This article appeared in the February 1994 issue of the Potomac Appalachian, the club's newsletter.
Occasionally, even the most experienced hiker will make an error in judgement. I've been walking the trails in Shenandoah National Park ever since I was a young boy, and I suppose over the years, I've gotten lazy about mapping out my hikes before I start. But December 11th was the last time I'll be lazy again. It was a day of reckoning for me, and one which reminded me of the lessons I had learned over the years about hiking in the winter.
I had wanted to get into the woods for a number of weeks, but my schedule didn't allow me to make my escape until we were well into the Christmas season. I had a good excuse - Steve Bair, the North District Ranger wanted to talk over some Guidebook changes, so I figured it would be a great chance to fit in a little play with a little work. I got a late start in the morning and didn't arrive at the Thornton Gap entrance station until 11:00. By 11:15, I was chatting with Steve at the Piney River Ranger Station. As informal chats will go, our conversation continued a bit longer than I had planned. I didn't step out of the Ranger station until 12:00. By 12:15, I was heading down the Jeremy's Run Trail for an extended circuit hike that would take in Knob Mountain, Neighbor Mountain, and a walk back along the AT to the Elkwallow Picnic Area. It was a blustery winter day - a azure blue sky and windy conditions. It was good to be out, and considering it was the Christmas season, I literally had the entire trail circuit to myself. By 1pm, I was on top of the Knob Mountain Ridge, and after an additional mile of walking, decided to sit down for lunch. Since it was nearly winter, I had brought along a high energy bar and a thermos of hot water and hot chocolate mix in addition to the sandwich and piece of pie I ate for lunch. I had learned from a very long day of backpacking in Olympic National Park that some extra food eaten later in the day can give you a quick energy boost. The thermos of hot water and hot chocolate was a simple luxury I decided to take along on this very cold and windy day.
By 2:45, after hiking an additional mile or so, I reached the summit of Knob Mountain, which in the two years since I had last visited, was now covered with a stand of very dead oak trees - victims of the gypsy moth infestation. As I read the mileage on the concrete post, I was surprised to learn that the trail segment down to Jeremy's Run was 3.3 miles, which was about 2 miles longer than I had originally expected. At that point, it would have been prudent to pull out the map and check the route, but I felt confident that even if I got down to Jeremy's by 4:00, I could head up Jeremy's Run and be back to my car before it was REALLY dark. And even if it did get dark, a walk by moonlight up Jeremy's would not be a disappointing end to a full day of hiking. I pressed on.
By 4:10, I had reached the stream crossing of Jeremy's Run, and it was then that I realized the walk back to my car was going to be much longer than expected. The hike up Neighbor was well over 4 miles, with more along the AT. The walk directly up Jeremy's Run was about 5.2 miles. It now seemed certain that I would be hiking in the dark, and for a much longer distance than I had originally planned. It wasn't long before I was reminded that the trail up Jeremy's Run makes numerous stream crossings, which thanks to the recent and plentiful rains, was now flowing at a vigorous rate. It was going to be an interesting walk out. I starting thinking about the resources I had brought in my pack. The hike so far had left me moist with perspiration, but as usual, I had the foresight to throw an extra pile pullover into the pack for extra insulation. Since it was windy, I had also thrown in a pair of Gore-tex pants too. This was in addition to the pile pants, Capeline shirt, pile pullover, Gore-tex shell, and pile hat and gloves I was wearing. Cold was not going to be a big problem, even though I was little wet. There was some extra food too - the high energy bar and the hot chocolate. At the last minute, I had also grabbed the daypack with the emergency flashlight. And in a pocket with the flashlight was a butane lighter.
By 5:20, it was starting to get truly dark in the hollow. The trail up Jeremy's Run was now just a shadow in the dark, and my eyes strained to make out the difference in grey between the route and the surrounding forest. By 5:30, complete and total darkness had enveloped the valley. It was pitch black. My eyes wandered to the ridge to the east, straining to make out the first faint glow of the rising moon. It was a glow that would never materialize. December 11th was a time for the new moon, and no terrestrial planet would light my path back to the car. I pulled out my Tekna lithium cell flashlight and twisted the top, praying my one cell salvation would see me through. The torch reluctantly flickered to life with a weak yellow beam. It was fortunate the Tekna had a lithium cell. Lithium batteries have a 10-year shelf life, and the flashlight had been in my pack for at least 5 years, seeing only occasional use. I wondered how much life was left in the cell. I still had over three miles to go. As I munched on the high energy bar, I started to consider the possibility of spending the night in the woods. However, this thought didn't concern me too much. I could build a fire if need be, put on my extra clothing, sip my hot chocolate, and wait for daybreak. It wouldn't be the best night I spent in the woods, but I could get by.
In the end, I was lucky. My flashlight battery held out (barely), and at 7:10 I was back at the car celebrating my good fortune with cup of hot chocolate. But luck had only been part of my success - I had prepared properly for this walk and had the necessary tools available to get by in case something happened. First, I had the good foresight to put an emergency flashlight in my daypack many years ago, and this light had a battery that would not lose strength for many years. Second, I had planned conservatively and carried extra clothing. Since late autumn is cold, I also made a decision to carry extra food and was willing to carry the extra weight of a thermos. I had an emergency butane lighter in my pack, so I could start a fire to keep warm. Finally, I had left a note with my room-mate letting him know where I was going, and what route I intended to hike. Some hikers pack for what they will use for the day - smart hikers plan for more. In the end, my experience was just a minor error in judgement. If I had been less conservative in my planning before the trip, or less experienced, I could have died in that hollow. Could I have devised an emergency signal in some way? Wouldn't have mattered. In the winter, the Park locks the Northern District of the Park. No one was on the Skyline Drive.
Let this serve as a reminder to everyone who enjoys the beauty of the winter woods. Plan smart - live long. Because even if you make a mistake in the backcountry, proper preparation can give you a cushion of safety and the chance for survival.
- Andy Hiltz