Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Yes we were Cold but it was Totally Worth it!

Update on GDMBR posts: I have been very busy with my job and with college over the last few months so that is why I have failed to regularly post. After the second week of December I will be out of school so I plan to finish up the story then. Thanks for your patience and for those of you that take time to read my blog!

Since almost all of my posts are focused on cycling and even the title of my blog pays homage to one of my favorite rides, you may be surprised to know that I occasionally walk through the woods rather than riding! My name is James Goering and I am a backpacker.

One of my friends, James Shank, likes to go on at least one or two short backpacking trips per year so this past summer he mentioned that he was thinking of going hiking in the fall of '13, I of course said it sounded like great fun. Over the course of the next few months we determined that we wanted to hike the AT (Appalachian Trail) from Mount Rogers to Damascus Va. Wanting some other people to share in the misery we talked to friends and family and found a few other people crazy enough to want to hike 30+ miles over the course of 3 days.

L to R: Solomon McMurray, James Shank, myself, Carson Showalter, and Josh King

First of all we piled ourselves and our gear into James Shank's tiny car and drove for around 3.5 hours to Solomon's grandparent's house. We ate a calorie rich meal of burgers, beans, mac and cheese, and hot dogs before having Solomon's grandfather haul us to the trail head at Massie Gap. The Toyota SUV we were riding in had a external temperature thermometer and we all were transfixed as the numbers dropped from 42 to 36 degrees as we climbed into Grayson Highlands State Park. We clambered out of the SUV and sucked in our respective breaths as the wind hit us. It was gusting at up to 10 mph so we quickly put on the extra layers we would need to stay warm. 

The first mile or so of hiking was mostly climbing so we rapidly warmed up. However, the wind intensified and if even a small part of you body was exposed it quickly became cold. The gloves that I had originally put in my pack as an afterthought were soon the only things keeping my hands from turning into blocks of ice. We steadily climbed up Wilburn Ridge, which was a collection of rock outcroppings that you had to pull yourself up and over depending on whether the fiend who designed the trail had been in an especially vindictive mood. I will have to say it did offer some spectacular views.

In the park there are small herds of ponies that are cute until they decide you have food and begin to make themselves a nuisance.

After hiking for no more than two hours we arrived at the Thomas Knob Shelter which is at the foot of Mt. Rogers. After stashing our gear in the attic of the shelter (We thought it might offer more protection from the strengthening wind), we quickly hiked to the top of Mt. Rogers which is the highest point in Virginia at 5,729 feet above sea level. After spending a few moments at the anticlimactic summit with nothing to see but trees and moss, we descended back to the shelter for supper. We all climbed into the attic and began to lay out our sleeping pads and bags while getting out food bags. I fired up my MSR Pocket Rocket stove and heated up some water for the guys for some hot drinks. By this time the temperature was dropping and the wind was getting even stronger so I took off my shoes and put the lower half of my body in my 15 degree sleeping bag. With my Montbell down jacket and Mountain Hardware sleeping bag wrapped around me with a steaming hot cup of cider in my hands, I was a satisfied hiker. Although the hot drink had warmed me up I still needed food so I heated up some more water and poured it into my Mountain House Chili Mac meal. 

Solomon eating dinner while keeping warm.

After we had all eaten dinner we tried to get to sleep. Before I crawled into my sleeping bag for the last time I ran outside to take a few pictures of the glorious sunset. My hands were outside of my pockets for only a few seconds but even in that short amount of time they were already going numb. With the temperature dropping and the wind gusting at up to 20 mph the wind chill was probably close to 0 degrees Fahrenheit (That around -18 C for those of you that use a temperature system that makes sense).

At least the guys were in good spirits!

I had taken a sleeping pill with supper so I quickly dropped off to sleep and didn't waken for a while, I was the lucky one. Even in my drug-addled state I was eventually wakened by a sound that made me wonder if the shelter was going to get picked up and deposited several hundred yards away in a shattered pile of logs and hikers. The 20 mph gusts of a few hours before now had transformed into a wall of wind that seemed bent to destroy anything that was foolish enough to be up on top of a mountain in late fall. Knowing it would only be worse outside I just tightened the cinch cords on my sleeping bag hood and huddled further down. I was able to fall asleep again but I kept getting woken up by the wind. Probably only a few hours from dawn I was once again woken, but this time by cold. The summer weight sleeping pad I was laying on top of wasn't very warm and if you combine that with wind whistling through the shelter I was getting a little chilly. I shifted around and was able to find a spot that was warmer so I drifted off again. 

I woke for good after James climbed back into the attic carrying some water from the nearby spring. The wind had mostly ceased but it was still bone-chillingly cold outside of my down cocoon. Solomon checked the thermometer and said it was 18-20 degrees F! If the wind was blowing hard while it was that cold that equates to close to a -20 F windchill! I reached to the bottom of my bag and grabbed my water bottle and the gas canister for my stove. Even with the gas canister being warmed from my body heat it still took a long time to boil the water for more cider and my breakfast of oatmeal. With some hot drink and food in my body I ventured outside to this:

Click on picture enlarge

It was still blue cold, but what a view!

We packed up our gear and descended off of the mountain heading roughly west.

We hiked across several "balds" and every time we hiked out of the shelter of the trees the wind hit us once again. We stopped for a quick break at a bathroom by a highway and then climbed to near the top of Whitetop Mountain.

We stopped there for another quick break then descended to Buzzard Rock, then again to Route 58. We then climbed a little to the Lost Mountain Shelter. Here we filtered more water and ate a late lunch. We descended from the shelter to the Virginia Creeper Trail which is an old railroad bed that has been converted to a trail for hikers and bikers. We crossed a long trestle across a river, followed the Creeper Trail for a little but then once again began to climb.

Solomon and Josh took off like someone was on their tail and soon they lost James, Carson, and myself. Not long after we came upon them as they were sitting down for a break. I was still feeling good so I kept on hiking by myself. Not long after I hit a section of trail that was composed of switchback after switchback. Hitting my second wind I kept pushing, feeling the burn in my legs and using it to push myself even more. Soon it felt like I had no weight on my back and it was if I was floating over the trail. 

Riding this wave of adrenaline and euphoria I completely forgot to eat anything for at least an hour. I can always tell if my blood sugar is low when I start to constantly fantasize about food. When all I could think about was pizza, chocolate milk, and barbecue ribs, I knew I was in trouble. The further I hiked the weaker I got, but I kept thinking the shelter had to be close so there was no reason to stop for a handful of trail mix. I began to climb yet another bump in the ridge I was hiking along the top of, and I decided when I got to the top I would stop for some food. Just before the top I saw the blessed sign that told me the shelter was only a quarter mile away. The last quarter mile flew as I hiked/ran to the shelter. I threw down my pack, grabbed some toilet paper, and visited the nearby privy. Just as I got back to the shelter and was digging through my bag for some Sour Patch Kids I heard voices nearby, the guys had caught up with me. 

I filtered some water, then boiled some water for my two packs of Ramen noodles. While I was cooking my food the other guys were getting some wood for a fire. After eating my noodles I used some more hot water for hot chocolate to go with my fried cherry pie which I ate by the warmth of the campfire. Once again we got to sleep shortly after night fall and prepared for another cold night. I woke up several hours later, not to shiver, but to shed a couple layers because I was too hot! I went back to sleep and barely wiggled until James stirring around woke me up yet again the next morning. I boiled water for my last pack of cider mix and my dehydrated bacon and eggs. After cleaning up camp we hoisted our much lighter packs onto our shoulders and headed out.

Solomon and Josh were going to cut the day short and spend part of the day with Solomon's grandparents. After a few miles they peeled off on another trail while James, Carson, and myself headed toward Damascus, 7 or so miles away. On the way down the interstate we had decided we would eat pizza in Damascus our last day. With this carrot in front of our noses we hiked like we were being chased. Only three hours after starting at Saunders shelter, we entered the Damascus town limits on the Creeper Trail. After stopping at an outfitter store with overpriced outdoor gear, we met up with Solomon and Josh who had ridden bike from Solomon's grandparents house. We had to hike another mile or so to get to the pizza place but after we got there we sat down and proceeded to demolish the buffet. Solomon's granddad had paid for our pizza so we left with full bellies and full wallets, what could be better than that!?

On the way back up the road, even though our muscles were starting to seize up, we were already talking about our next backpacking trip. Where should we go? When should we go? What can we do to make the next trip even more fun than this one? I can't speak for the other guys, but it will be pretty hard to top this hike!

Till next time,

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