Why Has No One Completed a Winter Thru-Hike of the CDT?

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The Continental Divide Trail, a long-distance trail running 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, has yet to be completed in the winter months.

Postholing through feet of snow in cold rain, wind gusts up to 120 miles per hour winds, cold snaps that would eventually lead to frostbite—and that was just a few weeks of Justin “Trauma” Lichter’s winter thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 2015. In other words, a winter thru-hike can simply be considered sustained misery.

But there are also the moments of heavy silence, broken only by the crunch of snowshoes against a crisp layer of snow, the velvet quality of ice on brush and the feeling of testing your limits. That’s the kind of wonder that very few people have the chance to experience for months on end.

A small number of people are on record for having completed winter thru-hikes of the Appalachian Trail (AT) and there has been one recorded thru-hike of the PCT (by a team of two) from October to March, but no one is on record for having finished the entire Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in winter.

The Obvious: Avalanche Danger

The most apparent obstacle to a winter thru-hike of the CDT is the challenge of navigating through avalanche terrain, explained Teresa Ana Martinez, executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition. “The trail tends to be in locations prone to avalanche,” Martinez said. “It [comes down to] the technicality of how to cross snow in times of high snow and variable snow. Someone has to be very technically savvy to be able to do something like that.”

During his winter thru-hike of the PCT, Lichter—a professional ski patroller, triple crowner and hiker with 40,000 miles under his belt—brought an avalanche beacon, satellite phone and Delorme InReach Explorer, in case of emergency. He also had, due to his work and personal adventures, years of experience with snow travel and assessment of avalanche terrain.

So why is avalanche danger so great on the CDT? The snowpack on the PCT and AT differs from the snowpack on the CDT, explained Jason Konigsberg, avalanche forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. The snow on the coast is called a maritime snowpack, which is generally deeper and more stable than the continental snowpack typical of the CDT.

“A deeper snowpack is better because there is less of a temperature gradient throughout the snowpack,” Konigsberg said. “When you have extreme temperatures, the snow crystals change and they become less cohesive, forming softer weak layers.” Those loose layers, called weak layers, are dangerous when harder layers form on top of them. This type of snow is more prone to slab avalanches, Konigsberg said, that occur when weak layers collapse under hard layers, which then sweep dangerously down the slope.

What’s also different for continental snowpack is that weak layers last a long time, unlike in maritime snowpack, where they tend to be less persistent. According to Konigsberg, people in continental snowpack can still trigger avalanches up to a week or two after the snowfall that creates weak, then hard, layers. For a thru-hiker, that could mean plenty of time spent off the CDT waiting for better conditions.

“Whenever you’re traveling in avalanche terrain, you have to have the right gear, you should be getting the avalanche forecast—and you should have avalanche training,” said Konigsberg.

Tree in snow with the C D T trail marker front and center.

Photo Credit: Taylor Willow.

The Expected: Exposure

A second complicating factor, according to Martinez, when considering a winter thru-hike of the CDT is exposure. Unlike the AT or the PCT, Martinez explained, the entirety of the CDT is at high elevation—above 4,000 feet. Even the Southern Terminus, one of the lower-level elevations of the trail, is at 4,400 feet. This leads to very low temperatures throughout the hike.

“You’re talking about high elevation,” Martinez said. “That in itself at any time of year creates challenges. … Depending on the time of year … your nighttime lows would be very, very cold. ... The exposure is intense.”

The Needed: Technical Know How

Most thru-hikers are just what their name implies: hikers. However, the CDT requires that hikers have snow-travel expertise. “If you were to head south [on the CDT], getting through Glacier [National Park] this time of year would be technical,” Martinez said. “You’d need ice axes, crampons, the whole bit. Right off the bat, you’d have to have technical skills.”

On Lichter’s winter thru-hike of the PCT, he relied on skis, snowshoes and crampons. You also need “pretty good short-term memory loss,” he continued, laughing. “There are a lot of unpleasant times that you don't want to remember if you’re pushing forward.”

Some hikers get around the challenges of a winter thru-hike by avoiding the treacheries of bad weather altogether. Take Larry “Subman” LaPierre, who began his winter thru-hike of the AT on January 1. He lives so close to the start of the trail that he simply calls his wife and friends to pick him up and bring him home when the weather is too wicked.

“I just work my way north, and if the weather gets really bad, I get off the trail,” LaPierre said. “I look at the low temperatures. I do a lot of planning before I head out and do the next section.” That’s possible because, as he put it, “on the AT, it’s a series of three-day hikes.” With comparatively short distances between exit points on the AT, it’s possible to avoid the brunt of winter weather if you plan a northbound hike. On the CDT, exit points are few and far between.

The First Three Explorers

Although a successful winter thru-hike of the CDT has yet to be completed, there has been at least one recorded mission along a large chunk of the CDT. A section of Colorado’s Continental Divide: A Hiking and Backpacking Guide, written by Ron Ruhoff and published in 1989, recounts the tale of three men, Chris Cole, Mark Cole and John Tipps, who made the first known cross-country ski trip along the divide in the winter of 1986–87.

The three adventurers began on December 15, 1986, in Chama, New Mexico, and ended in Encampment, Wyoming, on March 16, 1987. All were expert skiers and Mark Cole was an emergency medical technician. They used, “metal-edged skis with loose heel bindings, double leather boots, tents, sleeping bags designed for minus forty-degree weather, extra skis, avalanche equipment, sleds to pull a portion of the load, and $300 worth of maps” (p. 87). They cached 900 pounds of food ahead of time. They reached their truck after 92 days and, despite their worries, the truck started immediately!

But Is it Possible?

The possibility of a winter thru-hike of the CDT remains to be seen. With such treacherous conditions and the skill levels required, it would take an incredible team to even begin an attempt.

“Many questioned the wisdom of such a journey,” Ruhoff wrote, “but backcountry skiing can be safe if those who attempt it are properly educated and aware of the hazardous conditions and special skills required to deal with them.”

Litcher agreed, “I’m of the mindset that there are dangers in anything you do. I think that anything’s possible with being smart about your decisions.”

But is it even on anyone’s mind? “I’ve thought about it,” Litcher said. “I don’t know of anybody else that’s thinking about it, to be honest with you. And at this point, I’m not sure that I want to do it.”

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