Somewhere in Maryland during my 2016 hike of the Appalachian Trail — I think it may have been Washington Monument State Park — I saw a blond, female hiker with what appeared to be extremely beefy, bulky leg braces.
She was talking to some people, and I am an impatient hiker, so I didn’t stop to satisfy my curiosity about her. But after I completed my hike, I came across numerous news stories — CNN, ESPN, ABC, CBS, USA Today and many more — about a woman named Stacey Kozel, who, though paralyzed, had hiked the trail with the help of some high-tech leg braces. I put two and two together and guessed I’d her seen in the park.
Kozel, who goes by the trail name Ironwill, told ESPN magazine that she has lupus and had suffered an attack that left her virtually quadriplegic just a couple years earlier.
“I waited till I was paralyzed to actually hike the trail,” she quipped to CBS.
I was impressed. The AT is incredibly challenging even for those without disabilities, and this woman had done it paralyzed. Later, after she was a guest on the Mighty Blue on the Appalachian Trail podcast, I wrote to her to say how much I admired her. She responded warmly and we both felt good.
I heard in the spring of 2017 that Kozel was planning to hike the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Again, I was impressed—who wouldn’t be?
“I’ve always had hope,” Kozel told a reporter about her PCT attempt. “I think you should always have hope. If you don’t give up you just never know what you are, you know, what could happen. I mean, who would think that someone paralyzed would be hiking right now so anything is possible.”
In September, news stories reported that she had completed the PCT in one of the toughest seasons ever—record snowpack meant hikers had to slog through snow to cross California’s Sierra mountains and ford rivers roaring with more runoff than usual; two women drowned along the way — and wildfires surrounded the trail in Oregon and Washington.
Then, on Sept. 20, long-time PCT trail angel Donna “L-Rod” Saufley asked a simple question on social media: “Did anyone in the Class of 2017 see Stacey Kozel on the trail this year? Just wondering. No one we hosted mentioned a word about her.”
The subsequent discussion among PCT ’17 hikers made clear the answer: Nobody had seen her. Then someone
pointed out that her purported finish photo and date contained anachronisms: That day was densely smoky, but the photo showed blue skies, and a portion of the PCT monument that had broken off in August was still intact (closer examination reveals that it’s almost certainly been Photoshopped, and rather badly, at that).
Kozel quickly amended her finish date to “late August,” which only further raised suspicions. First, thru hikers never forget their start and finish dates. More to the point, she had reported that she entered Oregon on July 31, which would have meant, at the least, she would have had to average nearly 31-mile days every single day across Oregon and Washington. That didn’t square with Kozel’s own frequent public admissions of being a “slow” hiker — 1 mph on level ground, she has said — or video that showed her very slow progress on portions of the AT. She’d have needed 31-hour days for 31 days.
Combined with the facts that no trail angels or resupply depots ever saw her, all her published photos were taken at or very near easily-accessed trailheads easily accessible by road and a good deal more strong circumstantial evidence, it became obvious to all but the most gullible that she had not hiked the PCT. Perhaps any of it. It even turns out that people who posted on social media about “hiking” with her were all fake accounts; one even told a harrowing tale of how Kozel rescued someone on the PCT from a snow slide.
The revelations led the AT hiking community to begin asking its own questions and doing basic math, and it became abundantly clear that she had not, and could not have, hiked that trail, either. Witnesses corroborate that they saw her on a few, limited portions of it, but that’s all.
In response, Kozel complained to ABC about people “taking away my integrity.” In a blog post, she declared, “I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail,” unknowingly (knowingly?) echoing the words of author Bill Bryson in his bestselling book, “A Walk in the Woods”: “We hiked the Appalachian Trail,” Bryson wrote, though in fact he hiked less than 40 percent of it.
A few people have emerged, if not exactly to defend Kozel, then at least to tell people to back off. Some have criticized those who asked reasonable questions and sought answers, rather than the person who told the lies in the first place.
“It’s sad to me that people might feel like I let them down because of this negativity,” Kozel told ABC News. “That’s what hurts the most.”
Let’s be clear: Any “negativity” here is Kozel’s alone, her lies are the cause of any hurt she now feels, and if anyone feels let down, it’s her fault, and nobody else’s. She lied and seems to have gained financially, accepting speaking engagements and reportedly working on a book deal based on what she knew to be lies (full disclosure: last year I offered to ghost-write or co-write a book with her, but she declined).
Journalists should have been more diligent (then again, I’m an uber-skeptic and because I wanted to believe, I didn’t properly vet her AT story; looking at the video in hindsight and doing a little basic math, it’s painfully obvious she could not have hiked the trail in the time frame she claimed, or in my opinion, at all), but Kozel grossly misrepresented herself to them.
She also may have misrepresented herself to the company that made her braces, which has now removed all references to her from its website.
Worst of all, in my opinion, her bogus “message of hope” was broadcast far and wide. That could literally have had dangerous, even fatal, consequences, had a person with different abilities who wasn’t prepared for the challenge decided to head out on the trail.
And while it’s easy to feel sorry and embarrassed for her, allowing Stacey Kozel to get away with lying because of her disability is an insult to people of different abilities. To excuse her is to say, “Well, it’s OK, dear, because you’re different.” That kind of condescending prejudice is just another kind of discrimination, and it literally devalues the achievements of every other person of different abilities out there.
A lot of AT ’16 hikers have come forward now to say they doubted her story, but I sure never saw any public discussion about Kozel. We were duped, and our gullibility unfortunately allowed her to believe she had gotten away with it. Had we been more skeptical, she wouldn’t have moved on to the PCT and her next lie.
All this is really, truly a shame. Stacey Kozel would be inspiring simply doing sections of the trail, but in her exaggerations, she has diminished anything she has done on the trail. It’s very clear that she did virtually none of the PCT, and only limited portions of the AT. My suspicion is that she started the trail, hopeful as any hiker, and like so many, simply found she couldn’t do it.
Kozel is suffering the consequences of her lies now, and I certainly feel for her. But I hope she’ll decide to take a first step toward rehabilitation by publicly admitting and sincerely apologizing for her lies.