Safety First

Well the time has come for us to finally finish up and although it will be bitter sweet, we are excited about moving on to the next exciting adventure. We spent a good amount of time checking our gear and making sure that we would be able to be comfortably warm up on the mountain the next night. After packing our packs and putting everything in the Jeep for an early departure we went to sleep with the excitement of the next morning filling our dreams.

When we woke up we went out side to see that the sun was shining and although it wasn’t very warm, it also wasn’t very windy and that makes all the difference in the world. If it’s windy down in town, its going to be exponentially worse up in the mountains. We grabbed a bunch of bagels and cream cheese from the continental breakfast bar to eat on the drive back to the trail at route 211. We are going to start from the road crossing here and work our way north out of the park. The weather is cold and there is ice on the road already so we have given up hope on the road opening and have come up with other plans as well as backup plans for those. I dropped them off around 9am at the 211-road crossing.

The snow didn’t look as deep there as we had expected and hoped that as they climbed in elevation they wouldn’t find drifts higher than they could wade through. Buddy couldn’t wait to get out of the Jeep and go traipsing through the snow! He has said that his favorite part of hiking in the snow is seeing the footprints he leaves behind. He doesn’t like when anyone hikes behind him in the mud or the snow because he doesn’t want anyone to mess up the trail he is leaving for others who come after him to follow. Dion gladly hikes in front of him through the snow, making a path for Buddy to walk through and leave his prints in. They have planned a 14.3 mile day which in any other conditions would be considered a “shorter day”.

In the snow, I am hoping that they will get to Gravel Springs Hut before the sun begins to set. Laurie Potteiger, from the ATC office, told us that there is a side trail called the Browntown Trail that is about 4 miles and will lead me right up to the Gravel Springs Hut. I drove over to where the trail is supposed to begin, parked the Jeep, grabbed my backpack fully loaded with all our gear, and headed out to find the trail. This was no easy task! After climbing up several driveways and crossing the same river a handful of times I came upon a farm with a long rock wall on one side, a locked fence and a river crossing that was too wide to get across without stepping in the water. The side trail was not marked on my usual GPS app I use on my ipad, so I had to go off of the paper map Laurie had lent me.
I couldn’t tell if I needed to go over the locked gate to continue on the path or cross the river, so as the sky turned grey and the snow began to fall I decided to climb the fence to cross the river and hope that would take me in the right direction. From what I could see through the snow falling all around me it looked like there was a clear path heading that direction. Thank goodness I was right, I had spent about an hour just trying to find the trail. The snow wasn’t too deep; it came to just about the top of my boots. After about an hour of hiking the snow subsided and the sun came back out just as I hit the switchbacks in this trail.

From the minute I left the car it was uphill, once I got here to the switchbacks, this is apparently where the elevation gain begins. It wouldn’t have been too difficult without the snow or the backpack full of winter gear for three people, but add in those factors and it feels like running through knee deep sand on the beach. I was glad to be almost as warm as laying out frying on the beach instead of freezing cold. It felt good to unzip my jacket and take my hat off for a little while. As I was climbing higher and higher I just kept thinking that I hope that the boys were doing okay, that they were as warm as I was and hopefully I had the hardest job that day. After about 4 hours I reached the AT where it crossed the road at Skyline Drive mile 17.7. I hiked a little ways south on the AT until I came to the blue blaze for the hut. I was go glad to get to the hut and take my heavy pack off. I immediately began setting up the tent, blowing up all our sleeping pads and unpacking all our gear out of my pack. I wanted to hurry up and get back on the trail to find Buddy and Dion, put my mind at ease to know that I was with them and they were safe.

After sitting in the shelter for about half an hour unpacking, even though I was moving around a bit, I was freezing. It was about 3pm and the clouds were starting to move in again. The weathermen weren’t calling for any more snow that night, but they were calling for wind chills of zero and below. I was exhausted from hiking up with the gear, my legs were on fire, but if the temperatures dropped too low we wouldn’t be very happy campers in the middle of the night! I set back out on the AT heading south to meet them. The whole time I hiked I was weighing all the options in my mind. If we stay and it gets too cold we wouldn’t have any options other than packing up in the middle of the night in below zero temperatures and night hiking down to the Jeep. This, to me, is not an option. We are out here to have a good time, not teeter on the line of safety. As far as we are concerned our trip thus far has been completely safe and there hasn’t ever been a moment where we have doubted Buddy’s safety out here. We weren’t going to start now. As I hiked toward them I hoped they weren’t too tired because I had made up my mind that we were going to go down the side trail, staying in the shelter was no longer an option. We knew going in this morning that this might be a possibility, so we were prepared to deal with it. When I finally ran into them it was about 3:30 and we were two and a half miles from the hut. This meant that at 3:30 we all had to do another six and a half miles to get safely down off the mountain.

With no time to waste, I explained to them the plan as we booked it as fast as possible to the side trail. When we arrived at the blue blaze to get down to the shelter, I decided that because the sun was already beginning to set that we didn’t have time to go down to the hut and pack up the gear. I would have to come back for it in the morning. We all put on our last layer, our rain jackets, to keep out the chill of the wind that was starting to pick up. As we headed down, I was so thankful that although it was dark and getting chilly, Buddy was his usual happy self! Dion told me all about their day as we trekked through the footprints I had made earlier and relished the fact that it was literally all-downhill from there. He told me about the waist high snowdrifts they had encountered in the middle of their day and how Buddy seemed to just hop from one spot to the next as if it took not an once of energy.
We are constantly jealous of Buddy’s energy but so thankful that he has it! We all climbed along the fence to get over the river and completed the last leg of the trail back to the Jeep around 7pm. I haven’t ever been so happy to see the Jeep sitting there waiting for us to return. We all piled in, took off our boots to warm our toes, and headed back to the hotel in Luray for another night of hot showers and soft beds. Needless to say, the showers waited until the morning because upon arriving we all fell asleep at once in the heavenly beds. We are all very glad we made the decision not to stay in the shelter because although we were tired and cold hiking down that side trail, we were safe and warm and would make it to tomorrow to hike our last day on the trail and complete our thru hike.

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