Winter hiking is challenging. Over the President’s Day weekend I found out how challenging it can be.
I haven’t done an “away” hike in a while, and on researching places to visit and stay I came across the Route 501 shelter on the Appalachian Trail. Unlike most AT shelters, its close to the road, and also unlike most shelters, its fully enclosed. True, its not heated, but I wanted to try winter camping anyway. And according to maps and conversations with other hikers the AT is relatively flat north and south of the road crossing. Add in the fact my friend Robert Myallis is Pastor at nearby Zion Lutheran and I found a way to make a weekend of it. I’d hike, drive down the mountain to attend services, and camp at the shelter.
A complicating factor came from the sky. Three more snowstorms dumped over a foot of powder on the trail. And while PENNDOT cleared the roads, the trail would still be snowed over. A friend who lives nearby hiked the trail a couple of days before I arrived as a favor for me, breaking the snowcover. But still I knew it would be a lot of work hiking in it. On the recommendations of a few friends I purchased Kahtoola Microspikes for my boots. I’m old enough to remember when people put chains on car tires for added traction, and these work the same way,,, but with added ‘spikes’ to grip on snow and ice. Another product along the same lines are YakTraks but the Microspikes have a much better reputation among outdoor people.Yes, the Microspikes cost a little more, but I felt I got value for money.
The third snowstorm came through on Saturday morning, and so I delayed my trip 24 hours. While I don’t mind hiking in snow I’m not fond of driving in it, and because I’d been away from home for a few days because of the previous storm I didn’t have my gear assembled.
Sunday morning I headed to Jonestown, PA. I attended services at Zion Lutheran, chatted with my friend the pastor, watched him do a double-take when I said I was going to camp in sub-freezing weather, and left. It was about 12:30 when I arrived at the trailhead parking lot on Route 501. Already snow was melting, and the lot was a sea of mud.
I changed clothes in the front seat of the car. In retrospect I’m not sure this was the wisest move – what if someone parked next to me, and wondered why a fat guy was undressing? But the lot was empty, and its a non-scale victory that I could change from a suit to hiking gear in a few minutes.
As far as what I DID wear, here is the list: a rabbit-fur lined hat with ear flaps from Cabella’s. A Columbia fisherman’s shirt. My Cabella’s “Guidewear” hiking pants. My Asolo boots with the Microspikes and foot warmers. My heavy winterweight jacket, I don’t know who makes it and I’ve had it so long the label’s faded. And my Descente winter cycling gloves. I had planned to change into winter baselayers but it was so warm out and breezeless I stuck with the underwear and socks I’d worn to church.
The trailhead parking lot is on the north side of the road. I crossed, the Microspikes feeling very odd under my feet. But once we were on the trail I didn’t notice them at all. Between the white blazes, the sign of the Appalachian Trail, and the footprints my friend Mark left I had no trouble following the path. Going was slow, but my sense of wonder was growing. Already I could see ahead what I came up here for.
The Kimmel Overlook, or Lookout, or Vista, or whatever you want to call it, gives a southerly view of the entire valley. And its only a tenth of a mile from the parking lot. The AT dips down a small hill to the edge of the overlook. I felt more confident knowing I had better traction on my feet, as the snow was very packed here.
But the snow wasn’t so packed that I didn’t have slow going. The biggest problem for me is what other hikers call “postholing.” I would be walking along on packed snow powder, and suddenly the snow would give way under my foot. This was jarring to me, and made my progress on the trail slow.
Between the postholing and the generally slow progress of hiking through a foot of snow I’d decided to skip camping. I knew no matter how far I hiked today I’d be too tired, and possibly too stiff, to hike tomorrow. So after a mile I turned around.
The trip back over the same ground I’d just walked wasn’t any easier. While the trail was beautiful, and the overlooks breathtaking, I kept postholing and struggling up and down the rises the AT is known for. Going down was the hardest, as I have a fear of falling, and looking down triggers it.
Finally, back at the Kimmel Overlook, it happened. Why I don’t know, but I began to lose my balance. I frantically jabbed my hiking poles into the snowpack and stepped back with my right foot to try to stop falling. I felt my ankle turn. Yes, the Microspikes and poles had helped me from tumbling down the face of the overlook, but I now had an injury.
I took my time hiking out. Fortunately it was a tenth of a mile, and the ankle hadn’t swollen. I thought nothing of the ankle turn. I’d suffered them before and I’d probably have them again. But this turn was different. When I walked or applied weight I had pain in my heel, and soreness in the back of the ankle. When I had problems walking at the game dinner that night at Zion Lutheran I began to think I had something more serious than a simple turn. When I arrived home and couldn’t walk from the car to the house I knew I had a problem. I drove myself to the Emergency Room at my local hospital, and used a hiking pole as a crutch to get in the door.
The diagnosis after xray and examination is that I don’t have any broken bones, but probable soft tissue damage. I’m on crutches and wearing a protective hard-soled ‘boot’ for the near future. I don’t expect to be out of action for long, and I’m already planning hikes and rides once I am able to get back outside. Shoes like the one on the left look much better in pairs, and I want to get the pair of them dirty from a hike.