Thursday, July 19, 2007


After a few 8 - 10-mile happy, satisfying dayhikes in the White Mountains, I set out Monday on my first solo overnight backpacking experience. I had trail maps, guidebook pages, my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, 3 various layers of clothes, food for 3 days and 2 nights, cookset including my Coke-can stove, coffee-can cookpot, denatured alcohol, and lighter; a first-aid/emergency kit, toiletries kit, water bottles, and an itinerary of 7.5 miles on Day 1 (climb Mt. Washington and Mt. Jefferson), stay overnight at a campsite with tent platforms and a shelter; 4 miles on Day 2 (climb Mt. Adams and Mt. Madison, stay at another tentsite); 5 miles on Day 3, with Steve picking me up back at the starting place. The second and third days would be easier days after the harder first day. The White Mountains Guidebook estimated 7 hours to reach my first campsite. So far, on my dayhikes, I'd been right on or slightly ahead of the "book times" (estimated times on various trails described in the AMC White Mountains Guidebook.)

So I set out happily onto the trail. There were lots of people, since I started on the shortest and most popular route up to Mt. Washington. Most popular, apparently, to oblivious dodo's.... on a rock in the path, there was a little frog squashed flat by what must have been a foot; there's nothing else on that path that could squash a frog on a rock. Someone had strewn their orange peels around.... biodegradable, I guess. An assortment of snotty kleenexes. And a panty liner. ????? I mean, come on, girls.... I can see accidentally dropping a kleenex but how did did you let that get away from you? Right along the trailside? Have some discretion, for petesake.

Disregarding the litter, though, the trail was magnificent. At Hermit Lakes Shelter (where you could stay if you needed to) the wind whistled around the caretaker's cabin through the spectacular hemlocks as through the fir trees at Heidi's grandfather's hut. What a job that caretaker has! What do you have to do to get to live there?

There was a turnoff onto the most direct route to Mt. Washington's summit, but I bypassed that in favor of joining up with the Appalachian Trail. This led to my first experience with a boulder field. Like walking across petrified basketballs, very iffy footing. When I finally hit the AT, I could have kissed the ground.

The AT does not, however, go directly up to the summit. I knew this and had planned to take the short side trail leading to it. Parents with fairly young children, having conquered the summit and no doubt had a hamburger at the visitor center, were leaping down like mountain goats. However, the trail up had been steeper and rockier than I'd thought, and I hadn't hiked before with a 30-pound pack on my back, and I had taken an hour longer than the estimated 4 hours to come this far, and I was getting tired, and I had another 3 miles to go to my tentsite. I decided to sacrifice the summit and stay on the AT, headed towards the next mountain, Mt. Jefferson.

This is where I should have done the math and headed to a closer campsite.

The trail to Mt. Jefferson was another field of petrified basketballs, beach balls, and Volkswagen-size boulders. Cairns of stone marked the general direction of the trail, but offered no hint of how to put hand over foot to follow them. Groups of hikers kept passing me, an adult or two often with a gaggle of teens or tweens. They got ahead of me and disappeared. Other cairn-marked trails led off the main trail and although I had a map and guidebook pages, occasionally I got off on the wrong trail and had to backtrack. A person had to assess a place for each footfall before putting it down. Except the younger people, whom I'd watched treading happily across as if it were a pine-needle-strewn woodland path. I used my trekking poles almost like crutches, planting them check the stability of the rocks, then leaning on them for balance and support. Progress was slow.

Somewhere around Mt. Jefferson (again I bypassed my planned sidetrip to the summit) I began to be aware that I hadn't seen any other hikers for a while. It was about 5pm. I knew the two wayside huts most had been headed for, and I was now what seemed like a huge distance between them. About equidistant, as a matter of fact. Closer than that to my planned tentsite, but still pretty far out.

I looked both directions and saw no one. I had started this trek too late in the morning and planned too much distance. I appeared to be alone on this tricky trail late in the day, and it began to dawn that I was alone and totally on my own out here.

I prayed not to sprain my ankle, or fall, or get my leg caught between rocks. I started wondering where a person might camp if they found themselves unable to make their expected destination. I thought of emergency plans.... to get my sleeping bag out of my pack and wrap it around me if I got injured on these rocks and couldn't make it to a reasonable flat place.

And then I fell. Headlong. I don't know if I tripped, or what, just found myself pitching forward. I let go of my poles and broke the fall with my bike-gloved hands. "Please, no, I can't fall, I absolutely can't fall, this is unacceptable, I cannot fall out here now!!!!" I stopped falling. But I couldn't get up. My 30# pack tried to keep falling, over my head, as I tried to get up. It took a lot of pushing with hands and knees to stabilize myself, then get my head up, and finally my back and the rest of my body. Whew. I was shaking.

The realization began to glimmer that I was in somewhat of a fix. A trail sign told me I was 0.7 miles from the turnoff to my tentsite. But then there was another mile-long path to traverse after that. At my current rate, it could take me 3 hours. I picked my way along.... came to a mossy Alpine meadow in between rock fields, and sat down to study my maps, have a snack, and think. I looked around and thought, there would be worse places than this to spend the night.... soft moss and little plants, a person could go behind that boulder for some shelter from the west wind.... but it's forbidden to camp above treeline, endangers the Alpine flora.... hey, it's 6:30, it doesn't get dark till 9, I've got time. I packed up my snacks, picked up my poles, and started on.

And looked at what was ahead of me. I cannot go up there. There is no way I can go up there. Yes, I can.... I've climbed "hills" just like that one many times today. I can do that. Except after that one there's another one, and another one. I'm tired. Well, I'll go for another hour and see what I come to. I started climbing.

I was feeling distinct unease. No one knew there was a hiker still out here. There was no cell-phone signal; no way to let anyone know. And, had I been able to contact anyone, nothing could have been done. No one was coming out in the approaching dark to lead me over treacherous ground to any haven. I was totally, completely alone. I knew where I was, and I was too far out. If I kept going, I'd increase my chances of falling and getting injured, which, in the dropping temperatures, I realized could easily become life-threatening. I looked ahead, and looked back, and decided, the hell with the laws, I'm going back to that grassy knoll behind that big boulder and pitch my tent. It's forbidden, but it's getting cold and windy, and I do not dare go on. Struggling to go on in the face of fatigue and fear is what makes people end up dead on mountainsides. I'm going back down there. I'm spending the night here in the open in my tent while I still can.

So I did. I picked my way back down the boulders to the mossy cove I'd found, spread out my ground cover, fought with my tent in the mountaintop wind, put in my sleeping pad and sleeping bag.

As soon as I stopped hiking, I started getting cold. I was all sweated up and the wind was blowing. I put on ALL my clothes: medium-weight running tights that I wear in winter; cotton yoga pants I'd packed as a light layer; my nylon hiking pants; wicking silky long-sleeved base-layer top (given me at IM Florida by my Calgarian friends); fleece top; windbreaker; two pairs of wool socks; knit hat, knit gloves. There were no trees from which to hang my food bag away from bears. But, I reasoned, there were no bears up here. There was nothing for them. No berries, no bark, no bugs, no campers, no shelter.... no reason a bear should be up here. Wild cats, likewise, would find no reason to be here. Muggers, murderers, rapists.... no human in his right mind would be here. Yet here I was. A victim of misjudgement and stupidity. But, barring a storm, relatively safe. I prayed for no storms. I saw none on the horizon.

By 7:30 I had hidden my food bag among some rocks a couple hundred feet from my tent, got into my 20*F-rated sleeping bag with all those clothes on, and closed my eyes. The moss with my sleeping pad on top made a surprisingly comfortable resting surface. I began to warm up. I began to feel a little drowsy. I thought about hypothermia and thought, I'm in a 20* sleeping bag with 3 layers of clothes. I'll be fine.

The wind howled and whooshed. My tent flapped and jostled against my sleeping bag, sounding like an animal rubbing against it. I knew it was just my sleeping bag. I slept on and off. I was toasty warm and cozy but not hot.

It never did get completely dark. All night, when I woke from drowsing, I noted that it was twilight, and thought the sun was coming up, but my watch would say 11 p.m., 1 a.m., 3 a.m; the light was starlight. I had short dreams I can't remember. I was comfortable and snug. As long as a storm didn't come up, I was safe. This was a surprisingly comforting thought. My only possible adversary was weather, and except for the normal summit wind, the weather was benign.

It started getting lighter around 4a.m. I dozed till 5. Then I started getting itchy to break camp... early hikers would start arriving, maybe, about 7, and I didn't want to be found camping illegally out here. I tossed my thermometer outside the tent and pulled it back in reading 42*. But I had not been too hot in side my 20* bag with 3 layers of clothes (although I'd taken off my hat and gloves.)

The mountaintop wind had pulled my tent against its stakes so much that they'd come out of the ground. The only thing holding my tent down was me. An empty "stuff" bag I'd forgotten outside had blown down the mountain a ways. I retrieved my food bag, which was untouched except where some little ground critter had chewed a tiny hole to find my peanut-butter bag. He must not have found it to his liking.... he'd only tasted it. I packed up my stuff, fluffed up the little plants I'd crushed, and started back on the trail, with the whole day ahead of me, not fighting the sunset and dropping temperatures anymore.

After more traversing of boulder fields, I came to the turnoff to the campsite where I'd intended to stay. It seemed a long way from where I'd bivouacked. I'd never have made it in my fatigue over the rocks, unlikely I'd even have seen it, and then with another mile to go once I reached it... I'd made the right call in making camp where I did.

Around 8 a.m. I started meeting hikers. They commented that I was out early, asked where I'd stayed. I lied. I told them, "The Perch tentsite. It's just a ways back." To one man, I told the truth. He looked respectful and said, "You made the right decision. If you'd been hurt, there would have been no one. You were only lucky there weren't storms. You did the right thing. It's good you had your overnight gear with you." I was glad to hear another person say that.

I arrived at an overnight-with-dinner-and-breakfast hut, the Madison Spring Hut, finally, after about 3 miles. I thought, it's another 3 miles to the next tentsite. Then another overnight. Then 5 miles tomorrow. I had hot spots on my feet where my shoes had twisted navigating the rocks. And all of a sudden, I was done. I didn't want to hike anymore. I didn't want to stay overnight in my tent again and then hike another 5 miles tomorrow. I had bitten off more than I could chew. I went into the hut and asked a crew-member, "If I want to get to a road where I can be picked up, what's the best way out of here?" She gave me directions down a side trail. I sat and regrouped, drank hot chocolate and tea, studied maps. And finally, down I started. It was another 3.7 miles down to NH Route 2, where, of all things, at the trailhead was a parking lot with a shuttle bus which, if I met up with it, would take me back to my starting place for easy pickup by my husband. I went for it.

The trail went down and down and down, rocky tricky footing for the first mile, but then moderated. I started making time. I called Steve as soon as I could get a signal, told him plans had changed. I beat the bus by half an hour. I sat on my backpack and read the book I'd had the foresight to pack. And the bus came and I got on and fell asleep. There were lots of stops at lots of trailheads and it was 3 hours before we'd get back to my pickup place. I was safe. I didn't have to hike anymore. I felt like crying.

I feel like I'm telling someone else's story. It seems distant, like I dreamed it, like it never happened. I'm home; I've driven to the grocery store, cleaned restrooms, checked my email. Life seems normal.

But things have changed.

I still want to hike the Appalachian Trail. What I undertook on my first time out was one of its most difficult stretches. I knew that, but thought I'd be fine because I've been hiking White Mountain trails all summer. How little I knew.

And therein is the lesson. How little I knew. A person has to know their own ability, their own limitations, the terrain ahead, and the effect of carrying 30 pounds on their back, and take all this into consideration in planning their trip. These mountains are incapable of kindness. They do not care whether you are there. You are on your own. You take care of yourself. You better know what you are doing, and if you don't, you better discover that very quickly and start figuring it out.

I'm grateful I was able to figure it out. That I had the sense to stop, even if it was a felony or something ("Fine, Ranger, I'll pay the fine. I'd rather trample a few plants than die out here.") I'm grateful I had all I needed with me; that I was not out there with some little fanny pack or daypack and no sleeping bag or extra clothes.

Actually, although I hadn't completely realized what I was getting into, I'm glad I knew as much as I did. That I couldn't, or shouldn't, keep going. How to pitch a tent. To put on extra clothes first off, rather than get cold and try to put them on as needed. All I would have needed was to get hypothermic out there. That would have been the last friggin' straw. Unless a thunderstorm had come up.... that could have been the grand finale.

So, for my next backing trip, I'm planning more conservative distances. Seems like God and the mountains decided I had lessons to learn on my very first trip, before my delusions of grandeur got any bigger.

Now I know. At least, more than I did. I am not all I thought I was. I am a speck in the mountains.
But, unbelievably, I took care of myself. That realization gives me an inkling of strength it's hard to describe.


Nancy Toby said...

What a story! Thanks for sharing it with us! Glad you're okay!

From Here to There said...

Wow Ellie. You definitely made the right choice. I, a non-hiker, thought '7.5 miles, she'll be tired, but she'll have tons of time on the summit to enjoy it'. Shows what I know!

I am so impressed with how you kept your cool and remained rational. SMART.

Really proud of you, and glad you're not throwing in the towel!

Miss Rachel said...

Fascinating story. Scary, but it sounds as if you got some good things out of the experience. I'm glad you're all right.

bunnygirl said...

Wow. Your story about illegal camping reminded me of one of the "don't do this" examples in the book "Deep Survival." A man was lost in the woods, but even though the temps were dropping and he was inadequately dressed, he didn't build a fire because there was a burn ban and he was afraid he'd get in trouble. He nearly died.

Nature doesn't care about us, so we must be our own best advocates out there. You were so, so smart to do what you needed to do for your own well-being. If even killing a person is permissible in self-defense, surely building a tent would result in only a stern talking-to and perhaps a fine. There's not a search-and-rescue ranger around who would've preferred to take your dead body off that mountain.

You've got oodles of good ol' horse sense, and that's really what it takes to be a long-course backpacker! :-)

Grand Canyon Hiker said...

Ellie, you did all the right things. Don't sell yourself short. The only thing you did wrong was miscalculate the distance you could cover.

These kinds of experiences eventually make you a more seasoned and savvy hiker. Now you know that you can survive anywhere as long as you have food, water, and shelter.

This is a good time to play the what if game. What if you would have started to develop hypothermia? Did you have a dry change of clothing to change into in the event you got wet and cold? How about building a fire? I always have more than one way to start a fire even if I don't plan to start one. And by all means, in an emergency, all bets are off. Forget about the rules, laws, and anything else that gets in the way of survival. You did, and you are the better for it. You made an honest effort to comply, but you did what you had to do.

As for your feet, its great to get blisters during your training trips. Huh? You ask. Well, now you know where you are prone to get hot spots and blisters. Next time you put moleskin over those areas before you even take your first step on the trail.

Now you can look at a mountain, or a rocky descent and say to yourself, I can go so far in so many hours let me look at the map and assess the situation. This way you can decide if you need to look for a campsite long before you have to do it in a hurry.

Think about what if anything you could have done to make your tent sturdier, or to keep your stakes from coming out.

Good work, and get back out there.

Your were "Against the Wind" and you won!

By the way, I updated my Blog with pictures from the Grand Canyon.

Steve said...

Sounds like you came home with a lot more than you started with.
You got into a bad spot and made good decisions and got out.
And yes, that feeling of achievement, power, whatever it is; is what the whole trail thing is about.

Steve " Cowanesque" of AT 97

Anonymous said...

Lessons learned such as you learned are never forgotten. Be thankful for your past sports skills which I'm sure assisted you in making the correct decision. I have had to make a decision such as that also. When the body shuts down there's no pushing it. If you do the trail next year maybe we'll meet up. I'll be doing the approach trail with my son this weekend. Next year is my retiremnt journey. Continue to think smart and you'll be fine. Tired but fine. Take care....
grasshopper john