Miracles Are Not Just for Christmas

img_9114I want to tell you a story. I have wanted to tell this story many times. I have half written this post several times only to delete it and move past it. There are reasons I have gone back and forth on this. One is that I didn’t want to embarrass the person in the story. Another reason is I have struggled with the idea of accepting undue praise because in my mind, this is what anybody should do in this situation. The miracle of this story isn’t what I did, it’s that I was in exactly the right place at the right time to be able to do it.

It was July 5th earlier this year. I was in Kings Canyon National Park in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California. I was a half a day north from Mt. Whitney as I was standing on top of Forester Pass (the highest point on the Pacific Crest Trail at roughly 13,200 feet above sea level) and looking out into the new mountains and valleys on the other side. I had a formidable snow field in front of me to traverse. The trail, completely hidden beneath the snow, switchbacked down away from the pass. It was probably a couple hundred feet of elevation before the snow field gave way to the trail again. So instead of attempting to follow the invisible trail, or walking through the snow (aka post-holing through it), I decided to sit my happy ass right down in the snow and go for a ride. This is called glissading. Basically I’m sled riding down the mountain sans the sled. Now, this is more ideally done with pants on. But as most of you know, unless it’s the dead of winter, I don’t wear pants. In fact, I barely wear shorts. To get to the point, I was about to receive quite the ice wedgie. As I was about halfway down the snow field, I looked over and saw a woman hiking up the snow field towards Forester Pass. I hollered over to her, “IT”S COLD!!” She laughed and said something in return but I couldn’t hear her over the sound the snow was making as it was building underneath me the further I slid. Finally I reached the bottom and stood up and looked back at where I had just come from while simultaneously shaking out the snow that had made it’s way inside the liner of my short shorts. My ass was completely numb. But the sun was shining and it was a warm day, so I got to stepping.

It was a beautiful day and I was feeling great. This section is one of my favorites of the PCT in the Sierra. But then again, I’m not sure there is a section that I DON’T love in the Sierra. The trail continues down out of the alpine and down along Bubb’s Creek. It is roughly 8 miles from the pass down to the junction at Lower Vidette Meadows where the PCT takes an abrupt right hand turn due north to Bull Frog Lake. All of those 8 miles are a descent down to 9,554 feet. Quick math tells us that’s 3,646 feet. Just imagine how that feels on your muscles and joints for a minute.  I had been hiking for a couple hours since leaving the pass, taking my time, enjoying the scenery, and taking LOTS of pictures. I was actually a couple of hours behind my initial schedule that I had made the day before. You see, I was running low on food and I was planning on cutting out at Kearsarge Pass (this side trail is roughly 7 miles one way) to try and hitch a ride from Onion Valley Trailhead to head into town and pick up supplies for what I was about to do next, which was take on the Sierra High Route. I had planned on getting up at 4am that morning to get a jump on the heat and sun and to get as close to Kearsarge Pass as possible. Maybe even making it all the way to the trailhead and head out that night if I was lucky. But being that I had just hiked up the highest mountain in the lower 48 the day prior (Mt Whitney at 14,505 feet), my body told my alarm to piss off when it went off at 4am. Not uncommon for me to hit the snooze for an hour or so, but on this particular morning I didn’t get going until 9am. A significant delay in my plans. No matter, I would adjust on the fly. So when I had made it down to Bubb’s Creek, I was roughly 2.5 miles from the junction at Lower Vidette Meadows and it was about 5pm. I decided it was time for a break and to restock on some energy. Time to make a tuna wrap and shove a couple handfuls of potato chips and honey buns into my hair shrouded face. After about a half hour break I began to stand to get ready to shove off again. I heard someone’s footsteps behind me and looked back half startled. It was the woman who I had seen climbing the snow field many miles and hours ago. I said hello as I was shocked to see her. You see, I hike rather fast and its rare that I have hiker’s catch up to me. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, just that its a rare enough thing that it truly shocks me when it happens. Even though I had just taken a 30 minute break, it was particularly shocking to me that this woman caught up to me as she was noticeably a bit older than myself.

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She said hello back, but something seemed off. She was clearly on a mission. That would explain how she was able to catch back up to me. I asked her how she was doing and she said, “I’m LOST!” Immediately my wheels began turning as I began to walk the trail at a pretty fast clip, she followed close behind. In fact she was so close that I let her pass me. While she was in front of me, I began to size her up. Her pack, her clothes, her stride, her overall demeanor, everything. I started with her at the beginning. “Lost, what do you mean lost?” I had her start at the beginning. Where are you from, are you alone, who are you here with, where did you start the morning, where were you going, pretty much every question I could think of. I am just going to call her Julia for the sake of the story.

So Julia goes on to tell me that she flew in from Washington with her husband and two sons to do a multi-day loop hike in King’s Canyon National Park. They started the day before down at Road’s End where there is a permit station at the Copper Creek Trailhead. The spent the night camping at Lower Vidette Meadows and all woke up together and had breakfast. She told me that she broke camp first because she is a slower hiker because she has bad knees. It wasn’t until she reached the top of Forester Pass when she saw the sign that she realized the horror of her mistakes since she broke camp with her family that morning. You see, her plan was to leave camp before her sons and husband and hike up to the top of GLEN Pass to have lunch with them and then hike on to Rae Lakes and set up camp. Her mistake happened immediately when she left camp, she took a right on the Pacific Crest Trail when she should have taken a left. She hiked all day and wasn’t even back to where she started the day. And every minute since she left the top of Forrester Pass has been spent in panic mode. As I hiked behind her I knew it was up to me to keep her spirits high and to keep her calm. She was so worried about what her family was thinking and rightfully so. Can you imagine how far your thoughts would travel in this situation? We still had a couple miles until we reached her campsite. She was somehow hopeful that maybe her family was there, or that maybe they left a note once they never found her at Glen Pass. Glen Pass, mind you, is a 4 mile hike from her campsite once we get there. But the issue isn’t the distance at this point, it’s the elevation difference and the time. We’re talking 2,500 feet of elevation gain. And then you have to factor in the sun, we we’re losing daylight. But really, those were secondary concerns to the overwhelming issue, her survival.

I began to wonder if she was able to self-sustain for the night. See, I was still thinking about my mission as well, getting as close to Kearsarge Pass as I could. But this situation obviously was changing things for me, and rapidly. I started asking her questions like what she had in her pack, I had her give me as complete of an inventory of her gear as she could for me on the fly. As we continued down the trail, still at a fast clip, I learned that she did not have a tent, a sleeping bag, or enough food to sustain her, among a few other items that are important but not as crucial to surviving the cold nights in the Sierra. Her husband was carrying the majority of her gear to help alleviate the strain on her body. And speaking of the strain on her body, I had become increasingly worried about her body reaching the threshold where the pain from the day that she had been putting in on the trail would override the adrenaline that she had been functioning and relying on. As soon as we stopped for any extended period of time, her body was likely to start tightening up. But stopping was unavoidable. She told me that she hadn’t eaten anything on the day and hadn’t had much to drink either. There was no way around it, we had to stop once we reached Lower Vidette Meadows.

The closer we got to Lower Vidette, the slower her pace got. Her body was beginning to feel it. We had been talking and working through all the possible scenarios. Where her family could be, had they found a ranger, did they leave a note, did they go off looking for her, were they okay, did they think she was dead, every possible scenario was playing through her head and it was everything I could do to keep her from thinking the absolute worst. I helped assure her that everything was going to be okay, that she was with me and I was going to make sure that nothing bad happened to her. She shifted her focus to me, started asking questions about who I was, where I’m from, what I do. It was very relieving to her once I told her that I am a Marine and all the hiking that I had done in my life. She said,”Well I guess the perfect person came along at the right time.” And it got me thinking. Yes, I WAS the perfect person to come along. I like to always think that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be, and never has it wrung more true than in this moment. What if I had gotten up when my alarm went off? What if I was several hours ahead of where I was currently? We would have surely crossed paths either way, but it would have been LONG before she ever knew that she was lost. No, I was meant to hit the snooze button that morning. I was meant to be where I was.

We finally arrived at Lower Vidette, we scoured the area for her family, scoured the area for any note. No such luck. Her spirits took a hit. It was now time to make a plan. But first we had to get her some water and food. The sun was beginning to sink behind the mountains, and the mosquitos were in attack mode down in this section. Julia was exhausted but we had to stay vigilant. We had precious time to figure out a viable plan. While she was eating some of the food I had given her out of my pack, I began scouring my maps and trying to come up with the best possible course of action. She had no tent and no sleeping bag. I merely had a tarp, a 3/4 length airpad (she at least had her own airpad), and an ultra-lightweight Z-Pack’s 30 degree down quilt. This was not sufficient for two people. Frost is still possible at these altitudes. I decided that we were going to make our way to Charlotte Lake Ranger Station. Which was still a 2.5 mile walk from where we were, which doesn’t seem like its that far. But you have to put yourself in Julia’s shoes at the moment. She is emotionally and physically worn down. It’s going to take everything she’s got just to make the 2,500 foot climb up to the junction on the PCT that leads down to Charlotte Lake. And even when we get there, there is no assurances that a Ranger will be there. They sometimes are out on “patrol” for days before returning to their designated Ranger Station. And the next closest Ranger Station is  at Rae Lakes and that’s another 4 miles from the Charlotte Lake Junction, this is out of the question for tonight.

After she took a break, ate, and drank, I gave her a couple ibuprofen to help ease the pain in her body so she could begin the next task. I informed Julia that we are going to hike up to the Charlotte Lake Junction where I am going to give her enough food for the evening and the next morning as well as my sleeping bag. Then she would make her way down to the Ranger Station where she will camp for the night and hopefully a Ranger would be there. You see this junction is the same junction that has a trail that leads up and over Kearsarge Pass, the trails are in opposite directions of each other. Right to Kearsarge, left to Charlotte Lake. I was to give her the food and sleeping bag and then begin hiking the 7ish miles up and over the pass and down to Onion Valley Trailhead. Having done this the year before I knew that there was cell phone reception once I make my way over the pass and I could call the Ranger HQ and alert them of the situation. But I would need to continue on and hike out because I will have given my sleeping bag up and would need to hitch to town and to a motel to sleep warm for the night. It was definitely not a fool proof plan all around but it was the best solution that I could think of to make sure Julia could sleep warm for the night and get word to the rangers about the separated hiker situation. Julia definitely didn’t like the idea of taking my sleeping bag but I didn’t budge on it. I was overly insistent and wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was still reluctant but understood that it was the best solution under the circumstances.

But now we actually had to get her up there. We both put our packs on and began to walk. It was obvious that she was in pain. Her pace had slowed to a hobble. She didn’t have much left in the tank. It was obvious that her pack wasn’t helping her. I was feeling perfectly fine so it was nothing but logical that I take her pack off her back and put it on my front. I removed my camera chest pack from my shoulder harness and packed it away in my own pack and took her pack for the duration of our hike up to Charlotte Lake Junction. Slow. Very slow. I helped keep her spirits up with stories of my own hikes and adventures. Finally we made it to the Junction. The sun was almost down. The timing was right for her to branch off and hike the mile down to the Ranger Station without needing a headlamp. We talked about how someday she would look back on this and laugh. That she would be with her family soon enough. That everything was going to be okay. We hugged and smiled as I gave her the food and sleeping bag. She was exceptionally grateful. We would part ways here, surely to never see one another again. But not before I snapped a quick photo. img_8208

One last hug before I had to turn and begin the long steady climb up to Kearsarge Pass. With sun leaving and the chance for snagging a ride this late being very low, I knew that I had to get to Onion Valley Trailhead as soon as possible. I decided I was going to run the 7 miles. My pack is fairly light as it is, and now it was without water, most of my food, and a sleeping bag. It was feeling pretty empty. And I was still feeling pretty good physically. So I began to run. As I ran I began to think about the entire day, all of the events that led me to being where I was, I was so thankful that I was in the right place at the right time. I couldn’t help but wonder what would have become of Julia had I not been. The worst case scenario was surely a possibility. And as I was thinking this, another hiker startled me on the trail! Low and behold, A RANGER!! I practically leapt for joy! “Man, am I glad to see you!” I gasped. I sat down and tried to collect myself while catching my breath from running. I explained the entire situation to him and as I was explaining that she was going to Charlotte Lake Ranger Station, he said that that was where he was going to! What luck. I decided that there was no need for me to continue on once he told me that he would have a warm bed for her in the Ranger Station and that I would escort him back to Julia where I could acquire my sleeping bag for the night. He also had a radio on him and we would make use of it once we linked back up with her. Once we passed the junction we began the descent, switchbacking down to the lake. I knew she couldn’t have been too far ahead at her pace and after a little ways I gave a holler, “JULIA!!” I heard a feint voice reply, “Yes!?” I replied,”STOP WHERE YOU ARE, I HAVE A SURPRISE FOR YOU!!” We caught up to her and she was so incredibly elated when I revealed that the surprise was a ranger. We hugged again and celebrated this newfound break that her day from hell has been presented. We got on the hook with the Ranger’s HQ immediately.

This is where it gets crazier. Apparently her family had hiked on to Rae Lakes and there was no Ranger there. That’s because the Ranger assigned to that Station was the one sitting in front of us. This is not out of normal procedure, the cycles of these Rangers often works this way. Having discovered that there was no ranger there, the family had managed to find other hikers in the Rae Lakes region that had a satellite communication device, like a Delorme. ANd they had communicated with their friends in Fresno via text about their current situation. And wouldn’t you know it, when we radioed in to HQ, that family friend was literally on the phone with HQ at the same exact time!! We were able to relay in REAL TIME that Julia was OKAY and that she would meet them in Rae Lakes tomorrow and that they should stay put and wait for her!! Can you even freaking believe that?? Everybody gets to breathe a massive sigh of relief and all parties get to go to bed without any major worries or concerns. What a blessing. You couldn’t have asked for a better outcome considering all the circumstances. It blows my mind still to this day.

So instead of turning around and continuing to hike, I decided to join the two of them for the evening. The ranger said he actually had three beds and that we could all sleep inside. We were all in such good spirits. I had actually been carrying a bit of whiskey that I had been saving for a special occasion. The ranger said that he had cookie batter and eggs and that we could have cookies too. So this basically turned into a celebration! The mood was right. We all went down and cooked dinner and drank whiskey ( I didn’t have much but it was enough to warm the spirit) and ate cookies. Getting to know each other and laughing and having a wonderful evening. What a day!! We all slept like babies and got up early in the morning and parted ways. One last hug with Julia, this time without all the uncertainty. But not before another picture of all of us together.img_9124

I don’t share this story to seek a single bit of praise. I don’t share it to tear down someone’s backcountry gear and planning practices, I am telling you this story for a much more important reason. We as humans have an obligation to help others in need. It certainly wasn’t in my plan that day to have Julia come along. When considering what my original plan for the day was, it was absolutely an inconvenience. But helping others in need is not an inconvenience. In fact, it is rewarding! You’re damn right I felt good about myself for helping a complete stranger. And she felt good that I was there to help her! Be on the lookout for someone who is in need, be open to it. I had to poke and prod a bit to discover more about Julia’s circumstances that day. People in need aren’t always just holding up a sign. Remember that as we go about our lives. Remember that as we go about this holiday season. You can be someone’s miracle. Or maybe somebody can be yours.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you.

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Response to the Outside Magazine article

Let me start by getting right to the point. I am not the first to attempt a SOBO winter thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. And if I complete this hike, I will not be the first to complete a SOBO winter thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. 

https://www.outsideonline.com/2052351/meet-man-hiking-appalachian-trail-winter

The writer (it should be noted that he is a freelance writer) of the Outside Magazine (OM) article did a wonderful job in professionally gathering facts from me about my hike and did a great job writing about my experiences on trail. We had a great working relationship. He made sure he was always getting his facts straight and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process of it. The story he wrote was great and more importantly all true. About a week or two before the article went live on OM’s website, he informed me that he got a quote from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy that they had no record of anyone having completed a SOBO hike of the AT with a start date in December. I thought that was pretty interesting information coming from them but I didn’t really take it to be much of a big deal because really it wasn’t a big deal. I knew other people had done a winter thru hike before. Namely Trauma (Justin Lichter). In fact, he was someone who I resourced in the week or two prior to starting my own hike to get advice and information to better prepare me. I didn’t really have the foresight at the time to think that OM would run with that piece of misleading information as the sub-headline for the article. Once the writer submitted his final draft to the editor at OM (someone I had zero contact with) it was out of his hands and the editor took liberties with that small tidbit of information and shaped the tone by adding a sentence or two. I can only theorize that the editor looked at that as a way to get more eyes on the story. I suppose at this point I can’t say that I’m surprised by that but I don’t think that whoever that person is understood the ramifications of what that would do. And this blogpost isn’t about blasting that person, the writer, or Outside Magazine. 

The hiking community, more specifically the long distance hiking community, is a tight knit community. I’d be a fool if I didn’t think that what I put out there shapes my reputation. I want to have a good reputation. I want to be an ambassador of good will within the long distance hiking community. I don’t think Outside Magazine meant any harm by taking liberties with their claim that nobody has ever completed a winter SOBO thru-hike of the AT. But I do believe that it does the entire a community a disservice by allowing people to believe that. And most importantly it does all the hikers who may have completed a SOBO winter thru-hike before me a great disservice. After getting a message from a good hiking friend within the hour of the article going live, it became clear to me that this needed to be addressed. I, myself, didn’t even consider the ramifications of the article until that conversation. We agreed that I should contact Trauma. At this point I actually began feeling terrible about the notion that I was likely already receiving recognition for something that was at best misleading and at worst completely false. 

After speaking with Trauma, it became clear that I would need to clear the air. Even though he completed a SOBO winter hike of the AT (as part of his Eastern Continental Divide Trail hike in 2005-2006 which was was also part of his larger mission to complete the Triple Crown in 12 months) he had said that even he was uncomfortable laying claim to being the first to do so. Just because the ATC has no record of anyone starting in Decenber and completing, doesn’t mean that nobody has done it before. We would go on to discuss the extreme popularity of the AT and how it would be impossible to know who has hiked what in the past. Computers, the Internet, social media, these things are only very very recent in the grand scheme of the trail’s history. Even on Trauma’s hike he was still using actual mail, PocketMail, and pay phones to keep family, friends, and sponsors abreast of his hike. That should be noted when considering the history of hiking and “records” on these trails. Too many people have been up and down the Appalachian Trail to, beyond shadow of a doubt, know who was the first to do a SOBO winter thru-hike. 
But then comes another can of worms. What the heck defines a winter thru-hike? Trauma hit Baxter State Park on his hike in late November basically a week before my start. So does the fact that I started from there in December make any difference just because it’s a different month? November or December means nothing in the grand scheme of things. One winter is very different from the next. Some winters in the Northeast can have winter weather start early and be brutal. Other winters it can start slow and then get worse as the season rolls on. And then comes the fact that you’re likely not finishing your hike within the recognized season of “winter”, being December 21st through March 21st. Sub freezing and sub zero temps and torrential snow storms can occur outside of that range in any given year. On the reverse, winter’s can see mild temps and weather throughout. It’s a crapshoot. It’s next to ridiculous to compare one long distance hike one year to another long distance hike another year. Like I said, it’s a can of worms. 

Hopefully these thoughts will help people to understand that for some, it isn’t about a record. It doesn’t need to be about being the first to do something. And not that there is anything wrong with that!! I’m a competitor. But to me, this winter hike isn’t about beating any competition other than myself and the elements themselves. It’s about challenging myself. Maybe someday I’ll be the first to do something. Maybe some year I’ll make or break a record of some kind. This is not one of those times. I have a great admiration and respect for those that have come before me. Particularly anybody who decided to challenge themselves in winter on ANY long-distance hike. In no way would my conscience allow me to be recognized for anything that anyone before me has achieved. 

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” 

– Sir Isaac Newton

I have admittedly kind of always been an attention-getter most of my life. Being the youngest of four children has probably had its hand in shaping that in some way. But I am definitely very new to receiving the kind of attention that I have been garnering lately. And with that comes responsibility. I am learning that. I am learning that on the fly, too. I think that if I’m not constantly learning and applying what I’ve learned to future situations, than I’m being ignorant. But if my ignorance affects others, then we have a problem. 

Getting back to building a reputation, in the United States Marine Corps we are taught to internalize many things. Our core values are Honor, Courage and Commitment. Our leadership traits are Justice, Judgement, Dependability, Integrity, Decisiveness, Tact, Initiative, Endurance, Bearing, Unselfishness, Courage, Knowledge, Loyalty, and Enthusiasm. I could go on all day with how these can relate to any person in any walk of life but I want to touch on two of these. Courage and Integrity. Courage comes up twice, and rightly so. In my life I want to be able to continually have the courage to stand up for my own integrity before, during, and after any mistakes have been made as well as doing the right thing. We are all far from perfect but I believe I owe it to myself, those that came before me, and the rest of the hiking community in general to make right what was wrong. No matter how big or small the issue may be. Thank you for your time and for following along on this journey of mine. It’s not just about the miles. 

The Mahoosuc Range – Andover (Grafton Notch) to Gorham

I got dropped off at the trail head, fully knowing and fully aware of the obstacles that lay before me. The Mahoosuc Range, so much of my thought since beginning was bent on this hurdle. I remembered doing this range in summer and it was rugged, slow, and taxing on the body. I specifically remembered the Mahoosuc Notch and the Arm. Those were what my thoughts had been focusing on. How was I going to safely manage this? Key word being “safely”. I am not usually actively considering safety measures when I hike. This hike, however, that has changed quite a bit for me. But I still feel that I am just hiking. I am not standing there looking at an obstacle and assessing all the risks and planning out all possible safety measures. I am extremely confident in my physical abilities and so far I have not batted an eye at what some others may consider a “danger situation”. One of the biggest safety concerns is hypothermia, and I nip that one in the bud by staying in constant motion, keeping my core temperature up. And so far, I have not had any situations concerning that issue come close to levels of imminent danger.

You know how you build something up in your head so big that it almost seems insurmountable? That’s what I was doing with this section. Your brain just has nothing better to do with it’s time while you hike ALL DAY LONG with little else to occupy your thoughts.  The closer I got, the bigger it got. But now I was here. I was way more relaxed about it than what I could have anticipated. My routine of getting up in the morning and prepping to hike almost felt no different on this day than it usually does. “Muscle memory” kind of thing, I suppose. Rubber meeting the road never felt so normal. The hike in and out of Grafton Notch was basically the first time I experienced walking over top of other people’s footprints. Kind of felt strange. I was so used to being the only set of footprints that I forgot what it was like to be on top of other’s, it definitely changes the feeling I have while walking. Even though I wasn’t physically running into anyone (yet), it was like I finally wasn’t alone. I don’t want to use the word “tainted” but then again maybe I do. How dare they ruin this experience for me!! Haha just kidding. It’s actually great to know that other people are trying to get out and enjoy this incredibly beautiful winter landscape. It almost dumbfounds me that more people aren’t out in the places I already have been. Enough build up, lets get down to brass tax.

Once I left the footprints and trekked into untouched trail, I had passed Old Speck Mountain. The trail doesn’t actually go to the summit, and on this day I was glad. In the clouds and a constant snowfall, I am not too disappointed when the trail doesn’t keep going up. All I had to do was get past Old Speck Pond and climb to the top of The Arm, easy enough considering the initial climb up Old Speck. But then I stood at the top of The Arm and it was nothing but steeply slanted rock slabs covered in sheets of ice and snow all the way down to the Mahoosuc Notch basically. A one-two punch like no other on the trail. You couldn’t ask for less ideal conditions basically. Controlled and uncontrolled slides all the way to the bottom. It was relentless in how unstable the footing was, even with crampons on. Technically one crampon and one microspike, the extra bite from the more aggressive crampon was entirely helpful, I kept these traction devices on for the entirety of this rugged range.

And then, once I made it to the bottom I had The Notch to maneuver through. This is no small task even in summer. You can still find ice in there in June and July. Its basically like a cavern between two incredibly steep, rock cliff-sided mountains. The longest and slowest mile on the whole trail. Maybe the toughest. To some its the most fun. Certainly a challenge no matter how you slice it. Even on the hottest day you almost feel like you’re under the earth. It has the feel of being in a refrigerator or a cave. You can feel the cold billowing out of the massive crevasses between the boulders as you use your hands to climb up, over, around, under, and through them. Now picture it during winter. I somehow managed to slip, slide, and tumble my way through without any major injuries. I have heard stories of people getting caught and trapped in some of these crevasses and needed to be evacuated out with severe injuries. Thankful to have made it out with only minor bumps and bruises. But man was I ever soaked getting tossed around all over the snow covered rocks. It was a wet snow too. I was completely drenched inside and out. Making camp that night was a relief. Being warm in my bag at the end of the day is what gets me through most of my days. It is the goal everyday. Every morning I wake up and that is my mark, dry warmth in my bag. It is my haven. It is what recharges me to make it out again everyday. I can put myself through anything as long as I have that warm cocoon waiting for me.

I awoke the next morning realizing I had just tackled a major hurdle. But relief didn’t last long, I knew I had a blisteringly cold day ahead of. Temps reaching -20 to -30 with wind chills on the summits that stood in my way of my next mark, Gentian Pond Shelter. And it didn’t really get any less rugged for me. But it was a super clear day, I could see Moriah, the Carters, and Wildcats set in front of the Presidential Range. It was in view for every peak I had to summit on this day. Bittersweet because of bitter cold to have these views. Dealing with the ruggedness and the icy treachery while starting at the Whites, its like a piling on of reality. Can’t waste too much thought on it though, one step at a time.

It took me 12 hours to hike 13 miles that day and when I got to Gentian Pond Shelter I couldn’t waste much time with my camp chores. I had to get water and set up my sleep system before my core temperate began to drop. I had developed walrus tusks from the tips of my mustache because my facemask had frozen TO MY BEARD and had sagged pulling it down and exposing my upper lip and mustache. I couldn’t even pull my mask off as it was literally fused to my beard but I had to deal with these tusks at the very least. So I did the only thing I could think of, I chewed them off. And pretty sure I chewed some of the hairs off along with them. But I still had to get water. I walked down to the outlet of Gentian Pond and had to stomp through the ice to get through to the flowing water, a tricky task when you don’t want to fall in at the same time. It was deathly cold out. And being that I had stopped physically hiking I could already feel the body getting colder in my wet clothes. I didn’t even know at the time that my outer shell was frozen stiff, and so was the stomach and bottom rim of my wool fleece mid layer. Once I got back up to the shelter I struggled to unzip my shell due to its frozeness. But once I did I ripped off all of my wet, cold layers and put on four layers of dry and warm layers. A synthetic Polartec Power Dry waffle type base layer, a different wool mid layer, my down hooded jacket, and then my synthetic hoodie. I needed all of it. By the time I had changed into all of this, all of those wet clothes I took off were frozen stuff. I had to put that stuff on in the morning. Fantastic. I began boiling water immediately so that I could throw my frozen clothes in my sleeping bag with me so that they were not frozen in the morning. They likely wouldn’t dry by then, but they would just get soaked with sweat again anyways. What’s the difference. You gotta accept that shit sometimes. A constant acceptance of my circumstances. Will power. Mind over matter. Whatever you got tell yourself, whatever you wanna call it.

I made it through the night without being cold miraculously. I had a haul in front of me to get into Gorham the next day, but I made it well before dark and it was relatively painless compared to the day before as the temps were slightly warmer (still below zero though). I was comforted all day by the fact that I was going to get pampered by a hiking couple that reached out to me prior to my hike. Chris and Whitney (a 2014 AT thru hiker named Tip Toe) opened their home to me and offered any assistance in making my miles in the Whites a little easier. I was thankful to be getting picked up by them and quickly got to work on thawing out, drying out, and taking care of town chores before I would punch out the next day. The Whites were on deck. A two day window of perfect hiking weather would slightly alter my plan of attack for how I would handle them. To be continued…

Rangeley to Andover (Grafton Notch)

After taking several days off for Christmas it was time to get back on trail. I was taken care of by good people in Rangeley and I was happy for the experience of meeting new people, even being so far from family and home on such a holiday as this. But the break did me some good. My body, my mind, my spirit, I was ready to return to the trail with a great attitude. 
I did the stretch from ME Route 2 to ME Route 17 fairly easily but it was a very blustery and cold day. My beard was filled with icicles almost instantly upon getting dropped off at the trailhead. It was only a 13.1 mile stretch between the roads and there wasn’t any serious elevation standing in my way. I got it done well before dark. 

But the kicker was that there was a bit snow storm blowing in late in the night. It was scheduled to dump about a foot of snow in the area. Now, a foot of snow doesn’t sound like a lot to me. Anybody can walk through a foot of snow. We’re not talking the end of the world here. But if you could get picked up at a road and avoid sleeping out in a snow storm by going back to Rangeley where it’s warm inside and you have already made good friends with some of the locals, wouldn’t you? Kind of a no brainer. So I got my friend Amanda (a volunteer with the ATC) to pick me up at the end of my day and take me back to the Farmhouse Inn where I rode the storm out the following day. The roads were pretty treacherous even after the storm passed and once for I got back on trail the following day, the trail was a whole new experience.

I had already hiked through fresh snow before but this new storm had dropped a more considerable amount on top of the previous two snowfalls that I had already been hiking on top of and through. This new snow fall slowed me down much more than what I was already accustomed to. Hiking is way different like this. It’s almost impossible to predict your pace, or so it seemed. I was trying to hike up and over Bemis and Old Blue Mountains to get to South Arm Road that night. Both mountains were a bit of a hassle. Darkness set in pretty quick on me and I still had miles to go. Headlamp hiking proved to be a challenge going through fresh snow and poorly marked trail on the peaks. And when I say poorly marked I mean the snow had completely hidden the cairns. It was only a 13 mile stretch like the day before, but the terrain was so much more difficult and then throw on all that fresh snow, and I had a recipe for a couple hours of night hiking. I followed all kinds of animal tracks that led in all different directions. The crystalline snow flakes sparkled and dazzled as I made my way through and over the white and frozen mountain. 

Finally I reached my descent off of Old Blue Mountain. It was steep and filled with many mini switchbacks that made it difficult to keep on the trail. I found myself sliding down on my bum both on purpose and completely by accident so many times due to the steepness of the trail. But after plenty of effort to not completely bust my ass I made the road where Earl was waiting for me in his truck. He was sitting there with the engine off but the headlights on. He had his headlamp on in the drivers seat reading his Reader’s Digest as he has done probably hundreds of times in the past. 

I called Earl weeks ago when I decided to hike the trail. I wanted to see if his hostel was open during the winter. I told him who I was and even though he didn’t know anything about my wing thru hike attempt prior to this phone call, he said him and Marjie were waiting for me. Now, Marjie and Earl (Honey and Bear) are petty much like the epitome of everyone’s favorite grandparents. They run a hostel in East Andover Maine called “The Cabin In Maine”. I probably say this about every hotel I’ve ever been to (I’m sure we can find some exceptions of course) but this was one of if not my favorite stop on my whole AT hike back in 2013. They hosted the Warrior Hikers that year (and I believe all the years after as well) and they did it big for dinner one of the nights we were there. We’re talking full lobsters, steak, corn on the cob, and all the fixins, not to mention giant tubs of ice cream for dessert. They have just the nicest cabin and the hostel is run out of their basement. It’s basically a bunk house and an apartment for hikers. 

Being in their company is just second to none. They love to take care of hikers. They themselves have been hikers their whole lives. They were friends with Earl Shaffer when he was still alive. They are very well connected to the hiking community, every year. Besides getting support hiking through their section of trail, I really wanted to see them again and spend time with them. They are a delight to be around. Plus they feed me like a hiking king. Now, they run a business, this is not pure hospitality, but they do it in such a way where you feel like you are getting more than your money’s worth. 

I hiked the next two sections out of their hostel being able to start every morning with a full breakfast, and I mean a Jabba style breakfast. And ever y day I came home I was able to dry out and eat hearty with a warm bed. Not to mention great conversation everyday. I even zeroed one of the days that I was there due to extreme cold temperatures and wind, even more so than what I had already been experiencing. Some people call this slack packing. And while I certainly wasn’t carry every piece of gear with me each of those days, I was still carrying my entire sleep system, plenty of food, plenty of extra dry layers, because you should never really be without those things when the conditions are as such. My pack wasn’t exactly light, but it was definitely lightER. Looking at it you would think that it was still a full pack. 

Going over Moody and Wyman mountains were a bitch. I lost a crampon out there so if you see it, pick it up. Return it to me and I’ll give you a finders fee. Fee to be determined. I won’t get into all the particulars because in behind on my blog and I feel like I just wanna phone this shit in. Just know those mountains kicked my ass. 

The last stretch of mountains that I had before getting to Grafton a notch were the Baldpates. I could feel the presence of the Mahoosuc Range as I traversed this exposed set of mountains. High winds and steep, icy, snowy, slab rock. I had stretches of beautiful views peppered with clouds bouncing in and out of obstruction. This whole hike, way back in the 100 Mile Wilderness, way back in Baxter State Park, I’ve been thinking about the Mahoosuc Range. I mean, I’ve definitely been thinking about the Whites too but the Mahoosuc came first, and that was an obstacle to be reckoned with. I was basically knocking on its doorstep. I had no idea what to expect. I honestly didn’t even know if I would be able to make it through. I’ve never even heard of anyone going through The Notch in winter. I feel like I’m as prepared as I’ll ever be for it…one thing is for certain, I’m goin’ down without trying. I’m not goin’ down without knowing. I couldn’t give up without a fight. 

Stratton to Rangeley

Upon getting dropped off back at the trailhead in the morning I knew I had a pretty solid stretch of trail coming up. I was going to attempt to do the 32 mile stretch to Rangeley in two days. The prior zero day would have been frigid cold but sunny and beautiful hiking weather. Watching Star Wars was worth it but the upcoming forecast showed sleet and freezing rain. That’s what I get for being one with the force. I have the Crocker Mountains first, followed by Sugarloaf and Spaulding, and then Saddleback. Just a few +4,000 foot peaks, that’s all. Doesn’t sound like too crazy of elevation does it? Especially considering some of the elevation that is out west. But I assure you that it is significant elevation up here in winter time when you factor in weather.

The day began great, sunny, not warm, but sunny. I got up and over North and South Crocker mountains no problem. The trail was a runway of inches of pure ice until I got high enough for snow to cover that ice.  I had great views of the Bigelows and of Sugarloaf, and of course Saddleback. It’s always interesting to be on a high point and see where you’ve come from and look at where you’re going. The skies in the distance didn’t look too threatening from here, but my day had only just begun.

I descended down to the Caribou Valley to a stream crossing, the South Branch of the Carrabassett River. It separates the Crockers from Sugarloaf. I anticipated an icy ford here and as you know, I am about sick to death of these. Upon arriving at the crossing, I noticed that there was a layer of ice covering much of the river. And then there were rocks covered by snow and ice leading to a log that spanned across the deepest and most powerful flow of the river. I was able to safely cross the river without having to submerge my boots too far. That is huge for me and my psyche. It saves me time too.

Then began my climb up to Sugarloaf. The trail doesn’t go to the summit, it branches off at a junction .5 miles from the top and 600 feet lower in elevation. I couldn’t be happier about it either, besides the fact that the trail was quite steep and rather icy, the wind was howling. The top of Sugarloaf is widely known for it’s windy conditions ( I think I may be making that up but it sounds good). Going up and over Spaulding was pedestrian compared to going up Sugarloaf. I was coming down Spaulding Mountain and into the saddle before making my way over to Spaulding Mountain Lean-To when the precipitation began. This was not what I was hoping for. I still had many miles to go. It was also beginning to get dark as the clouds rolled in. I had only come about 13 miles from the road and wanted go another 5 miles to make the next day a shorter day into Rangeley and over Saddleback. But the precipitation was freezing rain and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it one bit. The trail led me to the shelter right as it began to pick up. So I reluctantly called it. And I do mean reluctantly. I sat there in the shelter with my pack on debating it for a few minutes and finally unclipped my belt and shoulder strap and threw it off me in a fit. I really don’t like it when I don’t make my goals for the day. But, screw this freezing rain. I’m gonna get to sleep early this night and wake up earlier than I have on this whole hike and get a jump start on the day.

The alarm went off at 3:30am. I went to bed at 6:30pm. That’s 9 damn hours. I was well rested. I have 3 hours until even seeing a glimmer of a fraction of a piece of the tinniest corner of the sky showing any light whatsoever. I raced to get all my shit together so that I could shove off as soon as possible. I had arranged to get a ride into Rangeley with a local who I met on my first thru-hike of the AT in 2013. Lucy was a middle school science teacher and helped run the Rangeley Outing Club and hosted an event for the Warrior Hikers in 2013. We have loosely kept in touch and she knew I was coming through and offered to help. I was looking forward to seeing her again and very thankful for the offer to help. I really wanted to make the road before dark. And as it stood I had almost 19 miles to go and some serious terrain standing in my way. Making “good time” doesn’t ever feel like a possibility out here. You don’t just decide you’re going to hike faster. That results in putting yourself in exponentially greater risk. All you can do to compensate is to wake up earlier and take less breaks. Or in my case, no breaks.

The morning started with a long, dark descent to Orbeton Stream where I would have yet another crossing. By the time I got down to the old Sluice Brook Logging Road it was light enough that I could see without my headlamp. I would later learn that the body of Inchworm was found near this location. She was a missing hiker back in 2013 and there was a big effort to trying to find her or get information about where she was last seen. I made my way down to the stream and did my best rock hop (splashing in many times) and got across safely yet again without having to de-robe. I don’t believe I remember there being in major river fords that you couldn’t just rock hop south of Rangeley, so I think I might actually be in the clear from here on out!! That’s huge. You don’t even know how huge that it. It’s one thing for you to sit there and say, “Yeah that sure would suck to have to get naked and go barefoot through a river this time of year in Maine.” It’s an entirely different thing to have already gone through several and to realize that you don’t need to do that shit again. I can’t even tell you how elated I am to be done with it. It’s getting much colder and wetter daily for me out here and it’s just one less thing to have to manage.

But now I began my climb up Poplar Ridge and eventually to Saddleback Junior. I gotta tell you, that climb was probably the most treacherous climb I have had up this point. It wasn’t no junior on this day. The side of the mountain that the climb approached the peak was entirely encased with hoards of ice and deep heavy snow on top of it. I was barely, barely able to keep my balance during the steep grades. I only had my microspikes at this point and I feel like it would have served me to have my ice axe for this if only for a little extra leverage to climb up over massive walls of snow and ice. I was forced to use tree branches and trunks of the tiny pines that clung to life in the alpine up there to pull myself up and over. I bet I looked like a fish out of water flopping around trying to make my way up the last little bit until the summit. But when I got to the top finally, which was a huge freaking relief, I could see The Horn in front of me and Saddleback behind it with its summit completely shrouded by clouds. I knew that sooner or later the weather was going to be on top of me. They were closing in, and fast. By the time I got over to The Horn it was upon me. I slapped my cuben fiber rain mitts on over top of my wool gloves and battened down the hatches on my rain jacket and began to slog through the pouring ran over sheets of ice on completely exposed slab rock. Almost all of the terrain on the traverse from The Horn, down to the saddle and up and over Saddleback is completely exposed. The rain and wind was coming at me sideways. Smacking the left side of my body as I tried to maintain my balanced through snow and over ice. For the next 3 hours I would deal with the freezing cold rain until I would finally make my way down to the road. There wasn’t a single spot on me, inside my rain gear or out, that was dry. When I got to Lucy’s car in the parking hour, I demonstrated to her just how soaking wet I was. I pulled off my rain mitts and rung out about 8 ounces of delicious drinking water from my wool glove liners.

Lucy was the consummate host, I was able to get dry by their wood stove while my laundry was getting done and all my things were strewn about their house drying out. Her husband made homemade bread and we had a variety of homemade soups to chose from for dinner. It was Christmas Eve the next day and while I knew I wouldn’t be spending it with family, I was exactly where I was supposed to be: warm and dry with good people. I was very thankful for their hospitality. Thanks is certainly never enough.

Caratunk to Stratton: The Bigelows

I woke up early (but not my normal “trail early” of 4:30am) and went down stairs in the main area of the Sterling Inn to enjoy some breakfast before I evened up with the owner. We talked about the trail in years past and how he and his son enjoyed the few years that they had been running the inn. And after some nice conversation, I had to head back upstairs to begin packing all my soaking wet things that I had strewn all about the entire room. Everything, and I mean everything was wet. It looked like a gypsy had been running a hobo marketplace in my room. I am the ultimate procrastinator when it comes to packing my things in town. But I really needed to get all my shit together because John was on his way to pick me up. The Kennebec River crossing was my next obstacle and the canoe ferry/shuttle that is sanctioned by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was out of season and I had no other options for getting across the river safely. Fording was not an option. And I don’t mean just because the ATC adamantly is opposed to any river fording, even in summer. I mean, the river was a death trap for me on this day. I wasn’t even remotely considering a ford. Screw that shit. The owner of the inn mentioned there were many hikers who did it this past summer and because word travels up and down the trail easily/quickly, other hikers were feeling like they needed to do so as well. The whole, “Well, if they did it, I also have to,” kind of thing. I don’t feel this kind of pull in any such way. Hike your own damn hike, man. I believe in that to the core.

When John arrived I still  had a little packing to do because, as I said before I am a great procrastinator, and I was still dickin’ around a bit. But eventually we got out of dodge and John drove me south where there is a bridge across the river. We got me back to the trail as best we could using the roads that were available to us that were open and not in disrepair or closed from wintry conditions. And where I got back on, I just went south. I didn’t want to hike back to the Kennebec River and then double back. I just didn’t want to. So I didn’t. Those miles mean nothing to me. There was no elevation gain, it was all mostly flat. No mountains to go over. I’m good on all that. Forward motion. The Bigelows were on deck anyways and I wanted to get into them, badly. They were looking majestic from afar as John and I were driving north back to the trail.

This was the end of the line for John and I, at least until I was to return to do Katahdin after making it to Springer Mountain in Georgia (Lord willing). Even though he had already done too much for me as it was, he still offered to come and get me all the way to the border of Maine if I needed anything. There was no way I was going to continue to put him out any more than I already had. He meant it though and I could tell. It always amazes me and is incredibly humbling when people want to bend over backwards for you to help you on your journey in ways that you can’t even repay. We said our farewells and I expressed as much gratitude as I possibly could. We had some good times together when I was off trail. Particularly a night of beer-fueled hilarity at a Guilford watering hole. It was as in the heart of central Maine as you could get and we just spent the entire night people watching and making comments and laughing to ourselves like a couple of idiots. And we were.

Back got to the trail though. It’s like a switch that you flip. One minute you’re living one way off trail and then BOOM you’re back in it. You have to forget the comforts of the off-trail life. Especially in my current circumstances. My on-trail comforts didn’t even exist in this wintry environment and climate. It is a far different mentality than summer hiking. I am adapting as well as I could hope to, I suppose.   But having said that, my mentality while hiking each stretch is, “Just make it to the next town.” And that’s it. That’s the trick. That’s all you have to do to be a long distance hiker. You don’t have to think to yourself,” Holy shit, I have 2,000 miles to go to get to _______.”  You’ll psych yourself out doing that. My goals are small. Everyday I just have to get to where I am camping, and then I can be warm and dry. And then finally after a few or several days I am in the next town where I can get a shower, clean and dry my gear, eat some righteous grub, a lot of it, and on a gluttonous level too.  That’s all it is. Focus on those small goals and the bigger goal will take care of itself. Having said that, the White Mountains have been in the back of my mind since day one. But I will deal with that in due time.

The Bigelows are some burly peaks to go over even in summer. I was about to tackle them in late December, which admittedly could be a much more difficult prospect in any other year. Last year at this time, the towns and the lowlands had several feet of snow on the ground. All the locals had been telling me that the previous year was brutal. I suppose I couldn’t have picked a better year for this. But I gotta tell you, at the higher elevations on trail can be a stark contrast to the weather and temperatures that are occurring in the towns. The Bigelows were about to be a shining example of this for me. You start the ascent up to Little Bigelow Mountain from around 1,000 feet above sea level. It was fairly mild at the bottom. Not much snow on the ground. It feels so tame and so pedestrian. It’s very deceiving. I knew this wouldn’t last but it toys with your insides. By the time you get to the top of Little Bigelow Mountain, it’s a very different world. The wind was stuff, everything is covered with ice and snow. You can’t walk anywhere without your micro spikes on. All the slab rock is coated in ice and is on such a slant that you’re looking at bruised and broken limbs from one little fall without the proper traction. You’re sitting at 3,000 feet. It’s much colder than the valley floor and the sun is going down. It’s only getting colder. I had hopes of potentially making it over Avery Peak in the dark and making it to the Bigelow Col campsite where there were tent pads and a water source but the winds were picking up too fast and there was a little bit of snowy precipitation beginning, nothing to write home about down at 3,000 feet but Avery sits at almost 4,100 hundred feet. That is a significant difference in terms of the difference in weather conditions. I decided that as it was getting darker that I would just camp at the Safford Notch Campsite. There were tent pads here also. It was a couple of a tenths of a mile off trail but as I was making my way off trail before the sun set to scope out the area, the side trail takes you through a bit of a cave. Really its just a massive boulder waged up against an overhanging cliff wall. It creates a pretty awesome wind barrier. And the darker it got, the windier it was getting. I had fully intended on setting my tent up on a tent pad this evening but the wind was just frigid. I decided that even though the “cave” was slightly uneven, it was worth it to be out of the wind. Plus I set my air pad up on top of my foam pad. It did a pretty good job of breaking up the uneven rocks. I actually had a pretty good sleep. I didn’t even cook dinner this evening. I just had a hand full of trail mix and a few handfuls of chips and slammed some water and called it a day. I wanted to make sure that I got a good nights sleep. I knew the next morning I was about to experience some true winter alpine first thing in the morning. The view I had of the main peaks from Little Bigelow was an indication of what I was about to have. They were socked in by their own micro climate. Things were about to get interesting. I could sense it.

As I began my initial ascent from the notch, it was pitch black, as usual. I have grown extremely accustomed to this at this point. There were a few flurries falling from above. I couldn’t tell if it was the wind shaking snow from the limbs above or if it was fresh. The higher I climbed out of the notch, the more I could see of the valley and the surrounding environment. Just below “The Old Man’s Head” (if you had an aerial view of the mountains, you would notice that the mountain looks like an old man laying down), there was an outcropping of snow with a window to the east that displayed a red horizon right down the line from Little Bigelow Mountain. The snow had picked up, I could look up at the Old Man’s Head and see the cloud line above it. So it was snowing on me, but I stood there in amazement for awhile as I watched the red ball of fire emerge from its glow of red clouds on the horizon of distant mountains. I didn’t linger too long as I knew that I had a long day ahead of me and the weather was only going to get worse. I was just thankful to have a moment of calm and a view of the sunrise to start the day. It really felt special to watch that sunrise. I can’t explain it. I often can’t. I suppose that’s the reason I do this. Because no description with words or pictures can ever quite put you in those moments. There is no substitute for being there and FEELING it.

I turned my back on the sunrise and knew that I was saying goodbye to the safer world below. I began my climb up to  Avery Peak which was 1,000 feet higher than where the Old Man’s Head sat at 3,110 feet. The snow was goin’ pretty damn strong by the time I reached the Old Man’s Head. But I was still below tree line at this point. The pines that shield the trail do an excellent job of blocking the winds that were howling outside my narrow tunnel. But further up I went and the further I went, the less shielding the pines did. Finally you reach the point where the pines are no taller than you are and the trail is fully exposed to the elements. The snow was deep in these sections, at least a foot as I was still ascending to Avery. Then the trees disappeared altogether, except for little runt shrubs that were basically entirely covered by snow anyways. The wind was ripping at this point and the snow was thick. I couldn’t see more than a hundred feet in front of me minus a few pockets where the clouds seemed to almost clear but only to toy with me briefly. Once I reached the top it seemed as the the snow levels dropped considerably, I can only imagine that this is because of the pure power of the wind at the top. Everything was a wind swept ice world up here. It was beautiful. The environment felt powerfully unfriendly, however. I had a few moments to “enjoy” up here before I knew I had to keep the body in motion.

You drop a few hundred feet, and below tree line, to the Bigelow Col Campsite. The exact instance in which you set foot below tree line and out of the wind, you can feel a dramatic difference without the wind. Your body almost physically gasps a sigh of relief. I didn’t really think about how fast the winds might have been blowing at this point or what the temperature was but I knew it was cold. My beard was a solid piece of ice at this point. If I swayed my head back and forth, it felt like the weight of a wrecking ball was on the end of it, pulling at the follicles on my face. Noticing the campsite, I couldn’t have imagined camping at this altitude the night before. Even without precipitation it would have been a windy and frigid experience. And obviously, I’m all about that comfort. I mean that’s why I decided to hike the “pedestrian” Appalachian Trail…in winter. But no seriously, screw camping here the night before. That would have sucked. At any rate, I had to climb back up into the alpine from here, up to almost 4,200 feet atop West Bigelow Peak. This is the highest point on the AT in this range, and it felt like it. If I thought it was cold and windy on top of Avery, I had another thing coming. The winds on top here were nearly knocking me off my feet. I estimated the winds to be between 50-70mph. The windchill stung my face. I could feel the exposed skin on my cheeks, nose, and forehead going numb. I knew that my time up here had to be as limited as possible, so naturally I decided to take a few pictures and shoot a video. The longer I was up there, the more the wind began to pick up. It was almost sucking the fresh air out of my mouth before I could breathe it in. Upon reaching the summit, the clouds broke enough to see the tree line further ahead. The wind died down momentarily, but as soon as I started south off the summit the wind shifted and became a head wind. It intensified even more with each step. I was honestly struggling to stay on my feet. It was extremely powerful. I was fighting tooth and nail over top of sheets of ice to make progress toward the tree line, I maybe had two tenths of a mile to go. About half way I had to stop and turn away from the wind to give my face a break. Even the tactic of screaming in the face of it did little to stop the burn from the wind. After a couple seconds I turned back into the wind and was determined to make the tree line without stopping. When I finally made the tree line it was a real fucking relief. I knew I was probably toying with frostbite if I had been exposed any longer. I do carry a balaclava in my pack but there simply was no point in stopping to dig it out in those conditions. Lesson learned when approaching alpine in those conditions, have my balaclava handy, especially if I know I am going to be exposed for a longer duration, i.e. the White Mountains.

After making sure that I didn’t have any real damage to the skin on my face (using the rear facing camera on my cell phone), I pondered what those temperatures must have been with the wind chill. I may be underselling it but i figured around -20. I would later learn that the adjacent mountain of Sugarloaf experienced gusts of up to 90mph that day. So that would give you an idea of what I was experiencing. After dropping to 3,350 I had to climb back up to 3,800 feet to the South Horn and during my ascent, the clouds lifted. All of them. And the wind died down. It was like I was meant to have that experience up there. And then once I was out of danger, the world changed. The skies opened up and the sun shone big and bright. I could see the ice world I had just come from. I could see every where that I was going. I could see the distant lakes and the far off mountains. I could stand and enjoy it all. There was still treachery ahead. Massive sheets of ice covered the entire steep trail off of the South Horn all the way down to Horns Pond. The micro spikes I wear have literally been lifesavers. But I think it’s getting to the point where I should really be wearing crampons.

I made it to the highway that goes north into the town of Stratton. Instead of push another 6-7 miles to a designated campsite with tent pads, I decided that after a burly frozen day that I deserved a cheeseburger. So I pulled a Jabba and called the Stratton Motel and arranged myself a ride into town. Made friends with the two winter managers there, Foxfeet and Marching Band. They were both section hikers this year that stuck around the area and made friends with the owners of the Farmhouse Inn in Rangeley who also owned the Stratton Motel. They informed me that they were going to see the new Star Wars movie the following day in Farmington. I told them that I would be needing to get back on trail in the morning around 6am. They said that wouldn’t be a problem. At 5:45am I woke up and instructed them (while they were still in bed) that the ride back to the trail wouldn’t be necessary. In fact my exact words to Marching Band in the dark bedroom were,”You know how my hiker name is Jabba? Well I’m coming to Star Wars, you can go back to bed.” The rest is history. I enjoyed a zero day. Made a couple of friends along the way, too. In fact, a girl who works for the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (Amanda) who also lives at the Farmhouse Inn in Rangeley who reached out to me a couple weeks prior offering any help when I get to the area, was ALSO going to see Star Wars and we all met up prior to the movie and then had Thai food afterwards. She was also friends with Marching Band and Foxfeet. I seriously love this life. When you just let things happen and say yes to adventure, it just unfolds in the most amazing of ways. 24 hours before seeing Star Wars I was on the verge of frostbite. And then I was in Farmington, a town I didn’t know existed, laughing and joking making friends eating Pad Thai as warm and dry as could be….wearing skin tight leggings in public like a weirdo. I like to think that’s a slam DUNK!

Monson to Caratunk

Going south is weird. In all my hiking I really have only ever gone Northbound, with an exception earlier this year when I attempted a flip-flop of the Pacific Crest Trail that was thwarted by wildfires. It honestly doesn’t feel natural. Looking at the map, it just makes sense to be walking “up”.  Maybe at some point it will start to feel more normal. Maybe I will eventually internalize it. But for now it doesn’t feel right.

What I CAN get behind is just having the trail all to myself. Everyday is truly a mission out here. Being alone allows me to be on point. I can remain focused at all times. And I need to be. This hike isn’t just a walk in the woods. The dangers are very real and a constant presence, especially in the higher elevations.

On the morning I set out from Monson, there was a brilliant sunrise. It made the ice covered bows of all the trees look to be on fire. But what started beautiful quickly became hazardous. I crossed the road and began south, took one look back at John in his Ford pickup and gave a wave and was off. It wasn’t long until I realized that I was in for a long day of fighting the forest. Between the inch or so of ice that coated everything and then the couple inches of heavy wet snow that was on too of all that ice, the trees were severely stressed. Large trees had completely snapped and fallen all over the place. Other smaller pines and hard woods were bending over almost upside on and over the trail. It was hard work constantly fighting the forest like this. Especially with a wet snow all over everything. You’d bump one tree or one branch and everything above you would come down on you. Bringing ice with it at times. I fought through the forest for much of the day like this. But make no mistake, it was beautiful.

I had a couple fords that I had to manage on that first day. The first was the West Branch of the Carabassett River. When I got up to that thing, I knew there was no safe way to get across. It was way, way, and I mean WAY to high and fast flowing. But the trail provides as they say, and it did. I looked on the map and saw that there was a bridge about a mile south of the crossing in the small community of Blanchard. I passed by a couple locals who asked me how the trail was treating me. I told them cold and wet, they nodded and agreed with that look in their eyes that told me what I knew they were about to say next. And that was that, “You’re crazy!” Thank you, I know. I confirmed with them that the bridge did indeed exist and they were glad that I wasn’t attempting to ford. It would likely have led to a dangerous situation. I am not out here on a death wish, I assure all of you of that. I made my way back to the trail by way of a logging road on the other side of the river. All you purists who wanna gripe with me about any stretch of trail that I may have missed on this, you can come find me on the trail and take it up with me in person. Otherwise keep your traps shut.

Right before dark I had another ford to deal with. The Bald Mountain Stream ford. This was the outlet of the Bald Mountain Pond. It was wide but not particularly fast moving. I was about to find out how deep it was.  When I stop to do any fords, I don’t waste any time thinking about it. I survey my best fording point as I am undressing. Barefoot and bottomless. I don’t like to be motionless too long in this cold and damp environment. In fact I don’t really take too many breaks throughout any of my days. Staying in constant motion keeps me from getting cold because I am constantly soaked in sweat. Cold plus wet equals not so good. But here I am about to go in. I slink in and try and make assertive foot steps on the slick muddy and rocky stream floor. Without trekking poles to balance this would be a much more difficult task. Deeper and deeper the water gets. The levels are high from the recent rain and snow. It’s getting to close for comfort to my nether regions. But there is no time to find a better route and I certainly am not turning back. It goes up to my waistline and I am practically screaming out loud at the top of my lungs trying to fight the shock to the system that this wide crossing was bringing me. This is a tactic I have used before. I’m basically summoning a greater power to help give me the strength to endure the cold until I come out the other side. Then it’s a race to get all my clothes back on and get moving again as fast as humanly possible. I’ll be honest, at this point I hate it. At this point I am fed up with fording. You can call it badass or you can call me crazy. And whether it is one or both of those things, the fact is that it fucking sucks. And moving forward, I will go to great lengths to try and avoid having to get wet on any river crossing from this point forward. I had a few miles to go after this crossing until I made the shelter. I pulled about 18 miles all the way to Bald Mountain Pond Lean-To. It was a long day. I was thankful to be done. Not much elevation on this day. But that was about to change in the morning.

I woke up in a dense fog thanks to the pond out in front of me. Now, keep in mind that I almost always make it to my destination every evening in the pitch black, and wake up every morning in the pitch black as well. So imagine all the views  and beautiful places and nature I miss during these periods of dark periods. But such is my life, and there is no getting around it. It doesn’t bother me. I have accepted this. When  you truly accept something, it is incredibly easy to deal with. I have accepted this out of pure necessity. As far as I’m concerned I don’t have a choice in the matter. If I want to make any real daily progress I have to put the time in. Because the going is slow. And has the ability to be much slower. And I was about to experience this.

I began the climb up to Moxie Bald Mountain immediately first thing in the morning. And within the first 15 minutes of non headlamp hiking, the snow began. The higher in elevation I got, the more substantial and consistent the snow got. And the wind came along with it. The forest changed from being dominated by hard woods to being dominated by evergreens the higher I got. The peaks I was about to go over weren’t the highest I’ve seen so far and I don’t know what I expected from them in these wintry conditions but I got a full taste of it. The conditions rapidly deteriorated as I approached the alpine. They were approaching near white out conditions and once I got above the treeline, the trail ceased to exist. It is much easier finding it in the woods but when you get out in the open and there is close to a foot of snow on the ground and the winds and the snow are making visibility quite low, it becomes a whole different ball game. A lot of trial and error took place when trying to stay on trail as I approached the summit of Moxie Bald. You try not to panic in these situations, and I didn’t, but you definitely do feel a very present sense of urgency to not fuck it up, haha. Usually I’d say pardon my french with someone I don’t know (that being most of you who are reading this) but the reality is that word verbally escapes my lips all too often when I am on the trail. Whether its because of the weather, or if I just took a nasty spill, or I am fording a river, or if I have lost the trail, or a mouse crawls on me in the middle of the night, that word seems to have so many applications that just fit so nicely. And I’d like to apologize to my mother for every time I use it. Sorry mom!! Fuck it, where was I? Oh yeah, losing the trail in the weather. There was one time I slide down an icy patch into a grouping of dense pines trying to find the trail and I found myself fighting tooth and nail through the pines because it was too steep and slippery to go back the way I just slid down and there was no other way but through. I was never so happy to be out of that and back on the trail. Especially since it was all so exposed still. Going up and over Moxie Bald and the next mountain Pleasant Pond Mountain were some of the worst conditions I had encountered up to this point. But going down the steep descent from the top of Pleasant Pond Mountain was were things really got shitty.

I hadn’t worn my microspikes all day because it was more of a powdery snow up top than ice. But during the descent all that snow gave way to melting snow, water, and a little bit of ice here and there. I was loosely thinking all day that I would only pull 13ish miles on the day to the Pleasant Pond Lean-To and I was rapidly approaching that as I descended. The daylight was also rapidly fading. But in my haste of trying to get down to the shelter, I had a bit of a tumble. I probably should have been wearing my microspikes and since I wasn’t, I lost my footing on a steep and rugged stretch of the trail. I planted my left palm on the deck to catch myself and immediately felt pain. I was wearing my cuben fiber rain mitts and merino wool gloves under them and I looked down and saw a large tear in both of them. I used my other hand to kind of peer into the holes and noticed a large gash that was gushing a bright red substance. “Welp,” I thought, “I fucked up!” Haha I laughed to myself knowing that this could have been avoided by wearing my micro spikes. Serves me right. Lesson learned. Where I planted my hand was a sharp piece of wood that protruded from an old downed log. It punctured my palm and then the weight of my body sliding down the steep side of the mountain made the piece of wood act like a knife through butter and began to tear up the palm from the wrist. But as I got back to my feet, I began to feel the blood fill the glove and mitt.

A few things were on my mind at this point: 1) don’t be a pussy 2) it was getting dark and cold and I was soaking wet from sweat 3) stopping to take care of this wound would have meant getting colder 4) I wasn’t far from the shelter. But right about then is when the rain started. And not just a little bit of rain. A lot of it. And it was damn cold. I could have stopped at the shelter…….ORRRRRR I could have hiked another 6 miles (in the cold, dark, rainy night) to the town of Caratunk where the Sterling Inn is located. Warm? Dry? Bed? Food? DING DING DING DING we have a winner Johnny. So I hoofed it. I already hadn’t taken a single break all day and had only eaten one snickers bar and a couple handfuls of Doritos to sustain me all day. I think only 2 liters of water as well. But when the promise of warmth, food, dryness, a bed, and attending a wound in more ideal conditions are all within reach, you can become superhuman. I only got colder and wetter, and the sensation of the sticky blood filling the glove (the same glove that “saved my life” before) was pretty interesting but eventually my hands lost all feeling for the 2.5 hours it took me to get down to the road. I still had to make my way into town and use the curtesy phone behind the Post Office to call the people at the inn to come pick me up. I could barely operate the phone since my fingers had been locked in a fist clenching formation to try and stay warm for so long.

After the phone call, Eric, the owner, promptly came to pick me up. I was wetter than the wettest wet dog. But I knew I’d be warm and dry soon. Upon arriving there he made me a frozen pizza that I ate in exactly three bites while I attempted to answer questions on Jeopardy (or ask them, really). Gosh, you’re never really so grateful for all the little things that you take for granted until you are in miserable situations without them. I knocked out laundry and a shower and dressed my wound (probably could have used stitches but whatever) and slept that night like a dry, warm, drunken baby. All was well and all was good. Hell of a two day stretch, believe it or not, I enjoyed it. I was happy and smiling as I fell asleep that night.

 

Side note: I don’t proof read any of my posts. I type them up once and then I publish them. Ain’t nobody got time for proof readin’…