahdin

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The trail goes cold: Rory Gorman on the Appalachian Trail on Roan Mountain in North Carolina (Photographs supplied)

Hiking the Appalachian Trail is not for the faint of heart. It’s a brutal 2,189-mile trek over treacherous, mountain terrain stretching across 14 eastern American states.

Rory Gorman undertook the journey in 2017, having never camped or hiked a day in his life.

He was so inexperienced it took him over an hour to pitch his tent during a practice run — and then he had to figure out how to get into it.

“I had to search long and hard to find the zip,” the 60-year-old said.

He’d been determined to take on the trail as a way to celebrate his 2016 retirement from Estera Bermuda, an offshore management and administrative services firm.

“The fact that most people who try it, fail to do it, threw up a challenge,” said Mr Gorman, who will speak at the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute tomorrow night about his adventure.

He spent months scouring blogs and books for information, so he knew pretty much what to expect when he set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia on March 12 for what was ultimately a 138-day trek. He’d also chosen a trail name “Tipperary”, a reference to his birthplace in Tipperary, Ireland. “Cheap Sunglasses”, “Tough Broad” and “Bucky” were a few of the people he came across.

“You use your trail name when you introduce yourself to other people on the trail,” he said. “There were all kinds of weird names out there.”

He’d intended to hike the trail with a friend who backed out at the last minute because of a family tragedy.

“I found that to walk the trail alone, you really needed to like yourself,” Mr Gorman said.

On good days, he enjoyed looking at the scenic views; on wet days, the trail could get miserable.

During his first month, he was constantly slipping, falling or tripping over rocks and tree roots. By April, he’d got his trail legs.

Like most people on the trail, he was a “nobo”, a hiker headed north.

“I was going from peak to peak up the Appalachians,” he said. “In the south, those peaks are over 6,000ft in elevation. Then they subside. As you get towards the middle third, the peaks are much lower. When you get up north to New Hampshire you are into the White Mountains. Those are 4,000ft and culminate with Mount Katahdin in Maine which is over 6,000ft.”

Along the way he took photos with his iPhones, and blogged his thoughts and progress. Pennsylvania was one of his least favourite states because of its rockiness. He fell repeatedly.

He ate a lot of dehydrated noodles. He didn’t have to carry much water because it was very wet, and there were rivers, streams and springs everywhere. The trail frequently led him off the mountain into a town where he could get a proper meal, and occasionally rent a hotel room.

Walking the trail was sometimes fun. He’d bump into other hikers and they’d travel together, exchanging stories.

“There were also times when I’d say, ‘What in God’s name am I doing here?’” he said. “I could be at home sitting down to a bottle of wine and a big dinner, but here I am climbing up another stupid mountain. Then you‘d get up there and there would be an incredible view, and you’d meet up with someone you’d seen earlier on the trail.”

He went through four pairs of boots on the journey. The first lasted 1,000 miles, the second pair was destroyed by rocks in Pennsylvania.

“Then, I needed two more pairs to see me the rest of the way,” he said. “When I went through a rocky stretch in New York, I just sat down on a rock and ordered another pair from an online outfitter. I had them delivered to the next post office.”

His son Aidan met him to walk the last 100 miles with him but as they neared Mount Katahdin the 20-year-old’s knees gave out and he had to quit.

Mr Gorman was very emotional when he reached the top of the last peak, on July 28.

“It was very overwhelming,” he said. “I started to think of my family — in particular my dad, Rody Gorman. He couldn’t have done something like this during his lifetime because he had a large family of six children to care for. He wasn’t well off and he didn’t have that freedom to come and go. He was a farmer and a provider for his family. I am sure he would have loved to do what I was doing. He was an athletic kind of person.

“Unlike many of my fellow hikers who had come to the trail to ‘find themselves’, I hadn’t. I went on the trail partly just to see if I could do it, relishing the choice of an activity for which I was totally unprepared both physically and in terms of skill-set. I don’t think I’m any tougher from the experience. I’m still me.”

Mr Gorman returned to Bermuda and worked on his recovery. He was drained, having walked about 5 million steps and having lost more than 30lbs.

“I’d depleted all my reserves,” he said. “It was another hike that cured me, three months later. I went with my daughter, Aisling, to South America. We were at 10,000ft or more in the Andes. One day I woke up in the tent not too far from Machu Picchu. I felt energised. All that exhaustion was gone.”

Read Rory Gorman’s blog at trailjournals.com//roryat

His talk, Five Million Steps, will take place at the BUEI tomorrow at 7.30pm. Tickets, $20 for members, $25 for non-members and $12 for students, are available on 294-0204 or in the BUEI gift shop

2,189 mile trek: Rory Gorman on the Trail near Pawling, New York (Photograph supplied)
Blissful moment: Rory Gorman on the Appalachian Trail near Crozet, Virginia (Photograph supplied)
Peaks and valleys: Rory Gorman on the Appalachian Trail posing on The Priest, a mountain in Virginia (Photograph supplied)
Breath-taking views: Rory Gorman climbing rocks along the Appalachian Trail near Palmerton, Pennsylvania (Photograph supplied)
At last: Rory Gorman celebrates reaching Mount Katahdin, Maine, the end of the Appalachian Trail (Photograph supplied)