I remember that night thinking this silly self-portrait may be my last. But it didn’t bring me dysphoria. It brought action which of course led me out of the backcountry. I wish I could explain the feeling I had when I took this picture but I imagine my expression and the setting themselves say enough. I had no idea how brutal the weather I was about to face was truly going to be or how well my gear would hold up. I was stupid antsy, not naive, just rushed. My tent flattened on the ground and turned to a bivy sack in the 100 mile per hour gusts. If I hadn’t restaked it in the middle of the night, it certainly would have been destroyed. This is the face when the child-like excitement wears off and reality sets in. I guess I could say this is my ‘scared out of my mind’ face, but it is not the ridiculous fear that people feel for spiders or snakes. It is a calm fear, a totally collected state of mind. No adrenaline rush, probably even lowered blood pressure. Like mental overdrive. A kind of acceptance, this is where I am, I got myself here, now I’ll get myself out. It’s fun to think of the solitude I experienced on the mountain that night, the knowledge that I wholly was alone, a kind of apocalyptic taste if you will. And to be perfectly honest, I can’t wait to get back out there. Maybe with a four season tent and a real rain jacket, some waterproof gloves and maybe a buddy too. But the experience is no different. Continue reading Self-portraits
I was stepping out of my Organic Chemistry eight a.m. lecture and I saw a white flicker in front of my eyes. Then another.
I shouted “Snow!” and I felt free. I had not a care in the world. The specks would continue to fall for the next seven days.
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.
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’.
When I arrived at the shelter, I asked everyone what temperature rating their sleeping bag was. These hikers out for a couple days were unprepared but after hearing ratings of twenty and thirty I figured they would survive at least. We were all about to camp at 3,500 feet in open air. It was in the twenties when we all rolled in to camp and I knew nothing was going to prevent that temperature from dropping into the teens at night.
They all pulled out their trash bags, space blanets, four pairs of socks, whatever they had to insulate them. A couple went so far as to even leave their unlaced boots on in their sleeping bag and put their feet in their packs.
And sure enough, they all were miserable and they all struggled to sleep. And sure enough, we all awoke to clashing of sleet hitting the tin roof around midnight. And the next morning we all had mixed feelings about the beautiful couple inches of snow on the ground.
I guess I should have expected this. Winter thru-hike plausible? Maybe. Winter thru-hike sensible? Probably not.
I once again left town too late but I think this time it’ll be my last. From here on, I walk in daylight.
A few minutes into my five mile trek to the shelter, snow flakes began falling. Soon the flakes turned to a flurry as the forest became less and less dense. With a wall of trees on either side, the forest is easy to navigate but with trees twenty feet apart on top of lack of brush and fallen branches, the task becomes a little tricky. So as visibility dropped and the already sparse white blazes began to blend with the snow falling, the trail became less and less recognizable from the rest of the woods.
It is not bad when I get lost when I know which side of the trail I wandered from. But it this situation, I would wander from the trail and upon realizing I was in fact off the trail, have no idea which way I came from. Usually I can just turn around or turn left or right knowing I would hit the trail. But the truth was that even if I knew which way to turn to hit the trail, I would not know it if it were under my feet.
Just to juice my body up with even more adrenaline, something large with padded feet runs off from the trail in front of me. Who knows, it could have been a five hundred pound dog. But honestly, I think I would prefer a bear.
So I led my mind wandering in attempt to distract myself from the reality of the situation. But then what better than the blair witch project to pop up in there. Never, ever, ever think about The Blair Witch Project when walking in the dark in the deep woods alone. Never.