Hiking the Triple Crown
Matt Halfar has seen some of the best wilderness areas in the country, honed his long-distance hiking skills and covered nearly 8,000 miles on foot in the last few years.
The 34-year-old Mahomet man, who works as a remodeling contractor when he’s not on the trail, accomplished a feat only a relative handful of hikers can say they’ve done. Halfar completed the Triple Crown of Hiking — the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail — when he finished hiking the CDT earlier this fall.
Halfar took his first backpacking trip when he was a senior in college, and he fell in love with it, even though his pack was so heavy he could hardly lift it. A family friend in Colorado introduced him to the mountains and got him hooked on adventure and travel.
He wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail, but it took him another 10 years to set out on a long-distance hike. When he did, he chose the Pacific Crest Trail, which he hiked in 2011.
“Once I went to Colorado and saw what rugged, rocky mountains are like, eastern mountains didn’t really appeal to me,” Halfar said. “But I fell in love with the Appalachian Trail when I hiked it. It’s different. It’s a forest.”
He had done hikes lasting four to five days before attempting the Pacific Crest Trail. He read about the PCT, talked to friends who had hiked the Appalachian Trail, then jumped into it. The hiking was different than Halfar imagined.
“I kind of expected to be alone in the wilderness a lot. I came to find I enjoyed the social aspect of the trail as much as anything,” he said.
He enjoyed the community of hikers and how they helped one another, sharing information on what water sources were flowing in the desert or where to safely cross a river. Another hiker who had taken a course in winter mountaineering instructed Halfar and several others gathered in a hotel lobby on snow travel and on how to work together to safely cross a swollen creek, just before they ventured into the Sierra Nevada.
The Pacific Crest Trail provided a variety of terrain, from desert to high alpine. Hikers deal with long distances between water sources and intense sun in the desert — not to mention snow in the mountains. The Pacific Crest Trail saw a record snowfall in 2011, when Halfar was hiking.
He perfected his navigational skills during the hike. While most hikers use GPS, Halfar prefers reading a map and taking compass bearings to navigate — and matching a mental image of the map with the terrain through which he was hiking.
By the time he made it through the Sierra Nevada, he felt confident of his hiking and navigational skills.
But a severe sinus infection progressed to a bone infection when he was in the North Cascades, with about 100 miles and six days of hiking left. It was snowing, and the window of time to finish the hike “was going to slam shut any time.” Halfar debated about going to the hospital and losing the opportunity to finish the hike — or continuing to hike and perhaps not surviving it. In the end, another hiker gave him antibiotics, and he was able to finish.
He was already planning to hike the Appalachian Trail the next year and the Continental Divide Trail the following year.
“It makes you feel really alive to be exposed to the elements, to feel discomfort and pain. To wake up with the sun and go to sleep with the sun. To accept things as they are,” Halfar said. “If it rains for two weeks straight, you just walk in the rain.”
It was also difficult to reintegrate to regular life after being on the trail.
“Everything moves so fast,” he said. “It’s an interesting thing to have to adjust to, the pace of life, vehicles, the expectation of being available, answering your phone.”
Halfar began running in 2010 to train for the Pacific Crest Trail hike, finding he enjoyed barefoot running most. He hiked 650 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail barefoot. Thus his trail name: Softwalker.
And the activity and his interest in ultralight hiking — carrying the minimal amount of gear safely possible — complements his philosophy of living simply and consuming few resources. He learned more about living a frugal lifestyle from hiking.
“For me, it was firsthand experience about having a minimum of material possessions, but having such a rich life,” he said. “With hiking, you’re penalized for having more things by having the burden of carrying them.”
Halfar carried a base pack weighing 12 pounds. That includes the pack, sleeping bag, clothes and a poncho tarp he used for both cover from rain and shelter, rather than a tent. Adding 10 days’ worth of food increased it to 40 pounds.
Halfar hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012 with his sister Laurel, who had just finished graduate school at the University of Illinois. He said the AT is much more forgiving than the other two trails in that it is well-marked and easier to hike logistically, as it crosses more roads. There are also many more shelters and hikers — and a long history of hiker culture and support from people both on and off the trail.
But the hiking itself was not easier, Halfar said. The trail is more rugged and rocky, with steeper climbs, than the Pacific Crest Trail.
His longest hike during the Triple Crown was a 44-mile day on the Appalachian Trail, to do a four-state challenge in which hikers try to set foot in Pennslvania, Maryland, West Virginia and Virginia in one day. He and Laurel also hiked through the Smoky Mountains during a three-day blizzard set off by Hurricane Sandy.
“It wasn’t easy, but it was really awesome,” Halfar said. “One of the most-visited national parks was essentially abandoned. There’s something about fresh snow that is pretty awesome. And making first tracks in fresh snow.”
This year’s hike of the Continental Divide Trail required more logistical planning and more navigating. Many trail sections are not marked, and “you have to pay attention all day long so when you come to an unmarked junction, you have an idea where you are,” he said.
It was also the most intense hike in terms of weather and difficulty. Halfar said the trail was similar to the most difficult parts of the Appalachian Trail, but he had to hike more miles per day to finish it. Mountain weather means the CDT and PCT provide hikers a much smaller window of hiking days than the AT.
He hiked mostly alone but formed loose partnerships with other hikers during bad weather. They would check in with each other at the end of the day and camp together, and they stayed within eyesight of each other in deeper snow.
Halfar’s most unnerving experience came when he went off the trail during his CDT hike to cross a glacier. He intended to hike over a couple of mountain peaks and rejoin the trail. He didn’t have the proper equipment to hike on a glacier, though, and he fell and dislocated his shoulder. Halfar said he likes testing his limits, but he was “ignorant to how unforgiving glaciers can be.”
He said he had to talk himself down several times when he started to freak out to continue across the glacier and get back to the trail. He hiked 38 miles after his fall before a ranger could pick him up and take him to a hospital to get his shoulder set.
After he returned to the trail, he hiked the last few days through a blizzard in Glacier National Park, through thigh-deep snow and whiteout conditions, with 80 to 100 mph wind gusts at mountain passes. Icy snow blasted his face, and he would fall to his hands and knees to avoid getting pushed down by the wind. The park was shutting down, and some bridges across rivers had already been removed.
Halfar finished the trail in late September. He’s hoping to hike the Pacific Crest Trail again next year, and someday he’d like to hike around the world, connecting long-distance trails.
He has a lifetime goal of 100,000 human-powered miles. But the key to finishing a hike, he said, is persistence and not thinking about the length of a trail from the beginning because it’s overwhelming. One step at a time.
Triple trail task
Matt Halfar of Mahomet completed the Triple Crown of Hiking, which is hiking the three major long-distance trails in the United States:
-- Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, through California, Oregon and Washington, including the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Halfar hiked northbound from April 28 to Oct. 17, 2011.
-- Appalachian Trail, 2,180 miles, between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. Halfar hiked southbound from June 10 to Nov. 10, 2012.
-- Continental Divide Trail, 3,100 miles, following the Continental Divide between Mexico and Canada, through Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico. Halfar hiked northbound from April 10 to Sept. 29, 2013.
The Triple Crown is recognized by the American Long Distance Hiking Association West. As of October 2012, 174 hikers had received the Triple Crown Award from the organization.
Photos: All are from Halfar's Continental Divide Trail hike. From top to bottom: Halfar in the South San Juan Wilderness in southern Colorado. The desert in southern New Mexico. Northern New Mexico. Halfar at Wolf Creek Pass in southern Colorado. Halfar's camp along the trail in southern Colorado. The Weminuche Wilderness in southern Colorado. A panoramic view from the top of Torreys Peak in central Colorado. Halfar in Glacier National Park in Montana. Photos provided by Matt Halfar.