and I Didn’t Die

[remembering back 3 years ago tonight]
 
That first day on the trail was a doozy. Up at the crack of dawn, hustle bustle packing up packs, breakfast with strangers in the Hiker Hostel, making a mental note of what might be my last time sitting on a genuine flush toilet for a while, getting picked up by a young FB friend I’d never met and her parents …. this part was solace and comfort to both our families.
 
Slippery icy switch backy dirt roads up to the Springer parking lot. Trusting this stranger to not the car slide off the mountain. And then we were there ….. nothing to do but get the packs out and do it. Blustery snow whipping our faces, we pull hats and collars snug and shoulder our packs which must weigh a half ton each. Quick g byes and we’re off!
 
Half skipping, we jump rock to rock avoiding ice patches pausing to shout, “OMG can you believe we’re doing this???” and the wind rips the words from our already cracking lips. Here! The terminus! Rock, plaque, logbook, pics, and move on! Hike on. and on. and on. She didn’t think to bring gloves or mittens so pulls out her thick wool socks to use as mitts. We pass 2 guys with a whimpering cringing dog who’s trying to not set her feet on the rock solid mud. They have no choice but to turn back.
 
On and on and on we hike. She’s 26 to my 59 years, lighter and faster which is exhausting for me but at the same time motivating. Of course I want to stop for pics and use those brief moments to catch my breath. Adrenaline moves me onward. Hawk Mountain Shelter…. how many people are here? 30? 50? She sets her hammock; I set my tent. Get water. Use the privy. Eat something hot from my JetBoil. Anything would have been welcome right then.
 
Several of us gathered around a large fire, singeing one side while the other side froze. I finally slowed down enough to really look around.
 
Then it dawned on me. It was really cold. No … it was freezing. I looked at each innocent face in turn around the fire and my thoughts ran like this …. It’s getting down to maybe 10º tonight. Wait! That’s too cold. We’re going to die. All of us. We’re all going to freeze to death in our sleep. Look at these poor people! Don’t they know we’re all going to freeze to death tonight? How awful for tomorrow’s crop of hikers to come through here and find several dozen of us all frozen stiff and blue in our sleeping bags. They’ll be traumatized.
 
But wait. hmm… No one seems upset. And they are talking about the temps so they know ….. right? Ok…. ok …. Maybe just MAYBE they know something I don’t. Maybe we are prepared and … Maybe we’re not going to die.
 
Changing into sleep clothes, hurrying to spare the nips from freezing and falling off. Heaven knows that was a distinct possibility! Wooly socks, heavy thermal bottoms, mid weight wool ¼ zip pullover, balaclava, wool cap, wool gloves, AND my down puffy pulled snug around my face. Thermal liner inside the fluffy down bag. 
 
Sleep found me finally in fits and starts, wrapped in my nest of down and wool with a mylar emergency blanket against the tent’s back wall to shield me from the wind …. and then …. Bladder called and Eyes opened … groaning with annoyance …. Wait who was shining a headlamp on my tent?
 
The bladder will not be ignored so unzipping unfolding unraveling myself from the warm cocoon, I crawled out into the crystal clear still dark to look up and bold the glory of the night sky. Moonlight bounced off every icy crystal on each single pine needle, on each snowflake on the frozen forest floor. The sky above was filled with a million zillion glittering stars. Sinking into the moment and barely daring to breathe with the glory above and all around me, ah yes …. THIS!!!

I’ll take Albert for 100 …

… Miles, that is! [posts are not in chronological order]
It could have been awful. It could have been dismal and brutal. Instead, I happened to share this part of the journey with a delightful young woman and we both had a riot!

Getting up Albert first required traversing a long stretch of trail that snaked along between a dripping wet rock wall on our left and a pretty much sheer drop off on our right. That’s where Rosie found me … standing there marveling at the living rock wall of green with water dripping down. Such incredible beauty! Such marvelous magic! There I was … trying to capture this glorious sight with my camera for you, dear reader, and having a hard time seeing through my own tears. Have you ever seen something so wondrously beautiful that it brings you to tears? That’s where I was when Rosie came up the trail, head down watching her every step, carefully picking her way between mud and rocks. We’d met briefly the night before at a shelter so we said hi and hiked on together chatting a bit as we went. Occasionally I’d pause to look out over the increasingly impressive views to our right and declare them utterly glorious! Rosie looked up each time and agreed.
In some places, the trail itself was an 18″ wide stew of black mud and wet rocks. Often the trail would turn and rise sharply to the left and our only available steps were the tangled roots of a tree leeeeeaaning far far out to the right, somehow defying gravity over the drop off below. Root, mud, root, mud, water, water, rock, mud, root! When we stopped long enough to lift our eyes from the trail, our views over the adjacent mountains was spectacular!
At one point, the trail leveled out and moved away from the cliff we’d been following and meandered through a rhododendron forest dipping lower and lower. Rosie chatted away about her family (who she dearly missed), her future (which she was quite unsure of), and of her decision to leave the trail at Winding Stair Gap a few days ahead. I pointed out that by the end of that day, she would have completed 100 miles of trail which was nothing to sneeze at! I looked up through the forest to a tall mountain ahead ….. and saw this itty bitty teeny tiny little structure at the top. I pointed it out to Rosie. Surely THAT was not the tower we were climbing up to!?!?!? WAY UP THERE??? Noooooo way! Whose brilliant idea was this??? I laughed hysterically … very much like I did when I first walked into Rock Ventures back home in Rochester and saw what was ahead of me. Rosie probably thought I’d gone mad but on we hiked! We would tackle the monster Albert together! A south bound hiker approached and we asked him if there there would be hand over hand maneuvers required and he assured us there was not … only to be careful of the wet places.
He was mistaken! Well … coming down the mountain SOBO, hand over hand was not required HOWEVER … going up NOBO … Yeah it was! What could we do? We hiked on! Err …. climbed on. It was not like wall climbing; our path was not vertical. Not quite! There were, however, many places where we needed to take a minute to plot our route up a section and then carefully go up using hands and feet together. Through all this, we swore (mostly me) and laughed (both of us). Some of it was nearly smooth rock to simply lean into and hope our shoes gripped well. Some of the trail seemed to be assembled of random boulders wedged together. These required gripping rocks and pulling ourselves up to the next boulder. Occasionally, we’d stop the scrambling to catch our breath and survey our surroundings. Damn! We were climbing a mountain! CLIMBING! We heard voices from above … We were nearing the top! As we emerged from the final bit of brush, there if was … The fire tower we’d seen from below!

To mark our 100th mile of trail, someone had spelled out 100 in sticks! Rosie and I dropped our packs and hurried up the stairs for our reward … such a view! We’d done it! We climbed Albert Mountain … and we had a terrific time doing it!

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I want to …

… quit. My last 2 miles yesterday, I wanted to quit. As I got to the lovely shelter, I wanted to quit. While chatting w nice section hikers around the toasty fire, I wanted to quit. As I used the wobbly smelly privy before bed, I wanted to quit. When I woke to a glorious golden morning, I marveled at the beauty but still I wanted to quit.

It 6.8 mi to the next shelter and its already 10:30am. At my speed, I won’t get there till 6pm. This should be easy by now and it’s not.

I miss my family. I miss my friends. I miss my dog. I miss my community. Being such a slow hiker, all groups pass me by. I don’t have a hiking family. Is this another Lesson in being alone? 😥

The sunshine is welcomed and warm as I sit at the crazy tilted cement picnic table. I hear the rushing stream downhill, a woodpecker off in the distance, and the slight rustle of wind stirring the leaves. Along the way there will be 2 places w cars/ parking … and potentially a ride into town.

Will I still want to quit?

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In the middle of the night …

… I was … well … I think this is what happened.

At Carter Gap Shelter, the shelter was full but there was a lower half finished level with a 4′ wide wooden platform do I opted to sleep under the shelter. It looked flat and level. really. It did!
I set up my sleeping stuff and made dinner along with the really terrific bunch of folks there. We had a sweet little bonfire before we all hit the sack around 8.
Now I’d heard stories of shelter mice running across people’s faces in the middle of the night but I was smart and pulled my buff all the way up over my face for protection. This had the added benefit offering my face warm. That night, it got really really cold.
Suddenly … Something happened! Slip! Slide! CRASH! What? What?
I’d gotten myself all the way down yo the bottom of my bag …. and the bag was upside down with the hood in front … and my arms were pretty much pinned to my sides in the mummy bag … and and and…. trying to get arms up over my head to unzip the upside down bag … zipper stuck … can’t see a thing … dark in a sleeping bag under a shelter at night with something over my should face. TRYING to do all this without waking up the people sleeping over my head!
O M G !
I managed to free myself, crawling through dusty dirt … trying to not crawl over the piece of metal corrugated roofing that I’d rolled into.
My headlamp was not nearby but by light of my phone, I managed to reassemble my bed on the supposedly level platform and crawl in once more. As I drifted off, my bladder decided to wake up.
I could only laugh!

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Bunny on Easter …

… I began the morning by having breakfast with 3 other lovely hiker friends, AYCE Sunday brunch at Shoney’s. Biscuits & sausage gravy … yum! Our waitress kept razzing us in the friendliest ways and we threatened to kidnap her and haul her off on the trail. I took with me 2 colored hard boiled eggs from the buffet.
Leah was driving Renee and Buttercup to Winding Staircase Gap and me to Deep Gap so everyone could resume the trail where they’d left off. As Renee and Buttercup were unloading, I realized I’d left my maps and guide book at the hotel. No fears … I simply photographed the needed pages from Renee’s book. 😉
I thoroughly enjoyed the ride with Leah. We were FB friends but hadn’t really gotten to know each other before this so as we took the windy twisty forest service road back to Deep Gap, we got to talk. Arriving at the parking lot, we were surprised and delighted to see to
Trail Magic happening! The “Omelet Angels” had 3 E-Z ups and 2 kitchens going! This was their 22nd year of doing this on Easter morning! I’d just finished a hefty breakfast so declined an omelet but gladly accepted the offer of a hearty sandwich on home made bread to go. Mmmmmm!
Leah and I said our goodbyes and I was on my way. My immediate goal was Standing Indian Shelter where I would eat my sandwich and then head on to the summit of Standing Indian Mountain (ele 5498′!) where I would reward myself with Easter chocolates sent to me by Karen L. The shelter was an easy reach and several hikers and I shared stories as we ate lunches and snacks. I continued on.
The misty drizzly fog slowly turned to a steady soft rain as I eased into switchback after switchback. 741′ ele more in 1.5 mi. Eventually I realized it really was only going to rain harder and denial was not going to keep me dry. I had to pee. Perfect opportunity to put on my DriDucks rain pants, yes? There was no one coming from either way, so I dropped pants and peed right there in the middle of the trail which was quickly becoming a running stream. As fast as i could, I hoisted my britches, grabbed my rain pants, and leaned against a tree struggling to get each wet muddy hiking shoe into the pant legs without filling the pants with said mud. And here come 2 men hiking down hill toward me. From the switchback *above* me. “Oh hi!” LOL
I continued on plugging away, now quite a bit more protected from the elements. The trail climbed, climbed, climbed. I hike a whole lot faster in the rain! Ohhhh….. my belly rumbled! Something from the AYCE buffet was not sitting well. I was at the summit of Standing Indian Mountain! And it was pouring! My guts declared a sudden emergency! Now, dearest readers … Try to imagine wearing full heavy pack with pack cover, the toilet paper is inside the pack under the cover; you’re wearing rain pants, shorts, AND tights …. and it’s raining so hard you’re nearly breathing water.
And the situation is URGENT!
I’ll spare you the nitty gritty details other than to say that it was a moment I’ll never forget!
I sat on a wet rock and ate the head off a chocolate bunnie.
And hiked on.
I don’t see another soul on the trail; the rain never once let up. Three miles later, I was loosing light as I came into the Beech Gap tenting area. Not a soul was there, but I wasn’t sure I’d make it another 3.5 to the next shelter before dark. I camped completely alone for the first time. The rain let up ever so slightly as I set up the tent as quickly as possible, making good use of the awning feature to pile my soaked gear under. It was a challenge to keep wet and dry stuff from touching. I would need to bear bag. this would be extra heard in pitch dark so wandered in search of an acceptable tree branch. I tossed and set it ready to haul up my food bag when I would be ready later. Sitting cross legged in the doorway of my tent, I cooked curry noodles with chicken for dinner and washed it down with hot spiced cider. For dessert, I ate the butt off the chocolate bunnie. Yum! It was time to hang my food bag so I slipped on my camp crocs (lovely little red ballet style Crocs) and headed out into the rainy fog to locate the already hung bear bag. And could not find it! Anywhere! I wandered back and forth and back and forth for what had to be a good 20 min, finally giving up. I slept with my food by my head figuring if a bear was so hungry that he’d come around a human in this deluge, I’d just give him the bag!
It’s important to note that throughout this entire day, not once was I angry or discouraged. I was excited to camp 100% solo in the pouring rain!
That night was my best nights’ sleep so far 🙂 At one point, I woke to see a glimpse of moonlight coming through my tent and I knew the morning would bring sunny skies. I drifted back to sleep so very happy!

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Shifting focus …

… From macro to micro? From seeing the big picture to examining the details?

There are times when I hike along and see a log. This is how my brain works …

Oh cool! A log! It’s really old and half rotted! Look at that dark wet jagged area where it had broken… Oh and over here it’s crumbling away and you can see red coppery dark red crumbly aged wood tumbling out. All the holes from insects where the bark has stripped off. I wonder what lives in there? I wonder if they’re moving around yet? Oh that bark is over an inch thick! look at this heavy slab of bark lying here curled up with mosses like thick emerald green plush, deep velvet almost like fur. Oh look closer! Teeny tiiny red brown stalks emerging from this incredible luscious green. Oh blooming already? They barely move in the breeze. Oh how the sunlight backlights this tiny landscape! What incredible beauty in a six-inch patch of mossy bark!

I wonder if anyone else who passes this log sees the same as I do? Or do they just mentally register “log”?

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Redefining brutal …

… sometimes feels like an almost daily thing. March 29 for sure felt brutal.
I spent the night camped with about 25 or 30 others at Bly Gap. It was a really nice bunch bunch of folks and we had a huge toasty fire with lots of hiker talk and off-color jokes. The night was clear and cold. When I woke up at about 11 to pee, I wondered why the person in the tent behind mine had their headlamp shining my direction. When I woke up a little more fully, I realized it was a gorgeous bright moon. Stepping outside my tent to take care of business, the night was magical… a stunning sky lit by a glorious moon and, off in the distance, I could hear a pair of owls calling to each other through the dark. I got to experience this magic again at about 4 AM but the moon was mostly gone by then, taken over by clouds.
As beautiful as the night was, I did not sleep well. I had been tired and cold all day and my body just could not seem to relax and get comfortable. I was warm enough but my calves kept cramping and waking me. Adding to that, I had camped on the flattest space available but I still was on a slope and kept slowly sliding sliding sliding towards the door of my tent. The night before, I barely slept in a shelter where it had gotten down to 15° and this night was probably about 20° there in Bly Gap.
I woke in the morning determined this time to make myself a hot breakfast to start my day right! After a breakfast of coffee, cocoa, oatmeal, and salami, I prepared my pouch of lunch and snacks (including a high protein orange yogurt smoothie in a small Nalgene bottle for later that morning), got everything packed up and headed out of camp at the late hour of 9:45 AM.
The rest of my campmates were heading to Standing Indian Shelter 7.7 mi away, a distance I felt was probably beyond my ability, given my lack of good sleep for the previous two nights. My goal was to hit Muskrat Creek Shelter (2.8 mi) for a late lunch and decide at that point how much farther I would want to go.

And right after the gnarled tree, I hit knee high log-bermed steps taking me up about 500′ ele in maybe 1/4 mi. OOF! Wow, that made the old glutes burn, let me tell you!!!! At the top, I found a lovely log to sit on and have my little orange smoothie. I unscrewed the lid, put the bottle to my mouth … and my taste buds were shocked! This is not an orange yogurt smoothie! No … I had grabbed the wrong baggie of orange powder and made myself cold tomato soup!!! I consoled myself with half of a Big Sur Bar and could only laugh at myself. 🙂
Everything kept going up and I asked myself at one point does North Carolina only go up? Will there be any down at all in this state?
Courthouse Bald (summit 4666′) was beautiful with it’s craigy rocks and rhododendron forests.
Have I mentioned before how enamored I am with the rhododendron forests? I absolutely love the wide glossy dark green leaves and the twisty, slightly shaggy branches that arch over the trail to create an inviting shadowy tunnel of green. At this elevation however, that shadowy tunnel enabled the snow to remain and get packed down into near ice by the footsteps of previous hikers. You had to watch where you placed every step so carefully. Where there was no snow-turned-to-ice, there was often thick deep black mud. Several times a foot would start to slide and it was very slow going for me but with the footsteps and slide marks of the previous hikers, I had a bit of warning where the slipperiest spots where.
It was getting later and later; I was getting tired and beginning to consider that I might actually stay the night at the shelter coming up. Finally I made it to Muskrat Creek Shelter. It was 3 PM. 😦 The floor of the shelter had somehow flooded and turned to ice or perhaps it had simply filled with snow and been packed down but stepping into the shelter felt like stepping into a refrigerator; it was immediately and obviously colder inside the shelter than outside. No way was I going to spend the night there! I heated up my tomato soup for a late lunch and discussed options with a few other thru-hikers who stopped in for the same purpose. We pretty much all came to the conclusion that nobody wanted to spend the night in the icebox masquerading as a shelter so, one by one we used the privy (ice on the floor!), finished our lunches/snacks, and headed on down the trail with the idea of stealth camping at Deep Gap 4 mi away.
I was already getting tired and the idea of four more miles … 😦
That’s when the snow started to get deep. My first warnings were the 2′ deep drifts of snow alongside the trail which eventually became 2′ of snow everywhere with the trail cutting through, packed down again like ice. It was slippery enough when level but on a long long downhill, it was downright treacherous. I lengthened my hiking poles and proceeded slowly and cautiously as I was able. It was evident that hikers before me had slid, slipped, and fallen. I wasn’t surprised… It would’ve been far easier to go down that one long hill on skis or a toboggan! I was so close to losing my footing many many times. Still not sure how I managed to stay upright through that entire thing. There was one point where I slid about 3′ down the trail without losing my balance as if snowboarding.
Then the snow started coming down. I’d had a few flakes falling here and there but now the snow began in earnest… big fat clumpy chunks of snow. It was sticking this time, piling up and eventually obscuring the footprints of those who had gone before me. With the heavy cloud cover, I was starting to lose light and I really really wanted to get down off that mountain. Though I was hungry and there was rehydrated beef stew sitting in my pack, I did not want to take the time to stop and eat. The footing was getting more and more tricky as I had to pick my way across rock fields with 1-2″ of snow obscuring the difference between rock and ice. There were trees fallen across the trail that I had to climb over much like mounting a horse on one side and then dismounting on the other. What’s up with that North Carolina? Have you not heard of these amazing inventions called chainsaws?
Trying to hurry… trying to be careful… Somehow I put my right foot down and it slid to the left and I did some incredible aerial acrobatic and rolled/slid about 7– 10 feet downhill off the trail. Fortunately there was a 2′ deep snowbank to cushion my eventual landing. I laid there for a moment… mentally checking out all my parts… am I okay? My right wrist, back, and right knee all felt twisted …. but nothing was terrible; nothing was screaming. Nothing was broken! I had landed head downhill, on my back, with my pack on. Those lovely fat flakes of snow were falling in my face and the trees and sky looked really cool from that position but …. I had to get up and out of there and nobody was there to help me out. I was on own. THAT process would probably have been worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Shift, roll, grab, use the hiking poles … it was a process! Think of what a turtle would go through if you put it on its back … with its head downhill … in the snow.
As much as I wanted to get off the mountain, I was that much more careful with my every step. There was no hurrying. If I have to do this in the dark, I have a headlamp. That would not have been my first choice but I would rather hike safely with a headlamp than recklessly in faltering daylight.
Three times I thought surely Deep Gap and the parking lot was around the curve and each time when I came around that bend in the trail, there was more trail. I had to stop thinking/expecting because the disappointment was just too much. I wondered if I had somehow passed the gap and was on my way to Standing Indian Shelter? I couldn’t possibly of passed the gap which was a forest service road, but… I felt like I had been hiking forever! Indeed I had been hiking for many hours, albeit slowly. I had to set all expectations aside because standing there feeling helpless and disappointed was not going to get me out of what could be turning into a dangerous situation. I had no choice but to hike on. So I did.
The trail curved and I suddenly saw way below me the road and I cheered! I still had to pick my way through the icy mud and rocks carefully and came into the parking lot unsure of my next step. Okay… To be perfectly honest my next step was to pee! There was an old fire ring and places to put up tents and it was nearly dark so didn’t have a lot of options. My first choice was to catch a ride into town, get a hot shower, dry bed, and buy Micro Spikes for my shoes before tackling the next mountain. I walked through the parking area holding my phone up to the sky, trying to get a good Verizon signal when a minivan pulled in (nearly ran me over), parked and disgorged a bunch of Boy Scouts and troop leaders. “Hey, are you going into town?” I boldly asked the strangers.
So here I am… safe, warm, and dry … a few odd deep bruises and a little sore but okay.
Yeah …. kinda brutal!

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