The Donner Party Hike Review…

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Damn early in the morning on February 3rd, 8 of us left Columbia, SC to head up to Damascus, Virginia. It’s amazing to me that parts of Virginia are that close, as it was only a 4 hour drive. We had planned a 3 day hike in February, in part because the winter here has been so mild.

A few days out I checked the weather, and found it was supposed to be down around 20 the first night. Cold, yes, but not completely unbearable. Two days later I checked again. The weather was supposed to be 15 degrees and windy, with temperatures all day Saturday right around Freezing. Then I changed the name of the hike from the sublime “AT Hike into Damascus Southbound” to the more intimidating “Donner Party Hike”. Surprisingly we only had one drop out at that point, due to illness.

Our shuttle dropped the 8 of us at the AT Crossing at Elk Garden, along Virginia Highway 600. It was the last time we would see people until Sunday at lunch.

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Hiking were (back) Thomas, Mike, Me, Michelle, Leslie, Dorothy, Jim, and Paul (in front).

Even though we started at around 4500 feet, we had to ascend to just over 500 and cross the balds at Whitetop Mountain. The wind was cold and at times relentless, and snow covered parts of the landscape around us. The rest of the afternoon was spent mainly going downhill towards Lost Mountain Shelter, with a stop in the middle of the trip for lunch.

I normally don’t cook lunch on the trail, but I heated some water and made a hot drink and ate my cliff bar, trying to stay warm. I fell behind like usual, looking for geocaches and generally enjoying myself. I tend to try and wander into camp right about dinner time so there’s not much down time.

When I was about a mile from shelter I ran into the rest of them, everyone had stopped by a small creek, and had set camp up. A group decision had been made to abandon going uphill to shelter, in favor of a campsite lower on the mountain, close to water. It turned out to be a good move.

Temperatures seemed to be dropping rapidly (or maybe we were sweaty and now we were standing still) as we set up our stuff and made food.

My choice of meal was the AlpineFAire Mesquite BBQ Chicken and Rice. I don’t really recommend splitting it up the way I did. I got too much sauce in mine, so it was like a little chicken and rice in a bowl of kraft BBQ Sauce. It was way too thick. I didn’t eat the other half the next night. My Squishy Bowl smelled like BQ sauce for the rest of the trip.

After dinner we hung around the smoldering fire of mostly fireproof wood, and then retreated to the warmth of our tents. It was cold at first, but after fighting the hammock into submission and getting my covers just right, I had to get out and fix my underquilt because my butt was cold. Then I got all comfortable again and had to get out and pee an hour later. Finally, blissful sleep.

If you’ve never woken up to ice crystals on the inside of your tent, you’re missing out on something. My Taco Wrap hammock performed admirably. The little mesh window worked great, but at some point in the night seemed to ice up a bit. And when I rolled over away from it, I breathed right against the wall of the tent, making another small ice sheet, which froze the edge of my down covers to the side of the tent.

When I finally heard Thomas getting a fire going, I got up and peed again. It was cold. Really really cold. Jim told us the temperature was ten degrees by his hammock. One of our party didn’t want to get up until it was warmer. Twenty minutes later she was told the thermometer now read near 7 degrees, so she might as well get up.

Breakfast consisted of my first successful trailside pancakes, coffee, and bacon bits that I warmed up in my little pan. It was the best trail breakfast I think I’ve ever done.

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We strolled out of camp about 830 or so, having a shorter day and all day to do it. The first trudge was up the hill over a mile to Lost Mountain Shelter. It was a nice big campsite, but situated on a hilltop without much protection from the wind. The Privy would have been nice, and we never checked the water source, so I don’t know if it was flowing or not. I explained our camping destination to the rest of the group, and people began spreading out like they tend to do. This day was a long and arduous one, up and down some sawtooth hills, including a series of short steep ups and downs that seemed designed as a leg workout. Thankfully the last part of the day was a mostly gentle downhill towards Feathercamp Branch. I ran into Michelle about halfway through the day, and we sat by the trail for lunch. I heated some water and made some tea. It was nice to make a hot drink and rest by the trail while trying to warm up.

Feathercamp was a nice surprise. I expected a little stream and maybe some cramped campsites, but it was a huge area right off the Virginia Creeper Trail, next to a river. Apparently popular in the summer, it was mostly abandoned now. As we set up, some rangers showed up and warned us about the fire danger and asked us general questions about where we were headed. They asked us to burn any trash that we happened to pick up, as people liked to come in and leave stuff lying around. It rubbed one of our group the wrong way, as they had a truck not 100 feet from the camping area (this part of the VA Creeper trail had a gravel walking/roadbed that they had driven on), and they could have easily hauled out a few things.

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The evening was much warmer, and the threatened rain never showed up. It sleeted on us sometime during the night, and melted everywhere except when it was on our tent covers. The last day was a hard climb up 700 feet over some hills, and then down over 1000 feet into Damascus. Somehow Michelle and I missed the split in the trail and went up and over the Iron Mountain trail. It was higher in elevation that the AT and the track took us maybe as much as a half mile longer. But when we realized the mistake, we also discovered that the trails converged again later, and stuck with it.

Damascus was a welcome relief, and we met everyone a few people at a time. Since it was just lunchtime, we stopped at a local place before heading home, and had a nice hot meal than didn’t come from a bag.

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Author: theosus1

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