Friday, May 24, 2013

The LeConte Trip, Day 1 of 3

The coldest I’ve ever been in my life was on the Boulevard Trail leading five miles from the Appalachian Trail to the top of Mount LeConte. I was a novice backpacker in my early 20s, and while I wasn’t completely ignorant, I still didn’t know the nuances of winter backpacking – such as, moisture from sweat is just as dangerous and uncomfortable as moisture from rain and snow. I don’t think GoreTex had been invented yet, but even if it had, I probably wouldn’t have understood what all the excitement was about, but even if I did, I couldn’t have afforded it. In fact, I still can’t afford it, but there’s one big difference – now, I buy it anyway. My kids can pay for their own college education.

My feet had been numb since the previous evening at Icewater Spring shelter, and they were still numb as my three hiking partners and I waded through calf-deep snow toward the top of Mt. LeConte. I was wearing blue jeans and leather boots and had plastic bread bags on my feet, over my socks thinking they would keep my socks and feet dry. This was the trip on which the realities of moisture, condensation, sweat, and cold temperatures all became clear to me. I was the mule, and the wet socks and feet were the two by four that finally got my attention.

We were all unprepared and miserable, but of course that simply reminded us of how masculine we all were, so it was well worth it. In fact, we were all so thoroughly miserable that we made this an annual event. From this moment on, this route would come to be called The LeConte Trip, fully deserving of the capital letters. Every fall, as we’d begin thinking ahead to winter, one of us would suggest The LeConte Trip as our winter excursion, and we’d all pause, remember the cold and fatigue, and nod our heads in agreement. We repeated this adventure several more times until life’s obligations separated our little backpacking fraternity.

For the next several Januarys we’d park at Newfound Gap and hike 3 miles to Icewater Spring shelter for the first night. Before going to bed for the night, we would hike the one mile to Charlies Bunion and scramble around on the rocks, enjoying the view and basking in the knowledge that we were all manly outdoor types who were just a little superior to all those sissies in hotels in Gatlinburg.

Now one problem with winter backpacking is not just the cold. It’s the early bedtime. That might sound like a good thing, but it’s not. It gets dark around 5 or 6 pm, and it’s generally too cold to sit around and talk or play cards. (There’s virtually no firewood around these backcountry shelters. Plenty of trees, but no dead and down, and therefore legal, wood.) By 6 pm you are in your sleeping bag, eating gorp (good ol’ raisins & peanuts) to stoke your metabolism, and praying that morning will come soon.

It never does.

The bunks are hard. Your face sticking out of your sleeping bag is cold. And then you realize you didn’t drink enough during the day. You reach down around your feet to dig out your water bottle. You keep it in your sleeping bag so it won’t freeze. You drink and eat gorp and then drink some more.

Then you have to pee.

Most folks just get up and go. A few others somehow wait until morning. There’s even a theory out there that your body uses more calories keeping your bladder at 98.6 degrees than it does to get up, walk out of the shelter, stand in the snow, get chilled in the process, and crawl back into your bag and try to get warm by doing isometrics. As the theory goes, calorie-wise and warmth-wise, you should get up and go. Personally, I believe that debate fills a much needed gap in the literature of backpacking. I just haven’t reached that level of insight and sophistication. I follow the same rule that I follow in my non-backpacking life: when you need to go, just go.

Anyway, morning never comes... and I have proof.  [To be continued.]