Friday, April 6, 2012

Day 4: March 31, 2012

Rusty collecting firewood like a lumberjack!
The wind ripped through the ridge all night. The gusts were recorded up to 30mph. I was worried that my homemade rain fly was going to rip apart. It flapped in the wind with an intensity that was frightening and it came in crashing waves like on beach during a hurricane. I would be able to hear the noise as it crept up the valley below my, then up the mountainside, over one ridge, then another. Finally and with much awaited anticipation it would hit camp. At first I heard the sound. Something like a mix between a train and a jet engine, then it would rap at my tarp and whip the edges like something akin to Indiana Jones. Finally it would push the tarp into the side of the hammock and push me like a kid in a swing. Twice I got up to re-peg the stakes in the ground from the rain fly.

We sat the next day, knowing we only had 3.5 miles to our pickup point, like resident couch potatoes of the forest. We made a fire, breakfast, coffee and small talk. Visitors would pass by for a moment and we would share our knowledge of the trail behind us. A girl scout tried on Rusty's Pack.

We made our short miles later that afternoon towards Big Meadows campground. I commercial car-camping scene set in a clearing. We passed day hikers and groups of Boy Scouts, both seemingly betrayed by the trail and physical exertion. Once at the way side we grabbed a table and promptly ordered a cup of chili and a beer in celebration of our finish. Our pickup was not until 8:30 that night and the way side closed at 7, so we got some snacks and waited in the cold and rain but had a great time laughing at ourselves and how much we simply looked like bums.

Day 3: March 30, 2012

Up at 5:30 into the bitter cold. The night temps really tested my limits. I should have brought my ski mask and gloves. I am also going to look into an under quilt for the hammock to keep my backside warm. Inside the hammock it was 32 degrees, and out in the morning breeze even colder. Rusty was up shortly before me and began stoking the fire. In the darkness and frigid temps getting a morning fire going consumed us. It was too dark to get water from the spring so we boiled some from our hydration bladders for morning oatmeal and coffee. We packed and started off on the trail at sunrise.

Rusty Nuts and I standing atop one of the vistas along the trail
We had planned for 22 miles today to make up some lost time the day before. I hit the trail running. It took only moments to flush away the stiffness in my legs and I proceeded up the ridge at a brisk 3 mph. I left Rusty in the dust. I came to a view of the valley and waiting some time for him to slumber along. He was ready to proceed forward without pause so things looked like they were off to a good start. I continued my blaze for the next 4 miles at which point I cross paths with another hiker who told my of an open way station just moments ahead. Today was the first day of the season they were open. I passed along this new found tale to my partner when he caught up. We proceeded into Skyland, a resort originally built in the late 1800's. Today stands a restaurant overlooking the valley, an inviting lobby area with comfortable couches and recliners, restrooms, and of course, a gift shop. We purchased some gator aides and snacks to pass some time before the restaurant was seating for lunch. We struck up a conversation with a couple hiking Northbound to Harpers Ferry. We exchanged intel on shelter distances, water sources and were informed of fore casted rain. No sooner than when I broke that news to Rusty the rain laid upon us. I'm pretty sure that broke his spirits. He had no rain gear nor suitable change of clothes for camp and the combination of cold and wet don't bode well for hikers. I'm still not sure what all he had in the pack of his. After splitting the food and cooking equipment (both of which are shared thus only fair to distribute the weight evenly) he weighted in at 47lbs to my 27lbs. I ended up taking all the food and cooking system to even the packs. So we were seated and dined on corn bisque, mac and cheese, hamburgers, and fries. It was as this point my partner along the trail gave up. He claimed that the long days, blistered feet, chaffed skin, and cold rain were too much to battle. He was prepared to have someone come pick him up from the very table we sat.

This left me to ponder my options: call it quits and hitch a ride with him, continue on solo, or give him time to fill up on much needed calories and convince him to go at least a bit fitter. After some Bayer, a nap on the couch, and a pep talk I convinced him to ouch on to the next shelter 4 miles away. When the rain subsided we set foot, grudgingly, but forward. Again I was off in a flash. I have no doubt I could have done the 22 miles and gotten back onto schedule. I conceded to short hikes with him and have us picked up Saturday night at another wayside just a short jaunt away.

We arrive at our final shelter of the trip to find it empty, with a nearby spring, and a fire pit. We collected fire wood, filled our waters from the spring and built a fire. Another hiker came for the night but will be tenting 20 yards away.
Dinner was Spanish rice with chicken and tortillas. We sat by the fire till ten and parted was for some sleep. I'll be in the hammock and he in the shelter.

Camp set up at Rock Springs Hut

Day 2: March 29, 2012

Stopping for breakfast at Pass Mountain Shelter
Woke rather early in the morning along with the other hikers. I slept for 10 hours but it was intermittent due to one of them sawing logs like he was a lumberjack and Kris stoked to fire all night long. I guess he was restless. I was so tired I did not care about the mice, snakes and bears or the hard concrete floor for that matter. My body just shut down for the night. The only comfort came from the fire beside us all night.

We simply packed and left. No breakfast or coffee because we had no water. So we hit the trail in hopes of finding a spring but that turned up nearly dry so we headed on to Pass Mountain Shelter, 4 miles down the trail. It was glorious! I wish we could have made it there on the first night. Nice fire pit right outside of the shelter, a spring a few feet away, and ample trees to hang the hammocks. We took leisure and made breakfast and coffee. We drank straight from the spring. We even made a fire just to rekindle our spirits. Finally we headed out in route to Byrds Nest #3, an easy 4.4 away.

The spring made a great refrigerator
Fully loaded with water this time we descended down to Thornton Gap. At the bottom we swapped our Vibram 5 Fingers (which were a joy to hike in) for our hiking boots as we knew we had and uphill battle and rocky path ahead of us. Now hiking uphill for 3.5 miles may not sound too bad, but when you are crawling along a rocky footpath and gaining 3000 feet of elevation, it takes it's toll. Upon the top we hit Mary's Rock. Breathtaking. We sat there for a good 20 minutes taking pictures and gazing in a admiration at the valley below. We could see the section of skyline drive that we had just departed prior to our journey skyward. It was as if we were in a plane flying over the earth, paused.

Sitting atop Mary's Rock

Not long after Mary's Rock, 1.6 miles, we came to our shelter for the night. Byrds Nest #3. Now in all my planning I had overlooked the Byrds shelters, and only frequent them now due to our change of mileage plans. Last night, at Byrds Nest #4, we had no water and expected the same here so we hiked all afternoon with every container full adding about 9 pounds of water weight. Turns out there is a spring 0.6 miles from here. I'll believe it when I see it but remain hopeful to cook with for breakfast. We had the place to ourselves which was nice. We could sprawl out, turn on some music, and commandeer the whole grounds. I cooked dinner of Quina, rice, chicken, and an Indian red bean dish. It was so well deserved and highly rejoiced especially after skipping dinner the night before. We hung the hammocks and sat by the fire till 10 at which point we settled into our hammocks.

Our camp as seen from the trail.

Our hammocks hung for the night

Day 1: March 28, 2012

A view of the moutains we will hike
Well we are off to a bad start. A lack of sleep and unexpectedly heavy packs will burden us for the next 21 miles today. Can't figure out how our pack weights jumped up. We are each at 37lbs after adusting for my hiking partners heavy packing. I was hoping for 25. I think Rusty packed a cast iron skillet and some dumb bells.

My stomach hurts pretty bad still and I have a headache. The only thing making me feel better is driving North to our trail head we are traveling parallel to the mountains and they look much more level than our last hike through the "roller coaster".

We are hitting the trail, late, by at least 2 hours. The first leg leads us gently uphill but my legs are not ready for the demand yet. An hour in I'll get my trail legs and make a solid 3mph.

Our trail head at Compton Gap
We missed our first shelter that we planned on eating lunch at, oh well just forces us to keep moving forward.

I hate my pack. We have never really got along but it was cheap and suited me well for its first outing. Now all the little things that annoy me are coming to head, in a big way. This relationship between us may work for a shorter day, but not when I have to carry it for 12 hours. First off, the suspension is not tall enough for my frame so the weight never rest evenly on me. It's either mostly on my shoulders or drooping off my back. The hip belt lays across my stomach. It also squeaks at every step. It sounds like two pieces of Styrofoam being rubbed together just behind my head. I loath this tumor of a pack.

To top it off we have been beaten by not one but three thunderstorms. Just we crested Hogback Mountain and became the tallest objects for miles, the thunder rocked our bones, flashes all around us, and the icy cold rain pelted us. I donned my rain poncho and put on the joke of a pack cover which fit about as well as a sumo wrestler in a bikini. We hustled to get off the mountain but I'm sure we spent 30-40 minutes atop the ridge. The sky cleared for a brief while and came back for round two. Just for good measure we got our third storm just after sunset.

Water has been scarce. The way stations are closed still, the springs dry, and our final shelter for the eve is a sans hydro one.

We hiked forever it seemed. At times during the uphill sections I would expect it to level out just after that last bend but once I got there my sight was filled with more uphill. It was heartbreaking at times. We hiked till sunset and decided to divert to Byrds Nest # 4. I saw the marker for it claiming 0.6 and a nearby trail so we set off. The sun sank away and we were left in a blanket of darkness. The world disappeared and we were left with 5 feet in front of us light with our headlamps.

We slept on the floor of Byrds Nest #4 on the first night

We finally reached our shelter. Cold, wet, hungry, thirsty, and utterly exhausted. There were a few times when I was ready to simply collapse on the trail and cuddle my pack as I passed out. Upon arrival we found a concrete slab floor, a couple hikers asleep in the bags and much to our delight, a roaring fire. We tossed our pads and sleeping bags on the floor and bid farewell to a long and difficult day.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The night before

Well as I leave work to finish up the odds and ends I feel a knot forming in the pit of my stomach. Will we be able to achieve our mile plan? Will the cold 35 degrees overtake us at night? Will we be able to trudge on through the forecasted rains? Will our gear hold up? For that matter will I get all packed up tonight and bed at a reasonable hour?

Rusty Nuts and I will complete our final gear inspection and packing tonight then spend the evening in the hammocks in the back woods. Up early to the trail head and off we shall set forth to answer these questions.

The forecast hasn't changed much for the weeks weather, thunderstorms on our first day, near freezing temps the next night, giving way to mild 60 degree days of mostly sunshine, and wrapping up the weekend with clouds. I was prepared for cold, rain, and a Forrest still slumbering from winter. Over the last few weeks we have been gifted with sunshine in abundance, warm days in the 80's and a full showing of spring blooms and buds. I guess I got a tad spoiled. A few day hikes confirmed that the wilderness is again wild, awake, and as eager to emerge from dormancy as I am. Snakes slither to sun bathe, flowers rip through the soil towards to the world, the trees once again show their leafy cover and the grass has carpeted the landscape. Everything seems to be in place for a spring hike, yet after lounging hiking forums, extensive planning, late nights building rain flys, and numerous gear checks I still feel unprepared and inadequate for the trail.

Tomorrow we shall see what adventure awaits us.

Friday, March 23, 2012

5 Days in the Shenandoah National Park

Well it's almost time. Time to pack up and get out for a while. Spring has sprung and I am ready to get away from the hustle and bustle of it all and get back to nature. I usually get to do 2 trips on the Appalachian Trail each year with ol Rusty Nuts, my hiking buddy. Next week we are headed through the Shenandoah National Park from North to South. The trip is almost 100 miles and we are going to do it over the course of 5 days. That will leave us with some days hiking almost 25 miles a day. To date the longest miles hiked by us in a single day is around 16 miles so we really have our work cut out for us.

Our daily mile plan is as follows:
Day 1 - 20.9
Day 2 - 15.3
Day 3 - 23.9
Day 4 - 21.4
Day 5 - 14.3

Map of out hike from Front Royal to Waynesboro

On the map above you can see the locations of the shelters. We are planning to stay at every other shelter along the way. The shelters are a great place to meet other hikers, get water, build a fire and take cover from nasty weather. Most of the through-hikers stay in the shelter but we like to set up camp just outside of them for a bit more solitude. In the picture below, posted by FlyPaper on the forum, shows the 3 sided shack, picnic table and fire pit. Standard fair for the shelters on the trail.

Rock Springs Hut. Photo by FlyPaper

Our pack weights should be just under 30lbs so we're hoping for easy going. The temps are fore casted to be highs of 70, lows of 40 and thunderstorms at least 2 of the days. Staying dry should be much easier this trip as we have forgone traditional tents and now will be hanging comfortably above the ground in new hammock tents with over sized rain flys extending out 6 feet on either side. One of the major benefits of a rain fly that is 12X10 is that there is now ample shelter to stay under and cook, pack, etc in case of rainy conditions.

That is my DIY Hex Tarp 12X10
So this weekend I will be spending my time getting everything prepared. This includes breaking down all the foods to the most basic and lightest forms. Noodles taken out of boxes and put into ziplock bags, rationing out powered milk, oatmeal, etc. Weighing all the items, and distributing them between our two packs evenly.

Well here's to hoping for good weather, plenty of fresh water, and some good memories!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Looking back - What I have learned over the last couple years on the trail.

It's funny to look back on some of the pictures of my first hikes on the Appalachian Trail. I had a lack of knowledge and a lack of decent gear. I had done a couple of 7-10 day hikes on the Pacific Coast Trail as a kid and always dreamed of hiking the AT. Now living in Virginia I had my opportunity to set my now aging and weary feet on that very path I had dreamed about. Well I paired up with Kris Otten, a neighbor, friend, and fellow firefighter who shared the same desire to spend some time out in no mans land. I was well equipped for car camping and the only gear I had reflected that very well. My sleeping bag was a huge Coleman bag that was part of a pair made to be zipped together for a couple to sleep in. This thing was a monster! It weighed about 5-6 lbs, and even when rolled up was the size of my youngest son. Needless to say, it didn't fit in my pack so I attached it to the bottom. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
So that big green thing in my first sleeping bag, rolled in a tarp. It hung down to the backs of my knees.
Well, at any rate I had some tents... some 3 man, 5 man, crap... those aren't going to work. Well I wasn't about to lug around some atrocious, oversized tent behind me in a Radio Flyer so I did what every other American would do.... google! Well I had a budget inversely proportionate to the size of my sleeping bag so when I can along this deal from Walmart online for $20 + 1 penny for shipping I could not pass it up. Once I got it, I was pretty excited. It was a small one man solo tent. Seemed legit and so into the pack it went. I realized sometime about 4AM the first morning that what I had was not a tent - but a high powered condensation maker. Being wet, at 4AM in 45 degree weather was not mentioned anywhere on the box this thing came in. Well it was not rain proof either so I ended up using a system of wrapping the whole thing up like a burrito in an oversized tarp. If I was going to be wet, I wanted to be warm!.
Here is my burrito tent (left) in the rain and mud

Hanging my tent and sleeping bag out to dry from a night in the condensation machine

Cooking was not going to be a problem. I had a pot and Kris had a camp stove. I think his stove was a hand-me-down from his dad or great granddad. Hard so say, it was THAT old. My beloved pot was the one I used many years for car camping. It was large and non-stick. What is wasn't was backpack sized and lightweight. Aside from the weight and size of these 2 items, they served us well.
Note the massive size of our cookwear.
Much of the rest of our gear followed this same theme. Boots were $15 at Wally World (fell apart after 30 miles), clothes cotton shirts and cut off jean shorts (just kidding!), and food was heavy and bulky. After I talked him out of packing fishing poles, Kris even brought a Rambo sized knife in case he had to hunt for bear, lol. I wish I still had my first gear list for a good laugh. We weighed our packs before we set food on the second morning and tipped the scales at 58lbs! (that was after consuming that huge summer sausage seen above). Other notable items of backbreaking silliness; a hatchet, a folding tree saw, a GPS, a medical kit suited for vietnam, and a change of clothes for "in town". I wish I was making this stuff up. We earned the trail names of "Knot Here" (as I was never around the house due to all our serious planning and packing) and "Rusty Nuts" (cause the sound Kris made as he waddled down the trail with all that clanking from his pack).

What I did have was a strong back, willingness to experiment, and a desire to become more adept at backpacking. Since then we have tossed out all the stuff we can live without for a few days at a time and replaced many of our items with smaller, lighter, and more efficient equipment.

The Burrito Tent / Condensation Machine has now been replaced with a Hammock Tent (HH UL A-Sym Zip), the cookware with a ultra-light pot set, plastic sporks, and a MSR pocket rocket small enough to fit in.. well, your pocket. Boots upgraded to nice Merrel Moabs, sleeping bag is now an ultra-light mummy bag (that fits INSIDE my pack), among better clothing and lighter easy to make meals. My pack now weighs 22lbs without food or water (30ish fully loaded). Our first hike was 3 days with an average of 8 miles a day. We are about to set off on a five day hike covering up to 25 miles in a single day.

MSR stove set and Bugaboo pot,

Hennessey Hammock Tent

Max supervising the packing process. He has learned to sniff out un-necessary weight.

Planning has been a big factor in getting our pack weights down. Everything we take gets stripped to the bare essentials, weighed, and logged for further evaluation. Forums such as and have been a huge factor in getting information and questions answered.

I don't regret a single item we ever packed or a footstep we ever made. It has all been a part of the learning process and to me, that has been half the fun.