The plan for this weekend was to get in one last overnight training hike.
The plan was for it to be the first test in cold weather of my full sleep system, and to make sure all of my other gear was fit for a thru-hike.
The plan was to confirm I was prepared, that I was physically and mentally ready to hike from Georgia to Maine.
There wasn't much about this weekend that went as planned.
|Date||Sunday, February 26, 2017|
|Weather||Sunny, windy and cool during the day, with gradually clearing skies and a high temperature in the upper 50s.|
|Trail Conditions||Muddy in several places. Well maintained.|
When I speak of a plan, I'm not just talking about a few vague notions of what might happen. I mean I have worked out what I want to happen, and I usually have backup plans in case it doesn't happen that way.
It's just like the plan I had when I went to the doctor's office a couple days ago for a pre-hike checkup. As usual for these kinds of visits, the doctor would say, "I can't find anything wrong with you," and I say something lame like, "That's what you get for good, clean living."
Except this time the checkup didn't go according to plan. And I didn't have a backup plan.
Instead of following my script, the doctor said, "You may need a hernia operation before you start your hike."
No! I didn't plan for this! The plan has always been for me to start hiking from Springer Mountain on March 7. That's less than two weeks away.
Now I have no plan at all because I have to wait a week until I can see a surgeon to confirm the diagnosis.
So this is what I was trying to reconcile as I began what was supposed to be a confirming last training hike.
If there was any consolation it was that the destination was one of my favorite sections of the Appalachian Trail. We would be hiking northbound from Carvers Gap to U.S. Highway 19E. This section of trail covers some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Southeast.
In my plan, I would be hiking this section again in one month. Now I don't know when it will be. I don't even know if it can still be a northbound hike.
Of the dozen or so times I've hiked this section the weather has sometimes been brutal. Snow, sleet, rain, high winds and bitter cold, I've experienced it all on this section of the AT.
At least I knew to prepare for that.
Except this time when we arrived we had bright sunshine and pleasant temperatures.
I was hiking with four boy scouts and three other leaders. This is an annual trip for the troop. For some unknown reason, though, this year's turnout was unusually low.
For me, the small group size was a good thing. It meant there would be fewer reasons to slow down or take unnecessary breaks.
Carvers Gap sits on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, as does the trail for much of this section.
From here the trail crosses a series of balds, mountain tops with little vegetation, other than grasses and shrubs.
A bald isn't above the tree line, such as you will find at higher elevations or more northern climates. There is a lot of dispute as to what causes balds to exist where other nearby mountains are tree-covered.
There's a 360-degree view from these balds.
Instead of climbing the highest bald, Grassy Ridge Mountain, the trail veers to the left and descends into a forest.
When I first began hiking this portion of the trail 18 years ago it made a steep, straight descent down the mountain. That led to significant problems with erosion. Over the last few years the trail has been relocated, not far away, but designed to prevent erosion by taking a less steep descent and by using switchbacks.
As the trail goes over Yellow Mountain you will often see old fences, which at one time marked the property of the landowners. The land is now protected for the trail and no longer privately held. Though not directly apparent, the trail also zig-zags across the state border. It's difficult to tell at any given point if you're walking in Tennessee or North Carolina.
After crossing Yellow Gap we began the long climb up Little Hump Mountain. Though the climb is steep at times, when you turn around you get a rewarding view of the valley below, including the Overmountain Shelter.
There are at least three places on the climb with a false summit, giving you the illusion you are reaching the top, until you get there and discover you have much more climbing to go.
Just before the trail turns to go down the other side of Little Hump, we got one last view of tomorrow's big climb, Big Hump.
In the saddle between the two humps is a forest of beech and locust trees. This was our destination for tonight. We arrived at about 3:30 p.m.
After setting up my tent I prepared my sleep system for tonight's test. Although calling it a system may seem a bit pretentious, it really is one. It's a collection of items assembled to work together and provide the most possible warmth for the least possible weight.
That was the plan, anyway.
It starts with a thermal layer of clothing that is never worn for hiking so that it can always be kept dry.
The ground mat is an Exped Synmat UL 7 M, which is thick enough when inflated to provide insulation and enough padding to smooth over the rough ground.
Two pieces go with this to offer flexibility to stay comfortable in a wide range of temperatures. Together, they weigh barely more than two pounds.
The first layer is a Marmot Plasma (now discontinued) down sleeping bag, rated at 30 degrees F.
The second layer is an Enlightened Equipment Prodigy (now called Revelation) synthetic quilt, which is rated at 50 degrees F.
Each layer can be used separately, or when the temperature drops, can be used together. Enlightened Equipment says pairing two layers like this will result in a warmth rating of 10 degrees F.
Of course, any system is likely to fail if one piece doesn't perform as planned, and that's what happened as soon as I crawled into bed. The air mat deflated.
I attempted a couple times to re-inflate it, but I quickly sank to the cold ground. Conduction physics being what it is, I suffered through a miserable night as the outside temperature quickly dropped to the upper teens.
As if to heap upon my misery, I discovered at about 2 a.m. my water filter was sitting outside my sleeping bag. I had put it in the bag to keep it from freezing, but somehow it had fallen out.
When a water filter freezes, ice crystals form and expand, ruining the fine membrane used to trap nasty bugs like Giardia and Cryptosporidium.
There's no way to know for sure that happened, but I won't want to risk that it didn't. I'll have to replace the filter, which costs $54.
|Date||Sunday, February 26, 2017|
|Weather||Overnight low around 18°F. Daytime temperature climbed to the upper 40s with clear skies.|
|Trail Conditions||Some mud and a few patches of ice on the north side of Big Hump. Well maintained trail all the way down.|
If I wasn't completely in a funk by now, the morning took care of that for me. It was so cold my toes started to feel like they were encased in ice cubes.
Then I spilled coffee all down my front.
I was sore, tired, and questioning why I wanted to hike 2,190 miles, when even just 14.8 was making me think about being in a warm, comfortable house and spending time with my loving wife.
This was definitely not part of the plan.
Then as we started down the trail and turned a corner, Big Hump came into view. Suddenly, I knew why I was here, why I was doing this, and why I want to hike 2,190 miles through cold and rain and aches and loneliness.
It's because you don't see magnificent views like this from your couch. You don't breathe clear, crisp air while driving somewhere in your car.
These are the experiences that make me feel alive. Even the pain is a reminder of that.
Though I've stood on this spot many times before this is still a moment for me that cannot be duplicated, but I want to repeat it again and again.
On the walk up the mountain I spotted deer running around on top. As I got closer to the summit I looked back and saw all the way to where we had started the hike yesterday.
Yes, this is where I wanted to be.
I've lost track of how many times I've stood on Big Hump, but I knew as I stood here this time I would be returning soon.
And though in the course of walking the entire Appalachian Trail I will stand on hundreds of mountains, this one will always be special to me.
The trail coming down off the mountain is not too steep at first. Today it was a bit muddy and icy in spots, but didn't pose a problem. Later, after crossing Doll Flats, the trail becomes steeper for a couple miles.
Once we reached the highway, Ralph and I walked down to Mountain Harbour Bed & Breakfast and Hiker's Hostel. We had to take a slight detour, though, so that Ralph the Geologist could look at a pile of rocks, which were remnants of a rock slide that fell last year.
After arriving at the hostel, owner Dave Hill gave us a shuttle ride back to Carver's Gap.
At this point I don't know when I will be able to begin my attempt to thru-hike the entire trail. And though this weekend trip didn't go as planned, it accomplished the big goal I had in mind. It confirmed I'm ready and able to do it.
Sailing heart-ships thru broken harbors
Out on the waves in the night
Still the searcher must ride the dark horse
Racing alone in his fright.
Tell me why, tell me why
Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself,
When you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell?