At the University of Chicago, Ginny Too was "the Asian girl with glasses hanging out at the library." She was neither athletic nor outdoorsy.
"It was never part of my upbringing," she says.
How things have changed. Too, now 34, a McKinsey consultant who lives in Center City, has climbed three challenging mountains: Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Cotopaxi in Ecuador, and Mount Whitney in California.
More impressive, the "geek" who graduated Phi Beta Kappa has hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail and, for good measure, America's two other long-distance trails, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Earlier this fall, she was honored for completing the so-called "Triple Crown" by the American Long Distance Hiking Association - West. She is in elite company; only 233 hikers have had the stamina and perseverance to accomplish the 8,000-mile feat.
It began one day in 2004. Too, then an analyst at a Chicago consulting firm, had just been promoted. She had an administrative assistant and an office with a window. For a 24-year-old, she was making big bucks. Yet, as she gazed out the window, she was thinking. "This is someone else's chosen life, not mine. What am I doing here? I don't want to look back and think there were things I wanted to do and didn't."
Having grown up in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, Too was familiar with the Appalachian Trail. A quarter of it traverses Virginia, following the ridges of the Shenandoah mountains. She was aiming to have an adventure that was "scary, epic, and big." The trail - 2,184 miles from Georgia to Maine - would more than do.
Her firm granted her a six-month leave. She read books about the trail and did research on the Internet. But she was still naive. She had never gone camping or slept outdoors. She ordered a huge backpack and two tents and was lugging more than 60 pounds when she began in Maine on Mount Katahdin in June 2005, headed south for Springer Mountain in Georgia.
The first few weeks were unimaginably tough. She was out of shape, carrying too much gear, slogging up peak after peak. Then, she met a 70-year-old woman who encouraged her, advising that conquering the trail was more mental than physical. Eventually, Too's body adapted. She "got her legs," as they say.
She was amazed by the people she met.
"Everyone was so open, friendly, and happy. On the trail, you make eye contact and engage with people on a human level."
She fell in with a group who called themselves the SoBo Hobos (SoBo as in "southbound"). She befriended folks with trail names such as Moose Charmer and Barrel Roll. In solitary times, she had plenty to read; the trail is a giant lending library.
She had her adventures and hardships. Pennsylvania's rocky stretch "ate" her boots. In the Shenandoahs, she startled a black bear and her cub. Much of the time, she was wet and cold. In December, in Georgia, she was trudging through knee-deep snow.
Along the way, she fell in love with hiking and backpacking. So in 2010, when trail buddies invited her to try the Pacific Crest Trail (2,654 miles from Mexico to Canada through California, Oregon, and Washington), she was game. It was her reward for earning her Wharton MBA.
The trail was exposed and barren, bordered by grand vistas. The towering mountains changed her perspective, emphasizing her insignificance.
"Your life is an eyeblink when you're on a mountain millions of years old." She also learned plenty about group dynamics, how to navigate the inevitable moments of tension with humor and flexibility.
The Continental Divide Trail (3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana), was the most daunting. It's only 80 percent complete, and in sections, there are no blazes, or the trail vanishes. Nor is there an official map. Too used a compass and a GPS. Nevertheless, she and her partner were constantly lost.
They began in June of last year in Glacier National Park. It was still so snowy and icy they had to use crampons and ice axes on near-vertical ascents. Only about 50 people are brave enough to attempt the hike each year. For four weeks, Too met not a single other hiker. She finished in Mexico last November.
Her adventures have convinced Too of the importance of taking chances and risks. She has also become more appreciative of her fellow travelers, both on the trail and in life.
"Whenever I saw people on the trail, I would stop and take the time to hear their stories. I came to appreciate the value of interacting with people I may never see again. I try to talk to people more now and to have meaningful conversations."