Walking in the Woods

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Kensington, MD, April 1, 2015 — Bill Bryson wrote a wonderfully humorous book entitled A Walk in the Woods almost 15 years ago.  It is a story about two totally unprepared old pals attempting on a lark to thru hike the Appalachian Trail.  When I read it, I thought it was humorous fiction.  After ridgerunning in Georgia this March, I know it’s not.  It is as true as true can be, and Bryson was an astute observer.

The movie of the same name, starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte, will be out this summer.  I can’t wait to see it, but I worry about those who do and then think they’re going to jump on the trail without a care in the world and hoof it up to Maine.  Not that there aren’t plenty of folks hiking this way already.  I just worry how many more of these unprepared innocents will join in the frolic over the next few years, and more importantly, what their impact will be on the trail and its environment.

This blog has noted the incredible number of clueless hikers  observed last month as they attempted to foible themselves through Georgia.  How anyone could jump into the woods having never set up a/their tent before, or show up with packs stuffed with so much that they can barely carry them – with all their gear still hermetically sealed in the original boxes – is beyond any level of sanity I can conceptualize.

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How people can forget that the sun doesn’t always shine, that the days and nights are not always warm, and that rain or snow can be bitterly cold is beyond me.  Misery does not love company on the trail.

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Under the wrong weather conditions – cold rain sleet for example – you could become hypothermic and cease to exist or be seriously injured in the southern Appalachian spring.  It’s happened recently.

Four components of success defined themselves as I observed both the prepared and unprepared go about their business.  I thought a lot about them, comparing what I saw this March with my previous experience on the trail and elsewhere.  Some may disagree with my priorities here they are anyway.

FITNESS.  Being fit, especially cardio fitness, can cover a wide range of other deficits, particularly in older and female hikers.  I couldn’t count the number of late middle age guys (mostly) who, for decades had been chained to their office desks until the week before they started, when they were suddenly paroled to pursue their retirement dreams on the AT. Too many of them went from zero to 60 and back zero in less than a week.

Guys, your high school sports days were close to 50 years ago!  Take a year to get yourself in shape.  Couch potato millennials fall into this same category. What did they think would happen when they rushed to Springer Mountain with little or no prep?  That’s why about a third of hikers don’t make it past the first 30 miles.

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As I hiked my patrol route, I’d watch the out of shape hikers sweat their way up hill chipping tiny step by tiny step up the trail, their wheezing breath hissing like dying steam engines suffering from leaky piston seals.  Pure panic defined pallid faces as the harsh realization sunk in that they were in for more than they bargained.  Their knees quivered under both the oppressive weight of their bodies and the clutter of unneeded gear strapped to their backs.  Their fun meters were pegged at zero.  So much for a walk in the woods.

Some folks are old school, but they're in shape and prepared to go.

Some folks are old school, but they’re in shape and prepared to go.

Being fit helps prevent common orthopedic injuries, not to mention that you can hump more weight on your back.  Would anyone think that it might be smart to at least attempt lose some weight and/or get into shape before day one?

EXPERIENCE.  Knowledge.  Know-how.  Call it what you will.  Knowing how to live in the woods, and what to do if and when, can be priceless.  Traditionally we might consider learning what’s in the Boy Scout Handbook a good starting point, and it is if you have an up to date copy, not the ancient one with which I grew up.  Excellent information is available on line or in a range of recent how-to books.  Then there’s the confidence born of having been spent a little practice time living outdoors.

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Experience is the best teacher and makes for fewer goof-ups in the woods. AT hikers should know how to hike in the rain and stay dry, stay warm and above all, stay clean.  How about pitching a tent in a storm so it won’t be flooded or blown down?  How big a knife does one need, not want, but need?  First aid anyone?  What do you do if you tear your ACL or impale yourself on a protruding branch?  You should know ’cause 911 response is several hours, if not a day or more away. Leave No Trace anyone?

How about them bears, anyway?

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GEAR.  You can buy your back weight down if you can afford it, but more folks are on tighter budgets than I would have thought.  They simply can’t afford to equip themselves with hyper-light gear.

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The reality is that most of us cannot afford a $600 – $800 Cuben fiber tent weighing mere ounces, much less the full boatload of gear made from this miraculous fabric – rain gear, food bag, pack, etc.

So, what do people do?  A good set of lighter weight gear costs between $1,000 and $1,500 depending on how much of it you can buy on sale.  This type of gear, with five days food and a liter of water, will get your total winter pack weight under 35 lbs. or less depending upon what you think you need to bring.

Properly fitting light weight and flexible boots or trail runners along with dry feet help prevent blisters, the scourge of any hiker.

Unfortunately even that much money is too much for many people.  Their alternative is to buy heavy gear from Walmart or army surplus, either that or they repurpose older but much heavier gear from previous generations.  They pack canned food because they cannot afford the lighter dehydrated meals.  This route alone doesn’t deny success, it just makes everything harder.

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Some hikers don’t know what to buy, even if they can afford it.  That’s what produces the over sized 70 lb. packs stuffed with all sorts of useless trinkets.

Binoculars, camp chairs, bear bells, heavy stoves and stainless steel cooking pots, Carhart canvas jackets and other detritus is what finds itself strewn along the trail. Folks start sinking under the tremendous weight and desperately heave it overboard in hopes of staying afloat as did Bryson’s sidekick Katz in A Walk in the Woods.  Remember:  Are you on the AT to camp or to hike?

ATTITUDE.  Like the Little Engine in the storybook, if you think you can, you can.  Self-confidence and a bit of bravado can take you a long way. Yet, self-doubt racks too many hikers.  The most common question is:  “What have I gotten myself into?” That’s when I want to roll my eyes and intone “Duuuuuude! What were you thinking – that is if you were thinking at all?”

Positive attitude!

Positive attitude!

Being trail ready on day one is priceless.  Showing up on the starting line fit, knowledgeable, properly equipped and confident isn’t a guarantee, but it gets you off to a great start.

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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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Danger Will Robinson … and everybody else.

If you’ve been following the AT class of ’13, you know that the weather has been record-breaking cold and wickedly brutal.  It’s also extremely dangerous to be out in those conditions, especially if you’re a rookie.   Otto von Bismark’s aphorism seems to apply (with a twist).  God protects drunks, fools and AT hikers. 

As I’ve been doing my homework in preparation for next year’s hike, I’ve been stunned by how many profoundly unprepared people attempt to hike the AT – in winter!  Whoa!!  Winter hiking requires specialized skills and gear.  Of particular concern is the number of people who worry about the weight of their pack in fear of being rediculed.  It’s an AT cultural artifact that should be exterminated.  Sure, knot heads show up carrying 50 lbs. and wonder why it’s hard and they fail.  Conversely, account after account describes how the gram Nazis have intimidated people into carrying light weight but inadequately warm jackets and bags, or insufficiently insulated hammocks and bull-shit rain gear.  Some have compounded this with zero winter camping experience, or in several cases, not hiking or camping experience whatsoever!  Hello.  Dead person walking.  Too many zombie shows…

I hold two people from this year’s class in especially high regard for being candid, for their honesty, and for trying to educate others.  They are Hobo and the misnamed Stupid.   The latter definitely isn’t.

Stupid described how he got caught out in the ice when tree limbs began falling all around him like shrapnel from air-burst artillery.  He recognized the immediate danger to his life and sought shelter under a fur tree with a low-slung and big wing span.  He was safe for the duration.

Hobo put it in the larger context, and I’m going to paste in this entire post.  It’s worth reading.  I wrote back to him that even experts are but one bad decision from death in killing weather.  The danger of hypothermia, frostbite and dehydration represented by conditions represented by driving rain at 34*F rapidly changing to single digit temps just after the sun sets is profound.  I’ve experienced all of the aforementioned, so this is experience talking.

Here’s Hobo’s tutorial.  Read and heed:

Hobo’s post Trail Journals.com April 5, 2013

 “If you are a worrier (Mille) I would suggest you not read today’s journal entry . . . or you may just want to skip to the last paragraph.

I awoke at 5:00 and checked my shirts to see if dry, but they were still damp.    I put them in my sleeping bag because its better to put on warm and damp clothes than cold and damp clothes.

The shelter had the usual snoring last night that Mallet has dubbed the Sore’chestra.

One person decided to return to Gatlinburg. Everything he had was wet and and he’s concerned about hypothermia . . . wise decision

It is still bitter cold and all the trees are covered with ice. It’s harsh but beautiful – a crystal forrest.

We got a late start because there were so many people trying to take down wet clothes from the lines we had strung in the shelter and packing up. Eventually Quaker, Trouble, Son Driven, and I hit the trail.

So, let me just say, this is very serious business out here and I don’t think it would be overly dramatic to say it is a matter of life and death. I didn’t want to post this until I talked to Anita so she would know that I’m ok.

When we were coming off Clingman’s Dome we met 2 guys who were just getting back on the trail after taking a hypothermic hiker down to where the park rangers could get to him. One of the guys had cuts next to his eye from his own fall.

Two days before I hiked Clingmans Dome there were two groups of hikers that had to be rescued and another who was having chest pain.

Several months ago they found a hiker in his early 50’s frozen to death at the shelter where I will stay tonight. The sad thing is he had all the right gear but became hypothermic and disoriented. They found him in shorts and a t-shirt beside his sleeping bag and warm gear. On March 22nd they had to airlift out a 23 yo with hypothermia from the same shelter.

Within the last week they rescued a hypothermic hiker with frostbite who will probably lose some of his fingers. They also brought horses up to carry out a hiker who fell and injured his leg.

So far, I have made wise decisions (like stopping after only 3 miles in the freezing rain), I have the right gear, and I always sleep in dry clothing. I have one set of clothing that I wear during the day, even if I have to put it on damp. I have long underwear top and bottom and a spare pair of socks that I NEVER wear during the day so that I always sleep dry. Nonetheless, I am constantly evaluating the conditions and my capabilities.

The trail conditions are still icy but somewhat better than yesterday. By 1:00 the sun began to peek thru the clouds and we were frequently showered with falling ice from the trees.

I hope you enjoy the picture with this entry because it nearly cost me my life. I told the group to go ahead while I took a picture. I also decided to pee since I was alone. I began to walk down the trail while I was putting my gloves back on and I was looking around (proof that I can’t do 3 things at once) when I tripped over something and went face first off the side of the mountain. I was on a narrow ridge that had a steep drop off and plunged about 10 ft before I could grab a tree. I heard a loud crack and my first thought was I had broken something. I did a quick inventory and all bones reported in as being intact. Then I thought I must have broken my poles but I found them lying beside me in one piece. As it turns out I feel on a limb that broke when it hit it.

Now I’m lying face down a mountain and my mind is racing. Should I take off my pack so I can face up hill? No, I quickly decided – I don’t want to lose my pack down the mountain unless I have no other choice. Eventually I was able to maneuver myself around and crawl back up to the trail. The beauty of this story is that I stood up and hadn’t walked more than 10 ft when Quaker appeared. My buddies were concerned about what was taking me so long and Quaker was designated to come back and check on me.

Thankfully the rest of the day was less eventful. We found a wonderful sunny spot for lunch on top of a mountain (see pic section).

Most of the day was spent hiking ridges above 5,000 ft. The most significant climbs were an unnamed mountain at 5,728 ft, Mt Sequoyah (5,941 ft), and Mt Chapman (6,249 ft).

I started to get cold and restless after lunch so I decided to strike out on my own knowing that I had a safety net behind me. After awhile Sun Driver caught up with me and we hiked the rest of the day near each other.

We reached Peck’ a Corner Shelter but decided to push on even though it was getting late. We wrote a note for Quaker and Trouble telling them we had pushed on and left it on the shelter sign post. We arrived about 6:30 at Tri-Corner Knob shelter. I was really happy when Quaker and Trouble rolled in about an hour later. Trouble said she had never see Quaker hike so fast.

Billy, a ridge runner, was in the shelter and I enjoyed talking to him.

This is a nice shelter with a new privy. Finding water sources is something you are constantly aware of and sometimes you have to hike down a steep trail to get it. This shelter had a water source about 20 ft from the shelter – yeah!

I went to bed excited about tomorrow. I will we going to lower elevations and the lowland forecast is for son with temperatures in the 70’s. I’m sooo ready!!!”

Not all those who wander are lost ~ J.R.R. Tolkien