Thru-Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

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Gossamer Gear | Nov 05, 2013

The Continental Divide Trail is an intimidating trail. Still shrouded in a veil of mystery, relatively few have completed the 3,100 mile, high elevation trek that runs the spine of North America. Said to be 70% completed, it is touted as one of the most rugged and remote trails out there. Stories of extreme remote deserts, thunderous snow-capped mountains, and cross country hiking with no trail is what filled my head whenever I thought of the CDT. Even though I had one long distance trail under my belt, having done the Pacific Crest Trail in 2011 (a record high snow year), I assumed the CDT was out of my league and never considered it as an option. Then things began to change.

Hiking CDT

The CDT runs 3,100mi along the spine of N. America from Mexico to Canada.

Wired Mexico to Canada.

It took Wired 134 days to hike from Mexico to Canada.

After completing the PCT, I had more confidence in my abilities and comfort with the wide range of elements to be faced outdoors. I met fellow hikers who had hiked the CDT and heard their firsthand accounts. I read online trail journals and corresponded with those who have been on the trail recently. The veil of mystery slowly lifted and the trail was no longer the scary monster I was expecting. A lesson I learned on the high snow season of the PCT is that there is a lot of fear mongering for things that are unknown. I realized that if I just tried something and hiked up to it myself, it usually wasn't all that bad. It was with those thoughts in mind that I headed toward the CDT, GPS in hand, new light gear on my back, and a few fellow apprehensive, yet prepared and capable thru hiker friends.

Continental Divide Trail

Having friends to start the trail with was great.

Starting with friends definitely helped. The CDT has a learning curve and it took a week or two to adjust. It was nice to have others to hike with and I gradually gained more confidence in navigating on my own. For the most part, I think we all enjoyed the cross country hiking. I didn't feel as lost or deserted as I thought I would. There are actually cairns out there and even oversized CDT blazes to help guide the way. There may not be a physical trail to walk on at times, but you definitely knew you were on the right track. It was like a fun scavenger hunt that kept our minds occupied with the "eye spy" of a distant cairn, in what could have otherwise been long and boring days. It wasn't long before I started venturing out on my own at the end of legs where I knew I'd see my fellow hikers in town. In my gut, I wanted to see if I could do it on my own and I found out that I could!

water cdt

Finding reliable water sources was one of the biggest challenges in New Mexico.

The rest of New Mexico varied with a lot of road walking (both dirt and paved), some trail, and some cross country with cairns. The heat was not too strong, but there was no lack of dust in the air. Probably my biggest challenge in New Mexico was the mental one that came along with a low water year. My strategy was to carry as much water as I could as a precaution, since many sources were either dry or disgustingly contaminated by cows. In addition to the weight, the constant unquenched thirst of drinking warm water was a mental toll. I stayed motivated knowing that it was temporary and that each step north was bringing me closer to the cold mountain springs that I thirsted for. Just as I was gaining confidence, a new fear set in… the Colorado San Juan Mountains!

Hiking Colorado.

Hikers along a snowy traverse in Colorado.

I had never experienced the Colorado Rockies. Images filled my head of dangerous peaks, deep snow, steep traverses, and looming clouds that could erupt in a storm of lightning, rain, snow, and hail at any moment. Again, it was reassuring to have my friends around me and to know that most of us were experiencing this for the first time together. Fortunately, it was a low snow year with just one late snowstorm that blanketed the mountains about a week before I entered them. The few days I spent in the "mashed potato" consistency of the San Juan snow were tiring with a lot of deep postholing. There were only eight days of significant hiking through snow (compared to the thirty days I experienced on the PCT), but it felt like a lot more with how tiring it was and how slowly we moved. What I wasn't prepared for was how cold I would be. The month I spent in snow along the PCT was in compact snow with eighty degree temps when the cool feet were a welcomed respite. In the San Juans, there were days that I wore every piece of clothing I had. There was little to be done for my cold numbed feet that only had mesh trail runners and thin running socks to keep them warm. Grocery bags made for a good band aid on the temporary problem, but if I had it to do over, I'd be more prepared to keep my feet warm. The consistently high elevation also had an effect on me. When I was over 10,000ft, which happened often in Colorado, I experienced a hacking cough and eventually had to get an inhaler to help my respiratory system cope with the dry air and consistent winds. The weather was not as challenging as I had expected. Someone told me that if you don't like the weather in Colorado, just wait ten minutes because it changes so often. They were right! We called it bipolar weather because you'd be getting snowed on one minute and then have clear skies and hot sun beating down on you the next. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't experienced it myself. Overall, Colorado was a great challenge with even greater rewards. When I look back on it, and see some of the photos, I still can't believe I was there and actually hiked through the San Juans.

San Juan Mountains

Staying wired in high San Juan Mountains. Photo credit to Rockin'.

By northern Colorado, I was ready to break off from the larger group and set out on my own again to see what I could do in Wyoming. My body and mind felt surprisingly strong. I wanted to capitalize on that and keep the momentum going. Wyoming went by fast because much of it was road walking in the Great Divide Basin. I ended up overlapping with other hikers who also wanted to keep a higher pace in Wyoming and that was motivating. The highlight of Wyoming is the Wind River Range. A "mini Sierra" I'll definitely be returning to, since we only scratched the surface of as we passed through. Before we knew it, we had hiked passed geysers in Yellowstone and made it to Montana and Idaho.

backpacking cdt

Mtn Rat on the knife's edge or back of the dragon as he calls it.

By the time I hit Montana/Idaho, I felt like I was in the homestretch. That was both a good and bad thing. It was the final state, but there was still over 900 miles left. I was motivated and felt like I was within reach of the finish line, but then I felt like it was taking forever to get there! I still wanted to hike independently, but wanted to be safe in areas that were said to have a presence of bears. I found a good balance in hiking on my own for half or most of the day and then usually camping with others at night. I really enjoyed the time alone and the freedom of doing things at my own pace. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of trail in Montana. There was still some dirt road walking and cross country, but at times, it had some of the most maintained and well signed trail along the whole trail. Montana also held some of my most tiring days with plenty of steep ups and downs along the Divide. Ending in Glacier was perfect. The epic mountains and beautiful landscape were like a finishing reward for all our efforts. In the end, I had completed a trail that I once thought was out of my range to even attempt. Maybe I'm in shock, but still a month later, I feel little emotion from this. The more I reflect on the journey and look back on my photos and journal, the more it's hitting me.

Hike Glacier National Park

Ending in Glacier National Park was the perfect EPIC ending!

Why did this trail feel so different and unattached for me? Why did I feel little emotion after living on the CDT for over four months? It's been a month and I've had time to reflect on why this may have happened. I hadn't connected with the CDT the way I did the PCT, so when I finished, I think I had just disconnected emotionally from the trail. I think the source of my disconnect was that I was more accustomed to feeling at home on the trail, but on the CDT, I always felt like an unwelcomed visitor. This was due to the fact that my guard was constantly up on the CDT. I like consistency and reliability in my daily life and the CDT has many unknown variables. Some find this very appealing about the CDT, but it hit a sensitive nerve in me. In addition, a big part of what I enjoy about the trail is living in the moment and being present. On the CDT, if I relaxed or lost my focus on what was coming up next, I'd end up missing a turn or water source. I couldn't live in the moment. In daily life, if I find myself in situations where it hits my nerve of consistency and reliability, I'm able to walk away. On the CDT, I couldn't walk away. I just had to live in it for 24 hrs, day after day. That was the challenge that I was sensing, but couldn't fully realize until I got off the trail. Not being able to fully identify the source of my discomfort, it took its toll and I just stopped putting trust in the trail. I removed myself from it emotionally and just wanted to finish. I don't know if this all makes sense, but it's the best way that I can think to explain of how it has felt for me to hike the CDT. It was an amazing experience and one that has given me more confidence in hiking challenging trails independently. I feel like I've only scratched the surface of what I can do as a hiker and I look forward to finding more challenging adventures to share with the world.

This post was written by Trail Ambassador Erin "Wired" Saver.