Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Knowing Your Limits

Limits. Either know them or learn them the hard way. Knowing “when to say when” is often an exercise in mental and physical humility that can be applied to many aspects of life. Over the weekend I ate a nice slice of humble pie and got the pleasure of sleeping in a warm and comfortable bed merely to recollect about my adventure on my blog today.

On January 16th-18th, the east coast of the U.S. was met with the coldest temperatures of the year. With my second son due any time within the next two weeks, this represented my last weekend for at least awhile to escape for an overnighter without the constrictions of work and family obligations taking prescient. Regrettably, it was cold and long past the point of “fun cold”, but I didn’t have a choice as my time was limited.

On Saturday as I was watching the news while packing my gear, the weatherman came on with his usual semi-obnoxious rant about cold. He danced in front of his forecast and gleefully embraced winter. It was 8 degrees and I was heading for the mountains where it was no doubt considerably colder.

I arrived at Shenandoah National Park in relatively quick fashion. Surprisingly, no other cars had made the trek. I stopped at the Park Ranger gate and was met by a Ranger who looked a bit surprised after seeing my backpack in my passenger seat and said, “You’re not staying the night are you”. I told him of my plan to take a quick 12 mile hike up to the summit of a trail I hadn’t walked before and my intent to stay overnight on a spot between two small hills which appeared relatively flat on my map. Glancing up at a board in his make-shift office which had weather information for different parts of the park, he quickly explained, “are you aware it is 2 degrees here and where you’re doing it will probably be around -10 with a wind chill of -20 or so”. Not fully digesting the numbers and being set on my mission, I quickly completed my backwoods permit (a requirement in the park) and began to hastily head towards he trail while dismissing the Ranger who I assumed received a call from my wife and was fully intent on talking me out of my weekend plans. Just as I started to pull away the Ranger said one more thing which I guess annoyed me more than anything. He said, “We’re expecting snow tonight and if there is even a hint of snow or ice on any part of the road within park boundaries, we close the road with gates. If you try to come out and the gates are closed, you’ll have to call a Ranger to open the gate and it might take him several hours or more to get to you depending on their other obligations and how many people we have on staff”. He gave me an (800) number and I drove off pondering the impact it would have on my schedule if I couldn’t get home on time Sunday evening and the even greater issue it would create if I couldn’t get to my job on Monday which required a nearly three hour drive north. Knowing that any snow predicted was minimal and exercising my God given male right to be pigheaded, I decided to press on. After all I figured, hitting the trail in such conditions would likely ensure I was the only one there and I’d hopefully get a chance to see and experience things which would otherwise disappear under the audience of others.

I understand survival enough to know that sweating in the cold is a quick way to freeze to death. Although it was cold, I knew I would be moving and generating enough heat to keep me warm which allowed me to wear minimal clothing. Being someone who takes pride in lightweight gear, I also wanted to keep my gear as light as possible and I even used the same lightweight pack I often use in the summer to ensure I didn’t bring any unnecessary redundant gear as it simply wouldn’t fit in my low volume pack. As I exited my car I was slapped quite abruptly in the face by the wind and the obvious cold numbed my entire core quite quickly. I put on my lightweight hat and gloves and pulled my 3 oz windbreaker shell over my single thin layer of merino wool and thin layer of capilene. I was wearing my Inov-8 Gore-Tex trail runners, a pair of eVENT gaiters, and a pair of eVENT pants. I felt both the gaiters and pants were overkill since there was no snow on the ground and I wasn’t likely to encounter any, but I figured they’d serve as a great windbreaker, contain some body heat because of the material, allow me to forego the need to carry rain/snow gear for my lower body, and I’d pretty much be prepared for sitting on anything even remotely moist. With the breathability of eVENT, I assumed it was a pretty decent choice.

It didn’t take long for my body to heat up and my lightweight ensemble kept me warm despite the fact that I probably looked like a Springtime jogger to anyone who might see me. I think my extremely lightweight wind jacket was likely my most functional piece of gear as without it I simply would have been unable to fight off the cold forced in by the wind. As I traveled down the Appalachian Trail looking at the frost and ice across the landscape and frozen ice shapes on anything which had the slightest moisture, I started to go through my conversation with the Ranger. At that time I realized I had incorrectly put the wrong entry point on my backcountry permit as I had deliberately added a few more miles to the trip by taking a more southerly route which would lead to the trail and would allow me some more time on the AT which I always enjoyed. For a little over three miles I walked until I incidentally came out at the parking lot which was listed on my permit as the trail picked up on the other side of the lot. Sitting in the otherwise empty parking lot was a Park Service truck with a Ranger sitting behind the wheel. As I past by him he leaned out the window and said, “are you the guy planning to summit that ridge over there (pointing to a white rock outcropping) and spend the night”. I acknowledged that my legacy indeed had apparently come full circle around the world and made it to his ears. He said, “You know it is a lot windier and colder up there than here and you’ll be very exposed. We also may need to shut the roads down.” I relived the same conversation I had with the previous Ranger, assured him that I’d be careful, and pressed on with a little more uneasiness now that I had two “professionals” clearly familiar with their own backyard doing their best to discourage me from attempting to spend the night.

I walked for another 6 miles or so enjoying the stillness of the forest although getting chilled here and there as my pace slowed or when hit with a particularly unfriendly gust of wind. I arrived where I intended and found the small flat area where I planned on spending the night as I found on my map during my pre-trip planning. Unfortunately, the area wasn’t too welcoming for camping as it was covered with basketball-sized or bigger stones in all different kinds of imposingly sharp positions. Disappointed that “my spot” was clearly uninhabitable and feeling particularly chilly now that I was completely exposed and on top of the mountain, I sat down and took off my pack to relax. I reached back for my water and quickly noted that it was almost completely frozen. My other bottle seemed to have faired slightly better, but was well on its way to freezing too and it would require me to puncture ice which formed around the spout area. I then glanced at my backpack and noticed a white substance on the back panel and along the waist belt. Touching it, I quickly figured out it was ice which formed from the sweat from my back. As I pondered the fact that it really WAS quite cold, I reached down to adjust my gaiter and noticed it was damp. I looked around as if expecting to see an icicle dribbling water on me, but instead I found the inside of my gaiter, the zipper, my eVENT pant leg, and the top of my sock were starting to freeze from my leg sweat. Doing a quick check, I also noticed my hat and and the back of my jacket (now separated from my pack) had ice crystals forming. Despite trying to wear as little as possible to prevent sweat, my minimal gear was still wet and consequently freezing. Probably the most awaking moment was when I noticed ice crystals forming on my liquid medication and liquid water treatment. Knowing full well to expect some level of freezing, I had most of these items very close to me so my body warmth would keep them from freezing. This plan clearly wasn’t working and now I was on the peak of a small mountain completely exposed to the elements, my clothing was freezing, there were no reasonable places to camp, and the sun was slowly starting to set.

Although my perceived machismo may have taken a hit as well as my desire to see the sunrise on a frosty morning, I made the decision to head for home. Instead of finishing the loop which would have me pushing deeper into the woods and across at least 3 bodies of water in unknown conditions, I decided to backtrack. Perhaps it was Mother Nature’s sense of humor, but the walk back seemed particularly cold and defeating. I added another layer on my top principally because I wanted to stay warm and I knew my other clothes were already wet which just made things colder. I also didn’t care at that point if they got wet since I knew I wasn’t staying.

Knowing your limits in any situation is important. Course, many folks don’t test their limits enough as all too often many give up on their dreams and things that require effort. I know of many people who decided to give up on hiking because they were too exhausted and their body hurt too much after a few hours. I sympathize and share the same frailties, but the human body does a masterful job in healing itself, becoming stronger and more efficient when it needs to, and by hurdling obstacles which seemed impossible in the past. I don't hike every day and even with a fairly decent workout regiment my body always hurts the day after a hike. In short, give it time, use your head, and you’ll live a more fulfilling life. I don’t take pride in leaving the trail, but it was the right decision. With each failure I learn and I learned a lot on this trip. If not learning about the sheer strength of the elements, the importance of selecting the right gear for the conditions, or the value of experience from Park Rangers, I learned how to shoot snot out of each nostril at rocket velocity which was a skill I had only marveled in disgust when I had seen others do it in the past. Live and learn.

1 comment:

samh said...

A humbling experience but one best learned with the safety of retreat. Thanks for sharing.