Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Lessons Learned

Chase and I got back from our second shakedown hike late Monday night. We had planned to stay out another night on the trail, but a forecast of near 20 degrees and gale-force winds changed our minds. This trip was scheduled to be our longest yet in addition to being our first trip with the dog, and I'm happy to report that it went well. Nevertheless, there are always lessons to be learned from the trail.

We ended up hiking from Amicalola to Neels Gap from Thursday-Monday. Our longest day was 11.5 miles on Sunday. We didn't hit the trail until noon on Thursday, so we stopped just short of Springer at sunset and camped at Black Gap shelter. The next day we summited Springer and made it to Hawk Mountain shelter where we camped with a few Southbounders, Trooper and Number Two, who were poised to finish the next day. Saturday we traveled from Hawk Mountain to Gooch Gap and vowed to try to cover more ground the next day. Sunday we made it all the way to Woods Hole shelter, which is located an inconvenient 0.4 miles off of the AT but the location and condition of the shelter are worth the hike in. We finished our trip with a easy 3.4 mile hike up Blood Mountain and down to Neels Gap before getting a ride back to Amicalola. 

Here's what we learned in our 5 days on the trail:

Lesson #1: The Days are Short, and the Nights are Long…
Naturally, daylight hours are cut short in the fall and winter. Unfortunately, this effect isn't very noticable in the lower latitudes of La Florida. During our hike, sunrise was around 7:00am and sunset hovered around 5:30pm. This gave us a little over 10 hours of potential hiking time. Yes, we could have hiked in the dark and I fully expect to on our thru… but we weren't quite willing to do so this time around. With limited daylight, we didn't nearly cover the amount of ground that I was expecting.  A part of this was because we didn't have our hiker-legs yet, but more so it was because we are sloooow to pack up camp in the morning, especially when it's 30 degrees out. The other result of only having 10 hours of daylight is that night lasts 14 hours. 14 hours spent laying in the tent, waiting for the sun to rise. Granted we slept most of these 14 hours, but the 2 or 3 hours spent laying awake were absolute torture.

Lesson #2: Ditch Hot Breakfast
It took us 2 hours on average to pack up camp. This includes making breakfast, changing into hiking clothes, packing our sleep systems, getting Sheila ready to hike, hand-feeding the dog her breakfast (more on this later), and packing up the tent. That's it. 

This fact was driving me crazy, so by Day 3 I made the radical suggestion to ditch hot breakfast. No hot cocoa, no coffee, no oatmeal. A Nutrigrain bar to-go and nothing more. This ended up shaving about an hour off of our time to pack up and head out of camp, which was excellent. We also got into the habit of pumping water once making camp that way we wouldn't have to stop during the day or do it in the morning. We met a couple of south-bounders on top of Blood Mountain that said they basically hop from water source to water source and never carry more than a liter with them. I can see how this saves weight, but I can't imagine spending that much time during the day pumping water.

Side-note: Why in the hell are the trails to water always the most steep and treacherous? I almost never have my hiking poles when we go to get water and I am always afraid of busting my butt. 

Lesson #3: Winter Weather Calls for a Winter Bag
For this trip we took our 20 degree Mountain Hardware Lamina sleeping bags, thinking they would be more than sufficient especially with our silk liners, and for 80% of the trip, this combination worked just fine. Our first night on the trail was bitterly cold though, and I can imagine wanting the comfort of the 0 degree bag in the dead of winter in February.

Lesson #4: Avoid Shelters
We stayed in Wood's Hole shelter on our last night, and I'm thinking that will be our final shelter stay if we can help it. This was mainly because it was much colder in the shelter with just the two of us and the dog. Sheila was also kind of a nightmare to deal with in the shelter because we were afraid she would run off in the middle of the night after whatever animal came lumbering by. A third reason is the creepy-crawlies: mice and spiders. I don't mind spiders, but I certainly don't want to sleep with them right next to my face. We weren't planning on staying in shelters during our thru anyway, but it was nice figuring out that we weren't missing much. 

Lesson #5: Work on Cardio
One of the things I've been wanting to do before leaving for the hike is to get in shape. I'm not terribly our of shape per se, but I do lead a sedentary lifestyle that isn't very conducive to hiking well on Day 1. I wasn't really hitting my stride until Day 3, which is normal, but I felt like I was slowing Chase (and Sheila for that matter) down. I really need to work on my cardiovascular endurance. I would start on an uphill and have to stop 8 steps later totally out of breath with my heart trying to burst past my sternum. Chase was patient and encouraging, telling me to go slowly and steadily, and I eventually fell into an even rhythm during ascents. 

Either way, I have noticed such a difference in my body just from being on the trail for 5 days that I would like to keep it up. I'm going to actually start going to the gym and going on runs in my free time to try and stay in shape.

Lesson #6: Trail Runners
We encountered a little trail magic curtesy of Fresh Ground's Leapfrog Cafe at Woody Gap and met quite a few successful thru-hikers. Unfortunately I'm not great at names, so I can't recall who we met, but they all had great advice for us once we told them our plans of attempting a thru next year. One thru-hiker in particular told us that nearly 90% of NOBOs that year wore trail runners in leu of traditional hiking boots. He said that those who did wear trail runners, none of them reported having tired feet or blisters at the end of the day. This was news to me, though I had heard that a lot of people were turning to trail runners. As a result of this conversation, Chase and I are going to look into a couple of options and try to work in one more shakedown hike in our new trail runners before setting out in February.

I actually ended up getting a little compression neuropathy from the hike in both of my big toes and the ball of my left foot. It's only temporary and only mildly annoying, but I'm hoping a combination of hiking in trail runners and some different orthotics will solve this problem. I'm currently hiking in some mid-top Lowa's with Superfeet insoles, so I may try layering these with some Dr. Scholl's massaging gel insoles to help absorb the impact.

Lesson #7: Be Flexible
It was hard for me to come to terms with the fact that we just weren't making the kind of miles I thought we would make, but by Day 3 I learned just to let all of the frustration and disappointment go. I would like to attribute this change in attitude to a conversation we were having with Southbounders Trooper and Number Two, whom we camped with at Hawk Mountain Shelter along with section hiker Aquaman. They told us the story of setting out for their thru-hike, how Baxter State Park wouldn't even open Baxter Peak for another week when they had already arrived. They decided to start on the next section of trail rather than remain idle, and ended up beginning their thru-hike by jumping right into the 100-mile wilderness, which is reportedly one of the most difficult sections of trail. It took them 9 days to get through the wilderness but because of this "set-back" they were able to develop their hiker-legs a little before summiting Katahdin. Trooper and Number Two also had to change plans around the White Mountains of New Hampshire. During the days leading up to beginning the Whites, the weather turned really terrible and they new that it was going to be an awful time to try to hike this difficult section of trail. So they skipped it. They hiked south of the Whites until the weather cleared and then returned north to cover the section they missed. Because of this detour, they ended up having sunshine and 300 miles of visibility on top of Mt. Washington, whereas friends of theirs had to crawl across Franconia Ridge on their hands on knees the week before because of how strong the winds were. 

Essentially, these stories made me realize that yeah, the plan won't always work out and you have to be prepared for that. If you can be flexible, you will enjoy your time on the trail a hell of a lot more than if you try to stick to the plan. I'm looking forward to taking it one day at a time…

Overall, this hike went smoothly. We were happy with all of our gear for the most part, and we learned a lot! I hope to post some photos soon! Thanks for reading. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Shakedown Hike #2

Next week Chase, Sheila, and I will be setting out to Springer Mountain to hike as much of the AT as we can in 5 and a half days! We are planning on driving up in the evening after work, grabbing a hotel and getting a good nights sleep, and then setting off from Amicalola State Park in the morning.

This is our first hike with all of us together and it will be my longest hike yet. We are planning to cover 57.3 miles of the AT plus the 8.8 miles of the Approach Trail for a grand total of 66.1 miles! Oh boy!

To makes things even more exciting, the forecast for next week has winds in the 45 mph range on top of Springer and the low temperature near 28 degrees Fahrenheit! I think this will be a pretty good test of our fortitude and winter gear, though I'm sure the weather in February is going to be pretty different.

We had some last minute gear purchases to make to be ready for the cold weather, including some heavyweight long underwear, Nalgene cozies, and some waterproof over-mitts. Eventually I will put out a collective gear list, but for now there is just no time. I have a lot to say about the gear we've already purchased and used a bit, and I'm anxious to get that information out there!

My biggest challenge has been putting together Sheila's first aid kit. I had to purchase a bunch of stuff and make sure her kit packs down enough to fit in her pack. I plan on making a special post dedicated to doggy first aid. Sheila will be carrying about 5 lbs of her own gear, including 1 L of water, 1.5 days of food, her first aid kit, a ball, a brush, and her bowl. We just ordered a Guyot Designs Squishy Pet Bowl in size small (24 oz). We have the 48 oz version, but it is really just too big and it is a little awkward to pack. I hoping the smaller size will remedy this! We also bought an OllyDog Mt. Tam Hands-Free Dog Leash . I used it to take Sheila for a walk around the neighborhood, and while it is nice having my hands free, I'm not sure if I like how stiff the stretch is in the leash. I'm planning on taking her for a run tomorrow morning to see how it might work out.

Well, that's all for now. I'm completely exhausted… To bed!