3 Obvious Truths Last Weekend’s Shakedown Drove Home
- Pack weight matters.
- Food is important.
- Steep is long.
For a variety of mostly weather-related reasons it has been a little while since I’ve hiked any actual distance, and it’s been never since I’ve done so wearing more than 8-10 pounds worth of backpack. My start date is now just seven weeks away, and although I’ve been doing two 4-5-mile runs and three yoga sessions a week, that’s not enough training. Sunday, I finally got a chance to get serious.
For kicks and giggles, I decided to do it along the infamous “roller coaster,” about 13 miles of pure pointless ups and downs in Northern Virginia and West Virginia. I decided to park at Bear’s Den Hostel and hike south to Buzzard Hill and back—a 9-mile round trip. Nine miles is a short walk for a whole day—even a winter one—but I figured the hills and the pack would make it a really good conditioning hike.
I had done the exact hike before, back in summer when I carried nothing but water and snacks, back when I was doing long-ish day hikes on at least a weekly and sometimes a semi-weekly basis.
As I was getting ready to head out Sunday morning, Inti checked the radar. “Where, exactly, are you going?” he asked. When I told him he turned his laptop screen to face me. An ugly mass of green and yellow splotches were jumping across the screen from the west toward the trail. I slumped. But I’m stubborn.
I shrugged. “I can’t wait for the perfect day,” I said. Although I have a new raincoat, I don’t yet have a pack cover or rain pants. Nine miles seemed pretty short; I could take an umbrella (it’s actually a thing, the ultralight hiker umbrella—although mine is a normal weight nonhiker umbrella); the temperature was warm enough—mid-50s; and I wasn’t camping.
“Even if all my clothes get soaked through, the worst that’ll happen is that I’ll be uncomfortable for a few hours and then come home to get warm and dry,” I said.
For whatever reason, “short” really stuck in my head—maybe it’s the recent and frequent anticipation of 14-, 16-, and 18-20-mile days a few months down the road. Also, I’ve recently started a diet (I want to shave some weight now to protect my knees on the hike). Combine my decreased recent caloric intake with my concept of nine miles as middling, and I packed only leftover scrambled eggs from breakfast, an ounce of dried apple, a handful of hazelnuts, and a banana. I also had an Alpine Aire spicy sausage meal in my backpack from my last trip, and I left that there for emergency.
The rain started as I was rolling down the gravel driveway to Bear’s Den. I watched as a group of boys and men scrambled into a few minivans and pulled out in a hurry, and I wrinkled my nose at the prospect of STARTING in this wetness. It was coming down steadily, and there was a flash of lightning.
But okay. Gotta get used to it, right? Gotta learn what works, what doesn’t. My future’s got dozens upon dozens of rain-filled trail days. No time like the present to start figuring this shit out.
I had on a cotton tank top (I know cotton is a poor idea because it doesn’t wick moisture, but who’s going to sweat on a cool, rainy day?), a thin synthetic hoodie, and a thin down vest. Over this I zipped on my rain jacket. The rain lightened a bit as I got out of the car, strapped myself into my pack, extended my trekking poles, and set off.
The picture makes obvious the reason for this trail segment’s nickname. I set out from the right edge, where the little hostel icon is; as you can see, the first two miles were easy-peasy.
After the first quarter mile or so of going through steady rain, although I was staying dry in my raincoat, I started to worry about my pack contents, so I stashed one pole and took out the umbrella. I didn’t mind carrying it at all, and I got used to using one pole instead of two. I switched off which hand carried the pole and which carried the umbrella. Nice, I thought. This is good. This is working. My pack wasn’t completely covered by the umbrella, and my tent, strapped to the outside, got wet, but I watched the beading and concluded that the tent bag was waterproof. Win!
Somewhere in the second mile, I had my first snack-and-pee break, in which I learned some of the endless difficulties brought to a hiker courtesy of rain: Where to set the pack? How to hold the umbrella while peeling and eating a banana? How to pull up one’s pants one-handed? How poor an umbrella-holder does one’s chin make? Still and all my spirits were high—it wasn’t cold, and woods-magic (that peaceful, easy feeling) was doing its work.
I came to the first stream crossing just as the rain was letting up. I’d evidently not given the stream any thought at all the last time I’d crossed it because the fact that it posed a challenge now surprised me. Then again, we’ve had a lot of precipitation the last few weeks.
I put away my umbrella and unlatched my pack (I had read this was what you did in order not to be drowned by it if you fell in). I stepped tentatively out onto the log, but the distance between the last overwater part of the log and the rock just looked like too much. I could try to jump it, but the log was slippery; my back foot wouldn’t get any traction. The pack, unlatched, felt unwieldy and loose. I didn’t feel stable at all, so I backed out and stood on the shore thinking and glancing up and down for alternatives. Downstream, two logs had fallen across in close proximity. The first was low on my side and angled up, meeting a very steep, muddy bank on the other side. It crossed the stream about five feet above it and was much wider than the first log I’d tried to cross. The other tree was high on my side and angled down, meeting the bank right at the water’s edge on the other side.
I climbed up onto the higher of the two trees because it hit the far-side bank higher. I took two steps and realized the lunacy of this plan. I knew that had the tree been on the ground, I could easily have walked its length without falling off, but the fact it was five feet above cold water and hard rocks stopped me short. I backed out again and wondered if this would be a 3-mile day instead of a 9-mile one.
But as luck would have it, another hiker showed up just then (I hadn’t seen a soul in more than an hour). He was on the other side, saw me looking stuck, took a look at the usual crossing, and came down to where I was. “I think this’ll work,” he shouted across, indicating the lower log. His progress down the bank looked treacherous—it was ladder-against-a-wall steep, and of course muddy—but once he stepped out onto the log he was across in no time flat and I saw that it really was pretty easy.
“I’ll stay to make sure you get across,” he said.
“You’ll fish me out if I don’t?” We laughed. But then I crossed quickly and easily, too, feeling slightly chagrined at how daunting it had originally seemed. I waved and we called to each other to enjoy our hikes, and once I had (horrifically awkwardly) climbed up the bank and found a boulder with a nice, flat top, I decided it was a good place and time for eggs, so I stood eating them with a plastic spoon and watching while not one, not two, not three, but four other hikers—and a dog—approached and crossed the stream at the original crossing me without so much as a moment’s pause or consideration. You know that plink-plink-plink sound you hear when dainty animals hop along in cartoons? That’s the exact sound I heard in my head as they step-step-stepped across. I just shook my head while I stood there. Schooled.
The next climb was the longest and steepest of the day, and I worked up a sweat, stopped often to catch my breath, and regretted wearing cotton. At the summit of that peak, I pulled out my phone and decided to have a look at my brand new AT app, Guthook’s Hiking Guide. I had shelled out $60 for it the day before and was eager to see just how helpful or not it was. I figured I was probably four fifths of the way to Buzzard Hill, and wanted to confirm this and have a look at the terrain. From my fuzzy memory of the hike last summer, I suspected I had one more descent and one more ascent.
Guthook said it wasn’t so. I had hiked a mere 2.5 miles and had another full 2.0 to go. This was disheartening, and, considering how exhausted I was from the climb, more discouraging was the fact that I had not one but two more descents and ascents. (Incidentally, the guide was amazeballs—it has GPS and told me exactly how far it was to Buzzard Hill when I tapped on the binocular icon. It also showed me the elevation profile exactly, and has a USGS topographic map overlay. Not sure what my GPS signal will be along a lot of the trail, but the maps themselves are all downloaded and I can say officially that as of now, I heart the Guthook Guide.)
That’s a lot more hiking, I thought. Nine miles is not a short hike, I realized, not when it’s all vertical and not when you’re carrying 20 pounds. I looked at the time—half past noon. I had been hiking two hours already? And had gone just two and a half miles? Whoa. I normally hike about two miles an hour, two and a half if it’s not too hilly. True, I had stopped twice and lollygagged a lot, but this was a shocking pace.
Decision time: Could I make it another two grueling miles out, plus another equally grueling 4.5 miles back to the car? At my present rate, that would have me hiking in the dark, not an inconceivable prospect, as I had packed a headlamp, but not exactly a pleasant one, either. I was tired already. But, I reasoned, I have my Sawyer filter, there’s plenty of water along the way, and if I get really hungry I can cook my spicy sausage—I had the Jetboil. I really needed the training, and I really wanted to push myself, to really feel this hike, to come home in stunned disbelief at how hard my body was capable of working, how long it could keep going. I took a deep breath and I set off toward Buzzard Hill.
About half a mile on it was time to pee again. I was getting a bit warm, too, so I stripped down and was alarmed at how soaked with sweat every one of my layers was. I used a dry corner of the cotton tank to wipe sweat from my underarms and underboobs, and pulled on a clean, dry synthetic jacket over my bare skin. I was beyond happy to have the jacket. I strapped three of the wet layers to my pack so they could dry as I walked, stuffed the rain jacket into an outer mesh pocket, and went on.
I managed to make it the two miles to Buzzard Hill by one forty-five, faster but not much faster than my previous pace, and the feeling of accomplishment at the top was glorious. The last climb got me good and hot, so I took off my one layer and enjoyed letting the breeze dry my sweat. I drank the last of my water and finished my dried apple and hazelnuts, and then the sun came out for ten minutes. My body hurt and was exhausted and I still had to do it all over again, but I allowed myself to soak in the rest and the sun and to drink in the hazy view of beautiful Virginia.
Then I got going. I stopped a lot to consult Guthook, and this gave me a lot of peace—knowing what was ahead and how brutal the next ascent would be compared to the one before it and the one after. At the Sam Moore Shelter and Sawmill Spring I stopped for water and contemplated cooking my spicy sausage. I didn’t feel hungry, but I was weary and wondered how tough the last two climbs would be without fuel. It was now three-thirty, I had three miles to go, and sunset would be at five fifty-four.
The Sawyer worked great but it did take a bit of work and time to squeeze the water through the filter. The spicy sausage would take a while to cook, and it was going to be messy, and frankly it felt like too much trouble and time. Although in theory headlamp hiking was doable, the idea of losing the trail and getting stuck in the woods overnight without a sleeping bag simply frightened me too much. I really, really wanted to reach my car before sunset, so I tossed the Sawyer, the Alpine Aire package, the Jetboil, and all the other junk I’d had to remove to find them back into the pack and set off up the next ascent.
The next two hours and a quarter were unpleasant. I was exhausted to the point of stumbling. I was hungry. It was getting dark. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. I tried to pay really close attention to the trail at all times, but even so I got off once and was taken aback by how easy it was to lose the path.
The reason for the roller coaster is how narrow AT’s easement is through this part of Northern Virginia. The tiny width means there’s not enough leeway for switchbacks, which makes the climbs brutally steep. Looking at Guthook’s topographical maps, I cursed this repeatedly—it would be so nice to skirt this hill, wouldn’t it? But noooo, the AT has to take the steepest route up it and has to go alllll the way to its tippy-top, most pointy part, doesn’t it?
I stopped to catch my breath so frequently that it felt I was barely making progress. I stood there panting as if I had been sprinting. Despite how wrung out I felt in my body, though, my spirit stayed mostly upbeat. I would eventually finish. I would eventually get into my car and drive to where there was a sandwich. I would eventually be home, showered, fed, and in bed. And I would damn sure get a good night’s sleep.
With all these thoughts on my mind, inch by painstaking inch I made the final final ascent to Bear’s Den. When I fell into my car it was dark enough to turn on the headlights but still bright enough to see the shapes of the trees across the gravel lot; I had beat the sunset by exactly 10 minutes.
So what made it so hard, compared with the difficult-but-not-exactly-epic first time I traveled the same route? Of course this wasn’t a controlled experiment, but the most noticeable difference was the (only 20-pound!) pack. I’ve been watching the ultra-light folks in AT forums discussing with no apparent irony the vital importance of shaving down ounces, and I’ve nodded along, assuming they must know what they’re talking about, but also thinking—how bad is an extra couple pounds really?
My pack didn’t feel especially heavy (at 20 pounds, it wasn’t), but carrying one felt very different from not. I love my pack; it’s super well balanced and infinitely adjustable and has a structure that seems just brilliant, plus overall it’s comfortable. But it weighs almost 4 pounds empty, and there are backpacks that weigh a fraction of that. After just a few outings, I’m attached to my pack already, but I am willing to concede that to save a pound or more, an REI exchange might be in order.
I’m starting to really get the principal thru-hiker dilemma of weight versus comfort. I loved having the umbrella while it rained, and I loved having a dry layer to change into, but how much less miserable would my last two miles have been if I hadn’t carried them? If only I knew the exact algorithm to determine whether those comforts are worth whatever percentage of my exhaustion is caused by their added weight? I suspect my thru-hike (and those of many others) will be a 2,000-mile calculus to discover just that.
Beyond Sunday’s hike’s three big takeaways, the roller coaster ride gave me the gift of excitement, again. Its difficulties did nothing whatsoever to mute my enthusiasm. I simply cannot believe I am so lucky and privileged that I will get to do this every single day for a hundred and fifty days (give or take), starting in seven short weeks! Yip!
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