Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Great Adventure

Alabama in May. It's nearly always sweltering by then; usually I've been mowing grass for a couple months already and daytime highs are in the upper 80s and lower 90s by then.

Monday, May 10th, 2010, however, didn't live up to expectation.

I went out that day for a 4-day loop in Bankhead NF, in the Sipsey Wilderness. I had been watching the weather forecast (from 3 or 4 sources) for a week, and had checked it a final time on Sunday evening. All 4 were calling for a light drizzle in the evening, followed by several days of sunshine and warmer temps. I packed accordingly. Instead of a light drizzle in the evening, however, it set in to an all-day soaking rain. I ended up hiking out that night because I was concerned I couldn't get warm with the equipment and supplies I had with me. By the time I made it to my pickup I was suffering from the first stages of hypothermia.

On the one hand, this is Alabama in May -- meaning, it should be hot and humid, not cold and wet. On the flip side, weather forecasts are not always accurate, and I won't always be hiking in Alabama, or only in May.

I had left the house very early Monday morning, failing to check the weather before I left, especially the radar. I'm no meteorologist, but I can read a weather map. Had I done so, I would have seen that rain was coming and made appropriate changes to my plan and/or gear.

I hiked about ten miles in the rain, and got soaked through. I think the wet vegetation soaked me more than the rain. I did have a rain coat, but I didn't put it on because I figured I'd be just as wet from sweat as I would be without it. Also, I kept thinking the rain would stop before long. The sun started to come out about 3PM, so I decided to make camp and try to dry out some. However, the wind picked up and the sun went back in. I simply couldn't get warm.

I had eaten a hot dinner and drank a cup of hot tea, and was huddling in my hammock, trying to get warm under the light fleece blanket I'd brought (remember, I'd packed for forecasted temps, not actuals). I had no cell service, so I couldn't get a weather forecast. So after lying there for 45 minutes or an hour, I finally decided to walk out.

It got really dark, really fast. By now the temps were dropping, and a wind sprung up and blew down the canyon I was in. I was warm and wet, compared to the air and ground around me, so I was putting off a fog. As long as I was moving, my fog bank blew out behind me. But whenever I stood still, it surrounded me and I couldn't see well.

I had a headlamp I'd just bought at Walmart. It and my raincoat (now being used as a windbreaker) were probably what saved me.

I walked back down the trail I'd come up. It was rough going; the trail was covered with blowdowns that the NFS would not allow to be moved (wilderness area rules). So I was having to break stride often to climb over some pretty huge trees that were down. There were also a bunch of stream crossings; I lost count before I was halfway done.

I just kept moving. I ate trail mix and drank water and just kept moving, knowing that to stop was to get too cold and then I'd be in serious trouble.

I'd been dreading those streams all day long. At one point, I'd had to cross a fairly large creek (maybe 50 yards wide and growing because of the rain), and it had been all I could do to get up the bank because of the mud. In fact, I'd had to climb up on my hands and knees and even then felt like I wouldn't make it. But I figured it was all behind me and that I'd just finish my loop and be ok. Well, coming back, I remembered that crossing and dreaded it the whole time.

I came around a bend and found my half-way point, Fall Creek Falls, just as the moon rose. The sky had cleared some, and the moon shone down on the falls, now roaring with all the runoff from the rain. It was absolutely, stunningly beautiful. That sight right there is what made the whole trip "worth it."

Along the way an owl (great horned, judging by his call) took interest in me and followed along behind me, hooting at me. It was a bit hair-raising, even though I knew exactly what it was.

I found a trail that parallelled the official trail, but on my side of the creek. So I didn't have to ford it in the dark. I lost the trail once in a big, rocky bare spot. But I found it within a few minutes on the other side. I got stuck up to my knees in quick sand a bit further along, but was able to get out without losing my shoes.

And then, from the gloom and my self-generated fog, I saw the bridge abutments that signaled I had made it. I climbed the steep bank, crossed the old FS road bridge, and made it back to my truck. I had walked 10 miles in just about 5 and a half hours or so. I'd walked 20 miles in total that day, twice what I'd planned on walking, and all of it through mud and rain and steep creek banks.

As I see it, I made four poor choices. The first was my clothing selection (although I am glad I was wearing pants instead of shorts, and I am glad I chose the shoes I did). Second was not checking the weather Monday morning before I left. Third was my quilt selection; it was perfect for most Alabama summer nights, but not for this trip. I should have taken my sleeping bag or an additional quilt. The fourth was that I didn't hole up early in the day and read and just wait out the rain.

Of those mistakes, the last three are all mental or planning issues, and I have learned from them so that I will not repeat them. The first one, clothing selection, is one I've learned from as well, and which will not get repeated. Now I have full rain gear (my Marmot Precip jacket is the best thing ever!), and I know about the dangers of cotton and the benefits of layering and taking a baselayer that stays clean and dry.

Oh, and it was the time of my life. I've been hooked ever since.

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