Friday, March 29, 2013

Hypothermia, Frost Bite and How Dumptruck Earned His Name

Day 18: Zero Day (funny thing, we took this zero to try and wait out the weather)

Day 19: 12.2 miles Fontana Dam (over the Dam!) to Mollie's Ridge Shelter

Day 20: Zero (weather- snowed in)

Day 21: 12 miles. Mollies Ridge Shelter to Derrick Knob Shelter

Day 22: 7.2 miles. Derrick Knob Shelter to Double Spring Gap Shelter

Day 23: 10.8 miles. Derrick Knob Shelter to Newfound Gap (Tennessee!) Also Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Smokies- 6,655 foot elevation! And then we (Apollo, Dumptruck, Hot Dog, Whistle and I) hitched into town on the back of a pickup truck in the rain.

There are certain stories that cannot be told without giving one's mother a heart attack. I debated whether or not I should write about my near death experience, mostly because the simple phrase "near death experience" is more melodramatic than a symphony orchestra warming up before performing a dirge for Sylvia Plath. It's more melodramatic than the daily horoscope being read aloud by Vincent Price's ghost, who is crying and all, all alone. It's more melodramatic than a sad panda bear, reaching half-heartedly for the world's last piece of bamboo, while it rains and twiddling French music plays from a scratchy old record player, for no reason at all.

Typically I don't write stories on this level of Shakespearean tragedy, because, frankly, things don't usually impact me that way. Awful things can happen but I always try to have good humor about them because life's more fun and rewarding that way. However, there's really no way around it: the following story is alarming. Proceed only if you are not of the faint of heart, are at least 5 feet tall, and for heaven's sake, not my mother. Though I know you're going to read this anyway mom, I want to let you know that I am a fully corporeal being, and I made it through this venture without dying. I can't promise I'll never do anything this stupid again, but I promise I'll never do this particular stupid thing again, that is, hiking into the Great Smoky Mountains in an approaching blizzard.

The AT runs across the Smoky Mountain Range for 79 miles, and it is one of the first truly arduous parts of the trail. In the first day the trail ascends nearly 4,000 feet in elevation. Hikers are required to stay in shelters, and the first shelter is 12 miles straight uphill.

A word regarding the nature of "shelters" on the trail. Shelters are NOT lodges, hotels, or anything other than a cobbled together mountain shoebox. There is no heat, water, bathroom or any amenity other than mice, who will cuddle with you for the low, low cost of the privilege of destroying all your food supplies and toilet paper. Shelters are little more than stone or wooden lean-tos. Sleeping in a shelter is like sleeping in a marginally drier tent, alongside 10 of your new best friends, all of whom were strangers to you earlier in the day, 3 of whom snore like oncoming freight trains and 1 of whom is more gaseous than the Hindenburg. Shelters have only 3 walls and are drafty and freezing, but they provide some slight protection from the more intense elements. There are usually one or two wooden floors, where everyone jams their sleeping bags together and settles in for a cozy night of getting routinely kicked in the nuts.

The weather report over the weekend said bad weather, but both Saturday and Sunday were beautiful. We had waited out at the Fontana Lodge, a nice little hotel, and we were feeling antsy. On Monday morning we knew there was going to be snow, but the weather report said only 1 to 3 inches. The weather report for mountains, as we've come to learn, is about as accurate as my aim when playing darts. That is to say: horrible, and only slightly better if drinking has been involved. The previous two days had called for sleet and rain, and had turned out to be beautiful. So when Apollo, Dumptruck and I headed out from the hotel on Monday morning, freshly showered and our bellies full, we were expecting some wind, a bit of snow, and a grueling physical climb up into the Smokies. The only accurate part of the previous sentence was the grueling climb part.

We hiked without incident for the first 3 miles or so, straight uphill. It was slightly windy with flurries, and I quickly got seriously sweaty. When we stopped to take a few layers off, steam poured off of my body, and my baselayer shirt was sticking to my skin, drenched in sweat. I put my rain jacket on over my baselayer, putting my fleece into my pack, feeling like a rotisserie chicken recently removed from the oven and wrapped in foil. My gloves were also soaked with sweat. This didn't bother me much, as sweating is a regular occurence on the trail, and one usually has a chance to dry out over a break mid-day.

As we continued upward in elevation, the snow and wind picked up accordingly, but sneakily. The danger snuck up on us like a slowly rising tide; a tide you don't notice until it suddenly and completely destroys your sandcastle. Our laughter and coversation died away, and we continued to climb, our heads down, expecting the wind to lift at any moment and the sun to peek out from behind deepening clouds. By the time we were knee-deep in snow drifts, wind whipping and burning our faces, we had hiked 6 miles and it seemed just as dangerous to turn back and try to climb down an icy, steep incline.

There was a pain that had crept into my fingers in their previously sodden and now utterly frozen gloves. The pain was sharp and deep, like broken glass scattered over my skin. I suddenly stopped in my tracks as my hands released their grip on my hiking poles, and I doubled over to stick my hands up my shirt to try and warm them. I looked like a kangaroo who has suddenly and alarmingly lost its joey, and is frantically searching its pouch for the rascally little scamp.

Dumptruck came up behind me, and we quickly put on more layers of clothing, and opened some handwarmer packets for my hands.

"I have to keep hiking guys," said Apollo, "My boots aren't waterproof and my feet are getting frozen."

We told him it was no problem, that he should hike on and we would meet him at the shelter at the end of the day. Apollo crested a windswept hill and disappeared from view into snow and fog 15 feet away. Dumptruck and I turned our focus onto the problem of my hands, as snow swirled around us like a horde of menacing, angry white bees. I put my hands onto Dumptruck's belly (looking like he had suddenly also lost his kangaroo joey).

We found the best solution was for me to grip handwarmers in my fists, put my fists into dry, warm wool socks, and then wrap then socks in ziploc bags for wind protection.

I instantly felt much better, as warmth and feeling poked hotly back into my hands. I could keep hiking, but wouldn't be able to grip my poles, due to the fact that my hands had been transformed into a pair of bakery muffins in saran wrap. I looked like the world's most ill-prepared boxer, getting ready to sock Paula Deen or Julia Childs right in the kisser. My fingerless ham-hock fists were totally ready to go. Dumptruck strapped my poles to his pack and we kept hiking. We felt good for a mile or so, though we couldn't stop for a real meal because of the increasing storm.

We sufficed with eating trail mix, though because my arms ended in a pair of useless rutabegas, I had to eat trail mix out of Dumptruck's flattened palm like a goat at a petting zoo. This caused us to laugh hysterically a couple of times, making peanuts and craisins rain down onto the white ground and disappear into the fluffy, growing snowdrifts. Hiking without poles was having a significantly negative impact on my back, as my pack weighed heavily on my shoulders, but I trudged on, thinking we couldn't possibly be that much farther from the shelter.

I felt cold in a very strange way- aware that I was continuing to sweat with the exertion of the climb, but that my previously soaking wet baselayer was now stiff and frozen against my body. I was hiking with my head down, my hood pulled tight around my face, the dim light and thick snow dancing on the wind making visibility nearly impossible. I was following the "trail," which was little more than vague dimples of previous footprints in the foot or more high snow drifts, left by previous hikers. With every passing minute, the trail disappeared more and more. Snow began to accumulate on the inside of the ziplock bags around my muffin hands as the condensation from my hands caught on the inside of the bag and froze there. I was briefly amused by my magical snow-making powers.

We had been hiking for 9 hours, the drifts were 3 feet high, the wind was howling at 50mph with below zero windchill, visibility was no more than 2 feet, and suddenly, we came upon a rough wooden signpost. I felt a rush of relief. The shelter must be close. I looked at the sign, and it read "Mollies Ridge Shelter: 3.1 miles."

3.1 miles.

I sank to my knees in the snow, and sat down in a drift. My resolve whooshed out of me like a balloon, as my body spasmed in sudden, violent shivers. Tears erupted from my eyes as my vision made the world bend and twist around me like a carnival ride. I could no longer feel my right hand, and my back was screaming in frozen pain that I'd never felt before. At the time I didn't know it, but I found out later that I was in a dangerous stage of hypothermia. I didn't feel very cold, and I was wearing all of my layers at this point, but my body was vibrating like an spastic electric toothbrush, and I was delirious.

Dumptruck crouched down in front of me and wiped the tears from my face before they could freeze to my cheeks.

"I can't feel my right hand," I croaked. "I am so tired. How can it be three more miles?"

"We've done so many three mile stretches, we can do this. We can get there. When we get there we'll eat pasta and you will be so warm. We have to keep moving. You can do this," he said gently, but with firm insistence.

A strange, strong urge came over me to lay down in the snow. The little bit of rational brain that was still getting a little bit of bloodflow screamed that laying down was the WORST IDEA SINCE IDEAS WERE INVENTED. These two parts of my brain, one the blood-deprived hypothermic lunacy and the other my distant voice of reason, prepared to fight a ferocious, bloody battle on the grounds of my psyche. The outward physical manifestation of this was me waffling on my bum like a weeble-wobble.

Dumptruck took my pack off my shoulders, stood up, and put my 35lb pack on top of his own 40lb pack like a fireman's carry, balanced between the back of his head and the top section of his bag. I stared at him, waving my little fingerless grapefruits around and insisting that no way, I was not going to make him carry my pack. He pulled me to my feet and told me that we were walking, he was carrying my pack, there was simply nothing I could do about it, he was just too awesomely hardcore, and that we were going to be okay. I nodded numbly, and began shuffling up the trail.

And that is how we got to the shelter 3.1 miles later, Dumptruck carrying my pack, singing encouragements and not uttering a single complaint. When we arrived, people (other hikers we've befriended) swarmed around me and began helping me. My softball mittens were peeled off, revealing that my right hand was swollen to twice the size of my left hand, and was waxy and unmoveable, in the first stage of frostbite.

I was given a hot water bottle to clutch, and stuffed into a sleeping bag. Dumptruck forced me, gently, to change out of my baselayer which was frozen nearly solid to my body. He zipped his sleeping bag to mine and wrapped me against his heat, like a small child.

I felt like I was watching all of this happen to someone else. Who was this girl, crying silently and completely stiff and frozen? Any vague thought I had was like watching an image develop over a modem internet in 1996, each pixel defining itself over an agonizingly long span of time. I fell asleep just as a slight notion of feeling began to creep back into my right hand, which is good, because had I been awake I would have probably started weeping even more pitifully from the pain.

The funny thing about all of this is that there was not a single moment in which I wanted to quit the trail. I knew I was in a bad way, and that I was going to need to recover, but it never crossed my mind that I would give up on the trail. I had hypothermia, first stage frost bite, and my body was nearing the point of nonfunctionality, but never once did I think I wouldn't keep going. That is to say- I knew I would be willing to go to a hospital if I needed to, but I would go back to hiking once I was all fixed up.

But that day, my body had ceased functionality. Dumptruck got me to that shelter. We woke up Tuesday morning and my body was okay (no long term damage at all), but we stayed in the shelter for the day because the weather was continuing its insanity, and Apollo's shoes were literally (literally) frozen solid. I stayed in my sleeping bag, ate food, and listened as another hiker played bluegrass music for the shelter from his mp3 player. The shelter, whose capacity was 12 people, had 23 hikers jammed inside. It was like being in steerage class on the Titanic.

We hiked out the next day, and we have now made it to Gatlinburg, Tennessee three days later. It has been incredibly difficult hiking at this high elevation in all of this snow, but it has been sunny and beautiful (though freezing). The photos speak for themselves, I think. We have made some wonderful new friends (Grim, Hot Dog and Whistle who we looooove!) and it has been some of the hardest physical days of my life. But the company has been marvelous, and everything is so beautiful here. At least, now that we can see it.

I love this trail, and I will keep walking until I kiss the sign at the top of Katahdin. I have been laughing and joyous, and I don't regret what happened because we frankly couldn't have known it would be that bad. I couldn't have done it without Dumptruck, who is the most giving, kind and supportive person on the planet. We also get to say we hiked the Smoky Mountains in RECORD LOW TEMPERATURES AND CONDITIONS. I think that deserves a booyah.


Clever Girl

Hot Dog is also blogging, and here is her blog:

Photos by Dumptruck

Sunday, March 24, 2013

American Cancer Society

Hello friends and followers!

I was inspired by a fellow hiker to have this trip be a fundraiser for a charity. I have chosen the American Cancer Society in honor of several people in my family and community. Don't feel pressured to donate, but even a dollar helps. And if not, your thoughts and hope go just as far. Here is the website for my fundraiser:

Love always,
Clever Girl

Brains and Birthdays

Day 14: 6.5 miles. NOC (Nantahala) to Sassafras Gap Shelter. This was straight uphill all day so we didn't make it very far. At the shelter we met a wilderness training group from Towson University who were section hiking Southbound. They were fantastic! Also at this shelter we met Domino, who was hiking with a ferret (Splinter)

Day 15: 15.2 miles. Sassafras Gap Shelter to Cable Gap Shelter. Over Cheoah Bald and Jacob's Ladder.

Day 16: 6.6 miles. Cable Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Shelter. MAH BIRTHDAH.

Day 17: Zero Day!

For a lot of my young life, I didn't put much creedance in the phrase "mind over matter." It always seemed like the sort of thinking used by people who bet on billiards, or staunchly refuse to ever get a flu shot in spite of getting the flu every single year. In short, it always seemed like the sort of mantra used by folks who had no intention of taking any sort of responsibility for their own role in the universe. Like ordering a pizza with anchovies, and then being terribly disappointed when it does indeed show up sprinkled with tiny, salty, headless fish. I didn't believe that physical things could possibly be changed by the sheer power of thought.

As with many things we believe as adolescents, such as thinking that consuming nothing but cheetos and mountain dew for weeks at a time will not have any negative reprocussions, my belief about the fallibility about "mind over matter," was, simply put: wrong. Granted, there are some things for which it doesn't work. For example, no matter how hard I stare at myself in the mirror and concentrate with all my might, my hair refuses to get any thicker. Rude. However, there are some circumstances in which we can trick our brains, and thus conquer things that may have previously appeared insurmountable.

The map labeled the section of the trail as "Jacob's Ladder," and the elevation line was practically vertical. There were several smaller mountains we'd have to crest before arriving at this beast. On the trail it can sometimes be hard to figure out exactly where on the map we are, as there are only signs every 6 or 7 miles, and even those are roughly cut wooden planks that sometimes don't offer anything other than "water," with an arrow pointing vaguely off the trail. So as we the three of us trudged along, we speculated that Jacob's Ladder was liable to be rocky, slippery and terrifying. As we ascended a mountain with a path that led straight upward at such an angle that the trail ahead of me was only two feet from my face, we were convinced that we were still on the approach mountains to Jacob's Ladder. We couldn't possibly be on the hardest part yet, and so we climbed at a steady unbroken pace, believing that it couldn't be all that bad, because things were bound to get ten times worse on the next crest.

At the top of the hill, we looked around, and both Apollo and I agreed that though we could see no other steep peak in any direction, there was no way we had gone over Jacob's Ladder.

"Guys," croaked Dumptruck, "I just threw up in my mouth."

And with that, the tricks that Apollo and I had played on our minds vanished, and we understood that we had indeed gone over Jacob's Ladder. But because we thought there was something harder ahead of us, we were able to climb the hardest part of the day, our noses brushing the dirt of the steep trail as we'd walked, without being defeated or held back. Mind over matter was truly successful! Except for Dumptruck who, as I previously mentioned, barfed in his own mouth.

Can't win 'em all.

I want to do my best to capture how magical my birthday was, but I think it will be hard, because I am much better about writing about disasters. I think I struggle with containing wonderfulness in words, because it doesn't seem to fit. It's like when my friend Ashley and I were 13 and tried to bake a cake in a meatloaf pan, and the batter expanded into a giant mushroom which exploded and vomited boiling hot cake batter all over the inside of the oven, sending clouds of black smoke into the kitchen and setting off the fire alarm. The intention was there, but the vessel was incorrect.

We were at a shelter at Fontana Dam, where many hikers gathered because they'd heard we were going to have a birthday celebration. This particular shelter is unique, in that it is only 2 miles from a little town, and it is slightly more enclosed than the standard wooden lean-to shelter. Apollo and Dumptruck had gone into town to get $75 worth of hot dogs, chips n' salsa, s'more-making supplies and drinks. When they were at the register, a local man said "I got this," and paid for the whole spread. He even insisted that Apollo go back and get more beverages. Birthday magic and Trail magic UNITE! So many wonderful people gathered around the campfire and stayed up way past their bedtime (read: past sunset), laughed, sang and talked while the stars came out over the lake. I had an incredible time and I don't really have the words so CAKE EXPLOSION FIRE ALARM SCREAMING ETC ETC.

It rained all night, and the next morning Dumptruck said that he'd woken up to something freezing cold and wet sitting on his cheek. In the darkness he couldn't really tell what it was, until it took a step. He became aware that it was a soaking wet, shivering mouse, perched on his bare skin. He said that he spasmed and slapped the mouse off his cheek, sending it flying halfway across the shelter, where it landed and scurried away. Based on the frequency with which mice crawl on people's faces in shelters, we have a theory that getting launched across the shelter is a method of entertainment for them.

We are currently staying in Fontana, a teeny tiny little resort town in NC, because the weather is wretched and it's finally time for a zero day. From here we go up into the Smoky Mountains, where bad weather can mean serious danger, so we're trying to time our exit as best as possible. We three have a hotel room in the only little Lodge in town, and we're sharing the room with two excellent gentlemen named Hermes and Guard. This morning consisted of Guard flopping around the room in his sleeping bag like a brain damaged caterpillar, and sleeping bag inch worm races down the hallway. Yesterday a lot of a wonderful bubble of hikers hung out at the Lodge, and I got to know a fair amount of them a lot better than I had before.

Here is a listing of great people- also so you can get an idea of some of the trail names out here:

Rainbow Braid, Owl, Zag, Detour, Movie Star, Bean, Vice, Broken Pack, Mainiac, Boone, Doc, Flipper, Hey Everybody, Alpha Dog, Nails, Dirt Dog, Domino, Roamin', Sarah, Scorchy Pipes, Little Foot, Johnny Cash, Nightwalker, Taco, Caliokey, Hermes, Guard... And lots more, but I can't keep track. Good humans, all.