The Wild Men
“It feels good to be wearing cotton,” chuckles Shawn Forry as he and longtime hiking companion Justin Lichter settle back into the comforts of civilization at Lichter’s home near Lake Tahoe with the help of Redbox and buckets of ice cream. The two have just completed the first-ever winter thru-hike (end-to-end) of the Pacific Crest Trail—2,650 miles from British Columbia to the Mexican border, ranging in altitude from sea level to 13,153 feet at Forester Pass in the Sierra Nevada, where temperatures routinely dip into the minus teens. Since the formation of the trail in 1977, there has only been one couple crazy enough to attempt the winter trek, which ended in tragedy when they slipped on an icy slope and fell several hundred feet to their deaths.
So to accomplish this feat, you’ve either got to be a little nuts, supremely skilled or both. Enter Lichter and Forry, all-around wild men, the embodiment of the phrase try anything once.
Prior to this trip, they had hiked a total of 55,000 miles together since meeting on the PCT in 2004. The two have an extensive long-distance hiking resume—but their accomplishments extend far beyond the orthodox. In 2007, Lichter swam seven consecutive days unsupported around the entire 72-mile circumference of Lake Tahoe without a wetsuit in 45-degree water with only a dry bag of food tied to his waist. For the fun of it.
Two years before that he hiked 356 continuous days over 10,000 miles to complete hiking’s Triple Crown—the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. Forry leads dogsledding tours in the High Sierras during the winter. In 2008, Lichter and Forry became some of the first people ever to travel the 850-mile Hayduke Trail in the Grand Canyon, and in 2011, the duo trekked 1,100 miles in the Himalayas from the Nepal border to the India-Pakistan border.
By the end of their 130-day trip down the PCT, the pair was averaging 30 miles per day. “Thru-hiking the PCT has this culture of athletes who are pretty unrecognized doing 14 hours per day for months at a time,” says Jack Haskel, trail information specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association, an organizing body for the trail based in Sacramento. “Justin and Shawn are those power hikers. They are super athletes.”
We caught up with Lichter and Forry just after they completed their epic trek to discuss 2,650 miles of frostbite, the food they missed and the eccentric characters they met along the way.
THE RED BULLETIN: Where did your backcountry careers begin?
Justin Lichter: I grew up an hour north of New York City, 20 miles from the Appalachian Trail, but I didn’t do any backpacking in high school. When I was in college in Santa Barbara I saw a flyer for an outdoor program where you could get college credit for going backpacking for three months. I signed up for that and went backpacking in southern Utah. The next year I went back to do the Appalachian Trail.
Shawn Forry: I’m from a little town in Pennsylvania called York. I didn’t start backpacking until after high school when a friend of mine found a book at a yard sale that showed you how to find some caves. Just wandering through the woods looking for those caves was where that sense of adventure got engrained in me and that now gets me antsy to get out and do these masochistic things.
Why attempt to thru-hike the PCT in winter?
Lichter: I’ve done it twice before in summer and it’s where we met.
Forry: We wanted to see something we love in a whole different season. We’re constantly trying to grow in our skills and our relationship with wild places.
What was that new skill set that came out of this trip?
Forry: The biggest part was incorporating new modes of transportation. We did 650 miles on snowshoes and 450 miles skiing. There is an additional skill base that is needed for that, so that was a big growth area for us.
How did you train and prepare?
Forry: Physically both Justin and I are comfortable getting off the couch and easing into trips like this. So a lot of it comes down to the mental and logistical side. With this trip in particular given that no one else had ever done it we had to sort out a lot on our own.
Lichter: With the winter the common resupply points are closed because the roads are snowed in, so that made things challenging. And a lot of the ski gear isn’t intended for long distance travel day after day. It’s either heavy or designed for racing so we had to piece that together and take the best of several different worlds to make it work. A couple years ago we did a 250-mile trip through the High Sierras to see what gear would work.
What were the biggest challenges?
Lichter: Postholing—where with every step you have to lift your leg up to your chest— through four feet of snow and moving less than a mile an hour.
Forry: The mental piece was a big thing for me. I gave our odds a 17% chance of doing it. Starting off we were greeted by about a month straight of rain and snow and putting on wet clothes every day is tough. And no matter how much you prepare, your feet are always the limiting factor. We had constant blisters and eventually got frostbite.
What did you miss the most?
Lichter: It’s not easy to keep in touch with your friends and family, so that’s always hard.
Forry: Hot cheese. On a pizza or quesadilla. Cheese dripping over a hot burger. It was always hot cheese.
At several points on the PCT you have to hitchhike into town to resupply. Did you guys meet any interesting characters out there?
Lichter: We got a ride from a guy who was wearing a bright orange hat and had handwritten ‘Will fight for $15 per hour’ on the front of it. The first thing he said when we got in his car was, ‘Just to let you know I’m an extreme leftist Marxist. And the guy in the passenger seat is a felon.’
Forry: [Laughs] We both wished that hitch was longer. We just wanted to hear that guy’s story. You never know who you’re going to run into on the trail, and it’s just part of the experience.
How do you transition back into society after being out in the wild so long?
Forry: My first long distance hike was the Appalachian Trail in 2003. When I came back I was a complete mental mess. I missed the trail and the simplicity of it. I didn’t sleep in a bed for an entire year and I pushed people away. But over the years I’ve been able to transition from trail to life a lot easier because I’ve applied those lessons from the trail to my everyday experience of living.
What are some of those trail lessons?
Forry: In society it’s about biggering and bettering and more, more, more. The trail is the exact opposite. It’s about caring less and moving further each day. The trail shows you that you can live simply and do more with less. I think learning new things and being open to saying yes more is how you find that balance. It’s not a glamorous lifestyle, but it’s a very enriching lifestyle.