When Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter, hiking partners from California, announced their plan to make a winter crossing of the Pacific Crest Trail, a local paper suggested the duo was "asking for a death sentence." The PCT extends 2,650 miles from Canada to Mexico through the Cascade and Sierra Nevada mountains. Though it's a popular destination for summer hikers (and the setting of Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir, Wild), more people have climbed Everest than have hiked the entire trail. And no one had ever completed it during the winter. The last known attempt, in 1983, ended with the deaths of two hikers. "That was a little bit of an eye-opener," says Forry. "Like, was this trip a death sentence?"
At the end of October, Forry, 33, and Lichter, 34, set off from northern Washington and didn't encounter another hiker on the PCT for the next 1,750 miles. Weather would change on an hourly basis – avalanches and hypothermia were a constant threat. The shortest distance they covered in a single day was nine miles, while snowshoeing through four feet of snow. "You're lifting your leg up to the middle of your chest every step," says Lichter. On March 1, they reached the Mexican border – having averaged 20 miles a day – and secured a place in trail history.
"It's definitely a personal journey," says Forry. "Just being able to dream up ideas like this and go out and live it."
Both are experienced mountaineers. Forry is a program director at Outward Bound, and Lichter is a member of the ski patrol at the Sugar Bowl in Lake Tahoe. Prior to the trip, the pair had walked a few thousand miles together on major routes around the world, and each had made summertime thru-hikes on the PCT. "We've hiked so many miles together, we already know what the other is thinking," says Lichter. "If you spend that much time together in high-stress situations, you're pretty compatible."
But this trip tested their nerves like nothing before. They had just two sunny days during three weeks of travel through Washington. As they walked through
Oregon, the state experienced record precipitation and subzero temperatures. "We definitely had to pay our dues at the beginning of the trip," says Forry. "You kind of question your sanity at times." Just south of Mount Hood, they each got frostbite on both feet. "We had a pretty serious conversation that the trip could end at that point," says Forry. "For the next two or three weeks, it was walking through a lot of constant pain."
Despite their discomfort, the pair persevered. Once they made it out of the High Sierras, where they backcountry skied for 450 miles, hiking for a month through 650 miles of balmy California desert seemed easy. Friends and family were on hand at the Mexican border to celebrate the achievement, but finishing the trek was bittersweet for Forry. "The routine we had become accustomed to was over," he says. "There is such a feeling of freedom living in the moment every day. But I've learned to apply some of the lessons of the trail into my everyday life: to live simply, appreciate every moment, and seek out new experiences."