Fun and Games on the Frozen Tundra

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Extreme sports, Wisconsin style

On my second attempt at climbing Aconcagua (the tallest mountain in the Western Hemisphere), I remember being awakened by our guides around 4 AM for our summit attempt.  We were at high camp, in an area called “White Rocks”.  It was very dark and very cold and the wind was blowing.  The temperature was around -15° Fahrenheit.  But, with the wind chill factored in, it was rather more objectionable.  Still, we had to get up anyway.  Actually, what bothered me most about the situation was that I had to get out of the tent, carefully stumble up a slope and then behind a few rocks, proceed to moon the Andes while heeding the call of nature at 19,500 ft altitude.  Continue reading “Fun and Games on the Frozen Tundra”

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Truth in Advertising

 

You’re walking on the Appalachian Trail in the woods, on a sunny spring day.  It is cool but not cold, without a trace of humidity.  The trail is flat and straight, with the grade ever so slightly downhill.  The path itself is dirt, with not a rock in sight, but covered in pine needles so your feet are cushioned as you walk.  What could be better?  Well, it probably would be better if you woke up from your nap and actually started hiking because the above is a figment of your imagination.   Continue reading “Truth in Advertising”

Reintegration

After 152 days and 2,189 miles I’m finally done with my AT thru hike. 152 days is a long time to be gone from home.  By the end, I was pretty much a well-oiled backpacking machine.  I knew where everything was in my pack.  I had a regimented routine for how I started my day, hiked and ended my day (people who know me will probably say “well, hiking the AT didn’t change THAT about him”).  Continue reading “Reintegration”

Humbled

So, I’m a bit over 1700 miles into my thru hike, currently taking a day off in Killington, VT.  I recently passed a sign that says there are 500 miles left to the summit of Katahdin (signs no longer say how far you’ve walked – we’re in countdown, not countup mode).  Finally, after I made a recent Facebook photo post, my friends commented on the fact that I’ve lost so much weight they think I might disappear if I turn sideways.

As loyal readers of this blog well know, I am a bit slow on the uptake at times, but it has finally hit home – this thru hike thing is really, really hard (yes, I know that many of you will be saying to yourself “well, duh!”).

After months of resisting or worse yet, fighting, the demands of the AT, I have been humbled by it.  The real question  might be why it took so frikkin’ long to arrive at this state?  Frankly, I don’t have a clue.  I think it might be an accumulation of things.

In the past 2 weeks 2 hikers whom I met on trail have called it quits – they’d hiked more than 1600 miles, endured snowstorms, thunderstorms, drenching downpours, roots, rocks, steep inclines, lots of mosquitos and more.  They just decided that they’d had enough.  When someone you know leaves the trail at this point, it really grabs you in the gut and you wonder “am I next?”

In about 40 miles I will cross the Connecticut River and enter New Hampshire.  The White Mountains and then the rough backcountry of Maine await.   Most people seem to agree that this final piece is the toughest but also the most beautiful part of the entire 2,190 miles.

My attitude about the earlier parts of the trail has also changed.  In a previous entry I labelled the trail builder/designer for the AT in northern PA a sadist.  Well, I have rethought that. If you don’t bend in response to what the AT sets before you it will eventually break you.  I now think about what the AT in previous states has taught me, in order to be able to successfully complete the whole trail.  Georgia and Virginia gave me practice with really long ascents.  Tennessee and North Carolina? How to do miles under adverse weather conditions.  Pennsylvania?  How to walk over rocks and boulders for long periods of time.  And then, in succession, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Vermont gradually put those things together with Vermont adding a lesson in how to walk in lots of mud.  Of course, there was also great beauty in the outdoors in all these states.  Once I realized this, I stopped fighting the AT.

I’ve stopped pushing out 12 hour hiking days to get in 20 or 22 trail miles. I’m going off trail more frequently to get to “real” food at restaurants and I am taking days off from hiking more frequently to rest up and load myself with calories. I no longer care about the arbitrary schedule I set for myself 6 months before I set foot in Georgia. And, after actively resisting hiking together on the trail, I’ve discovered that, with the right people, walking the AT at this stage with a hiking buddy has some really significant advantages.

I’m hoping that all of this means that things are coming together, and right on time, as the last stages of the hike loom just ahead.  Somewhere buried in here are lessons that carry over to life off the trail as well.  I hope those lessons stay with me once I’m done with the AT, whenever and wherever that may be.

What In Blazes Is Horizontal Rock Clmbing?

White blazes mark the AT in Pennsylvania

 

I’m currently in Stroudsburg, PA recovering from finishing the Pennsylvania section of the AT.  I’m now certain that the northern PA section of the AT was designed and built by sadists, but perhaps that is a topic best explored at a different time.  Anyway, when I woke up Monday morning at the Leroy Smith shelter I decided to make a mad dash for Delaware Water Gap, just to be done with Pennsylvania once and for all.  I made it, walking over an endless series of rocks and boulders for at least 90% of the 20 miles it took to get to the end of the line.  The AT gods punished this lack of appreciation by drenching me in a thunderstorm just as I entered town.

After 12 days hiking in Pennsylvania, I’m now taking time off to learn how to walk on flat surfaces again.  I’m not kidding.  My gait was transformed by the AT in PA.  I still pick up and put my feet down as if I were traversing rocks and boulders.  This ends up looking a bit odd when you are striding down a sidewalk.  The people in town must look at me and think “I wonder how long this man has been in rehabilitation since his stroke?  He is very brave to be walking around like that in public”.  This is the price you pay for getting through Pennsylvania.  On a map the Pennsylvania AT looks like it should be “easy” – only modest elevation changes.  But, it involves a huge amount of rock climbing.  But it is almost exclusively (Lehigh Gap notwithstanding), horizontal rock climbing.  That is what you do – each step is climbing over rocks.  If you hike the AT in PA you are a rock climber.  No ifs, ands or buts.

This brings me to today’s other topic – blazing.  The trademark characteristic of the entire 2,190 miles of the AT are the white blazes painted on trees (and, yes, on rocks as well) to show you the proper path.  Someone with some serious issues actually counted all the blazes he saw as he did his thru hike a few years ago and reported that there are over 80,000 blazes.  That’s a fair number in my book.  So “white blazing” is an active verb, suggesting that you are hiking the AT.  However, there are other types of blazing as well.

Blue blazes mark the path off the AT to springs, shelters, alternate trails, outhouses, etc.  “Blue Blazing” as a verb refers generally to taking a short cut on the trail to cut down on the miles or to avoid ominous features that misguided trail designers have worked into the AT.  For example, to continue picking on Pennsylvania, one can avoid “Wolf Rocks” by taking a blue blazed bypass trail.  For someone wanting to assert that they have thru hiked the AT, “blue blazing”, as it is called, is in kind of a gray zone.

Less sporting for those claiming to thru hike the AT is “yellow blazing”.  This involves getting in a car to avoid pesky features like a 900 foot rock scramble of the vertical kind out of Lehigh Gap, or just cutting down on the total miles you want to hike.  In the Shenandoah, there is a lot of talk about “aqua blazing”.  Here you completely stop pretending to be on the Appalachian Trail and instead float down the Shenandoah River in a kayak or raft.  You can get pretty much all the way to Harpers Ferry this way.  I’ve been accused in some quarters as being a bit rigid at times, but I think even these detractors would agree with me that this isn’t playing by the thru hiking rules, so to speak.

Finally, we come to a type of blazing that doesn’t cause arguments about whether you are “really” thru hiking the AT.  I refer here to “pink blazing”.  Color aside, this type of blazing refers to the art of romance on the trail – and there is a lot of romance going on even when everyone is dirty, sweaty and hasn’t showered in 3, 4 or even more days.  Speaking of which, TBS (“time between showers” for the uninitiated) is a way to prove how macho you are and does come up in conversations in the evening around the campfire.  I impressed my shelter mates recently when I mentioned that my max TBS so far was 10 days.  No one else had more than a 5 day TBS.  I owned that night.  A word of caution however to those seeking to improve their TBS – maxing out your TBS just before meeting your spouse for a day off the trail does not “max out” your chances for romance.

Okay, yes, I’ve digressed again.  Back to romance, even with the TBS factor.  Some pink blazing is obvious – for example when you are spending time at a hostel and can observe your fellow hikers at closer quarters (no, I am NOT some creepy stalker).  More subtle is noticing the pairing up of hikers who previously seemed to be on solo thru hikes.  As in “real life”, the romance on the trail can be long lasting, or tragically cut short.  A hostel owner with whom I was chatting told of a hiker who showed her an engagement ring he was carrying, while passing through Hot Springs, NC.  He planned to give it to the woman with whom he was currently hiking when they made it to the end of the AT – the summit of Mt. Katahdin in Maine.  Very romantic indeed.  Alas, by the time they reached Damascus, VA (200 miles north), the romance was over and his betrothed-to-be was pink blazing with another.  Such is life.

So, I must make a confession.  When I decided to write about blazing, I desperately wanted to cleverly work into the entry a reference to Mel Brooks’ movie masterpiece “Blazing Saddles”.  I thought long and hard about how I could do this.  Surely there was a connection to be made between white blazing on the AT and Alex Karras punching a horse, cowboys sitting around a campfire eating their fill of beans, or Cleavon Little looking smart on his horse with his Gucci saddle bags.  But, alas, I must report that I failed.  So, there will be no reference in this entry about AT blazing to “Blazing Saddles”.  I promise.