While completing the Continental Divide Trail Hiker Survey hikers share the moment(s), if ever, they found themselves in a situation where they felt they were in legitimate danger or when they were legitimately afraid.
The Continental Divide Trail is a test of mental, physical, and emotional endurance. Hikers don’t get the luxury of dictating every aspect of their hikes. Nature’s indifference, unexpected weather, or a badly timed road crossing can all result in hikers becoming quickly in over their heads.
It’s not unrealistic to say that a Continental Divide Trail hike could be someone’s final adventure – you could end up caught in an avalanche, with heatstroke in the desert, surrounded by a forest fire, drowned in a river, or in a hitch with a drunk driver (if you have a bad feeling about a hitch, don’t get in; wait for the next one). Hopefully, none of this happens during your (or your loved one’s) hike, but it’s possible.
WARNING! If you are worried about a loved one hiking the Continental Divide Trail or you have doubts about whether you want to undertake this journey yourself, you should probably stop reading now (or maybe you should definitely read this).
The Horror of Weather
- A snowstorm with 50 mph / 80 km/h winds blew in two days out of Cumbres Pass, obscuring the trail up high. I was alone, working across an icy side slope when I was hit with a gust of wind mid-stride. I slid down the slope about 30 ft / 10 m, self-arresting with my ice axe. I ended up bailing to the valley floor, camped the night, and woke up with 0.25 in / 0.64 cm of snow in the tent, and single-digit wind chills. Went to Platoro and took the Great Divide Route.
- Generally, anytime I was on a ridge in the afternoon during thunderstorm season in Colorado.
- I got caught in an early thunderstorm on Grey’s peak and had to bail down a rock slide.
- Lightning storms, especially in the Basin (Wyoming) where there was no shelter and I could see the lightning hitting ground less than a mile from me.
- New Mexico got an unusual amount of rain in October, so the Gila was not hikeable. Taking the high route, I did have to drop down and cross it once, and it was the scariest water crossing I’ve ever done.
- When I was hypothermic and soaked to the skin after a blizzard on Lost Ranger Peak.
The Horror of Terrain
- Crossing the snowfields in the San Juans just north of Cherokee Lake (Colorado). A fellow hiker passed me there and warned, “There would be consequences.” I knew exactly what he meant. Later I heard a thru-hiker slipped on that section and had to be rescued by helicopter.
- The ridgeline to Gray’s Peak – scary and out of my comfort zone.
- I felt unsafe trying to cross the Sun River near Benchmark Wilderness Ranch (Montana). The river was too high and I could not get across.
- Many times I felt I had to take added precautions to remain safe. This included finding alternate routes around cornices or waiting until morning to cross a stream swollen from snowmelt.
- I slipped while crossing a raging creek and was washed about 30 ft / 10 m downstream before I was able to grab a log and drag myself out of the water. I was soaked and I lost my water bottle and poncho to the water, but I was alive and unharmed and learned an important lesson.
- The blowdowns in the Bob Marshall (Montana) broke someone’s leg the day before we went through and gashed one of our tramily member’s shin down to the bone, so that was a wake-up call.
The Horror of Snow
- A lot in Colorado where the snow was dangerous and I had some scary slides, also when I was hiking off trail on large rocks that moved a lot, also when I almost got hit by lightning.
- Avalanche safety – or lack thereof. I also backcountry ski and travel on snow often, but always with partners who carry avalanche gear and know how to use it. Being in situations that I know are unsafe without proper gear was scary, and the hikers I was with were not taking it seriously.
- I lost a shoe with its micro spike in the process of preparing to glissade down a steep gully to the bottom of a valley to camp – the trail was too deep with soft snow late afternoon. It took me what felt like a half hour to rescue my shoe, which slid about 50 yds / 50 m down the hard snow. Snailed forward in a sitting position with an ice axe and kicking foot grips with one shoe and one shoeless heel. Shoes loosen when wet.
- Navigating the snow on the north side of Lake Ann Pass was the only time I used my ice axe, and it was very stressful, and the only time I was seriously concerned about falling. Some of the Southern San Juans, and the knife edge from Edwards to Grays were fairly sketchy as well but didn’t at the moment feel as dangerous.
- We were some of the very first people into the Sam Juans and had little snow experience. One day it dumped 6 in / 15 cm of fresh snow on us so we could no longer see the footprints of the two people ahead of us, so we decided to bail onto a lower elevation route to avoid difficult traverses.
The Horror of Humans
- Hitching with people who were drunk.
- A male ranch hand made a sexual proposition to me while I was hiking through New Mexico to connect my footsteps after getting to Canada. He left me alone, but it was the first time anything like that had happened. He was on a horse and I was alone which made me uncomfortable.
- New Mexico ranchers twice came to the fences with guns to intimidate us as we road walked.
- One hiker refused to leash his aggressive dog and it charged us twice. Then he cursed at us for asking him to leash it. And I’m a dog person.
- Twice I was in the line of fire when someone was shooting on BLM land.
- On the Cebolla Alternate (New Mexico) we were walking on the dirt road portion of this alternate and had a man walking towards us. He had no shirt on, and jeans, and seemed he had been car camping in this area for quite some time. We saw him first, and I looked back down to the ground. When I looked back up, he had disappeared into the trees on the side of the road – he must’ve thought we didn’t see him. When we walked by, we saw him standing behind the trees just staring at us.
The Horror of Town
- Hiking out of Cuba, New Mexico alone at dusk – cat calls and someone stopped on a dark road outside of town and tried to insist on picking me up.
- Leadore, Idaho did not feel like a safe place for black people.
- The only time I felt unsafe was in Butte, Montana. The town itself seems fine on the surface but there was something about it that just made me feel unsafe like there was something waiting around each corner. Being from Detroit, it was an odd feeling.
- Outside of Lima, Montana, a man was jacking off outside his truck and then followed my partner and me for a day and a half down dirt roads.
- In Grants, New Mexico while staying at Lava Flow Hostel. Unrelated to any hiker and/or hiker involvement, but a man pulled over in his car right in front of Lava Flow, dragged out a girl, and started beating her up. And then drove away.
The Horror of Animals
- Aggressive dogs in Hachita and Cuba, New Mexico.
- Encountering moose and bears unexpectedly (around corners).
- First night sleeping alone in Glacier National Park (Montana) with nobody else at the camp (afraid of bears).
- Rattlesnakes are scary when they don’t rattle until they are striking out at you.
- When a grizzly bear was too close to me and a mountain lion was too close to me.
- When I saw bear tracks and mistook my hiking partner’s snores for a bear snuffling near the tent.
The Horror of Fire
- Walked through a wildfire (flames on both sides of the trail) that had only begun to burn an hour earlier in New Mexico.
- Walking into a forest fire. It was, I believe, started by CDT hikers according to the firefighters. They thought that because there were no backpackers or hunters in the area the fire was started next to the trail and looked as if it was a warming or cooking fire. Numerous brainless CDT hikers were bragging about cooking over a fire at night. It’s about time all the trail organizations came out with a blanket statement that long-distance hikers do not make fires. These people aren’t even capable of setting up their tents so that they don’t blow down in the wind. They clearly have no ability to make a safe fire. There is no ability to make a safe fire. This one was clearly made at night and burned underground through the duff igniting downed logs and finally burning up the mountain to the trees. It could have killed dozens of hikers. As it was, six of us bushwhacked down the mountain and many more were returned around and rerouted down dirt roads.
Have a tale of woe from a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike? Leave a comment below and warn future CDT classes of the awfulness that awaits them on their thru-hikes.
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