Winter Shakeout Hike – Neel Gap to Tesnatee Gap

Hi all!! Start date is getting closer so after talking with a friend of my husband’s (who plays pinball AND hikes), I decided to do a winter backpacking trip.  Due to other obligations, I had one day and one night to do this and decided to start at Neels Gap.  My original end was to hike to Whitley Gap Shelter and set up camp, then hike out in the morning.  As you can see from the title, I exited at Tesnatee Gap, a road that is reached prior to reaching the Whitley Gap Shelter.

It was definitely a good test of cold weather.  My husband was my support, dropping me off and picking me up.  It was cold!  Night was getting down to 22, daytime was low 30s with a lot of wind, gusts up to 35 mph, which I definitely think happened.

The great folks at Mountain Crossings at Neels Gap helped us go through my pack.  I was having a hard time figuring out how to properly pack it, and they helped where it wasn’t so bulky.

The hike started out OK.  I had three layers on at the bottom: long underwear, hiking pants, and my rain pants.  They worked at the start, but by the end of the hike, my legs were so cold I still feel it a day later.  Not sure why I didn’t stay warmer.   Breaks were hard because of the cold, plus rocks and logs that I could have sat on were covered with ice or snow.  Stopping to take a break was a rarity due to the cold, so it was just a continuous hike.

My hands were cold, and I had on gloves. I brought an over-glove set that apparently I had never tried on because they did not fit; they were way too tight. Rookie mistake.

I am a very slow hiker, especially in a situation like this one where there was so much ice: six hours to do the six miles.  Certain sections I had to stop and evaluate how I would find dry parts of rocks to step on instead of the ice sheets that covered many of the rocks.  There were icicles hanging from some of the rocks.  I was thrilled that I never fell.

This was my first long hike where I couldn’t help wondering what would happen if I fell.  I did pass folks, two groups of two, and two single hikers who easily overtook me.

Once I realized that stopping hiking to set up camp was only going to make me colder, even with adding an additional layer when I stopped, I decided to stop and get off at Tesnatee Gap.  I need to figure out why my layers were not enough because I did not feel comfortable sleeping on the mountain.

Evidence of other hikers!

The road to Tesnatee Gap was closed, so I was going to have to hike an extra 2 miles down the road to meet my husband where the gate was closed.  Fortunately, he had a sheriff’s deputy stop to ask him what he was waiting for and offer to show up an hour later and drive my husband in to pick me up in the sheriff’s car.  What a relief.

I think several things were in play this day.

  1. I had never hiked in this kind of weather before, and it really opened up my eyes to proper layering, caution on the icy rocks, and the inability to really take a break during the hike.
  2. I have been regularly hiking about four days a week, but not with my full pack, just with a day pack.  I need to hike with full pack or mostly full pack regularly before the start.
  3. My water had ice in it from freezing. I did some research after the hike and know now to store my bottle upside down and maybe put a sock over it.
  4. Is there a way to carry hot liquids?
  5. I never really felt thirsty or hungry but later had the shakes, so I need to force myself to eat and drink in this kind of weather.
  6. The feeling of being one step away from breaking a bone probably goes away when there are way more people on the trail and not so much ice.
  7. Perhaps I want to start the thru-hike later when it is warmer and maybe even flip-flop to take advantage of the good weather.
  8. Why were my legs getting cold, and what should I have worn instead of my long underwear, hiking pants, and rain pants?

I also need to separate out these skills I need to work on and not necessarily work on them all at the same time.  For instance, I need a lot more practice carrying my backpack, taking it off, and putting it on so it’s not so hard. I need to practice setting up and tearing down camp. I need to practice cold weather hiking and the proper clothes.

But I can do these in stages, not necessarily all at the same time.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of time.  I can start the hike later if I want to wait for warmer weather and then flip-flop halfway through.

All in all, it was a learning experience and the first hike that had me wondering: can I do this thing, or should I redefine success? As a recent retiree, I still have that drive that I had in my work, and it is not necessary anymore.  If this turns into a LASH (long-ass section hike), that’s OK. It’s not a contest. There is no negative impact on my life from not finishing or modifying this hike in some way. It is an opportunity to be with myself, away from technology, as a part of nature, alone with my own thoughts.

I have more work to do.

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Comments 11

  • Steffen Wiehr : Jan 16th

    Are you from a warm state perhaps? You should have been warm enough. Maybe getting a merino wool base layer? And then a mid layer? Also, try mittens, not gloves.

    • Suzi : Jan 17th

      I am from a warm state, Atlanta, Georgia and definitely have thin blood. I’ll look into my base layer and the mittens! Thanks!

  • Pinball : Jan 17th

    Could text but better to put here for others
    1 that’s part of the flow of nature and seasonality, remember the cold is temporary
    2 unless injured, always practice with your full pack base weight (not necessarily 3-7 days of food and full waters, can save that for real thing)
    3 store freshly filtered water deep inside pack (not outside), utilize armpits possibly
    4 no way to carry hot liquid in a way that makes sense for weight during a thru
    5 eat on a schedule (1.5 to 2 hours?, snack while hiking from easily accessible) until your body figures out naturally
    6 no that should not ever go away, that’s a healthy human fear!
    7 personal decision
    8 said above, try merino

    Wouldn’t jump to any conclusions or huge changes of plan until you take some of these easy layup fixes during your practice.
    It’s awesome that you got out there and got those lessons!

    • Suzi : Jan 17th

      Thanks! I’m visiting my sister in Charlotte now, but brought my entire backpack and I’ll make sure and wear it everyday for at least 2-3 hours. Sound good?

  • Badger : Jan 17th

    Hi Suzi

    Just wanted to let you know how much I’m enjoying your posts, I will be following you on the AT (whichever way you decide to do it). Good luck, you are awesome for getting out there and having a go!

    • Suzi : Jan 17th

      Thanks Badger! I really do appreciate the support. I’m feeling more confident now. I wrote this post the day after the hike while my feelings about it were fresh. I’m trying to keep these posts real, the good AND the bad!

  • Robert : Jan 17th

    I think I was one of the ones who passed you. I went from Neels Gap to Hogpen that day. I had to walk out to the gate for my ride, and saw the sheriff deputy near the end who said he was headed up to get someone.

    Anyway, it was a brutal day. Definitely my least favorite day hiking, weather wise. I fell on my face slipping on ice, my water froze multiple times even with my tweaks to stop it happening.
    I remember taking a short break at a campsite and just thinking through what I would have to go through to stay the night. It seemed like a miserable exercise.

    fwiw, I think you made the right choice and are asking the right questions.

  • Suzi : Jan 17th

    Wow! I hope your face is okay! It was brutal…and nice to know it is not just me who felt it! Thanks! Are you trying the thru-hike?

    • Robert Stowe : Jan 18th

      I just fell into some dirt and leaves to the side, but thanks for your concern.

      No. I am section hiking the AT in GA one day trip at time. I started when the leaves fell, and hope to finish before they come back 🙂

  • Gina : Jan 19th

    Hi Suzi,

    Great post keeping it real. You’ve got this.

  • Toni : Mar 4th

    Very excited for you sister!! Keep us updated.


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