Rattled by the Kinsmans – The AT Prep Hike That Nearly Did Me In


It rises now before me, a dark and silent barrier between
All I am and all that I would ever hope to be

                                                            — “The Wall”, Kansas, Leftoverture

You’ve been there: in the midst of tackling that impossible project, confounding college course, or physical challenge. You’re starting to think it’s beyond your capabilities. Pushed to the brink of total exhaustion by the task. Consumed by personal doubt. Questioning if you’ve “got what it takes”.  My AT prep hike to the Kinsmans of New Hampshire in June 2021 would drop me into a deep chasm of concern about my ability to hike the AT.

A challenging route – and conditions

After two shorter prep hikes, I felt I needed two nights outdoors to test my gear and skills. I’ll sheepishly admit that on the exit drive of my prior overnights I’d pull into the first convenience store I’d see. It’s not authentic AT prep if you’re downing a sub, chips, and Arizona Iced Tea for lunch every second day!

In sticking with my AT prep hike guidelines I would do an unfamiliar AT section and go regardless of impending weather. My chosen route and timing would prove to be a bad combination:

  • Kinsman Ridge Trail from NH 112. I’d day hiked the Kinsman range multiple times, but always from Franconia Notch. I had no familiarity with much of a deceptively rugged route.
  • Hotter than blazes. Even in the mountain regions the temperatures were slated for the high 90s with oppressive humidity.

Lots of water will do the trick, right?

Well — no.  I didn’t realize the sheer volume of sweat I’d create in intense heat with a fully loaded pack. I was drenched. And apparently, water by itself wasn’t replenishing what my body needed.  I didn’t have much of an appetite.  And as I retired to my hammock the first night my muscles started to seize up in murderously painful cramps. Everywhere. It took all of my resolve not to cry out as my calves, quads, and even my hands locked up in pain!  Previously I’d experienced cramps after finishing a half-marathon, but never to this extent.

And I hadn’t given any thought to my hiking clothes

In my prior AT prep hikes I’d simply grabbed a set of running clothes to wear: a wicking t-shirt and shorts. I’d not considered that the fabric weight and cut might not be optimal for the trail.  As it turned out, these soaked garments stuck to my skin in the humidity. And although friction is a huge help in gripping rock with your boots, it’s not welcome in your hiking clothes. Clothes which would never fully dry out – even at night. I’ll spare the chafing details only to say that the experience even managed to ruin the joy of a typically wonderful post-hike shower.

Feet problems too ?!?!

I’d hiked in a newer pair of Oboz boots – my boots of choice for years – on my first two trips.  They’d felt OK on those shorter hikes but not fantastic.

This time the rougher, lengthier route generated pain and numbness in my second toe on both feet. Was this a chronic condition I was going to have to deal with for a full AT hike?  Additionally I couldn’t find a way to prevent the top of my left boot from digging into my ankle.

These issues slowed me to a 45 minute per mile pace at best over the three days, which was worrisome.  Could I keep up a fast enough pace for the full AT?

And errors in judgment

On day two of the hike I’d stay at Kinsman Pond Shelter, four very steep miles up from Eliza Brook. To add distance to the trip, I’d slackpack to the summit of Cannon Mountain and back after setting up my hammock. But I would not execute this plan well:

  • The route to Cannon was rougher than my advance planning had noted
  • I’d departed late that morning from Eliza Brook Shelter, which would ultimately leave me no time for a decent dinner that night 
  • I’d not carry enough water from Kinsman Pond to Cannon Mountain

The final error above left me dreaming of encountering a Gatorade machine at the Cannon tramway near the summit, but none was there. A gracious employee allowed me access to the restroom of the closed cafeteria so that I could refill my water bottle.

On my eleven mile exit hike I made a similar error by choosing not to fill my second water container at Eliza Brook. I carried empty containers as I emerged from the trail, heading straight to Beaver Brook to hydrate.  I also had contracted what I now believe was at least a moderate case of dehydration – noticeable in my voice, which only came out as a gasping loud whisper.  My diminished vocal ability would last for the rest of the day; however my funk over how much I struggled on this hike would last a bit longer.

Lessons learned during this AT prep hike

  • I needed to carry electrolytes for my hike.  In actuality, first I needed to research why I cramped up so badly – and that led me to this conclusion.  I’d not attempt another AT prep hike without my Propel packets.
  • Find a way to address my feet issues.  I’d never visited a podiatrist in my life but that was about to change.  Luckily, the doctor felt that my toe situation would be resolved by wearing shoe inserts.  And I’d start searching for some better fitting boots.
  • If it it’s a hot day, never ever pass up an opportunity to fill up every water container!  As a veteran day hiker I thought I knew this – but it became clear on this trip that it’s even more critical for a multi-day hike.

Time, reading, and reflection helped me 

I returned to my work life that week with a sense of defeat.  I dove for information to get some perspective on what I’d just experienced, and found I’d apparently taken on a stiff challenge with this 30 mile NH hike:

  • In re-reading the Kinsman Ridge Trail description from the AMC White Mountain Guide, I found:
    • “For much of its length it is a more difficult route than you might infer from the map.”
    • “Hikers with heavy packs should allow considerable extra time …”
  • In accessing The Trek’s vast archive of AT blogger articles, I found the Kinsmans noted numerous times as a particularly challenging section.  And I found Max Kiel‘s excellent ongoing accounts of his AT hike last year to be inspiring.
  • On a browse through my Thru-Hiker’s Companion I read that Saddle Ball, a peak in western MA was the first 3000 foot peak north of Virginia.  (And here I’d scaled 3500 and 4300 foot peaks on consecutive days in brutal heat!)

I had scheduled my next AT prep hike for three weeks later, which provided some welcome extra mental recovery time.  An enjoyable day hike with my son in southern New Hampshire also raised my spirits.  I’d be continuing my discoveries soon enough.

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