I’ve been doing some long training hikes recently to work myself back into trail shape after a nice break in Florida. Yesterday it was 29 degrees when I started a ten-mile hike on the AT from Route 60 east of Buena Vista to Cold Mountain. This is a familiar hike to me – I must have done it a dozen times – and it’s always a good test. The hike starts right off with a 2000 foot climb in two miles from Route 60 to Bald Knob. Then there’s a descent into Cow Camp Gap followed by another two mile climb to Cold Mountain, which on a clear day provides beautiful views from the bald.
Yesterday the weather wasn’t so beautiful (see photo below). At about 3000 I walked into the clouds and stayed there for the next several hours. While I lost the views, I did get to walk through areas where the cloud vapor had frozen to bushes and trees making for an eerie but beautiful sight. I tried to photograph it but there just wasn’t enough light to get a good shot.
The wind was blowing pretty strong from the east as a big Nor’easter rolled in which caused me to become creative with my Buff by using it as a balaclava to cover my face. I expected my breath to make the Buff cold on my face but it turned out to be very comfortable. I did get frost on my eyebrows though!
This was a good training hike that taught me (or reminded me) several important lessons:
1. Hiking in the cold and wind can slow you down. I had to stop more than usual to adjust my clothing – taking a layer off on the long uphill then putting it back on for the downhill and swapping my wool hat for a ball cap.
2. My Mountain Hardwear gloves work best without additional liners. The gloves are waterproof and have some sort of fiber lining and are very comfortable. I have tried using them with an additional liner but this seems to make my hands colder than without the liner. I’m not sure why this happens but it may be because the liners make the gloves fit tighter and does not provide room for air to circulate. I don’t understand the science involved but I think I’ll just use the gloves without liners. I like the fact that they’re waterproof so that my hands will stay dry when I’m walking in cold rain and using my poles. I should mention that my hands are my Achilles heel when it comes to cold weather. For some reason they get cold and numb at low temperatures, even when the rest of my body is comfortable. I have tried a lot of different combinations of gloves and mittens and there is no perfect option for me. The Mountain Hardwear gloves seem to work best and if I’m careful I can avoid getting cold hands. I know it seems like overkill but I hate having cold, numb hands.
3. My rain pants kept me warm and breathe just fine so I didn’t sweat under the pants. I wore my Patagonia rain pants over my shorts to test out a system that I had read about and I was very happy with it. The rain pants are not heavy but they are windproof and this helped keep me warm. Now I have to decide if I want to go with this system of rain pants over shorts or use convertible pants which seem to be very popular. My convertibles, which I like a lot, are water resistant but not waterproof and I’m concerned that they might get soaked in a long downpour.
4. My favorite socks, Smartwool lightweight ankle-high hiking socks, kept me warm and blister free, even in sub-freezing temperatures. These socks are shorter than regular hiking socks but deliver just as much protection for my feet. I was worried that my lower legs would get cold but the rain pants helped prevent that. I used similar socks on the Camino de Santiago and got zero blisters, even walking 26 miles in the rain over two days, so I have a lot of confidence in them. Plus, being shorter it is easier to field wash them.
5. As mentioned above, the Buff can effectively serve as a balaclava to protect my face from the wind. I have a Smartwool balaclava but I would like to use it for sleeping only. I think I will shop for a wool Buff and between that and the balaclava I’ll have face protection covered. I know this may not seem that important but when it’s cold and you’re walking across those windy mountain ridges, it can be really painful.
Overall I was very pleased with how I did on the hike. I covered ten miles with a lot of elevation gain in four and a half hours and felt strong at the end of the hike. I don’t want to be overambitious but I would like to start out covering fifteen miles per day on the AT. This may be too much but if my body can handle it, I’m going for it. If I have joint problems or start to develop blisters I’ll cut back.