Central Virginia: Embracing the Cold

The cold temperatures have been a swift kick in the butt after a summer of near-perfect weather during my thru-hike. These are my strategies for adapting.

Lean on the tramily

I loved hiking solo for the first 1,200 miles, but it certainly made the difficult days (rainy ones, injuries, my noro stint at the Yellow Deli, etc.) more difficult. Now that nights have consistently been in the 20s and 30s, I’m grateful to get into camp each day with Sincerity, Breezy, and Sonic. Here’s the crew, minus me, at Tinker Cliffs:

The mental and physical support has been vital. If someone gets into camp early, they start a fire. If someone else gets in late, there are other bear lines already set up. Food and treats are readily shared. Long, chilly trips to the stream for water at the end of the day can be divided among fewer people.

And the comic relief is invaluable. When getting up in the morning, we laugh as each person transitions from laying prone in their warm sleeping bag, muscles and tendons impossibly tight, to standing up with a groan in the frigid dawn air. The cold sleepers like Sonic (he sleeps with a 15-degree bag, two liners, a puffy, and two shirts, pairs of socks, and pairs of pants) are a hilarious juxtaposition against me in my 25-degree bag with shorts and T-shirt two feet away.

Misery loves company. Especially in the cold.

Suit Up

From 80-degree days in Shenandoah to 25-degree nights in the Blue Ridge Mountains, my attire has shifted a bit from Oct. 7…

to Oct. 16.

My strategy changed from using only a couple of items throughout the week to wearing everything in my clothing bag on a daily basis. Once out of the sleeping bag, the first mile or two start with two pairs of socks, leggings, shorts, T-shirt, long sleeve, puffy, rain shell, hat, and gloves. The bandana keeps my nose from freezing as I do my morning stretches.

Keep It Moving

Less stopping, shorter breaks, faster pace—especially if it’s raining. This has been a bit of a bummer, as I had finally developed the daily habit of taking time to clear my head since Vermont. One of my favorite parts of the day was to sit down with a nice view for half an hour and use meditation to be present in the moment.

Now, mornings are an exercise in efficiency. Layer up in the sleeping bag, eat breakfast before getting out, and then pack your bag and use the privy before your fingers, toes, and nose go numb. Lunches are quicker, reducing the likelihood of sweat cooling and muscles seizing. Without a campfire, dinner time becomes a race to the sleeping bag as the sun sets and temperatures drop.

I have some empathy for the early-start Nobos who dealt with the cold in March/April and then the rain for weeks on end. For anyone considering a Sobo thru-hike, an early June start might give you the opportunity to beat the cold (I started July 8).

But while cold weather has been an adjustment, Virginia has still been fun—the Priest, Spy Rock, Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob, Dragon’s Tooth—all with beautiful fall foliage and terrain that’s easy on the joints. And then there are plenty of moments when a beautiful landscape pops up when I least expect it.

Below are my daily entries from the past couple of weeks. Enjoy!

Hurricane Aftermath (Friday, Oct. 12)

Our first day out of Waynesboro, we had beautiful weather, but the trail was a wreck. Huge, downed trees barricaded the trail every mile, and smaller debris more frequently littered the path. Lots of stepping over, trudging around, and sucking under. I did some night hiking to the next shelter and later found out that Sonic called it an early day after falling down a few times.

A bit of night hiking got me to a shelter with a good bunch of people out for the weekend. They had a fire lit—score! It got chilly, so I hunkered down for the night, having lost Sin, Sonic, and Breezy somewhere behind.

Climbing the Priest and Cowboy Camping on Spy Rock (Saturday, Oct. 13)

This turned into a beautiful day. It’s consistently chilly now, with day temperatures in the 40s and 50s. Stopping for more than 20 minutes can lead to cold toes and fingers, along with a chill up the spine induced by cooling sweat.

After warming up on an uphill, I picked a decent spot for a morning meditation with nice views of the Priest, my afternoon destination.

The Priest is a popular mountain for Virginia hikers, with beautiful views and a shelter that contains a logbook of hikers’ confessions from the trail. Each entry starts with “Forgive me father for I have sinned,” followed by a funny story. The funny ones mostly involve peeing, pooping, or having sex in odd spots on the Appalachian Trail. The more serious ones reveal demons that people are walking off over these 2,190 miles.

I headed for Spy Rock for the night, where Sonic has told me he was heading. It has 360-degree views, and the forecast was staying clear. In other words, the perfect opportunity for cowboy camping (no tent, just your sleeping bag).

Spy Rock was packed with weekenders. Some thru-hikers dread the weekend—too much civilization in the woods. I love it! On the way up to the rock, two girls (students in nursing school) offered me some beef jerky. Then, when I spotted four guys drinking beer around a fire, I strategically asked them the weather forecast (I knew the forecast), and when they found out I was thru-hiking, they told me to come back later for sausages and beer. Awaiting the sunset on Spy Rock, a couple offered me some whiskey (the guy had thru-hiked the year before), so I watched the sunset with some fire in my belly.

After some delicious sausages and great conversation with the guys from the campsite, I climbed back up to the rock with my pack and laid my sleeping pad and bag under the stars.

A Long Day (Sunday, Oct. 14)

A cloudy sky obscured the sunrise, although a slit of bright purple peaked through on the horizon. It started to drizzle, and with 45-degree weather, I hiked down from the rock. I wasn’t quite sure what I would do if it got really cold and wet. Normally, I would just take off my shirt and hike in my quick-dry running shorts, but this wasn’t really an option anymore.

Luckily, the rain held off and gave way to fog, and I pushed for 28 miles. As I was waiting in the shelter that night, Sonic showed up, having pushed 32 miles to catch up to me. I got him water, hung the bear bag, and, most importantly, hung up the Halloween lights while he ate a late dinner. Teamwork makes the thru-hiking dream work. 😉

Glasgow (Monday, Oct. 15)

We hiked out in the morning, with the fog filling the valleys between the mountains.

I started to feel pain in my leg coming back from my pre-hike running injury, and since we hadn’t taken a nero in a while, we decided on a half day in Glasgow. There, we met back up with Breezy and Sin, got dinner, and made plans to head out the next day.

A Tramily Forming (Tuesday, Oct. 16, and Wednesday, Oct. 17)

At this point, Sin, Sonic, Breezy, and I had been hiking together for several days. A solid crew, and a spread of ages (24, 37, 52, and 30, respectively), we’d fallen into a nice routine of leap-frogging each other throughout the day and then settling in at the shelter and building a fire at night.

One of the most important traits in hiking partners is positivity—surrounding yourself with people who still get excited about the trail each day. This group is fun to be around, and the camaraderie has been vital as it has gotten colder.

Barbecue and a New Phone (Thursday, Oct. 18)

We all hiked into Daleville this morning and bee-lined for the Three L’il Pigs BBQ. Also, my phone had finally given up two days earlier, so the Verizon store across the plaza was a welcome sight.

My parents, meanwhile, have left for their three-day road trip along the trail. They visited Bear Mountain and Delaware Water Gap today and will be getting up early tomorrow to cruise Skyline Drive in Shenandoah on their way down to meet me. I am excited to see them!

After two hours in the Verizon store, I walked out with a new iPhone 8, swearing I would be more careful with it on the trail than my dead iPhone 6. Leaving town later than the others, I caught the sunset over a beautiful lake before night hiking to the shelter.

Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob, and a Visit from My Parents (Friday, Oct. 19)

The day we’ve been looking forward to. Despite the long distance of the AT, there is always a big milestone on the horizon. Tinker Cliffs, McAfee Knob, and Dragon’s Tooth are called the Triple Crown of Virginia—beautiful spots with excellent views of the surrounding landscape. And on this day, I was so grateful to share the experience with friends.

We began the quarter-mile trek along Tinker Cliffs in the morning.

Then, we marched on to the most photographed spot on the Appalachian Trail—McAfee Knob. This piece of cliff juts out over a sprawling landscape with a dizzying drop below. Classic!

Then, we finished up 18 miles to meet my parents, who made their third visit to me on the trail. 😁 They took three days to do a driving tour of the trail—Bear Mountain, Boiling Springs, Skyline Drive in Shenandoah, and Harpers Ferry. They found my halfway photo in the book at the ATC.

They picked up Sonic, Sin, and me. After a massive all-you-can-eat meal at The Home Place, we crashed at the hotel.

Thanks, mom and dad. 🙂

Dragon’s Tooth (Saturday, Oct. 20)

A late start from the hotel took us to Dragon’s Tooth after just a few miles. This massive boulder is a popular day hike, and it was pretty crowded on a cool fall day. Some of us were brave enough to climb to the top (almost).

The rest of the day was a lot of uphill but also some beautiful tall trees with the sun shining through.

Colder and Colder (Sunday, Oct. 21, and Monday, Oct. 22)

Still cold! We keep hoping for the warmer weather but waking up to frigid mornings. These days took us through some beautiful spots, but we’re not taking many breaks and getting into our sleeping bags faster at night.

My Favorite Shelter (Tuesday, Oct. 23)

Sometimes, the trail gives you a gift at just the right moment. After several cold days and nights, we wrapped up another full day by entering a clearing just above Pearisburg. Rice Field Shelter sat just off trail here, and we caught an amazing sunset as we ate dinner.

Trendy in my long johns? Thanks.

We lit a fire back at the shelter, looking forward to a short hike to Pearisburg the following morning.

Pearisburg (Wednesday, Oct. 24)

There was a bit of snoring in the shelter, so I cowboy camped in the field. The stars were visible but slightly obscured by the brightest full moon I’ve seen on trail. I woke every few hours to see it just a bit farther along in the October night sky.

Then, a sunrise in my sleeping bag.

After the short hike in, Sonic and I snagged a private room at Angels Rest Hiker’s Haven. After a massive margarita and an afternoon nap, we were fully resupplied and ready to go.

Haunted Shelter? (Thursday, Oct. 25)

We hiked out late today, resulting in an hour or two of night hiking. Another full moon made headlamps almost unnecessary.

Then, we stopped at Wapiti Shelter, and Sonic told me not to read comments from Guthook, which, of course, I proceeded to read.

Sadly, two hikers were murdered at the shelter a few years back. There have been claims of hauntings, but we managed to sleep through a very chilly night unbothered. Fortunately, stories like that of the murder are very rare on trail.

Cold Rain or Motel? Easy Call (Friday, Oct. 26)

Forty degrees and rain all day. This is the type of weather that can being on hypothermia if you’re not careful.

We hiked two miles and then split a motel room four ways in Bland, VA, between Sonic, Griffin, Rhody, and me. It’s truly satisfying to watch it rain all afternoon on your day off. 🙂

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