Courtesy of TheRealHikingViking.com
Tom Gathman, a.k.a. "The Real Hiking Viking"
In early December of 2015, Tom Gathman—aka 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 AT, from north to south, in the depths of winter. A few short months later, after persevering through treacherous snowfalls, sub-zero temperatures, encounters with icy rivers, and myriad other perils, Gathman summited Georgia’s Springer Mountain.
In an effort to offer you a brief glimpse of the man behind the adventure, Blue Ridge Country interrupted Gathman’s present thru-hike of the Pacific Coast Trail for a phone conversation.
Blue Ridge Country: After serving as a Marine scout sniper, you left combat, and, in 2013, participated in a Warrior Hike’s Walk Off the War thru-hike of the AT. Shortly thereafter, you made the decision to leave the comforts of the civilian world behind and live the life of a full-time outdoor adventurer. Can you tell us a little about how the experience of that first thru-hike led you to make that decision?
The Real Hiking Viking: For me, that first hike was, both metaphorically and literally, the beginning of a new trail. It brought me a new perspective, ushered me into a new environment of sorts. When I summited Katahdin [the AT’s northern terminus], 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… 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. 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.
On the [Warrior’s Hike] I experienced that so, so often. And it wasn’t always because everything was going right all the time. You experience so many good things and so many bad things all at once, and yet, stretched out over hundreds of miles and countless hours, you always seem to land on your own two feet with a smile on your face at a perfect sunset-facing vista. All the rainy, cold, exhausting, crappy, 20-mile days are worth those moments.
Blue Ridge Country: Since that Warrior’s Hike, you’ve logged over 10,000 miles of trail. Can you talk about your decision to have a go at the winter AT trek?
The Real Hiking Viking: At the time, I was taking some time off long-distance trails to give my body some rest and attend a friend’s wedding in North Carolina. While I was there, I just got struck by the idea: I want to get back on the trail, a winter thru-hike is exactly what I need.
At first I was all, “That sounds crazy,” and that’s because it is a little bit crazy. But the more I thought about it, the more I began to get excited. Like, really excited. I guess it’s that deep down drive that, like most thru-hikers, renders us hopeless against the call for adventure and challenge. Even though a winter thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail was never on my radar until that moment, it just took hold of me instantaneously and completely. It wasn’t a question of wanting so much as having to do it.
Blue Ridge Country: Being this was a sporadic decision, how did you get prepared?
The Real Hiking Viking: I didn’t have any legitimate winter hiking experience—at least to that magnitude. I mean, sure, when I thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail the year before, I got caught in a late, unexpected snow-dump in the south San Juan’s in spring. However, while that did require an ice-axe, micro-spikes, snowshoes, and so on, it wasn’t the dead of winter. While there were some sketchy moments at 13,000-plus feet with storms rolling in, I was aware that deep winter conditions can get a lot colder and gnarlier…
So, in my mind, going into this thing, acquiring the right gear and understanding my limits was of paramount importance—it could mean the difference between life and death. From the beginning, I recognized the risks and didn’t take them lightly. I sought out advice and gear tips from [well-known, experienced thru-hikers] Trauma [who completed a SOBO winter PCT thru-hike in 2015] and Swami [who’s logged more miles of hiking world-wide than anybody I know.
Blue Ridge Country: When you finished the hike, did you feel like you’d accomplished something profound? Did you have the sense of conquering some paramount goal?
The Real Hiking Viking: I’m a competitor. But to me, the winter hike wasn’t about beating any competition other than myself and the elements… I had days where each step—each and every step for 30 miles—I felt like crying. I prayed to God for strength, begged God to take the pain away. I think 99 percent of human-beings would’ve bailed on what I put myself through. But make no mistake, it was all self-inflicted. And, because of that, it was transcendent. So, to answer your question: I feel I accomplished pretty much exactly what I set out to do.
And, the thing is? I plan to put myself through worse.
To learn more about Tom Gathman’s adventures, visit: www.therealhikingviking.com