The mountains are calling and I must go. – John Muir
When naturalist John Muir made that statement more than 100 years ago, he understood the draw that mountains have on the human heart.
This summer, the mountains called to two young hikers who are doing the equivalent of a marathon every day, seeing the most spectacular views in North America and enduring what nature throws at them.
Kyle Kohn is a 2011 Hamilton high school graduate, his friend Tom Ward is a MSU student from Illinois and Wisconsin. The two friends have been hiking the Continental Divide Trail since March, starting from Mexico on March 23, and will complete the 2,800 mile trek mid-August in Waterton, Alberta, Canada.
Kohn graduated in industrial engineering this spring and Ward has another year to go to get his degree in sustainable foods and bioengineering.
They had talked about hiking the Continental Divide Trail for the last few years.
“I graduated, we had the time and decided not to talk about it but just do it,” Kohn said. “We did plan some and then learned along the way.”
Ward said initially they were not ready.
“I think we were underprepared physically at the beginning,” he said.
Kohn said the most under prepared thing they did was being over prepared.
“It’s like you go from your normal backpacking and you want all this stuff, but when you are walking all day every day, it comes to what is the bare minimum, the absolute fewest things I can carry to be able to survive out there,” he said. “We carry half as much as we started with because every little bit makes a world of difference.”
Kohn and Ward cached water every 30 miles in the dessert on their way south. They started hiking on March 23 from Crazy Cook on the border between New Mexico and Mexico.
“The typical hiker starts about a month after that,” Kohn said. “We started because we were anxious. We had the time and decided we might as well start. Tom needs to return to school and by starting early we had time to stop along the way and fish.”
“I love to fly fish and it was one of the reasons to do the trail,” Ward said. “The fishing is fantastic all long the trail, especially as we get farther north. We’re the only ones on the trail that carry fly fishing gear.”
They started with 40-pound packs, increased to 45 when they had snow gear, but have pared down to 25-30 pounds. They packed just enough food to get to the next town, possibly six days away, then resupplied.
“Usually it works to go into town, get a motel, take a shower, wash all your clothes, eat as much as you can, call your family, get your supplies, sleep and go back to the trail,” Kohn said.
A “zero day” is a day off, where hikers make no mileage. They hiked a month before taking a zero day. The first month they hiked across the New Mexico dessert. Ward hiked in pain with blisters, bruises and swollen feet.
“Kyle is so much taller and has a longer stride that I have to take twice as many steps to keep up,” Ward said. “I’ve gone from a 10ƒ to a 12 in shoe size. The all-day pounding flattens and widens your feet. I’m on my sixth pair of running shoes.”
The hikers said they wear running shoes because their feet are always wet and boots would never dry. They found a 50-pound elk head and carried it 100 miles before they could ship it to Montana. They crossed the desert and once had to drink water from a cattle trough with dead rats, bacteria and water lice.
“We used the Aquamira water treatment but there was still bugs swimming around in it,” Kohn said. “We just put some powder in it and flavored it up. We camp each night near water, drink all we can each morning then just carry one or two bottles. We’re not following the river, we are following the tips of the peaks. We’re at the top of the watershed.”
Colorado had incredibly deep snow and was the most challenging part of the trip. The Continental Divide Trail is not always well marked and when they got to Colorado, the trail and markers were under 10 feet of snow.
“We were snowshoeing it but we made our own route following the topography,” Kohn said. “There are general guidelines but you have to navigate your own trip. We hit southern Colorado and everyone was like ‘there’s no way you can cross the San Juan Mountains.’ We did. It would be more work to walk eight miles up there than to walk 30 miles on dry ground.”
They got snowed into their tent for two days and also hiked Mount Elbert, the tallest mountain in the Rocky Mountains at 14,439 feet. Supplies and gear were ordered online from the top of a mountain peak when they had cell service.
“Most towns are small without high quality outdoor gear,” Kohn said. “You ship it to their general delivery at the post office and just deal with it for a couple of days until you can get there.”
Kohn said the best part of the hike has been being intertwined with the locals and the progress.
“One of my favorite things is you come up on a mountain, and you see another set of mountains that might be 200 miles away, and you see it and then you go through a slow process of three or four days and the mountains are getting closer and closer, and five days later you’re standing on top of the mountain you were looking at when you look back as far as your eye can see. You think, ‘I walked all that in the horizon,” Kohn said.
Ward said that the best part is the view.
“When you wake up and have the best view you’ve ever seen in your entire life, right there next to you ,” he said. “You’re in the middle of nowhere, no one is going to bother you and you have all the peace in the world.”
Although they take time to play and fish, no day of the trail has been easy.
“You don’t walk 20 miles every day and have it be easy,” Kohn said. “You just have to put in the time. Just get in the right mindset and set larger goals. I think ‘I’m going to try to hike 12 miles before I take a break’ ‘I’m going to hike four miles before I stop’ – so you get in a lot different mindset.”
“The days are starting to get shorter again, but we’re getting faster so that is nice,” Ward said.
“We’re walking a three and a half miles-an-hour pace versus the one mile an hour we were doing in the beginning.”
Kohn said most people who are physically fit could hike the Continental Divide Trail but the biggest challenges are mental.
“It’s just all mental because you’re out in the woods day after day after day and you have all day to think about whatever you want, and a lot of people start driving themselves insane,” he said. “The mental aspect is the most underrated. If you can keep your mind in high enough morale and your mind allows you to continue. I think ‘how can I make my walk the most efficient walk that I could possibly do for the least amount of energy.’”
The hikers are 2,400 miles into their journey, the farthest of north bound hikers.
“We are first and leading the trail,” Kohn said. “There are lots of hikers behind us but no one ahead of us. We’ve run into people who started at Glacier and are headed south. We recently started hitting hikers about Yellowstone but we hiked for months without seeing anybody.”
Kohn and Ward are the first hikers to reach Lost Trail Pass, which they did on July 10 during a blizzard. They stepped off the trail to reconnect with family in Hamilton, and returned to the trail on July 14.
Kurt Kohn, Kyle’s father, is the counselor at Darby schools. He helped the hikers cache water in New Mexico, picked them up last Sunday and hiked with them on Thursday.
“I think I’m in good physical shape,” Kurt Kohn said. “I just did the Missoula Marathon and I could not keep up with them. They travel the distance that is equal to a marathon every day, or close to it. They are going up and down rough and steep terrain. I’d get behind, then have to jog to catch up on the straight parts. I’m so impressed with them.”
Kyle Kohn and Tom Ward press a satellite device each night that provides their families comfort, with their exact coordinates.
As John Muir also said, “Going to the mountains is going home.”