CDT To GDT Thru-Hike

After completing a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2012, I have not been able to shake the hiking bug.  I need a bigger challenge…

CDT Thru-HikeTherefore, beginning in April, 2013 I will be attempting a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) and Great Divide Trail (GDT)!

The CDT runs from between 2,800 to 3,100 miles, depending on the chosen route, through five states; New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana; on a meandering course from Mexico to Canada. The GDT, which begins at Waterton Lakes National Park at the US/Canada Border, extends up into the Canadian Rockies for about 750 miles while crossing the divide no fewer than 30 times between Alberta and British Columbia.

Follow Along!  Click the sidebar menu to view my planning, journal entries and photos from the trail.  These will be updated as soon as possible after I complete them during my hike.

What Is The CDT?

CDT Thru-Hike
Continental Divide Trail

The CDT was established by Congress in 1978, yet it is still an incomplete trail system. As of 2012, only 72% of the trail is in it’s permanent location. In fact, there are so many alternate routes that no thru-hiker walks the exact same path. It is less a single foot-path than a series of connecting trails, dirt roads, and cross-country routes, and as a thru-hiker, I will truly be able to Hike My Own Hike.

Approximate Route of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail in a full size map.

The CDT was imagined and designed to follow the backbone of the Great Continental Divide; a hydrologic feature that divides the country’s watersheds east to the Atlantic Ocean and west to both the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The CDT itself diverges from the actual Great Divide – the spine of the continent, in many places due to factors such as water availability, scenery, private property rights or the danger factor. However, for much of the trail you are walking on the actual spine of the continent; often a ridge line or from mountain peak to mountain peak, and weather and snow conditions in those exposed areas can be treacherous.

What Is The GDT?

CDT Thru-Hike
Great Divide Trail

The Great Divide Trail (GDT) is more of a vision than an actual trail.

In 1966, the Girl Guides of Canada (analogous to the Girls Scouts of America) proposed the idea of a continuous trail running the length of the British Columbia and Alberta border through the Canadian Rockies.

After initial support for the idea was garnered, and organizations such as the GDTA were established to carry the vision forward, the building of the trail itself has seen fits and starts over the past 30+ years owing to political grid-lock and concerns of over-use of the land by Parks Canada and a lack of support by the province of British Columbia.

In 2000 a guidebook, Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail, was released by Dustin Lynx who thru-hiked the trail in 1996 with his girlfriend Julia, hastening the resurrection of the GDT. Trail work was resumed during the ensuing decade after fifteen year haiatus.  In March of 2013, the Great Divide Trail Association (GDTA) was formally revived and is now active pursuing it’s vision of the GDT.

Support is slowly returning as many of the land-use issues have been addressed, but today, the trail is still a patchwork of existing paths, power-line cuts, cross-country bush-whacking and exploration routes. Some parts of the route are maintained by other trail systems, some parts are maintained by the GDTA and other parts are  simply not maintained, but no single organization is responsible for the entire route.

In general, the GDT remains an obscure and under-traveled route through “possibly the most spectacular long-distance hiking route in North America” (Backpacker Magazine May – 2001).

Why Do Both Trails?

A couple reasons.

The more I live, the more I understand how little time we each have on this planet. A thru-hike of both trails allows me to see some of the best scenery in the world in both the US and Canada, all in one season!

Also, I need a new challenge. When I thru-hiked the PCT in 2012, the experience I had on the trail differed from my original perception of the trail. I expected a solo wilderness experience far removed from people. I wanted an experience that would push me beyond perceived limits and test my physical stamina, navigational skills and survival instincts. I craved more solitude, more weather, more snow hiking, and generally more struggle and reward. Before the hike I took a bush-survival course and on the trail I packed a Mora Knife and an emergency fire-starter, complete with ultra-light emergency fire-starters made out of cotton swabs, Vaseline and tin foil. I was ready for anything.

What I got was less of a physical and mental challenge, and more of an emotional and spiritual journey. This is not to say that my experience on the PCT was anything less than spectacular, because it was more than spectacular, just a different kind of spectacular. I gained so much from that experience; friends, self-confidence, a sense of possibility. I delighted in the generosity of strangers who would go out of their way to help dirty and smelly hikers complete a dream. I basked night after night under start-lit skies sharing stories and laughs with so many new friends.

My goal on the CDT/GDT is to seek out that raw experience that I had imagined for myself pre-PCT. I want to be challenged, stretch beyond my perceived boundaries and return with an even more sense of awe and wonder…if that is possible.

Why Would Anyone Want To Walk For Six Months?

It is hard to explain the why. The best way I have found is to let pictures speak for me. Some words come to mind: peace, solitude, nature, walking meditation, ecstasy, fresh air, exercise, contemplation, self-reflection, nature’s pace, sunsets, sunrises, stars, seize the day, connection.

I walk to connect with the earth and the stars and to remind myself that I am made of the same stuff. I walk to remind myself how short our time on this earth is, and to live in the moment. I walk to get to know myself more intimately. I walk to wake up to a new and different horizon every morning.

If you need more, This 2012 Class Video, produced by Migel ‘Virgo’ Aguillar, does a better job than any other at expressing the why of a thru-hike.

What If You Fail To Make It All The Way?

Then I will make it as far as I make it. The point is not necessarily to get to the finish line. The point is to spend a glorious spring and summer basking in the splendor of nature. I would love to sit on the shores of Kakwa Lake in NE British Columbia in late September and declare victory, but I know enough to know that no matter how much I plan and prepare, there are factors out of my control that could prevent me from getting there. If success was guaranteed, I probably wouldn’t be interested!

My Fears

It’s healthy to have fears, as they tell you where you need to focus your energy. Fear of something is an indication that you will learn and grow the most by doing that thing.

Loneliness – Perhaps my biggest fear is being alone for weeks at a time in the wilderness. If you think back on your life, can you recount any time that you were alone for more than a few days? I mean completely alone: not speaking to, seeing, or interacting with another human being. On the PCT I walked a section alone for three days and I remember having a desperate feeling at the end of that period to simply hear another human voice. I had music to comfort me, but it was a small comfort. How will I cope with six days, a couple weeks or a month without any human contact? Considering the schedule I am on and the remote-ness of some sections of the trail, these scenarios are very possible.

Colorado Snows – To make it to Kakwa Lake in the small window of weather in northern British Columbia means I need trek into the South San Juans of Colorado in mid-May. Typical advice for thru-hikers is to not enter Colorado before about mid-June when the spring melt-off has cleared the trail of snow. Hiking through Colorado in May is do-able, but having the proper snow and cold-weather gear will be essential.

I will be carrying snow-shoes, crampons and an ice axe (heavy!) through much of the state. My pace will be cut in half (perhaps no more than 10 miles/day). I will switch from a tarp to a free-standing tent, and carry extra layers for the cold nights spent at the higher altitudes. I will in all likelihood be the first CDT thru-hiker to enter Colorado for the season, with few if any day hikers or weekend backpackers on the more remote parts of the trail. Add to this daily afternoon thunderstorms prevalent in the rockies and swift and cold river crossings,  and you will get an idea of what I am signing myself up for. I both dread and tingle at this challenge!

Injury – Beyond the weather, the only thing that has the potential of preventing me from meeting my goal is injury. On the PCT I avoided any serious injury, but some over-use injuries had me guessing for good portions of the trail. In Oregon, approximately 1,000 miles from Canada, my lower right heel developed a throbbing pain that remained with me for the rest of my hike, and for several weeks thereafter. I worry that this pain will return and grow worse with the increased strain of the CDT/GDT.

Cold – In 2012 we jokingly referred to our weather experience as “The Perfect Year”. I can count the number of days of rain I experienced on the PCT on one hand. The desert rarely burned above 95 degrees F. The snows in the Sierra’s were at a record low level. I carried my rain jacket the entire trail, only to use it twice! The weather on the CDT is much more finicky, especially in Colorado. I am not a warm sleeper and will be outfitted with a brand new 10 or 15 degree down bag, silk liner, and extra layers for hiking in cold weather. With my earlier schedule, fording cold river crossings will be a greater challenge then those traveling during the warmer months.

How Fast Will You Hike Every Day?

On average, if I exclude zero and nero days, I would need to keep a pace of 20 miles/day to complete the 3600 mile hike before October 1st. However, once I account for a planned 20 zero days (full rest days spent in town with no hiking), my daily miles on days I am actually hiking increases to 22.5 miles/day. In additiona, if I calculate a slower pace through Colorado, some nero days (partial zero’s), a slower breaking-in period during the first two weeks out from the Mexican Border and other unexpected delays, I expect to average between 25-30 miles/day when I am hiking!

How Will You Keep From Going Crazy?

I am wondering this myself. If by going crazy you mean going into that deep place within myself and discovering what I have repressed over the years, then I seek that place. If I start talking gibberish and twitching like I am dancing on acid, than I may need some re-integration therapy next fall!

How Do You Resupply With Food And Gear?

I will prepare approximately sixteen resupply packages before the hike, each one to be mailed to a P.O. or local business located in a trail town. I will also rely heavily on the small groceries and convenience stores when passing through the larger towns.

Where and How Do You Poop?

On the ground, in a hole, while squatting and balancing on a hiking pole. Studies have shown that the ideal position in which to have a bowel movement is the squatting position, not the sitting position we are all accustomed to. There is something liberating about walking behind a tree, scratching out a hole in the ground, and defecating in the dirt. I can’t wait to get back to nature!

Will You Carry A Gun Or Other Form Of Protection From Bears?

This question usually comes from the more rural, god-fearing, elk-hunting traditionalists who have a healthy fear of all that roams in the woods. If more people spent time alone in the woods, night after night, with little more than mosquito bites to show for it, they would realize that nature is not out to get us. Every story I heard about animal encounters during the 2012 PCT season has ended with, “…and then the bear/elk/deer saw me and turned tail and ran”.

The PCT rarely sees a grizzly bear. The CDT and GDT, however, run through the grizzly’s prime habitat, and with fewer people on these trails, a chance encounter, though extremely rare, is a possibility. I will be carrying bear spray beginning in Montana and through much of Canada on the GDT. Until I have more experience exploring these wilderness areas, I will feel safer having some form of protection at the ready.

The Next Logical Step

Several factors make a CDT/GDT thru-hike the next logical step for me

  • Since the trail is often un-marked, my navigation skills will be tested. The PCT is a well-marked well-traveled, two-foot wide route for most of it’s length. By comparison, the CDT is only 72% complete and requires route-finding and cross-country hiking.
  • There is a greater potential for serious weather issues. Weather in the Rockies can be particularly finicky with daily thunderstorms and hail storms during the early summer season.
  • Where-as on the PCT, the trail reaches a top altitude of 13,153 feet at Forester Pass on it’s 240 mile march through the Sierras, it consistently dips down into elevations of seven or eight thousand feet. The CDT through Colorado, on the other hand, remains at or above 11,000 feet for 170 continuous miles through the South San Juan, Weminuche, and La Garita Wildernesses, and clings to these upper elevations for most of it’s 800 miles through the state!
  • The PCT is thru-hiked by several hundred hikers each year (413 estimated completions in 2012 with several hundred additional section hikers and incomplete thru-hikes). The CDT, in contrast, typically sees less than 100 total thru AND section hikers in a single season! There is no official record of thru-hikers on the GDT, but I expect to be on my own for most of the trail. My longest stretch of 100% solitude on the PCT was 3 days and nights. On the CDT, this could easily be 3 weeks or more. What is the longest you have gone without seeing another human being??

Throughout my hike, which is planned to take about six months, I will be blogging here with pictures, stories and updates. You will be able to find links to my CDT To GDT pages on the side-bar to the right, and new posts will be included on the front page as well as under the drop-down heading “CDT To GDT Blog” in the main menu.

I look forward to sharing this journey with you!

CDT To GDT Thru-Hike


2 responses on “CDT To GDT Thru-Hike

  1. Tim (The Hog) Hogeboom

    It sounds like a great trip, I wish you the best of luck. I completed the CDT (in sections) this past May with a hike across New Mexico. Started April 1 at Crazy Cook, finished May 13. I strongly recommend that you hike the Gila River canyon route. Also I would recommend a warm sleeping bag (it got down as low as 11 F in mid-April). Expect snow to start well before you reach the CO border, for me it started just north of Cuba, NM. If you want more tips on the CDT, feel free to email me directly. – Hog

    1. Russell Mease Post author

      Thanks Hog. I am likely going to get a 10° down bag (I’m looking at the Western Mountaineering Versalite at just 2 lbs! I am a slightly cold sleeper so combining that with a base layer and down jacket should get me through Colorado. I’ve been told to hike Gila River by others, and I plan on doing that. Thanks for the tips.

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