Tucked between the eastern Sierra Nevada and the White Mountains is the small town of Bishop, California. Home to less than 4,000 people, the isolated city is situated near some of the most breathtaking backcountry in North America. Trailheads are a 30-minute bus ride away, and thru-hikers regularly hitchhike into town seeking respite from the wilderness. Bishop is in the middle of nowhere — or the middle of everything, depending on how you choose to look at it.
This is where former Cal cross-country and track runner Ariane Arndt has found herself after the tumultuous spring semester and the class of 2020’s unceremonious graduation. Arndt’s life seems to be ruled by a simple mantra: Always say yes.
It was this mantra that originally brought Arndt out onto the trails, and it seems like she has practically never left. On Veterans Day weekend in 2018, a few friends asked her to join them on a 145-mile backcountry trail run connecting the lowest point in North America — Badwater Basin, which has an elevation of 282 feet below sea level — to the highest point in the contiguous United States — Mount Whitney, which has an elevation of 14,505 feet. Although Arndt was incredibly fit from collegiate racing, she had never hiked more than 15 miles in a day before. Nonetheless, she enthusiastically said yes.
Totaling more than 33,000 feet of elevation gain and 25,000 feet of elevation loss, Arndt and her companions averaged roughly 43 miles a day, ultimately finishing the route in 3 days, 8 hours and 31 minutes.
“I was pretty much eating more Advil than I was food. … I couldn’t walk for a week after this; I had just destroyed myself,” Arndt explained. “But I don’t know — it was just so exciting. Something about it was just really calling me to do something like that again.”
While her trip may seem unbelievably intense, Arndt has been logging miles since her childhood. Back when she was a kid growing up in Folsom, California, Arndt’s parents signed her up for running and soccer teams so that she would burn off her excess energy.
She continued to run track and cross-country throughout junior high and high school and ultimately found herself on a path that led her to Cal. Despite spending half of her life running, Arndt never fell out of love with the sport.
“Whenever I would start to feel a little bit burnt out, I would just always take a break from (running) and then refind my love for it,” Arndt said.
Perhaps the closest Arndt ever came to a burnout was during the spring of her junior year. Tired of the shorter distances in track and frustrated with ongoing injuries, she decided to opt out of her senior seasons of track and cross-country. Without telling anyone outside of her close circle of friends and family, Arndt decided to spend summer 2019 on the Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT.
The PCT begins at the Mexican border and snakes through several mountain ranges and three states until it touches down at the Canadian border, 2,600 miles from where it begins.
Arndt’s PCT strategy illustrates her free-spirited and courageous nature. Hiking solo, Arndt traversed snowy mountain terrain with only microspikes and her hiking poles. She hitchhiked alone into mountain towns every so often to resupply food at gas station markets, buying whatever was available and cheap. She once wasn’t able to hitch a ride back to the trail in time and slept behind a convenience store. The PCT, stretching and bending through hundreds of miles of wilderness, began to feel like home to Arndt.
“You get these beautiful sunsets and sunrises every morning and night,” Arndt said when discussing the southern desert section, a piece of the trail she called magical.
Perhaps the nights spent watching the sky explode into brilliant shades of fiery orange and rosy pink prompted Arndt to realize she was not quite ready to see the sun set on her collegiate running career. On a resupply venture into town, somewhere along the isolated mountain route, Arndt got in contact with her assistant coach, Chas Davis. She came clean about where she had been and what she had been doing.
Davis told her that as long as she was back in Berkeley in time for the first official day of practice, she could still be on the team. Arndt did the math — to finish the trail in time for practice, she would need to hike about 35 miles a day for the duration of the trail. In typical Arndt fashion, she said yes to the challenge.
Even with the blistering pace, Arndt was still a beacon of positivity out on the trail, and it came to be that her trail name would be “Psyched.”
The trail name is an age-old tradition on the PCT. Bestowed by fellow PCT hikers and friends on the trail, the nickname represents a hiker’s alternate trail persona and is usually inspired by inside jokes or quirks. By shedding one name for another, hikers are able to put even more distance between their daily lives and identities.
“I guess I was always so excited to hike,” Arndt said as she explained the origin of her trail name. “A lot of times, especially in the mornings, people aren’t very ‘full stoke.’ I would just be like, ‘Whoo, let’s go! Let’s do a 30 today!’”
Despite her eternal stoke, as she trekked through northern Oregon and into Washington, it was clear that she was writing checks her body could not cash. About 50 miles into Washington, she got off the trail to see a doctor after it was clear she would be unable to reach Canada in time.
Arndt was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, likely a result of logging so many miles on tough terrain. This diagnosis revealed her extreme mental fortitude — we can postulate that the average person would have quit much, much earlier than Arndt did, and with half as much stoke.
Ultimately, Arndt logged 2,200 out of 2,600 miles of the PCT, leaving 400 miles left to savor for another season.
Arndt made it back to Berkeley in time to fulfill her commitment to the cross-country team. However, her fall semester was plagued with seemingly unending fatigue. She often slept 16 hours a night and struggled to get through the daily student-athlete grind. Despite this, she muscled through cross-country practices and was able to compete in one final race at the end of her season.
Outside of sports and academics, Arndt also fulfilled the role of stoke and wellness officer in the Cal Hiking and Outdoors Society.
The tumultuous ending to her college experience may have made it harder to enjoy her final few moments as a Cal student-athlete, but living in Bishop under the shadows of 14,000-foot peaks, Arndt is able to reflect on her time at Cal while still relentlessly pursuing new goals.
No matter how far the trails take Arndt, it is clear she won’t forget her teammates from Cal.
“After you suffer through 1-kilometer repeats with someone, you can’t ever not be friends with those people. I think we’ll be friends forever,” Arndt said.
By any metric, Arndt is still very much an athlete. She plans to run the same 145-mile route this coming Veterans Day weekend, racing against her previous time.
She backpacks nearly every weekend, sometimes logging more than 50 miles in a single day. But with increasing comfort on the trails, Arndt has made it her latest endeavor to gain experience climbing and hiking off-trail routes.
“I’ve done a lot of trail running and trail hiking, so I want to get more comfortable on off-trail stuff,” Arndt said. “So we’re doing more off-trail routes, … just some random peak-bagging trips.”
To be a recent college graduate in 2020 is to be uncertain. But Arndt is not afraid of this uncertainty. In fact, each time she leaves the trail to scale another peak, she is chasing it.