I recently undertook a monthlong, 500 mile hike of the Appalachian Trail through Virginia. I returned home after just a week and about 80 miles with a broken toe and frostbitten fingers.
A week ago Friday, the forecast for the southwest corner of VA was highs in the fifties and lows in the thirties. The historical averages are in the sixties and high thirties. I stepped off a bus in Marion, VA to twenty degrees and thought, “Huh?”
I hiked up and over Mount Rogers in a forest of glass. Wind, water and cold had conspired to coat the trees in gleaming ice. They chimed in the wind and refracted all the colors of the prism in the dim light. I postholed through snow drifts, hunted for the trail, and was dazzled. That first quad burning day in wonderland made the whole trip worthwhile.
By the third day I had yet to see a temperature above thirty five, and the nights were dropping into the teens. It rained that day. I came equipped for rain, snow, or cold. It was all good. On top of some mountain, I had a cell signal and a voicemail from the BSW that a storm was moving in. I was miles from even a road, and it was late afternoon. I sprinted, as much as an out of shape, fat guy with a thirty pound pack can sprint, four miles to a shelter. I figured it was my best recourse. AT shelters are three walls and a roof, nothing more.
What I was not equipped for was a deluge followed by a blizzard. All my gear and clothing were soaked; either from rain or perspiration under my rain gear. As the wind built to a crescendo and the snow reached whiteout, I bushwhacked a quarter mile down a fifty degree slope to a stream. I didn’t have time for delicacy, and I needed water so I submerged my hand and water bladder in the icy flow. Then, I crawled up out of the gash.
I set up my tent inside the shelter figuring any insulation was a good thing. The temperature was seventeen degrees. I peeled off my wet layers of clothing, pulled on a tshirt, nylon shorts and down vest, which were the only dry clothes I had, crawled in my bag, and ate a package of tuna by the light of my headlamp. My water bottle was too cold to keep in my bag with me, and I knew it would freeze, so I drank most of it.
Equipped for cold is relative. I was prepared for conditions far worse than the forecast or the norm. In a twenty degree bag and a pair of shorts, I was not equipped for cold that broke hundred year records. I got a fire going, burning my maps to get it started, but the wind, soaked wood and snow colluded to prevent it from ever becoming useful. Still, that first night was uncomfortable but not unbearable. The wind screamed. Now and then I stuck my face out of my bag and tent to watch the snow piling.
The morning broke at fifteen degrees. My clothing and gear were frozen solid. My pants stood up by themselves. I propped them against the shelter wall, but I couldn’t get my fingers to manipulate the camera buttons to take a picture. I decided the saftest route was waiting it out.
I stayed in my sleeping bag for thirty six hours. The second night was far worse. I was too cold to bother checking the thermometer on my pack. Getting out of my sleeping bag was unbearable so I didn’t melt snow so I was getting dehydrated. I tried to choke down energy bars to keep the body engine burning.
The next morning arrived in cold and gloom, and I decided I needed to get off the mountain. I literally pried my pants and fleece apart to put them on. My hat and gloves were frozen bricks so I hiked out with a tshirt wrapped on my head and socks on my hands. I hiked four miles to a road, about ten miles down that road and then was fortunate enough to catch rides with a cattle rancher and then a meth head.
There is a mental health connection to all this. Those who know me, or who’ve read my latest novel, were concerned about this trip and probably skeptical of my motivation. At any point during the thirty six hours of misery, I could have unzipped my sleeping bag just a few inches, waited for the shivering to subside, and enjoyed the warmth of delirium. It never crossed my mind. The wilderness is my altar.
My point is how we address the mentally ill. My last therapist had me go to a rose garden. It was pretty, but it didn’t change my outlook. She would have shit twice if I told her I was going on a 500 mile solo hike. Yet, the real fear of death I experienced did more for my mental well being than any number of hours of therapy. In my efforts to remain alive, I never had one suicidal thought.
I’m not a psychologist. I am a patient. In my opinion, the industry has codified what they’ve found to be common risks (solitude, distancing, disengagement, etc) and apply their standard prescriptions to all patients. For me, they’re precluding exactly what I need. I am safest, at least from myself, out in the woodline. How many other patients are told not to spend time alone when really all they want is some fucking peace and quiet?
I’m Darren. I have a mental illness….and numb fingers.