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Adventurers Complete First-Ever Winter Thru-Hike Of Pacific Crest Trail

Two experienced hikers arrived safe and sound at the Mexican border Sunday, four-and-a-half months after beginning their trek in the North Cascades.

Expert outdoorsmen Shawn Forry and Justin Lichter completed the first-ever full traverse of the Pacific Crest Trail in the dead of winter.

Forry, 33, is an Outward Bound instructor now living near the edge of Yosemite National Park. Lichter, 34, hails from Truckee, California, where he works as a ski patroller when not out on a trail. Long distance hikers frequently go by a nickname on the trail. Forry's trail name is "Pepper." Lichter is known in hiking circles as "Trauma."

The pair received congratulations from a small crowd of friends, family and distance hiking enthusiasts who had waited in the rain beside the southern trail terminus monument near Campo, California. Forry's mother held up a hand-drawn sign that read, "Thank God You Made It!"

"The rain was a pretty fitting ending for the trip," Lichter observed, considering that buckets of rain christened the beginning of the trip on October 21, 2014 and continued for weeks afterwards.

Forry and Lichter said frostbite was a companion beginning in November. The two adventurers crossed Washington and Oregon on boots and snowshoes. They traversed 450 miles of the High Sierras on backcountry skis before reverting to boots for the home stretch.

Speaking from San Diego, Forry and Lichter said it was unfortunate their trek coincided with a low snowpack winter.

"We were hoping for at least an average winter,” Lichter said.

Forry said, "I would say it was safer, but more challenging."

Lichter pointed out one safety advantage. "Avalanche danger was a little lower or a lot lower,” he said.

"But without a consistent snowpack,” Forry added, “we were skiing through more hazards, more rocks... and more variable conditions.”

‘The right skills and knowledge’

According to the Pacific Crest Trail Association, no one is known to have completed a wintertime through-hike of the 2,650-mile trail before these two did it. There is no official record keeper for American hiking achievements.

”I trust what they say [about being the first,]” PCTA trail information specialist Jack Haskel said. “Justin and Shawn are both extremely experienced long-distance wilderness travelers. They had all the right skills and knowledge. It was very risky. I'm impressed."

Heather Anderson, who holds the record for the fastest through-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail by a woman, called Forry and Lichter's winter traverse "incredible" and "remarkable." The Bellingham-based hiker wrote on her blog that she was lucky enough to tag along for about 100 miles of the journey in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Lichter said he knows of only one previous attempt at a winter traverse of the national scenic trail. That northbound journey ended in tragedy soon after it started in 1983. A husband and wife descending into Wrightwood, California, veered off of a side trail into a canyon and fell to their deaths.

Forry recalled that he rated the chances of success at 17 percent when he and Lichter started walking southbound from the Canadian border down the spine of the Cascade Mountains back in October.

Beauty and solitude

"It has been one of the best trail experiences I have personally had in the last decade," Forry marveled from the southern terminus. "I think it will be something I continually reflect back on and pull nuggets of wisdom from."

"You learn a lot about yourself - what you can tolerate and overcome," Lichter added. "Part of the intention of the trip was to show people that winter tends to be an accessible time of year to get outside and is really beautiful."

Lichter regularly updated an online journal during the long trek in which he remarked upon the beauty and solitude of the PCT in winter. In early February before a rest stop north of Los Angeles, the pair had their first encounter with other people on the trail since Snoqualmie Pass, Washington.

"We saw an overnight hiker and a couple that was day hiking about 5 miles north of Walker Pass, which would be about mile 2,005 for us,” Lichter wrote in his journal. “Considering Snoqualmie Pass was about mile 250, it had been about 1,750 miles without seeing anybody on the trail, or roughly 2/3 of the total mileage!"

Lichter and Forry's lonely experience stands in contrast to the surge in trail traffic expected this spring and summer in the wake of the successful Hollywood adaptation of Portland writer Cheryl Strayed's hiking memoir "Wild."

The U.S. Forest Service anticipates the Pacific Crest Trail to be so popular this year, it modified the permit system to spread long distance hikers out. Northbound departures from the trail's terminus at the Mexican border will be capped at 50 people per day.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.