No one expected to step out of the Jeep into a full-on blizzard.
Sideways snow blew in 45 mph wind, creating a total whiteout—my second mountainous whiteout of 2014 already. The trail itself was hidden by a foot of fresh snow. Adrenaline pushed us forward, desperately seeking the refuge of the woods.
After losing the way for the third time in the inaugural 20 minutes of our hike, the first doubts about the sanity of our endeavor began to creep in. Grim headlines began to form in my mind. But luckily, I was with some experienced dudes. Jon Mullins—a guy who could keep up with Muir—and Jon Rollins, the type of guy you follow into a whiteout while he laughs maniacally about it.
And so began three days of cold on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. Our objective: Mount Rogers, the highest point in the state.
On Sacrificing Halloween
Halloween was always my favorite holiday. So giving up the first Halloween at home in eight years didn’t come easily. But when adventure comes knocking, particularly stateside, hangovers just have to wait.
Pumpkins glowed. Throngs of costumed freaks wandered between libations. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was attracting more fishnet-clad, costumed beauties than should have been allowed in one place. Ugh. A Guns-n-Roses and Ramones tribute-band costume party was at my favorite venue. Ugggh.
But no matter how many sexy spooks would be crawling the streets of the city, the mountains always win. The cost of craving adventure is steep, indeed.
My rudimentary hodgepodge of gear from the Army, hunting, and travel wasn’t really up to the task of keeping me alive in arctic conditions. I felt like a gladiator who had been forced into the arena to do battle in a spandex suit. Only, a quick death at the paws of irritated lions would have been preferred over the prospect of slowing freezing into a human meatsickle.
I have no excuses, other than being a cheap bastard and a broke vagabond. Thank God I had been coerced into purchasing merino shirt and socks, along with Gortex boots and microspike crampons, at REI in Seattle for climbing Mount Rainier in August. Without those items, I’d probably be writing this by blowing into a straw on a Stephen Hawking speaking computer.
All in all, I left home at 4 a.m. on Saturday with 44 pounds (around 20 kg) of gear stuffed, strapped, and slung onto my backpack. All 44 pounds—including food and water—would soon be frozen to a nearly useless state.
On Being Cold
The cold does strange things to a man. Particularly a man, who despite growing up with plenty of ice storms in Kentucky, has always loathed the cold. There’s a reason I end up near the equator every year.
Tasks that seem simple enough to accomplish at home become nearly impossible when appendages stop working and cranial fluid runs thick. Important stuff, such as brushing teeth, even. Although normally adamant about not making my dentist’s Mercedes payments, I didn’t brush my teeth for three days on Mount Rogers. Never mind that toothpaste and water were both frozen, it was more or less just the effort involved to do something that’s not absolutely necessary to survival. You’d rather just pay the dentist to fix those fangs after the fact—at least the chair would be warm as the drill screams away.
The cold overwhelms all logic, and your competency is deteriorated in stages until you’re reduced to a vegetable. A drooling turnip, rocking back and forth in fetal position, probably mumbling something about missing the Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Army training exercises, hunting, camping, travel—I’ve been cold in the field before. But I have to say, Mount Rogers gave additional homework on being cold.
There are two types of cold. The first, what most of us experience regularly, is just psychological. Your body complains, but in the end, you know that you’ll be warm eventually by the end of the day. Your mind works differently when you know that getting warm again is an option. Enduring uncomfortable temperatures just becomes a waiting game. I experienced this type of cold during the whiteout atop Mount Rainier: numbing but temporary.
But the second type of cold, the real deal, is when there is no option to get warm again. It’s when your body truly is worried about sustaining some kind of physical damage and pours on the pain. It feels like you’re dying slowly—which may not be too much of a stretch. That’s when your brain detaches and pretends not to be associated with someone who would be out in temperatures so stupid.
The First Night
We only covered 4.5 miles the first day, but it felt much farther in deep snow. The other guys were faster, so I stumbled alone through blinding snow and 40 – 50 mph wind into the first shelter of our trip. Visibility was terrible; the sun was hanging low behind gray murk. The two-story, rudimentary structure was set in a clearing rather than the woods, so the storm was having its way with our future sanctuary.
At first glance, it was obvious that our new home would keep us alive but certainly not comfortable. Snow had accumulated through the doorless opening and frigid wind hissed through every crevice. After some debate, we established that the second floor would be best for holing up, despite being snowy and open around the eaves. Mullins got to work cleaning the place up and rigging a tarp system to protect us from additional snow.
The last temperature reading we had was 15 degrees F. That was inside and while the sun was still slightly up. After that, even the mercury in thermometers gave up. With the howling wind, the actual temp had to be in single digits with the windchill much worse. It was the type of cold where clouds of exhaled breath drift around the room like little weather systems.
Some of my clothing had actually frozen to my body. Literally. Most disturbing were my pants—they had frozen while I was wearing them. Already as stiff as cardboard, putting them on the next morning would surely cost me my manhood. I mentally wondered how I would share the news of my icy castration when I got home.
Throughout the night, the storm raged and rattled on just outside. The regular sounds of snoring and farting that normally permeate a shelter full of weary hikers were barely audible above the wind. Gusts threatened to rip the tin roof off at any moment. The storm was clawing at the structure like a starving animal, desperate to get inside and bite us fleshy hikers. Loud crashes of snow and ice falling from trees onto the roof boomed ominously. The roof flapped madly just a few feet from my head. Snow fell onto my face every now and then. Losing a sheet of roofing in the night would cause one helluva survival scramble to ensue.
Getting to sleep when death by exposure is pounding at the door isn’t an easy task.
A Nightmare Comes True
I had been lugging around four liters of water all day, every precious drop of which had frozen solid. I may as well have been carrying bricks; the nearly nine pounds of bottled ice was useless to me. But despite being dehydrated as I lie still in the darkness, I felt an increasingly uncomfortable pressure on my bladder. I ignored it, concluding that I would rather suffer permanent damage than even think about leaving the relative warmth of the sleeping bag. For hours, this psychological struggle raged on, until I came to one grim realization: biology was going to win.
So, since I was in a sleeping bag borrowed from Rollins, pissing myself wasn’t an option—I actually calculated the pros and cons of doing do. Action had to be taken. My first thought was to use one of my water bottles, but they were too full of ice. I even considered peeing into my coffee cup in doses and dumping it beside me…but I didn’t want to take the chance of something unpleasant dripping into someone’s gear on the first floor. My boots were so frozen that the laces stood erect like old-school television antennae waiting to be adjusted.
In the end, wearing socks and cursing in every language I could come up with, I grabbed my headlamp and descended the ladder into the frozen hell below. I walked out into a blizzard to relieve myself.
The scene was surreal. Snow dusted around inside; roaring wind thumped our tarp stretched across the open door. Ice-encrusted gear sat gloomily scattered around the fringes. This had to be the last thing some of the brave idiots on excursions to the South Pole see. In an act of desperation, I actually ran out into the snow while wearing my sleeping socks. By the time I took care of melting some snow in an impressive cloud of steam, my socks were physically frozen to the bottoms of my feet. That quick, two-minute excursion cost me dearly: I shivered wide awake throughout the rest of the night.
A New Day
Getting out of a warm bed is difficult, even when a welcoming, civilized world beckons with coffee. But getting out of a frozen-stiff sleeping bag to trudge five miles across a frigid wasteland is hell. And that’s exactly what we did.
I ran into one slight problem after struggling through nearly an hour of packing: my fingertips became frozen. Not just metaphorically, but physically. The tips were as hard as stone and blue. Jon Rollins boiled a cup of water on his stove so that I wouldn’t be bitching about frostbite on top of all my other complaints. I held the cup grumpily until sensation returned.
The second day of walking five miles was tough, mainly because the trails were so hard to identify and follow. But despite still being cold, the snow had stopped falling and the wind was gusting with less gusto than yesterday. I dare say the hike almost became enjoyable at some point.
The two Jons really put some map-reading skills to use while navigating our way over the mountain and toward the next shelter. Not an easy task, considering that the Appalachian Trail’s white-stripe blazes were lost in one blinding world of white. Tree branches, laden with snow, leaned over the trail, both obscuring it and forcing us to do the duck walk underneath with heavy packs. Occasional backtracks to pick the trail back up cost extra effort, but for the most part, we plowed forward through virgin snow to cut a new path. Some of the drifts were thigh deep.
We arrived at the next shelter with a couple hours of daylight to spare. They were invested wisely.
Words can hardly do justice the importance of fire after being cold for so long. Morale is critical for survival. So is water that isn’t frozen. But even with this primal knowledge, doing anything other than collapsing in the shelter was still a serious pain in the ass.
So, already in a state of exhaustion, we trudged in circles around our camp searching for any scrap of wood that would possibly burn in such wet conditions. I used my little saw to cut up some sizable limbs, and before too long, we had amassed an impressive collection of snow-dusted wood.
I crumbled up an Army-issue trioxane tablet under our tiny kindling sticks, careful to sprinkle the blue powder around. There was a momentary pause, a complete silence, as all eyeballs attentively watched me strike a spark from a magnesium block with my knife. Suddenly someone exclaimed, “Fire!” My frozen brain had been so slow that Mullins actually noticed the tiny blue flame before I did. He eagerly began feeding it sticks until the flame was nurtured into a small fire.
As smoke poured off the wet wood and the meager flame grew to the point of sustainability, we knew that we had finally taken control of the situation. Self-efficacy is a good thing, indeed. The cracks! and pops! of branches relenting to our needs were like an orchestra of happiness. Warmth soon spread in a glowing radius and illuminated the grove. There’s just something so damned primitive and fantastic about being able to start a fire in such conditions—it makes you want to thump your chest and grunt.
So for the next six hours, we kept the fire raging. Rollins prepared a pasta meal, with sardines even, that would have impressed the pickiest Italian. Beef stew, mashed potatoes, noodle soup, and other trail delicacies provided a flood of warming calories. Water bottles were thawed near the flame, as were frozen boots. I managed to burn a hole in my brand new boots and melt my army canteen. There was a tiny gearpocalypse, but who cares—we had fire!
Bluegrass and bourbon; stories under stars. For once, we were in control of our destinies and Mount Rogers was allowing a little fun to be had. Above us in the moonlit black, long-haul flights streaked eerily while dragging glowing ice trails behind them. The passengers, all warm inside, certainly had no idea of the triumph going on in the woods miles below them.
I’m never going to forget that fire.
The Second Night
It was hard to leave the happiness of the fire and trudge toward the cold, dark shelter. But although the second, three-walled shelter was far smaller and more open-air than the first, we all enjoyed a better night. Rollins relinquished his zero-degree sleeping bag so I even managed to steal four hours of sleep, the first of any sleep in approximately 48 hours.
Temperatures were still well below freezing; my water bottles had refrozen themselves completely. But without the wind and snow, and after the hell of the first night, the Old Orchard shelter may as well have been one of my favorite beach bungalows in Thailand.
Heading Toward the Warmth
Our winter storm had cruel timing. It was a sniper of a Canadian storm that had blasted only the two days we have planned for months. Temperatures reached 50 degrees F the last day, and the world seemed to come alive again. The downhill, four-mile hike to the Jeep was incredibly enjoyable. We crossed gurgling springs under blue skies; birds stayed busy in the bushes. I almost felt guilty walking over the precious patches of grass that appeared at the end. The soft carpet seemed foreign and fragile after so many miles of frozen ground.
With cracked fingertips and a healthy new disdain for the upcoming winter, Mount Rogers was certainly one of the most memorable adventures that I’ve had in North America. Would I do it again? Absolutely. But let’s do the next one in August.