Cold Is All

The Enemy

Let’s talk about cold.

Cold like you’ve never experienced for a length of time you didn’t think you’d survive. Cold with permutations you’d never contemplated. Cold that shrank your world to one idea: itself. Cold that seeped into not just every part of your body but every corner of your mind until nothing was left.

Cold that made your decisions for you.

Cold that canceled your ability to do anything but want to not be cold.

The Outing

From the time I got out of my car at the Hawksbill Gap parking along Skyline Drive in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park Saturday afternoon at three p.m. until the time I got back into it Sunday morning at eleven-thirty, the amount of time that I was not completely consumed with how cold I was adds up to maybe five hours: the one hour we were walking uphill to the Hawksbill Overlook, the one hour I was drinking hot water and whiskey practically on top of the campfire, and the three hours I was asleep.

Why so cold? They say, “There is no bad weather, only bad gear,” and I used to believe them, but either my body deals exceptionally poorly with the cold or my hundreds of dollars’ worth of gear really was bad.

In a sparkling example of Trail Magic, a friend I had met only on Facebook, trail name Brave, added me to her backpacking group and invited me out for a winter trip. I confessed to her I had only car camped, not backpacked, and had only 3-season gear, but she said she could work with that. She sent out a detailed list of what to bring, heaps of advice for handling a winter overnight, and coordinates for a meetup.

Shortly after I did, she arrived at the parking lot with two other newbies, Tim and Daniel, and her awesome dog, Maddie. Even though we’d never met, we instinctively hugged our first in-person greeting. She exuded so much joy and peace and friendly happiness that it would have felt weird to shake hands.

We organized our gear and set off up the hill. For that ascent—three quarters of a mile—I warmed up. The trail was rocky, icy, and steep, and it was my first time carrying 30+ pounds, so my core heated quickly and all was well. Then we arrived at the overlook and took in the vista. Tim, a true photographer, set up his tripod, and Brave pointed out Old Rag in the distance.

Old Rag from Hawksbill Overlook

Old Rag from Hawksbill Overlook

But the three-quarters of a mile from there to the shelter was downhill, and my body cooled. I stashed my poles because cold fingers couldn’t hold them properly. I tore into my first package of Hotties handwarmers, tucked them into my mittens, and put my fists in my pockets. That brought feeling back to my hands, but my toes remained as painful ice sticks.

As we walked, we engaged in the desultory chit-chat of people who share a passion but no history. We joked a little. We learned a bit about each other. And we sorted ourselves into walking order—Daniel, an intriguing dude who wears his beard in two pigtails and carries a walking-stick with a terrifyingly sharp ax-head on the tip, strode out in front with his old-school, external-frame, hilariously huge backpack. I came after Daniel in my many layers. Brave was next, all colorful bandana and warm-heartedness, calling “Maddie, come!” every fifty yards or so to bring her pup back onto the path. Trailing behind due to the magnificent camera equipment weighing him down was Tim.

Photo credit: Brave. Meme credit: Brent "Wander" Borgemeister

Photo credit: Brave. Meme credit: Brent “Wander” Borgemeister

Going the journey suchlike, we took in the gorgeous quiet and we watched the sky changing—getting our sunset views through sparse black branches, enjoying the pink glow given back by the snow. Beautiful as it all was, I found it impossible not to panic about the coming night. It’s one thing to tolerate cold for a period with an end in sight: I’ve done that on countless long-distance runs, thinking always about the finish, the hot shower at home. On this trip though, the finish was the next day. I had never used my sleeping bag, never spent the night outside in temperatures less than 40 degrees. I was hopeful that once I snuggled in, technology would take over, but I wasn’t certain.

Worth it?

Worth it?

The Shelter

We came soon to a turnoff and could see down the hillside the back of a tiny log-cabin-looking structure, smoke rising from the other side of it—a campfire, goody!—and a lone, orange-jacketed figure waving to us (this turned out to be Pizza Brains, who had hiked a good deal farther than we and arranged with Brave to meet us there).

A most welcome sight

A most welcome sight

We tromped down the hill, losing the trail because of snow cover and stepping heel-first any which path to get us to the bottom, where we met Pizza Brains and James, a section-hiker who had been out one night already and was largely responsible for the fire.

The famous arrival at the shelter! I had heard about how epically grateful hikers feel on finishing a day’s journey and enjoying rest and relaxation. We hadn’t hiked much distance though, so my cheer was warmth rather than rest related. It seemed possible the fire would do its job and that we would soon get into our bags, whip out the whiskey and cards, and be snug as bugs. It seemed possible, but also, I just didn’t know.

It being my first shelter arrival, I had no setup protocol. Thank god for Brave’s guidance: I needed to lay out my bag so the down would fluff up and keep me warmer. I needed to eat something hot and fatty.

Brave, Pizza Brains, and Daniel walked down to the spring to fill up water and came back out of breath and warm—recommending to the rest of us that it was a great way to get toasty. This made rational sense to me, but I didn’t need water, and although I wanted to be toasty, the thought of the pain it would have caused my frozen toes to get down that hill kept me fireside.

Thinking about the evening now—just one day later as I write this—is like trying to remember a drunken night, though I was far from drunk. Cold, not liquor, numbed me. Cold, and thoughts about how to mitigate it, overtook every aspect of my being, influenced every decision, from whether to journal (nope—too far from the fire) to how many pictures to take (practically none—hurt my fingers too much to get them out of the mittens), to whether to pee (waited way longer than I should have).

To be sure, the cold was a source of discomfort and amusement for everyone—Brave warmed up her wipes at the fire before taking them up to the privy, most everyone set out our sleeping clothes on the rocks by the fire—but it seemed to affect me on a different scale. I wasn’t exactly miserable; more like stunned.

One bright side of the eclipsing nature of the cold is that nothing else really concerned me that night. They say thru-hiking boils it all off, strips everything down so you can see what really matters. Mercifully, I won’t experience temperatures on my thru-hike anywhere near what I did Saturday night, but I did get a glimpse of how getting back to basics can render ordinary annoyances impotent. Typical me might have obsessed about getting a good night’s sleep, all too aware of how grumpy I get when sleep deprived. Typical me would have been troubled by the fact I couldn’t stretch my legs apart in my sleeping bag. Typical me might even have fretted about the number of calories, lack of vegetables, and fact that the rice was white instead of brown in my Alpine Aire dehydrated pepper beef dish (“a luxury item” anyway, Pizza Brains pointed out). But my consumption by the cold rendered all that irrelevant. (Which begs a question: Is the only way to make these objectively silly things not matter to immerse yourself in a survival experience?)

I did manage to lay out the down, I did manage to cook the pepper beef, and I did manage to toss a Nalgene full of boiling water into my bag. Importantly, I boiled water to mix with whiskey, which fueled another hour of freedom from feeling cold. That was a happy hour, chatting with the others, side-stepping and cursing the smoke with the wind’s shifts, learning thru-hiking tips from Pizza Brains and Brave, dishing about films starring John Cusack and/ or Malkovich, and gazing with marvel at the truly spectacular, starry night sky.

Photo credit: Tim Rifenberg

Photo credit: Tim Rifenberg

The Night

But then the whiskey and water was gone, and first James and then Tim peeled away to tuck in, and I became aware once again of my frozen feet. It was time to see just what a 650-fill down bag was capable of.

Soooo, claustrophobia. Nothing epic, nothing that requires sedation to travel through a tunnel. But I have it. Always have. So I already harbored a slight concern about the fact of a hood on a sleeping bag, the fact of a mummy bag in general. Pile on a movement-restricting number of layers, a hat pulled down over my ears, a neck gaiter pulled up over my mouth, and the need not just to wear the hood but to cinch it as tight as possible? Let’s just say I might need to take some Valium if I ever camp in such low temperatures again. Two Tylenol P.M. were not up to the task.

I got this.

I got this.

Sleep didn’t come, of course, but I didn’t expect it anytime soon. There was snoring and there were voices by the fire, muted only a bit by the ear plugs, and moreover there was negotiating with an entirely new sleep system—which way to lie, how much I could bend my knees if I were on my side, how tightly I could cinch the hood and still manage my claustrophobia. Inside the down caccoon, my toes thawed and my fingers finally functioned.

I lay there for about an hour and decided to pee once more before I fell asleep. Soon after that, the others came in and I heard their settling in noises, and then it was just the snoring, the cold, and me.

The Hypothermia Scare … and the Rescue

At about 1:00 a.m. I started feeling I might have to pee again—and dreading this. Also, the bag felt like it had lost a lot of heat. Paradoxically, I felt somewhat cozy. I tried ignoring the need-to-pee sensation and hoped I would drift off. However, the reduced heat in the bag was less ignorable, cozy feeling notwithstanding. My brain felt fuzzy and I remembered those movies where people strip off their clothes on the top of frozen mountains in the final stages of hypothermia. Was I going mad? A shiver started in my belly and ran down my left leg. That can’t be good. At the same time, I actually felt pleasant, and let my thoughts wander. I marveled at the many ways to be cold: the frozen-feet-and-fingers discomfort I had outside by the fire, the weird shivering I was doing now, the chill you get when it’s 40 degrees and damp, the surface-level cool on my fatty parts—my hips and butt, that chill you got sometimes lying in bed before you fell asleep … and on my mind ambled, until I shivered again, only this time down both my legs—an uncontrollable shudder. Oh, dear. I need to fix this.

I had two more pairs of pants I could put on—another thin layer plus the hiking pants I had shed. I could put on my outer shell jacket. I could switch hats—my other hat came down more over the ears. I could reheat the water in my Nalgene. I could open up more Hotties. I could fuel my inner furnace by eating something. And of course I could pee. (Brave had explained how ridding yourself of urine improved your body’s thermal efficiency.)

I had a plan. Now, to get out of the bag and execute. I squirmed to uncinch and remove the hood and unzipped the bag three inches. Whoosh! The cold came at me like an ice-bucket challenge. Shit! I zipped back in: Nope nope nope nope.

I hunkered back and tried to talk myself into being warm and not needing to pee. Within minutes, though, the shivering was continual and I knew I simply had to get out make my plan happen. I took a deep breath of stale but warm air, unzipped, and strapped on my headlamp.

“Mathina?” I heard a whisper and turned to see Brave’s face framed by her bag’s hood and bathed in the dim red glow of my light.

“I can’t stop shivering,” I said. Now my teeth were chattering and my whole body shook. I fumbled to put on my mittens, slide out of the bag, and turn around to find my boots. “I was going to re-heat my water and … and” my teeth chattered too much to speak.

“Your core has lost too much heat,” she said. In a flash she was out of her bag and handing me something. “Eat this.”

It was a peppermint, the kind they give out at restaurants. I didn’t want a peppermint but I had enough sense to trust that Brave’s instructions were my way out of pain. I put it in my mouth, pulled on my other two pairs of pants, a down coat she handed me (she brought three), and my outer shell, laced up my boots, grabbed my Jetboil, and climbed outside. She was squatting in front of the fire pit striking a lighter. She stood and turned.

“How you doing?” She rubbed the sides of my arms. I was delirious, grateful to her for taking charge, and I hugged her. She said, “You are doing this, you are so. bad. ass.” We bounced in place; I was practically giddy.

For the next hour, we warmed up. She fed me hot chocolate, took me down to the spring. She walked with me up and down the hill, did jumping jacks with me. We ate trail mix, we peed again. I boiled water and re-filled my Nalgene, threw it back into the bag. My toes and fingers got stiff and frozen again, but the movement and calories were a miracle. I returned to feeling sane, and safe.

It was silent and still, the stars so bright I didn’t need my headlamp. The ground was frozen hardwood solid, the leaves brown and brittle, the snow crunchy hard.

Brave wrapped an emergency foil bivvy around my sleeping bag, and I hugged my Nalgene like it was a child. I slid it inside two of my top layers so it lay along my sternum. I held one Hottie in each hand, and I cinched down the hood and told myself I was not locked in; whenever I needed to, I could simply unzip. I took deep, slow breaths, counted on the exhales.

The Morning … and the Reflection

I got up once more to pee and walk up and down the hill at a quarter past four, and then, mercifully, I mostly slept until 7:30, when we all rose, heated and ate our breakfasts, packed up, and hiked out.

Photo credit: Brave.

Photo credit: Brave.

For a first backpacking trip, it was pretty epic. However, the cold’s all-encompassing effect on me made it a poor prelude to the thru-hike. I definitely did not enjoy it, and I definitely have no plans to ever sleep again in cold like that. On our walk back to the parking lot, I grilled Brave—she had known what she was getting into, and still she planned and executed the trip. Why?

“I love it,” she said. “I love the outdoors, love nature.”

I love the outdoors and nature, too, and maybe I simply had bad gear, but the cold was so ruthless that I can’t get my head around ever wanting to do it again.

Am I glad I went? No question. From my warm living room today, I can feel retroactive wonder and delight at the beauty of the woods and the company of marvelous strangers. I get it—that thru-hiker thang, that instant-friendship acceptance of other humans as they are, that stripped-down simplicity of people sharing space and time without social jockeying.

Plus, you can’t deny the confidence that comes from earning 15-degree overnighter, bad-ass creds. I know I’ll survive any temperature the AT can give me from April to October, because I survived that.

This lady saved me

Brave, in blue. The lady who saved me

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Comments 26

  • Avatar
    Brenda : Feb 10th

    You Rock! Thanks for sharing…I am so glad you made it through the night … I love hiking … but I don’t do cold well either! Sew that badge on your pack and move on …good luck on your through!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 10th

      Thank you!!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Cassie Mahlstedt : Feb 10th

    Thanks for sharing!! Great story.. Loved reading it…

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Thank you so much!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sara : Feb 10th

    I could relate to almost all of this. Luckily I have not experienced the delirium of hypothermia and I hope I never will but if I do I hope I remember this! I am starting my thru on March 6th so I may very well find myself in similar brain numbing temps. I will be doing my own cold weather shake down this weekend in my back yard, which after your story sounds like the safer but much less exciting route. Best of luck on your thru!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Good luck on your shakedown! That is an early start, sister. Stay warm!!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Renee : Feb 10th

    Sounds like it was a scary night. It also sounds like a beautiful starry night, a night you will never forget. Thankfully you had Brave there to help warm you up. How awesome it is to have a new friend who will smile, laugh and most of all cheer you on during a difficult night. What a confidence builder it is ,in hindsight. Don’t question your bad assness….(new word?) You’ve got skills to pass on to others now. Thanks for sharing.
    Happy Hiking!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      “Badassness” …. haha love it! Thank you for reading!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Betty Marzec : Feb 10th

    Thank you for sharing your story! I too do not do well below 75 degrees. You are an inspiration!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Aw, thanks!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    jannie : Feb 10th

    I loved your story. I have hiked in april it doesn’t have cold nights as you experienced. You survived the cold you will be able to handle whatever obstacle the trail presents to you. Thru hiking is an experience.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Thank you for your kind words!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Bob Rogers : Feb 11th

    Ok, I searched on you. You don’t have a gear list posted? I have to assume that Brave did the right thing and asked you about both your bag and your pad since she knew what she was doing to warm you up. What are they rated at (bag in *F and pad in R)?

    There are no weather stations (Weather Underground) for Hawksbill Gap so I just did Luray and picked the current coldest of the bunch in the area. For Saturday, that station shows a low of 21*. You quoted 15* degrees. I’m wondering your source. If it was a balmy 21* and not the 15* you thought it was, you might be in trouble. An April start is fairly late so you might be ok on the southern peaks. By time you get to the northern peaks you’ll be well seasoned.

    8 of the top 10 highest peaks on the A.T. are in VA or before. Food for thought.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Hi Bob, Nope, no gear list posted yet. Yep, Brave asked me about this and also packed extra coats, the emergency bivvy, and an extra pad. My bag is a Big Agnes Roxy Ann, temperature rating 15F. The pad is also Big Agnes, it’s a Q-Core SL, R-value of 4.5. I got the quoted temperature from my boyfriend, who looked up Luray also and found it 20 that night; I subtracted 5 degrees for elevation. Thanks for the words of caution!

      Reply
      • Avatar
        Bob Rogers : Feb 11th

        Wow, you are kinda screwed then!! 🙂 I was hoping for much worse (better???) news. A thicker pad and a better bag assuming you had one of the thin 1 1/2 pads and a 20/25* bag.

        I went out with a 40* bag and a 1 1/2 pad in 25* weather. Had my medium weight REI thermals on, a shirt and a hat that wouldn’t pull over my ears. My socks were summer socks (I was saving the thicker ones for the next day’s hike out). I woke up with cold feet and that was about it. They were damn cold tho. It also included a night time potty run. I didn’t feel like going as far as the privy so I dashed around the back side of the shelter without boots on. Found out the ground was frozen. Could be a leading reason my feet were cold the next day. It was the first time I slept FULLY inside of my sleeping bag. Come spring time, I’ll get a 15* bag on clearance.

        Only half joking but get a warmer boyfriend? Read on … . Bought my gf a Big Agnes Ethel bag (rated at 0*). I would have roasted in that thing. She was snug as a bug. On previous trips, we’ve done 35* (???) in the 40* bags and she was fine. But that was using them as a double bag so she was snuggled tight. I still roasted but she was good and wouldn’t have been solo. Your little bio doesn’t say; hiking solo or with the bf? If he’s going, give the double bags a serious look. I’ve seen those rated to 15* too. I should have bought one of those instead of the gf’s solo bag 0*. She isn’t going camping solo in temps like that. If I went solo, I would just fold the extra underneath me.

        Reply
        • Avatar
          Mathina Calliope : Feb 12th

          With any luck it won’t go below 25 while I’m out there; I am starting pretty late. But I’ll take better layers (wool) and the advice I’m now armed with after all the feedback folks have given me, plus of course everything Brave taught me. You’re lucky you run warm … I’m def. more like your gf in that respect. I’m considering switching to the Ethel … I have a cheap, Marmot, 40-degree back for the hot months.

          Reply
  • Avatar
    Michelle : Feb 11th

    I enjoy your writing and wish you the best of luck on the long journey. I hope you continue to blog about your adventure on the AT. Who knows how you’ll feel later. It will be interesting to see the changes.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Thank you! I will definitely keep blogging!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Dylan : Feb 11th

    Next time if you know it’s gonna be cold like that again, maybe keep a little baggy of nuts or another fatty food in your bag with you. Wake up cold and eat those then your body has something to burn to stay warm. Do jumping jacks and run in place right before you get in your bag too. Never get in your sleeping bag cold. Awesome job sticking it out though.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 11th

      Good lookin’ out–thanks!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Dave : Feb 13th

    Really enjoyed your story and your writing. I think my core temp dropped 5 degrees half way through! I’m starting my thru-hike in 18 days from Springer. I think I’m all set, but your story has given me pause. Appreciate your sharing.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 13th

      Ever since I posted it on Facebook people have been telling me about temps in the teens in northern Georgia all the way through March. Gives ME pause, too! I have definitely been researching wool base layers, and I’m not starting till mid-April … Thanks for the feedback, Dave!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Jan Boynton : Feb 13th

    Doesn’t that advice about having nuts in your sleeping bag to munch on for warmth thru the night contradict the safety advice about not attracting bears?

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 17th

      I did wonder about that … Maybe when it’s CRAZY cold the bears are tucked away somewhere trying to keep warm, too?

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Efe : Feb 14th

    Matti, thank you sharing this. I was planning an April start due to temperature concerns, but recently had to switch to mid-March as my ending deadline changed. I wear jackets at 70* and sleep in a 30* bag all summer so there are a lot of concerns. You’ve convinced me to start with the 0* bag I originally planned on, even though general advice had me thinking it was overkill and my 30* would do. I’ll try a shakedown in a week or two and hope it’s not as frigid here in VA as it has been recently.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Matti : Feb 17th

      Efe, thanks for posting this–I’m so glad my experience has had a useful impact on someone else! Yeah I would definitely start with your 0-degree bag if you tend to run cold. Best of luck to you!

      Reply

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