In 2009 I hiked the Appalachian Trail, 2178 miles from Georgia to Maine. During that time I got wet and I got cold. Day after day, especially in the spring. Starting March 29th, I woke to a frosty tent and a thermometer reading of 17° F. What the HELL, I’m in Georgia! Even with rain nearly every day, and temperatures in the 20s to 40s many days, I never got hypothermic.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. My girlfriend and I went to Seattle, and planned a weekend trip around Mother Mountain Loop. We started very early in the morning with a visit to the ranger station to check in and get the wilderness pass, on the way to the station we got to see this amazing bridge that was high above the river below.
Then we drove another 45 minutes along a dirt forest service road, thanks rental car, to get to Mowich Lake which would be the start and end point for our journey. The first day would be the longest day at 9 miles since the campsite at 7 miles in was reserved. The temperature was in the high 60s and fairly foggy but not rainy.
A few miles in we get to this nice waterfall where we also filtered out some water since we had already drank a liter each, and have a small snack before continuing. The trees had been drizzling drops on us for a bit so we had our rain jackets on. We continued up the trail, and it started going up. Switch back after switch back. During the day I had lost track of time and had no idea it was passing noon until my girlfriend was asking to stop for lunch. Great idea! A break would be useful since we had been walking nearly nonstop for three-and-a-half hours. Where is our step counter when we need it?
I begin looking for a place to sit and eat, but the trail is climbing up the side of the mountain with the slope too steep to setup anywhere except the middle of the trail. So we kept on walking a bit further until we found the perfect lunch spot, a stream, slight tree coverage and even a log perfect for two to sit.
Then I went to relieve myself, and nearly walked into the bear pictured here. I backed away slowly, while watching it munch on berries and pointed it out to my girlfriend. The bear didn’t seem to notice us at all, we were not overly quiet upon our approach to the spot, and I made sure we talked loudly enough to be heard, but not startling, and the bear didn’t even look up. Must have been some tasty berries. So without unpacking we tossed our packs on and kept moving up the trail.
We were now in the meadows, with very limited tree coverage and about 15 minutes up the trail we saw a reasonable spot, but for whatever reason, that I will never understand, we moved on and continued looking for a better spot. Soon there were no trees and the misty fog cloud we were in started drizzling which made sitting down in a meadow very unpleasant, still in hindsight we should have stopped. The climb upwards continued. Without a solid reference point, and the unfamiliar walking pace, there was no perception of how close or far we were from the top or next camp site.
So on we walked.
The meadows and terrain became more rocky, the wind started picking up, and visibility was still about 500-1000 feet at best. It was clear we could not stop for lunch or a break here, it would be too cold, and we’d get wet. I told my girlfriend it would only get worse before it got better. We would have to get over the top, then descend towards trees. Our pace slowed on the way up, probably lack of food, so I dug out some snacks to eat while walking. I started leading as the trail become slightly difficult to follow, no direct clear path like in the meadows, but thankfully the many cairns helped.
The rain and wind however had other plans, it had been windy for awhile, but only mild sprinkles for rain, but that ramped up into a moderate rain storm which combined with the wind was hitting us from all sides. Our pants were soaked, rain dripping down our backs, we got wet. Really wet. Finally saw a rock with “top” on it, 6400ft. And started descending the other side. Our pace was slowing further, and we were getting cold. We got a little grouchy with each other for a few minutes and I didn’t put much thought into the moment. Mostly because it was clear we needed a break, but haven’t had a spot to take one.
About 15 minutes later, still no sign of tree-line, it became evident the thing to do was setup camp. Puddles of water were everywhere, and certainly going to grow with this rain. I found a perfect spot to stop and took off my pack and started setting up the tent. The buckles on my backpack were quite challenging to operate, fingers were busy protesting. Our two person tent was the larger version of the solo tent I used on the Appalachian Trail, which was a bit lucky for this particular situation, moderate-heavy rain and wind, since I could set it up quickly and easily even without help, and the extra hands would make it easier. As soon as the tent was up I told her to take off the wet clothes and get in the tent. Her response was “I don’t know how to do that.”
Immediately the situation became remarkably clear that she was in a hypothermic state, much more severe than anticipated. I knew we were cold. She did manage to get the wet clothes removed and into the tent where I was handing in the items left and right, trying to make sure to grab absolutely everything we would need. It took an hour or longer for us to warm up.
That night the wind and rain got really intense, the tent poles made some stress sounds I’ve never heard before but remained up. My sleeping bag got soaked during the night since the tent was puddling with water and dripping on my side (wind) but we both remained warm. In the morning we back tracked out the way we had come because everything was too wet and we were using our dry layer to stay warm on the way out.
How it happened
I think the whole situation happened for the very simple reason of not stopping for lunch before going over. This break would have allowed our energy to lift as well as add fuel to our bodies to keep going up and over and stay warmer. The slower pace played a role as well, since our bodies didn’t generate heat like I was accustomed to on the AT, so I’ll be adding an additional heavy wet layer item to our hiking kit, but I think had we eaten lunch the entire situation would have been avoided. Why did we pass the lunch spot we found after the bear?
Don’t be afraid to bail out of a situation before it gets out of control.