Scott Benerofe on His Ongoing SOBO Winter AT Thru-Hike
“This is hard. I am being challenged. I also think it’s so cool.”—Scott Benerofe
Scott Benerofe, aka Aquaman, is a class of 2019 AT thru-hiker currently attempting a winter SOBO thru-hike of the AT.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Scott Benerofe, December 2021.
Why don’t you start by telling me where you are?
I’m in Andover, Maine. I came off at a road crossing like 35 miles from the Maine New Hampshire border, which I’m stoked about. I’m in a place called the cabin. It’s a Hiker Hostel in Andover. They’ve been super kind here. I’m zeroing today. So I got in yesterday, I’m leaving tomorrow. The weather’s kind of nasty today, rain and kind of yuck. It makes all the ground just heavy, sticky slush. Tomorrow morning’s gonna be like seven or eight degrees so everything’ll crust up.
Is that what the weather has been like? Slushy rain?
That’s only happened to me two or three times, where a warm day comes in. For the most part, it’s been pretty wintery, just not a ton of snow just by northeast standards. But it’s still the first week of January, it was a light December, so there’s still a couple months for snow. That being said, I’ve run into some snowdrifts up above my knee, high in the mountain, but down around most of the trail it’s like six to eight inches of snow.
When you get those snowdrifts do you generally manage that by using snowshoes? How do you handle the snow and ice?
The first 130-140 miles of the trail I was in my Microspikes the whole time. There wasn’t enough snow for snowshoes. Recently though, especially once I hit the Bigelows area and a little bit of snow came in, I ended up strapping the snowshoes on. It’s tough because snowshoes do best when there’s 8-12-plus solid inches of snow on the ground. I’m running into spots where they’re 8-12 inches and spots are there 6-8. When there’s not a lot of snow, you end up tripping in your snowshoes a lot because it catches on everything underneath the snow. I wear them on the uphills because of the heel-up bars, and because I don’t like carrying them. A lot of times going downhill, once I get down low enough where there isn’t thick snow anymore, I’ll put my spikes on.
What was your base weight and gear budget? How does your winter setup differ from that of a three-season hike?
I was very into making sure I had a super low base weight the first time I did the AT in 2019. And this time around, I like the saying, “you pack your fears.” I like that saying because I was afraid of the cold, and I am notorious for running out of food. Every time I rolled into town on the AT the first time I was the person with only one Nuur packet in my food bag.
I really didn’t want to weigh my stuff before I left. I put it on my back, and I went, “I can carry this.” And then my dad was like, “well how much does it weigh? You need to find out” and I was like, “I don’t know if I want to know. All I know is I can carry it.” Going into the 100-Mile Wilderness, my pack was over 65 pounds. My base weight is somewhere in the very low 40s. I’m hoping that will change with this new setup. I’m looking to be able to drop at least eight pounds off of base weight.
A lot of gear I had because I’ve been into winter backpacking the last few years… like my snowshoes, my crampons, my ice-ax my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, my tent, and my mittens. I did end up picking up some more particular clothing layers, base layers, and such. I try not to spend too much money, but also with hiking gear, this is for my safety. So I ended up getting a new backpack. I got quite a large backpack, a big 85-liter backpack, an Osprey Aether, I think.
I’m swapping out some stuff after this stretch because I’m realizing I’m sleeping in a ton of shelters. I have a five-pound, four-season tent. If I was doing a lot of camping above treeline, I’d feel really great about keeping it, but that’s just not the case on the Appalachian Trail. The extra warmth that a four-season tent provides, I have with my sleep setup. I’ve been down below -20 in my sleep set up, and that’s without my down booties, and down leggings. So I’m getting a tent that will still be able to hold snow and wind pressure, but it’s lighter.
I’m also looking to shed a few other things that I carried with me solely because of the 100-Mile Wilderness because it was eight days… The big thing I not compromising on is essential gear that I need, given a worst-case scenario in the Whites.
What items do you consider essential for a worst-case scenario?
My sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, all my down layers: I have down booties, down leggings, down jacket. My electronics, so making sure I have a battery bank to keep my Garmin charged. I have a liquid fuel stove. I’ve had bad luck with canister fuel when it gets too cold, and having a liquid fuel stove allows me to make sure my stove works down at extremely cold temperatures because I can pressurize it…
Another thing is that sometimes speed is safety in these conditions. Being lighter will allow me to move faster because these conditions are so brutal. So if I can shave off a bunch of weight, I’ll feel that improve, and then I’m a little more nimble and mobile in the mountains.
How do you keep your electronics and your water from freezing in temperatures that cold?
The Hydro Flask helps keep the water from freezing. I’ve been putting all my water in those. When I go to the Nalgene, I’ll make sure I put hot water in in the morning. And then if you put them upside down in your pack, you can still open them. If you keep them right side up the threads freeze and then you have to sit with it in your jacket to open them. I’ll sleep with a bottle at night to keep that warm…
My Garmin does pretty well in the cold as well. It gives me a cold temperature warning. If it’s down below zero it’ll say performance may be hindered or battery lost.
One trick I have up my sleeve to keep my electronics warm for when stuff could get really, really cold, is I could boil a Nalgene at the beginning of the day, put it in my backpack close to my body, and put my electronics immediately around that. The insulation from the boiling water will keep some warmth there. The ultimate last resort would be to just shove everything in my pockets, which is not ideal or comfortable but it’s something I have at my disposal. I give off a lot of moisture and that can get in the electronics, so I try to keep it away from there. This whole thing is a battle with my mind and a battle against moisture.
Have you seen anyone out on trail with you?
In 246 miles, I’ve seen three day hikers on the trail. I’ve been totally alone, every single night. I did have a friend meet me at the end of the 100-Mile Wilderness for a mile, but I knew he was coming. Granted, in the years leading up to this, I hiked alone a lot. There were a lot of times on the AT in 2019 where my tramily was around, but I ended up doing my own thing for a week or two at a time. So I’m used to hiking by myself, but this has been a very extreme case of that. I’ve seen as many moose as I’ve seen people. Going through the 100 Mile, I went a full calendar week where I didn’t even see footsteps. Nothing.
It’s definitely been a strange feeling of longing for another person’s company. I just want to talk to someone about anything, and have someone tell me about anything. I get to town, or I’ll get some signal and I’ll call someone and I’ll just be like, “tell me something, anything. Like, I don’t care what it is, tell me anything.”
… I remember I had a really rough day going over the Bigelows. It was cold, long day. I started in the dark, I finished in the dark. I remember telling myself that day, “You’re feeling low right now. This is a down and there will be ups. You will ride this out.” And so that’s been a positive mantra in my head of just like, “You have good days, you have bad days, you have okay days. Just wait until the good days come. They will come.” So keeping that in my head helps because I have to help myself bounce back a lot of times. I don’t get that boost from showing up at camp at the end of the day and chatting with whoever’s there. I just have to get to camp, do my chores, and that’s it.
What led you to be one of the few people in the world who attempts a winter SOBO thru-hike of the AT?
Thru-hiking is hard. No matter what you do with it. Even backpacking is hard. Hiking is hard. None of this is easy. It’s all hard. But I felt like I had more to get out of this trail. (On my 2019 AT thru-hike) I got challenged, but I never had that moment where I really thought that I might not be capable of doing it…
I felt like stepping up that challenge would, and has, made it super satisfying… I think that’s part of what I was looking for out here. I wanted to get on the trail, and let it push me a little further. The last few years I’ve really fallen in love with winter hiking and backpacking, mostly through bagging four thousand footers in New Hampshire and the Adirondacks, and having done a handful of winter overnights. I’ve really enjoyed how much it challenged me, and how present I felt during the whole experience.
How did you make the jump from nice weather backpacking to winter backpacking?
I took baby steps. I did a lot of winter day hiking before I ever went overnight. The first time I went snowshoeing up a 4k footer, I’d done half of the Adirondack 46ers. And I was like, “oh, man, I want to keep hiking but the winter is coming, I have to wait till next year.” This was probably four years ago. I didn’t realize people hiked in the winter. And then I found that they did, they put snowshoes on and hiked. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
So I looked into it and got a bunch of gear, and I picked a hike that I felt like I could manage. The conditions were decently good, it wasn’t too cold, and I eased my way into it… The first time I went (winter) backpacking, I did it in an area that I was familiar with, in the Adirondacks, where I knew I was only a couple miles of flat walking from my car. I let my family know where I was going, and I have a GPS with me all the time. The night before I went, I slept outside right out of my house to make sure my sleeping bag was warm enough, and I was fine.
I did my first night out and I thought it was so fun. So I did a couple more trips. I camped out in this blizzard in the Whites where over a foot of snow came down while I was out hiking. And that was really fun. I did this other trip where I stayed out two nights. The first night was negative teens. That was in February of last year.
How would you teach yourself all of the little technical things, how to use snowshoes, how to use an ice axe, how to filter water in the winter, all of these things that are harder and more difficult in the winter than the summer?
So some of them I failed at. And some of them I did a lot of research. I ended up just strapping the snowshoes on, and there was quite a bit of fumbling involved with getting used to walking around in snowshoes, and now I feel a lot more comfortable in them. I’ve been using chemical purification on this trip because the push filters decide they’re gonna freeze.
There’s a lot of information on YouTube. I tried to try things out for myself in a more controlled, low-risk environment. When I go out hiking, I have run into other people as well, going in the same direction. You’re chatting with them, pick their brain a little bit about the do’s and don’ts and what they use and what works best for them.
What’s been the high and the low so far?
Making it to the end of the 100-Mile Wilderness was the high. I was really intimidated by it, because I knew there’s a good chance I wasn’t going to see anyone. I was losing sleep thinking about those rivers I needed to ford. It was scary. And so when I made it through there, I felt more confident about myself, about moving forward, and I felt really good. That was definitely a high moment for me.
I’d say one of my biggest lows was the other day. I had come off the Crockers, and I’d climbed up near the spur to the side trail up Sugarloaf. I still wanted to do three or four more miles, and it was already dark. I’d already done probably upwards of 5000 feet of elevation that day. And I was 10 or 11 miles into the day, and it was cold and I was tired. I really felt just so demoralized. I was really getting my butt kicked in a totally all-encompassing way, and I didn’t know how I was gonna be able to keep going in that moment. So I sat down and I ate a snack, and regrouped. I told myself, “it doesn’t matter. You’ll get there when you get there, just keep going,” and I ended up getting to the shelter at seven p.m. that night.
I remember this one moment on the last climb of the day, right next to the summit of Spalding. There was a blowdown across the trail. I was exhausted, I was tired, it was late. I’d been hiking in the dark forever. I was on my hands and knees, because I need to fit myself and my backpack underneath this blowdown. I’m crawling through the snow, in the cold, and I can feel the weight of the pack on my back. And I’m just like, “What am I doing out here? This is nuts. I’m totally in over my head.” And I just keep saying to myself, “just keep moving, keep moving. Keep moving forward. You’ll make it.” That was a low moment right at that junction.
I’ve had a few other ones. Going up over little hills that are unnamed mountains, that you wouldn’t notice if you were out hiking, has almost brought me to tears because I’m just so exhausted and slow. I think getting over those moments is just really tough, where I just need to take a second and really pull myself together.
It’s even worse when it’s the little no-name hills, because when you’re on a named peak, you get a bigger sense of accomplishment.
Exactly. I had a rough time going up the Bigelows, but I got there, I was like, “I just climbed the Bigelows.” At the end of the 100-Mile Wilderness, there was this unnamed mountain that was probably only a couple hundred feet of uphill. And I was 50 feet from the top. I sat there, and I almost lost it because I was exhausted. I was just totally depleted, and I needed to regroup. During that small break, I had a little bite to eat, I drank some water. I took my pack off for a second and just sat there, and it helped. And I was able to keep going and go over the hill, obviously. But yeah, it’s pretty demoralizing.
What’s been an unexpected challenge?
I like to hike long days. When I was just day hiking, bagging peaks, I love to do big 20-30 mile days. When I was on the Appalachian Trail, once I got in shape enough, I did high teens, 20 miles, mid-20s per day. Now I’ll do eight miles on this trail, and I’m flattened. 8-10 miles is a good day’s work on this trail. I need to accept slowing down, which has been a challenge for me.
There was a mile the other day that took me like an hour and 20 minutes. It was a steep uphill with a loaded pack and a bunch of snow. And it’s just slow. There are no free miles on this trail. Even if there’s a more chill mile, I’m still breaking through whatever snow is on the ground. I’m still carrying my heavy pack. No miles are free out here.
Yeah, I find that it’s really easy to just say “hike your own hike,” but it’s so much more complicated than that. The real challenge is how to really own the hike that you ended up hiking.
Right. Because that’s the thing, at the end of the day, we’re out here for fun. Nobody’s making you be out here. So there’s a fine line between pushing yourself and doing something enjoyable. Some days, some moments are just totally miserable, and I want to be done. But the other part of you wants to keep going. And it’s this tug of war between these two things. But I guess otherwise I wouldn’t be out here in the winter.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge has been mentally getting used to just being cold. When I stop to take a break I’m cold, when the day starts and I need to get out of my sleeping bag it’s cold, and then I put on my clothes from the day before, and it’s really cold and miserable. That’s a big challenge, and that’s another reason why coming into town has been so important to me: I get a mental reprieve from doing that.
Physically, I can do it. I get up in the morning, I put my clothes on, and I walk. But mentally, staring at the shirt, that is half rigid because of the ice of the sweat that was on it, and putting that on myself, shivering while it goes down my back, is hard to do. I sleep with a lot of the clothes that I’m going to wear the next day. So most of the time, I’m not putting on a sheet of ice. But it happens.
I’ve had some long winter day hikes. I’ve done like 30 mile days in the winter in the Whites, like 18 hours of hiking in my snowshoes. Now I’ll sit down and be like, “Why can’t I have that mental fortitude right now?”
What’s been your favorite part of the trail so far?
As much of a hard day I had on the Bigelows, I got the sunset on the Bigelows. That was so cool. Walking between the Kennebec River, and the Bigelows, you walk by a bunch of little lakes and ponds, and they were all frozen over. And the snow was flurrying out that day, and they were really pretty.
There were a couple times where I was doing the river crossings in the 100-Mile Wilderness where I took a moment and I was like, “I’m standing in the middle of a river in the 100-Mile by myself in December.” It just felt so wild and awesome, to be in that moment. I thought that was so cool.
Are there things you’re particularly excited or nervous about going forward?
So the things that are coming up that I’m intimidated by: the Mahoosucs, this stretch, is really intimidating me just because I know it’s so rugged. I’m gonna have long days and it’ll be hard to make the miles for sure. The Presidentials. In the Presidentials, it’s not up to my mental fortitude to get through them, it’s up to the weather. There’s a chance that I won’t feel comfortable going up there, because the weather’s just so bad. It’s the worst weather. You know, it’s routinely dozens of degrees below zero up there.
So I’m definitely super intimidated by that just because I know how dangerous it is. I understand that I’m going to need to be flexible and either wait, or I might have to do the rest of the Whites and then come back to it. I want to make sure the weather’s good when I go up there.
How are you managing your own sense of risk tolerance when you’re in such harsh unforgiving conditions?
Well, I mean, look at what I did on Katahdin. I didn’t make it to the sign. I told myself this too, when I started winter hiking: it’s easy to go up the mountain, getting down is the important part. So, I told myself on Katahdin, “it’s a whiteout on the Tablelands. It’s so easy to get turned around. You’re at the time you told yourself you’d turn around so you don’t do this in the dark.” I made it a mile and a half from the sign, I could for sure have walked that to the sign. I did the steep part of the Hunt trail. But it was time for me to turn around, and I knew it. So I did, keeping in mind that the mountain will always be there.
The other good thing is I feel good in the Whites, because I’ve hiked a lot in the Whites. So I know the bailout options if I need to, where there are side trails down and stuff like that. So yes, the weather’s unpredictable in the Presidentials. I just need to be like, “bring all the things you need to be safe, and be completely willing to turn around and go down the mountain, if you don’t feel comfortable.” So I’m trying to keep those things front of mind as I go into the Whites. Because as much as I want to do this hike, nothing’s more important than getting off the mountain being safe, obviously.
Are you doing this hike supported or unsupported?
Nobody’s following me along. I had a friend come up and meet me at the end of the 100 miles. And my dad’s coming up next weekend to visit and I’ll probably have a friend or two come out to do little sections with me. They’re bringing me into town, but I would get into town anyway.
I’m resupplying in town. I’ve had a few boxes sent to me, but for the most part, I’ve been buying them. In the towns, I’ve had a few people go, “Oh, we have our hiker stuff off to the side, but it’s still here.” But the towns are ready for you. The towns have hiker stuff.
How did your friends and family react when you told them you were going to do this?
Very supportive, but also worried. It’s scary, going out by yourself, especially in the winter. It’s been so great though, because they’ve been extremely supportive of me, helping me along at home, helping ship me stuff, helping coordinate things, dropping me off, telling me I can do it. I have a few close friends of mine, who were the first people I bounced all these ideas off of, and they just helped me believe that I could possibly do this. It’s huge to have people like that in my ear. Just saying “yes, you can do this.”
Would you recommend this hike to others?
That is a good question. First of all, if you go out in the winter, understand how to be prepared to go out in the winter. First and foremost, how to be safe in doing so…Would I recommend trying to do the whole AT like this? I haven’t made it through Maine yet, so it’s hard for me to say. But I think this is great. I think this is really a good, fun challenge.
If you’re looking for the “trail experience” that the AT gave me the first time, there is very, very little of that. I need to keep reminding myself I’m thru-hiking because you don’t see people hiking during the day. You don’t see hikers in town. There’s not this buzz on the trail of thru-hikers. It’s just me.
If you do choose to do this, understand what it takes and understand that it’s a completely different experience.
Is there anything else that you want to add?
This is hard. I am being challenged. I also think it’s so cool. People in towns have been really supportive, when they find out what I’m doing. Big shout out to my friends and family, and people who’ve been following along who’ve been supportive, because I know the hardest parts are in front of me still. I’m intimidated, but I’m also excited. I never want to jinx myself, because anything can happen on a thru hike.
Part of the reason I’m out here is because I truly don’t know if I can do it, but I feel ready to try my hardest to do it. That’s the most important part. I put myself in a good spot to try my hardest to get through these hard parts, and that feels good. So whether or not I make it, whether or not this trail beats me down, whatever happens, I’m really happy that I’m out here trying because I felt like I could have let the fear of all of it put me on a bus home already. I’m still here. I’m happy that I’m still here.
If you’d like to keep up with Aquaman as he continues his winter SOBO of the AT, follow his YouTube channel, and follow him on Instagram at @scottbenerofe!
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