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Article: The great crossing of the United States from south to north - episode 2

La grande traversée des États-Unis du sud au nord - épisode 2
Esprit de Liberté

The great crossing of the United States from south to north - episode 2

An extraordinary adventure

Episode 2: crossing snowy Colorado in the middle of summer!

Last summer, Pierre-Loïc set out to cross the United States on foot from south to north along the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The CDT is a 4,800 km trail that follows the continental divide between the waters that flow into the Pacific Ocean and those that end up in the Atlantic Ocean.

In this second episode, we meet Pierre-Loïc on the border between New Mexico and Colorado. Pierre-Loïc has just spent 25 days crossing New Mexico. After passing through arid, semi-desert landscapes under a blazing sun, and as he approaches Colorado, the CDT begins to rise in altitude to 2,500 m and more. The result: a radical change in the weather. All of a sudden, Pierre-Loïc found himself with snow, lots of snow on the route. His last camp in New Mexico was freezing. There was so much snow that he had trouble finding a place to pitch his tent.

Snow, snow and more snow

Pierre-Loïc had known for several weeks from talking to other hikers on the CDT that there was going to be a lot of snow this year. But he didn't think there would be snow almost all the time in Colorado. With so much snow, one of the difficulties was even seeing where the path was. The first hikers on the CDT had passed through just 10 days before and were equipped with crampons and an ice axe. You don't actually need an ice axe to climb. Hikers take it with them when there's a lot of snow to use as a safety device if they start to slip on a large snow-covered traverse. It's the only way to stop them sliding down the traverse.

Looking at the snow totals, Pierre-Loïc decided before embarking on the Colorado crossing to turn back towards Santa Fe in northern New Mexico to equip himself for several weeks of snowy trails. He bought snowshoes so he could walk in the snow and set off on a 32-day crossing of Colorado. During this month-long crossing, he would have 15 days of 'complete' snow, 15 days of snow on the path from morning to night.

Crampons are essential. He alternates between walking on snow, walking on slush and even sometimes in icy water when he has to cross rivers. His feet are wet most of the day, and at night his boots freeze. As he puts it, he ends up with "wooden clogs" in the morning when he has to set off again. It was almost impossible to put them on. He learns quickly and decides to build campfires in the evening to dry his shoes. And he keeps them in his tent at night under his rain trousers so that they're not completely frozen in the morning.

A very high-altitude crossing

During the Colorado crossing, the CDT is at a minimum altitude of 3,000 m over a distance of 1,200 km. So this is high-mountain hiking. And for half of this distance, the CDT is even at an altitude of over 3,500 m. And in terms of snow cover at this time of year, those extra 500m at 3500m make a real difference. What's more, the trail is often on a ridge. This means that hikers are very exposed to wind, hail and the risk of thunderstorms. The tree line in Colorado is at around 3600m altitude. And as the trail is often close to 4,000m altitude, there are many passages without shelter, where Pierre-Loïc finds himself completely in the open. He was lucky, there was no lightning that fell near him during his crossing of the Colorado, but he has heard that for other hikers, lightning sometimes fell quite close to them. The only solution if a storm is approaching and the lightning is getting closer is to go back down in altitude so as not to be completely exposed. But on some nights at very high altitude, there was no other solution than to pitch the tent in the open and hope for the best if a thunderstorm broke out in the middle of the night.

At these altitudes and in these remote areas of Colorado, another challenge was to have a network to stay connected. As Pierre-Loïc had kept his French subscription with an international extension, he didn't have much access to the network, and certainly not as much as American hikers with local subscriptions. Even if he didn't have access to the network every day, by downloading the route and recharging his phone regularly, he could make sure he stayed on the right track to follow the CDT and not stray from the route. This meant being able to manage his electric recharging autonomy over a long period, as well as his water and food autonomy. To be self-sufficient in electrical recharging, Pierre-Loïc bought himself a solar panel before setting off, which was attached to his rucksack. This meant he didn't have to stop too often, unlike other hikers who had to stop mainly to recharge their batteries, literally and perhaps figuratively too.

As the CDT trail is located at high altitude in Colorado, another disadvantage, apart from the cold, snow and exposure to the wind and elements, is the scarcity of wildlife, or at least of visible wildlife. Pierre-Loïc saw a lot of tracks in the snow in the morning, traces of coyotes, foxes, maybe even wolves, but he didn't see any of these animals during the day. He did, however, see his first moose, a member of the elk family. The moose is the largest species in the deer family. Moose have large antlers that grow each year in the spring and they are very imposing in size. They can weigh up to 500 kg for a female and 750 kg for a male. They were reintroduced to Colorado after having disappeared from the state. They are now a protected species in Colorado.

Passing close to the legendary Hard Rock course

Pierre-Loïc is an ultra-trail runner who has run many 100-mile races in the United States. And one of the best-known 100-mile races in the United States is the Hard Rock in the San Juans mountains. Pierre-Loïc has never taken part in it, but when he decided to cross the United States following the CDT, he passed through Silverton, the town where the start and finish of this legendary race take place. A little pilgrimage for ultra-trailers and a nice stopover during his crossing of the United States. This stopover near the famous Hard Rock, which finishers traditionally kiss after completing the course, was almost symbolic of the junction and link between all Pierre-Loïc's experiences as an ultra-trailer runner and his new experience as a long-distance hiker, which he discovered during this cross-country journey along the Continental Divide Trail.

Passing through a burnt forest the day after the fire.

Pierre-Loïc's last memorable episode in Colorado was at the end of his crossing of the state on the day after the American bank holidays, 5 July, when he saw a fire in the distance with a column of smoke. He bivouacked and that night it rained non-stop. In the morning, he set off again and found himself back at the site of the fire, as the CDT road ran right through it. The fire had been put out naturally by the night's rain. Pierre-Loïc was the first on the scene and eventually came across a team of firefighters arriving from the road in the opposite direction to treat the fire. This fire in a fairly remote and isolated part of Colorado was most likely of natural origin, namely lightning from a thunderstorm. During the CDT, Pierre-Loïc passed through other huge areas that had been completely burnt down, these fires being part of the natural regeneration cycle of the 'wild' forests he was passing through.

Endless views

Thinking back over the landscapes Pierre-Loïc has seen in Colorado and comparing them with those of the Alps or the Pyrenees, what struck him most about Colorado are the almost infinite views of valleys and peaks that follow one another on the horizon. An impression of absolute immensity. There's less verticality than in the Alps, but the succession of valleys and peaks as far as the eye can see is very impressive. As the CDT trail is at a high altitude and follows the watershed, Pierre-Loïc could almost visualise this natural watershed by following the ridge line and looking either side of it. To his left, as he walked from south to north, was the western flank of the mountain, where the waters flow towards the Pacific Ocean, and to his right, the eastern flank of the mountain, where the waters flow towards the Atlantic Ocean. The name of the crossing, the Continental Divide Trail, took on its full visual meaning.

In the end, the Colorado crossing took 32 days, and if we add the 25 days of hiking in New Mexico, Pierre-Loïc left Colorado almost two months after starting his incredible journey just a few metres from the Mexican border.

In the third episode of this extraordinary adventure, we will catch up with Pierre-Loïc as he prepares to cross from Colorado to Wyoming.

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