Virginia part 2 – When the Going Gets Freezing Cold, the Aussie Gets Going
Before starting the AT, I did a lot of research and planning. One of the things I looked into was the average temperatures for each state I would be passing through when I was meant to be passing through them. This research formed the basis of decisions I made on clothing and sleep gear. However, the temperature is of course not always average and my time in southern Virginia brought some unseasonably cold temperatures – lows of down to -8 Celsius (17 Fahrenheit) overnight and highs around or just over freezing for 10 days straight.
My sleeping bag is rated to 20F (-6 Celsius) and it has treated me well so far. I’m not a particularly cold sleeper so up until this freezing stretch, I had slept comfortably, often in a T-shirt and shorts. However, the first two nights of the arctic burst pushed my sleeping bag to the limit and led to two nights of poor sleep due to the cold, even with all my layers on.
A change of plans
It is important to know your limits, and I knew I couldn’t sleep in freezing temperature for another 8 nights without changing anything. At this stage I was still 3 days away from a town, so going to an outfitter wasn’t an option in the short term. Luckily I was near some hiker hostels, thus beginning what ended up being an initial stint of 5 continuous days of hostel sleeping. This included another zero day (my second in four days) due to a forecast day of continuous rain and sleet. I felt bad taking another zero so close to my last one but watching the weather outside, it would have been dangerous to be that cold and wet all day.
Leveling up my cold weather gear
Once in Marion, Virginia, I was able to purchase a warmer jacket and a fleece liner for my sleeping bag. Armed with my new warmer gear, I set out for a big test – a night in a shelter in the Grayson Highlands, with a forecast low of -8C (17F), with wind chill of down to -23C (-10F). With all of my clothes on (including my jacket) and my fleece liner, together with five other warm bodies in the shelter, I actually managed to sleep ok. However, the real challenge turned out to be the following morning.
My toughest morning on trail
The morning’s hike was up and over Mt. Roger, an exposed peak in the Grayson Highlands. Wearing all my clothes and with “hot hands” in my gloves, I attempted this climb. All my gear was however no match for the elements. The wind whipped me around, and a number of different times I had to brace against the wind with my poles planted so I didn’t fall over. Visibility was poor and there was no one around so I was actually a bit scared about how I would get out of this situation safely. This feeling, together with the temperature and particularly freezing hands, got too much for me, and I burst into tears. I continued to cry while moving forward, as there seemed to be no other option to get out other than walking myself out. Within moments, my tears had frozen on my eyelids and my snot had frozen into a ball. This did little to make me feel better.
Continuing further down the mountain, I started to warm up a tiny bit, although my hands were still frozen. All my water in my drink bottles had frozen too but luckily I ran into two guys I had camped with the previous night, who had some unfrozen water. They were also at the next road crossing, having decided to bail early on the day due to the conditions. I didn’t need any more encouragement so asked to get a lift into Damascus, the next town. Although I could possibly have continued on, I was not confident in my ability to warm up properly without a shower, and it would otherwise not be until the following evening that I would get one.
Once I arrived in Damascus and had my hot shower, I felt exhausted and had a nap for two hours. I think my body was just exhausted, mentally and physically, from the cold. I then got dropped back at the point I got off trail the following morning, and walked back to Damascus.
Thank you, next
The freezing days are over for now, thankfully. However, I do still have some numbness in the tips of some fingers and thumbs to show from that freezing day. I had really been looking forward to the Grayson Highlands, and I’m sure it is beautiful on a nice day but I sadly did not get to experience that. Saddest for me, I did not get to see any of the famous ponies. As any smart pony would do, they were all hiding from the conditions when I went through.
Hopefully it can continue to be a bit warmer for this next stretch as otherwise I will consider shipping in my snow gear from Canada!
Big thanks to the following hostels for getting me through in (mainly) one piece:
– Burkes Garden Hostel
– Bear Garden Hostel
– The Merry Inn Hostel (& Marion Outdoors)
– The Broken Fiddle
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows on the AT, as this last stretch has shown, but I’m still looking forward to continuing on my journey. Three states to go!
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