Dr. Owen McCarty completes "triple crown" of long-distance hiking

Dr. Owen McCarty CDT

September 24, 2018

Owen McCarty, Ph.D., F.A.H.A., interim chair and professor of biomedical engineering, OHSU School of Medicine, completed the Appalachian Trail (AT) over Labor Day weekend atop Clingman's Dome in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. 

He began his first section of the AT in 1997. Having thru-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2002 and completed the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) last year, he logged over 10,000 miles of long-distance hiking to join the 334 people who have completed the "triple crown" of the AT, PCT and CDT. Dr. McCarty recently shared a few thoughts about the achievement.

What were you thinking and feeling when you reached Clingman's Dome?

Taking the last few steps, I felt a sense of calm and relief – a peace knowing that I had completed a quest I started some 21 years ago, covering over 10,000 miles.

How did you celebrate your accomplishment?

My parents and sister had driven down from Rochester, N.Y. My best friend from college and his family came over from North Carolina, and my partner came from Portland to walk the last steps of the trail to the summit of Clingman's Dome, where we shared a bottle of champagne to celebrate the moment.

Dr. Owen McCarty When did you first set sights on completing the triple crown?

I had set out to hike a 600-mile section of the Appalachian Trail after graduating from college in 1997. On my third night out on the trail, I met a renowned long-distance hiker, whose trail name is 'Let It Be'. He beguiled me with tails of the trails out west, including the Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail, and the community of wanderlusts and nomads who migrate each season north and south on these trails. I was hooked and set out to be among those who completed these three trails.

Why do you long-distance hike? What's the motivation?

The art of traversing over mountain passes and through deserts, carrying all your belongings on your back and time being dictated by the rise and setting of the sun – this is a simple, ancient practice that connects all of us as humans. I've gone on at least a two-week hike every year for the past 21 years as a means to reset my barometer and put my life and work into perspective.

What has long-distance hiking taught you?

I've built the best and most lasting friendships through the other hikers I have walked and traveled with on my long-distance hikes. A snow or driving rain storm quickly strips away the pedigree and prestige we hold dearly in our work and academic lives; we all suffer the same.

What is your biggest tip for being successful at long-distance hiking?

You carry your fear on your back. Be it fear of going hungry, being cold, being thirsty, being lost, missing out, whatever that fear is, you carry that with you. Understanding what your individual fear is helps you design a system of gear and belongings that are right for you.

McCarty LabHow do you balance hiking and OHSU responsibilities?

Every year, my work is too busy and too hectic to even contemplate taking two or three weeks off to disconnect and go on a walk. But, then again, my work is too important to not take that time to reset my perspective and evaluate my priorities and rejuvenate my spirit and drive. The struggles I endure on my walks are necessary for me to maintain the focus and drive for the rest of the year. It is part of my fabric.

Your research focuses on the cardiovascular system. Long-distance hiking is obviously good for heart health. When you're hiking, do you think about the connection to your research?

My yearly hike is my time to reflect on the longer term goals of my work and, perhaps more important, how my team is approaching answering important questions in the field. I frequently meet and walk with other hikers on my trips, and I enjoy sharing what I am working on. This has been a cathartic exercise that helps me reflect on what my team has accomplished in the past year.  

Now that you've completed the triple crown, what's your next hiking goal?

Hiking the desert sections of the PCT and CDT were some of my favorite stretches of those trails, and so I am planning to return to the desert to complete the 800-mile Arizona trail over the next couple of years.

Dr. McCarty's research is focused on understanding the interplay between cell biology and fluid mechanics in the cardiovascular system. In particular, his research into the balance between hydrodynamic shear forces and chemical adhesive interactions has great relevance to underlying processes of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and inflammation. Dr. McCarty joined the OHSU faculty in 2005 and has additional faculty appointments in the Department of Cell, Developmental and Cancer Biology and the Department of Medicine, Division of Hematology/Medical Oncology. Read more about Dr. McCarty.

Congratulations, Dr. McCarty!

Pictured above: Dr. McCarty follows a ridgeline in Colorado on the Continental Divide Trail as part of his journey to complete the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking. Pictured middle: Dr. McCarty on the Continental Divide Trail in Montana. Pictured bottom: Dr. McCarty at OHSU with members of his lab.