Tuesday, January 27, 2015

AT Section Hike: Neels Gap to Amicalola Falls

Sometime in 2012 I got the absurd idea to hike all of the Appalachian Trail. I had just finished my second 50 mile section with our local group of Boy Scouts, which was one of the most miserable experiences of my life. I spent an entire week cold, wet, and sick with norovirus. I contemplated the plight of those forced to march to Soviet Gulags through Siberian winters. I recalled passages from Viktor Frankl's classic "Man's Search for Meaning." It was a harrowing experience. While I won't attempt to make any comparison of my suffering to that of a concentration camp inmate, I couldn't help but think that I was experiencing at least something of what they did. Dramatic? Maybe. But being thoroughly sodden with interferons pumping through your body while plodding up and down mountains, knowing you are not going to be warm for 5 days, can create some dramatic feelings. It was on the drive home from this torturous week that I resolved to take on the entire AT, section by section, over the course of years if necessary. Not for any reason in particular, either. Not to prove anything or to vindicate myself. It simply seemed like the most logical thing to do. In fact, there wasn't much of an active decision at all, I just immediately started planning how I would hike the next sections.

At present, I've completed 200+ miles, about 10% of the trail. I've learned to prepare better, mostly because its taken experience to know what to expect on the trail. There's plenty of advice and wisdom about the trail that can help hikers avoid common mistakes of multi-day hikes. However, nothing can take the place of personal experience and knowing exactly what you're dealing with because you've actually had to deal with it. In 2012, I was not prepared. Preparation is the main thing that has changed with my approach to hiking. My fitness level remains mostly the same. Running consistently has given me a baseline cardio fitness that has masked some of my poor planning skills. But some things can't be fixed by being fast or having good physical endurance. In fact, this has played into one of my major weaknesses. As my fitness and diet have improved, my body fat percentage has fallen significantly. I have essentially no insulation and can feel very subtle changes in temperature.

When a planned ski trip this winter fell through and left me with two days off of work and nothing to do, nature called. And the AT=nature. The southern terminus was closest and had been on my radar for some time. For this section, I couldn't have family or friends drop me off or pick me up. Hitchhiking wouldn't be an option, because I was on a tight time schedule. I decided to shop around with shuttles, which are abundant on the trail. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy provides a list of shuttles, some legit outfitters and some just normal folk trying to diversify their income. I cast a wide net initially emailing and texting all the shuttles close to the section I intended to hike. Responses trickled in, "$80" "$70 flat rate 1-4 hikers" I was shocked. I guess I had the number 20 or maybe 30 in my mind, but this would be around 100 miles out of the way driving for the shuttler, and these fees are usually split between a group of hikers. I kept shopping and haggled a guy named Murice down to $65 firm. Still excessive, but I was ready to shell it out. Instead I offered to trade a Fitbit that was gathering dust from Christmas. Haggling such a sissy trade with rural Georgians probably carries some inherent risk, but I was desperate to keep my cash. The response to offering my Fitbit Flex for the ride arrived quickly via text, "What is that?" Not big on their Fitbits in those parts, it seemed. They did film Deliverance not too far up the road. I gave the Cliff Notes version: "Its a fitness tracker that syncs with a smart phone, basically a glorified pedometer with some extra bells and whistles." I knew this was a long shot that some random dude would be interested in a city boy trinket. It must have been the mention of bells, or perhaps it was the whistles that hooked my future chauffeur, because I soon received a surprising response: "I think that would be fine by me." And so, not knowing if this man had a smart phone, any understanding of apps, or a computer that would allow him to successfully utilize the Coke bottle from the sky that I was about to drop on him as payment, we arranged a meeting.

The five hour drive up to Amicalola Falls was uneventful. I called Murice north of Atlanta to let him know I'd be early. Upon arrival I had just enough time to sign in at the Visitor's Center and shuffle some things around my pack before Murice arrived in the "Black Ford Ranger with a rack" he described in his text. He played the part of a rural Appalachian gentleman well. He had long stringy hair, thick glasses hiding myopic eyes. He donned denim coveralls and lacked only a stalk of wheat in his mouth. As I got in the truck, I was greeted by Aiden, a dachshund/chihuahua mix that immediately took up residence on my lap. The truck was full of maps stacked on the dashboard and other signs of Murice's shuttling resume, including his ability to barter with hikers. As we pulled out of the parking lot onto the highway, I could see a car coming at us in the lane we were destined for. Murice shot out onto the highway as the car sped by, barely missing the front of the truck. "WOAH! I didn't even see him coming!" This would be the only understatement of our journey.

He told me tales of driving German tourists all around the Blue Ridge and rescuing freezing hikers on barely navigable forest service roads. He complained about receiving payment in the form of a tent with holes burnt in the bottom from one of the trail's many potheads, along with hyperbolic descriptions of motorcyclists regularly "doin' one eighty" around sharp curves of the dragon's tail, a "worldwide famous" strip of highway popular for scenery and dying, among other things. My favorite quote from Murice came after he described the hardships faced by those attempting to live off the land in Appalachia: "they can't eat just tree bark and dirt. They're not Giraffes!"

The hour-long drive to Neel's Gap dragged on, speeding around sharp curves, all the while Aiden digging his claws into my thighs for traction and smearing his pungent glands all over my base layer shirt. The combination of smell and driving conditions were a perfect recipe for nausea. On top of that, I had guzzled a full liter of water prior to our drive and Aiden was stepping precariously on my tautly stretched bladder. Mercifully, the Walasi-yi Center came into sight, signaling our arrival. I gave Murice $20 for gas and told him thanks for picking me up early. He told me to text him if I ran into trouble, "texts will get through eventually!" I crossed the road around 1pm and followed the first white blaze.

The weather was excellent, around 50 degrees, mostly clear. I wore only my base layer comfortably. There were a few places I had in mind for potential campsites that night where there was a water source, but mainly I just wanted to get as many miles as possible in before sunset. The initial climb out of Neels immediately led me to the summit of 4450 ft Blood Mountain, known for its welcoming name. About a mile away was Slaughter Mountain, another indication of centuries of peace in this remote location. According to the AT guidebook, Blood Mountain is the most heavily trafficked point on the AT south of Clingman's Dome. I ran into 4 or 5 people, all day hikers. The shelter at Blood Mountain was a cool one, made of stone walls and a wooden roof put together with wooden pegs instead of bolts or screws. (please forgive my lack of carpentry vocabulary, I'm sure there are names for this).

I hiked on past the next shelter without stopping as it was far off the trail. I was making good time, making it farther than I had expected, the weather was staying nice. Descending down to Woody Gap and a road crossing, there were bear-proof garbage cans, a nice luxury on the trail to drop garbage weight. There were business cards inserted in the latch for each garbage can, placed strategically by none other than my chauffeur, Murice. About a mile south of Woody Gap, the sun was almost down and I started looking for a place to camp. I noticed some rocks up the hill to my right, it was a great lookout and there was a fire ring behind the rocks, along with well-spaced trees, perfect for a hammock. It had apparently been dry for at least a few days, I started a fire with no problems, set up camp and sat down for dinner.

It got cold that night, but my down quilt performed nicely. My only problems were with occasional cold spots where the quilt was compressed by the hammock on my shoulders and under my feet. For cold weather hammock sleeping in the future, I think an under quilt would remedy this, or at bare minimum a full-length sleeping pad. (I used my torso-length blue pad). During the night it started to rain, which was expected based on the 100% chance in multiple forecasts. Most forecasts predicted "occasional showers." Little did I know that the rain wasn't going to stop for the rest of the trip.

But I was prepared for rain, or so I thought. I had made a last minute purchase of a Frogg Toggs rain suit, a decision for which I will be forever grateful. Friday morning started like most camping days do: shivering while getting dressed and breaking down camp. The rain was consistent, but not pouring, so my rain suit was doing its job. Beneath it, I had on my base layer and insulation layer (down jacket) and I was comfortable. My feet were staying mostly dry as no puddles had formed yet.

Hiking that morning was mostly pleasant despite the rain. I was keeping a good pace and apparently pushing a little too hard because I was sweating. When I would stop, my temperature dropped almost instantly. I was soaking from the inside out. I took a break and removed my down jacket to keep it dry in case I needed it to stay warm that night. I continued on with rain gear and base layer only, which was noticeably cooler, but OK as long as I was moving. I started getting concerned with how cold I was when I stopped and the air temperature was down about 10 degrees from where it was most of the morning (40s to 30s). At this point I was completely soaked, head to toe and the prospect of spending another night in the hammock wasn't going to become a reality. I planned to reach the farthest shelter I could, hopefully Black Gap and hole up there for the night out of the wind. As I stopped at shelters, I realized that even out of the wind, I would be in for a rough night. Changing into my dry set of clothes would help, but dealing with near-freezing cold clothes the next morning after a night fighting to stay warm was not a hopeful proposition. At this point I started to fantasize about getting in my car, starting the engine, and cranking the heat. I could not get the thought out of my mind. This led to the idea of completing the remainder of the section that day, a total of 30 miles. Estimating an average of slightly over 2mph, I figured I could get to the car around 8:30. It would be dark, but I had a headlamp. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it, but that was a long way to go in one day. After weighing the choice of a miserably cold night vs. just a really long day and some night hiking, I decided to take my chances with the long hike. I was relatively warm on the move. I knew I probably had the stamina with some marathons and a 50k under my belt. I knew the night hiking might be a risk, but the real risk of freezing that night was more of a concern for me. And so I marched on, full speed with only a handful of short breaks, planning to make a final decision when I arrived at Black Gap, which was the last shelter before Amicalola.

With new hope of a warm end to the day, I trudged on with spongy feet. After passing the sign for a waterfall, I turned back to appreciate some sights. Long Creek Falls was a welcome sight and break from the monotony:

My legs were getting quite fatigued at this point. I knew I'd be limping around for a few days after pushing the mileage like this. Most notably, my feet were getting beat up by my shoes. I thought the fit was roomy enough, but with swollen, wet feet, my toenails were getting jammed into the toecap and feeling ready to pop off. Finally, I reached Springer Mountain, the famous southern terminus of the AT:

The stop was short as I had 8.8 miles remaining to the car and only a couple of hours of light left. I found the blue blazes marking the approach trail to the AT and kept moving. Black Gap was the final stop and decision point to tough out the night in a shelter or finish. I took one look at the drafty, drippy shanty and kept moving. All I wanted was to get out of the rain. I made it a few more miles before sunset, then prepared for a moonless, overcast night. The temperature dropped and snow started to fall, but not stick. I had my down jacket back on and I was staying warm, but still completely soaked, so the down wasn't doing much. I had my headlamp ready for when things got too dark but made it quite a ways while my eyes adjusted. I came to a clearing where the path wasn't easy to discern and realized I was going the wrong way. I switched on my headlamp and muttered an audible "oh crap." Visibility was about 10 feet at best between the snow and fog in the air. It was a total whiteout with the lamp on. I backtracked a bit and turned on my phone to use the GPS.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that I was just up a hill from the north end of Amicalola Falls State Park. I knew which direction to head, but couldn't find my trusty blue blazes. I wandered about a bit when I caught a sight of something on a tree. I switched on the headlamp to a bright blue blaze, The trail led down to a road crossing where a sign marked the border of the state park. The next challenge was to navigate my way down the hill, in the dark and avoid stumbling into the highest waterfall in Georgia. I could hear water at a seemingly safe distance and managed to stay on the trail by looking directly at the ground with my headlamp, seeing the worn pathway. I was stumbling and running into trees, bushes, and rocks, but stayed on my feet (barely). Eventually I saw some lights that ended up being the upper parking lot of the falls. Now it would get steep down to the bottom of the falls where my car was parked. I followed what I thought was the approach trail into the dark, with a precarious drop off to my right and the sound of rushing water. This trail was a side road rather than the approach trail, which ended up being a good thing. The approach trail went over the water with an extensive staircase that I wasn't too keen on traversing in the dark. Finally, I popped out of the woods behind the visitor's center where my adventure had begun less than 48 hours earlier. Every hike I have been on has a surreal moment of emerging from the woods to civilization, whether it's a road or something more substantial. The longer I'm in the woods, the stranger it is. This was no exception to that rule. I looked at the clock. It was 7:45. I had been hiking for 12 hours straight in the rain, keeping a pace of ~2.5mph. I crossed the street to my car and hugged the trunk. I had saved a clean pair of clothes for the trip home, so I took those out and headed back to the visitor's center where there was a men's bathroom on the outside that was mercifully unlocked. Stepping in, the first thing I noticed was heated air, an immensely relaxing luxury. I took a short hobo bath in the sink and put on glorious dry clothing while examining my traumatized, grimy body. The pile of wet clothes still reeked of Aiden's backside. I looked at my phone and saw a text from Murice: "I don't want to bug u,but how are u doing? ...Snow would have been better than this" After hearing his tales of rescuing Secret Service agents on vacation who had backed out of a 15 mile day doing 2mph, I wasn't sure Murice would buy my story of the day's events. "Actually just got off the trail. Finished early because of weather. 30 miles today! Thanks for checking up." His response gave me the assurance that this information would be embellished and exaggerated to future shuttlees: "Wow - that is amazing... Truly!! That might be a record, if they kept records of hikes in the rain and muck."

Murice is part of the reason the AT is such a great place to go. It felt good to know that he was watching out for me, someone he barely knew. He would have driven to any random spot on the trail, night or day, rain/snow or shine to save a hiker in trouble. He had no expectation of making much of a profit, or anything for that matter. He just liked being up there and being around hikers, showing them his mountains and telling stories about the people that try to tame them.

It's hard to say I had a good time on this adventure, but as time passes it's getting more and more enjoyable. Andrew Skurka has called this "Type 2 Fun." I don't think I made any major lapses in preparation. The rain would have made it miserable no matter what. I could have had warmer sleeping arrangements, as well as more dry clothes in my pack, but that's about all I would have changed. In the end, my legs and more than a few prayers got me off the mountain intact. Now the scheming begins for the next adventure.

My pack list:
CategoryGear SelectionWeight (oz)Details
PackingGranite Gear Virga 218.6Frameless, Size Regular
Garbage Bag Packliner1.6
Equinox Ultralight Small Pack Pocket0.8For quick access to phone
Waist Belt Pack2.5Kirkham's Outdoor Products
SleepingEnlightened Equipment Enigma Elite Quilt17.5Down, 30 degree
Blue Insulation Pad5.9Cut to torso length, R 1.4
Grand Trunk Nano 7 Hammock7.6
Hammock Hanging Straps4.3Harbor Freight Tie-downs
ShelterGranite Gear White Lighting Small 8 x 1022.8
Coghlan's Ultralight Stakes x 64With a small bag
Packed ClothingDahlgren Ultralight Hiking Socks1.5Alpaca/Merino
Extra Longjohns18Cotton/Poly
HydrationNalgene 32oz HDPE Wide Mouth3.8
Nalgene 32oz Tritan Wide Mouth6.4
Platypus 1L1.3
MSR Hyperflow Microfilter10.9Fits widemouth Nalgene
CookingLight my fire Spork0.4Tritan
Primus Cooklite Stove8.6With stuffsack
Coleman Gas Canister12.8
Toaks Titanium 600mL Pot4.1With stuffsack
Small EssentialsPrimus PrimeLite D Headlamp2.55 LED
Gerber Dime Multitool2.3
Nexus 4 Smartphone w/ bumpercase5.8Backcountry Navigator App
Duct Tape0.35 feet
Billfold1.6Cash, ID, 1 credit card
Car Key1Honda!
Lumsing 10400mah powerbank8.6charges phone ~3 times
Emergency Mylar Blanket1.7
Paracord 50ft3
Firestarting Stick0.5
Bic Mini Lighter0.4
Keyring Thermometer0.3
Compass1.7Suunto M3
Baseweight (no worn items/consumables)184.7
11.5 lbs

Worn GearUniqlo Ultralight Down Jacket9.2~700fp Duck, w/ stuffsack
Merino Wool Buff1.8
Carhartt Knit Cap3Acrylic
Injinji Nuwool Midweight Socks2.1
Uniqlo Heattech Longjohns14.5Synthetic blend
GoLite Yunnan Hiking Pants11.8
Fingerless Gloves/Mittens3.9Thinsulate
Merrill Mont Mavis Shoes19.9
Frogg Toggs Ultralite2 Rain Suit10.4

Friday, January 2, 2015

5K Training

In 2005 I ran my first distance race of any kind, The Rex Lee Run 5K in Provo, UT. I ran a 20:48, which remains my fastest 5K to date, despite multiple attempts to take it down. Until recent years, my training strategy was pretty simple: as often and as hard as I could. As I've made attempts at longer distances, some forethought has been necessary to avoid common problems like shin splints, barfing, crapping, chafing, and dying.

Early this February I will take my first serious crack at PRing my 5K time. My training focus is on speed workouts instead of mileage, and holding goal pace for each of the workouts. I'm currently at week 4 of the schedule that goes thusly:

Week 1: 400m x 4, easy 5
Week 2: 1K tempo, easy 6
Week 3: 400m x 6, easy 7
Week 4: 2K tempo, easy 7
Week 5: 400m x 7, 2.5K tempo, fartlek, easy 7
Week 6: 400m x 8, 3K tempo, fartlek, easy 7
Week 7: 400m x 9, 3.5K tempo, fartlek, easy 6
Week 8: 400m x 10, 4K tempo, easy 5
Week 9: fartlek, fartlek, Race

I chose 400m intervals because that is the distance I can consistently maintain a 5min/mile pace. I define tempo as my goal race pace of 6min/mile. My fartleks are just mixing up the pace regularly on a 2-4 mile run. Easy miles are basically just exploring trails at a comfortable pace, usually 7:30-8min/mile with some short breaks, walking/hiking.

In addition to the running, I've been more diligent about warmups and building leg strength at the gym and with stationary exercises.

I had originally planned on 1 speed workout (intervals or tempo) per week and 2-3 other days of low-intensity miles. This week with my 2K tempo, I could tell I needed to build some speed and cardio fitness, so I'm increasing to 2 high-intensity workouts per week.