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…