Saturday, 29 December 2012

Winter hike in the Appalachians: AT

Franklin and I at Neel's Gap
Franklin dropped me off at Neel's Gap on the AT on December 20th. In hindsight this turned out to be a big mistake already at the start of this trip. The forecast for that day was miserable. Chance of rain 100% and Franklin had invited me to stay another day and wait out the weather. But stupidly enough I had trusted one forecast that was talking about only 0.5 inches of rain which did not sound too bad. Franklin dropped me at the Walasi-Yi Centre where I saw the first sobo AT thruhikers sleeping under the roof in pouring rain. Still I was determined to start me hike, said goodbye to Franklin and headed straight into the first disastrous day of my hike.

First of all I had to realise that sitting in a kayak for 3 months straight is not the greatest preparation for a long hike. And carrying 8 days worth of food plus heavy winter gear did not help either. I crawled up the first mountain and it dawned on me that a daily mileage of 20 miles might be a bit overambitious in these conditions. The weather turned from bad into a nightmare. It had poured down when I started to hike and it never stopped the whole day - something I had very rarely seen before. The trail turned into a stream. My brandnew "waterproof" shoes were full of water. I could feel how my clothes got wetter and wetter under my rain gear. I did not dare to stop and check. As long as I moved I was warm. Stopping only meant getting cold and I dreaded that. Except for a pee and snack break I trudged through this downpour for 7 hours straight. I wanted to make it to the first shelter to get out of the rain and finally, much later than expected, I got there.

To my big surprise there was already someone in there: a young section hiker. I dropped all my stuff and checked the dryness of my clothes - only to discover that things were much worse than expected. Everything, really everything I wore was soaking wet. My shoes, socks, pants, underpants, all my baselayers and, worst of all, my thick fleece jacket. Fleece, pants and socks were so wet that I could wring them out. I became a bit concerned. The forecast had predicted very cold temperatures for tomorrow and my fleece jacket was my warmest layer. How would I survive without it? I wrung out my clothes as best as I could and hung them for drying. I set up my tent in the shelter for additional warmth and felt quite cosy in  my quilt. Soon two AT sobo hikers turned up. One of them was not even wearing a rain jacket, but only a woolen sweater. He was even more drenched than I and shaking uncontrollably. Compared to him my situation looked rosy.

Strangely enough I spent a rather comfortable night. We all chatted a lot, had a nice dinner and I was relatively warm inside my tent inside the shelter. The big bad surprise came in the morning. I checked on my wet clothes and found them all to be completely frozen stiff. My hiking pants, my underwear and my fleece jacket were frozen solid. It took ages to defrost my socks and shoes. This did not look good. The forecast was for a lot of wind and freezing temperatures for the next days. I needed warm layers and I needed to dry my stuff, but under these conditions there was only one way to do so: I had to wear them dry. In these cold conditions I could not put on all my wet clothes all at once or I would freeze myself. I had to start with one piece at a time. Meanwhile the rest of the frozen clothes had to go into my backpack which was a difficult undertaking as they took up a lot of room in their frozen state.

To cut a long story short: It took me three days to dry out all my clothes but slowly I managed. And slowly I progressed up the AT. I gave up on 20 miles per day. I could do 15 miles, maybe 17, but that was it. I called Wildcat, my next trail angel and told him I would be at least one day late. But I still struggled. On day four I had my first unexpected break through. At lunch break I met an older and apparently homeless hiker in a shelter. Among some incoherent stories about his military time in Germany and his buddies in prison he mentioned a way to short cut the AT. Instead of going up to over 5,000 ft on Standing Indian Mountain there was a much shorter low altitude route around it to Standing Indian campground. As the AT is very well marked I did not have any maps, but with the help of my data book and GPS I finally figured out what he was talking about. The short cut really existed and would not only save me a lot of climbing, but more than 10 miles of hiking! I would be back on schedule!

As a happy hiker a continued, found the turn off and reached Standing Indian Campground just at dusk. The campground was closed now in winter and everything was locked, but to my great delight I saw that the toilet buildings had a covered porch. To me this little sheltered roof was luxury! I set up my tent in the dark and went to sleep happily awaiting the rain. And it came promptly as predicted at midnight. Only it would not stop as predicted. It continued to rain the whole morning - and my precious little detour went down the drain. I could not get myself to get out and hike in this weather, but waiting would put me behind schedule again. This was Christmas, December 24th. No way I would hike in this misery. At 1 pm the rain finally stopped. I packed up and left my little sanctuary. To hell with my schedule: I would just hike to the next shelter and call it a day, Christmas day....

My Christmas refuge
But when I arrived at the next shelter I still felt energetic. There was one hour of daylight left and the rain was a drizzle only now. I checked the maps on my GPS and discovered that the AT was parelleling a nice wide forest road in the next section - ideal for night hiking! And so I decided to spend my Christmas eve night hiking... There was almost a full moon and I actually enjoyed the quiet night. My headlamp was useless in these conditions: There was so much fog that the light reflected in it instead of shining on the path. At 9 pm on Christmas eve I encountered my own private Christmas present: A house in the middle of nowhere with a covered porch. I was very much surprised to see it as I was hiking in National Forest. This house could not be private property, could it? There were no "No trespassing" signs and the covered porch was too tempting to pass. There were even some garden chairs to sit on and electrical light! I set up my tent and started to cook Christmas dinner when I heard a car approach. My heart sank. Maybe this was private property and I was trespassing. I could only plead for leniency on Christmas. I extinguished all lights and hoped for the best. The car stopped right in front of the house and I was just about to make myself known when it drove off again! I had been lucky... half an hour later the car came back and went towards the road. I was alone again and spent a quiet Christmas eve on that porch.

Night hiking had brought me back on schedule again and I could make it to the meeting point with Wildcat on time. I did not see anyone hiking for 4 days... no big surprise considering that it was awfully could and Christmas. I stayed in shelters every night that I had all to myself - even the infamous shelter mice had left. Still I was struggling. It was colder than expected, the trail was hard and slippery and I had gear problems. My gas canister stove did not work well in the cold. My backpack and tent were constantly frozen and difficult to pack. My feet and knees were hurting. But lying down in my tent at night and slowly warming up I felt as happy as could be.

The AT kicked my butt a last time the night before I met Wildcat. The day had been brutal with more than 4,000 ft elevation gain and difficult trail. With fading daylight I tried to make it to the next shelter when a snow storm set in. All my gear was frozen and my stove barely working. It took me several hours to warm up in my quilt and I dreaded the next morning. What would I see in the first daylight? What if there was several feet of snow? I got up before dawn and peered out into a winter wonderland. Luckily there was only a bit of snow, but all the trees were covered in ice - a surreal white world. It was bitterly cold but incredibly beautiful when I limped the last miles down to Fontana Dan to meet Wildcat. Part one of my winter hike was over and I had survived - but I have still three weeks to go!


martin said...

Great post, you have my upmost respect!

Bayou said...

Good to hear that you're doing ok. Hike safe.