Back to the future

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February 14, 2015 — I’m packing up and headed for some training in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) has a base camp there used for training year round and for trail crews in the summer.

I’ll be joining a group of ridgerunners.  Ridgerunners patrol in season the Appalachian Trail (AT) from beginning to end.  The onset of thru hiking season is just around the corner,  and it’s time to get ready.

My role is to test the use of volunteers to augment the paid seasonal staff.  The difference is that I’ll be there only for the month of March.  Everyone else is there for the duration of hiking season – until autumn.

The need for the test is that AT (and other trails) is expected to see a large increase next year in thru hike attempts in response to the movies “Wild” in theaters now, and “A Walk in the Woods” which will be in theaters before summer’s end.

ATHikers

Historical data establishes a direct correlation between increases in thru hike attempts and popular mass media about hiking or the AT.  Books, television, videos have done it every time.  Now we have Hollywood to help drive up the numbers next year.

My patrol area is the AT’s 78 miles in Georgia.  We walk five days and spend four nights on the trail.  The sixth day is off.  Of interest, we hike southbound (SOBO) for the purpose of meeting as many thru hikers as possible.  Once we reach Springer Mountain, the Georgia Appalachian Trail Club shuttles us back north to do it all again.

Among our duties is to help hikers as we can, educate them on Leave No Trace™ principles and trail etiquette, pick up litter, do minor trail repairs, and report issues we cannot handle.  These hikes are not about miles.  They’re about the smiles.

The forecast isn’t friendly, at least for next week.  It’s going to be colder than a well digger’s backside in the Smoky’s.  So much so that we’ve been told that we’ll be spending our nights at the basecamp and none sleeping outside. Yea!  No sense practicing being miserable.

The weather in Georgia will probably whip back and forth between ugly and nice with huge improvements toward the end of March.  Still, the southern Appalachians are high enough that snow can fall into April, even when the temperatures in Atlanta and points south are cooking.

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I’m looking forward to some former stomping grounds.  Dick’s Creek Gap is just short of the North Carolina border and the northern edge of the patrol area.  Blood Mountain is in the center of the sector.  It’s got some interesting native American history with some ornery bear activity on the side.

I plan to blog daily, but publish them as every fifth or sixth day as time permits just like I did on my thru hike.  So stay tuned.  If anyone has read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods, you know this could be interesting.

Let’s go hiking

A few folks have asked me to continue hiking adventure stories.  There are a few real adventures in the work, but in the meantime, here’s what a friend and I were up to this weekend as posted on “Life at two miles per hour.”

Winter Test Drive

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Shenandoah National Park, Appalachian Trail NOBO miles 917.2 to 937.2 (20 miles), January 19, 2015 —  Just like a new car, it’s best to test drive hiking and camping in the winter before buying in completely.  So it was with my friend and trail crew colleague.  She knows her trail craft and is quite comfortable in the woods, but she wanted winter experience.  She’s hoping to thru hike the AT in the future and knows that partying in the cold and snow is almost an automatic on an AT thru hike.  Unlike most guys who would not admit it, she embraces her desire to learn with gusto.

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Denise

So, off we went this weekend on a 20-mile, three day/two overnight, trip along Shenandoah’s most scenic vistas and popular places including Hawksbill (the highest peak in the park), Big Meadows, Rock Springs, Skyland, Stony Man, the Pinacles and Mary’s Rock.

Though the sun smiled upon us most of the time, the temps averaged in the 20s with a biting wind entering stage right and left at cheek chapping intervals. The objective was not to cover ground.  It was to live in the winter weather for the better part of three days and two nights and see what we could learn.

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So off we went… Enjoying the winter wonderland.

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The first day’s walk terminated at Rock Springs Hut.  I stayed there on my thru hike last year.  It’s setting features a gorgeous view through the trees in front of a nearby cabin owned by the Potomac Appalachian Trail club.

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Rock Springs Cabin

Four adult Scout leaders were using it – getting away from the boys for a weekend.

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After camp chores at the shelter, we went down to the cabin to snap some pics.

On the Appalachian Trail, shelters are called “huts” in Shenandoah and “lean-toos” in Maine.

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Would you believe it was cold outside?

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The view from the cabin.

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Sunset behind the privy.

Overnight the wind snarled with gusto, but the dawn air was so still you could hear yourself change your mind!  We popped up, packed up, and after a quick meal of coffee and oatmeal, made a quick giddy up.  No sense wasting time when it’s temperature is singing bass notes toward the low end of the register.  Movement = warmth!

The scenery during the second day was worthy of being memorialized by the likes of Winslow Homer.

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Same scene.  Different vantage points.

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Winter is nature stripped down to its birthday suit.  Not much to hide.

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Birds Nest 3, our final shelter is a party spot and not the most hospitable place.  The fireplace doesn’t do much good in a three sided enclosure.  The wind howled all night and occasionally spit enough granular snow to remind us who was boss.

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The morning made for a quick get-away back to our cars.

All in all, a weekend marked by challenge and success.

Worst Case Scenario

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland

The range of winter weather in the southern Appalachian Trail and mountains ranges from pleasantly mild to bitter cold with heavy snow.

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is both noted as the home of the highest peak east of the Mississippi (Clingman’s Dome – 6,643 ft.) but probably more so for its terrible winter weather.  Just this week a group of ill-prepared hikers required rescue from the cold and snow. http://www.weather.com/video/hikers-rescued-in-snowstorm-42994?

With facts like these in mind, I re-evaluated my winter kit over the holidays.

When I left the trail to celebrate Christmas with my family, my basic sleeping system, due to my distance runner’s stature, was based on a woman’s Sierra Designs woman’s dry down 25 degree bag supplemented by “puffy” down booties, pants and two down jackets sized to fit inside one another.

I am a warm sleeper and reasoned that the sleeping bag was good to at least 20 degrees F in my case.  With the booties, pants and jackets I figured that I could get to -10 F comfortably.  A zero degree night of borderline comfort proved me wrong.

So, I resurrected my zero degree 70’s vintage, but weighty, Holubar sleeping bag .  Holubar was bought by North Face decades ago, for the record.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I adore winter hiking and camping.  To be redundant, it’s unique and there’s nothing like it.  To be selfish, this week I spent four days on the AT and guess how many other hikers I saw?  Zero!  The AT was mine alone for that time.  Not a human track anywhere.

I enjoy company on the trail, but those who have thru hiked during the crowded traditional hiker season may appreciate what it means to have the trail and the woods, not to mention every shelter and privy all to one’s self.  It’s an amazing experience and privileged access to a treasured public accommodation not to be lightly dismissed.

When I hit the trail on Tuesday, I knew that the weather forecast for Thursday and Friday was ominous. As I ‘misunderstood’ it, the chance of rain on Thursday was 40 percent with an 80 percent chance of snow on Friday.  The bottom was supposed to drop out of the thermometer Friday night.  I was only slightly off.

Knowing it “might” rain on Thursday, January 2, I prepared appropriately.  When I bounded away from Thomas Knob Shelter, I was ‘armored up’ in rain gear including waterproof mitten shells and my new (and third) pack cover was battened down with a cat 5 hurricane in mind.

What foresight, if I do say so myself.  Ever seen a cow urinate on a flat rock?  That’s how the rain let loose about five steps after I jumped out of the shelter door!

Bam!!! I was swimming in the soup.  The volume varied, but the precipitation didn’t let up all day as my boots squished steadily southward across White Top Mountain in the direction of Damascus. The going was slow.

Here’s the good news and bad news.  First the bad.  The temperature all day hovered around 32 degrees.  The ground remained frozen. As proof, I nearly crashed and burned crossing a gravel parking lot glazed with a hidden layer of slick black ice.  On the positive side, my rain gear and base layer did their jobs.  I arrived in camp in very good shape considering.

I had hoped for a 24 mile day.  If I could do that, I’d be in Damascus by noon Friday and home Friday evening.  That was not to be.  Oh well, flexibility is a key to happy hiking.

At 4:30 p.m. I made Lost Mountain Shelter.  The temp was dropping and the rain was just beginning to mix with snow.  With my quota still six miles away, I realized that I’d be night hiking yet again.  This time with early darkness caused by the cloud cover, it would mean almost three murky hours in sleet and snow.

The decision to stop for the night was a no-brainer.  I was fatigued from the previous two tough days.  Given the day’s rain volume, who knows how heavy the snow might become.  Headlamps penetrate snow no better than car headlights see through fog.  The trail bed was icy in spots.  Check dams can form frozen skating rinks in winter.  Not safe.  Time to check my ambition at the door and brake for sanity.

Good decision.  The shelter was clean and in good repair with convenient amenities thanks to the local trail club volunteers. The spring and privy were handy.  The setting was aesthetically pleasing.  It doesn’t get better than that on the AT.

It also was nice to have extra time to settle in.  I wouldn’t have to cook or set up my bedroll by headlamp.  As the curtain of darkness smothered the landscape, my appetite was satiated and I rolled into my sleeping bag. It was around 6 p.m.  Hiker midnight is a relative condition… set at any time you want if you’re solo.

Since the previous two nights bottomed out in the low 20s, I expected the trend to continue because my understanding was that the super cold would arrive overnight on Friday.  By then I could now anticipate being comfortably ensconced once again at Crazy Larry’s.  Accordingly I chose to wear fewer layers and not don my down pants or booties.  I did, as I habitually do, tuck into bed with me a liter of water, a butane canister and a pair of mittens.  Since it was time to change socks, I put on fresh liners and socks.

I fell asleep almost immediately.  When I winked out, rain drops were still tapping the shelter’s tin roof.  In time nature called.  Without glasses I glanced at my watch.  I thought it read 5:30 a.m.  I felt like I’d slept through the night.  That would be a record.  As I parked my glasses on my nose to confirm the time, I realized it was only 9:30 p.m.  Oops!

The weather was calm.  The rain had stopped.  Not much snow was falling.  The temperature was moderate.  I plugged in my iPod to a vintage radio playlist and drifted off to an episode of “Richard Diamond, Private Detective.”

Ever imagined what sleeping next to a thousand-car freight train at full speed sounds like?  That thought jerked me awake around 11:15 p.m. as the wind howled and trees cracked and groaned.  Thank you Benton MacKaye for imagining shelters built like military bunkers.

The snow was swirling like icy diamond dust as it sprinkled my face with surrealistic pin pricks.  I cinched down the opening to my sleeping bag to the size of  grapefruit.  My nose was colder than I could remember it being for a long time, yet my body was toasty.  Back to sleep.

The wind kept blasting away.  Falling branches and trees served as multiple alarm clocks trough the night.  My exposed nose-o-meter sensed remarkably lower temperatures.  What layers should I wear tomorrow if this continues, I worried?  That the next day’s destination, 18.5 miles away, was Damascus was the saving grace.  With that in mind, I reasoned I could gut through most anything.

A sudden silence awakened me around 5:30 a.m.  The driving wind stopped like Mother Nature flipped a switch.  Check.  The front moved on.  One problem solved.  Extreme wind chill was out of the wardrobe and safety equation.  Amen!

Knowing I had big miles to go, I was up and moving well before six.  As I stumbled to the privy in rock hard boots, the light powdery snow squeaked and crunched.  Oh oh.  It’s colder than I thought.  Snow doesn’t make that sound unless it’s 10 F or colder.

The thermometer on my pack read -15 F.  The bottom had fallen out a day earlier than I expected.  In spite of all that, I was comfortable through the night without the benefit of my full kit.  The added tonnage on my back paid its dividend.

Think about it.  At 4:30 p.m. the previous evening, the rain had soaked all my exposed equipment.  My pack straps, nylon webbing, including my trekking poles, had been thoroughly dunked.  How about my rain jacket and rain cover?  Oh boy!

I’d hung my gear up in hopes that dripping and some evaporation would occur before everything froze.  As every professional manager knows, hope is not a method.  By morning everything was crunchy to say the least.  What an understatement.

This is the worst case scenario that I have seriously worried about since contemplating a thru hike.   What happens when hikers get soaked right before the temperature crashes to a dangerous level?  At -15 F, skin freezes on contact with any material that rapidly conducts heat.  Frostbite and hypothermia are clear and present dangers.  You can be serious trouble before you even know it.

Fortunately I have profited from previous soakings.  In those cases, luckily timed town stops saved my bacon as I slopped thoroughly waterlogged beyond imagination into Erwin, Tenn. and Damascus, Va.  This time, the cargo compartment of my pack was dry inside and out.  The base layer I was wearing dried out because it was only damp with sweat.  The waterproof mitten shells worked.  For redundancy’s sake, back up gloves, mittens, socks and a base layer were in the ready rack if need be.

When it is seriously cold, everything takes at least twice as long.  After unzipping my sleeping bag, I slipped on my glove liners; then my mittens.  You never want bare skin to touch anything.  When I needed dexterity to stuff cargo sacks or manipulate zippers and the like, I took off the mittens.  When the task was complete I jammed my hands back into the mittens until they warmed up again.  Only then did I attempt the next task.

The valve on my NeoAir was frozen shut.  Why not?  Breath is full of water vapor.  Only bare hands could wrench it open.  That smarted.

Once the pack was set, the real adventure unfolded.  Everything that had been exposed to rain was stiff and solid.  Think of a pack harness forged of wrought iron.  Board-like straps didn’t slide in buckles.  The frozen-solid rain jacket stood up by itself.  The straps on my trekking poles which had been hung on a peg resembled rabbit ears…

Fortunately, I always loosen the laces on my boots before bed.  If I had known just how cold it would get, I would have put them inside my sleeping bag.  Thanks to the thick dry socks, my feet never got cold in spite of wearing icy boots.  Walking saved the day.  Gaiters kept the snow off my socks and out of my boots.

The snap, crackle and pop sounds of Rice Crispies echoed off the walls as I struggled into my gear. Had you been there, you would have had to pardon my occasional “french” expletives.

The shelter faded behind me around 8:30 a.m.  Not bad considering.  As the day unfolded, body heat thawed the equipment, the straps loosened, and everything ultimately began to fit properly.

The day’s high hovered around 5 above.  My water bottle even got slushy inside my jacket.  That NEVER happened at -20 in northern Minnesota!  I had different and a heavier outer layer then which may account for the difference.

The day and trail itself were awesome.  Brilliant sun reflected off a snow frosted landscape.  The tracks on the pristine path read like a story book with Br’er Rabbit and his pals eluding foxes and bobcats.  Wild boar and deer made their separate grocery shopping trips.  Guess what?  No bear tracks.  That was a surprise.

I’m home now in preparation to fly with my daughter to Colorado on family matters.  I can’t wait to get back on the trail.  As for future weather? We’ll see.

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Mid-point Reality Check

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It’s not uncommon for aspiring Appalachian Trail thru hikers to vicariously hike the trail the previous year.   As an armchair hiker, I’ve been attentively reading the blogs and trail journals of the class of ’13 since February.

These blog posts, photos and videos are especially valuable because they offer generally raw and unedited insight into the day-to-day hiking experience before distance and selective memory can file off the sharp edges.

Following the AT in virtual reality is a good thing, but it’s even better to encounter real-time hikers in situ.  Thru-hikers are an abundant species in these parts from early spring through mid-summer, so running into them in season is easier than driving bumper cars at a county fair.

Living within proximity of Harpers Ferry and Shenandoah National Park during thru hiker open season allows for special opportunities to bag live game, so to speak.  Hint:  Free hamburgers make excellent bait!
The scene is Harpers Ferry, more than 1,000 hiker miles from Georgia.  By the time hikers get this far, a lot of them are physically and mentally distressed.  These circumstances apply equally to age and gender.  Trail journal blogs describe the accumulative effects of cold, heat, humidity, rocks, insects, blisters, dirt, funk and hunger as they snowball over the months and miles on end.

Every hiker seems to experience a mid-hike crisis.  Sometimes it’s nothing more than the Virginia blues.  Relief comes by simply crossing the West Virginia state line.  Other times the meltdown is triggered a little later.  In fact, it happened this year to one hiker in Maine, believe it or not.  But it is probably gonna happen irrespective of where, when or why.

Reading about it in Trail Journals is one thing.  Engaging the lab rats themselves and observing them first hand is another.

The spectrum is amazing.  Some hikers seem fresh off the showroom floor as if day one was yesterday.  Others appear bruised and battered and seem to remain mobile solely by the grace of prosthetic braces, wraps and devices.  One young woman tied bandanas around her legs to bolster her sore knees.  Maybe the Conservancy could raise money selling AT logo affinity hiker orthopedic devices.

The really unlucky hikers appear to have been the main course at a blood-sucking insect all-you-can-eat buffet.  I’ve seen scourge marks that would horrify Mel Gibson’s make up designer.

Clearly everything that happens on the trail is cumulative.  A hiker’s body experiences a thru hike is like a 2,000-mile demolition derby.  With this in mind, most hikers were not afraid to admit that quitting had crossed their mind more than once.

Overall, I was able to talk to about 30 thru hikers.  Five of them were special because they were sympathetic enough to candidly share lunch and their thoughts as they passed through Harpers Ferry.

I selectively invited each to lunch because their blogs were especially informative, insightful, and not to mention, interesting and fun to read.   Most fortunate for me, Saber, a retired Army guy who finished in less than four months, generously stopped by my house to share his thoughts.

I had a lot of fun talking to these folks and consider it a privilege to have been part of the tapestry of their hikes.  The hiker community is nothing less than totally awesome!  Thank you all very much.

The hikers didn’t agree on everything, and most of what I learned can be found among the eternal verities of the AT.  I hope billboarding the top level take-aways can be helpful to others.

Why am I here?

Saber asked me if my primary objective is hiking or camping.  That determination dictates everything else about the AT experience.

If your objective is to hike, then go light to fight.  Less pack weight cuts down on injuries and fatigue.  Just carry the equipment you need to handle extreme weather, temperatures and injury.  A lot of folks sent excess stuff home along the way.

Ultra light packs can carry ultra light loads.  No upgrades on the load limit.  A couple of folks suggested that pack comfort was a really big deal for them.

There’s an exception to every rule.  At the 935 mile point, I saw one thru hiker who said she was as “happy” to be hauling a pack about the size of a hippo with a camp chair attached as were those saddled with 20-lb. packs the about the size of shoe boxes.   Hike your own hike.  Right!

Feet don’t fail me now.

Healthy feet are everything.  The right boots or hiking shoes matter a lot.  It’s almost impossible to avoid blisters at one time or another.  Many of these hikers spend a lot of time thinking about and caring for their feet.  On average, Boots/hiking shoes last about 500 miles.

Techno-hikers.

Some newer, high tech equipment can confer a real weight and performance advantages if you can afford them.  Reports are that dry down works.  One hiker said her fuel-efficient stove was still on its original butane cartridge (albeit the dregs) at 1,000 miles.  Lightweight thermal air mattresses are recommended for cold, hard shelter flours.

On the downside, the lighter weight fabrics are prone to tear or puncture.  Best to carry a patching kit.  Duct tape doesn’t stay stuck long and leaves a mess to clean up.

Keeping electronics charged is a universal pain.  Auxiliary storage batteries come in all prices, shapes and sizes.  A few folks had the smaller solar chargers.  The larger ones had been sent home long before 1,000 miles.

This was universal.  Strike up the band.  Music/electronic book readers/ or some form of entertainment should be considered.   More songs are better along with a variety of pod casts.  It’s a long hike.  I was assured I would fall in love with my personal pocket juke box before it’s over.

Mo better grease is gourmet fare.

Everyone does food differently.  One vegan said she had been able to maintain a very healthy diet.  Very few hikers were that picky.

There’s a reason hikers post so many photos of food on their blogs.  Hiker hunger is real!  The folks with whom I lunched had the option to get very nice (and HEALTHY) salads, seafood, etc., but NO!

Hikers are addicted to hamburgers and fries – the more artery clogging the better.  It’s sort of like the AT version of the Atkins diet with a pop tart bonus.  (Mom, stop reading now, please.  “Personally, I can’t wait.”)

Logistics.

You can resupply high octane calories out of a convenience store if necessary.  Your doctor and dentist might not approve, but it’ll keep you on the trail until a grocery store is near.

Many towns have an outfitter of some kind.  Fuel cartridges are readily available.

Mail drops are a pain.  Many of the hikers were reducing their dependence on them.

Towns are necessary time and money magnets.  You can save a lot of time and money by taking neros in town – just doing the necessary shower, laundry and resupply, then jumping back onto the trail before the day is over.

Be smart and get off the trail and go to town when super bad weather is pending, especially in the winter.

Not all hostels and motels are equal.  Some are filthy dumps.  Read the Trail Journals carefully or contact a hiker directly.  Hikers will tell you what they think.

If you need privacy, you’ll probably not like hostels.  Everybody has a list of must places to stay and places to be avoided unless hell is about to freeze over, and it almost did a couple of times during the luck winter of ‘13, so stay flexible.

Bring earplugs.  Everybody snores at one time or another, even if they think they don’t.  Say it ain’t so!

Embrace the suck factor.

To paraphrase Yogi, 90 percent of hiking is half mental.  On the one hand, the physical and mental can combine to kick a hiker’s butt and destroy morale.  It can be psychologically wearing to hike for days on end without conversing with, or even seeing many other people.  Many said this was where music really helps keep morale up.

You have to hike your own hike.

Dictate the terms of your own hike.  The hikers in the best shape were approaching their hikes using the tactics distance runners use in marathons.  Don’t go out too fast, control your pace in the middle of the race when you think you ought to be passing more people and then, it’s mostly a mind game at the end.  The end game is a successful finish.  Never mind what the group thinks.

Conversely, the hikers who seemed to be concentrating more on bragging rights and endless numbers of big mileage days were suffering accordingly.  Age and gender were not factors in this observation, but pack weight was.

Hiking is a social experience.  The more the hike was about friendship and community, the easier the mental challenges.  A lot of folks said they were going to slow down and enjoy themselves more in the second half.

Plagues and other medieval experiences.

Norovirus nailed almost 100 percent of this year’s hikers.  Everyone I met got it including a hiker with a clinical background who took meticulous measures.  Folks kept themselves extra clean, avoided shelters, privys, shelter registers, sick hostels and stealth camped. It nailed them anyway.  OhJoy.

Hiker funk should be classified as a weapon of mass destruction.  It took three days to get the aroma out of my car after leaving a pack in my trunk for about five hours on a hot day.  Heaven only knows what incubated in there.  My bet is that the Pentagon would pay a fortune for it.

A rose by any other name … A small number of folks reported that they managed to largely avoid the worst of the hiker funk by taking sponge baths, rinsing out their clothes as frequently as possible, even in colder (not the coldest) weather.  REI carries NASA-designed waterless soap and shampoo that may be worth consideration.

Bottom line.

Hiking he AT is personal.  Each experience is unique.  Every hike is hard at times.  Reading about it, watching You Tube videos and talking to hikers isn’t the same doing it day in and day out for six months.

The hikers I’ve encountered have been fascinating people.  I’d tend to expect that of anyone with the giddy-up to hike a thousand miles in three months. It’s going to be fun to watch them summit Katahdin.  I’ll be cheering no matter what.