“If you find a bear and it scares you, you will come crying back to Mexico”
That was what my best friend told me when I was crying at the most difficult part on the Iztaccihuatl volcano (elevation 17,158.79 ft). At that time I was consumed by my fear of heights and my almost zero experience as a mountaineer.
I am Zelzin Aketzalli I am 25 years old, I was born in the most dangerous neighborhoods of Mexico City, Iztapalapa, a place where you live in poverty and drug addiction. Despite being born in a place like this, since childhood my father taught me that I had to work very hard to get out of this place.
Since I was little, I decided I wanted to attend one of the best colleges in Mexico, the National Polytechnic Institute. In order to achieve this, I had to start working at age 11. At 11 the only place I could work was the tianguis, I carried the tubes on my back and also carried very heavy suitcases full of products sold in the posts. This was my training to carry a heavy backpack several days in the mountains.
At 16 years old I decided that it was a good idea to start two businesses in the tianguis. My businesses focused on what I liked to do, skateboarding. In my business I sold skate shoes, it was thanks to my business I paid for my studies.
In 2016 I graduated from the National Polytechnic Institute with a degree in Communications and Electronics Engineering. I also placed second in my first national mountain biking serial.
My life revolved around working, studying and competing in mountain biking. As my graduation approached, I saw my classmates super excited about getting drunk at a hotel on the beach. For me, that was not the best graduation gift.
I was thinking that maybe the best graduation gift would be to take my bike and ride to Patagonia. This still didn’t feel right though.
I met some people who came from California to Mexico City by bicycle, they were the ones who told me about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). The more they talked to me about the PCT, the more I was excited and I asked them "seriously does that exist on the planet?".
I went back to my house and ran to the computer to do a whole investigation about the PCT. The more I read, the more I was excited and confident that this would be the best graduation gift.
When planning to walk the PCT, the first thing I needed was a VISA. I applied, and in February 2017 they gave it to me, just in time to apply for my PCT permits. After all of my paperwork was taken care of I started training. My training started by hiking mountains I had biked before.
I told my best friend, "I want to climb the Iztaccihuatl." I chose this mountain because I knew the Sierras would have snow, I had never seen snow and the volcano sometimes had snow at the top. I grabbed the ice axe my dad used in the ’80s, some crampons I rented, and started climbing.
By the time I was on the knee of mountain crying and wanting to turn around because of my fear of heights, my friend would say the phrase “If you find a bear and you are scared, you will come crying back to Mexico,” he also told me that there is little left to be afraid of.
When I reached the top, there was no snow, the volcano was dry. I didn’t get a chance to practice with the ice axe but, I did use the crampons on a light layer of ice.
On April 4, 2017, the moment arrived to start the PCT. I had many fears before I started the PCT. My biggest fear was that I did not speak English. I was also afraid of snow, and animals that do not exist in my country (bears for example).
Every step I took on the PCT opened my eyes, heart, and mind I knew what I was doing was my passion.
Of course, it was not easy to get to Canada. I struggled with my fear of heights during my whole hike, especially when I was completely alone in the John Muir Shelter. I had to go down to a valley full of snow and cross a large river. I had to cross Evolution Creek River, the river didn’t look deep or fast. I took off my boots, shorts and prepared to cross. Halfway through the crossing the water had completely covered me, the current began to take me little by little. When I managed to get out of the river I was grateful to be alive, this was the scariest experience I have had on trail.
I suffered a few injuries on trail because of the pack I was using and making some poor decisions. I blame my lack of experience for these injuries.
Finishing the PCT I decided to become the first Mexican to achieve the Triple Crown, I knew it would not be easy, but I decided to do it.
The first obstacle in doing this was seeking sponsorship, I thought it would be easy because I was looking to do something that no Mexican has done before. I was wrong, it was very difficult because this sport does not exist in my country. I talked about what I was going to do, many people said "that really exists" and others told me "what do you even call that?".
Before I started hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT) I didn't have any sponsors. To fund my hike I sold one of my businesses. In 2018, I finished my second thru-hike the Appalachian.
The most difficult thing about finishing the AT was my lack of income. There were a lot of days I missed out on eating in restaurants or staying in town. Despite this, my goal was clear, to become the first Mexican person to get the Triple Crown.
When I completed the Continental Divide Trail in 2019, I remembered all the times people told me I was crazy and to focus on my engineering career. I remembered moments where I was starving, I remembered when I didn’t have enough money for new shoes and I had to tape my old ones together, I remembered almost being swept away at Evolution Creek.
But I also remembered all the incredible moments I had in the past three years. Swimming naked in rivers and lakes, seeing animals in their natural habitat, enjoying the stars while I slept, playing in the snow, breathing fresh air, and most importantly being happy on a mountain top alone.
I am the first Mexican to complete the triple crown. There is a big difference between the hikers of Europe/US and us Mexicans in the Latino community. We live in a country where opportunities are not found but made. Many times we don't even have peace of mind to go out.
When we are children, many of us dream of what we want to be when we grow up. In my case I never found or dreamed of what I wanted to be when I grew up, because I didn't know long-distance hiking. Thru-hiking doesn't exist in Mexico. If I had not put my fears aside I would still be wondering what my passion in life is.
Now that I have found my passion I will look for ways to bring thru-hiking to more people in Mexico.
About the Author
Zelzin Aketzalli is the first Mexican person to complete the triple crown. She completed the PCT in 2017, AT in 2018 and the CDT in 2019.