winter

“Not Without Peril”

“The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.”

Eleanor Roosevelt

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, ‘Wow! What a ride!’”

Hunter S. Thompson, “Gonzo”

“To die would be an awfully big adventure.”

J.M. Barrie, “Peter Pan”


Last weekend, Ekaterina “Kate” Matrosova — a fellow younger (32-year-old), female, solo hiker — set out to hike the Northern Presidentials of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She never returned.

When the news of Kate’s death spread, it shook the hiking community. In the days that followed, people showed their grief in a variety of ways. Some posted simple messages, asking Kate to rest in peace or asking other hikers to hold Kate’s loved ones in their hearts. Others shared quotes like those I included above and/or took comfort in the fact that Kate died amidst an adventure, in a setting she loved. Many hikers sought to analyze Kate’s hike, wanting details of what she was wearing and carrying in her pack, in the hopes that they and others might avoid a similar fate. And, some interpreted this latter coping strategy as victim shaming.

As Patches pointed out in her heartfelt response to Kate’s death, disasters on the mountains often result in hikers isolating themselves as they take stock of the way in which the adventurer died and evaluate whether they would have met a similar fate in those conditions. Those of us who love the mountains, who thrill in challenging our bodies and minds while seeing some of the most beautiful places on Earth, take our lives in our hands every time we shoulder our packs and head off, in the words of Christopher McCandless, into the Wild.

Yes, we can prepare for adversity by understanding the challenge we’re undertaking, by packing the right gear to get us through a night outdoors, by bringing navigational equipment and means of contacting help, and by adventuring with a group. But, even then, our success or survival — as much as we’d like to convince ourselves otherwise — is not guaranteed.

And, yes, Kate undertook a demanding hike in extremely hazardous weather conditions, but all sources seem to indicate that Kate was a very experienced mountaineer. As adventurers become more competent, they are likely to push themselves, to climb higher, hike further, and endure more trying conditions. I’d have never attempted a solo snow ascent of Vermont’s Mount Mansfield a couple years ago, but I was proud and thrilled to stand alone atop that white summit last November.

Sub-zero wind chills might be especially dangerous, but the worst can happen on even the best days.

Last summer, after recovering from a battle with Lyme Disease, I longed to return to my favorite trail: Mount Washington’s Huntington Ravine. One night, I was explaining why I’ve continued to return to Huntington Ravine when my girlfriend at the time asked if she could come along. Emma, as I’ll call her in this post, hadn’t previously hiked very much, but she’d spent a fair amount of time on indoor rock walls; I told her that she was welcome to come and that we could always turn around if she changed her mind.

The path up Mount Washington through Huntington Ravine is not just a walk in the woods. The hike begins following a super-steep, superhighway of a trail, but then hikers take a quiet little winding path through evergreens. The trail emerges in a clearing and is a boulder hop to the headwall, all 800 feet of which appear to be almost straight up. From the top of the headwall, there’s about another mile of hiking to do, through the Alpine Garden and up to the summit.

They say that the Huntington Ravine Trail is the most difficult trail in the East — and that it’s “as close as you can get to rock climbing without rock climbing” — but I’ve seen children and adults of varying abilities (including a man whose right arm had been amputated) make it to the summit. More important in my accepting Emma’s invitation was the fact that my first foray up Huntington had been when I was a complete newbie. In the summer of 2010, I’d accompanied a few fitter and more experienced friends on their trek through the Ravine to the summit. That hike gave me a hiker’s high unlike anything I’d ever experienced before: I was left euphoric and awestruck and hooked on hiking.

To make a long story short, Emma’s first hike of Huntington Ravine was nothing like mine. Halfway up the headwall, she missed a gutsy swing for a handhold and fell 45 feet. Sitting on a tiny ledge just above where she’d fallen, there was nothing I could do as Emma swung and then skidded down the rock face. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion, and I was crying before she’d come to a stop. I called down to her crumpled body on the ledge it had stopped on and was astonished when I got a response. She was alive.

Emma could move her arms and legs and, miraculously (as the rescuers also pointed out), escaped serious injury. But, she was in no state to walk out of the woods. As a chilly drizzle began to fall, she seemed on the verge of becoming hypothermic or going into shock, so, from my ledge, I kept talking to her. I instructed her to get out of her wet layers and put on dryer clothes and helped her get partially sheltered. And, then, feeling absolutely amazed that my cell phone got reception — and I wouldn’t need to leave Emma and hike to the summit for help — I called emergency responders.

One hour later, men whose mountain experience put mine to shame came down to us and belayed Emma up the mountain, to a vehicle waiting on the side of the Auto Road. Three hours after Emma’s fall, we were in the parking lot at the base of the mountain, ready to go home. Emma shivered, seemingly more from nerves than cold, for the next couple of hours. Her longest-lasting wound was a sprained wrist.

The scariest day of my life left me literally speechless; I barely said a word for two days. I went to the office but just stared at my computer screen and hugged my coworkers. I could barely sleep, and eating was the furthest thing from my mind. I was too shell shocked to cry.

A couple days after Emma’s fall, I called Quiver, the Austinite with whom I’d shared part of my AT thru-hike. Talking to another hiker allowed me the platform I needed to express my emotions, and I began to forgive myself.

It is a privilege and a gift to survive a disaster on the mountains and be able to learn from these incidents. Every one of us has been too inexperienced for the itinerary we’d set. Every one of us has been a little reckless. And, every one of us has made a decision that we could have regretted.

We can learn from disasters like Kate’s — Emma’s fall has probably forever changed the way I hike — but we shouldn’t imagine that it’s possible to remove all danger from outdoor adventures. We can increase our safety and, thus, the safety of those who would rescue us by being prepared, packing for emergencies, adventuring in company when possible, and having strict itineraries that we adhere to and let others know about, but our adventures’ outdoor setting and our being human makes removing all risk impossible.

The fact is that, as Quiver insisted, accidents still happen. We must learn from mistakes, be as prepared as possible, and head into the Wild both empowered and humbled.

May Kate Matrosova rest in peace.

Every White Blaze, Part One

First things first:  As I was driving backIMG_20141209_115509_511 from North Carolina, I learned that the story of my upcoming thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail to benefit Lyme disease research had been published on Kentucky.com.  It was featured in the Lexington Herald-Leader today, which was really special and exciting.  If you’d like to check out the story, click here.  And, if you’d like to read more about my Lyme disease fight, you can read this post.

Anyway, what I’d like to write about today was what took me to North Carolina.

There are as many ways to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail as there are thru-hikers.  There are hikers known as “purists” or “white blazers,” who insist upon walking every mile of the AT from Georgia to Maine.  There are hikers who are more lenient about the path they follow.  They might “blue blaze” by taking side trails, “yellow blaze” by hitchhiking to a town further ahead on the trail, or “aqua blaze” by paddling up the Shenandoah River rather than hiking through that park.  (Rumor has it that there are also “sky blazers,” who take the gondolas up Wildcat in New Hampshire, but I’ve yet to meet one.)

When I thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2012, I made a point of walking past every white blaze, not because I thought there was something superior in that sort of hike but because I wanted to see the entirety of the trail.  When I got to Maine and broke my foot, I had to relax my guidelines; however, before that point, the only section I’d missed was 20.7 miles between Deep Gap and Rock Gap in southern North Carolina.

I’ve already written about the bitterly cold night I spent sleeping like a sardine in Muskrat Creek Shelter.  When that night finally gave way to dawn, I quickly packed up my gear and, after attempting to thaw myself by the fire for a little while, hiked on.

I’m generally not a hiker who enjoys spending a lot of time in trail towns; at this point, I usually sleep better in my tent than in a strange bed in a hostel or crowded hotel room.  But, that April morning, I knew that I needed to get myself to town to preserve my sanity.  As the section hikers and hikers with smartphones told the rest of us, the temperatures were only expected to drop in the coming 24 hours, which meant that I was in for another sleepless night, unless I found a way to get to town.

Checking the guidebook, I happily discovered that a shuttle to a local hostel could be procured at Deep Gap, only a few miles north.  Shivering, but with new-found enthusiasm, I hiked onward.

When I reached the parking lot at Deep Gap (a parking lot at the end of a 6.2-mile, uninhabited, gravel United States Forest Service road), I got my phone and guidebook out of my pack, found that I had a tidbit of service, and called the hostel.

“Good morning!” the owner of the hostel said enthusiastically.

In spite of the cold, I smiled at his energy.  “This is the hostel that picks hikers up from Deep Gap, right?”

“Well, normally, yep.  But, my wife and I are down in Florida.  I hear it’s real cold up there.”

Apparently, the cold brought out unusual persistence in me.  For the next half hour, I dialed number after number as I was referred to local trail angels and potential places to stay.  Had I been alone, I might have given up and just stuck it out, but groupthink is a powerful thing.  As I worked to find a ride out of Deep Gap, hikers continued to walk north and stopped at the Gap to learn about the results of my phone calls.  When I eventually reached Ron Haven — a man who owns several motels in Franklin, coordinates all sorts of hiker services in that town, and promised to come pick us up for $45 — eight other hikers planned to join me on the ride.

I was hiking on a budget, but I decided that $5 for the ride and $10-15 for a shared hotel room to avoid another sub-freezing night would be worth it.  At that point, I actually felt like getting warm was essential to my staying on the trail, and I wasn’t ready to give up my dream of thru-hiking yet.

So, an hour later, when Ron Haven pulled up in his big pickup truck, I climbed aboard, pulling my backpack onto my lap.  I shivered the whole way to town.

In Franklin, I got warm and caught up on sleep.  I purchased a neck gaiter and gloves, and I enjoyed a few baguettes and hummus.  (Because comfort food.)  When the next morning rolled around, I felt ready to brave the cold and hit the trail again.

I soon learned that I was in the minority.  A few of the hikers I’d gotten the ride to Franklin with were getting off trail for good, some were planning to stay in town for a while longer, and others were content in skipping ahead a bit, to one of the regularly scheduled stops of Ron Haven’s free hiker shuttle.  It turned out that I was the only hiker interested in going back to Deep Gap, which meant that I faced a $45 bill.

I deliberated about what I should do, but determined that skipping ahead would probably help rather than hurt my psyche.  You see, there’d been a hiker who’d been “pink blazing” me (i.e., changing his hiking plans to match mine and driving me crazy) since early on in Georgia.  He had decided not to stop in Franklin but was planning to wait for me that day.  I was anxious to lose his company, and I realized that I was being offered the opportunity to do just that.

And so, I skipped ahead to Rock Gap.  As a result (and because I stopped signing shelter registers for a while), I avoided my pink blazer and met the man who became one of my best friends and hiked 1000 miles with me.  Not paying for the ride to Deep Gap was one of the best decisions of my thru-hike.

However, after hiking the remainder of the trail (even the miles my broken foot had forced me to skip), I knew that I wanted to walk the 20.7 miles that I’d missed in North Carolina.  It was logistically complicated to do so when I lived in New England, but I moved back to Kentucky at the end of November.

Since I had the last two days off work, as soon as my shift ended on Saturday evening, I jumped in my station wagon and headed south.

To be continued…

Summiting Mount Mansfield, Part Two

A few nights ago, before embarking on a crossIMG_20141116_125857_232 country road trip and going AWOL from the blogosphere for a couple days, I wrote about my unsuccessful attempts to summit Vermont’s high point, Mount Mansfield.  Last Sunday, the Fates smiled upon me, and I reached the summit in one of my favorite day-hiking expeditions of all time.

I don’t know exactly what it was about last week’s hike that left me so high on life.  The day wasn’t exactly an auspicious day for a hike:  The sky was ominously cloudy, and the wind chills in the mountains were in the single digits above zero.  As I was driving to the trailhead in Underhill State Park, the sky was spitting snow, and the road up to the trailhead was covered by a dusting of powder.

A Southerner who’d considered herself a fair weather hiker until this autumn, I seriously considered just heading home without trying to hike. However, when I got enough traction on Mountain Road to drive to the gate, I decided I’d give it a try, resolving to head back down the mountain after a short hike.  Basically, I just wanted to try out the Kathoola microspikes the mountain had inspired me to purchase the day before.

IMG_20141116_110544_700I set off around 9:45 and soon, as I always do, found myself deeply content walking in the woods.  The snow was falling gently around me, and the branches of the evergreens, blanketed by white powder, hung with heaviness.

Yet again, I took the Eagle Cut-off Trail up to Sunset Ridge Trail and signed in, still assuming that I’d only hike for a couple hours.  Yet again, I crossed the footbridges near the trail head.  Yet again, I climbed nearer the ridge line.

This time, however, when I came to the first of several wide swaths of icy terrain, I donned my microspikes.  Sure, the contrast between them and my lightweight Salomon trail shoes was amusing, but it was love at first crunch.  Instantly, ice was transformed from a beautiful but potentially hazardous trail decoration to a surface that was actually fun to walk on.

I marched onward toward the krummoltz and considered, for the first time since getting out of my car, to attempt the summit that day.  Alone on the mountain, listening to the wind whistling through the trees and leaving the first footprints in the snow, I resolved to go as far as I felt comfortable and to turn around if following the trail, staying warm, or remaining upright became beyond reasonably difficult.

Happily, I never reached that threshold.

From the top of the treeline to the top of Mansfield’s Chin is roughly one mile.  In the winter, what in the summer would be a great opportunity to catch a suntan becomes a bit more treacherous.  However, I carefully followed the small mountaintop cairns and occasional blue blazes on rocks that the fierce wind had exposed.  Some of the snowdrifts the winds created were nearly knee-deep; in other places, I walked on bare rock.  Adding layers before I thought they were necessary, I never let myself become chilled, and only my eyes were exposed by the time I got to the summit.  The few blonde hairs that had freed themselves from my hat and balaclava froze stiff from the cold.

Rounding the corner of the spur trail to the peak and climbing the final hundred yards to the summit felt incredible.  Alone in a snow-covered wilderness, higher than any surrounding mountain, I seemed to be on top of the world.  Up that high, I could discern a distant break in the clouds, and the low winter sunlight that shined through tinted the furthest reaches of the clouds pink.  I spun around, taking in the panorama, awestruck.

And, then it was time to descend to the safety of treeline.

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Summiting Mount Mansfield, Part One

In all the time I’ve spent hiking, there haven’t been many mountains that have stumped me, that have sent me back down to the trailhead before making it to the summit.  Katahdin did that once.  Vermont’s Mount Mansfield did it four times.

My first attempt at Mansfield was in March 2013.  With a friend and his father, I strapped on snowshoes and waded through powder on Sunset Ridge, on the western side of the mountain.  That was just five months after I’d developed a stress fracture in my foot, and I learned that a weak foot plus heavy snowshoes plus steep inclines is not a fun combination.

Two months later, I tried again.  This time, I headed to the mountain with a friend from the Intervale’s planting crew and their partner.  At the base of the mountain in Underhill State Park, the weather was in spring mode, with all the trees leafed out and wildflowers approaching their peak season.  As we ascended the mountain, we walked backward into winter and soon realized we were hiking from mud and into rotten snow.  When my hiking companions and I were thoroughly soaked and had each slipped several times, we decided to call it a day.

I didn’t have a chance to attempt Mansfield again until two weekends ago, when I found myself back in Vermont and decided to approach it from the east.  Excited at the prospect of finally making it to the summit, I readied my pack, climbed into my wagon, and headed to Stowe.  I only made it partway down VT 108 before I found that recent wintry weather had closed the road.  Unless I wanted to have an exceedingly long hike, there would be no summiting Mansfield that weekend.

This past Saturday, I tried again.  The day was gorgeous–bitterly cold but with an unbelievably blue sky.  I drove to the western side of the mountain and set off around 9:15.  I felt fairly confident that I’d make it to the summit until I came to a rock slab a little over one mile from the peak.  The slab was dramatically sloped and covered in snow and ice; it took patience and courage to climb past it in my lightweight trail shoes.  The combination of that slab, several others like it, a few slips, and my being alone on the mountain left me a bit unnerved.  As a result, when I met another hiker (who had hiked up another trail and would take Sunset Ridge down to the parking lot) 15 minutes from the summit, I decided to walk (and slide) down with him, saving Mansfield’s summit for another day.

That day turned out to be the very next, the last day of my last weekend in Vermont.

Fifth time’s the charm, right?

To be continued in the morning, when I’m less tired…

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Dreaming of Heaters at Muskrat Creek

I’m a quote junkie.  As I lay in Muskrat Creek Shelter shivering on a cold April night in 2012, I knew that Theodore Roosevelt had once said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”  But, his words offered little comfort.

If you want to be comfortable, you’re probably not going to choose to spend six months living in the woods; Appalachian Trail thru-hikers are a hardy lot.  However, we all have conditions that we endeavor to avoid.  For many, the heat and humidity of the Mid-Atlantic is intolerable.  Some can’t abide hiking in the rain; others hate carrying more than five days of food.  In my mind, the most difficult days on the Appalachian Trail are the cold ones, and cold nights are worse.

I feel the need to say that I’m a bit less of a pansy these days.  Using the same sleeping bag I’d been in at the Muskrat Creek Shelter, I regularly sleep soundly when the air temperature is below freezing.  But, my having grown tougher doesn’t mean that I can’t remember what it felt like to shiver on that April night.

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Hikers gathered around the fire at Muskrat Creek Shelter

When I arrived at Muskrat Creek Shelter, I was riding the emotional high of having just crossed into North Carolina, the second of 14 states that the AT travels through.  All day, I’d been enjoying the feeble sun of springtime in the mountains, which kept me warm enough while my feet were moving.  As soon as I stopped hiking, I found myself needing to pull all of my warmer layers out of my pack.

The night I stayed there, Muskrat Creek Shelter was crowded, and several hikers had started a fire by the time I arrived.   The shelter is nestled in a clearing amid rhododendrons, dead branches of which the hikers were burning to stay warm.  No one cared that rhododendrons were mildly toxic; we all gathered around the fire in our warmest clothing and did our best to distract one another from the cold.  Rhododendron leaves droop as the temperature approaches freezing, and, as we stood around the fire, we watched the plants react to the cold.  I stayed in the fire’s warmth as long as I could.

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A blurry photo of Manfred and me. He’d asked another hiker to take a picture of us.

Eventually, though, it was time to go to sleep.  Erroneously imagining that it would be warmer in the shelter, where we’d all be able to sleep near each other and off the ground, we piled onto the sleeping platform.  I had a spot between a young guy and Manfred, an older man from Germany.

I’ll never forget the sound of the wind blowing through the clearing where the shelter was.  Each gust would come into the valley and swirl among the rhododendrons before blowing past the shelter.  As the temperature continued to drop, the sound of the wind became more unnerving.  I tucked my water bottle inside my sleeping bag to keep the water from freezing.

Clad in a couple pairs of socks, several pairs of base layers, and my rain gear, I willed myself to stay warm.  I tightened the drawstring hood of my mummy sleeping bag tighter around my face, but my exposed cheeks remained numb.  I flipped around in my sleeping bag, putting the face opening beneath my head and suppressing any feelings of claustrophobia.

Finally, I started drifting off.  I’d get just over the brink of sleep and find myself in this wonderful dream:  I was back in my family’s home and decided that the house was a little chilly, which I remedied by turning on the heater and sitting against the vent.  Just as the warm air started to thaw me, I’d wake up.  This happened again and again, until I felt I was near the point of hysteria.  Worse, once I woke up because Manfred sat bolt upright; apparently, I’d tried to snuggle with him in my cold and sleepy state.  It took weeks before he interacted normally with me after that!

In time, the night ended.  The next day was neither sunny nor warm, and I knew that I needed a night off the trail to thaw (and a day to get warmer gear).  Eight people who’d slept at Muskrat Creek agreed with me, and, after a ridiculous amount of effort, we found a shuttle to Franklin, North Carolina.  Little did I know it at the time, but heading into Franklin would completely change my hike.