Tale from the Trail: the Coldest Night

COLD!This week, as the arctic cold snap sweeps the country, my facebook blowing up with extreme weather stories, it seems an apropos time to share a tale from the trail – our coldest night:

November 12, 2013
Somewhere in North Carolina

We woke up before dawn at a stealth campsite shared with Taxi, Potato Shake, HeRoMate and Icepack. The forecast called for arctic winds at 3am bringing sub 20 degree temperatures and a 70% probability of precipitation. Wet clothes and freezing temperatures = hypothermia. We planned to hit the trail by 6:30am, moving quickly to keep warm and “outrun” the oncoming storm.

As we started up Flint Mountain at 10am the temperatures dropped (you lose 2.5 degrees for every 1000 feet you gain). The high winds showered us with frost from the trees above. My knee was injured, so we traveled a slower than usual, and reached Flint Mountain Shelter around 12:45, just as it began to snow. How do you know when a sprinkling of snow might turn into inches? At what point do you turn back? The cold, wind and snow heightens everyday thoughts and I worked hard to calm my mind and keep panic at bay.

Groucho and I threw on our puffy jackets and quickly ate some trail mix . Ice chunks already floated in our water bottles. On our one break, Groucho used a shelter floor for his requisite push ups (a heat building measure) and we left after only 10 minutes… too cold to stop moving.

As we climbed further up the mountain the dusting of snow turned into a blizzard. Perfect snowball quality, the snow stuck to our shoes and faces, melting slowly into our socks, but walking kept us mostly warm – a sensation we realized would cease as soon as we stopped moving.

As we crested the ridge, the AT wandered between a flat forest road and some rocky forest paths. Scant blazing and falling snow made the trail difficult to see. We faithfully followed our friend’s footsteps. As we crested a hill we saw a historic grave site situated in the middle of a clearing – an ominous sight on such a frigid day.

Finally we reached the stone shelter 90 minutes before sunset, surprised and delighted to find a built-in fireplace, where Icepack, Shakes and HeRoMate were gathering and breaking down branches. A frozen water droplet hung from HeRoMate’s nose, and Groucho sported icicles in his beard. Our shoes stiffly cracked on our quickly freezing feet. A mild panic set in… we felt really cold, and the snow continued to fall.

In discussions on our way up the mountain, Groucho and I planned to get immediately in our warmer clothes and sleeping bags, and then cook food from bed. The allure of a fire threw a wrench in that plan, but we hoped it would be worth it. We gathered wood for the fire and went for water, filling up everyone’s bottles while they manned the fire.

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I quickly realized how my body was cooling off. It was time for more clothes, quilts and food. I removed my wet socks and shoes, then put on all the clothes I was carrying – my hiking dress, two base layers wool pants, two base layer wool shirts, wind pants, two pairs of wool socks, puffy jacket, balaclava, fleece hat, gloves and later mittens over my gloves. Still feeling windchill, I put my sleeping quilt over my shoulders like a cape and looked up to check on my teammate. He was sitting where I left him…

When you stop hiking in weather this cold, your metabolic temperature falls quickly. The mind and body consort to produce the worst impulse to stop moving completely, conserving energy. Things that sounded comforting moments earlier (the idea of dry socks, more layers, warm food) seem distant and unimportant. It takes an enormous amount of energy to accomplish the simplest chore, even one designed to make you warmer. This is how people succumb to hypothermia. It simply feels natural and easier to do nothing…

I huddled next to Groucho, helping him to stop shivering. We knew warm food would help, and slowly began the process of cooking our food. Meanwhile the other three cooked, tended fire, and set up Shake’s tent on the shelter platform.

The thermometer on the shelter read 20 degrees at 5pm, just before sunset. The blazing fire just took the edge off the chill. The wind poured in the front of the 3-sided shelter and HeRoMate suggested hanging our tarps up to cover the opening to the shelter. Although this cut us off from the waning light of day, it helped tremendously with windchill. Another hiker, Stinky Jesus, arrived with more icicles in his beard then I had seen before or since. He claimed the last spot in the six-person shelter.

Hot dinner provided a burst of warmth and we hunkered down into our sleeping bags to make the most of it. We kept fears at bay with little jokes and commentary. I used the fire to boil water, and then poured it into the Nalgene for an impromptu hot water bottle. Groucho recovered from his chills and changed into base layers. As dark fell around 6pm, we cuddled close for warmth.

I fitfully drifted in and out of sleep all night. At one point I blissfully dreamed of a hot shower, before rudely awakening to another temperature drop. I covered my whole head and face, leaving a tiny ventilation by my mouth… At this point I really wished we’d gone with a two-person quilt instead of each having our own – human to human contact is where it’s at, but I needed heat wherever I could get it. I did crunches to keep my core warm, but my toes were painfully cold all night.

Stinky Jesus made a big ruckus in the middle of the night wrapping himself in his tent. Icepack asked if he was okay and he responded negatory. The condensation from his breath, frozen on his bag, left him shivering. Dehydration led to muscle cramps, and his water bottle was frozen solid. In fact, every water bottle in the shelter was frozen solid except for the Nalgene I kept in my quilt. I gave him the little water I had and encouraged him to cuddle up closer to me and Groucho.

A few times during the night Groucho laid a bit of wood on the fire. It didn’t make a notable difference in temperature, but kept some embers glowing until morning.

After checking my watch a hundred times, morning finally came. Icepack braved the cold to stoke the fire and the shelter slowly came to life. By 7am the sun crested over the ridge and the mercury of the shelter thermometer had risen to 9 degrees. The low that night on the mountain was around zero… we slept outside in zero degree weather. In our quest as hearty outdoor survivalists, we had arrived.

Our shoes and socks were frozen solid – so solid we could clap our socks together. We had to thaw our shoes for an hour before we could put them on our feet.

Temperatures were supposed to remain below freezing all day. Groucho and I decided to hike into Hot Springs, NC – 27 miles over a ridgeline with spectacular views, frozen streams and six inches of snow. We decided to retro-blaze at the end of the day, following an old AT path into town that cut off four miles. We gratefully made it to town by 6:30pm and stayed at Elmers, a beautiful historic hostel. Just down the street at a delightful tavern, we ended the day reconvening with Taxi and other hikers. While the bartender “Deez Nutz” traded inappropriate one-liners with Stinky Jesus, we enjoyed wine, nachos, pizza and vegan chili. It was the best tasting vegan chili I have ever eaten.

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