Worst Conditions Yet

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After a long period of beautiful conditions and wintery blue skies on the Appalachian Trail, it finally snowed again. I got a weather report on the trail that in two days it was going to snow 14 inches. Yikes! I checked my map. 44 miles to Marion. Despite wanting to cut back on my zero days, I decide to go for it and spend the storm at a hostel in Marion. 

All Day, All Night, All Day Again

44 miles is a long way, and I’m still super slow. I know it’s going to require hiking all day and night and the next day, too, all without sleep. That’s what I did. And, unfortunately, into the second night as well. 

As I was hiking the second day, I was constantly checking weather reports. The 14 inches of snow was apparently just for the top of whatever mountain I was on at the time. However, the forecast was still predicting snow, then rain/snow, then just rain with temperatures hovering around freezing. Eventually the hourly forecasts predicted the rain would start at midnight. Dang it. I’m estimating that I’ll get to the shelter at 3 AM, which means three hours in the rain. 

But the weather was wrong. It started at 10 PM. And it wasn’t rain. It was sleet…frozen rain. Keep in mind that it was just above freezing. When the little frozen balls hit my warm jacket, they instantly started to melt instead of bouncing off me like they would in subfreezing temperatures. 

Soon my “waterproof” jacket and overmitts were completely saturated. My shirt was getting wet. My gloves underneath were getting wet. My hands were becoming numb. Fortunately, my rain pants are a thicker, more water-resistant material so my legs were still relatively dry, but that’s little comfort when you can’t bend your frozen fingers. 

Cell service in the whole area sucks. The park headquarters where I planned to camp is a known void of cell service. Around 11 PM, I finally get service long enough to see that the hostel messaged me asking if I was at the shelter, I assume to pick me up a day early so I’m out of the storm. I debated answering because of the late hour, but messaged back, “Not yet. Likely 3 AM.” 

The lack of cell service poses another problem. How do I communicate when I’ll be ready for pickup in the morning? I’ll have to message with my satellite device, but they don’t have that number yet to contact me. I don’t want to message again so late at night, so I decide do it in the morning at a more reasonable hour, like 8 or 9 AM. 

I push hard, up these seemingly endless hills with so many false summits. Every time I get to what I think is the top, there’s yet another slope up. It was disheartening, but I had no choice. I had to push on. 

Amazingly, I got to the shelter at 2 AM, an hour faster than I expected because I pushed so hard. I stripped off my wet clothes as fast as my numb hands would let me. It’s hard to work zippers and untie shoelaces when you can’t feel your fingers. I basically had to blow on my hands for a few minutes until my fingers warmed up enough to use them for a few seconds, then quickly unzip or untie before they went numb again, then repeat. I hung my wet clothes all around the shelter. I knew my clothes wouldn’t dry, but I hoped they would at least no longer be literally dripping by morning. 

Eventually, I managed to get setup and inside my sleeping bag. Then I shoved my frozen hands under my armpits to warm them up and quickly fell fast asleep, exhausted from days of marching.

Broken Silence

That morning when I woke, my hands were no longer numb and were actually functional again. I checked the time. Not quite 8 AM. I peeked out of my warm sleeping bag. The trees were covered in ice. It was an impressive sight. 

As I laid there, the morning silence was occasionally broken by loud cracks followed by crashing sounds as massive branches and even whole trees collapsed under the weight of the ice. I looked up at the ceiling of the three-sided shelter that I was lying in, wondering how strong are the trees immediately surrounding this shelter? Would a tree come crashing through the roof as I lie here snuggled in my warm sleeping bag, seemingly safe while imminent death looms above? 

Then I heard something else. A crunching sound. Getting louder. Then suddenly a voice. It was the shuttle driver from the hostel. He came at 8 AM to pick me up and walked the half mile from the road to come get me since there was no cell service here. Thank you, Marion Outdoors! 

I quickly gathered up my stuff and just started cramming things haphazardly into my pack. Paul, the shuttle driver, drove to the hostel. On the way, we stopped by Hardee’s for breakfast. I’m not a huge fan of Hardee’s, but that morning I walked to the register, “I’ll take three sausage biscuits. Some French toast dips. Um…a cinnamon roll. Ooooo…and a cherry biscuit. Oh, and a large drink.” The cashier’s fingers worked furiously as I rattled off my order. By the way, those cherry biscuits are delicious. Like cherry pie. If I had known, I would have skipped everything else and just gotten about six of those.

I had the hostel to myself. It was nice. Showered up. Did laundry. Used the boot dryer all day to make sure my boots were nice and toasty dry. Paul gave me a lift to the grocery store, I picked up some supplies from the Marion Outfitter downstairs, met Paul’s wife there, trail name Goat. I never met Coach who I had been texting with, but if you follow Marion Outdoors on Instagram, you can see he’s quite a prolific character.

At some point in the afternoon, I noticed it was snowing. Huge flakes. It snowed and snowed. All through the night I could hear snowplows scraping the streets clean. That should make an interesting hike tomorrow.

The Sky Is Falling!

At 8 AM, Paul shuttles me back to the trailhead. The trail is beautiful. A winter wonderland. I’m blazing new trail through the fresh snow like I’ve done several times before on the AT. But this time it’s a little different. 

The trees aren’t just covered in snow. They’re encased in ice. Some of the trees have literally thousands of pounds of ice on them. As I’m postholing down the path, branches are literally falling down around me under the weight of all the ice and snow. I took a short break on a log. A branch from a 30-foot-high tree fell to the ground just 15 feet in front of me. Later, another fell just 20 feet off the trail. But most impressive was an entire tree that fell 50 feet away.

It started with a loud crack that lasted several seconds as a huge tree began to tilt to one side and its massive trunk began to split and splinter. Slowly it toppled, crashing through the branches of the trees around it, gathering speed as it fell. Then it hit the ground and disappeared as a cloud of snow erupted around it. Wow.

Then I looked up. The thin trees lining the trail were covered in ice. The wind was blowing hard. The trees were swaying 20 feet back and forth. How much could these trees take before they broke under the strain? My feet are embedded in snow, and I’ve got a 40+ pound pack weighing me down. I can’t just quickly dive out of the way if one of these trees falls. I quicken my pace.

I ran into another problem. Rhododendrons again. But unlike before when I could just tap them to knock off the snow, these were encased in ice. And they weren’t just hanging over the trail—they were laying on it. Sometimes I could plow through them. Sometimes I had to skirt around them through the surrounding brush. This went on for miles.

It gets worse. Despite the ice storm and snow, the day was actually getting warm. The ice was melting. Now when the wind blew and the trees swayed, the ice fell off. Imagine you walking along a sidewalk when someone dumps a bucket of ice out of a third story window into your head. It fucking hurts! Fortunately, no concussions despite the repeated blows to my noggin.

Legends of the Fall Featuring Brad Pitt

Those were the worst conditions so far. Yes, I’ve been colder. Yes, I’ve been wetter. Yes, I’ve postholed through deeper snow, through slushy snow. But it’s the combination of wet while just barely above freezing that made this particularly bad. Throw in the potential death looming above and the ice shrapnel pelting me, it’s the worst conditions I’ve hiked in so far. 

Even so, not too bad. I’ve been really lucky with the weather conditions. Despite the frozen boots and socks from previous posts, the weather while I was in the Smokeys was great. Optimus Grime got injured trudging through the snow in the Smokies just days before me and had to give up his Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt. A few days after me, Bartman and Point 7 got stuck for five days in Gatlinburg halfway through the Smokies because of severe weather. Ultimately, they had to hike an extra 14 miles uphill to get back to the trailhead because the road was still closed. My frozen boots didn’t seem too bad after those stories. My days have been mostly sunny. Sure, some occasional rain. That intense thunder and lightning storm coming over Blood Mountain. But I’ve had sunny day issues, too.

After the ice storm, there were many miles where the trail was blocked by blow downs. That’s where a tree falls on the trail because it was old and rotten or perhaps because of ice and wind. And often when one tree falls, it takes down several other trees with it. Sometimes the trail is blocked for 50 feet by a tangle of branches and huge tree trunks. You have to find some way around through the thick brush along the trail, which is usually these tall thornbushes with hooked thorns.

Those thorns catch your clothes, and the more you struggle, the more entangled you become. Several times I felt like Brad Pitt’s younger brother in Legends of the Fall when he gets tangled up in the barbed wire. Remember that scene? Brad Pitt racing to his rescue while the Germans setup their machine gun to plow down the hapless soldier. Except there’s no Brad Pitt. And no machine gun. But I did get a really nasty cut in my lip when one of the thorns caught me there and ripped it open. Bled forever.

Can I Make the Calendar Year? I Dunno...

Despite the usually good weather, I’m not sure that can complete the Triple Crown in a year. These mountains are killing me. I’m just no good at uphills. Or downhills for that matter, which jars my knees that have already given me issues. (Remember me limping stiff legged for 25 miles?)

Also, I learned a new term: PUD, which stands for pointless ups and downs. Nothing could be a more accurate description of the Appalachian Trail. Originally the trail used to vary between mountain tops and meandering through the tiny towns in the valleys. Now the trail pretty much stays on ridgelines and goes over every single hump and rock outcropping possible. 

There seems to be absolutely no reason other than the perverse entertainment of some twisted trail designers. They have you walking on steeply sloped smooth rocks where one slip could send you tumbling down a long incline while the other side is a sheer cliff. But if you look over the cliff, you can see that 30 feet below is actually completely flat and smooth ground. Why not walk there where it’s flat? Why walk on this sloped rock hoping you don’t step on a little pebble that acts like a ball bearing and sends you plummeting downward? Why make you climb up a ridiculously steep rock face where you’re almost rock climbing (an easy 5.6, but still steep enough to require hands) only to have you climb down the opposite side a few feet later when you could have easily walked around it? 

In fact, at Dragon’s Tooth, I was literally rockclimbing up this 20-foot rock outcropping only to get to the top and realize I have to immediately climb down 20 feet again. I looked down and saw that there was an old trail that went around the base. WTF? This wasn’t on the ridge with the pretense of giving you a great view. This was on the side of the hill below tree line. Some perverted trail designer had the volunteers spend days notching rocks so people had somewhere to grip and step to get over this outcropping when there was already an existing trail below! A trail without twisted ankles, without broken bones, without death. I appreciate all the effort of the volunteers who maintain the trail. Kudos to all of you. But you trail designer, you suck.

But I digress. The point is that I’m not making the miles that I need to complete the Triple Crown in one calendar year. I need to complete each trail in four months. I crossed the 1/4 way mark for the AT on February 14, Valentine’s Day. That puts me two weeks behind. And the AT is the shortest. And despite its tallest mountains being less than half the height of the mountains on the PCT and CDT, the AT has the most elevation gain and loss. See what I mean about PUD? I’m actually looking forward to the monotonous road walking on the other trails. Maybe I can makeup time there. Otherwise, my Calendar Year Triple Crown might be a 14 Month Triple Crown. Still impressive. And the journey is what it’s really all about.

Quarter way mark of the Appalachian Trail north bound from Georgia to Maine.
Quarter way mark for the Appalachian Trail going north bound from Georgia (GA) to Maine (ME). I passed this marker on February 14, Valentine's Day. Six weeks into my Calendar Year Triple Crown attempt, and I'm already two weeks behind.

Stop and Smell the Roses

A little side note directed toward my dad. He’s never been supportive. Never positive in my endeavors. When I told him that I was going to attempt the Calendar Year Triple Crown, he didn’t tell me I could do it. He told me I should slow down. Stop and smell the roses. Seriously? This coming from my dad? Let me give you an example of why that is so ridiculous for him to say.

I’ve canoed with him many, many times. The rivers in Texas are slow. Peaceful. Tranquil. He paddles non-stop. Gotta get to our goal. Gotta get to the take-out point. Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

Meanwhile, I’m puttering along, looking at turtles sunning on logs, watching dragonflies land on the boat, “surfing” the very rare rapids where I get my kayak in the just right position so the waves hold me in the same spot without paddling while the whitewater foams around me. I love that. But dad never slows down to appreciate any of these things, so I’m forced to paddle furiously to catch up.

Stop and smell the roses. Pssshhh…I think I have a pretty good appreciation of life, Dad. By the way, for all my readers, here’s some photos of the little things that I’ve taken the time to appreciate along the way. Keep in mind you don’t have to be on an adventure to appreciate life. Despite the rush of our daily lives, you always have time to stop and smell the roses. Pause for just a moment and notice that ladybug that landed on your hand. Pause and look at that forgotten drawing hanging on your fridge. Your child drew that. Your wonderful, darling child. Or take a deep breath of your coffee this morning. Cup warm in your hands. Savor that earthy aroma. Now quick, chug it down! You’ve got a busy day!

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6 Responses

  1. What an adventure! Pushing yourself to your limits and enjoying every second. This is a life well lived. Safe journeys, fellow traveler.

  2. If anyone can do this, YOU can! You had some bad weather, but I KNOW you can make it up! I look forward to your next posts! Luv ya cuz!

  3. Enjoy this wonderful adventure!! So what if it takes a bit longer than what you had planned! The memories you are making will last a lifetime!

    Can’t wait for the next post!

  4. You are amazing. We are chastising your Dad for not being more supportive. Marsha and I can’t believe what you have already accomplished. Keep on keeping on!

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