That Which Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger (Final Part-3)

Every single time we planned this weekend hike, it rained. This weekend looked different. There was a chance of rain but even though it was January, we decided we should go ahead anyway. Winter weather in the Southeast USA can go from single digits to 70 degrees F in 24 hours or the other way around.

Five years had gone by since that frozen January night in the Pisgah National Forest where I learned my first real wilderness lessons. In that five-year period, I had become an REI member and now had some high-tech backpacking gear. I also had several backpacking trips under my belt.

Looch and I got dropped off at Rocky Bottom intending to hike the 32 miles to Whitewater Falls on the Foothills Trail (FHT) over three days and two nights. We hiked about six miles the first day and spent a comfortable first night. The next day was a picture-perfect bluebird sky, and the hiking was some of the best and most scenic woods in the world.

Tox bridge

This section of the FHT goes through the Jocassee Gorges area and as the name implies there are limited flat spaces. Over the 32 miles we would hike up a total of 5,150 feet and back down an additional 4,275 feet. We had a great second day passing through some exciting wilderness areas including numerous waterfalls, mountain top outlooks, and the beautiful 225-foot suspension bridge over the Toxaway River.

Not a flat spot to be found

As dusk was approaching, we knew it was time to set up camp but there was nowhere flat to set up camp other than an old logging road cut into the mountain side that we had been hiking up for a while now. So, we set up the tent directly on that road, cooked some food, and had a great evening.

Well established logging roads are many times reinforced with a stone base. Over time the stone base may not be evident because the heavy logging trucks and equipment will push the base stones into the earth. The dirt in the FHT area is also a red clay that compacts well.

About 1:00 a.m. I woke up to pouring down rain and a river of water flowing down the old logging road directly under us. The logging road did not absorb the rainwater, so the rainwater had nowhere to go and was flowing down the road directly into our tent. We were soaked to the core.

The temperature, as it does in these parts during this time of year when it rains, was just above freezing. Now soaking wet in my down sleeping bag, I was also starting to get a chill inside my body. We decided it was time to put up camp and hike to our takeout point at Whitewater Falls an estimated 14 miles of hiking in rough terrain.

Photo credits

White Blazes Everywhere

The FHT is often talked about here on the Trek as a place that many do their shakedown (a hike where you try to figure out what will work and won’t work with your equipment, body, etc. while planning for a long-distance hike like the Appalachian Trail (AT)). It may be coincidental, but the FHT has white blazes exactly like the AT.

With pouring down rain, lack of sleep, and a bone chilling cold setting in, this hike we were now on was made even more challenging by the fact that it was still nighttime. The FHT white blazes however showed up brightly when we flashed our headlamps ahead. We even made a sick game of it by saying something silly every time we got lost and then found a white blaze. At times the blazes would disappear, and we would get off the trail on some side trail as often happens on the AT and have to backtrack.

The pouring down rain went on all through the remainder of that night into the dawn. As the first light of morning made is presence known we passed a tent that had a glow of light inside. Those hikers appeared to have just awakened to a nice dry tent. At this point we were starting to get exhausted, and the bone chilling cold was an ever-present reminder that if we stopped for too long, we could enter hypothermia. Bothering those other hikers seemed fruitless so we marched on.

Back then GPS and phone mapping apps did not exist, so we thought the route to exit this nightmare was by getting to the exit point at Whitewater Falls still six or more miles away. As we marched on into the early morning hours, we passed some amazing scenery but all we could think of was getting someplace warm and dry.

Sleep Would Feel Really Good Right Now

At last, we finally made it to Whitewater Falls. Whitewater Falls is the highest waterfall east of the Mississippi. It has two 400-foot plus drops the FHT comes in at the middle of these two falls called Upper Whitewater Falls. Unfortunately, the FHT comes in at the base of the Upper 400-foot Falls.

After 10 or more hours of hiking in a constant cold rain with temperatures right above freezing, we were completely exhausted. At this point we could almost see the end of this nightmare, a parking lot probably less than a half mile away however Upper Whitewater Falls is an over 400 feet cascade with at least 280 steps on probably 20 switchbacks. By comparison the Approach Trail at the AT Springer is 425 steps. Although the parking lot and upper view of Whitewater Falls probably had visitors, for us at the base it was the same as being miles away in the middle of nowhere.

At the base of the Whitewater Falls the FHT crosses the Whitewater River and at that point Looch collapsed against at tree and immediately fell asleep. Something inside me told me to not do the same.

I didn’t realize this at the time, but you never let a hypothermic person fall asleep. Hypothermia can make you sleepy, confused, and even feel warm! Your blood vessels dilate as a last-ditch effort to warm your limbs. My body temperature was so low that I was shivering uncontrollably, a normal body reaction to try to create heat. I knew that if I succumbed to the overwhelming desire to lay against a tree and rest, I would fall asleep and most likely neither Looch nor I would wake up alive.

I bounced around and purposefully did not sit down, letting Looch sleep for a short time. I woke him and we pushed on across the river and started the climb. I would bounce ahead and yell down to Looch to try to encourage him to continue to climb. After a few switchbacks Looch would again fall down exhausted and immediately fall asleep against a tree. I would let him rest a bit until I was so shaken with chills that I had to get him moving again.

I don’t remember how many times we repeated this stop and sleep routine, but we were steadily making our way up the steps. Eventually we got to the top where several tourists were parked. Approaching the tourists I would quickly explain our situation of where we had come from, how cold we were, and beg for a ride to a nearby town where we could find warmth and a phone. Several looked at the dirtbag hikers and denied us, but we finally convinced one angel to help us.

Arriving in the nearby town of Salem we were let out at an old-time general store that had a potbelly stove in the back with benches around it. The owner graciously let us use the phone to call for a ride and we quickly went to the stove to warm up. The stove was bone cold. The proprietor said they had run out fuel a few days ago. Looch and I fell asleep anyway staring at cans of beans.

Photo credits

It’s STILL no secret that Mother Nature is STILL trying to kill you.

Those of us that love the outdoors know that part of the appeal is that the outdoors is an uncontrolled environment. I am sure the lessons that I learned the hard way have made countless others say no thank you, I’ll stay inside while the elements outside are nasty.

The rest of us somehow keep coming back to the misery that can happen in the wilderness. As I will explain in future posts, there is a healing salve that is deeply engrained in humans from being outside in nature. We have just pushed that away with modern conveniences. Read the stories here on the Trek by the long-distance bloggers and you will repeatedly see the ups and downs psychologically that match the ups and downs of the topography of the trail.

This last venture taught me a valuable lesson that although you will get cold and you will get wet (“no rain, no pain, no Maine” for the AT), you must ALWAYS have the ability to get dry. I will ALWAYS have a set of warm clothes, and my sleeping bag, double wrapped in waterproof materials in my pack.

Those lessons I learned decades ago about how to not let Mother Nature succeed where then put on a shelf awaiting a time to be reborn. A few years after this last event, I put my pack away as other priorities took over but decades later, just a few years ago, something profound happened that brought me back to long distance hiking. Come back for that story next.

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