SOBO Winter Thru-Hike Q&A: Scott Benerofe Update
Hello everybody, my name is Katie “Oats” Houston. I am the Social Media Wiz for The Trek, and I’m so excited to be sharing the first of many interviews this year of hikers, trail angels, and volunteers that make long-distance hiking the incredible experience that it is.
Today, I am joined by Scott Benerofe, a thru-hiker currently on the Appalachian Trail. What Scott is doing is certainly never something that I’d have on my own bucket list, but boy am I excited to learn more about it.
At this point in the season if you’re watching this odds are you probably know somebody who is out on a long trail somewhere in the country. But Scott has been out on a SOBO thru-hike since early December. From summiting Mount Katahdin in the winter to tackling feet of snow through Maine and New Hampshire facing wind chills below -30 degrees, this journey is equal parts impressive and absolutely wild.
You can catch our first interview with Scott from his AT Winter SOBO thru-hike here.
Before we get to the nitty-gritty of the absolutely incredible adventure that you’re on right now, can you give us a quick overview of your hiking experience so far? Where are you from and what drew you to the Appalachian Trail in the first place?
I’m from New Jersey near Princeton and went to school in Boston. I did the Long Trail in 2016 and then did a lot of peak-bagging of 4,000-footers and smaller hiking trips in the mountains. In 2019 I did a traditional NOBO thru-hike from GA to ME but I knew there was more out there for me and there was more for me to get out of it between those white blazes. So I decided to do a southbound winter thru-hike.
Okay, Scott. Walk me through this. You did a traditional thru-hike a few years back; usually, hikers that have been bit by the thru-hiking bug tend to pick another trail, maybe a second triple crown trail or a sub-1000mile gem like the Arizona Trail or the John Muir Trail; Why have you chosen objectively the most difficult way to thru-hike a trail you had already thru-hiked before?
I had gotten into winter hiking and backpacking about four years ago, and honestly, I didn’t know camping in the winter was something that people even did. I bought my first pair of snowshoes and I’ll never forget my first day snowshoeing in the Adirondack Peaks – it was the most beautiful experience in the world and it was challenging. I had never been challenged on a hike before. I felt like I was at a point in my life that (I realized) if I didn’t give it 100% of everything that I had, it would be failure. I felt like it was something I was capable of and I had done things to prepare but it was so intimidating and it felt like the perfect thing to do to fill that void of an immense challenge that I was looking for.
I’m a relatively smiley person, but in all of your photos, you’re absolutely beaming, whether it’s whiteout conditions in New Hampshire or an icy ascent of Mount Katahdin. How do you stay so positive in the face of such difficult conditions?
I’ve been filming things on this hike which is something I’ve never done before. I think the film captures everything from a 2 to an 8 – all of those moments that I’m really having a hard time I don’t get on film. And all of those moments that I’m losing it and it’s the best – I don’t get those either. Those border crossings in New England – I collapsed at the border of New Hampshire and Maine. I just completely collapsed, but I don’t have the camera out for that. In my life before this I pushed myself to do things with this negative perception in my head, “You MUST do this or you’re not good enough” and so much of my personality was wrapped up in doing these big hard challenges. I spent a lot of time working on myself last year – I was struggling to get through some mental health challenges and focused on intentionally detaching those concepts from my worth as a person. I focused on changing my inner dialogue to be more positive and supportive to myself because I realized the negativity was bogging me down.
Before I stepped out on this trail, I did a lot of the work that I needed to improve my mental health before I started. I’ve realized that this hike has been sort of a celebration that I had been feeling good enough to take this on and go out on the trail and get deep in the grooves of positive reinforcement. I feel like I’ve just been celebrating this awesome thing I’ve been up to – and the feeling of getting to the top of the mountain really does wonders.
I tried to live by smiles before miles as I hiked – but there were moments on my thru-hike in thunderstorms, freezing rain, (but it was always weather incidents) that I realized – I could get seriously injured out here if I don’t choose to make smart decisions right now. Was there ever a time that you realized, “OH. I could actually get into some serious trouble out here.”
Two things come to mind right away. First, I didn’t actually summit Katahdin. I made it within a mile and a half of the summit and it was too difficult to keep going for me so I turned around. It set the tone – Hey you’re not in charge, nature is in charge. This hike isn’t going to be perfect and you’re going to be battling some tough weather. The frustrating thing was that I had done all the steep technical stuff, but it was the last stretch that I was unable to finish.
“The other moment was my fourth day out in the Whites and I broke treeline on Franconia Ridge – the windchills were pushing 40 below and the 50mph winds were constant with even higher gusts. In order to even get my head together, I had to duck behind rocks. I knew if I was out there for another 20 minutes it was going to get scary.”
Pretty much all of upper New England every day you woke up and things could go really south if you’re cold. Hypothermia, limited dexterity, when the high is 12 degrees for days on end every day requires focus and intention in your head to not take the situation lightly. It was really what made the mental challenge so difficult – you just don’t get a break.
Did you take any time off trail for the holidays, Christmas, New Year’s? Do you have any time off planned for the remainder of your trip?
I stayed on trail for the holidays and my family and friends were very supportive. Christmas Eve was one of my hardest days of the whole trip so far. It was 20 below and I went over the Bigelows and it was so cold and late by the time I got to camp. On Christmas morning, there was a nice, beautiful little lean-to and outside was flurrying snow around evergreen Christmas trees – I took my headlamp, switched on my red light, and put a green stuff sack over it to project red and green on my sleeping bag. It’s the little things.
How long was it before you saw other hikers? How different has the trail magic scene been?
A lot more solitude. I went 200 miles before I saw a day hiker and it was over 1,000 miles before I ran into someone at camp. I’ve had a few hikers share food with me, just nice locals giving me rides or letting me stay. But as far as crossing the road and running into a cookout goes, that’s a no.
So when I hiked, I hit Springer Mountain with a backpack and sleeping bag that Santa Claus had given me when I was 10. I’ve since researched up and lightened my load very intentionally – but it’s taken quite a concentrated effort. I’m curious – Do you identify as a gear nerd? How did you approach gearing up for this adventure, and how different was your pack from the one you used when you thru-hiked initially? What gear has proven to be most valuable over the months through the winter? Do you have any luxury items?
Before I hiked in 2019 getting ready for my northbound I was SO into the gear. On this trip… I think I weighed the pack before I left? With food and water going into the 100-Mile Wilderness it was 70 lbs, which is why I just didn’t want to know. I’m not too worried about how much anything weighs because one thing I saw in 2019 was that people leave Springer Mountain with a 40 lb base weight and a 12 lb base weight and whether or not they make it to the end is a coin toss. What was important was who was enjoying their trip more – as long as you’re carrying what you need and it’s not breaking you, you’re doing alright.
As far as luxury items go – there’s things I didn’t use every day but when I needed them I really needed them. Most everything I had in my backpack were all things I absolutely needed. I only used my crampons a number of times but if I didn’t have them at that moment it’d be really scary.
What are your plans after you reach Georgia?
I’m going to grad school to teach high school Physics. I’m very excited about that, but as far as the outdoor adventures go I have plenty of ideas for things I want to do that, just like this hike, are things that speak to me that seem like fun things to do whether someone has already done it or not. I’ll just wait to see what makes me excited again and go for it.
A huge thank you to Scott Benerofe for taking the time during a day in town to do this interview. Follow @scottbenerofe on Instagram or visit him on Youtube at Scott Benerofe for more tales from the trail.
If you’re out on the trail right now be sure to tag @thetrek.co and @appalachian.trail and use the hashtags #theTrek and #TrektheAT if you’d like to share your journey with us and potentially be featured on our platform. On that note, if you know anyone hitting a long trail this year that wants to share their trip reports with family, friends, or those in the outdoor community, we are still taking applications for our Class of 2022 Blogger/Vlogger team so be sure to check that out.
Thank you to our wonderful audience for tuning in, and thank you, Scott, for letting us get to know you a little better. I’m Oats signing off—happy hiking until next time, y’all!
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