Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

Confronting the Cold
The Appalachian Trail stretches from Maine to Georgia
The Appalachian Trail

November 22, 2000

Three of us had spent a frigid night at Wise Shelter in the Grayson Highlands. The area was beautiful, but it was COLD. When we woke up the next morning, my thermometer read 18 degrees in the shelter. It must have been around 0 degrees outside the shelter, where the wind was blowing fiercely. I lay in my sleeping bag, shivering, despite wearing several layers of clothes. My water was frozen, my boots were frozen, and I didn't want to get up and hike.

But I finally ate breakfast and got out of my sleeping bag. Packing was difficult; my fingers were completely numb, and I could do little more than fumble with the zippers on my pack. I kept swinging my arms and jumping up and down to warm up. I kept all my layers of clothing on because I was so cold. I figured I would just de-layer as I was hiking.

After what seemed an eternity, I was ready to start hiking. I was feeling a little nauseated, but figured I would feel better after I was on the trail. Nature Boy (a thru-hiker) and I started hiking together, but he quickly got ahead of me. I could barely walk; my feet felt like frozen stumps in my frozen boots. And I still felt nauseated. What a time to get sick!

After about a quarter-mile, I stopped. I had never felt so cold in my life. The wind felt like it was cutting right through me, and my hands and feet were painfully numb. I felt like I would throw up any minute, and I suddenly realized that my heart was beating out of control.

"Holy shit, I think I'm in shock," I thought to myself. "Relax. Breathe deeply." But I couldn't breathe. Suddenly exhausted and gasping for air, I leaned over and rested my head on my poles. I felt like the whole world was closing in on me, and I felt devoid of the energy to fight back.

"Waterfall, what's wrong?" Nature Boy had seen me stop, and turned back to check on me.

I tried to focus on him. I couldn't think straight, and talking was difficult. "I can't hike anymore," I mumbled. "I'm too cold." I could hear myself talking; I sounded like I was drunk. That's when I realized I might be hypothermic.

"Come on Waterfall, you're just being silly. Just start hiking and you'll feel better."

"No," I slurred. I sat on a rock. "I can't hike. I think I'm hypothermic. I can't feel my hands. I'm so cold!"

"You're not cold!" Nature Boy felt my legs and arms. "You're warm! You're burning up, in fact!"

"I'm cold!" I argued. "I'm sweating like a pig!" Then I knew I was hypothermic. I had on so many layers that I was soaking wet underneath my clothes. "I'm hypothermic," I slurred. "I need hot chocolate."

After another minute, Nature Boy said, "Do you want to go back to the shelter so I can make you some hot chocolate?"

"Yes. I'm sorry. I'm so cold. I can't hike," I mumbled as we hiked back to the shelter. It was one of the hardest walks I've done on this whole thru-hike. I was so devoid of energy, and I only wanted to lie down and rest.

"Keep walking. Just keep walking," said a voice deep inside me. "Just keep going."

"Are we almost there?" I mumbled.

"Yes, I can see the shelter from here," said Nature Boy encouragingly. "Just a few hundred yards more."

"Just keep walking," I thought. "And take off the fleece."

I removed my fleece hat. Instant relief. When we arrived the shelter, Nature Boy gave me two huge spoonfuls of gelatin, got out his stove, and made hot tea while I de-layered.

My senses started to return with the hot tea. Then I ate a Snickers bar and had more tea and more gelatin. About 45 minutes later, I felt ready to hike again. Nature Boy and I hiked together all day; he was worried about me, and I was worried about myself. The hypothermia had hit so quickly; I was just thankful that someone else had been there to help me.

It was a scary experience, but in a way I'm glad it happened. When it's cold and rainy, I become very aware of the threat of hypothermia, and I take extra precautions to stay warm and dry. It wasn't raining that morning at Wise Shelter, however; I never imagined hypothermia would be a problem.

It was "raining" inside my clothes, though. I should have known better than to wear too many layers, but I was so cold that I didn't think. Next time I'll know, and I'll be more of the dangers of being TOO warm, even in 15-degree weather.

Strangely enough, that day ended up being one of my favorite on the Trail. Not only was I thrilled to be alive that day, but I had the opportunity to see some of the most beautiful scenery on the AT—in its finest winter clothing. The Mount Rogers area was covered with ice, and the rocks and trees glistened in the sunlight. It was a clear day, and the views were amazing. The hiking was good; in my lightweight thermal underwear, shorts, rain jacket, and groovy orange hunter's cap, I was comfortable as long as I kept moving.

Tennessee Waltz
We stayed at Lost Mountain Shelter that night and hiked into Damascus, Virginia, the next day. What a thrill to enter the little town of Damascus, known as the "friendliest town on the trail"! The home of Trail Days, an annual hiker festival held in May, Damascus would be my last town stop before hiking into Tennessee.

Nature Boy would start hiking again the next day. I was meeting a friend in Damascus, so I planned to take a zero day there. I was also a little spooked by my experience at Wise Shelter, and I wasn't anxious to get back on the trail again anytime soon.

When I told my mom about the experience (stupid move!), she convinced me to promise her I wouldn't go back on the trail alone while it was so cold. So, on Saturday, the day I would have started hiking again, I sat around Damascus. Thousands of hikers flock to this little town each spring; on November 19, I was the only thru-hiker in town. I swept out The Place (a hiker hostel run by the Methodist church in town), hung out at Mount Rogers Outfitters, checked my e-mail, wrote some postcards while having lunch at Quincey's Pizza, and caught up on my journal over coffee at the Sidetrack Cafe. I learned that there had been a big Thanksgiving dinner for southbounders in Erwin, Tennessee, several nights before, and I that had missed it. It was cold, and snow was expected. And no southbounders had hiked into town.

It was a lonely day for me. That night at The Place, I looked through my AT Data Book and pored over my maps. I was going to hike the next day, promise or no promise. But I was scared. The hypothermia had REALLY spooked me, and part of me just didn't want to get back on the trail.

I turned the light off and lay in my sleeping bag, wondering what I would do the next day. Never had I felt so unsure or indecisive on this entire thru-hike. Never had I felt so uncertain of my ability to hike the AT.

But then I heard a knock on the door. It was "Damascus Dave" of the Mount Rogers Outfitters, offering to slackpack me 22 miles the next day! He would drop me off at Highway 91, and I would hike 22 miles back to Damascus! The next day, he provided me with a day pack and later arranged for me to stay with a friend of his (in her heated house!) the next night. The day after I slacked 22 miles, he dropped me at the same location, and I slacked 20 miles to Hampton. Meanwhile, Dave drove my pack to Bob at Kincora Hostel and arranged for Bob to pick me up in Hampton.

Over the next two days, Bob slackpacked me 21 miles. This way, I was able to get my mileage in, but I never had to sleep outside. With temperatures in the single digits, I was happy to be inside each night.

Maybe I'm a wimp, but I'm glad I've been able to make a "transition" back to cold-weather hiking. Hikers who live "up north" are probably used to it, but this has been my first real experience being in cold weather for extended periods of time.

The more I hike in it, though, the more I love it. Tennessee has been blanketed in snow ever since I crossed the border, so I've had my first-ever experience of hiking in snow. I feel like a little kid, walking along in a constant state of awe at the pristine beauty of the world around me. I thought the autumn colors were spectacular, but the whiteness of the snow is equally stunning. What a magical world this is.

And I've become VERY aware of how warm and cold I am as I hike. I usually wear lightweight Capilene bottoms underneath my shorts, and I wear a lightweight Capilene top underneath my rain jacket. Underneath the Capilene, I wear my Coolmax t-shirt. On my head I wear my trusty bandanna underneath my groovy orange hunter's cap. On my hands, I wear glove liners with Gore-Tex shell mittens. I also have a pair of mittens that convert to fingerless gloves, which I wear a lot when I'm not moving around. If it's really cold, I wear all three layers on my hands. Once I start sweating, I start de-layering. When I stop for lunch, I put on my fleece underneath my rain jacket, and that keeps me warm when I'm not hiking.

The trail has been a learning experience in more ways than one. I'm learning more about how to take care of myself out here. And I'm learning how truly GOOD most people are as I continue to experience the goodwill of "trail angels" and other hikers on the AT. Receiving all this kindness makes me want to go out and do for others when I get home. If I can make people feel as good as others make me feel out here, then I think I'll be doing OK!

I'm thankful for a lot of things this Thanksgiving. I'm thankful that I'm still alive, for one thing! I'm also thankful for all the trail maintainers who make it possible for people like me to hike the AT. And I'm so thankful for the trail angels who have stepped in just at the moments that I most needed them. I have a definite sense that I'm being watched over and taken care of out here. This is a good life, and I'm happy that I still have another month left before I have to return to the "real world." Life is good!

Check out Nina's gear list and pack weight.
See the trail dispatch archive for previous weeks.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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