Appalachian Trail in Winter

Appalachian Trail in Winter

I first met Stan Treski on an Ed Martin lead backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail in Great Smokey Mountain National Park about 20 years ago. I remembered him as a well-conditioned guy and a strong hiker. I don't recall seeing him since. Serendipitously, I ran into to him a couple weeks ago eating lunch at Talia's with his brother -in-law Keith Johnston. We renewed our acquaintance and I invited him to go with me and several other guys on a backpacking trip in Grand Teton National Park this coming August. He had a conflict with the August trip, but we agreed to join on some hikes before then to help me get in shape for that committing trip.


This past Saturday, January 30, 2016, Stan planned a trip on the Appalachian Trail from Virginia County Road 601 (Teas Road) for about 8 miles to VA State Road 16. This segment of the trail starts beside the Holston River, the same river made famous by Johnny Cash's song honoring his wife's family, the revered bluegrass singers and song writers, the Carter Family of southwest Virginia. The segment ended beside the Mount Rogers National Recreational Area ranger station. The trail ascends from the road to a ridge that runs eastward, parallel on the north side to the portion of Mount Rogers in Grayson Highlands Stare Park.

Looking back on yesterday's hike objectively, from the perspective of being safely ensconced at home, the trip was a nice, normal outing. Stan planned enough distance and altitude gain to be a mild challenge for a good day outdoors. The view was superb, from the ridge top down onto the valleys lying to the north and south, and to the distance ridge topped by Whitetop Mountain. The snow ranged from bare spots, to averaging about ankle deep, to a few knee high drifts. We did not take snowshoes and it turns out we did not need them. The snow was mostly soft and wet with a thin, harder crust. The crust made the footing slightly slippery, but not enough to be a problem. And the crust made it easier to follow the footprints of several hikers preceding us that we used a guide when the snow was too deep to see the trail in the dirt. The temperature was in the 40's with almost no wind and mostly sunny sky. What's not to like?

What I found out was that my physical conditioning is abysmal. I have been on longer, steeper and colder hikes. But I have never been stressed so badly. My habit has been to set out on hikes, backpacking trips, bike rides and canoe trips all my 63 years without regard to my current state of fitness. Apparently those halcyon days have passed. Within the first couple miles, my upper leg muscles got tired, then sore, then painful from picking my heavily booted feet thousands of times. I could handle the down hills and level sections okay. But going uphill, even the most miniscule grade, wore me out. It did not help that I have nurtured a fat belly and am carrying about 30 extra pounds.

After a few more miles I developed pain in my upper back, then lower back, then neck and shoulders. Eventually several muscles in both legs began cramping. I was moving so slowly that there arose an unspoken concern that I may not be able to hike out by dark. We could probably have finished the trip by headlamp, but the trail was hard enough to follow through the snow in daylight; after dark would have been more difficult. Of course, neither of us had camp gear to stay in the woods overnight in below freezing temperatures.

I kept pushing myself to finish the trip, and with the over-exertion I made myself sick. At about 5 miles in I got a headache and stomach ache, then light-headed and nauseous. I could not keep standing because of my leg pain and nausea. I could not sit because my belly was so big and my 15 year old ski bib pants were so tight that sitting would squeeze my mid-section, increasing my stomach ache pain and compressing my diaphragm so that I could not breathe. I could not lie down because my clothes would get wet in the snow. I was in agony and did not know what to do.

Thankfully, Stan is the man. He plied me with several remedies. He had me lean against a tree and stretched my leg to ease out the cramps. Then he diagnosed me with deficient electrolytes and gave me a pint of his Gatorade to drink - which my body craved and I chugged with gusto. He showed me how to take shorter uphill steps and breathe harder each step. During our rest breaks he gave me advice about how to work out better after I get home to increase my fitness. Eventually the cramps, light-headedness and nausea dissipated. Despite the ever-present leg pain, I forced myself to keep hiking. When I looked at my GPS near the end of the hike and saw we only had a half mile to go with one and a half hours of daylight, I was a happy camper. Then I knew we would make it.

For the first third of the trip, Stan hiked in front of me. He usually pulled so far ahead that I was out of sight, so he had to frequently stop to let me catch up. In the middle third I hiked in front and we stayed together. Then on the final third Stan got in front again and soon he was out of sight. Several times when I got to trail turns that made seeing the route sketchy, I found that Stan had stepped off the trail and into the nearby snow to leave deep, plain boot prints showing me the way to go. Thanks Stan!

Despite the above travails, several things worked well. I have three pair of leather hiking boots - heavy, medium weight and light. Due to my frequent problems with the heavy and mid-weight boots causing blisters, I usually take the light boots. This time, due to the snowy winter conditions, I opted for the mid-weight boots. I don't know why, but I got no blisters! Another thing that worked is that the ski bib pants what I wore are heavy, tight and complicated to get on due to suspenders and many zippers and Velcro tabs. I dreaded having to take them off and put them back on in the woods to go poop. This trip I successfully did so with no problem. Fortunately, I found a nice, big log near the trail to assist in the operation.

Sitting on the picnic table at the trail shelter by the ranger station at the end of the hike, Stan and I discussed the merits of carrying a concealed weapon on a hike. He told me some stories of being accosted by drunken rednecks wanting to fight him. I told him some stories of being accosted by vicious dogs. Several things I have taken away from this trip: always stay in shape and don't go without an adequate level of fitness; always carry Gatorade; and carry a weapon.

After running the shuttle to pick up our cars, Stan led us to a wonderful country general store that serves sandwiches. They were out of Stan's favorite - the barbecue- but we got fresh cooked cheeseburgers which hit the spot. Miraculously, by the time that we ate supper, except for sore legs, I felt completely healthy and healed. Now if I can stick to the diet that Terri and Paul have me on, I should start to improve.

Bob Laney

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Bob is the site curator and writer of Blue Ridge Outing. Since starting the Blue Ridge Outing travel blog in 2002, Bob has written, recorded and documented countless expeditions in the US and around the world.