I wrote an article on my CDT thru-hike last year that was published in the current issue of Passages, the CDTC’s newsletter. Click on the image to read the whole magazine.
Lessons Learned from a CDT Thru-Hike
“If the Pacific Crest Trail is a purring kitten, then the Appalachian Trail is an angry house cat that still has its claws, and the Continental Divide Trail is a mountain lion about to take your face off with one wrong move.” – Day 3 on the CDT
Thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) has always been a difficult endeavor. Yes, the trail isn’t complete and crosses terrain that is strenuous and/or paved. Yes, the weather can throw down the gauntlet, and the isolation and remote conditions can gnaw into the psyche of even the most stalwart of hikers. But the reward for pushing through all the snow and rain and loneliness is well worth it. For me the challenge of completing a CDT thru-hike was so much bigger than merely walking across the country.
My 2015 thru-hike came many years after my other long trail adventures: it had been 13 years since completing the Appalachian Trail, and 9 years since finishing the Pacific Crest Trail. Prior to setting foot on the CDT this past April, I’ll be the first to admit I had doubts. Could my almost 40 year old body handle the miles? Could I spend the whole hike solo if I didn’t find others to hike with? Could I handle the harsh conditions that are often found on the Divide?
Now that I’m at the reflection stage of the hike I know the answers, and after reading back through my daily journal I am able to look back at a few things I learned, or was reminded of, along the way.
It’s ok to be Uncomfortable
“I was going to town! Now I know I just left Pie Town, but there are towns where you have to wash your hair in a trickle of warm water with dish soap, and there are towns with hotel hot tubs, Denny’s restaurants, and just about any kind of fried food imaginable.” – Day 24
I knew going into the hike that big goals like walking across the country can be scary, and putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is a great way to grow. The CDT is definitely scary and uncomfortable, but I knew that by trusting in my abilities that I could handle what the trail could serve up and possibly learn a thing or two.
I had moments on the trail where I knew for a fact that there were no other thru-hikers within a few days ahead or behind me. The isolation is real, and at times I was nervous about the implications of needing help in such situations. So I would dig deep, remind myself this level of solitude is quite unique in our connected/populated world, and try to revel in the freedom of hiking alone…sometimes.
“Getting grumpy when you are hiking by yourself really doesn’t mean much. If you have no one to complain to, what’s the point? This is the second day in a row that I haven’t seen anyone, and all I wanted to do was bitch about the wind and terrain (yes the same terrain I loved this morning).”
I had to be my own cheerleader and companion, and trust myself to make the right decisions. Sometimes that meant going low, bypassing a summit, or carrying extra water. It usually came down to making safe, smart decisions.
Oh yes, being uncomfortable can also mean the simplest pleasures are magnified. “The suffering was expected and highlighted every small pleasure to an excruciating degree. Being dry was a luxury. Warm? Even better. Food took on a mythical status and prior to getting to each town stop I would daydream about what I would stuff in my face.”
Self Reliance leads to Flexibility
“I’m just going to go ahead and not worry about it.” – Words of wisdom from fellow thru-hiker Pimp Limp
I was prepared to be make decisions on the ground. A lot of the CDT is an unknown until you are in the middle of freaking nowhere and need to decide how to get up that mountain without hurting yourself. I liked to call the CDT the PhD of hiking trails because often I had to draw on other hiking/backcountry experiences to make the right decisions. That came in the form of very little advance planning.
The CDT is a trail with hundreds of alternates, I knew trying to decide which routes to take as I was packing my boxes and splitting up my maps would be next to impossible. Instead I sent myself all the materials I would need to make those decisions on the ground and let the trail and weather and my body decided which way I would go. And I knew I could trust myself to make those decisions because I had spent most of my adult life in outdoor/backcountry environment. I could draw on those experiences.
Here’s a journal excerpt from one particular day that I couldn’t plan for after burning myself in a stove accident: “As with my lost sunglasses, burned up thermarest, patched but trashy repair jobs on my tarp and down jacket, burned tyvek, broken watch, and lost handkerchief, I swear I thought it was a decent day. Oh and I shouldn’t forget needing to keep the blisters on my fingers, hands, and arms clean and uninfected.” For all intents and purposes it was a disaster of a day, even though I didn’t realize it until my end-of-the-day tally. But instead of throwing in the towel and hiking out on the nearest road, I patched what I could, cleaned the blisters best I knew how, evaluated my health and safety of continuing to hike to the next town, and just did it.
Snow and storms were a major stressor this year, but again, having backcountry shoulder season and winter experience came in handy when I had to deal with the wettest spring New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming had on record. I was prepared; my gear was prepared. Gortex socks, gaiters, and pants came in handy in Colorado. Rain mittens, extra trash bags, and an umbrella helped keep me dry in the storms, and shoe bindings on touring skis kept me on top of the snow instead of slogging through it. If you think you might encounter snow on your hike, go hike in the snow. If you are worried about staying dry in a rainstorm, go hike in a rain storm. I believe having faced these conditions before gave me an advantage, especially when faced with how to keep myself safe out there as a solo hiker. It’s not really an option to go in unprepared when the stakes are as high as they can be on the CDT.
This is my Vacation
“Two weeks on the trail, 200 miles, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. Sleeping when the sun goes down, waking just before the day begins…it’s as if I’ve been transported to an alternate universe where time takes on a different pace. Two weeks back in Bend pass quickly…the routine of the everyday has certain qualities that are blissfully absent out here. No bills to pay, no obligations other than to my feet and stomach. I’ve already lived a lifetime in these two weeks, and the prospect of 4-5 more months of this is pretty exhilarating.” – After a soak in the Gila Hotsprings, NM
At the heart of my 160 days on the CDT was the fact that this was my vacation. It had been years since I had taken any real time off of my job; I was working a desk-bound, weekend warrior existence, and come rain or snow, I was determined to enjoy my thru-hike.
How an experience is framed can mean all the difference. Yes, completing the CDT this year would mean earning my triple crown. Competing the CDT would mean I can hike through challenging conditions, but really, hiking the CDT meant I could do what I enjoy doing more than almost anything: backpacking long distances in the backcountry.
Having that as my main goal changed the way I hiked. I enjoyed getting to camp early and reading. I took lots of zeros and neros because I wanted to. I connected with friends I hadn’t seen in years, and took the time to meet new people and make new friends. I carried a french press coffee mug because I wanted to enjoy a great cup of hot coffee in the mornings, and slept on an inflatable pillow because I could. Why not? It’s my vacation!
Put one Step in Front of the Other
“One step at a time.” – repeated over and over and over on my approach to the 14er Grays Peak, CO
Due to the various challenges I would face (sometimes daily, sometimes hourly, sometimes even by the minute) I found it essential to focus on one step at a time. I had to be completely present in those times, or would risk missing an important turn, falling off a mountain, or getting swept away in a river. Each step needed to be intentional.
During my second week on the trail I received this message loud and clear. Navigating what might have been my 60th river crossing of the day in the Gila River, I found myself in a foul mood. I had wet feet with the promise of continued wet feet. I started to wish I was out of the river canyon and walking on dry ground when Woosh! I slipped and fell in the river. Yes, I was crossing a slippery, mossy rock shelf, but instead of paying attention to my footing, I was dreaming of walking on dry ground until the Gila slapped me in the face. It was a very clear message: “Pay attention.”
When I was picking my way across the knife’s edge between Edwards Mountain and Gray’s Peak in Colorado I simply couldn’t let my mind wander. The ridge was so steep and the consequences of one wrong step so severe, I had to be 100% present. In fact I even muttered the mantra, “One step at a time,” to keep myself calm and on track.
Each day required focus, and this little tidbit from my journal speaks to that: “The consequences are immense with one mistake out here, I’m confident in my abilities, but I’ve never been on a trail with this many challenges. Today, the wind.”
What is in my Control?
“I had several plans for the day and my plans had plans. But really who can plan on the CDT? What I had for the day were vague ideas of what I would do if certain conditions existed…and back up ideas. Plans on the CDT are for suckers.” – On whether I would continue skiing the divide to Spring Creek Pass
I am normally not an anxious person, but at times had a lot of anxiety on the trail and had to find a way to deal with it. Much of the stress came in the form of how to properly deal with sketchy conditions.
In mid July I was racing across a 10 mile section of above-treeline trail towards Berthoud Pass as storm clouds threatened to unleash their fury. At 11:30 in the morning 15 people were hit by lightning a short distance from where I was hiking. I descended the ridge that day at 1:30pm, well after the recommended noon hour on storm days in Colorado. The next day of hiking looked to be another long section above treeline with the continued storm cycle, and I really didn’t want to go back up there. I started stressing out, so much so that it was manifesting in an upset stomach and feelings of panic. After a calming phone conversation with my boyfriend, he reminded me of what I had forgotten. What is in my control? Can I control when and where the lightning will strike? No. Can I control the fact that I would need to hike 25+ miles tomorrow, primarily above treeline? Turns out I could. I had already needed to find alternates around a very avalanche-prone section in the San Juans; I could find an alternate around my current problem too. I pieced together a series of roads to bypass the high country…an exercise that was as much for my peace of mind as it was for not getting caught in a lightning storm above treeline. The decision helped remind myself of what was in my control, and that it was my hike to hike.
But it wasn’t always easy to make those decisions: “I left the mountains. Amid some self-berating about taking the easy way out and not rising to the navigational challenge of the trail ahead, was a deep sense of relief. I would be safe today. And tomorrow. I would get myself out of these mountains safely and not get caught in a potentially dangerous situation of hiking through the terrain ahead alone.”
Readjustment is Hard
Thru-hiking the CDT has been a goal for a long time. Completing the hike felt amazing, but was soon followed by a gaping hole where that goal had been. What now?
Fortunately I live in a community with dozens of thru-hikers who understood that hole, and as I was struggling with the absence of what had consumed so much of my time and energy over the past few years, they reminded me it was ok. It was ok to feel a bit lost; it was ok to be unsure of my next steps. I needed to give myself permission to struggle.
Ultimately what these past few months have highlighted is my desire to have another goal. It’s time to dream up something scary to do. Something I’m not sure I can do. But I know this much, I’m capable of so much more now that I’ve hiked the CDT.