The heavens are telling… Are you watching? Do you see it? An often missed treasure of Appalachian Trail hikers lies above their heads after the sun sets. Yes, I know long-distance backpacking is a draining endeavor, and the siren call of the sleeping bag after dinner is irresistible. Yet, there will be evenings when you’re not quite ready for bed at sunset. These are the times to find a clearing or nearby peak to take in the celestial show! Sky and Telescope Magazine provides a handy PDF file to get you started on the wonders of stargazing.
Tag Archives: Recreation
A potential human tragedy was averted in the rescue of an aspiring Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. The story below highlights the harsh weather conditions which can prevail on the AT at any time of year.
As I mounted the North flank of Jay Peak in Vermont it became plain that I was going to be snowed in. During my climb ponderous clouds unleashed snowfall. The wind lashed ice pellets at my face with shotgun blast intensity. My breathing was strained, my hands were losing sensitivity, and my field of vision was diminished to mere feet.
I knew the crest was within reach in about ten more minutes of hiking. Even so, I knew that if conditions continued to worsen at the rate I observed them, the trail would become concealed in a torrent of white and I would be stumbling for direction in a blizzard. Instantly I knew what it felt like to be apprehended by a blizzard without reference points.
I fished my compass from my pocket and formed my best calculation, slogging forward through drifts of snow which threatened to bury the way entirely. I was unable to trace a clear path and was left with no recourse but to look at the trees to find reliable trail blazes. The blazes were white. White trail blazes, many on white paper birches, in a milky snowfall. Things were getting crazy.
I trudged upward, only partially confident that I was still on the blazed trail. A specter of doubt settled into my thoughts, a suspicious “voice.” “You could be anywhere!” the White Devil seemed to say. “You might just waltz into the woods and freeze to death, never to be found!” Was that a laugh I heard?
“Ridiculous!” I thought. I’m walking the Long Trail in Vermont, not a rabbit trail in the arctic tundra. Shelters are abundant. There’s no chance I’ll get into trouble here. Still, there was that “voice”…
The wind was howling. The next shelter was over the cap of Jay Peak in Hazen’s Notch. I wouldn’t be getting that far this day. I moved on, leaning into the force of the mounting storm, struggling upward, at times losing my footing on ice bound ledges and slippery leaves. Finally I stumbled into a clearing, an open ski slope. I saw a grayish bulk rearing above me in the whiteout — the summit house.
It was a late Sunday in October and the tram had stopped operation, having made its final run of the day, so a ride down into the valley was out of the question. I was left alone on the peak. I dropped my backpack, leaning it against an outer wall, and scouted for options. It was clear no one was around and all the entrances were shut tight. I was about to despair when I discovered a door at the basement level of the building. I was elated to see a sign indicating it was a refuge room for hikers. I rapidly retrieved my pack and clambered inside, the keening wind slamming the door behind me. The basement room featured numerous windows on two sides. There were saw horses and some planks which made a makeshift platform for sleeping, and there was a tap with potable water. Home; but for how long?
Realizing I had been fortunate, I set to making the platform my bed, fluffing my sleeping bag and unrolling my mat. Outside, through the vertical windows, the vista was…white. The wind ramped up, and a doleful howl began as the tram cables were rattled by the gale. It sounded like the strings of the world’s largest and most sour violin. That dissonance would scream at me the next few days. (end of Part 1)
Reflecting today, I have become aware of another reason I hiked the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to taste risk. Having read Ed Garvey’s book on the trail (“Appalachian Hiker II”), which was one of only a handful available at the time, I found not just his achievement compelling. I discovered a greater adventure than just hiking and backpacking. I had done plenty of that; long weekends in the woods near my home, camping overnight. But the only sounds I heard consisted of a distant bellowing cow. How thrilling is that? No wolves called my neck of the woods home.
The first taste of risk came when I met my first pit vipers while on a day hike in the Uwharrie National Forest. To be sure, adrenaline never became so familiar as it did in those tense moments within striking range. Rather than coiled, however, the snake was lying lethargic on the chilly earth on an April morning, trying to gain enough warmth from the sun to begin moving. Even so, just the hint of danger was something I’ve never forgotten.
The Linville Gorge Wilderness of western North Carolina was another savoring of risk. I did a mid-winter day hike, struggling to the wind blasted summit of Table Rock on a frigid day, barely able to light my Svea stove to make soup. Slipping and sliding over ice atop the summit, I felt the exhilaration of my early experience in more serious mountaineering.
When the full Appalachian Trail experience began, I reveled in the challenges it brought. Even the misery was chalked up to stoic achievement. Fortunately, I had laid aside unrealistic expectations and let the trail teach me what I needed to learn. In that incubated state of mind, I was able to stretch myself further, tacking heights which until then would have left me paralyzed with fear; fording a deep river, something I’d never imagined doing; handling myself in a hypothermia situation and using my head instead of mindlessly plodding into further danger.
For some time, I chalked up these experiences as “adventure.” And it’s true, they were and I still think of them that way. But they were also risks I had taken. They were not a mere “stretching” of myself; they were me deliberately moving beyond my comfort zone into an unknown land with potential for greater hazard. When climbing, I might have fallen. When fording a river I might have lost my footing and drowned. When hypothermic I could have ignored the signs and ended up a casualty. As a result of these encountered risks I learned to handle the events with hard-earned wisdom and a great dose of humility. Had I taken them for simple “adventure” or a lark, I would have made unwise choices that might have cost me greatly.
Risk. We live it every day we step out the door. Adventure. We seek it to remind we’re alive. The Appalachian Trail is a living laboratory for you to enjoy adventure; but remember that you’ll take risks – both chosen and those thrust upon you. Handle them with humility and be open to being taught. Above all, learn all you can about the risks the trail entails. Though it’s been greatly tread, written about, and heralded, it’s still a “footpath through the wilderness.”
Video showing risk:
- “Nature Don’t Care Who You Are!” The wisdom of Ricky Ruiz for the Appalachian Trail (writer77.wordpress.com)
- The Appalachian Trail: Lessons from the footpath (writer77.wordpress.com)
- Appalachian Trail – lessons from the footpath, part 2 (writer77.wordpress.com)
Welcome pain. Welcome suffering. Welcome hiking and backpacking the Appalachian Trail. Welcome achievement. Welcome personal reward and satisfaction. Welcome to hiking and backpacking the Appalachian Trail.
Get fit as you like beforehand; you’ll still experience exhaustion and exertion will sit on your shoulder and cackle in your ear. Road crossings will pull at you with terrific magnetism, drawing you with the lure of comfortable beds, hot tubs, restaurants clogged with food choices time spent on the trial will have you dreaming of.
Plan. Inventory. Stock up. Choose gear carefully. Pack, unpack. Repack. Got those pounds and ounces down just right? By the time you’re passing the town of Suches, Gerogia a mere two miles west of the trail you’ll be mailing things home or ahead of you in a bounce box. I remember being completely, utter convinced I had all the essentials and not one thing more. Nothing has been unaccounted for, nothing over-purchased or packed. I sent home ten pounds of gear in Suches and forwarded the rest for later use. The postage I spent was well worth it. And my trip was lighter. Had I not shed the excess gear I would never have crossed the North Carolina/Georgia line.
By the first 100 miles, around the ascent of Mount Albert, I had lost quite a few pounds of personal weight; down to 175 from 238. I stepped on a scale at the Nolichucky Outdoor Center in Erwin, Tennessee and the truth sank in. I was giddy, to be honest, and stronger.
Yet…there was always the mental exertion and demands of the trail. I was physically fit and carried a lighter pack. Still, my emotional and mental state was always in flux, always challenging me. That’s what I’ve always believed to be the most important determiner of success for a hiker or backpacker on the Appalachian Trail — mental toughness.
If you’re planning on setting out on the Appalachian Trail this year, be prepared to handle setback, frustration, anxiety, some fear, disappointment, elation, despair, and a range of other feelings. Be ready to make them your friends, because they will be your companions, whether you’ve invited them or not. (See my article from 2008 by following the link below)
Rather than offer you a set of resolutions for the New Year, here’s a list of questions I hope will prove useful to you as a hiker and backpacker. Happy New Year!
What one item would most to increase the enjoyment of your hikes this year? (New knife, candle lantern, whistle, etc.)
What new outdoor skill would be the most useful to learn this year? (How to build a fire without matches, wilderness first aid, what to do if you’re caught in a snow or lightning storm, etc.)
What familiar trail would you like to explore further? (Side trails off the Appalachian Trail: see my earlier post.)
What are the biggest hurdles you come across when hiking the trail (slow pace, too much pack weight, etc.) and what can you do to surmount them?
How can you improve your physical condition and stamina for better hiking? (Increasing muscle mass, strengthening the legs or body core, cardio workouts.)
What pack items can you leave behind and still enjoy your trips? (Do you need the extra pair of heavy socks, the spare bandana, etc.)
Are you ready for assisting someone should they need help on the trail? (Offering tips and advice for better hiking, giving information about trail conditions, etc.)
What trail, or section of trail, would you like to hike this year that you haven’t hiked before?
Are your first-aid skills up-to-date? If not, consider a Red Cross refresher course. Medical expertise in the field benefits not just you but others who might need assistance in a medical emergency.
Is there someone you would like to have as a backpacking partner this year? Invite them on trip to your favorite trail?
Do you need to consider “going solo” on a trip. This will boost your confidence as a backpacker and test your self-reliance.
Do you want to consider joining a hiking or backpacking club to hike with a group of others?
Memories fade after a hike, even if you have taken great photos. Consider keeping a hiking journal while on the trail, soon after you return home, or start an online blog about your hiking and backpacking adventures.
August. Mid-August in the 100-Mile Wilderness of Maine. You would think any inking of cold, chill, or frost would be distant impossibility. You would be wrong. The rule is simple, with elevation climb, temperature drops. Another rule: clear skies at night lead to radiational cooling, which also ushers in cold.
Climbing in the 100-Mile Wilderness of Maine, I had the foresight to retrieve from my “bounce box” a pair of ragg wool gloves, a wool scarf, and extra wool socks, plus a stocking cap. My North Face sleeping bag, however, was only rated to -10 degrees, and a night of shivering was close at hand. I knew it was coming. I saw it in the frosted exhalations from fellow hikers huttered close by the fire. I saw it in the occasional swirl of gentle snowflakes which danced near the flames before suffering immolation. My digits felt it, so I put on every clothing item I carried. Still, by the time obsidian pre-dawn hours ruled the shelter I was in, which was high on a summit ridge line somewhere in the Bigelow range, beings of ice and cold and frost had begun their merry dance, stamping their feet to trounce out the remaining heat of the coals in the fire pit. There was no forgiveness with them. “Rouse yourself or freeze!” they seemed to say.
Sitting upright in the sleeping bag, I began the nimble dance of pulling stove and matches closer, lighting the burner, and pouring a generous slug of water into my cooking pot. The water could not heat fast enough. Eventually, however, the perfect constellation formed – steam rose from beneath the pot lid to herald the acceptable temperature, thus time came to make some stout coffee; and the first ray of sunshine broke the eastern horizon, sending the last of the frost giants scattering into the spruce and balsam.
Giants dead, the day begun, I managed a steaming breakfast. Within an hour I plunged my feet into stiff, frigid boots, lacing up their thickness like so much inflexible iron around my feet. Only when I had plodded down the trail for nearly half an hour did warmth and a sense of sanity weave into my bones along with the reminder that, even during mid-summer in Maine along the Appalachian Trail, the frost giants can make a visit.