When you're as cold as ice, but not willing to sacrifice your love (for hiking)

Posted by MikeVW on

Apparently, Brian and I follow in the mold of the unique wake-up calls pioneered by Evan; it's not just enough to tell people it's time to get up, I have to sing a modified version of the Foreigner song to get people going. But my song selection rang true for the 9 of us waking up on Sunday morning, because we had dialed into a polar vortex of cold that most people would have happily avoided.

My original intent for Caledonia was to take a group out to learn about winter conditions in a low key trip. With Ben co-organizing, and with a moderate loop, ample water and readily available shelter, everything seemed to be falling into place.

And then the temperature decided to bottom out (at one point, I saw a warmer forecast for Hemavan, Sweden, than Caledonia), accompanied by strong winds and a real possibility of accumulating snow over the weekend. We would also be hiking in 4-5 inches of snow from the past storm, some of it icy and frozen. Our group of 16 slowly dwindled down to 10, and we met under overcast skies at Grosvenor on Saturday. We headed northward, and after a quick pass through historic Gettysburg, arrived at Caledonia.

Winter hiking can be beautiful, but there are so many little things to account for: building in appropriate layers, keeping one's water in liquid form, having good traction, and managing exertion/calorie intake all take on a very different character when the mercury dips below 32.

Our first challenge involved a frozen stream crossing in Caledonia, and I was glad to have been persuaded to take my spikes along to ease the crossing! We marched through the park, and soon ran into Dan on our climb out of Caledonia. Since he could only join us for the day, he had parked at the northern end of our hike and booked it southward to meet up with us (his mileage total for the day ended up at about 23!). Keeping up a steady pace, our group passed through a tunnel of rhododendron to arrive at Quarry Gap Shelter for a brief break.

Unlike Joffrey's trip, we actually ran into several dayhikers, a few backpackers, and a hunter while out on the trail, and it was easy seeing the natural beauty and charm of the area while we walked. When we reached the Pine Run Reservoir, it had iced over to the point that some of the group wanted to pose for pictures on the lake itself. With the sun out and temperatures hovering around freezing, it felt like a perfect winter day to explore the park.

But as we moved on, winter crept back and reminded us of its presence. Jasmine had a brief case of the 'umbles,' which Libby helped to cure by getting some food into her system, and the wind and snow started to pick up ever so slightly. We reached the Birch Run shelter right around 5PM, and it invited us in with a picnic table, wonderful overhang, and eight unoccupied bunks. There was even a bit of trail magic in the air (and the shelter) when we found a bag of leftover food in a corner. The hot dogs may have been frozen, but the pretzel chips and popcorn were still good! A wave of laziness hit me, and I opted to stake a spot in the shelter rather than pitch in the snow. Hot meals were had by all, and the pull of our bags was too strong to even attempt a fire. Hiker midnight came by 8.

Saturday night brought some cold winds and a little blowing snow, though I was treated to a beautiful starscape when I braved the elements to relieve myself. I stayed warm in my bag, although it was a cold night for the group, and I think a few low temperature records may have been broken. My thermometer read just under 10F in the morning, and it felt every degree of it.

We got moving right around 8 AM on Sunday, and while we got spread out on our hike back along the AT, managed to finish up the trail by about 1PM. After a quick stop at ABC for lunch, we headed home to wash the last bits of cold out of our systems and reflect on the trip. I know that I learned a lot this past weekend, and while I'm glad we all made it out safely, we definitely had a few close calls. I've resolved to read 'The Secrets of Warmth' before my next trip (thanks, Dan!), and have gained a new respect for single digit temperatures. I hope that everyone's next journey into winter conditions will build off of the knowledge gained in this one!

Lastly, a special thanks is in order to both Libby and Ben for helping out on this trip. Libby, your experience and willingness to give aid to others was greatly appreciated, even more so since you weren't actually leading this hike! Ben, it was not only great to hike with you again, but you went above and beyond in helping with the planning, advice, and execution of this trip. I hope we can do another one together soon!