Over the weekend I had my first hiking trip since my child broke her leg. It was a trip that was moved because the wife’s grandmother died. One would think this would be an omen, but it turned out pretty good anyway.
The trip was our first to Damascus, VA. We had 8 scheduled to attend, but one got the stomach flu the night before and dropped out. Another said she would meet us in town, so Saturday morning we loaded 5 of us in the van. One was late, so we left. The late one called us and met us up the road from our usual spot in Columbia, still in PJs. New trail name: PJ. Her alarm went off, she just went back to sleep.
So, now that we had everyone – Sunshine, Jim (NoTrailName), Cowboy, Mouse, PJ and I were headed to the most famous trail town out there, Damascus. It was a 4 hour drive. They need to move this AT thing closer to home. We covered 4 states though, pretty cool, SC, NC, TN, and VA.
So we arrive right on time at the store, and the guy is really anxious to get us on the van. I don’t know if he had another shuttle, or if he just wanted to shuttle us up and go home. I’m guessing it was the latter, because it seemed like we had the trail totally to ourselves all weekend. He drives us through Shady Valley, drops us off with a wave and rumbles off, leaving us looking across the field at the cow pasture.
So begins 10.5 miles of walking to Abingdon Gap shelter. We soon spread out like normal, with the racing group shooting on ahead, and the slower, out of shape ones in the back. The scenery was beautiful, wide open spaces with dustings of snow here and there from a recent trip. It was supposed to snow 4-6 inches, but they didn’t get much of anything. We were hoping to make camp before it rained, as it was supposed to rain in the evening, a last minute weather change posted the night before our trip. Cold isn’t bad. Rain isn’t bad. But cold AND rain just sucks, plus putting up a tent in the rain is just terrible.
We passed one shelter and stopped for a bite to eat and water collection. There weren’t many water sources along this section, some parts we’ve done, there’s water EVERYWHERE. This trip just had two decent sources, and one really crappy one. Even though I had some water, I filled up my two liter bag as a spare.
As the day rolled on, the blue sky dwindled and it got cloudier and nastier looking. About a mile from the shelter, the wind started picking up and it seemed to get colder. I could hear stuff falling in the trees and figured it was raining. Instead of rain though, I soon started getting hit with sleet of some type, large white balls of what looked like styrofoam pellets. I think that was nature’s way of saying, “you better hurry, dumbass”. I redoubled my efforts to reach camp, and the sleet/snow stuff stopped after a just a minute or so. When camp came into view though, it started back with renewed vigor. I picked a spot to hang my hammock as the sleet/snow mix picked up, and got my stuff hung just before the worst of it. By the time I was done, there was a quarter to a half inch covering in some places.
Dinner was quick in the open-sided shelter, which happened to be facing into the wind. I didn’t feel like eating a lot, but nice warm mashed potatoes and Chai tea felt good in the cold. It’s not often you sit outside in the snow drinking hot tea. Myself, Jim, and Sarah had tents we put up. Cowboy, PJ, Kim, and Mouse elected to sleep in the shelter itself. I’m not really into shelters, myself. They’re open sided so the roof is about the only advantage. Wind and cold still get in. Mice tend to congregate in them as well, and then there’s the ever present possibility that one of your sleeping partners may be a chronic snorer. I retired to the hammock after dark, intended to try and stay awake for a while.
That Wasn’t happening. I tried playing on my phone, and found I had a cell signal. I told the wife it was snowing on us and she said “you’re going to freeze!” I was already warm and snug in my 0 degree under and top quilts, so I was happy (just not looking forward to getting out in the morning).
Somewhere around 830 I realized I had forgotten to take my GORP bag (nuts and raisins) out of my pack and stick it with the rest of the food in the bear bag. It was still right next to me in the pack. I wasn’t about to get out and untie the frozen bear bag, so I just picked the GORP bag up and slung it as hard as I could, out into the woods (It was still there, untouched in the morning). The sleet and snow would come and go. It was funny to listen to, as it would build up a little on the hammock’s rainfly, and then something would shake it a bit and it would all slide off the side like a mini avalanche. Either that or I would smack the side with my hand and knock it off on purpose. I fell asleep before 9, exhausted.
Around 2am I was awaked by a rustling sound, that sounded like something was tearing through my tarp or pack. I turned the headlamp on, and it turned out one of my tarp end flaps had come loose and was blowing back and forth across the leaves. I was able to inch to one end to the hammock, trap the offending flap, and tie it crudely into place. I woke up again about 4 am to find my face cover had been removed (i must have done it in my sleep), and my face was cold. I pulled it back on and slept peacefully until 6 am, when I started hearing voices.
The nice thing about putting up the hammock in the snow was I pitched the tarp really low, to keep out blowing snow. Therefore my hammock was pretty low, too, which meant I could just roll to the side and reach out and put stuff in the pack without even getting up. I packed what I could and put on my down jacket and went to eat breakfast.
The problem was, even though the ground was warm enough to melt a good bit of the fallen ice, the tree upon which I hung my bag was not. The knot froze in place. I had to breather on it and work it loose with my teeth, which looked pretty silly, I’m sure. The bag was semi-frozen in the shape of a large ham, so even when I got it to the shelter’s table, it was tough to get the food in and out of it. I needed water, having used up the last bit of mine. As I was getting ready to leave, Sarah (who Sunshine had given the trail name “Bouncy” for the way she just seemed to bounce along effortlessly in front of us) asked if I would just take her bag, and I could fill mine from hers, at it held 6 liters. So I did… and soon figured out why people were making bargains with each other to get water.
Water was two tenths of a mile way the hell down a hill. Just getting there was difficult, then I filled a 6 liter bag with water and lugged it back up. By then I was plenty warmed up to hike, I took my 2 liters and went to pack the last bit of my stuff.
Mouse and PJ left first, Followed soon by Cowboy. Sunshine had just woken up and had to make food and pack her stuff. She threw up at one point and we got really worried about her, but after she threw up she said she felt better. I know that feeling – Hello Hot Springs trip.
Once Sunshine was packed, Jim and I headed off just in front of her and Bouncy. I expected to see Bouncy pass us in a flash at any moment, but she and Sunshine stuck together. It seemed like a LONG trek out of the woods. I guess it felt that way because we had to get back to town and drive home, so we were sort of racing the clock. I much prefer relaxing easy second days, so maybe I’ll plan a shorter mileage second day in the future. We finally hit the Tennessee/Virginia line, and Jim had waited on me, so we could take pictures at the sign on the trail. The sign said Damascus was only 3.5 miles ahead, which was a relief, and I knew that after this point, most of the trek would be downhill towards town.
I thought I did pretty good, keeping Jim in sight for a ways. We would leapfrog each other at some points. Finally about a mile from town I had to sit and rest and eat something. He went on ahead and that’s the last I saw of him. Coming into Damascus was quite a treat. I was relieved to see flat ground, I was tired and smelly and my feet hurt. But when I walked under the “Welcome to Damascus” arch, I felt a connection with all the trail hikers before me that had come the same way. It was a surreal experience. My final half mile was through town back to the parking lot where the car was. I changed clothes and sat for about fifteen minutes, and Bouncy and Sunshine walked into view.
After a short rest in the sun and packing the car, Bouncy chose a place to eat and we had some pretty good post-trail food. We all must have been a bit dehydrated, because for the whole drive home no one had to stop and pee. Winter hiking is like that – you don’t seem to feel thirst as much for some reason.
Finally home, and now everything that had been frozen (bear bag, tarp, etc) in my pack had thawed out well, wetting a lot of my stuff. Time to dry out and plan the next adventure.
Video is Here: