I have both observed and experienced several near misses with doom. Disaster, as defined by a thru-hiker, is any mishap that results in premature termination of the hike. These “showstoppers” strike swiftly, out of the blue, when you least expect them. While researching the AT, one is duly warned about the most popular and sexy showstoppers such as getting mauled and/or eaten by a bear, getting murdered by some wacko, or simply disappearing for undetermined reasons (lost? abducted? went to Jamaica instead?). The near misses I have personally experienced could have been just as effective as the popular showstoppers, but I’m afraid they were much less glamorous. They include: belly flop on a solid medium, self emulation, lemming imitation, and, last but not least, David and Goliath.
Belly flop on a solid medium:
We’ve all done them, usually unintentionally, off a diving board. They are not pleasant for the participant, but are strangely comical to observe. The sequence of events usually progresses from a confident strut down the board, followed by an enthusiastic leap to gain maximum height and perfect horizontal attitude, followed by a mid-air stall which locks the participant into this splayed position while the force vector changes from out to down, followed by a pitifully un-streamlined entry into the aqueous media. The collision between belly and water can be spectacular, producing a delightful noise, impressive splash and entertaining sounds and motions from the participant.
Now imagine a young but sadly overweight male hiker, staggering up a hill in the woods, toting a 50 lb pack. He employs trekking poles to aid his climb. These telescopic sharp metal sticks are strapped to each wrist of many hikers these days. They are as great an assistance as 4 wheel drive is in going up hills and in slowing descents as well. They counteract the downward force generated by the heavy pack and distribute the work to the shoulders and triceps instead of the knees.
The heavily burdened rotund young man finally tops the rise and begins his descent. Like a roller coaster he gradually picks up speed as the grade steepens. Unfortunately the novice hiker decides during the ensuing acceleration to adjust the length of his trekking poles. He goes on autopilot, takes his eyes off the trail, and disassembles his right pole, exposing several sharp tube rims that are usually tucked away while the poles are in use.
Water bars are both loved and hated by hikers. They are installed in the tread of the trail on slopes to deflect water. They prevent the trails from becoming streams during rainstorms and snowmelt. The water is deflected by the water bar, which looks like a miniature diagonal dam, off the downhill side of the trail. They also serve as slight obstacles to the hiker, who must step over them if he wishes to avoid tripping or prevent a painful toe stub. A launch pad helps to maximize the hiker’s speed, while a slight depression increases the probability of abrupt toe contact with a launcher. The launcher may be made of wood, rock or metal, and is often securely installed to prevent any cushioning effect to the toe of the hiker. The landing area is immediately downhill from the launcher and can incorporate rocks, slabs, or even stairs to make the landing more memorable.
Eyes diverted from the tread, our hapless hefty hiker topples forward as his left foot hits the depressed launch pad. He desperately swings his right leg forward to counter-balance, but the motion is abruptly thwarted by the launcher which, in this case, is made of rock slabs. Take-off is successful; the splayed horizontal attitude is achieved. Fortunately our aeronaut possesses the composure and skill needed to eject his trekking pole pieces on his way down. He sticks the landing almost perfectly on the fortunately benign landing area. The sound resembles that which one would expect to be produced by a collision between a tour bus and an adult water buffalo.
The hiker remains motionless, face down, pinned between his pack and the trail. Soon a moaning sound is emitted. The hiker gradually squirms into a kneeling position. “I think I broke my arm,” he moans. Remaining on his knees, he gingerly tests his range of motion as he breathes, “Thank you, Jesus, for not letting me break my arm,” several times. His friend, approaching from behind, proclaims, “I’ll give that one an 8.”
At the end of a long and successful day of hiking, Ben sets a pot on to boil on his homemade backpacker stove. It is made from a soda pop can and burns alcohol. He decides to lie down next to the stove while he waits for the soup to head. Reaching up to shift the pot slightly, he accidentally topples it. In a split second the tiny stove tips over, spilling ignited alcohol under his butt and catching his pants on fire. After frantically rolling and slapping at the flames, which are alarmingly close to vital areas, he succeeds in escaping doom with only second degree burns on his inner left thigh and some souvenir holes in his shorts. Ben is duly christened “Torch.”
It has been a long stormy day sporting rain, sleet, and searing winds. I hike wearing every piece of clothing I packed underneath my raingear. With the route on exposed rocky ridges where the AT crosses from Georgia into North Carolina and the temperature in the 30s, my only hope for staying warm is to keep moving. Toward the end of the day the rain stops, but the wind continues to roar like ocean surf. Visibility is minimal, and the view from the ridge is completely white. I struggle onward toward Muskrat Creek Shelter, hoping to collect some water and get out of the wind while I eat. Most shelters are located a ways off the AT on side trails marked by blue blazes.
Finally I spot a sign on the right that says “shelter.” On the left I see a blue blazed trail and follow its lead. The side trail follows a ridge through a tunnel of rhododendrons. After a puzzling quarter of a mile I begin to wonder how and why anyone would cart building materials for a shelter way out on such a rocky ridge. At last the trail emerges from the vegetative cover onto wet slippery boulders. Beyond the boulders I see nothing but white. I follow blue rectangles painted on the boulders and scramble to an edge where nothing more is visible. Should I lower myself over and feel with my feet for a ledge? I decide to check in the bushes beside the void for signs of a trail, but only succeed in obtaining a perfect nipple whip as a supple vine snaps back into place. OW!
I decide to sit down, eat a Poptart, and think things over. If the shelter is near, someone should come by or surely I would hear its occupants. After a silent meal, staring at the featureless horizon, I turn back and retrace my steps to the AT. On the ground across from the first blue blaze I see a dislodged sign that reads “Raven’s Roost.” I shudder as I imagine the height of the cliff I must have unknowingly courted as I explored the brink. Proceeding 10 yards down the AT, I see the shelter just 20 yards off the trail to the right. It is packed full of shivering Zombies. I check the data book and find no reference to Raven’s Roost. I attribute another near miss to the witch.
David and Goliath:
Protecting your food from bears is a big concern on the AT. I’ve met victims of bear thefts that occurred while food was hung in trees, and while food was stored in the shelters. A notorious bear bandit (or maybe it’s really a store clerk dressed as a bear) operates 2 miles north of Neel’s Gap. It’s an ideal spot for ambushing freshly resupplied hikers who decide to tent and eat some of their payloads. Although several hikers display insufficient food-hanging skills (I saw one pack full of food strapped three feet up a tree trunk, looking like the owner was preparing to burn it at the stake), the bear can pretty much nab anything hung. Another bear bandit strikes often at the shelter on Blood Mountain, which has no food hanging devices. Hikers tend to store food there in one room and sleep in a second room. The bear is quite satisfied with that arrangement. Enter bear, front door; exit hikers, side window.
In Yosemite National Park, hanging food is no longer considered effective. Also, contrary to what many AT hikers believe, black bears will not hesitate to invade your tent while you are in it if you keep food there. During the first leg of the AT, I tried hanging my food each night. Because I didn’t camp near shelters, I had to find a suitable hanging tree, one where I could hang my food bag 12 feet off the ground, 8 feet away from the trunk, and on a sturdy enough tree that a bear couldn’t shake it violently to get the food. The nightly food hanging ritual turned out to be a considerable source of risk. Most of the trees with nice hanging branches were too tall for me to be able to heft a rock tied to 50 feet of parachute cord over a branch and be able to reach both ends. This meant I had to tromp around through the brush at dusk, risking exposure to poison ivy. Once I finally found a suitable tree, the really risky part began.
There seems to be an infinite number of ways that one can clobber himself when tossing rocks up in the air. The rock can hit the branch for which you aim, and the tree responds by batting a line drive toward your face. Even when the rock clears the branch it can swing back towards you like a deadly pendulum, as you stand admiring your achievement, and whack you upside the head. If you are fortunate enough to duck the roundhouse, the rock can continue on, looping over the branch again, fashioning a nice clove hitch around it and making the line very difficult to retrieve.
Night by night, I became familiar with more of the endless possibilities for failure where food hanging is concerned. After one particularly long day on the trail, I set about once again to secure my foot at twilight. I selected a rock, kind of sharp but the correct weight, tied one end of the cord to it, and stepped through the brush to a nearby perfect-looking hanging tree. My first toss towards a high branch appeared successful, but I soon realized that the rope was too close to the trunk. Grabbing both ends, I tried to pull the rope and slide it farther out on the limb, but the limb was much too rough. “Ok,” I thought, “I’ll just pull it down and try again.” Unfortunately I decided to pull the end of the cord without the rock, requiring the rock end to rise up, slide over the branch, and drop over. Not smart. I backed away from under the branch, pulling the rope and watching the rock float up toward the branch – very amusing if you haven’t had access to a TV for a few weeks. Then the rock lodged firmly against the branch, refusing to pop over it or even slide back down when I reduced tension. Irritating. “Maybe just a little tug,” I thought. It turns out there is considerable elasticity in parachute cord. My bear hanging device instantly transformed into an uber-slingshot. The rock whizzed past my head at blinding (literally) speed. I felt a searing pain as the trailing cord rasped my eye and eyelid. Visions of myself lying under the tree with a sharp rock protruding from my eye socket danced in my head all night. I called Sarah, who would be joining me soon, and asked her to bring me my bear vault – a bear proof container that weighs 2.5 lbs. No more fun and games with stone-age weapons for me!
As the first days on the AT slowly turn into weeks, I hear of more and more fellow hikers succumbing to hike-terminating injuries: knee strains, back problems, falls, and other mistakes that hit like a bolt of lightning from the clear blue Appalachian sky, especially when the hiker is weary. The best prevention? Train before the hike or at least don’t push it too hard during your first few weeks. Stay attentive; keep your eyes on the trail when in motion, and most of all, try to learn from the near misses you encounter.