Ya win some, ya lose some, right?
This past weekend, I talked some AT pals into doing an overnighter on the Skyway Loop in Alabama. It connects a part of the Pinhoti with a side trail resulting in a 17-mile loop. I mainly wanted to get out there because it’s been three months since my last backpacking trip, but I also wanted to test out my old AT gear on some harsh weather to make sure it’s ready for the PCT. It’s all held up fine in the summer post-AT, but the last time I used any of this stuff winter camping was when it was brand new.
I don’t plan to swap out much gear from my AT hike for my upcoming PCT hike simply due to gear prices being absolutely outrageous. This means I need to know if my well-loved and well-used gear will hold up for another 5 or 6 months of constant use. What better opportunity to test my gear than in the midst of a winter storm?
The Best Laid Schemes of Mice and Men
As the weekend grew closer, the weather forecast worsened. One of my buddies dropped out. Still, I insisted this was no biggie! “We’re thru-hikers, we can do this!” Famous last words.
We hit the trail in the early afternoon Saturday. To my delight, I immediately noticed longleaf pine saplings along the trail. They’re my favorite kind of pine, native to the southeastern US, with one of the most interesting histories! Longleaf pine forests used to cover 90 million acres in the south, but now only cover three million acres, much of which is due to recent restoration efforts. Very few old-growth longleaf groves exist. They were highly valued for their sap and timber for naval uses, but what really did them in was fire suppression. They’re a highly fire-dependent species, requiring near-annual burning for successful regeneration. We’ve all heard of the issue of fire suppression in regards to the Western US, but it’s a problem across the entire country to varying degrees. They’re also very cute because they’re pom-pom-shaped!
The big appeal of this hike was the “stairway to heaven,” an ascent of about 1000 feet over a mile and a half. I haven’t had any real climbs since Katahdin, so I was truly stoked to feel the suffering of an uphill slog. Once at the top, we spotted the bad weather approaching. We didn’t linger long.
We set up camp at dusk as it started to drizzle. Then, it started raining. Then sleet. Maybe a bit of hail, too. Then snow. The wind gusts were so strong that I woke up over and over from my tent bowing almost flat on my body. Around 3am, I rolled over and grumbled, “this sucks.” My buddy replied, bless his heart, “it’ll make a good story.”
Then, around five, we discovered the bathtub floor of my tent decided to live up to its name and hold an inch of water at our feet. At least Therm-a-Rests float.
In the morning, with the snow falling, we packed up and turned back. The call of the warm car was too strong and we left the loop unfinished. Excuses like, “We need to let our down bags dry out as soon as possible,” and, “We don’t know what the trail conditions farther along are like in this snow,” were pouring out of us. As I write this warm and dry, this all seems pathetic. What happened to the hardened grit I earned as a hiker? Shouldn’t I have known better than to let my tent flood? Shouldn’t I have known better than to hike in these conditions in the first place?
The truth is it’s hard to embrace the suck when you have an out. Had this occurred on a thru-hike, our only option would be to keep hiking. This was no thru-hike. Furthermore, my severe disappointment at my gear failing was a mental block I’m not sure I could have easily pushed through. I felt defeated and a bit panicked at the idea of replacing items I didn’t plan to so soon.
It’ll All Come Out in the Wash
Though plenty of things went wrong, there are many reasons I’m glad I went out and did this.
First of all, it’s much better that I was able to find out my gear can’t handle severe weather anymore on a one-nighter, not somewhere in the Sierras when I wouldn’t have the resources I have now. I can perform some patching, seam sealing, and waterproofing and maybe make things work.
I’m grateful to have been able to spend some time in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, reminding me of the beginning of my AT thru-hike.
I’m grateful to have seen the longleaf pines and adorable pine warblers hopping through the snowy woods around us.
Lastly, I am most thankful that I was able to get a dose of humility. It’s easy to forget just how much the trail can kick your ass when you’re reminiscing through rose-colored glasses. The reminder that I’m not an invincible feral forest-being will absolutely serve to keep me from making sketchy decisions on the PCT.
Though I may have failed to complete the planned trek, I consider this shakedown a success.
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