BOTETOURT – Most people who hike the entire Appalachian Trail spend weeks or months planning the journey, but 19-year-old Aaron Altice of Blue Ridge took a different approach.

He’s been referred to as an accidental thru hiker because he initially set out to complete a section of the trail but just kept going. He took the trail a day at a time, overcoming several setbacks, but eventually finished the trail as a thru hiker.

Aaron Altice at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire (elevation 6,288 feet).
Aaron Altice at the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire (elevation 6,288 feet).

Last year at this time, he was recovering from shoulder surgery and completing two months of physical therapy. He was looking forward to being able to return to some favorite activities. Many years of scouting had taught him the necessary skills and the joys of hiking, camping and backpacking. A friend was talking about starting a thru hike of the Appalachian Trail starting at Springer Mountain, Ga. and ending at Mount Katahdin in Maine. Aaron made arrangements to join in for the 70-mile section of the AT that goes through the Smoky Mountains, starting at Fontana Dam, N.C.

He started this journey on March 19, 2009, the day before his 19th birthday. He completed the 70-mile trip but was enjoying it so much that he decided to continue hiking northward to his home in Blue Ridge. After several weeks, he encountered snow. He opted to come home after awaking one night unable to feel his feet due to the cold. His 40-degree sleeping bag was inadequate for multiple nights of camping in the snow.

But his journey was not finished. He returned to that point on the trail about 10 days later and the next time he returned home in mid-May, he had literally walked home from the Smokies. He stayed for just a few days to say goodbye to his elderly cat who died from cancer that week.

The following day he left on foot again traveling north from Blue Ridge. He hoped to complete at least 1,000 miles of the 2,178-mile trail. On June 16, he had to leave the trail again due to the death of his grandmother. He returned to Pennsylvania a few days later.

By now the goal was clear. He would complete the entire trail. He made numerous friends along the way; many were fellow hikers but a few were people in trail towns who provided hot meals and lodging. Many of the people he met know him only by his trail name, DOC. His local friends had given him this nickname when he occasionally stayed overnight at their house. DOC stands for Dude On Couch.

In August, he climbed the highest mountain in New England, Mount Washington in New Hampshire (elevation 6,288 feet). He had achieved another goal and thought he’d be finishing the northern part of the trail within a few weeks.

But early on the morning of August 12, he slipped on a large slanted rock slab in the Mahoosuc Range and when he caught his weight (plus the weight of his backpack) on his hands outstretched behind him, the previously repaired shoulder dislocated again, causing excruciating pain.

Another hiker who was nearby ran for help with a trail crew for the Appalachian Mountain Club. They helped him carry his gear but he had to hike approximately four miles to get to a forest service road where he could be transported to the nearest hospital. Along the way, the shoulder popped back into place but he knew from previous experience that he would not be able to use his arm for at least a few weeks. There was concern that he might even need surgery again with another long recovery which would prevent him from finishing the trail this year.

He decided to stay at a hostel for a few more days so that he could say goodbye to his trail friends before returning home. The owner of a new hostel nearby heard about his plight and sought him out to offer free lodging as long as he paid for food. A few days later he took a 25-hour bus trip back to Roanoke. His orthopedic surgeon examined the shoulder and determined that surgery was not required. He encouraged him to rest the shoulder for a few weeks and then complete the hike, because “not many people ever achieve this.”

Aaron drove back to Maine and completed his hike to Mount Katahdin.

It was disappointing that it was too late to catch up with his primary group of trail friends. Katahdin, which is usually an exhilarating climax to the journey, was shrouded in heavy wet clouds on September 14 when Aaron completed the climb. With temperatures in the 40s, no visibility from the summit, and a shoulder that was still not completely healed, this part of the journey was mostly a chore.

He had hoped to be finished in time to attend the End of Trail Days Festival in Millinocket, Maine, but that had ended on the previous day. However, when he joined some other hikers at a diner in Millinocket later that day, he had a special opportunity that would have been missed on his previous timeline. Gene Espy, now in his 80s, was the second person to ever complete a thru hike of the AT and he was still in town from the festival. He came over to greet Aaron and the other hikers.

After traveling back to Blue Ridge, Aaron waited a few weeks for the leaves to begin to change before returning to Fontana Dam on October 17 to complete the last 170 miles of the trail. He was alone for most of that journey because the majority of southbound hikers were still further north. He reached the summit of Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the AT, on October 26.

Aaron hopes to hike the International Appalachian Trail, which extends from Mount Katahdin to Cape Gaspe, Quebec, and the Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon and Washington.

Aaron is a 2008 graduate of Lord Botetourt High School, and is the son of James C. and Nancy F. Altice of Blue Ridge.