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Petaluma teen’s 220-mile charity hike

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Tucker Cullen and his companions were a little over halfway through a twenty-two day trek of the John Muir Trail — and they were out of fuel. After having to unexpectedly rush out of a key resupply point, they were left with over a week’s worth of hiking ahead, without the fuel needed to cook their food.

The team needed to adapt quickly if they were going to make it to the next resupply. It was with skill, sense and strength that Cullen and companions, Mike Urban and Heath DiMartini survived the fuel shortage and other obstacles on the John Muir Trail.

While most sixteen-year-olds were spending their summer days at the beach, at parties, or hanging out with friends, Cullen was preparing for a 220-mile hike that would take him through one of the most beautiful national parks in the country, leading him to the top of the highest peak in the continental U.S., all while raising funds for the Bay Area Wilderness Training organization. His adventure began July 14 in Yosemite and finished on Aug. 6 in Sequoia National Park.

“It was all I hoped it would be,” said Cullen, a Petaluma native. “It’s an absolutely gorgeous trail. And all the people we met, all the things we experienced, it was just really incredible.”

A typical day on the trail would begin at 7 a.m. with an easy meal and a relaxed departure from the campsite. Each day was long and exhausting — the trio would often hike until 5 p.m. before setting up camp for the night.

“Most days we averaged about 11 miles,” Cullen said. “We had as much as a 20-mile day, and then as little as three miles. We generally stopped for lunch and go swim, and to see cool, scenic spots. And we’d always go to bed really early. My friend and I were joking, we were probably the only ones going to bed at 7:45 during the summer, but, we were tired.”

Encounters with civilization and cell reception varied at different stages of the hike. While Cullen dutifully photographed his journey, he wasn’t able to consistently upload photos to his adventure blog, teentrekker.com, or to any other social media feed.

While the backpackers carried most of their gear with them, they relied on resupply points throughout the trail to replenish their supplies, particularly food and fuel.

“We could mail the food to the spots,” Cullen said. “The horses came in at one of our campsites and resupplied us with food, and brought us fresh apples, which were like gold for the backpackers there.”

But after being rushed out of a resupply point, Cullen, Urban and DeMartini found themselves short of the stove fuel needed to cook several of their meals. While this predicament may have intimidated an amateur hiker, the group was quick to adjust their plans.

“We ended up cooking all these meals on an open fire, which was just, you kind of forget you can do that,” he said. “Our ancestors did that for a million years, and it was just enjoyable going back to that. It ended up working out, but it caused a little bit of concern, that initial moment when we realized we didn’t have any fuel left.”

To complicate matters, their last few days before the next resupply point would be spent at high elevation, where they weren’t allowed to start fires. Again, the group had to readjust their plans, cooking all their meals before reaching the high elevation and then relying on dry meals to get them through.

During those few days of rationing Cullen and his friends faced another challenge.

“It was pretty early in the day, and it started raining, so we set up our camps,” Cullen said. “It was just a nasty storm that night. At 6:30, there was a five-minute window when it stopped raining, and we just packed up and started getting out of there. It was just really tough. It was one of the tougher climbs even without the rain. We ended up not eating anything for dinner and breakfast because it was just pouring, and there was nowhere to really cook. No one wanted to stop and get a meal together when it was pouring and we were all spread out in our tents, and so that probably actually helped our rationing.”

But the team’s persistence paid off in the end.

“The last day was definitely a memorable moment,” Cullen said. “We camped at the base of Mt. Whitney, which at 14,500 feet is the highest peak in the continental U.S. We wanted to be at the summit at sunrise, so we got up at 2:30 that morning, way before it was light, and we hiked up all the switchbacks, all the way. Just as we were getting to the top, we saw the first light, illuminating all that area, and definitely the area of all, well, the continental United States. That was just an incredible moment.”

The second objective of his hike was to raise money for Bay Area Wilderness Training, an organization that creates opportunities for underprivileged kids to get experience in the outdoors. Cullen created a donation page to pledge money for his fundraiser. Whenever someone donated, Cullen was notified and thanked them for their contribution. In the end, he raised more than $800, enough to take a dozen kids on a wilderness adventure with BAWT.

“I’d still like to be affiliated with BAWT in the future,” Cullen said. “I think it was a pretty good first time working with them. I think it’s a good relationship we created.”

School is the next big challenge this climber has to face. Cullen is a junior at Cardinal Newman High School, and is excited about what his hiking experience could lead to.

“I know at Newman we have a big senior project we have to do, and I’m looking for ways to maybe lead a trip with (BAWT),” he said. “I started (a backpacking club) last year. We did day hikes all last year, super fun day hikes to different places in Sonoma County. This year I’d like to start with close backpacking trips, or even just the Sierras for a weekend. Most people who know me know me as someone who definitely likes to get outdoors. It’s really great being out there. I absolutely love it.”

(Contact Ella Ban at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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