Springer to the Smokies: My First Month on the AT

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Snow is a great teacher.

As I write, 30 miles from the northern end of the Smokies at Davenport Gap, I wanted to quickly check in and provide a glimpse into what’s been going on in my mind for the past month.  Having started on New Year’s Day, I’ve experienced what seems like all four seasons and all of the demands you can think of to stay cool, warm, dry, fed and hydrated.

Going into this hike, there was no way I believed myself to be “prepared”: inevitably, there would be some piece of gear, some bit of knowledge, or some better decision I could have drawn upon to make my day smoother.  As you read below, some of these realizations may strike you as common sense and others as profound ah-ha’s; some of it may not apply to you at all given a later start date where extreme temperatures and weather aren’t going to be the daily reality (and all the power to you for deciding that’s how you preferred your hike!).

Bottom line for me is that I absolutely love my life right now and all the challenges of making my way on the trail.  For those embarking on a thru-hike, section or even just beginning to step out, you’re going to grow so much in a very little amount of time.  Here are some ways I’ve grown and hope to continue to learn.

 

These are the times when you fill more than your plate and cup.

These are the times when you fill more than your plate and cup.

Building Relationships

First and foremost, I’ve grown not just to act on my caring for others but to request it, and this means being vulnerable to those around you when you’ve just met.  That could be tough for me when living and working off-trail.  There’s a vibrant community all along the trail and I’ve learned that asking for help taps into the very deep desire of certain people to show solidarity with my devotion to thru-hike.

I’m now writing from a host family’s home, a true bunch of angels, given Jonas’ impact on the Smoky Mountains’ road conditions.  I connected with them through a gear-maker at the Southern Ruck, a gathering of hiking enthusiasts at the NOC a week or so ago.  The weather was fairly inclement and she checked in with me during the time when I was climbing snow drifts towards Clingman’s Dome and making a half mile an hour.  I was OK, in good spirits and confident in my path, yet that’s not all that I needed to feel complete.  Sometimes, you just need to know others are there – importantly, I asked her for any contacts in the area and was connected within a day to a passionate trail angel who’s known for her generosity.  Over buffets, southern cooking and living room conversations, I absorbed energy that I wasn’t getting while following white blazes, taking pictures and making miles.

I’ve learned to get to know people, everyone that I come across (which sometimes can be as little as a person every few days this time of year).  There’s always a relationship to develop.  It’s hard to tell for me right now how these people will help me grow yet I know that will – and I have to allow that at every chance even if this means not strictly hiking.

 

Clingman's in Jonas.

Clingman’s in Jonas.

Maintain Effort, Not Pace

I come from an ultra running background, and I’ve learned that when taking on long distances, every course record is course specific.  Since I do a new section everyday, I’ve taken all the pressure to make miles by a certain time away.  I focus on secure steps, proper alignment and keeping my heart rate low to avoid burning energy unnecessarily.  These are all known to me yet doing so while carrying a pack is new territory.

Often times I’ve heard more about what we carry and shaving weight.  And this is so important.  I often think about proper carrying technique that’s suited for my body, however.  I’ve learned that carrying a 30 lbs pack correctly is so much better than a 15 lbs pack poorly.  To figure this out and get accommodated with my pack, my true partner out here, going slow and experimenting how to shoulder loads and adjust my movements to better take care of my body has been a huge focus.  The more I could have done towards this end in preparation the better.

The daily view.

The daily view.

Simulate the Toughest Conditions and Determine the Multi-Use Before Go-Time

On the note of prep, gathering gear is really a small part of prep.  Looking back, I know now I should have spent more energy on getting gear and using it enough to realize if I actually need it.  For example, a nalgene cozy or hydroflask to prevent freezing water are helpful.  It seemed like I really needed those before I took into account how other pieces if gear could be used differently to satisfy the same end.

Instead of keeping water out, I put it in my bag during the subfreezing days – a 20 second bag opening saved carrying the extra weight and did the same job.  My sleep system dry bag can be turned inside out and to hold my nalgene and, if I sleep with it close, I was able to send back a 14 oz weighty insulated water bottle that turned out to be a luxury.  I now wake up to warm water, saving fuel to heat it, too.  (For winter hikers, always consider how your body heat can be used to your advantage, including drying wet clothes.).

For physical prep, hiking isn’t exactly enough.  You need to hike the hardest sections slowly, and this means hiking uphills in addition to gradually upping your mileage on rolling terrain.  On top of this, I would have done so with concurrrently increasing my pack load with the actual items I would carry (I instead loaded my pack with medicine balls since I was in a gym mindset).  If the outdoors is out of reach, do all this on stairs – up and down, up and down, and chart how you feel.  Few sections are steeper than 45 degrees on the trail – when you need to scramble you’ll use different muscle groups but from my NoBo perspective, this has only been at Albert Mountain and over chest high snow drifts so far.  Lastly, I would have done as much hiking without the aid of braces and supports – these seriously prevented me from buiding muscles that alleviate the force on my injured areas.  We think that if our knee hurts, we need to brace it – works for times when you have serious impact coming up, yet they’re not allowing me to use my legs naturally.  When I stopped resorting to braces due to normal muscle fatigue from my first week, and invested more time in yoga during and after that day’s hike, all my pains there disappeared.

Along with going slow and cutting a 10 mile day to 5, which is so tough in the beginning when al you think about is the next destination that you planned on being at, you start to regenerate quicker and more effectively.  Finally, don’t use your trekking poles to push it pull you forward as a strategy for making it through a stretch – they are for stabilization, no to substitute for your legs.  As weird as it sounds, its possible to develop wrist and elbow injuries while hiking when you suddenly hire your arms to do your legs’ job.  This also takes the load off your core and hips, unnaturally straining your lower legs to stabilize and leading to more injuries.  I try to think; is this the most natural way to move?

 

Do that which makes you your best self.

Do that which makes you your best self.

Take a Zero when You’re On Top

You’ll hear, “Only quit on your best day,” and that’s a great way to know that the journey isn’t the one that’s going to make you your best self at this point in your life.  A way to take care of yourself so this may be avoided is to take a zero or nero when you’re feeling great.

Again, your body is constantly regenerating – pain is a signal that something is wrong, I would not have waited until something was wrong (although there’s a lot of pain when your body figures out how to carry so much weight over so much distance).  To note: there are alays going to be small pains that crop up – I’ve learned not to stop the show for each one and instead re-focus on my posture and form to diagnose if it’s something to track or a result of a mis-step that’s correctable.

Honestly, there are so many problems, real or perceived, that require your attention that I’m now really selective about what takes my attenition and, further, makes me stop moving and spend energy to address.  Obviously, this may come into conflict with what I’ve written above; it’s all a fluid balance and, like fluid, it sloshes back and forth with every destabilizing event.  I’m trying hard to practice the philosophy of good-day-zeros by deliberately taking days off after progressively longer intervals (so far it’s been betwrrn 30, 40, 50 mile stretches).  I’ve learned this works for me; everyone has their own way, as I’ve learned.

 

Head up.

Head up.

Think Forward: The Best Days are Ahead

And, I continue to learn.  As I head into the remaining 90% of miles left ahead of me, I hope to keep this learning up and share what’s been transformative for me.  Please reach out to me directly with other thoughts to think through and especially if you’re up to hiking with me or hosting me for a night.  Relationships are the main currency on the trail and lend the most meaning to my journey, I’m learning, and I’d love the chance to connect.

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Comments 22

  • Avatar
    Wazo : Jan 28th

    OK, of all the journal entries, blogs, books, YouTubes, and other media AT learning opportunities I’ve poured over, I have to say you’ve packed more into your entry here than I think I’ve seen from anyone. This is entirely great information without the typical “I know better” attitude. It is just good suggestions offered in a very matter of fact way.

    I hope you continue to post on a regular basis. I start on 2/25 and need all the true lived experience suggestions I can find.

    Thanks.

    Wazo

    Reply
    • Avatar
      Sandra Kennedy : Jan 29th

      Wazo: You are so right. Cole has taught me so much more than I have read, and believe me, I have read about 30 books, blogs daily, fb postings, etc. Appalachian ATrials is a really great book and a quick read!

      I hope to meet you out on the trail. You are leaving a few days before me but I am just a Section Hiker and will be leaving from HF after ZAmtrak takes me across the country from my home in MT.

      Have a great one and Be Safe out there!

      “Montana”

      Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Jan 30th

      Wazo, I really appreciate the comments and look forward to sharing more. Feel free to reach out directly if you have anything you’d like a thought partner on – soon, you’ll be dropping learned wisdom for us all, too.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Sandra Kennedy : Jan 29th

    Good Morning Cole:

    You are absolutely amazing! I love the positive, upbeat attitude that you have. I am a Section Hiker on my first “real” backpacking trip and am heading out from Montana on February 27 or 28.

    I will be leaving from HF and sure hope that I run into you. If I do, I would love to pack some with you. I am a 62-year-old woman with heart disease X multiple and am afraid of the dark. I will be so proud of myself when I make my Section hike. Shoot, I am proud of me for just choosing to do this. It has been on my Bucket List for years. I love the outdoors (kayaking, skiing, cross country, snowshoeing, long distance walking and hiking), and EVERYTHING!

    Be safe, keep the attitude and have a wonderful hike. Congratulations.

    “Montana”

    Reply
  • Avatar
    Sandra Kennedy : Jan 29th

    Cole:

    A question…Do you thik it would be a good idea for me to attach my snowshoes and my Yak Tracks to my pack. I will be leaving from Harpers Ferry on January 28 or 29 hiking North.

    Thanks so much for any information that you can give me.

    “Montana”

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Jan 30th

      Hi Montana, thanks for your comments and question. I’m here taking it over with Baltimore Jack at the Standing Bear Hostel (9 time AT thru-hiker) and you can, depending on the forecast, just take the yaktrax and be fine. I was surprised at how easier it was to stay aligned and pain free without snow shoes over the past couple days sinceni wrote the blog above. They are heavy and when they are not needed, you’re going to be wishing to just bounce them forward. While you may have a lot of experience with them and know how your energy and form change while wearing them, going forward I’m going to do without them. With people breaking trail in snow both ways (yes, I’m still seeing SoBo hikers daily, five at the end of the smokies just today), they become even harder to justify! I’d also consider Kahtoola microspikes – they are amazing and won’t collect as much snow and debris as yaktrax. Keep us updated! Winter hiking is amazing in that it’s a daily challenge to balance gear, pace and miles. Good luck!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Colleen Goldhorn : Jan 30th

    I’m so excited to follow your hike!! Congrats on making it through the blizzard

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Jan 30th

      Thanks, Colleen!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Moira McConnell : Jan 30th

    Amazing job so far, I look forward to hearing more of your trials and triumphs! Congrats on persevering and hiking your hike!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Jan 30th

      Moira, it’s been a great 11% so far 🙂

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Terry "Cotton" Gandy : Jan 30th

    Great information, Cole. Thanks for taking the time and thought to school the rest of us following your path. Have fun and be safe.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Jan 30th

      Cotton, you got it: safety, from the elements and, mostly, my own desire to break the 20 mpd level!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Taylor Ciambra : Jan 30th

    Great advice Cole! Thanks for posting, I am so excited and happy for you!!!!!!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Feb 2nd

      Thank you!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Ed Riggs : Jan 31st

    Cole, keep rolling baby! Great advice for anyone, regardless of the weather you have experienced. I hope I get to meet you when you rock and roll through Pine Grove Furnace and the AT Museum towards the end of March! I’ll keep following your progress…
    Phys Ed AT ’14

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Feb 2nd

      Ed, if you’d like, reach out to me via email and we can arrange a meet up for coffee!

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Macha : Jan 31st

    Cole, just agreeing with folks above that you have covered a lot of important issues. I’m going to print this out and go back over it because there is so much wisdom. For example, “I’ve learned that carrying a 30 lbs pack correctly is so much better than a 15 lbs pack poorly.” Just beginning to figure that one out myself after a pack-fitting session at Mountain Crossings. Thanks for living the dream, then thinking about all these topics and more importantly, taking the time to write them up. I’m looking forward to future dispatches from the 2016 NOBO front line.

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Feb 2nd

      Macha, oh – awesome. The folks at MC are awesome, you surely are getting great service there.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Christine : Jan 31st

    Excellent points all around, and a great post. Best of luck on your journey and I am looking forward to reading more of your entries!

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Feb 2nd

      Thanks, Christine – looking forward to sharing more.

      Reply
  • Avatar
    Peter Weiss & Katharine Martin : Feb 2nd

    Cole,

    I am writing to you from Larsen G08 – wow! This trip looks fantastic! Chanel and Katharine say hi! We are thrilled for you. SO many questions for you. Remember, let us know when you are in are area so we can meet you for a day hike.

    Good luck,
    Charter Pals

    Reply
    • Avatar
      New Year : Feb 6th

      Awesome! Sending you all Facebook invites – and a big mental spot for me is MA so I can see you all again!

      Reply

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