Yesterday noon we finally came down off the mountain after 4 days hiking. We started at Pen-Mar, at the PA/MD border, hiked the entire Maryland section, and crossed over briefly into VA and ended in WV at Harper’s Ferry. 4 days, 4 states, 42 miles.
(MD trail topo from http://www.localhikes.com)
After we came off the trail, we asked a passerby to take a picture of our group. As I was looking at the picture to put it up on Facebook, I had a moment of panic– in the picture my pack’s hip belt was cinched tight around my squishy belly, I was hunched over slightly in the pose, and the overall effect was not flattering. But then I came to my senses– what the hell, that belly just did an amazing thing! Fat girls can climb mountains too! The picture went online, rolls and all.
It would be safe to say that this was the most physically demanding thing I’ve ever done. Apparently the MD section is “relatively easy” by AT standards, but 4 days of hiking over rocky, difficult terrain was plenty tough for me! We made sure to enjoy any stretches of soft forest loam or sandy soil that we came across, because most of it was medium-to-large rocks, rock gardens, and one bit on the first day named the “Devil’s Racecourse” that was simply a big patch of boulders to get across. Most of the underway talking was complaining about the terrain. Two of us were slow hill climbers (myself included) and two were faster, so we went in two clumps during the ascents, but I was squeamish about the descents too (especially with the rocks thrown in) so I was also slower going downhill. I just couldn’t bring myself to hurry down the descents; there was a lot to deal with between the terrain and my body and the extra pack weight. It’s better to be slow and keep your knees and all your parts intact, right?
Day 1 was about 10 miles. We got a late start (11am). In early afternoon it started raining– thankfully not hard, but enough to make for slow, treacherous going over the rocks. (On the plus side, it was refreshing?) I had a poncho and pack cover and my stuff stayed dry, but the rain dripped down the front of the poncho and right into my socks and boots. My boots were soaked– and they didn’t dry overnight either.
On day 2, the plan was to make a 14-mile run from Cowell to the Dahlgren backpacker’s campground, where there was running water and hot showers. Hiking in my wet boots was miserable and painful, and our pace was slow. Later in the day it became clear that we wouldn’t make Dahlgren before dark– plus we’d heard that it was full up with Boy Scouts for the holiday weekend. We argued for a while whether to keep suffering or call it an early day at 8.5 miles, and in the end we decided to stop at Pine Knob shelter at about 3pm, rest, dry out my boots, and recoup. Shortly afterward, 3 friendly hikers who we’d sheltered with the previous night arrived and we made the best fire we could manage out of wet wood, set my boots next to it to dry, played some cards together and had a nice evening and a good rest.
Since Day 2 was short, Day 3 was the brutal day. 16.5 miles. We got an early start and initially the terrain was undulating, with a very steep climb to Washington Monument and a series of switchback descents down to US-40. What goes down must go back up– after Rocky Run shelter there was a massive, long ascent to White Rock. We stopped at Crampton Gap to eat lunch and rest, and ran into an odd young man alone at the shelter who told us a lot of things about the trail ahead– full shelters, dried-up springs, really awful descents full of rocks. (This is how you get information on the trail, by talking to other hikers.) After hearing all this, we thought about stopping for the day, but we were aiming for Ed Garvey shelter to have a short last day so we put our boots back on and headed out. (It turns out that nothing he told us was true! The terrain was relatively moderate, and there was plenty of space and water at the shelter. We dubbed this young man “Douchebag”.) A few more miles and we were all at the ends of our ropes– I was deep in the pain hole with my feet and we were running on empty. We stopped to rest and eat something, one of my companions cracked some jokes and I laughed and then started crying. Only one of us was using the map and knew how far there was to go, and he’d been motivating us by lying repeatedly about how much was left. We finally called him out on the lying and he snapped. “Fine! There are 4 more hills to go.” Turns out he was lying again– not even half a mile down the trail was the shelter. I cried again. We set up camp there, ate most of the rest of our food, leaving just enough for the next day so we wouldn’t have to carry much (it was a feast!) and settled in for an exhausted sleep.
Day 4 was short. Only 6.5 miles! (“Only.”) There was a really nasty, steep switchback descent down from the mountain to US-340. And then there was the longest 3 miles of my life along the flat C&O canal. I wasn’t sure I had feet anymore, just painful stubs. My toenails had stopped hurting at least, because they were no longer attached, and blisters weren’t bothering me because the entire bottoms of my feet were on fire. (The night before, I named my feet “throbbing antennas of pain” and had a hard time sleeping because they hurt so badly.) I shuffled along slowly as best I could. One of my companions stayed back with me for moral support, and the other two went faster– I kept up with them as best I could while mentally cussing out the one out in front, who was in way too much of a hurry for the amount of pain I was in. Finally, finally, we climbed the stairs to the bridge into Harpers Ferry and we were done. We took the shuttle bus back to the parking lot (I’m sure the elderly tourists on the bus appreciated us with our 4 days of trail stink), shuffled to the car, and headed home. (Where we found out the reason that Captain Speed was in such a hurry– it was his 30th birthday! His wife met us at the door with cake. He didn’t mention anything about it! I felt a little bad for hating him so much that day.)
I went with 3 of my coworkers, and they turned out to be really pleasant and thoughtful companions. I wasn’t sure how it was going to be as the only woman in the group, but it was fine. There were only two drawbacks, I guess: first, lack of privacy– I dressed in my hammock or the loo or kicked everyone out of the shelter for a minute; and second, they were tall and their legs were all much longer than mine so I struggled to keep up with their pace! There was a lack of women overall on the trail; we came across lady day-hikers in couples but in the shelters there were only male backpackers. I was the least fit person in the group, and I slowed us down in places but they never made me feel bad about it, though I beat myself up at times.
As far as gear, I got really lucky (or was it my extensive planning?) My pack turned out to be very comfortable to carry, I didn’t need anything I didn’t bring, and I used almost everything I brought. I didn’t use my notebook or my Kindle– no time for contemplation in camp, we just got out stoves, stuffed our faces, cleaned up and hit the sack at dark. My companions brought tents but didn’t use them, since the AT shelters are plentiful and easy– put your sleeping pad and bag down, hang up your pack, done. I set up my hammock system, which worked beautifully, since there were plenty of trees. (It took more time to set up and pack in than my companions’ pads and bags, but hearing their stories of the men snoring and farting all night in the shelter made me especially glad I brought it.) The hammock was very comfortable, and sleeping open to the stars was nice! I only set up the tarp for the first rainy night; my system was plenty warm and there wasn’t much wind.
I’m guessing my kit was a good weight (though lighter is always better); it weighed in at about 31 pounds without water. I carried a 2L Camelback and a 40oz canteen. Water was always a worry and a priority; we tried to pull out the filters and fill up whenever we came across a water source (ask me about the time we loaded up right before a big ascent! Why are creeks at the bottom of mountains.) We never had any major “oh shit” water moments; everyone shared what they had and it worked out (however I am forever grateful for 2 of my companions who hiked everyone’s heavy-ass water back from the 0.75 miles to the water source on the beginning of day 4. A couple of saints, they are.) And I 100% endorse the use of trekking poles– not only did they help me with 2 extra contact points for balance on the rocks, they helped me convert upper-body strength to forward (or upward, on climbs) motion, which was really helpful as my legs tired. I can’t give the same level of endorsement to my boots, though. I was grateful for their thick, sturdy soles and ankle support, but their inability to fully dry or dissipate sweat and the blisters and the toenail issues… let’s just call it a love-hate relationship. Amazingly, I had no chafing or other issues besides my feet! (One of my companions apparently chafed on his, er, sensitive male parts. That sounds horrible.)
I could’ve done better with food. I brought a perfect amount; I ate the last of my trail mix on the C&O canal on day 4. However, the fuel mix was suboptimal. I brought a ton of protein– Epic bars, beef jerky, pouched salmon. For carbs, I had my lembas (which I ate for breakfast every day, like oatmeal with powdered milk and hot water on it), the trail mix (nuts, chocolate, dried cranberries and pretzels), two Mountain House dehydrated meals, a packet of ramen, and sweetened hot drinks (instant coffee and milo). Almost all the easy food was protein. Not the best when you’re bonking at the top of a mountain and desperate for something to stuff in your face. Next time I’d bring more energy bars and fewer meat bars. And more electrolytes– I wound up giving away half of my Emergen-C when my companions needed it.
How’s that for a trip report? This was one of those epic adventures where the stories will keep trickling out for a long time. I don’t know if I’ll ever try something like this again; it was sort of a bucket list thing that is probably best done once. I prefer to hike at a pace where I can enjoy the hike itself, not just to make the miles to get to camp before dark. I’m glad I did it, but I’m also glad it’s done. Maybe in the future I’ll do some more moderate backpacking; I liked the experience overall– being active in the outdoors, sleeping under the stars, being a self-sufficient life unit with my pack. Now I just need to rest up, tend my feet, and reflect.