Hiker overcomes disease to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail

Jesse Moya, The Taos News jmoya@taosnews.com
Posted 4/27/17

After enduring a dozen abdominal surgeries to treat a chronic disease, David Blanco decided to battle his way back to health and tackle a long-held dream - hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Blanco, a former teacher based out of Washington …

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Hiker overcomes disease to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail


After enduring a dozen abdominal surgeries to treat a chronic disease, David Blanco decided to battle his way back to health and tackle a long-held dream - hiking the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Blanco, a former teacher based out of Washington state, is training now in the mountains around Taos before he begins his trek.

He turned to yoga, a healthy diet and an exercise regimen to combat the inflammatory intestinal disease known as Crohn's and to prepare for the trail that will take him along the breadth of the United States from Mexico to Canada.

While hiking the infamous 2,650-mile trail, Blanco, 59, will face a challenge not many people have completed. Fewer than 5,000 people have finished the trail, which takes hikers from the U.S-Mexico border town of Campo, California, to Manning Park, British Columbia, Canada, through California, Oregon and Washington. Blanco plans to add his name to the list in a five-month time period.

Blanco, who said he had been super athletic in the past, refuses to let his condition hinder him from completing his goal and hopes his adventure will inspire others who currently suffer from the disease to pursue their dreams.

"My doctors, the specialists that deal with Crohn's and colitis, they're just amazed," said Blanco. "They can't believe what I've done with my life and how I've made this turnaround."

A baffling disease

Crohn's disease, as coined by Dr. Burrill B. Crohn in 1932, is a chronic intestinal inflammatory condition. It can attack the patient anywhere in the digestive tract. According to the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation, more than 700,000 Americans could be afflicted by the disease and the most common patients are young adults and youth between 15 and 35 years old.

The exact cause of the disease remains unknown, according to the Mayo Clinic. There is no cure for the disease, though several treatments can help reduce the inflammation. The treatments can range from simple prescriptions to intestinal surgery, and many people with the condition must adhere to a specific diet in order to continue a comfortable lifestyle.

Blanco insists that everyone's experience with the disease is different. The disease can be fatal if not treated or if the patient does not respond well to treatments. Crohn's disease is chronic and can flare up at any time.

"The thing about this is that you can wake up in the morning feeling great and not have anything happen for a couple of years, and then all of the sudden in the afternoon, you're in the hospital with no warning," said Blanco. "I was going to die. I had three surgeries one year and none of them were successful. My condition just kept getting worse."

Following his final surgery, Blanco was told he had to be fed intravenously for the rest of his life and decided one day to turn things around. He began eating solids again, starting with soup and a sandwich, and told his doctors that he was going to live out his life on his terms. Blanco has been living with the disease for three decades and believes he's managing the condition for the time being. Continuing to deal with Crohn's, Blanco has been training for some time as he readies his 50-pound pack for the journey.

Tackling the trail

It will take Blanco nearly five months to complete the intensive hike. Fewer than 700 people completed the hike in the past year, according to registries of the Pacific Crest Trail Association. The journey will take him from the desert of the Mexican border to the high peaks and ranges of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains. Those who wish to take on the challenge must obtain a permit from the PCTA for either the short trail or the long trail and must adhere to trail rules. Permits have now been limited to 15 per day for the long hike and must be carried as a physical, paper form at all times on the trail. Permits are free to obtain.

Blanco is currently training in Taos and waiting to begin the PCT trek due to the fact that much of the trail is covered in several feet of snow. He has decided to begin May 16, 2017, to try and catch the end of the snow and finish before winter hits in the north. In general, the hike takes walkers away from towns and cities and into the protected wilderness of the trail. According to the PCTA, a group that has sponsored and befriended the trail since 1977, the trail is not to be taken lightly, as there are serious risks involved when trekking in the wilderness.

Hikers will be away from civilization and largely on their own throughout their adventure and are encouraged to be seasoned outdoors enthusiasts. In addition, the PCTA encourages hikers to leave no traces of their presence and to walk with respect for the trail and other hikers. In recent years, the trail has been the subject of media portrayals, including the 2014 film "Wild," inspired by the book "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail."

The trail is used by hundreds of thousands of people per year. However, most do not complete the entire length of the trail and elect to hike only certain sections of the route. First completed in the early 1930s by Clinton C. Clarke, the trail takes hikers through three states and 26 national forests. While the trail can be traveled both north and southbound, many elect to travel from Campo, California, northward. There are several waypoints along the trail, but no houses or stations where hikers can stay. On their own accord, hikers must determine their own camping spots on the trail.

The trail is part of an elite group known as the "American Triple Crown of Hiking," which includes the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, which also take hikers on a cross-country adventure across the U.S. The PCT is the middle distance of the three. Many have sought to complete the triple crown and few have succeeded. The first to finish was Eric Ryback in 1972 when he completed all three trails, totaling nearly 8,000 miles.

"What defeats people is their head," said Blanco. "I think, physically, a lot of people who started probably could have finished, but I think it just gets to them after a while."

Taking the risk

Hiking the PCT was a dream for much of Blanco's life. He said he didn't expect to be taking on the challenge as he approaches 60, but he is striving to instill a sense of hope to those who also suffer from intestinal complications. While in the beginnings of the journey, Blanco has been working with the PCTA to raise awareness of his condition as well as to help those who suffer from Crohn's or colitis. He plans to get many people following his trip and potentially donate to the efforts of scientists or doctors who are working to combat this disease. After several trips to online support groups, Blanco decided that he needed to be a positive voice and combatant against the disease. He is determined to complete this hike and give hope to those nationwide suffering from the disease to show them that there is still the possibility of overcoming and taking back control.

"The disease is there. You have to accept that and you have to tell yourself you can do something about this," Blanco said. "It's hard work, and it's life-changing stuff, but how much do you love life? Do you want life that much to keep on going? I've got too much to live for."

Following the trip, Blanco plans to return to working a day job as a yoga instructor and hopes to continue to be an advocate for Crohn's patients across the country. He has not yet decided if he will continue raising funds, but wants to continue raising awareness and hope for those undergoing treatment for the disease.

"I've had a couple of doctors tell me, 'You're really taking a chance. This is dangerous,'" said Blanco.

Despite the advice from doctors and others, Blanco thinks the hike is well worth the risk to continue to spread his message of hope.

For more information on Blanco's journey or to donate to his cause, visit davidblanco58.wixsite.com/hikeforhope.


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