I swore I would never be cold again.
That had been my mantra ever since I spent a frigid night up on the Three Ridges in a 40 degree quilt and no extra insulation, shivering and waiting for morning to come. So when our group assembled on a blustery Friday evening at Vienna metro, I had a feeling that this weekend would be a true test of that mantra. As the six of us (myself, Alan, Brian, Denise, Mark, and Mike) began the long drive to Roanoke, the folks in my car watched the temperature gauge on my dashboard slowly creep down below the mid 20s until it rested at 19 degrees at the trailhead. The air was crisp, but the stars were out, and we were excited to get moving, so we set off northbound on the AT until we found refuge at the Catawba shelter. As it was close to midnight and the shelter was empty, five of us (Alan went for the hammock route) squeezed in and hunkered down for the night. With my clothes damp from exertion, and sharing cold water bottles with my bag, I managed a few fitful hours before daylight broke. 12 degrees was the recorded low for that night.
However, I spent my pre-dawn time awake planning the perfect alarm, and the group awoke to the strains of 'I Got You, Babe' in a nod to Groundhog's Day (Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring that day, but Mother Nature planned otherwise). We swapped notes on our overnight experiences, and after breakfast, we began the ascent up to McAfee Knob in beautiful sunlight with just a hint of frost on the ground. Other than a few slick patches, the trail was remarkably clear, and we were soon posing for the iconic (and frankly, terrifying) shot of dangling our legs over the edge of the cliff. The wind kept us from lingering, though, and we soon descended into more protected terrain, and got into a good pace that eventually brought us to Tinker Cliffs.
Surprisingly, we saw a few other people while traversing the AT, but the majority were day hikers, and most were looking to finish up before the late afternoon. With predictions of snow showers starting to look more definite, I began to question the merit of spending the night on North Mountain. But it was warmer than Friday, so after a leisurely lunch, we filled up our bottles and began crossing towards the base of our last major ascent.
I had hiked this trail back in 2011, and had somehow forgotten just how much exertion it took to summit North Mountain. As we began to climb, a few flakes of snow could be seen, and a light breeze had begun to blow. Upon reaching the top, we were hit with continuous, gusting drafts of cold air and blowing snow, and with the clouds looking as dense and relentless as my Grafton Loop trip from this past summer, I knew the weather wouldn't be changing anytime soon. Not only that, but I had managed to sweat through my clothes, so I was in for a rough afternoon of ridge walking. This was when I learned my first lesson of the weekend: regulate clothing/layering more effectively.
We got pretty spread out while hiking along the ridge, and after reaching the first trail intersection, saw that Denise was suffering mightily from the cold. It's hard to express my gratitude for the skill and poise of this group to handle the adversity we saw on this ridge; after some handwarmers and food, she was good to go, and Alan, Brian, and Mike stayed with her for the rest of the afternoon while Mark and I scouted ahead. We stopped short of our intended campsite, but with the wind, snow, and cold, it just seemed like too much of a risk to continue on to knock out another 2 miles. And while we had a beautiful fire, the conditions kept most people in their tents.
Over the course of the evening, I talked to Mark and Alan about the rest of the route, and decided to cut out any attempt at Dragon's Tooth, or even the AT walk back to the car. Mark and I broke camp at 6:30 AM with the goal of making the road, and either walking or hitching a ride back to the cars, so we could meet the rest of the group at Dragon's Tooth. And while I hadn't slept especially well, I felt reinvigorated in the morning to meet the goal. It was here that I learned my second lesson of the weekend: keep a positive attitude, as pessimism helps in no way.
While walking the final 4.5 miles to the road, I managed to break ground on freshly fallen snow, which was a wonderful experience. It was quiet and beautiful, and reminded me of what I enjoyed about North Mountain from the previous year's hike. There were also paw prints (my guess was fox) that shadowed the trail, and it was like having my own personal guide down to the road. Even with everything else that happened that weekend, this was a wonderful moment of peace and satisfaction, and gave me a real understanding of why people enjoy winter hiking/camping. I also learned my third lesson: walking while snacking was a huge boost. And most wonderful of all, when Mark and I reached the road, we were able to easily hitch a ride back to our cars through the kindness of a stranger at a nearby gas station. Seeing the rest of the group make it safely off the ridge soon after Mark and I drove back to Dragon's Tooth was a huge relief, and we made our way to the Home Place for a well deserved lunch.
Three hours and a pound of fried chicken later, we headed back to DC, healthy and whole, and ready to tackle another trail soon. I always hope for good weather, but this experience showed me that it's not what's necessary to making a good trip. This group showed real grit, and we overcame some real challenges as a team.
But I mean it now: I'm never going to be cold again.
Sounds like some tough conditions, but everyone pulled through and had a great trip. It sounds, also, like the group was particularly ably led, so kudos to MikeVW!
I think one probably learns the most when things are hard. Obviously, when everything goes according to plan and the weather is perfect, you don't have to make any interesting decisions.
Sweating through your base layer is something to be absolutely avoided in the winter. Wetness is the path to hypothermia, and hypothermia is the path to the dark side of ... wait, I'm getting a little off track here. But really, you never want to be wet in the winter. If it means staying cool to a bit cold while moving, so be it. I often strip to my base layer, or even go shirtless in the winter when moving, only to layer right back up when stopped.
If you're going to skimp on gear, your sleeping bag isn't really the best place to do it, as it serves as your last-ditch warm-up solution, as well as a mechanism to keep an injured hiker as warm as possible in the event of a bad situation, as help is often a day or more away.
Glad you made it through, though :) Just wait for your first freezing rain experience... that is the worst of the worst. You'll wish it were actually cold enough to just snow!
+10F Mid-Atlantic Appalachian Winter Gear List - Alan Dixon
Below, some information regarding wetting out baselayers and getting the best out of a +20 sleep system in colder conditions. -Alan
As we still have some winter trips in the schedule I though others in DC UL Backpacking might be interested in the gear that I took on the recent VA Triple Crown trip.
The gear list is a PDF here:
We had temps down to +12F the first night but no wind. Then a full day below freezing, and three inches of fresh snow. The second night was around +20F but a more exposed camp with strong winds and blowing snow—had been snowing since mid-afternoon. We were camped on a knob and very exposed—the highest place in any direction. So arguably a colder night.
My whole pack for the three-day trip with food, fuel and water was 15 lb.
All my gear fit into a 2,800 in3 Gossamer Gear Gorilla backpack.
A few notes:
1) I am using a Hammock system. It is a myth that hammocks do not work in the winter. And they have many advantages over a ground system. See more in a three part article that I published on Andrew Skurkas site: http://andrewskurka.com/2012/hammocks-advantages-disadvantages/
2) One could easily substitute a tarp (or shaped tarp like a MLD TrailStar) and bivy. Or even a light tent like a TarpTent Notch.
3) Brian on our trip effectively slept warm under a tarp in a +35 bag supplemented with clothing and a bivy sack.
4) Most of our group successfully hiked in the snow the second and third days of the trip using non-waterproof trail runners.
5) I generally keep a slow and steady hiking pace with limited and brief stops for things I cannot do walking. I usually eat, drink, and adjust clothing while walking. If find this the most efficient way to hike and allows me to wear minimal clothing, reduces clothing adjustments, and prevents me chilling out when stopped.
6) I only carry one baselayer and one set of clothes. I adhere to the maxim “don’t take more clothing than you can wear at one time.” I do a good job of venting heat and perspiration, and controlling my exertion level while hiking so that when I get to camp I am at most only slightly damp from exertion. Usually after 15 minutes in camp under my down jacket my clothing is dry. So no chilling down in wet clothes and no risk of quilt condensation from going to bed with wet clothes.
7) I have genetically cold hands and feet (my Father has Raynaud’s). I need to be particularly careful to make sure my hands and feet do not get too cold. Once cold it is almost impossible to get them warm again. Keeping a constant, non-stopping hiking pace and shoving them into warm, dry gloves and booties the instant I hit camp are key to keeping them warm.