We have encountered winter; we engaged it; and we prevailed.
I'm sure many of you are curious to learn that Brian, Doug W, Jen, Jake, and I made it around the Allegheny Front Trail over the weekend, despite the storm. 41 miles in about 51 hours. A low in the high teens, winds between 10-20 mph, with the occasional gust up to 40mph ... and 3-5 inches of fresh snow on the ground.
I won't say it was easy, but we did it. I'll post pictures and a more detailed description later.
So here's how it went down.
Despite the iffy weather report, we five met up at Grosvenor Metro Friday morning and drove out to Philipsburg, PA, and the trailhead where Six Mile Run crosses 504. Yours truly is fine hiking and backpacking in winter weather, but a bit of a wimp when it comes to driving, so I was glad to see that there were only a few flurries on the road. There was lots of conversation about whether we'd use trail runners or boots, but when we reached the trailhead there was only a little accumulation--Jen and Brian went with trail shoes, the rest went with boots.
As we knew from October's trip, the first few miles of the AFT are gentle enough. We took our time, and covered the 10-ish miles from Six Mile Run to Brenner Run in the few hours before sunset. Red Moshannon Creek was especially red against the snowy backdrop. When we reached Brenner Run, I learned that Laura Guay and I had camped only perhaps a quarter of a mile from where the group had camped--yes, we were that close.
We camped at the little campsite on the near side of the bridge over Brenner Creek. It was snowing steadily by that point, and though we managed a convivial camp, we were in bed quite quickly. No one was inclined to gather firewood and start a fire.
Saturday--virtually the shortest day of the year--I made the mistake of not starting us off till just after 8am. We had planned to walk a 20 mile day, but the fresh snow made that quite difficult. Very gentle slopes, things we wouldn't really have noticed in any other season, felt like terrible slogs. By mid-day, the wind was blowing hard. We crossed the Allegheny front, a walk along a moderately exposed ridge, with views--it was chilly. I told everyone that we weren't going fast enough to make 20 that day, and that to finish the trail, we'd have to walk more on Sunday. Morale was at a low ebb. Jen and I both commented that we needed to get off that ridge. Brian looked at us like, "Why?" He is obviously better adapted to the cold than most of us. Ask him how cold he pushed his bag, and marvel ... He suggested that I needed to eat more food, and he was right.
We reached Smay's Run--15 miles for the day. A good solid backpacking day, especially given the circumstances, but I was worried that we might have to resign ourselves to not finishing the trip. I really did not want to have to revisit the AFT again this year! Saturday night was cold ... The wind was considerable. We all pitched shelters, ate, and basically climbed in our bags to wait for dawn. Of the 51 hours we spent on the trail, about half that was in the shelters!
(For me, I had a few moments when I was reminded of how different winter is than the other seasons. Everything froze. Zippers failed to work. We contended with epic levels of condensation in the shelters. My 3-season gear is really dialed in at this point, but the winter stuff could use some refinement.)
Everyone woke up at 6am Sunday. The thermometer read just about 19 degrees. Not the coldest for most of us, but a brisk morning, especially if you factored in the wind chill. Thankfully, though, the wind had stopped by that point.
Sunday was the sort of winter backpacking day you dream about. The sun slanting in from the southern skies, a bluebird sky through the afternoon, the snow usually crusted rather hard and good for walking. Despite some navigational issues (the AFT really needs its blazes standardized), we made great time, and ticked off the miles. By 2pm or so, we had walked 15 miles. We knew the trail was more or less done, and we were dreaming of pub grub in State College.
But the AFT had one last surprise for us. After a circuitous early afternoon in its SW quadrant, we reached Six Mile Run. The sign said just 2 miles to 504, which is where the cars were. We walked through a majestic alley of pines, frosted in snow, feeling rather good about ourselves. But then came "Rhododendron rage." The trail detoured from the direct path, following an icy side-hill. Then, the path, narrowly surrounded by rhododendron, became a perverse backpacking obstacle course. We literally had to crawl on our hands and knees under the ice-bent plants. Shouts of "Damn you, rhododendron!" could be heard. I expected to round a corner and see Doug or Jake clutched by fronds. We endured an absurdly difficult last mile of trail to reach the car.
We salved our wounds at Otto's brewery in State College (good beer, cheap pizza), and then headed home. Our final splits, according to GPS, were 10-15-17.
I would like to thank everyone for sticking this out with me, through some rather tough conditions. I would especially like to shout out to Jake. For a new guy to come out and do this trip as his first with the group is really quite remarkable--a real trial by ice! Brian broke more trail than anyone--I don't think we would have made it without his recollections of the trail. Jen and Doug were excellent, strong, backpacking companions. All in all, it was a perfect group.
Nice write up Michael!
I still think about going back up there this winter with a saw and some paint and doing some vigilante trail maintenance in the southwest quadrant. "Rhod rage" indeed!
Rhododendrons are murderous in wet snow conditions. After Hurricane Sandy, I went out to Dolly Sods for a nice little snowshoe backpacking trip. Rather than making it 8mi the first day, I broke trail for somewhere between 3.5-4mi where I was constantly working to even FIND the trail, which was covered in snow-sodden rhododendrons just like everything else. For a good two of those miles, I was post-holing with snow shoes on, burying the snowshoes deep into the covered rhododendron tangle below. It was very hard work, and eventually we gave up, collected fire wood and made a huge fire and sat around drinking rum... It's nice to not have a 41mi agenda! :)
LOL ... Yeah, amazing how weather conditions can change a trail. If there had been just a little more snow, I'm sure we'd have been slowed enough to make the whole endeavor impossible. Maybe with skis?
Interestingly, I'm writing up the book chapter now, and I called the forestry people. They're sending me a more recent map. The one we used was dated 2005, but they have a 2010 map. It'll be interesting to see the changes as the 2005 map definitely has some inaccuracies.
Guess I should have done that a few weeks ago, huh? Oh well, greater challenge.
Do they part with nice trail maps easily? This could be a good source of backpacking beta...
The people at the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (814-765-0821) are more than happy to send you (for free) the latest map of the AFT. I have, thanks to Doug Ide, the 2005 version, and I'm eager to look at the 2010 version. The 2005 version is definitely the best printed map of the trail I know of, but it is inaccurate in spots. (The AFT can be kinda sketchy.)
If you're interested in anything I've done recently (Otter Creek, AFT, Bear Run (beginner), Triple Crown, Tibbet Knob (beginner), Delaware Water Gap, and (kind of) Ramsay's Draft and Wild Oak (have to re-do GPS data, as we walked that before I had the contract)), then there are draft chapters in existence that are, I feel confident, the most detailed and comprehensive individual write ups available (of course, in some cases, like with the AT, there are actual books that cover the trail, but they don't really cover a single trip the way I am). I would actually appreciate it if people used a draft and gave me some feedback.
Of course, there are 23 more such chapters in various stages of being dreamt up. For each one, I'm spending some time trying to ensure that, not only is the map printed in the book fairly good, but that I tell people how to get the best map available.
I hear that Bedford, PA, now has 51 inches of snow. Presumably, the AFT is impassable without skis.
I wonder if those two guys we saw planning to hike it in 5 days made it around?