Nina Baxley: Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiker

Hot Springs, North Carolina
Gorp.com

Date: December 1, 2000
Location: Hot Springs, North Carolina
Total Miles Hiked: 1,896.6
Miles Remaining: 270.5

Ahhh. . .right now I'm sitting in a comfy chair next to a heater, listening to classical music and writing in my journal. I'm at the Sunnybank Inn in Hot Springs, North Carolina, known to hikers as merely"Elmer's." Elmer Hall has welcomed thru-hikers to enjoy the luxurious accommodations of this beautiful Victorian house (gourmet food, flannel sheets, three friendly cats, a music room with a PIANO) since 1977.

And I deserve this bit of relaxation. Ever since the cold snap hit in mid-November, the trail has taken on a whole new character. I'm still being met by nature's incredible beauty every day, but I'm seeing—and feeling—the harsh, unforgiving aspects of nature, as well.

About a week ago, I got a taste of how brutal nature can be. Bob Peoples and Matt (yes, I'm hiking with my good friend Matt again!) dropped me off at the trail that morning. I said good-bye to Bob, since I wouldn't be going back to Kincora that evening. Instead, with a full pack on my back, I headed to Overmountain Shelter, eight miles away. Matt had to go the post office first, and would be an hour or more behind me that day.

I had a long climb—four or five miles of steady uphill—ahead of me. I would take a break at Doll Flats, then continue upward to Hump Mountain and through Bradley Gap, which Bob had warned me was one of the windiest places on the AT. After Bradley Gap, I would traverse another bald, then make my way downhill to Overmountain Shelter. Eight miles. Easy.

Not easy. It wasn't long before I hit snow and ice, and my hiking speed was cut in half. The rocks and roots comprising the trail were covered with a slick film of ice, and the snow itself was several inches deep in places. I dug my hiking poles into the ground with each step; the few times I slipped, they held fast and kept me from falling.

Doll Flats, a small campsite halfway up the mountain, was so windy and cold that I stopped to pull on my mid-weight thermal underwear, windpants, and balaclava. But this icy wind was just a mere hint of what was to come.

The trail led upward through the woods, so the trees kept me protected from the wind as I hiked. But the trees eventually ended, and I stopped for a Snickers in preparation to cross the bald of Hump Mountain.

The southern balds are known for their lovely views, but they can be dangerous places in harsh weather. That day, the bald looked like a frozen wasteland, assaulted by bitterly cold winds blowing at 45-50 miles per hour. The thermometer on my pack read 28 degrees—and that was WITHOUT the wind chill factor!

I staggered over icy trail and through bitter wind to a gate that opened onto the bald. Icicles hung from the gate as if in warning. I went through carefully on a trail that was nothing but slippery ice.

The wind on the bald was unbelievable. I walked at what felt like at 45-degree angle, leaning to the left. Walking on the slick, ice-covered AT was not an option, so I crunched through the frozen grass alongside the trail. Each blade was enveloped in a thick coat of ice, and the tufts of frozen grass looked like great tentacles reaching upward. I wanted to take a picture, but it was too cold to stop.

Even in the grass, my footing was unsure. The wind was so fierce, I felt like a tumbleweed. It pushed me four, five, six feet off my course. I felt nauseated with cold.

About a quarter-mile across the bald, I had a revelation: "This is SO stupid! I shouldn't be out here alone!" [MORE. . .]



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