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


  1. Kit and Mike: We have never been more proud of you than we are today. Kit, you are courage personified and Mike you are the hero of heroes. How did you carry 75 pounds straight up hill? I once told Kit your calmness in the face of crisis was something I deeply esteemed...that is now multiplied 10 fold. Words don't convey the depth of our respect and admiration for the two of you. ( the way are one damn good writer!) Love, kisses, hugs, and wishes for warm weather, Mom and Dad.
    PS: Did I say the two of you are AWESOME!
    PPS: Poor Ellen and Nathaniel are going to get some really hard hugs standing in for you today! They'll pass them along if their ribs survive. :-)

    1. Thank you mom and dad! Mike's pretty amazing, ain't he? Love you guys!

  2. Hey, it's Clare from Towson University (me and my group met y'all at Sassafras Gap Shelter in Nantahala on 3/20)!

    Reading this particular post (and all earlier posts!!!) was almost like being dropped into the scene itself; your writing and the pictures make your story so real, interesting, wonderful, and relatable, even to someone who isn't currently, nor has ever, thru-hiked the AT.

    THANK YOU for continuing to share this story! So glad you and all are alright, keep on trekkin'! Warm, warm hugs and thoughts being sent from MD <3

    1. Hey Clare!

      Hooray!! I was really hoping you and the lovely ladies would find the blog. Thank you so much for the wonderful comments, you're such a doll. We had so much fun with you, and I hope you are having a great time back at school. Let me know if you guys are doing any other AT sections, we'll see if we can find ya.

      Warm hugs to you as well!

  3. Wow! What an intense experience! Mike we are so proud of you for your calm in the face of adversity. Way to go. Kit I am so glad you are OK. You are a fantastic writer. I was showing Aunt Laura the blog today and saw your update. I'm sure you have a new follower. Mom and I have known that you two are made for each other. This confirms it. Separate you are strong, together you are unstoppable! We love you both very much and miss you bunches.
    Mom and Dad

    1. D'aww thanks Mom and Dad! We think of you often and love you so much!

  4. Guy. I got teary eyed even though my mom told me the story on the phone before I read it. I am so glad you are ok. Dumptruck, WHO KNEW THE NAME WOULD BE SO DAMNED ACCURATE!?!?! I just thought it was funny. You guys are rock stars and I miss you dearly.
    Much Love,

    1. Thanks Tiddly, my lovely. You know, sometimes when we're packing up to leave in the morning, I think to myself "Wait... we're missing someone..." and it's you! I keep thinking you're with us!
      Love you,

  5. I'm so glad I met the height requirement to read this post as it is full of bravery and awesomeness!! Also, please can we arrange a ham-hock boxing match between you and Paula Deen?? We can do pay-per-view and make all sorts of monies!

    ps my money is on you

  6. Hey guys, my names is James, my wife Danielle and I are the "locals" that bought your birthday supplies back in Fontana village. We're glad you had a great birthday on the trail. We're not actualy local to the area as we live in Birmingham, AL but we travel to the Bryson City/Fontana area several times a year and always look forward to meeting hikers while we're there. We're glad to hear you guys made it thru the storm okay and are able to continue your hike. You guys are awesome! We'll continue to follow you via your trail journal and your blog. keep up the good work, James.