Appalachian Trail: Southern Virginia
Late October, 2013
Walking along ridge one afternoon we see black clouds on the horizon. An unexpected storm approaching?
The trail descends, and as we cross under power lines the sun suddenly streams in and my mood brightens. We pass an enormous tree, maybe the oldest on the Appalachian Trail says my guidebook. We continue among comforting signs of civilization: fences, cows, and a road in the near distance. It’s warmer at lower elevation, and I’m tempted to stay for the night. But with a hour of light and a shelter just in 3 miles we press on.
We cross the road and immediately run into a beaver dam that has flooded the makeshift foot bridge. Ankle deep in freezing water as the sun begins to wane I’m mad at the farmer, the beaver, and the water sloshing in my shoes.
The sun slips behind the horizon. Night falls as the trail begins to climb. And then, is this rain? Yes… tiny, cold, piercing drops. The umbrellas come out. I consider whether I should take my puffy jacket off? The air has a bite, and if the coat gets wet I’m screwed. But I need to stay warm because it’s much easier to stay warm than to warm up later – so I gamble and leave it on.
The clouds black out the moon and stars. The blazes are sparse and there are lots of blow downs and game trails – we’re using our headlamps and flashlights to navigate.
And then, yes, snow. The temperature suddenly drops into the low 30’s and we gain elevation, losing heat. I keep looking at the map – we should be at the shelter, and I’m getting cold. We come to the creek, which the map says should be after the blue blazed trail heading for the shelter.
Did we miss the turn?
My fear sets in a little bit. We’ve been on trail for almost 4 months and are feeling pretty confident about both hiking and sleeping outside. But we’ve never been out in sub 30 degrees or snow and haven’t tested our gear in this weather. My toes are numb in my soaking shoes. I feel like an amateur hanging my hopes on the shelter for safety (or at least the feeling of safety.) I am cold. Also, scared.
I keep looking at the guidebook – we’re supposed to see the turn off before the water source. Maybe we missed it? There are so many blow downs, and we backtrack for 5 minutes searching for the shelter turn off. No luck… We walk back up to the stream and it’s freezing rain now. My breath is visible in my headlamp. We discuss our situation. I really want to be in the shelter, eating snacks, in my sleeping bag, right now.
I’m doing jumping jacks as the truth sets in… this is going to be a really cold night.
We hike for a few minutes. I look at the data pages again almost crying. We come up with a plan – look for the shelter for 10 more minutes, if we don’t find it we will find a place in the thick tree-filled slope to pitch our tent. We’re going to be fine. I don’t know we will be fine, but I convince myself. I am freaking cold.
So we head uphill and finally, after what feels like forever, we see blue blazes like beacons, leading to the shelter off to the left! There was an error in the data pages.
We are stoked – and have the shelter all to ourselves. I put on every single piece of clothing I have minus my soaked socks as Groucho cooks. We eat wearing our quilts and make our plan for the night. This is the night we develop our “stay alive in the f***ing cold” checklist.
If it grows too cold to sleep:
#1 sleeping bag sit ups
#2 spoon. also combine quilts.
#3 another hot meal (we put the stove, fuel, and water in our bags, keeping them warm)
#4 pack up and start walking
We’ve survived many freezing nights since then, and fortunately we’ve never been forced to resort to any more than #1. Though we will sleep with Clif bars. Also spoon…
Pacific Crest Trail: Barlow Pass to Timberline Lodge
Roundtrip: 10 miles
Elevation Gain: 1700 ft
Date: May 1, 2015
HIikers: Harpo + Groucho
We’re housesitting for two huge and adorable cats who need food and attention at least twice a day in Beaverton, OR. The PCT is only east about 60 miles as the crow flies, so yesterday we headed towards Mt Hood for day hike, hopefully to find snow for practicing self arrest. We got some ice axes this XMAS (thanks Sandy and Gerry!) and wanted to try them out before our southbound journey begins…
We drove out Highway 35 to Barlow Pass, where the PCT crosses the southern slopes of Mount Hood. Heading north we passed a few other trails available for winter snow shoeing or summer hiking.
Parking at Barlow Pass Groucho and I were on trail at 8:15 with day packs plus ice axes and our new microspikes. Blogger Rain Runner posted some snowy photos of this area just 10 days ago so we hoped we’d catch at least a little compact snow and ice to test our axes and traction gear.
The first three miles are a breeze – the trail winds along gently sloping second growth, as we ascended the trees got bigger and the forest more spacious. The trail was frequently blazed for the snowshoe and cross country ski trails which intersect the PCT. Aside from the 20+ early season blowdowns this section was easy peasy.
At 3.5 miles we were looking out over the Salmon River canyon to the west. Half a mile further we broke tree line and were gazing upon the southern slopes of Mount Hood, walking through the weirdly lunar / beach vibe of scrub brush and volcanic ash.
We hit an intersection with the timberline trail around mile 4 where we took a few flicks, but then continued up the PCT in a Northwesterly arch toward the now visible Timberline Lodge – a ski lodge featured in the movie adaptation of Steven King’s The Shining.
As we approached the lodge, we came upon a few gentle slopes with sufficient snow to practice self arrest – after 45 minutes of throwing ourselves down hills with axes we started to feel a little chilly and we found a sunny spot for a snack before heading back.
Last week, Groucho and I tested our new quilts for the PCT. I recently upgraded to a 28 degree, “regular” size spirit quilt from Mountain Laurel Designs.
I love quilts. Or at least I love the idea of quilts.
A backpacking quilt is basically a sleeping bag with no back. The insulation in the back of a traditional bag is compressed as you sleep, compromising it’s insulating properties. This is more pronounced over time, as all insulation eventually loses it’s insulating loft after repeated compression, and on a thru hike happens for 150 days straight or so… So you end up with extra weight an no extra warmth.
The MLD SPIRIT quilt is a shell of lightweight black ripstop nylon filled with Climashield Apexa insulation. The bottom of the quilt has a cinchable elastic base, velcro closure and snaps which form a temporary toe box, keeping the feet toasty with a small breeze blocking pillow – the quilt can also be used fully open during warmer weather, as a flat blanket. The SPIRIT comes with a nylon ‘waist’ belt (one elastic, one nylon – choose based on your preference) which keeps the edges of the quilt tucked – a handy feature. The neck opening is cinchable with a snap closure, allowing adjustable thermal regulation, and also allowing you to wear the SPIRIT as a camp cape (see photo.).
For my SOBO AT I ordered a 28 degree bag. I was totally convinced I ordered a 28 degree bag. I realized I actually a 38 degree bag while looking at my old order receipt. Ha ha ha. No wonder I was sleeping cold…
I found the 38 degree quilt worked great when it was warm. Once the temperature got to the 30’s I paired it with a liner which kept it fairly comfortable, especially as I modified combinations of base layer, puffer and wind pants and jacket. In November on the AT we had a month of 20 degree nights with at least one sub zero. These nights not ‘comfortable.’ Folks say you can wear more clothes to make a 3-season bag work in the winter… in this case each night I wore my hiking dress, two base layer tops and bottoms, a fleece hoody, puffer, silk balaclava, wool hat, XL fleece hat, wool socks fleece booties gloves liners and fleece mittens. EVERYTHING I had.
I didn’t die AND as a bonus, I kept all my toes. But the gram-counter in me thought there must be a better way, weight wise and comfort wise to stay alive…
For my Southbound PCT hike, I’m starting with cold weather in the north, then encountering 14,000 foot peaks, and early fall desert nights. Sleeping at below 20 degrees is unlikely tho, so I aim for a system comfortable to 25 degrees. I thought a 10 degree upgrade might do the trick, so in February I ordered a 28 degree SPIRIT quilt from Mountain Laurel designs.
MLD can take up to 8 weeks to deliver in peak season. They’re a small shop, so I ordered early.
We hiked up to Goat Lake (elevation 3200) in early April, the pm forecast predicting 30 degree weather. Perfect. I slept in my hiking dress, lightweight base layer, fleece booties and hat, puffy jacket, and the new 5oz fleece smock I jerry-rigged from a goodwill fleece sweatshirt (more on that later). So at least half of the clothes I needed to sleep in with the 38 degree bag.
And I was super comfortable. In fact, I was the warmest I’ve slept outside. I felt heat radiating from my core. I took off my gloves. And I’m psyched to say I stayed that way all night, even when we woke up 10 hours later to 6 inches of snow. I actually slept and entire night without doing sit ups.
Mountain Laurel Designs
Spirit Quilt – 28 degree – size “regular”
WORTH EVERY PENNY.