Trip Report: Four-State Challenge, 9/27-9/29: "With just a little additional thought, we could make this way stupider."

Posted by Michael Martin on

At home, now, showered, in cotton, with a sizeable dint in a six-pack and the NFL chattering on the TV, it's time to reflect on the events of the weekend.

It all began in a bar in Stockholm. Fresh from our time on the Kungsleden and with far too many strong beers in our system, a number of us conceived the idea of DC UL doing a four-state challenge. However the topic came up, we immediately started to try to make it more difficult. We didn't want to do the Hike Across Maryland (39 miles). A noble endeavor, of course, but we wanted to emulate the thru-hiker's challenge. We also didn't want to day-hike it. Day-hiking is great, but we've never been a day-hiking organization, and the goal of being self-sufficient in the wilderness is important to us. Trail runners rack up faster times. but people are handing them food and drinks. So, we decided it would be a backpackers' challenge. No support, and you would have to carry enough gear to spend both Friday and Saturday nights out, while completing the walk from Virginia, through Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, all of the Maryland AT, and to the Mason Dixon line, within 24 hours.

And so ... Friday night, eight of us set out to attempt this challenge. BTW, I really like the word "challenge" rather than "race." As we found out, there was a collaborative element here that I'm not sure all of us realized going into it. Special thanks must be given to Shuttle, Matt, and Yeti, who did a great deal of work handling the up front logistics, scouting out the final end-point campsite, and setting up cut off cars at I-70 and Wolfsville Road.

B~~~ and Travis reached the beginning point campsite on Loudoun Heights first; a little later U-turn, Yeti, Shuttle, and Matt got there. We worried a little about George and MMA, but they rolled in eventually. We held a quick briefing, and then we retired for the night. Most people cowboy-camped with only a bivy.

I got shit for sleep, but the alarm was ringing at 3am, and I actually hit the trail at 3:07am. Honestly, I thought I wouldn't see anyone for some time, but after the descent in the dark, most everyone caught me on the bridge crossing the Shenandoah. Harpers Ferry looked ghostly in the darkness, the old buildings illuminated by our headlamps. In a big pack, we crossed the Potomac and settled into a quick pace on the C&O Canal. I had determined that I wanted to walk slower than I had on the super-hike--45 miles is a long way--and I worried that we were going too fast, easily 4mph.

The pack dissolve when we hit Weverton Cliffs. Travis and Yeti were ahead of me, and though I saw the episodic headlamp behind me, the line quickly became strung out. Up on the ridgeline, the owls hooted as I went past. The sky was lightening as I reached Gathland, where Yeti and Travis were having a break. We walked on, by the Crampton Gap Shelter, by White Rocks, the Rocky Run Shelter, the Reno Monument. The others were a little ahead of me when we came to the Dahlgren camp, where I had planned to tank up. No water. Anxious to be dry with the mountains as devoid of water as they were, I walked on, eventually getting water at the campsite at the Washington Monument. I pressed on, alone, and arrived at I-70 at around 10:58am.

By any ordinary standard, backpacking 26 miles by 11am is pretty good. But I admit that my legs felt tight, and I was worried how the afternoon would go. I took a 10 minute break, stretched some, and was surprised to see that Yeti and Travis had not signed in. I chatted with a few climbers headed in to Annapolis Rocks and was soon headed north myself.

The long ridge ahead of me was easy walking, and somewhere north of Annapolis Rocks, Travis and Yeti caught me. (They had taken a break at the Washington Monument, which I had not visited.) From that point onward, we formed a group, like a break away in cycling. We determined that we'd work together to reach the end.

As we descended the switchbacks to Wolfsville Road, I thought how odd it was that these miles, which I had walked many a time, felt so difficult, but of course we were over 30 miles by this point. We signed in at the cars, about 1:40pm, I think, then went searching for water. The creek nearby was totally dry, so we used the spring at the Covall Shelter, which cost us time. Text messages started coming in. The others seemed to be fine. After a break, we left Covall at 2:30pm. Ten miles to go.

The first four miles went quick, and we reached Ravens Rock Road at about 3:44pm. After that climb, we sat down near the Ravens Rock Shelter. Yeti was feeling loopy, and needed to eat. The remaining six miles were pretty tough. We were tired and the rocks were serious on the way into Pen Mar. But we stuck together and the feeling of camaraderie was intense: I could practically read Yeti's mind as he looked for a blaze. About 5:45pm, we reach our campsite, which we had to walk by to cross the RR tracks and get to the empty post marking the PA border. We walked back to the park, filled our bottles, and basked in the sun.

Soon we saw Shuttle walking towards us. Travis and I carried the coolers in. When we arrived in camp, there were a stack of six pizza boxes, which we dug into merrily, and beer in the coolers. Soon we had a fun campfire going as we waiting for George and MMA. I think Travis, Yeti and I were a little worried when we heard they had left Wolfsville at 5pm, determined to finish. We all three thought they'd have to do the rocks in the dark. Travis said, "Those Navy guys will *never* quit. They'll come crawling in here first."

About 9pm, we saw their headlamps in the darkness. They looked tired, and dehydrated. We all, but Shuttle especially, sprang into action to get them some pizza heated up, and drinks.

During the night, I suffered a little contretemps, as my Thermarest sprung a slow leak. As I blew it up again at 5am, MMA heard the sound and dreamed he was being attacked by a raccoon. "Motherfucker," he screamed!

Over breakfast in Thurmont, we feted our accomplishment. Travis had the line for the trip: "With just a little additional thought, we could make this way stupider." Indeed. We have all started pondering what it would be like to do a DC UL 100-miler. We also thought that repeating this event each fall would be great, as it was structured to give people a chance to set their PRs, at several different distances.

A few notes for the future. The NOBO route worked well, but it would've been nice to have a third cut off at Warner Gap or Ravens Rock Road. More options near the end is a good thing. People attempting this need to feel that a 26-mile day is a sure thing. And it would be good to require people to have a hiking partner. The psychological boost of having a partner is very significant (everyone who finished did so in a group), and it sucked that Shuttle had to hike alone. Additionally, starting early is a must. Future events will have to balance out the need for a cooler day with the increasing lack of light. Hitting the Pen Mar rocks in the dark, with 40+ miles on your body, is potentially dangerous.

All in all, it was a heckuva an experience! Thanks, everyone, for making it happen. And do post your own impressions, below.


Daniel posted on

I'm green with envy...

Well done, everyone. 40-some miles really sets the bar. I look forward to this some day.

PS- Was the 'half-gallon challenge' in order for breakfast the next morning? ;-)

Kevin Strauss posted on

Congrats to everyone! This is an amazing accomplishment and I wish I could have been a part of it. I especially like the lessons-learned which will really add to the safety and enjoyment factor next time.

I've completed the SOBO MD AT 3x as a self-supported trail run/hike and it made me think... What about a similar challenge in the Presidential Range of the White Mtns NH? From Crawford Notch to Pinkham Notch hitting every peak along the way? I figure it would take about 24 hrs to cover 24 miles.... At my pace. Plus, having full backpack gear would be smart given the duration and climate. Thoughts?

Michael Martin posted on

Thanks, Kevin! Yes, it was an incredible day.

There are several people talking about a Presidentials Challenge for next year. John Callahan has a crazy idea, and I know Shuttle has been thinking about it, too. I would likely participate, but remember, I'm a southerner who has never been north of Massachusetts! I'd need to get up there before I could contemplate leading something like that.

As I like to say, all we need are leaders ... ;)

I think, though, we will certainly see a few such "challenges" posted for next year. The weeks around the summer solstice could be wild.


Will posted on

Crazy brutal accomplishment! You are all tough mothers - I'll look forward to tackling this next time!

Michael Martin posted on

Yes, the thought is that we might offer this annually.

I bet you could do it, Will!

As someone told me beforehand, it's all mental. What they didn't tell me was that the mental question was, "How much are you willing to suffer?"