Sunday, April 12, 2015

Saving the Hike by Getting off the Trail

The sign at Dick's Creek Gap. In a couple months I'll have a picture showing me back on the trail.

I won't be through-hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2015.

Those words were hard to type, but they are true. In the calendar year 2015, I won't be walking the entirety of the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. With that being the strict definition of a through-hiker, I will not qualify.

Now, that doesn't mean I'm finished hiking the trail. Not by a long shot. It also doesn't mean I won't finish the entire trail some day. Just not all of it in 2015.

Why? Simply put I just am not prepared to do the whole thing, and continuing at this point would have at best left me sick of the entire venture and at worst...well, I don't want to contemplate the worst.

I came to this realization about five days ago. On this day, I went all of about 4 miles in ten hours. Granted, one of the toughest miles in Georgia (an 800 foot incline in about a mile) was part of the day, but the two miles and change before it took way too long, and it was relatively easy. I just couldn't get myself moving. This had been a problem the day before, but that had come after a terrible wet night that followed a miserable wet day of hiking up two tough, muddy climbs and a nerve-wracking rocky descent. I had a long, dry night of rest following that, and I should have made it the eight miles or so to Dick's Creek Gap from my campsite, even if it took me to seven or so in the evening. Instead I only made it half that distance.

Now I'm not delusional. I know most of long distance hiking is staring at your shoes and trudging to the next gap/summit/campsite/shelter. It being a challenge is not something that surprised me, or that I hadn't dealt with. The ~70 miles I hiked of the approach trail and Appalachian Trail to that campsite before the Swag of the Blue Ridge had been tough, but had been doable and while challenging was a positive experience. That awful day, however, was different.

Perhaps I could have plugged along after taking a zero day at the Top of Georgia hostel near Dick's Creek Gap. The 3.9 (counting the 0.3 miles from the Deep Gap Shelter back to the trail) I hiked to the gap went a lot better. However, there is very little between Dick's Creek Gap and Winding Stair Gap in North Carolina. Were things to be as bad as that (or worse), I could be stuck in the middle of nowhere in a life threatening situation. At the very least, I could have ended up completely demoralized and fed up with hiking.

So I made a decision to get off the trail temporarily and figure out how to handle this better when I get back on the trail, which is looking like Rockfish Gap just before Shenandoah National Park. After some thought and reflection, I figured out some areas for improvement that I need to focus on.

  • Work on Endurance and Climbing - This is something that I should have been working on better during the months leading up to the hike. I should have walked longer distances and going up stairs, or walking on inclined treadmills, so I could handle ascents better. Had I done this, I could have been better equipped to handle the grind of hiking the roller coaster of the Appalachian Trail. This in isolation didn't cause my issues, but certainly complemented the other bullets on this list.
  • Nutrition and Hydration - These issues were a major factor of my problems, I am pretty certain. Its hard to eat the amount of calories you need to get through the day, especially when you just can't force yourself to eat that amount. I've yet to encounter the true "hiker hunger", and when you get into camp (particularly if it's rainy or dark), it's far too easy to just head to bed without dinner. Even worse is the fight to get hydrated. In fact, I suspect some hydration issues were a big reason for my problems that day. When I reached Deep Gap that night, I drank an entire bladder from my gravity filter at the water source, plus a fair amount from a second bladder and didn't have to use the facilities until the next day. 
  • Proper Clothing - The one article of clothing I couldn't find that was "hiker attire" that fit me were pants. Instead I went with a pair of my khaki casual pants. 95% of this pair of pants was fairly resilient. Unfortunately the other 5% was not, and this was right in an area where holes had to be covered. This left a pair of thermal pants I had, which were great when nights got down into the 40s (or lower), but weren't so great when the temperatures climbed up near 80 and you were constantly hiking in the sun, as the green tunnel of the AT won't show up for another month at least. My legs constantly sweating didn't help with hydration, and also didn't help with some chaffing issues that were exacerbated by the soaking going up Tray Mountain.
  • Weight Issues - True, I should have lost more weight, and I intend to lose some more before I get back on the trail. But this primarily refers to my pack weight. The fact is I need to shed at least ten pounds and get it below 35 (including food and water). While I can get some savings but shedding cold weather gear, I need to lighten the load in other ways as well, for I'll need that gear when the upper portions of New England. 
  • Pack Balance - In addition to weight of the pack, I also have had some balance issues, with the pack tending to lean to one side. I'm sure this hasn't helped things, and will need to be addressed before I get back on the trail.
  • Focus on seeing, doing, and interacting - Racking up miles feels good. It gives you a tangible way to determine your progress and see how far you've yet to go. But in can overpower you and force you away from seeing the sights, doing fun things, and being part of the hiker community along the trail. If I only hike 4 miles in a day, I want it to be because I stopped to enjoy a beautiful view, or take a swim in a waterfall fed pool, or trading tales with other hikers around a campfire or shelter's picnic table. If I make it to Katahdin by the end of September, great, but if not, I want it to be because I hiked my own hike with its own set of memories and experiences.
Over the next couple months, I will be working on these points and truly getting prepared to do this right. In effect, I consider this first part a two week shakedown that just happened to coincide with the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. It gave me a good idea of what works and what doesn't work, and now I can apply that to the reboot of the hike.

As disappointed as I am that I am no longer hiking with my sister, I am also glad I no longer have to deal with the stress of feeling like I am holding her back. She is kicking butt on the trail, having conquered Georgia and is now in North Carolina.  I'll miss starting out with her every morning, and wrapping up the evenings on the occasions where I got into camp before she had already gone to bed. Depending on how my finances hold out I'll be supporting her as much as I can, and possibly even getting out there to some of the big highlights of the section of the trail I will be off, such as Max Patch, Grayson Highlands, and others. I'm not sure if we'll be hiking together when I get back on the trail (she'll be in a completely different league by then), but maybe we'll be able to sync up. 

Finally, as many areas I've found for improvement, I am still quite happy with what I've accomplished. Between the 7.5 miles of the approach trail, and about 70 miles I hiked from Springer Mountain to Dick's Creek Gap, I hiked 80 miles, more than doubling the total number of nights I've ever backpacked. Before I did this, I was not certain what would happen when I tried hiking down a long descent, or had to cross rock fields, or had to hike in extended periods in the rain. This hike proved that not only could I do it, I could do it several times a day. I no longer have doubts of my ability to handle pretty much anything in front of me on a step by step basis. Now I just need to deal with the other factors that surround those individual steps to make sure I can follow them up with more steps.

I will be charting my progress with my plan to get back on the trail on this blog, so stay tuned. I'm not yet sure how I will handle this, but it will be pretty similar to the Countdown to Amicalola journal I kept before I began the hike.

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