An Unexpected Turn of Events on the AT
I hiked hundreds of miles of the AT. I almost crossed the 1/3 mark. Then I fell. Hard. I had to go home. Now I’m sitting on my couch, typing this.
Ok, cool story, but there are a lot more details to this tale
I haven’t posted an update from the trail here yet, I find blogging from my phone to be quite cumbersome. At the end of the hiking day, I want to (1) set up my tent, (2) scarf down some dinner, (3) chat with my trail family about our day, and (4) journal or edit photos. I will say that I’ve started about 4 draft posts, I just could never finish them. Well now I have quite a bit of time on my hands, a month or so, to be exact.
I started March 11 from Springer. I was lucky enough to meet a few trail family members on my second day (one of which I was still hiking with until I left the trail a few days ago). We look out for each other, and have for weeks at a time. Whether ahead of me or behind me, I consider those who I spent many hours hiking with part of my trail family.
I remember getting to 50 miles and thinking that was a big deal. Most of us did. We celebrated at Blue Mountain Shelter like we had just advanced into another round of playoffs. Then 100 miles came, that was huge to us. We took a zero day in Franklin and soaked that up. We thought we were crushing it. At this point most of us were doing around 16 miles a day. Turns out most of us had nagging injuries. One family member had just sprained her ankle. My knee was killing me, as was the case for most of us. We had been pushing too hard too quickly, so upon hitting the trail after Franklin, we scaled it back.
Slow and steady wins the race, but, it’s also kinda boring
We dialed it back to 8-10 miles a day. I felt better physically, in my knee, and overall. We added a few more miles to get to 12, still felt good. My knees and joints were improving, which was great, but I was getting bored. I didn’t like getting to camp so early, when there was still daylight. But at the end of the day, I knew I was doing what was best for my body. At this point some of our extended family members pressed on, as they were ready for the higher miles. I was jealous. I wanted that 20 mile day. Get through the Smokies, I thought, then turn it on. Social media updates from friends started rolling in, and I looked at their progress and felt like I was lagging behind.
Pro-tip: don’t base your hike off of social media
Remember this, it took me a long time to figure it out. At the same time, I think you should cheer your trail family and extended friends on. By the time we were nearing Hot Springs, we were pulling 16-18 mile days. It was exciting, but I was still not listening to my body. I just wanted to cruise. At a month in, I felt like I was getting my trail legs. My knee no longer hurt, the only pain was general soreness, which is absolutely normal at this point. We hit 300 miles in less than a month, and I was ecstatic. But I wanted to go faster, and at the same time, I knew I shouldn’t.
The miles just kept coming
We hit 400. Then 500. I barely remember hitting the 600 mile mark. I don’t mean that to be rude, 600 miles is a huge deal. It’s just that, at that point, we’re just walking all day and the honeymoon period was wearing off. But I was still having the time of my life. I was with my friends, I knew I was very lucky to be were I was.
700+ miles, almost to 1/3 way, McAfee Knob, and what happened
I rolled my right ankle on a slight downhill from the Wind Rock overlook. This is on a ridgeline, and, there was a thunderstorm just to the north. I needed to get off the ridgeline. I was hustling, and in my haste, rolled over onto my ankle and fell. I had rolled my same ankle before, but not fallen. Getting up, I felt ok, just stretched it out and got my wits about me. It never hurt after that, for days. Just another blip on the trail, I thought.
Fast forward to Monday morning. We had camped at John Spring Shelter, ready to be able to be on trail super early for sunrise at McAfee Knob. As a photographer, I was beyond excited to get sunrise pics. As a thru-hiker, it added even more adrenaline to the mix. Our alarms went off at 4:15 am, and we were on trail before 5 am. Out of the four of us, I led the group, my headlamp illuminating the way. I was ready to get up to that summit. The most photographed spot on the AT, and we were going to get a possible incredible sunrise.
Ten minutes into that early morning hike, on a slight downhill, I rolled my right ankle again. This time, it was harder, and it was worse. I fell and rolled. Sitting there for a while, I thought to myself that it was just another fall. I had done this multiple times before. Get up, and let’s get stretched out, my body told me. I stood up and didn’t hurt, except for my pride. Time to keep pressing on. I continued hiking, fast, for over 30 minutes to get to the summit. The adrenaline flowing through me had to have been incredible.
We caught a sunrise for the ages. The perfect weather, amount of clouds, and the sun was going to rise just near the famous outcrop that almost anyone who hikes can recognize. We all took turns shooting photos for each other, it was just like I had imagined. The perfect spot for the perfect morning. Almost 30 mins went by, and I thought I felt fine. The sun was up, and I thought about doing a last photo out on the ledge. A jumping photo (safely), I thought would be cool. I looked down to get a good idea for footing, and saw my right ankle.
It looked like someone had lodged a grapefruit into the right side. I had never seen anything like this before, and I got worried. I tried to take a step, back towards my trail family, and nearly fell. I couldn’t put any weight on my right foot. I had to sit down, and started to panic. At this point, I thought my thru-hike could be over.
We taped my ankle up, which was now incredibly swollen on both sides. I tried to map out what was next. Our initial plan was to hike 18 miles north and take a zero day in Daleville, VA. I knew I could hike nowhere near that far, much less hike at all. There was the parking lot at the McAfee Knob trailhead 3.7 miles back, perhaps get there? We tried to get me off the summit, it took two others and almost 45 minutes to move me about 100 feet. This was not going to work.
I was in intense pain, so we decided it was time to call in the fire/rescue team. I felt terrible for even considering this option. I never want to use emergency resources that could be put to use in a better fashion, but I had to get off this mountain. We were assured that the team coming was more than comfortable with handling situations at McAfee.
The rescue team arrived, and couldn’t have been more awesome and prepared. Instead of going down to the parking lot at the trailhead, they got me down to a cut in the mountain for power line access. A combination of me powering myself on crutches and then being put in a stretcher/basket type device later, I got into an ATV. There are fire and forest road access points all throughout the trail, you more than likely have seen them. This is what they are for. I got driven down to the parking lot, ready to be loaded into a Roanoke Co. ambulance. There were 10 rescue and fire personnel that assisted, and I thanked each one on of them before being loaded in. They are truly wonderful people, and deserve our praise.
Outcomes, and moving forward
I have an avulsion fracture in my right ankle, and thankfully, no ligament damage. Timetable is roughly 4-6 weeks until I can return to trail, which I fully intend to do. Ideally, since I got off the trail at McAfee Knob, I’ll return there and continue North. If there is an issue with recovery time, I’d consider alternatives, even transitioning to a flip-flop if needed. Since I started early enough, however, and given my progress, I hope to continue with my regular thru attempt.
Mentally, this has been tough. Returning home unplanned has proved interesting, but my wife has been nothing but supportive while I’m here. I am truly lucky. At first, I thought keeping up with my trail family and fellow hikers was going to be depressing, but it has truly inspired me. Nothing better than seeing your friends still pushing themselves and also getting a sneak peek as to what I’d encounter upon my return. For now, it’s plenty of rest and recovery for me. I’ll be editing photos from the trail thus far, and working on a new website that will hopefully be ready before I head back.
I’ve been showered with nothing but positivity since my injury, from trail family, current and previous thru-hikers, and friends and family. I can’t wait to get back out there when the time is right, and I’m cheering everyone on who is currently out there. Thanks for reading, and if you have any recovery/downtime tips, feel free to leave a comment.
You can follow along with my photo and recovery updates at my Instagram! https://www.instagram.com/daveisoutside/
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