Winter traversal of Continental Divide


Timing

Of all things, the timing and sequence is where flexibility will be necessary.

Currently, I see two options, and list them in order of my preference. I would start northbound mid-November, most likely exiting at Cumbres Pass, Colorado, but possibly continuing northward until the avalanche conditions become too unpredictable. Another less preferable option, but possibly the only reasonable option for a continuous footpath border to border, would be to start southbound sometime in January or February, with the goal of being in Grand Lake, Colorado by mid-April.

Why the two options? The technical crux of wintertime CDT is the combination of steep terrain of central and southern Colorado and notoriously weak snowpack. This area is reserved for the late springtime. Past Grand Lake and the Front Range, the CDT begins to mellow, and the snowpack thickens.

Why is southbound starting mid-Winter my second preference? In general, it is better to walk up warm, crusty, and usually more stable southern faces in the sun, and ski quickly through colder, softer northerly aspects, where weak layers lurk and safety distances are easily maintained. The disadvantages would be missing a considerable amount of powder, hiking in the coldest temps on the mountain (only bad when it's frigid), hiking on the most dangerous aspects of the mountain (increasing the time of exposure to risk), being less able to use a solar charger, possibly hiking up with crampons and skis on my back and having to walk down the barren southern slope, and, finally, being in New Mexico in June, a hot and windy place at that time of year. None of those are deal breakers. Also, after approximately 2.5 months, mid-April or early May, I'd be in central Colorado, approximately, which is the time to head through the most technical portion of the wintertime CDT.

Probably most importantly, I don't have a partner yet. The three weeks until we may hit considerable snow in New Mexico and switch to skis will serve as an extended trail date for anyone who chooses to join me. We will work out our routines and quirks by Christmas, I expect. Also, on the New Mexican portion, we can get our legs and backs ready for the more strenuous but fun skiing portion.

Path and Terrain

The terrain along the CDT is typically mellow, avoiding the common ski objectives which are often a short distance away. I plan on deviating from the 'classical' CDT path to avoid avalanche risks and to chase good snow. This will depend also on my partners.

For example, the CDT path through the Wind River range could not be more gentle given the surrounding terrain. I guess that by the time we get there, we may be itching for a more ambitious path, although I doubt that. We'll see then and there what makes sense.

Above all, I am not loyal to a snow-covered footpath. We must optimize according to the following principles.

Principles

  1. Safety first.
    • If we need to wait out a storm cycle, we ride powder or rest until the snow settles. I carry a helmet, ice axe, beacon, probe, proper shovel, ski goggles, satellite transceiver, etc. Safety first.
  2. Proper planning is safety.
    • Food, fuel, weather, and above all time planning are our tools to be safe.
  3. Speed is safety.
    • Weather changes, gear fails, people fall ill. Uphill speed is our friend. Slowness begets slowness. We need to be fast. 2000 vertical feet (600 meters) gain per hour with a load (10-13kg) and a good track should be possible when needed. We should be able to sustain 20 to 30 Alpine units (1km distance or 100m vertical) uphill per day.
    • Gear must be optimized for our speed. Speed during travel, cooking, camping is key.
  4. Redundant systems are necessary.
    • Redundancy in navigation (altimeter and paper maps, compass and map, cell phone, GPS), shelter (tent, poncho tarp, proper shovel for snowcave) and sleeping systems (repair materials) is necessary.
  5. Social coherence trumps fun.
    • We stick together within reason.
  6. Rest and recovery is very important.
    • We need to ensure we can handle a 14-day traverse in deep snow. Thorough nightly rest is important to recover.

Systems

  • Light backcountry skis with scaled bases and climbings skins. Scaled bases are necessary for efficient.
    • I am open to backcountry cross country skis for certain sections. But I trust lightweight touring skis and can comfortably skate with them.
  • Tent: My choice: Durston X-mid 2 fly (or Pro gutted), Candidates: Durston X-mid 2 with solid inner tent, HMG UltaMid 2, Tarptent Stratospire Li with solid inner.
    • Note: I have tried digging a snow cave every night. It is too much work and too slow, but is a good backup shelter.
  • Zipperless down sleeping bag (-20°F) with DCF vapor barrier clothing. Timmermade gear serves me very well.
    • Note: I have tried extending all the 3-season ultralight systems for winter and failed. This is my current trusted system.
  • Melt snow, heat water: fire first, XGK second. An (additional) option is using a foldable Nalgene cantene between the back and backpack (and combine no-cook with cold-soak). It is essential to plan in water collection at flowing water. Otherwise, we'll carry too much fuel.
    • Note: I have tried the Trail Designs fissure alcohol systems for winter traverses. They work well and are reliable, but are fidgety, slow, and stink too much to use in a tent.

Why no sled? Please read about my approach to ski traverses.

Finances

Without the gear investments (about 8k$ upfront!), I would budget at least 10k$. Weather-driven stays in town are a variable that may inflate that number. I still need to research what permits will be necessary for certain sections.

People

Myself: Experienced alpine winter backcountry tour guide, splitboard and ski mountaineer, powderhound, climate activist. I am 37 years old, a climate scientist turned firmware engineer, a little over 6' (184cm), 75kg, and injury-resistant and well-conditioned. I was born in New Mexico, and live in Switzerland with my wife, with no kids.

I have been out in the snow since I was little, but since 2012 every season >80 days touring, with an upward trend. For weight and efficiency reasons, I learned how to ski recently, after 9 years of snowboarding and 9 years of almost solely splitboarding. Skis just make more sense for traverses; therefore, I ski, and I skied well enough for my traverse in Bulgaria, with plenty of terrible snow, and I can ski well enough for this traverse of the Continental Divide.

I have never walked any of the long trails. I plan to when I am older. I have done multiple ski traverses in Switzerland and Bulgaria. I truly enjoy being out in the wild, especially in winter. My favorite thing to do is a ski traverse. I enjoy 'bad' weather, also in winter. I view an attempt to walk the CDT in winter mostly as a string of ski traverses.

Lukas S.: Experienced ski mountaineer, firmware engineer, longtime tour partner of Brian, living in Zurich, Switzerland.

You: Experienced winter backcountry ski tourer. You should be passionate about winter, cold-resistant, have a positive outlook and be full of energy. Also, I am open to partial companionship. If you have the skills, with some vetting you are welcome to joing me for certain parts, although I am wary of the social aspect. The mental toll of winter conditions tests me every time, but I can handle it and still have fun. Can you still have fun when Old Man Winter tests you?

Fundraiser

This undertaking is very egotistical of me, but will help me grow at the same time. I sure would like to take the opportunity set a fundraiser challenge and have people join me in donating money to a cause. My best idea yet is to fund an organization the supports less fortunate communities to build out their renewable energy mix, with the goal of long-term energy autonomy. I am open to ideas. I guess I'd donate a dollar per mile progress.

Interested in joining me?

I will only traverse the Continental Divide in winter if I have a partner for the more critical sections. If you are interested, please read about my approach to ski traverses, please read through skills and abilities for this attempt, and take time to reflect and decide. Let's talk.