Last week, I was so excited to be interviewed by my good friend Ryan Schlosser (AKA Yearbook… AKA California Dreamin’) on his podcast Walking and Talking: An Appalachian Trail Thru-Hike. Ryan and I met on night one of the AT, at Stover Creek Shelter, and we spent most of the 2nd day on trail hiking together. The last time we saw each other was at the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC), as he was hiking out that day and I was staying in the bunkhouse. Ryan produced this podcast while he was still on trail, and since finishing his NOBO thru-hike on August 7th, he has continued to interview guests and produce episodes. After I discovered his podcast in New Hampshire, I binged the whole thing throughout the Presidentials and the Wildcats to catch up.
In this conversation, we reminisce about some of our early memories of the trail and some of our mutual friends that Ryan caught back up with further north. I talk about my motivation for starting the trail, how I handled it drawing to a close, and what I want to do now that I am back into my “normal” life. I highly reccommend you give this episode, and others, a listen as Ryan is an excellent interviewer and the theme music is fantastic.
After leaving Daleville, VA and hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, northbound AT hikers encounter this odd, white golf ball installation on top of Apple Orchard Mountain (elevation 4225ft, mile 771.3). This peak also holds the distinction of being the highest point that northbound hikers will reach for over 1,000 miles until Mt. Moosilauke in New Hampshire. But what is this thing? Well, this facility has a fascinating history!
Bedford Air Force Station
This oddity’s life started as Bedford Air Force Station – created by the Air Defense Command in 1954 as part of a network of early-warning radar installations around the perimeter of the contiguous United States. At first, the 649th Airborne Control and Warning Squadron was a “Ground-Control Intercept (GCI) and warning station,” helping to vector friendly interceptor aircraft to incoming enemy aircraft. In 1959, the unit was re-designated the 649th Radar Squadron and shortly after, in 1960, started to share air traffic control duties with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). In June 1975, the Air Force stood down the 649th and the FAA took over sole use of the site1.
As you can see in the archive photo above, the site used to be much larger. Since the FAA took over sole use of the facility, most of these buildings have been razed. See below for an aerial view of what the installation looks like today. The Appalachian Trail (AT) passes through a meadow to the north of the radome; interestingly, the AT used to run through the site and had to be re-routed outside of the perimeter fence2. Northbound hikers pass underneath a rock formation known as “The Guillotine” shortly after leave Apple Orchard Mountain’s summit.
Present Day: Bedford FAA Radar Site
Apple Orchard Mountain has seen a number of different golf balls on its summit since 1954 as radar and tracking technology has evolved. In July 1980, the FAA replaced the original Air Force tracking radar with a “modern” ARSR-3, which was then modified to be a Common Air Route Surveillance Radar in the late 1990’s. The system now provides radar data on domestic and international air traffic to the FAA’s Washington DC Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC) as well as NORAD/USAF’s Battle Control System-Fixed through the Joint Surveillance System3. The below photo depicts what lies inside the radome.
The facility is not accessible to the public – there is a fence encircling the property with typical “US Government Property – No Trespassing” signs. Ironically, back when the Station was packed with classified military technology designed to keep us safe from the Russians, the Air Force held public open houses and gave tours! It is also not continuously manned, as Dick Troxel, a former FAA technician states, “almost every function at the base can be remotely controlled and the system can run without human intervention4.”
My friend Valhalla wrote the following article about our two friends, Posh Jesus and Griffin, who finished their AT NOBO thru-hike this Summer. We all hiked together at the beginning of the trail in Georgia. It was originally published on The Trek, but was pulled because it differed from their editorial stance on hiking this year. I was happy to reach out and offer this website as a mirror for his writing.
Zach “Freefall” Tucker
AT 2020 NOBO
This hiking season, well this entire year, really, has been one of the most bizarre in recent history. As the Spring began settling in, promising all of us hikers more moderate weather, beautiful blooms, and opportunities for swim-breaks on trail, so came the rise of a virus the likes of which we had never seen.
Yes, COVID-19 sucks. It sucks bad. Ending thru-hikes, ones which many of us had spent months if not years training, saving, and planning for, sucks. Being given moral ultimatums by the organizations which represent the trail communities and by the general public sucks. Not having any information as to how bad this pandemic might get and having to make choices that may place the wellbeing of others at risk sucks.
But not everyone believed the situation was as dire for the thru-hiking community as others. This is the story of two such hikers, a wonderful couple that I was able to spend a few days of my AT experience walking with. We hiked through frigid storms, took shelter in the Blood Mountain Cabins, climbing up ridgelines before the sunrise, and generally just enjoying our time together on the wonder that is the Appalachian Trail.
“Posh Jesus” (PJ) and “ Meg Griffin” tackled all 2,193 miles of the Appalachian Trail this year despite the challenges and complications that came with hiking during the era of COVID-19, and this their story.
The couple left out of Amicalola Falls State Park on February 29. The season was about as normal as anyone had expected. Some days were colder or wetter than others, and there were plenty of mountains to conquer before growing into their trail legs. I met them both at the Gooch Gap Shelter where we dubbed our band of seven or so misfits the “Goochie Gang.” We made plans to tackle the 15.6-mile trek over Blood Mountain in rainy, wintery conditions to get ourselves a comfortable night in the Blood Mountain Cabins due to a series of storms and tornados that were harassing the Southeastern US. We broke into groups so no one was going over Blood Mountain alone, and just an hour or so after reaching the cabins I was greeted by the sound of some poor, estranged hikers screaming “GOOCH!” at the top of their lungs. This, of course, was my two new companions, whom I waved down and brought into the warm, dry cabin.
Fast forward a few days: I pulled some bigger miles and got ahead of our group just to catch an acute case of sinusitis. The infection left me feeling weak and moving slow. I recovered and caught PJ and Griffin as they were passing through Franklin, NC, alongside the rest of our original group. Everyone was cold and ready to be out of the rain, and their frantic waves goodbye from the back of the shuttle was the last I would see of any of my Goochie Gang.
Soon after came the reality that none of us were aware of: COVID-19 had grown beyond campfire jokes about Corona beer and was sweeping across the globe. We had no idea of the implications of staying on trail, and the guidelines suggested people keep their distance from one another. The general consensus was that staying in the woods was the best way to keep our distance from everyone else as best as we could, but the information we had wasn’t great and no one really knew how to take the warnings of going home.
Most of our group left homeward as the virus began spreading across the East Coast.
PJ and Griffin made the decision to stay.
Walking Against the Grain
The Appalachian Trail is widely regarded as one of the most social trail experiences that the US offers with prominent trail angels providing shuttles and magic in almost every town. The AT has a massive network of fellow hikers both deep in their treks and ones just starting to connect with, not to mention the frequency of day hikers and overnight folks that bring a little extra life (and sometimes tasty beverages) to the evening campfire. But not this season.
I asked PJ and Griffin about how their hiking season was affected by the solitude that came with the majority of hikers delaying or abandoning their thru-hikes altogether. “I’m grateful we had such a difficult year,” PJ quickly retorted, “I can count on one hand our trail magic.” This season appeared to be more like the Appalachian Trail of old from a time before thru-hiking had gained its massive modern popularity and the grande trail-town infrastructure that makes a 2,200-mile trek more feasible. The couple insists, however, that “we weren’t looking for any specific kind of social experience, we simply were going to finish.”
While PJ was the only member of the couple with thru-hiking experience having an eleven-day trip as a kid as well as the full 500-miles of the El Camino under his belt, Griffin was definitely prepared to make the AT her first genuine thru-hiking experience. “We lived our own schedule, and we got really good at managing big problems as a team.” When asked how the lack of support affected their hike, the couple brought to my attention their anxiety they had in being on their own in the mountains. “The Whites felt big and dangerous without support.” They recounted the White Mountain Huts being closed, and this meant steep, big-mile days to escape the exposure that’s so prominent in the Whites.
Judged for Hiking?
It’s not much of a surprise that some of the hiking community who abandoned their trips felt negatively towards the couple for their trek. Aside from a few sly comments from people on social media and a general distaste from those who align themselves with the ATC’s take on thru-hiking this season, I was reassured that the people PJ and Griffin came across were generally supportive. “We had a very embracive experience. People were overjoyed to see us.” The couple discussed how “these seasonal businesses rely heavily on thru-hikers for cash flow.” Businesses such as The Town’s Inn in Harper’s Ferry, who took the couple in with open arms after being buried in torrential downpours (a staple of the Appalachian Trail experience) for multiple days. But, as PJ told me, it was certainly about more than money.
“There’s a big difference between the people bashing us online and the generally good-natured, down to earth people of small-town America” the duo insisted. “We said from the very beginning that if people in these trail towns showed us they didn’t want us there, we would leave, but we weren’t going to abandon this hike just from general fear and the ATC’s suggestions alone.”
Would other years have made for a better thru-hike?
This year will be historic for its divisiveness in the hiking community, and for the challenges it presented to hikers, trail-support businesses, and all trail-associated organizations alike. It created unnecessary moral boundaries between what makes “good” hikers and what makes “irresponsible” or “bad” hikers. I asked both PJ and Griffin to provide some insights as to whether they wished they had hiked a different year or not.
PJ addressed the critics of 2020 thru-hikers in stating that “people will tell you how to live your life, what things you should strive for in life, but you will never find satisfaction in your lived experience by basing it on how other people feel about it.” He told me repeatedly that he wasn’t hiking “in spite” of the ATC’s requests or the opinions of the general public, and assured me that “spite” was never something that affected his decisions at all. “As long as I knew why I was out there, I was going to stay out there.”
In contrast, Griffin spoke more about the actual hiking experience itself. “Doing [the AT] this way makes me feel more badass.” She says that the isolation that came with this year provided a more inherently rugged hiking experience and that the challenge made the hike worth it. In regards to the villainizing of thru-hikers this season, she claims “it was rewarding to do what I believed was right, even if the trail community wasn’t always behind us.”
Today is my one month trailaversary! As I’ve previously written, I got off trail this past Wednesday 3/25 at Hot Springs, NC (NOBO mile 274.9) amid concerns regarding the spread of COVID-19 along the trail and its communities. I’ve since been in Oak Ridge, TN, hanging out at a TownePlace Suites (thank you #tourlife hotel points), anxiously waiting and watching the news. I say this is and not would have been my trailaversary because I see 2/29/2020 as a symbolic turning point my life – the start of a trail, for sure, but I don’t think I have to be ON the Appalachian Trail to celebrate it. And to commemorate today, I’d like to look back on my first day on the AT.
The morning of Saturday, 2/29/2020, I woke up with my backpacked mostly packed from the night before – having checked in, unpacked onto the bed, taken a quick inventory, and then re-packed. All I had to do was throw my toiletry and electronics Ziploc bags in. I headed down the hall to meet Grant, a Aussie hiker I had met the night before at dinner, for a 7am breakfast buffet. I ate as much as I possibly could.
At breakfast, we agreed to meet in the lobby at 8:30am to head down to the Visitors Center and the famous arch. I didn’t know it at the time, but just a few minutes before Grant and I left, I saw two friends who I’d meet later that day were saying “goodbye” to the families in the lobby before leaving for the arch. I walked out of that room, with everything I’d need to live the next x number of months on my back, with a mixture of nervous anticipation and excitement.
Grant and I headed down the East Ridge Trail (bypassing the stairs) and actually walked backwards through the arch before arriving at the Visitors Center. We dropped our packs and stepped into the ATC class demonstrating the PCT bear hang method (what is usually the 2nd half of the Leave No Trace presentation). After that, we walked inside and officially registered our hikes, getting our tags and starting numbers – I am #519! We then sat through the 1st half of the Leave No Trace presentation and were wished “good luck!” Grant and I both walked out to the arch to take a photo and get started, but he told me that he actually had one more night in the Lodge and was starting the next day, so after walking through the arch and onto the blue-blazed Approach Trail, I was solo!
I can vividly remember the moments leading up to and while I was taking my first steps through the arch and onto the Approach Trail. People always talk about how thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail is a transformative experience, and my stomach was in knots as two warring factions in my mind came to a head: one that was reticent, afraid even, to let go of who I was, and the other, that couldn’t contain its excitement to see what this journey might elicit in me. I didn’t have too much time to dwell upon this feeling, however, as after 1 mile of road and road-adjacent walking, I came upon the 604 steps from the bottom of Amicalola Falls to the top.
I was surprised how good I felt after powering up the 604 steps, and, hoping that this was a good omen for the rest of the day, wanted to keep powering up the Approach Trail. Not long after passing the Lodge, I came across a sign that said “Springer Mountain – 7.3 miles – Average Hiking Time: 6 hours one way” (I would end up doing the entire 8.8 miles in just under 4 hours!) While on the Approach Trail, I passed a good number of dayhikers just going to Springer and a few pairs who were going to overnight at Black Gap Shelter (right before the AT) or Springer Mountain Shelter (mile 0.2?) Nothing particularly remarkable happened on the Approach Trail, but the terrain was strenuous in some places, and I passed a gentleman at Nimblewill Gap about 6 miles in who was calling it quits. Before I knew it, I came over a crest and saw a white blaze on a rock!
It was COLD and windy on top of Springer. While I was up there, taking in the view, multiple families hiked in from the Springer Mountain parking lot (mile 1.0) and I met Ryan “Rock Steady” (he came into it with a trail name), who was taking a break and eating a bar. We took each other’s photos with the first blaze, signed the register, and started on our journeys! We had gone maybe a quarter mile north when I was unbuckling all my straps in a hurry, throwing my pack off to the side of the trail, and helping another hiker stop a tripped-up hiker from being dragged down the hill by a heavy pack!
Soon after, we walked across USFS 42 & the Springer Mountain parking lot… AND GOT OUR FIRST TRAIL MAGIC! Rock and I weren’t expecting it so early in the trail! A 2019 thru-hiker who had to get off trail due to injury and her friend were handing out PBRs, wine, chips, and mini-muffins. We each took a PBR for the road and hiked onwards, catching up with a group of three: a husband and wife team and her friend. The guy ended up taking off with Rock and I, and the three of us hiked onwards at a blistering pace towards our chosen shelter for the night.
We arrived at the Stover Creek Shelter, mile 2.8, around 5pm, after hiking 11.6 miles for the day. I went up to the 2nd floor of the shelter to setup, Rock setup his tent near the shelter, and two of the three setup downstairs on the 1st floor while the guy went up the ladder with us. (I clearly never got any of their names). Already setup on the 2nd floor when I got there was John “Spreadsheet” (his name came after about a week) and arriving soon after was a couple – Matt “Posh Jesus” (he was first to get a trail name, just a few days later) and Kelly “Megatron”/”Griffin” (she was the trickiest to nail down a trail name for.)
Later, while we were all making dinner at the picnic table on the “porch” of the shelter, we were joined by Mike “Zippers”/”Seeker” (came with the trail name “Zippers” from the Long Trail, later changed) and Jacob “Valhalla” (trail name came within a few days). When we all laid down to sleep that night (and it was a cold night… brrr), I had no idea that I would spend the next 25 days with at least one of them, sometimes as a group, sometimes individually – for example, after Franklin, NC, Seeker and I got ahead of everyone else and we spent the better part of a week hiking as a duo.
It’s incredible how fast hiking, eating, and sleeping with someone bonds you together. I consider each of the people named above (Spreadsheet, Posh Jesus, Megatron/Griffin, Seeker, and Valhalla) to be some of my closest friends – and that list isn’t even CLOSE to exhaustive in naming all the people I formed tight bonds with. There’s also Mowgli, One Step, Samples, Red Bush, Dremel, John Mayer, Topo, Badmash, Andy (I think his trail name is now “Poison”?), and many more. But most of all, I miss that core group of fellow thru-hikers and the trail every. single. day.
I may have only been out on the AT for 25 days, but in that time, I believe I have walked several steps down the path of fundamental realignment and betterment. And I want to get back to walking that path SO BADLY. I remain hopelessly hopeful that we will all be able to resume our NOBO hikes this year, that I’ll get to hike with my friends again, and that everyone stays healthy during this crisis.
Most of all, I am grateful. Grateful for the opportunity to hike 274.9 miles. Grateful for the trail and the people who maintain it. Grateful for the trail community and the kindness of strangers. Grateful for those in MA and CO who supported me as I started this journey. Grateful for my road family who supported me when I first got this crazy idea. Grateful for my home family who suppressed their own fears about the trail and supported me wholeheartedly. Grateful for the fact that I can say I have a trail family, a road family, and a home family.
Just before laying down for that first night, I wrote this at the end of my journal entry:
Today has just been fucking awesome! I was smiling wide when I got onto the trail, and it’s a surreal feeling to be out here doing this. This community is awesome. I can’t wait to see what happens tomorrow. FUCK YES AT CLASS OF 2020! Love, Zach
I’m super proud of this one – 16.1 miles (17.4 miles if you count the return trip back down Mt. Sanitas after finishing) and 5,674 feet of elevation gain in 8 hours of hiking. The Boulder Skyline Traverse is a classic hike/trail run that traverses the five tall peaks in the Boulder foothills: South Boulder Peak, Bear Peak, Green Mountain, Flagstaff Mountain, Mount Sanitas.
I started this morning at 10:40am at the South Mesa trailhead and climbed up to South Boulder Peak via the Mesa Trail and Shadow Canyon Trail. I made the decision to do the hike from south to north specifically to get the worst climb of the day out of the way early (or so I thought) – the trail through Shadow Canyon essentially goes straight up, gaining 1,600 feet in 1.2 miles (an average grade of 27%), and is an absolute asskicker.
Eventually, you reach the top of Shadow Canyon and are standing on the saddle between S. Boulder and Bear Peaks.
Peak #1 – South Boulder Peak – 12:43pm
From there, I headed back down S. Boulder Peak, across the saddle, and up the short connector trail to the north side of Bear Peak’s summit. I scrambled up the boulders on the summit block, and checked Peak #2 off at 1:08pm.
I then scrambled back down the summit block and headed down the Bear Peak West Ridge trail – the first big descent of the day, losing 1,200 feet in just under 2 miles. The trail crosses a creek in Bear Canyon, where I had tentatively planned to refill my 2x 1-liter LifeWater bottles… but I wasn’t in too much trouble when I arrived to find it frozen solid.
Shortly after the creek, I took a hard left onto the Green-Bear trail and started a leisurely ascent up Green Mountain. After about 500 feet of gain, I turned right onto the Green Mountain West Ridge trail, which took me to the top of Peak #3 – Green Mountain at 3pm even.
From the summit of Green Mountain, I backtracked down the West Ridge trail and then turned right onto the Ranger Trail to descend down to Flagstaff Mountain. Descending the Ranger Trail took a hot second because it was steep and shadowy, meaning it was covered in ice. Before long, I was passing the Green Mountain Lodge and crossing Flagstaff Road for a short jaunt up the Ute Trail and to the summit of Flagstaff Mountain. The actual summit isn’t marked, and the highest point is described as a rock formation that resembles a molar… which I think I found? Peak #4 – Flagstaff Mountain at 4:07pm.
I was quickly running out of daylight (sunset was 5:04pm) and had the longest section between peaks to travel. I started down the Flagstaff Trail and turned onto the Viewpoint Trail at Panorama Point. After descending all the way back down into Boulder, I walked through Eben G. Fine Park where I refilled my water from a bubbler, put on my headlamp, and put on my rain jacket as an additional layer. After crossing through a tunnel, I hiked through Settler’s Park and down the hill to the Mount Sanitas Trailhead.
At this point, the sun had set and it was fully nighttime – I was hiking by the light of my headlamp. I started up the trail to the last peak, peak #5, Mount Sanitas via the Mount Sanitas Trail. And ya’ll, this was another absolute asskicker, for a few reasons: one, it’s objectively a steep hike as it gains 1,200 feet in 1.3 miles; two, it’s a steep hike when you’ve already hiked 15 miles; and three, I was doing this trail for the first time in the dark, by myself, with a headlamp. I dragged myself up that trail, getting lost a few times (thanks runner Kevin for leading me through a tricky section!), and seriously considering turning around as I was exhausted and knew that the descent would be just as rough.
But I couldn’t resist looking at my progress on the GPS, and, knowing I was SO CLOSE, decided to push on, and touched the sign at the summit with the loudest “fuck yeah!” howl I could muster at 7:08pm. I was so proud of myself, so happy I kept pressing onwards, and so in awe that I had just completed the traverse.
I stayed at the summit of Sanitas for a few minutes, enjoying the fantastic views of Boulder’s city lights, and then I headed back down the way I came. And it was a PAINFUL descent… and truthfully, it was more of a 1.3 mile controlled fall down the very steep and rocky trail. I arrived back down at the trailhead at 8pm, called a Lyft, and settled in for a 20 minute ride back to my car.
Things I’ll Do Different Next Time
I would like to hike the traverse again (maybe in the opposite direction), maybe with a group. I’m very happy with how the hike went, but there are a few things I’d change:
START EARLIER! 8am at the latest (from either end)
Bring water filtration – I passed a number of smaller streams along the way, but they weren’t moving fast enough for me to feel comfortable drinking it fresh
Remember my sunglasses! Whole lot of good they did me back in the car…
Attempt to hike Shadow Canyon with fewer breaks / a slower pace.
Consider ascending/descending Mt. Sanitas via the Lion’s Lair trail. The standard route is just painful.
I can’t wrap up 2019 with a nice bow like: “it was a roller coaster of a year”, or “it had a lot of ups and downs”, or “it was great year!”, or “this year sucked!” – because they are all partially true. More than anything, 2019 was a year of tremendous change for me. I’ve made drastic professional and personal lifestyle choices in order to be happy, and I’m all the better for them.
The biggest change, by far, was to “get off the road” and stop working on Broadway national tours (temporarily, for now, more on that later). And it was 100% the best decision I could have made. I started 2019 off working a gig on a tour that had burned me out so thoroughly that I hated coming in to work every night, made me hate who I felt I had to be in order to be successful at that gig, and resulted in me pulling away from almost all of my friends (despite their best efforts to pull me back in – Taco and Emily, I’ll never be able to properly thank you for continuing to invite me over no matter how many times I said “no”) – I was stuck in a pit of self-loathing.
So I live in Denver now! And I am quite possibly the happiest I’ve been in years. I completely lucked out with a wonderful, cozy sublet with two great roommates and, if this isn’t an indication of settling down, I don’t know what is – I bought a mattress! I get out and hike multiple times a week now, have regular climbing partners, workout in the gym every other day (I can’t even tell you the last time I did that), and have goals and dreams that are NOT career focused, like hiking all of the Colorado 14ers.
Another big choice was that I bought a car! I’m the proud owner of a 2017 Subaru Outback and I’ve put over 20,000 miles on her since we drove off the lot at the end of May. I drove (instead of flying) between all of the tour stops from July to October, and I truly believe that the freedom of having my own personal vehicle (as opposed to a rental or sharing a company-supplied car) made all in the difference in helping my mental health. My Outback and I have driven cross-country almost twice, traveled from Massachusetts to Key West, FL and back again, and I’ve slept in the back in dark interstate rest stops, cold snowy trailheads, and on top of windy mountain passes. I hope she holds up to many more years of love and adventure.
Lastly, a short story. When the tour was moving from Nashville, TN to Greenville, SC, I chose to rent a car and drive (instead of taking the company-provided bus) between the two cities, because I knew I could use the opportunity to visit Great Smoky Mountain NP for the first time. It was an EXTREMELY overcast day – really put the “Smoky” in Great Smoky Mountain NP – and you couldn’t really see too far at the roadside vistas. So I kept driving up and up through the mountains on the road that goes from one side of the park to the other. At the highest point on the road, I pulled over at Newfound Gap (the North Carolina/Tennessee border) and walked around for a bit.
At the edge of the parking lot, near the side of the trail down to the privy (restroom), was this sign:
and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I stood at that spot for a long time, just thinking, and I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I belonged down that path… that maybe this path would give me the opportunity to figure out what kind of life I want to lead, because I was no longer sure I wanted to keep the status quo. I’ve since visited and/or hiked other sections of the AT in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and New York. The seed having been planted, I spent the next few weeks researching what it would take to hike the entire length of the trail, and, knowing almost nothing about long-distance backpacking, I learned A LOT about this thing called thru-hiking.
Over the summer, I thru-hiked the ~170 mile Tahoe Rim Trail as a “shakedown” hike for my gear and to suss out if hiking and backpacking is something I am really passionate about. My successful completion of that trail, in 9 days of hiking (and two zero days in South Lake Tahoe) is one of my proudest accomplishments of the year. And especially so the last day, when my hiking partners John, Kevin, and I pushed a 30 mile day up and over the highest point on the trail – Relay Peak, at about 10,500 feet. I pushed myself up to and past the point of exhaustion that day, probably because of the 3,000 foot relentless climb leading up to Relay, but we did it, and ate our weight in In N Out late that night.
So I’m excited to say that all plans are in place my 2020 NOBO (northbound) thru-hike attempt on the Appalachian Trail. I’ll be flying from Denver to Boston to see friends and say goodbye on February 26th, then from Boston to Atlanta on the 28th to start the Approach Trail at Amicalola Falls State Park on the morning of February 29th, 2020. I’m not entirely sure if I’m going to make a special FB page or Instagram for the hike, at the very least, I’ll post major milestones on my personal FB and this blog. I am SO EXCITED to start the trail, and I cannot wait to experience the growth and challenges that I believe it’ll bring.
To wrap it up, I have utterly no idea what my life ahead holds for me, and that is so thrilling and freeing. I’m very thankful for the savings from four years of touring that have enabled me to live this way. All I know is that I will be 60 miles north of Atlanta, ready to try to hike 2,000+ miles to Maine, in about two month’s time. I have no idea if I’ll return to touring after that. I’m in the process of self-studying to get back into front-end web development (something I’d let go of in college) and would love to study for my EMT certification after the trail, with the goal of working with an outdoor agency and to help people.
Mt. Elbert (14,433′) is the highest point in Colorado, the highest point in the Rocky Mountains, and the 2nd highest point (after Mt. Whitney in California) in the lower 48. Yesterday was a GORGEOUS day in the Sawatch Range – low 30’s at altitude, low wind, and not a cloud in the sky. I left the house just before 6am (problem #1) and drove the two hours to the Elbert South Trailhead. It’s important to know that Colorado recently got its first snow in a few weeks, and the mountain got about 10″ of snow, with the storm wrapping up on Friday.
I hiked up the East Ridge route which is a LONG day when starting from the lower, plowed 2WD trailhead: 14 miles round-trip with 4,900′ of elevation gain. This was my first hike using my new MSR Revo snowshoes, and thank god I had them, because I was the first person up the mountain after the snow fall, and I broke trail from the 2WD trailhead all the way up to the windswept ridge (problem #2).
Early in the day, I started hiking with Michael, who would have bagged his 49th 14er that day. I was really happy to have picked up a hiking partner because our conversations helped break up the long day.
As I mentioned above, we had to break trail in the fresh powder from the very beginning to about 5 miles in, when we gained the ridge, which was largely wind swept. Having never been the first one on a mountain after a fresh snow, this was a new experience for me and it is EXHAUSTING. Below tree line, we could follow the faint outline of the summer trail about 75% of the time. But above tree line, we completely lost the trail and had to route find a way up, off of the slopes, and onto the ridge. It was a ton of work to get to a point where the rock was exposed enough for me to stash my snow shoes, and my legs were just dead.
What Went Wrong
With a 7 mile one-way hike up, Michael and I set a loose turnaround time of 2pm and a hard limit of 2:30pm. Our goal was just to get below tree line before dark, because our boot pack was well defined below that and we both had head lamps.
At about 1:30pm, Michael was about 1,000′ below the summit and I was a little lower than him. We made the decision to turn around at that point because neither of us thought (I personally was highly doubtful that I could, but I believed he could have) that we could cover 1,000′ of climbing in an hour when we were already dragging it in from the slog to escape the snow. I’m definitely bummed that we didn’t make it up – and have to do that long ass hike again someday! – but ultimately, when the descent itself was exhausting and took almost three hours, we made the right decision. So what went wrong?
#1 – I left the house and started the trail too late. My alarm went off at 5am, but after getting dressed, having a quick breakfast, and stopping for coffee, I didn’t actually get on the highway till 6am – which meant starting down the trail at 8am. I should have pushed everything back at least one hour, or considered sleeping in my car at the trailhead again. That extra hour probably would have been enough to summit.
#2 – Underestimating what it means to hike immediately after a storm. I sort of assumed that, since I was getting a later start, that at least one other person would have started before me (and have done the hard work of breaking trail). The first half of the trail is pretty easy and gradual switchbacks – but once above tree line, as I wrote above, we lost the summer trail and had to route find, occasionally through some deep snow, our way up the peak. I think this route finding probably contributed a lot to my inability to push the pace and gain altitude quickly as the time ticked by.
I probably won’t attempt this hike again until the summer – but I’ll be back, Mt. Elbert!
My 2nd 14er is in the bag! I’ve been checking the weather forecasts for a nice, clear day with minimal wind, and this morning was PERFECT. The sustained wind was forecasted not to exceed 20mph and I didn’t notice any significant gusts.
Trail and Conditions
I took the West Slopes route up Bierstadt, starting from the actual Guanella Pass Trailhead while the road was still open (planned to close on 12/2.) This trail involved 2,576′ of ascent and 7.2mi roundtrip hiking.
I slept in the car overnight at the trailhead (it was so windy at night I could feel the suspension rocking under me!) and started off at about 7:20am. I meant to start earlier, but I had a hard time willing myself to open up the door and face the cold. Luckily, there was an established boot pack all the way from the trailhead to the bottom of the final summit pitch. Traction for the hard packed ice and snow was immensely helpful. Some potions of the trail were completely cleared or half-cleared of snow.
Nothing significant with respect to gear has changed since my two Quandary Peak hikes – doubled socks and gloves continue to be vital. This time, I wore my Prana Stretch Zion pants over my Patagonia Capilene Midweight Bottoms and under my Mountain Hadwear Insulated Snow Pants INSTEAD of the MH Fleece Bottoms and it seemed to work well. I might continue to wear the Stretch Zions instead of the MH Fleece Bottoms going forward as it seems to regulate temperature better… and avoid chafing early in the hike.
1 – I DIDN’T GET A DEBILITATING CASE OF ALTITUDE SICKNESS AFTER DESCENDING!
2 – I’m slowly getting better at “grinding it out” on the continuous, long, steep, uphill stretches. I think this is a combination of better acclimatization and improving physical condition.
See my last post where I discuss my previous, unsuccessful, attempt exactly one week before.
After spending a few days in Kanab, UT with my parents, I drove back to CO on I-70 and slept in my car at the trailhead. With the exact same setup as last time, BUT with a pair of liner gloves and a second pair of socks on my feet, I set off at 7:15am. The snow was nice and frozen, making for good hiking and I made good time up until the point (at about 13,100′) where I turned around a week prior.
The trail was VERY steep from that point forward, and along with Brian, my newfound hiking partner, we’d climb 10 yards, stop for a break, climb 10 yards, break again, etc. All the way, the remaining thousand vertical feet. Luckily, the trail itself was the only challenge, as it was a rather warm day with almost no wind.
It was incredible feeling to step out onto the summit, knowing how hard I had to push to make it up those last thousand feet and how proud I was of myself for coming back to conquer something that had previously turned me away.
Another great day outside. And, I didn’t get burned! Of course, I had another bad bout of altitude sickness coming down, and ended up escaping down into Denver (instead of staying in Frisco to try another peak today). Guess I need to acclimatize more.
Yesterday morning, I attempted my first 14er – a peak 14,000′ or higher – during the 14ers.com “Winter Welcome” on Quandary Peak (elevation 14,265′) and, spoiler alert, I didn’t make it all the way to the summit – though I got darn close!
Trail and Conditions
We took the East Ridge trail up and down, including the alternate that directly ascends from the tree line to the ridge, in order to avoid possible avalanche terrain. Total round-trip length is 6.75mi and elevation gain of 3,450′.
It was a BEAUTIFUL day – completely clear skies, no precipitation, and sunny. The only problem – which would prove to be my downfall – was the wind. The forecasted high was 22, but winds were forecasted to be steady in the low 20’s and gusting up into the 30’s, imposing a wind chill of about -20 once on the exposed ridge.
The route was snow-covered from the trailhead onwards, but I was able to get by with just MICROspikes due to the established trench and the other 40+ people hiking with me compacting the snow.
Pack: SWD Long Haul 50L Hiking Equipment: Kahtoola MICROspikes (traction), MSR Revo Explore (snow shoes), Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork Trekking Poles, Garmin inReach Mini (satellite communicator) Emergency Supplies: Tarptent Notch Li (shelter), Enlightened Equipment Revelation 30deg (quilt), MSR Pocket Rocket 2 w/ fuel (stove), Black Diamond Spot (headlamp) Water: 2x 1L LifeWater bottles w/ electrolyte tablets, wrapped in 2x wool socks each Food: Protein cookie, 3x KIND bars, bag of trail mix
The beginning of the hike up from the parking lot was a nice, gradual, switchbacked trail up through the forest. Once we got above treeline, we started going up some steep-ish snowy slopes in order to gain the ridge. We continued up the ridge until we got to a short flat section just before the final push up to the summit. The wind was FIERCE on this flat part – I had a hard time walking in a straight line and some gusts were so strong that I was shoved a few steps off balance. After we got back down to the trail head, I heard a story that the gusts on the summit were even worse.
During the entire hike up to that point, I didn’t have any trouble regulating my temperature – my core was always warm, and I felt my extremities were well insulated. However, once I was completely exposed to the wind, I found that its was cutting straight through my gloves, and I was beginning to worry about my fingers – they were starting to go numb and it felt like my joints were starting to stiffen. At this point, I was standing just below the final 1,000′ climb to the summit.
I looked up at the remainder of the route and knew I could physically do it… but I was worried about what sort of condition my fingers and toes (I was also only wearing one pair of socks, and I could start to feel the cold creeping in as I stood still) would be in once I summited and then came back down, about another hour and a half of exposure to the wind. After considering it for a long while, I eventually turned around and made my way back down to the car.
First, gear. The next time I attempt Quandary, and yes, I will be back, I will be wearing two pairs of wool socks and liner gloves inside the waterproof/insulated pair. I’ll also take a set of hand warmers up with me – if I had them last time, I probably would have felt comfortable making that last push.
Second, I hope I’ll be better acclimated. I’d been in the Denver area for 5 days when I started the hike, and slept at 9,100′ in Frisco the night before, so I had some confidence that I was farther along in the acclimatization process than had I just flown in from Florida. In front, I didn’t feel almost any affects of the altitude, besides being more winded than typical for that difficulty of trail, until I turned around. On the hike down, I started developing a moderate headache, which backed off once I reached the trailhead, but then came back with a vengeance once I started driving out of the mountains on I-70 west.
Third, I’ll wear sunscreen. This was a stupid, stupid, stupid, amateur mistake. And I’ve got a stupid-looking snow burn to show for it.
In the end, I was simultaneously disappointed in myself and proud of myself for making the choice to turn around. Disappointed because I knew I could do it. But proud because I made the decision in the name of safety and avoiding personal injury. Regardless, I had a GREAT day. The natural beauty of the Continental Divide is staggering, and whenever I’d take a moment to take it all in, I felt so lucky to be there. I met some incredible hikers and am very appreciative to 14ers.com for organizing the event! Quandary Peak, I will be back!