Game Time for AT SOBO: Final Prep Hike on the Georgia Loop
Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, especially a SOBO journey, is certainly not a game. It is a life-altering commitment that could involve life or death decisions. But much like a team preparing for a championship game, you must prepare yourself physically and mentally for the challenge. You need to consider your opponent’s strategy. Will you try to defeat it or use it to your advantage?
In the case of a thru-hike, your “opponent” is the natural conditions that can either wreak havoc on your physical and emotional state or drive you to press on and accomplish amazing feats. Does the rain get you down, or do you recognize that it’s cooler, the streams are full, and the salt is rinsing from your clothes? Is that 800 foot per mile climb going to break you, or do you let the slow pace allow you to appreciate the tiny snail on a blade of grass? Do you have adequate defenses for the natural offensive?
Taking on the Georgia Loop
The best way to find out how you will react is to immerse yourself the best you can in the conditions you will experience before taking the first step on the field. I just finished the Georgia Loop, considered the toughest hike in the state. This trek was last test of my gear, physical fitness, and mental resilience. The conditions were the closest I could get in an effort to prepare for what awaits me in Maine and New Hampshire, though I recognize nothing can replicate that challenging terrain.
The Georgia Loop is approximately 60 miles with about 14,000 feet in elevation gain. The route uses the Appalachian (AT), Duncan Ridge (DRT), and the Benton MacKaye Trails (BMT) to give backpackers a challenging and beautiful hike. It really tested my endurance as I tackled the route in 3 nights, averaging 15 miles per day. Some climbs presented an 800-foot-per-mile challenge. The descents were equally demanding. The solitude of much of this trip was peaceful but sometimes lonely. Luckily, the rain held off, and I got some great views to keep my spirits up. Overall, this was a good test to get into game time mode as I start my SOBO AT thru-hike in a few weeks.
Duncan Ridge Trail
I could not find a ton of information about the DRT besides a regional topographic map, some comments on AllTrails, and an article on the Outdoor Project. Overall, this trail lived up to the expectation as one of the toughest hikes in Georgia. It runs with the BMT for about 16 miles but stands alone for 19 miles between the AT and the BMT. Switchbacks were rare on the 19-mile section as the trail tends to go straight up and down the mountains and knobs. Hikers can find water about every 5 miles with a campsite located near the water source. I spent my first night at White Oak Stomp on the edge of a forest service road. It was a quiet spot, but not the most beautiful. Luckily, the nearby spring was flowing and I got some good sleep after a tough 13-mile day.
For day 2, I hiked about 16 miles from White Oak Stomp to the intersection of the DRT and BMT. The roller coaster hike had me feeling pretty exhausted when I got to my campsite on the side of Licklog Mountain, but I made good time finishing just after 4 PM.
Benton MacKaye Trail
Hiking SOBO from miles 23 to 7 on the BMT, this section was remote, quiet, and challenging. I spent the night at mile 23 near Licklog Mountain by myself and only saw a couple of hikers during the day. The most challenging climb of this section was probably the 3-mile ascent from the Toccoa River suspension bridge to Bryson Gap. This climb was manageable with a gentle 300 feet per mile elevation gain. The highlights of this SOBO hike were the 270-foot-long Toccoa River suspension bridge and Long Creek Falls. There is a picture of the famed Toccoa River suspension bridge at the top of this post. The scenic connector is the longest swinging bridge east of the Mississippi.
Rolf Asphaug put together some great observations of the BMT in a blog on The Trek. While I only walked 16 miles of the BMT this time, I think his observations are spot-on. If someone only has 3-4 weeks and wants to get away from the hustle and bustle of the AT without giving up the natural experience, the BMT is a fantastic option.
I hiked from Long Creek Falls to Woody Gap along the AT, spending the night at Hawk Mountain Shelter. This portion of the loop was generally easier than the DRT and BMT sections, but it did present some challenging climbs. Sassafras Mountain greeted me early in the morning with a 1 mile climb of 650 feet. There were a couple more short, steep ascents, and the route was generally uphill on the “flat” portions. Overall, the section was much more frequently travelled with a wider, flatter footpath and plenty of fellow backpackers. After spending two nights alone, there were probably 20 section hikers at Hawk Mountain Shelter. Quite the shock, but everyone was super nice and respected “hiker midnight”.
Waiting in Appreciation
The preparation is done, and now it’s a waiting game until my date arrives to travel to Baxter State Park in Maine. All that is left is to preserve the physical shape I am in and inspect my gear. The Army has given me some good techniques to focus my remaining time. One essential task is to conduct pre-combat checks and pre-combat inspections (PCC/PCI) to make sure my vital equipment is ready for the journey. My family is a “vital” part of what makes me successful, so we will make sure they are set up for success in my absence. It’s hard to predict everything that may happen or fail to happen, but we try. I guess if they need me, I’m just a text message or flight from Boston away.
It is hard to express how excited I am to get started on my SOBO AT thru-hike in June. My family has been very supportive of my dream. From my teenage years hiking over some of the trails I just visited, to allowing me the budget to buy my sleeping bag, they have been awesome. My friends and battle buddies throughout my career have shaped how I handle physical and emotional stress. I’ll be hiking for many of them, too.
I appreciate the support we already have for Camp Resilient, NC. If you have a chance, please stop by my GoFundMe HERE or utilize the “Tip the Author” button.
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