Crushing The Burroughs: Catskill Mountains

It had been some time since we’d taken on a substantial backpacking trip, but Matt had managed to piece together four options for a Summer Solstice weekender in the Catskills. Ranging in difficulty from short to long, we had PDF maps numbered 1 through 4 respectively.

On the invite list were the usual suspects: Matt, Anton, Olga, Jeff, Erin, and yours truly. I started a new job last year after returning from my AT trip, and invited one of the guys on the IT team I’d gotten to know pretty well: Nick. Matt also invited a long-time friend, Mike, to join us.

As our trip deadline drew near, we’d thrown in several opinions for the trip via a Facebook event page that Matt had kindly set up, but the trail outlined on map #4 really stood out for most of us. It was by far the longest: starting at Woodland Valley Campground trail head we would continue up and over Wittenberg, Cornell, Slide, Table, and finally Peekamoose. This route would pass through The Burroughs and along the Slide-Peekamoose Trail.

Deciding to spend the night close to the trail head, the majority of our group made reservations to stay at Woodland Valley Campground on Friday night. On a whim and best guess, I picked out two sites: 30 and 32 as they looked relatively close to the creek. I booked 30 and Matt the other.

I’d taken Friday off from work and so had Nick, which meant we could get on the road pretty early. I arranged to pick him up on the way as he lives right off the I-87. Nick had told me that he was borrowing some gear from his dad and that it was “old and had seen some use”. When I pulled up to his house his dad’s external frame pack with tubular steel hip belts was leaning up against a car in his driveway. It was huge, and the tent and other accoutrements were placed on top, strapped on by one of those old bungees your folks used in the 70’s to fasten luggage. All in all, this thing came up to higher than my hips when standing on the ground. It was massive. Thank god I’d decided to bring some of my own gear: ULA Circuit, 20°F TQ and some other ultralight gear.

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We set off at around 12:30pm and our scheduled eta was around 2:30pm. Hitting traffic about an hour in slowed our journey but we got to camp around 3:00pm. After checking in and driving to site 30 I realized that I’d made a very lucky choice: we were right on the creek! Amazing.

We unpacked and went through my gear for Nick to use – I think in total I helped shave about 20lbs off his base weight alone. I hung my hammock and Matt rolled in about an hour later. This was Matt’s first outing with his new hammock gear, so I was stoked for him. Matt’s always been a tent guy, and I think his tent/sleeping pad choices tallied in at a considerably larger weight.

We got some wood from the ranger station and set about building a fire and making dinner. Mike arrived shortly after Matt, and we got some hotdogs on the go right away. Anton and Olga had decided to arrive on Saturday morning as they both had to work on Friday, but Jeff and Erin were driving up that night.

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Wine and hotdogs, what a combo. As night drew in I wanted to hit the sack hard. Plus I was just jonesing to have some hang time. I bade the boys a good night and slipped into my hammock, zippered the side and I was out like a light. Slowly rocking, hanging between two trees only feet away from the creek – sleep came fast.

Waking up at 3:00am needing a leak, I realized that my “nap” had turned into a full-on sleep fest – I spotted Jeff’s car parked and their tent pitched over on site 32. Cool, they’d made it. After doing my business I felt my body shake uncontrollably – it was freezing and there I was standing in only shorts and a t-shirt. I hurried back to my hammock and pulled my ZPacks quilt up and over me. I was laying there listening to the flow of the creek whilst peeking out at the stark white moonlight through the trees above me. I love this time of night, it’s so peaceful. It’s like the moon is shining just for me to see.

As usual I’m the first one up. I unzip my hammock and just lie there watching and listening to the water gurgle by without a care in the world.

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First things first: where’s the coffee? I unlocked the car and start to unpack some of the breakfast stuffs and Nick pokes his head out of the tent – he decided to use my SMD Lunar Duo instead of the 6lb monster his dad had loaned him. He slept well which was good to hear.

Matt slipped out of his hammock shortly after and got his coffee grinder and espresso maker right to work. Anton and Olga arrived around 9:30am and it was good to see them again – haven’t had the chance to hang out since they got married a few weeks prior.

We needed to drop off a couple of cars at the end of the trail — southern trail head of Peekamoose — and Mike’s car off by Slide Mountain. He was just going to join us for a day hike while we kept going all the way for an overnight on Saturday.

Once back at Woodland Valley I insisted on the obligatory group shot – I like taking these as we always look so clean and refreshed, unlike the shots I take a day or two into these trips at the end, disheveled and filthy.

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We set out quite late — 11:00am to be exact. We had a lot of ground to cover and some serious elevation change to handle – 11:00am was way too late for a hike this long.

Crossing the creek we started the ascent up Wittenberg. I’ve got quite a lot of experience climbing mountains on the east coast, but this first climb was up steep dirt/rocky trail and boulder/outcropping scrambling for close to ~3.5 miles. Straight up, and it kicked my arse.

For what seemed like an eternity, we summited Wittenberg and we all spread out along a smooth rocky outcropping that delivered 180° views over the Catskills before us; beautiful valleys and lush green rolling peaks – stunning. This was the payoff we’d all earned with our sweat equity.

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A quick bite to eat (I opted for a spam single wrapped in a flour tortilla with a splash of Frank’s Red Hot, and we all took photos and cool panoramas. We were soon hoisting our packs and we headed down the mountain and onto the climb up Cornell.

The hike up Cornell wasn’t nearly as rough as Wittenberg, but it did offer its own fair share of bouldering/crag scrambling which littered the ascent.

No real view off Cornell, maybe a couple of lookouts, but most of us just kept going. Our biggest climb of the day was straight ahead: Slide Mountain.

Standing at 4,190′, Slide Mountain is the highest peak in the Catskills. From the side, Slide may look like a children’s playground slide: the steep climb on one side leading to the top, and then a long steady downhill the other side. From Cornell we were heading up the [very] steep side. This climb was brutal and far steeper than Wittenberg. Granted the distance needed to summit Slide was shorter, but the extra effort required to hoof ourselves up and over was exacerbated by the angle of ascent.

Holy effing moly.

If I stopped to catch my breath once, I did it ten times. And the weather had gotten warmer, too. Luckily we’d been graced with a lot of lower-level shade during the earlier part of the day, but as we neared these summits, we were more exposed to the sun – and it was hot.

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Once at the top of Slide there were no real views again, not like Wittenberg, but there were several small spots you could walk out to – but nowhere we could all gather and drop our packs. At a few areas on the trail we could look back and see the summits of Cornell and Wittenberg in the distance, green and rolling, smooth almost: trust me, they were anything but “smooth”.

I’ve often thought that the energy needed to climb serious elevation was harder than the descents of similar elevation loss. That myth was busted during my descent from Mount Cammerer out of the Smokies. Descents are way harder: with 20-30lbs of added weight pushing down hard on your knees and other joints makes for a rough hike downhill.

We stopped for a short break to catch our breaths and chug water, then headed down the long rocky descent to camp. Four long knee-destroying miles down we went, single file for the most part as the going was rocky underfoot. I’d hiked behind Olga for a couple of miles and we caught up on life and sundries. When the trail is as rocky as this it’s hard to not look up at the surrounding beauty, fearful of rolling an ankle on that one bastard loose stone. My eyes affixed always a few feet ahead of me as I traverse this descent I see Olga’s left ankle roll – completely at 90°. Shit, she yelped and hobbled to the side of the trail. I know only too well how that feels – with all your weight pressing your ankle to its outer limits you’re treated to an electric jolt of pain that shoots all the way from your foot upwards through your entire body. Man does that suck.

She slowed her pace and took it easy for the remainder of the hike down Slide.

About two hours after rounding the summit of the largest mountain in the Catskills the trail started to level and we heard the welcome sound of a fast moving body of water. Were we at the river? Our campsite for the night was situated right next to East Branch Neversink River and the sound of water got the group excited. We picked up our pace a little as the trail flattened out and through a clearing the river came into view in all its glory. Finally, we were here.

Crossing a cool wooden bridge we followed the trail a little more and there were an abundance of campsites littered to our left and to our right. We spotted another bridge off to the left where the trail veered and, over that one, we found our own little paradise. Right on the creek’s banks, we’d found our home for the night. It was perfect.

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Jeff and a couple of others had mentioned keeping going up Table and make camp 2.7 miles farther, making for an easier Sunday – the majority, including myself, were completely spent. It had been a long arduous day and the temps had been pretty high. Nothing could have dragged me away from that campsite – I was famished and tired, stinky and greasy.

We scurried like worker bees vying for spaces to pitch our shelters; Matt and I had the simple task of finding two trees to hang from: the others searching for flat ground, sweeping the forest floor with their boots checking for rocks and roots. I love my hammock, and this is the #1 reason I choose to hang instead of tenting. I’m completely free of the task of searching for flat ground.

Matt and I had our hammocks up pretty quickly, and the others were unfolding poles and clipping into brass grommets into tent corners. I helped Nick with the SMD Lunar Duo I’d loaned him for the trip, and I turned to see Jeff stripping. He looked like a lifeguard ripping off his clothing to save a drowning boy and, down to his pants, he sprinted for the river. I managed to start recording and catch it on video – good times. Hitting the frigid water he let out a cacophonous howl; the forest alive with his echoes and high pitched laughter.

We’d soon started a fire with much help from Jeff and Erin, and before long we were chowing down on various freeze dried accoutrements and instant mashed potatoes. A blazing fire centered within a circle of well-fed hikers, we laughed into the night telling stories and sipping on aged tequila.

My body hit hiker midnight (it had to be earlier than 8:30pm, and it was still light out) I and was the first to hang my hat for the night. Sliding into my Blackbird I was out like a light. Rocking to and fro as dusk turned to night, the evening sky and its myriad diamond-like stars peeking through the tree limbs above.

The next morning was pretty standard: baggy-eyed and hungry hikers climbing out of their shelters like zombies clawing their way out of graveyard crypts in the Thriller music video. I’d opted for a no-cook breakfast of frosted Pop Tarts again, choosing to only boil water for coffee.

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Jeff and Anton headed over to where their food bag was hanging and yanked the cord. Somehow the cord managed to re-loop itself through the carabiner for a 2nd time – it was stuck, not coming down or going up so the stick could be removed (we PCT hang our bags on our backpacking trips). The bag wasn’t budging, and even with Anton climbing on Jeff’s shoulders, it wasn’t going anywhere.

Jeff wasn’t about to give up so easily.

He tried to shimmy the tree from which the bag was hanging but it was too thick to grab around its girth. I motioned to another tree next to it that was much skinnier. Jeff needed no further prompting and leapt into action. Shimmying the smaller tree he climbed to the height of the food bag and with some tugging he pulled it free. Applause abound, the food was freed.

Matt was still in his hammock. I’m sure he wondered what was going on with all the laughing and shouting. Erin helped him wake from his slumber by gently rocking the shit out of his hammock and yelling like a banshee. He wasn’t too pleased – good job they’re related.

We were all packed up by around 7:30am and, right after our obligatory group photo, we headed back onto into the trail headed for Table Mountain.

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Off the bat we were treated to a ~1,500′ elevation gain to the summit of Table, some viewpoints but nothing like Wittenberg the day before. The pine forest on top of Table was beautiful to walk through. A flat and soft needle-cushioned trail that felt like we were wearing our favorite slippers, we made a good pace down the other side and back up again to summit Peekamoose. The descent and subsequent climb between these two was minimal. We stopped for a bite and a quick rest stop before summitting Peekamoose, knowing the downhill to the trail head was going to be long.

I hate the descents. Reminds me of Mt Cammarer in the Smokies: six miles straight down. This wasn’t quite six miles but it was close to it. We passed through the three distinct levels of foliage as we descended, and after a good two hours we reached the Peekamoose trail head. My feet and knees were shot, this was a rough downhill indeed.

Erin and Olga agreed to drive Nick and me back to my car at the Wittenberg trail head near Woodland Valley campground. My feet were barking and my knees swollen, and the ride through the winding mountain roads back to my car was very relaxing.

Great trip with great friends; my backpacking weekends with these guys become more enjoyable each time we hang out. I’m also very happy to be able to cross another five 35’ers off the list – nine down, 26 to go.

An AT Mosey in New Joisey

Having packed the night before, I was on the road by 6:30am on Saturday; I was driving to an AT section trail head close to High Point State Park on the NJ 23 / CR 443 just south of Port Jervis, NY.  Friends and fellow backpackers/hikers, Jeff and Erin, were joining me for this weekend trip and I was excited for the time on the Appalachian Trail again.

Since returning home in June I think about my time on the trail quite often, sometimes just bringing up my blog on my iPhone while on the train and reading from a random day or two.  Good times indeed.  But what’s really special to me is the actual trail: the blazes, the mountains, the sights and sounds.  Unless you’ve spent [a considerable amount of] time on the AT it’s difficult to appreciate the gravity of how a life on the Appalachian Trail can change you.

As I arrive at the trail head parking lot I notice the temp has dropped to 27°F and the wind has picked up. Spotting Jeff’s car in the corner of the lot I parked up alongside.

Jumping out of my car and into the tundra was enough to send a jolt through my body: my god it’s freezing. After the cold meet and greet, we tied off our packs and slung them over our shoulders. There was a group of day hikers gathering near the start of the approach blue trail and I managed to finagle a group shot from one of them.

As we headed up the blue blazed trail our boots were sinking into the crunchy mud that had frozen during the night before. This made for challenging hiking as it was like we were walking through sand. After a few minutes we t-boned the AT and headed left, and southbound.

The wind had died down and we’d picked up a great starting pace so we warmed up pretty quickly. We were hoping the forecast was accurate and were looking forward to clear blue skies – no dice, cold and gray today.

The terrain became rocky underfoot as the trail headed south. We rounded and summited a section of rocky balds and stopped awhile to admire the view.

A few snaps and we were off again, southbound with a spring in our steps.

I always like hiking with Jeff and Erin, a young couple that I’ve been friends with for a few years. I’d met them for the first time during a Catskills weekender that another hiker friend, Anton, had organized. They’re both heavily into the outdoors, fit, and I enjoy the pace at which they hike – swift. They’re also a riot to hang with, and it’s not long before we’re onto the topic of food; Jeff and I discussed the many ways one could prepare a burger – multiple cheeses and fillings, always good trail banter.

Quickly we’re into our stride and we crossed Deckertown Turnpike — a winding country road that slices through the AT — and after a short climb beyond we hit Mashipacong Shelter and we had the whole place to ourselves.  We dropped our packs and broke out our lunches and discussed what we’d do afterwards.  We decided to continue southbound for at least an hour given we’d made such good time, but the remaining ~5.5 miles to Gren Anderson Shelter may run us into night hiking – which none of us really wanted to do.  Plus, the temps started to drop.  I reached for the trail journal hanging in a box in the far right corner of the shelter to see if I could find any names I’d know; sure enough, I found three:  Acorn, Nimbles, and one of my besties, Rainbow Bright.

So with full bellies and an invigorated spirit we hoisted our packs and headed south.  About a half hour in we came upon a pretty bleak looking stream which trickled from a stagnant pond – the water was orange, and none of us fancied using it to filter water for dinner tonight.

After some umming and ahhing we decided to head back to Mashipacong Shelter where we’d make camp, and hopefully, we’d still have the place to ourselves.  Once we got back we felt a tad bummed as fires aren’t allowed here – damn.  It was getting pretty chilly, too.  The sun had come out but we could feel Jack Frost’s bite rolling in.

I pitched my hammock gear in the woods a ways to the right of the shelter as I was hoping to sell some of it on GearTrade, so I needed photographs.  Once the shots were out of the way, I hoisted the hammock into the awning of the shelter — from left to right — while Jeff and Erin laid out their sleeping pads and bags inside on the platform.

We drank wine and shared stories, and we laughed into dusk.  It was early when the sun hit the horizon, cold blue hues spreading out through the woodland.  It was bedtime, aka “hiker midnight”.  The second my head hit my pillow I was out, and the slight sway of the hammock was enough to rock me to sleep in minutes.  It was 8:00pm.

I woke to the sound of an owl echoing through the frigid night.  To my chagrin, I pressed the backlight button on my watch and found it to only be 11:00pm.  Good lord, it was going to be a long night.

Coyotes are bloody loud, and when they’re in a pack that sounds ominously close, it’s quite disconcerting.  Another glance of my watch and it’s 1:30am.  Come on, man.

I started to feel the cold in my arms and torso a little which was strange as I was wearing literally all of my clothes and covered by my 30°F bag.  Unbeknownst to me, the temps had dropped to a not-so-balmy 23°F.  Without a 2nd thought I hoofed my tired self out of my cocoon and tossed my bag onto my own sleeping pad which I’d laid out on the shelter’s inner platform “just in case”.  I threw down my pillow and climbed into my bag and off I drifted, a little warmer than I was earlier dangling in mid air.  My watch said 3:00am.

It was about 6:30am when I woke, and I’d been tossing and turning all night; I get pressure points on my hips and knees as I’m a side sleeper when I go to ground.  “This is why I sleep in a hammock”, I grumbled to myself.

Jeff and Erin stirred shortly after and we shared morning pleasantries.  We’d all heard the howling and screaming last night.  And some of us (read: me) had heard snoring all night, too (read: Jeff and/or Erin).  Water was quickly on the boil and we enjoyed warm coffee; I enjoyed a couple of frosted raspberry Poptarts with mine – ooh look, it’s in one piece!

Warmed up, fed, and ready to go, we broke down camp and packed our gear.  We were off my 9:00am and heading northbound in the cool wintery air.  About a half hour in we stopped to enjoy the view at a pipeline clearing and snapped a few shots.

The trail seemed more rocky today than it did yesterday, but we still managed to get a good pace going; we hit the side trail for Rutherford Shelter in no time and calculated we’d been hiking at 3mph.

We stopped at a bubbling stream about half way back to the cars and filtered some more water; Erin had a crack at using my new Sawyer Squeeze Mini and I think I have a couple of converts!

Shortly after filling our water bottles we pressed on and it started to drizzle.  Now I don’t normally mind the rain, but when it’s 30°F, it’s bloody uncomfortable.  We double-timed and made it back to the parking lot in no time.  Cold, wet, and shivering we decided to head for the Ranger station up the road to change into drier clothing.

Warm and dry, Jeff suggested we head on over to a local diner for breakfast – amen to that.  We wolfed down an appetite-busting biscuits, gravy, and corned beef hash.  Human food tastes so good after a good hike.

Great hike with great friends, and the weather played nice, well almost.

Hiking the West Rim Trail

Stretching along the western edge of Pennsylvania’s Pine Creek Gorge is the West Rim Trail, thirty miles of lush trail that stretches from Ansonia to Blackwell.  Offering many spectacular vistas and mild heart-thumping climbs, the WRT is a weekend backpacker’s dream.

Stink Bug and I took a trip to the WRT this past week and started our trip from the northern terminus at Ansonia and started out around 1:00pm.  We headed out at a solid pace and signed the register about a hundred yards in.  The day’s weather was clear and mild, and the forest had a glow to it which made the trail look as if it were taken from Middle Earth itself. It wasn’t long before we climbed up Barbour Rock to the set of four glorious vistas, all overlooking Pine Creek Gorge – it was simply stunning.  We grabbed a quick bite to eat here and afterwards pushed on to our camp for the night.

We’d hiked the WRT about two years ago so we knew about the campsite at mile 6 where Painter Leetonia Road intersected the trail.  The campsite sits alongside a healthy stream which makes it a welcome spot for hikers.  We quickly set up camp and halfway into hanging our hammocks another couple appeared from the south.  We learned that John and his [new] wife — I don’t remember her name — were hiking the WRT northbound and they definitely looked weary.  We offered them some space in our camp to pitch their tent, and we quickly acquainted while making a fire.  It was their anniversary so we offered our congratulations and shared stories of hiking and backpacking trips.

The night grew cool as the hours rolled by and our group of four talked and shared follies of trails and of life, and Stink Bug and I reveled in tales of the Appalachian Trail.

We hit our hammocks hard at dusk, and at just about hiker midnight — which was roughly 7:00pm that night — and the evening got the best of us.  No sooner had I pulled my bag around my feet and over my arms than I was out cold.  There must be something magical about mountain air because it’s like a sleep elixir – like a Tyson one-two punch.

Both nocturnal and a bird of prey, the owl and it’s solemn HOO was indeed a forest lullaby.  She rocked me to sleep with a metronome of owl song, such bliss.

Waking at 6:30am it was time for breakfast and breaking of camp.  I love my hammock and how quickly it packs away.  While I boiled water I packed away my hammock and tarp, and I was enjoying a Mountain House’s Breakfast Skillet rolled up in a delicious tortilla – make that two.

We were on the trail by 8:20am and had agreed that our day would be a rolling 17-miler.  Whilst the trail hugged the rim of the gorge’s canyon, our journey also took us inland and around valleys away from the views.  However, these miles were full of deeply colored tree cover and the trail laced with reds and oranges; it was gorgeous.

We stopped for lunch at mile 15 and hung our hammocks to enjoy some zeds; sleep on the trail shouldn’t just be for the nighttime.

After about 40 minutes we headed over and through the Bradley Wales Picnic Area and along a very dry seven miles to our next campsite at mile marker 23; not having the luxury of useable streams or creeks to refill our water bottles became a hindrance.  Even an October day can be warm, and this trip’s daytime hours didn’t disappoint with regard to temperature.  Reaching the mid-70’s and no water while maintaining a 3/mph hiking speed isn’t conducive to comfortable long distance hiking.  We arrived at camp around 4:30pm, and we were both starving.  A tiny trickle of a water source was enough for us to gather water for boiling to turn our freeze dried packets into 5-star gourmet meals.

We didn’t bother with a fire that night, and we were hanging in our hammocks by 6:00pm.  WHAT?!  Earliest I’ve ever been to bed on the trail.  Long day, though.

I was woken around 1:00am by a deer that came sniffing around my hammock — presumably trying to ascertain from where the smell of dirty human was emanating — and I shooed it with a grunt as I perched my chin over the edge of my hammock.

Poor deer.

The next morning was blue skied and chilly, a perfect start to a day for our final seven miles.  We hiked through a thick and narrowed rhododendron-trimmed trail; me at the front brushing the morning silky spiders’ webs/lines away from my face while pushing through the rhody brush.

Soon we came across the final vista on the trail (mile marker 27.5) after a few nice climbs and we took a short break of water and mini Baby-Bel cheese.

The next 2.5 miles were a treat: 1.5 miles of spruce forest and easy flat trail leading to a prolonged 1 mile downhill to the southern terminus at Rattlesnake Rock parking lot.  Reaching my car (Stink Bug’s was at the northern terminus in Ansonia) I changed into clean clothes and we drove north to pick up the other car and grab lunch.

Burgers at the Burnin’ Barrel Bar is what’s good in the world; meat, beer, and good convo.

The West Rim Trail is stunning, and if I get the time to hike it again in 2013 then I’ll be a happy man.

Saturday, rainy Saturday

It’s my last day in Damascus and I’ve bumped into a lot of my old trail friends: Bitter Goat, Rainbow Brite, Mr. Cleveland, Willow, Stupid, and some others I recognized (yet not hiked any miles with) – Mountain Man, Nomad, Stupid, and more.

I’ll be honest, I’m having mixed emotions being down here. Maybe it’s because there are so many people here (literally thousands of hikers), or it’s trail nerves given I haven’t hiked for three weeks. I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t feel super pumped for some reason; that bothers me. I don’t have the spark in my belly like I used to. Could also be due to the fact that I just spent three weeks off the trail.

I’m trying to keep focused and spend time consciously thinking of being back on the AT tomorrow morning with Tie Dye. I’m looking forward to hiking with her again, but I’m second guessing my decision to not return to Hemlock Hollow.

I took another walk through the vendors again first thing and said threw a “mornin’!” to AWOL as I passed his tent. I met him yesterday, quiet fella, very humble. He’s a bloody AT legend and he talks in a soft voice with such a “good guy” mannerism. I liked him a lot, and it was a thrill to meet him in person and get a handshake. Instead if asking for a photo opp — like I usually do — I asked if he wouldn’t mind signing my cap: he did, gladly, and said it was the first time he’d signed anyone’s hat before, and let out a grin as he autographed my ball cap.

I’m sitting in my hammock next to the river by Damascus Old Inn with my tarp in porch mode, looking out to the waterfall to my right and flowing to my left. It’s gorgeous.

Stink Bug and Honey Bun mailed back their tent today as they’d both bought new Snipe hammocks from Wilderness Logics – they have a vendor tent here, too, along with ZPacks, Hennessy Hammocks, Osprey, Black Diamond, and many more

I managed to find a spot yesterday that had three trees in pretty much of a perfect triangle shape. We set up out hammocks and tarps here last night and all slept soundly.

I’m nervous about tomorrow and what the days ahead will bring.

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Damascus and Trail Days

Quick update: hanging (literally) with Stink Bug and Honey Bun in Damascus. Convinced them to ditch their tent and buy hammocks. We’ll be hanging in our hammocks by the river tonight. Done with my tent so I can mail that back home. Thank god.

Ice coffee for now, and I’ll hit the post office later today.

Max Patch, a Walnut, and a mighty Bluff (266.4m)

I’ve been hiking with painful ankles and tendons for roughly five days now, and much to my chagrin, I’m popping about a dozen ibuprofen daily. It’s not the smartest move to be masking the pain, but they do help with reducing the swelling around my ankle and tendons.

My left ankle has yet to heal fully and remains swollen, and I pulled the uppermost tendon on my right foot/shin a few days ago; I haven’t seen a doctor yet, but my own research points to the extensor digitorum longus. It doesn’t hurt at all on the climbs, but going along the flats and especially downhill is agonizing with each step: heel to toe, and when the front of my foot touches the ground it stretches that tendon – sharp pain. I’ve been trying to land flat-footed and it helps, but I’m taking the whole weight of that right step on my right hip now instead of the knee/quad, so my hip aches.

Shoot me.

I’d bought two ankle braces from Walmart while in Newport and have been wearing one on my left [rolled] ankle; it’s been pretty good so far (read: not rolled since). The right tendon issue started during the massive descent from Mt. Cammerer in the Smokies after leaving Cosby Knob Shelter with St. Croix, Blue, and Bitter Goat. The hike down was a 3,000′ descent over 4.2 miles to Davenport Gap. It was long, painful, and extremely unpleasant. Every step pulled on that tendon and yanked at it with such deep ripping pain that my face would wince and grimace on every, single, step. It was the first time that I had to stop and rest going downhill. Imagine for a second: I’m pretty much taking on steep prolonged climbs without stopping, and it’s the descents that are bringing me to a painful halt — all the while I’m concentrating on where I placed my left foot — none of this made any sense to me, I became frustrated and angry. After finding the balls to stay on the trail after the previous day’s ankle roll, I now had this new injury to contend with.

I was waking every hour or so at Brown Gap, and each time I would drop an expletive; I’d completely forgotten to take out my painkillers from my bear bag which was hanging 15′ off the ground over 200′ away from my camp. This wasn’t a mistake I’d make a second time. I dragged myself up at 7:00am and launched into morning mode: bear bag down, breakfast readiness, hammock breakdown, teeth brushing, water guzzling, pack packed, and I was off. It was 9:00am by the time I set off, and it was a doozie of a climb off the bat. Things leveled off and we reached Max Patch in good time. We had complete 360° views, and it was some of most serene landscape I’d seen since Springer. The top of Max Patch is one huge dome of grass, like a hemispherical lawn. Gorgeous.

Downhill again for 5 miles and it was slow going again for me. The ibuprofen I was popping — sometimes 3 or 4 at a time — was wearing off in a few hours and my tendon was killing me.

We passed two women walking south in the AT with their dog, Rusty; one of the ladies, Rebecca, told us that her husband Tom was at Lemon Gap with trail magic. Apparently he was there making bacon and eggs, along with homemade cinnamon buns and biscuits. Our spirits lifted instantly and our pace increased to what seemed a jog. Tom and his truck came into view along with a long row of lawn chairs, and a picnic table full of food, tea, and other goodies. Fist bumps with Tom and we filled our plates with sustenance. I think my favorite thing about the whole scene were the chairs. It was so good to sit, just to park my arse and not move. I was in heaven and so were my feet.

We took a lovely 45 minute break and I literally had to peel myself off my seat. Standing I could feel my knees and feet had locked up. I’d been praying for a hill, a goddam mountain to climb so it wouldn’t hurt anymore. Just beyond Lemon Gap and the incredible generosity of Tom and Rebecca, we arrived at the base of Walnut Mountain. I let out a sigh of relief; finally a climb.

Thank. Shitting. God.

Walnut wasn’t a huge climb, but it was steep in places and I could keep moving, and moving uphill. I wasn’t in pain anymore. It was a descent on the other side and I took it slowly, then I was at the base of Bluff Mountain — fu*king brilliant — 1,000′ elevation gain over 1.7 miles. I was up and at the summit pretty quickly and stopped to take some shots.

We’d decided earlier in the day to hike the 15.8 miles from Brown Gap to Old Road, and our campsite was 3.2 miles away… and 1,971′ down. Come the f*ck on. At this point I was completely and utterly over going downhill. It hurt, and really, really badly. My ibuprofen were lasting two hours at a time at this point, and for the most part doing absolutely nothing for my extensor tendon – nothing.

By the time we got to Old Road I was an angry and twisted old man. Hobbling off the trail I found two trees to set up my hammock and set to work. Not before dropping another three vitamin I’s (ibuprofen are commonly nicknamed vitamin I on the trail). Cap, TD, Tank and I set up shelter alongside one another and we shot the shit for about an hour until I hit the sack about 7:00pm. Hanging and swinging gently, I was out like a light.

It was about 11:00pm the first time I woke up to a throbbing ankle. Three vitamin I’s and I was back asleep again… until 1:30am. Rinse, repeat, four more times.

One good thing: my calves are starting to look like they’re made out of blocks of granite.

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