In early December of 2015, Tom Gathman—a.k.a. The Real Hiking Viking—set out to accomplish a feat that, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, only a handful of daring hikers have ever managed: An unsupported, solo thru-hike of all 2,180 miles of the A.T., from north to south, in the depths of winter. Gathman faced treacherous snowfalls, sub-zero temperatures, and icy river crossings.
“I didn’t really have any legitimate winter hiking experience—at least to that magnitude,” he laughs. “I mean, sure, when I thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail the year before, I got caught in an unexpected snowfall. But while that required an ice-axe, micro-spikes, snowshoes, and so on, it wasn’t the dead of winter. I knew that, with the A.T. thing, conditions would be much gnarlier, and longer-lasting.”
Despite the experiential deficit, Gathman was confident in his ability to push his body to the limits of its physical capacity. By the time he committed to the hike, he’d already managed to log around 10,000 miles of trail—including thru-hikes of the Arizona Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. And all of those miles had been logged in the span of less than three years. Aside from a few months laying over here and there, Gathman had essentially been living on the trail since 2013.
After serving as a Marine scout sniper and completing two tours in Iraq (2007–2009), at the age of 29, Gathman retired from the military. Returning to civilian life in 2012, he was asked to participate in a program for new veterans, called the Warrior’s Hike. In the spirit of the first documented thru-hiker to walk the A.T., World War II veteran Earl Shaffer, the idea was that a group of veterans could get funding, take to the woods as a team, and, with the guidance of an experienced mentor, spend some months walking off the war.
“For me, that first hike was, both metaphorically and literally, the beginning of a new trail,” says Gathman. “It brought me a new perspective, ushered me into a new environment of sorts. When I summited Katahdin, I just wanted to continue the journey—that adventure, that lifestyle, that mentality, that dream. I wanted to surround myself with the goodness the trail provides, that overwhelming sense of wholesomeness, of fullness.”
After that initial journey, he went on to lead a second Warrior’s Hike along the CDT, tackled various state trails, and attempted a solo thru-hike of the Pacific Coast Trail (an effort ultimately thwarted by wildfires). Regarding the miles collectively, Gathman identified a kind of unifying emotional experience that kept him coming back for more.
“You know, it’s that feeling where you suddenly know without a doubt you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be and doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “For me, it’s akin to a religious experience. I liken being on the trail to glimpsing a view that only God could have made, for you and you alone. The perfect sight for that specific moment in time.”
In late-October of 2015, upon finding himself attending a friend’s very posh and comfortable wedding in North Carolina, Gathman got a little antsy. Fresh off his grueling, interrupted attempt of the PCT, despite intentions to use the wedding as an excuse to give his body some much-needed rest, the call of the trail was overwhelming. He craved the isolation, the quietude, the action.
“When I first got the idea for the winter hike, I thought, ‘This is crazy,’ and that’s because it was a little crazy,” he says. “But the more I thought about it, the more I began to get excited. Like, really excited. I guess that deep-down drive most thru-hikers have was kicking in, that thing that renders us hopeless against the call for adventure and challenge… In a very tangible way, I was homesick. I wanted to get back out on my own, out in the wild with just myself and the mountains and the weather and the water and the trees.”
With little time to spare, Gathman sought advice and gear tips from other, experienced winter thru-hikers, like Trauma, who completed a winter PCT thru-hike in 2015, as well as Swami, whom Gathman claims has logged more miles of hiking worldwide than anyone he knows of. Armed with the gurus’ wisdom and a gutful of gumption, he set out for Katahdin and the subsequent 100 Mile Wilderness.
However, while mentally understanding the nature of a winter-hike was one thing, actually experiencing the beast was quite another. Within the first few days, Gathman realized how hard this thing he’d gotten himself into was really going to be. The gap between this and his prior efforts out west was immense.
“Those trails were practically sidewalks compared to the shit-storm of ruggedness I’d thrown myself into,” says Gathman. “The contrast between those earlier trips and hitting the Maine woods in December was so drastic as to be almost unfathomable. Multiply that by sub-freezing weather, knee-deep snow, un-tempered winds, and pounds upon pounds of extra gear, and the shock factor went through the roof. The holes in my planning became rapidly apparent.”
As such, Gathman’s opening act—the 100 Mile Wilderness—turned out to be something of a prep-hike for the rest of the trail.
“Now that’s planning,” he says, laughing. “Take the most remote, and one of the most rugged stretches on the entire trail and make that your test run. Pretty ideal.”
Being thrown into the tribulations headlong would ultimately prove worthwhile. Averaging between 15 – 20 miles a day, after five intensive months, in late-April, Gathman summited Springer Mountain.
“For most of the journey I was either in motion or about to get in my sleeping bag—those were the two ways I existed in that world,” he says. “I didn’t think about Georgia, not even the next state. I literally thought about nothing but the next stretch of trail and the next resupply point… If I went out there expecting my days to be like walking on rainbows and dancing in sunshine, I wouldn’t have made it. It was rugged, treacherous, and freezing. I had to fully accept those conditions and approach the thing one numbed footfall after the next.”
In the end, despite early mishaps like slipping on ice, falling down a 100-foot slope and tearing cartilage in his knee, or slipping waist-deep into a half-frozen river and, after scrambling to make a fire, just barely escaping life-threatening hypothermia and frostbite, or going two days without food due to hideous weather conditions, Gathman says the adventure was worth it.
“There’s just something about setting and accomplishing goals every day and physically exerting myself,” he says. “It works for me on such a fundamental level that I’m at peace with it. It’s a simple way of living and it’s a pure way of living… I don’t anticipate stopping anytime soon.”