Winter Camping: Searching for limits and the limit was found

A few have said I look like Chris McCandless, Alexander Supertramp. My trip almost ended like his. That is nothing to be proud of. A few have said, “what a character building experience”. Perseverance, determination build character.

I never, ever want to go through what I went through Thursday night in Shenandoah National Park.

I lay in my sleeping bag for almost eighteen hours, violently shivering, interrupted by efforts to evacuate to a road.

Showing up at camp after dark did not help. It sure was not the first of my mistakes that led to my suffering that night.

The layers went on as my body cooled off after a racing hike to get to camp. But it was not enough. My matted fleece gave me little warmth and my exhausted body pumped out little heat. After hours, and hundreds of push ups, finally I gave in to the emergency blanket. I had promised myself that if I were unprepared enough to need to use this then I may not be prepared for what the next night may have to offer. This was a commitment to leave the woods the next day.

The wind infiltrated every layer and the bitter cold, dry air circulating in my lungs, sucked every spare degree of warmth I had. It was down to surviving the night. Park rangers would have looked for desperate hikers along Skyline drive earlier in the night but it was too late. And as I would later learn, I was the only visitor in the park.

Earlier they intercepted my friend Nat and me, declaring the weather was too bad for us to continue. They put their foot down for him and drove him back to his car. But how can I abandon my thru-hike before I find my limit? How could I have just gone home?

So I gave it a shot. I gave it my best effort, 110%. All that glorious bull that sounds good on a sports field and in a classroom. But out here, winter camping alone on the Appalachian Trail, it is natural selection. There is no insurance. If I screw up, I clean up the mess. If I lose out here, I die.

I’m the last of a group of five that hiked together three states back and I’m the only one that is wondering about seeing another sunrise. My toes and fingertips are stiff and I hesitate to press them to an artery and lose my core body heat. I’ll take the potential frostbite to ensure I see tomorrow.

I took a trip to the privy in the early pre-dawn hours, not for the typical reason. The privy is four sided, unlike the three-sided lean-tos, and the decomposing waste gives off a significant amount of heat. And likely because of this decision, I made it till morning and watched the light pierce through the cracked walls of the outhouse.

I tried to run down the mountain and get water out of the spring, carrying the heat and odor of human waste along with me. My near frozen hands could not keep me from spilling water all over my gloves. I shook my hands off quickly, looked down and my gloves were already frozen, just a few seconds later. I know I did something right to have made it through the night at this point.

It was back to the sleeping bag, core heat stable, but the temperature was testing my fingers. When finally I managed to get feeling back, I reached out of my sleeping bag, turned my phone on to call for help.

Battery too low for radio use.

Damn it.

It was back to my ice-covered sleeping bag to rethink the situation. I thought, its Friday, there will be people on the road. But the last thing I want is to get out to the road, find I am waiting so long that I need to build a fire.

I looked down at a stack of living and wet wood in the corner of the shelter. I gathered all of my trash, bundled it up, and tried to get a fire started as I ran around in circles, did jumping jacks, everything I could to stay warm. The wood caught. I bent over and blew. I ran to the pile and gathered some more of the wet wood. I stacked and stacked to dry the wood as the fire built and soon I had a warm blaze.

But it was time to get out of there, get off this trail. I stripped my mylar bivy sack from the top of my sleeping bag to find huge amounts of frozen condensation. I shook out the bivy sack and mounds and mounds of this “snow” came out.

With extra pack space due to wearing every single article of clothing in my pack, I easily packed my empty pack, threw snow on the fire, and quickly hiked toward Skyline Drive. I reached the road and began looking around for small wood.

My plan was to wait as long as necessary, stop any car that came by, ranger or tourist. They would understand after I explained. But as I began preparations for a long wait, a maintenance worker drove up.

“Too cold, huh?”

He knew exactly why I was out on the road with my thumb held high and drove me to the ranger station and dropped the “desperate hiker” off in the warmth of their building and companionship.

I’m home now, warm, but I cannot sleep. I had not slept that entire night and with the heat and comfort of a bed surrounded by four walls, I still cannot sleep.

My limit was found last night. But my trip is not done. I am back to enhance my preparation and gear. I am rereading my book on winter camping and searching for the warmest gear I can find. I am not going to mess this up again. I am fine with letting Georgia wait two more weeks to ensure that I will see Georgia.

But Georgia still remains ‘always on my mind’.

Grayson Cobb

Grayson Cobb

I am a long distance backpacker, triathlete, adventurer, climber, kayaker, and lowly medical student currently living in Norfolk, VA attending Eastern Virginia Medical School and getting out for adventures on weekends.
Grayson Cobb

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