CHARLIE KNIGH was never particularly adventurous in his early life. However, when at a crossroads after university he went to France to walk across the Pyrenees. His passion for hiking stemmed from this and he hasn’t looked back.
Last year Charlie walked from Mexico to Canada along the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail to raise money for a mental health charity called SANE. He completed the walk and has set himself an even more testing walk for 2018. You can find out more about that and his previous adventures at www.charlie-knight.com.
When did you first realise you had a passion for adventure and where do you think this stemmed from?
I was never particularly outdoorsy or adventurous until after I graduated from university in 2013. All of my friends were applying for graduate jobs or doing their masters degrees and I couldn’t think of anything worse. I decided to delay the inevitable life of gainful employment and do something completely different from anything I’d ever done before. I went to France and spent a month and a half walking across the Pyrenees – 600 miles coast to coast from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, solo and unsupported.
Long-distance hiking was completely new to me and I wasn’t very well prepared but I learnt from my mistakes along the way. I’d never walked more than a few miles before. I’d never wild camped. I’d never spent such a long period of time on my own. But I loved every minute of it. It was the best thing I’d ever done in my life. I loved sleeping under the stars, living in the wilderness and the feeling of having climbed a mountain before most people have even got out of bed. It felt incredible to have set myself such a big challenge and actually completed it. From that point on all I wanted to do was set myself more and more difficult challenges.
Tell us about the walk you did last year and what you were raising money for? Why did you choose that charity?
Last year I walked from Mexico to Canada along the 2650 mile Pacific Crest Trail. My route took me across the length of America, through three states (California, Oregon and Washington), and six national parks. I started at the Mexican border in a small town called Campo, and headed north through the Mojave desert and the snowy Sierra Nevada mountains of California, the lava fields and forests of Oregon, and the brutal Northern Cascades in Washington, before finally reaching the Canadian border 135 days later.
I did my walk on behalf on a brilliant mental health charity called SANE. Prior to my walk I had gone through my own private battle with mental illness, dealing with anxiety and depression. Since many of my friends and family are also sufferers, it is a cause very close to my heart. I wanted to do something to raise money and awareness for such an important issue and by the time I reached Canada I had raised almost £4,000. I chose SANE in particular because as well as providing support for sufferers of mental illness, they do a lot of campaigning to eliminate stigma and discrimination around mental health and fund scientific research in this field.
What were some of the highlights of the walk and what were some of the toughest moments?
The highlight of my walk was walking through the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. Every day I would walk through the most mind-blowingly beautiful landscapes I had ever seen in my life, and every night I’d set up camp by a mountain lake or on top of a high pass and watch the sun set behind the peaks. I had never seen anything like it before and would love to go back.
Hiking through the Sierra was as exciting as it was difficult. Many days I was walking through snow that came up to my knees, wading through freezing chest-high streams and once I even slipped on an icy patch of snow and fell down the side of a mountain.
One of the most memorable moments of the journey was the 4th of July. I had absolutely no desire to get off trail and celebrate, but that night I camped high up on a saddle from which I could see the city lights of South Lake Tahoe and had my own private fireworks display. I could see hundreds of different fireworks celebrations all over the city. The sky was aglow with colour, millions of stars shining overhead, and that night I felt like I was experiencing something no one else in the world was seeing. I fell asleep huddled in my sleeping bag with my head poking out my tent, face up to the sky. It was such an unexpectedly beautiful experience.
There were several terrifying moments, the worst of which was a night time encounter with a mountain lion. I was walking through Yosemite National Park and looking for a campsite as night began to fall. I saw something shining out of the corner of my eye and looked over, assuming it was a light from another hiker camped nearby. I soon realised that what I was looking at was a pair of eyes, reflecting the light from my head torch. And surrounding them was the outline of the biggest cat I had ever seen. I just carried on walking as fast as I could without looking back, making a lot of noise and trying to look big. I was absolutely petrified.
How did you feel when you completed it and were there times during it you thought you wouldn’t make it?
Completing my walk was just the best feeling. The moment I reached the end was something of an anti-climax as it took a while for me to really accept that my five-month journey was really over. But it gradually sunk in and the sense of achievement was just overwhelming. Not only for completing such a huge and difficult adventure but also for the awareness and the money I raised too.
There were a couple of times along the way when I wasn’t sure if I would make it. The first of these was due to physical injury. Around 500 miles into my walk, in the desert section, I somehow injured my foot and for about a week every step I took was excruciating. I was constantly swallowing industrial-strength painkillers like they were M&Ms and trying to walk through the pain. I was really worried I had a stress fracture and wouldn’t be able to carry on. But I took some time off and after six days of rest, my foot soon recovered and I was back to normal.
The second time was all mental. Walking through Oregon I succumbed to complete physical and mental exhaustion and it was a struggle to get up every morning and keep going. For several days I just didn’t feel like walking and wanted to go home. I would be constantly crying for no reason, hating every second and just forcing myself to keep going, mile after mile. I kept asking myself why I was doing this, what was the point. The thing that turned me around was entering the Three Sisters Wilderness. The trail suddenly went from dull, monotonous forest to the most spectacular volcanic scenery with huge peaks ad glaciers dominating the landscape. It was like walking on Mars. Travelling through such a beautiful environment really lifted my spirits and I was loving life again, all the way to Canada.
Tell us about the challenge you have for this year and what will you be raising money for? How can our readers get behind and support you?
My next big challenge will be in South America in 2018. I’m still very much in the early stages of planning, but I know I will again be raising money and awareness for SANE mental health charity.
In the meantime my big challenge this year will be a 1500 mile bike ride from Gibraltar to London over two weeks.
You can keep updated on my upcoming adventures through my website at www.charlie-knight.com.