[at-l] 4 days in '97 when hypothermic

RockDancer rockdancer97 at comcast.net
Sun Feb 26 07:56:31 CST 2012


This morning I got to thinking about the perils of hiking alone in cold
weather, esp. thinking of my '97 thruhike when, looking back, I exhibited
surprising lack of judgment. I humbly admit to being caught in the late
season rush to Katahdin although at the time (and even years later) I would
only say that I was trying to do the hike "right". That meant trying to
enjoy each day for the views and lessons it offered, and to resist the
temptation to Flip even though I knew by Sept. 20 I didn't have much chance
to reach Katahdin before Oct. 15. Here are the 4 entries from my journal
where I censored the fact that I was hypothermic to some degree during the
day. My new notes in parens for each day. --RockDancer

September 20 - Carter Notch Hut (Day 180 ~ milepoint 1845.9)
A wonderful welcome here at the hut after a cold, wet, windy, strenuous
hike. I arrived slightly dazed by the experience and was greeted by Gold
Thumb who had lots of questions for me! He was certain I was ahead of him,
so "what happened?". I told him the stories of my tent repair, sleeping
behind the Ragged Mountain Store, the hitch to North Conway, etc. As I
finished I remarked that I needed to eat something warm & get something to
drink. Next I hear one of the Boston AMC group invite me to supper with them
- pasta with meatballs, bread & ice tea! Cards after supper, conversation
about Boston Chapter members we know, and then lights out at 9:30 p.m.
Cold in the bunkroom tonight but much better than sleeping outside. The
lakes nearby had a cold, forbidding appearance as I came by, not the cool,
refreshing look they have on a hot, summer's day.
Latknee, the caretaker, did a great job answering questions and helping
organize the cooking & cleaning up. Then he just blended into the
background, quietly knitting a new wool stocking cap.
(Goldthumb remembers me arriving at the hut differently. I was slow in
speaking, moving only stiffly. He acted to get me inside, into dry clothes
and stayed with me until I came around. I hadn't sunk too deeply into the
cold though and didn't have the drunken behavior or the unrelenting
shivering as I warmed up.)

September 23 - Gentian Pond Shelter (Day 183 ~ milepoint 1872.9)
The trail today is the last section that I've hiked in previous years. Each
time this happens I seem to gain memories or renew them - of who I was with,
our goals, and a snapshot of who I was at the time. Today was no exception.
I remember that dayhike as a fine, Fall day with this shelter as our lunch
stop. I explained to my group the network of shelters stretching back to
Georgia and encouraged them to read the register and look for messages being
passed forward and back. One long entry was a goodbye present from a Brit to
his fellow hikers, a long poem about the primitive "blue wode warriors" of
Britain. There were many Thank You's in reply to his writing this down, he
had recited it for many.
I thought how it would be for me to travel so many miles, on foot, with new
friends, and now be approaching the end. How to say goodbye? Now I'm here
and forced to do my best.
Rain, cold, mud today doesn't diminish the beauty of these woods. But
reminds me that very cold times will occur soon and I should move as quickly
as I can.
Heard a moose today, snorting like a horse and then clomping away from me.
My head was down and the rain hood blocked my view, all I saw were the
branches swaying back into place.
(Spent the cold night alone & mostly awake in the shelter tucked away
sitting in the best corner in dry clothes, in sleeping bag, wrapped in the
body of my tent. On arrival I was shivering in a very exaggerated way. It
was hard to handle the operating of my stove, a canister type, but made
soup, hot drinks and nursed myself along.)

September 29 - Bemis Mountain Lean-to (Day 189 ~ milepoint 1921.7)
Here's what I wrote in the register: "Resting here this afternoon after a
cold, wet morning. Not sure what's wrong but I needed to get out of my wet
clothes and into my sleeping bag to warm up. Now, 3 hours later, I feel ok,
but it's still rainy and cold and windy so I'll call it a 5 mile day."
I've had time, for the first time, to really read the register and absorb
what each of us GA->ME folk is doing/has done. I'm in awe of how each hiker
is not just pluggin' along, but finding joy/peace/beauty even at this late
stage of our journey. You are all wonderful folk! I don't know how you've
kept your sense of humor through it all! It's a lesson I'll remember.
I've read notes from about 30 hikers who've passed me, dating back to 7/24 -
that's over 2 months man! Brother Paul leads the pack. And your notes have
reminded me of our time together, however brief. I'm glad you've stayed with
the trail.
I still hope to catch Rhymin' Worm, Hiker Ned & Sweet Pea, Mossman & Tonic,
Trail Snail, 180 degrees, One Hit, Skeeter & Osgood. But mostly I hope to
finish the trail "right". Whatever that means.
(The temp was just below 40 but the rain was punishing all morning. I
decided to "hike wet" knowing that the heat I generated was compensating for
the cooling effect. There was no wind along the protected trail but I would
get episodically cold when crossing rocky outcrops. The day was only 4.8
miles because I was only stopping for lunch. My lunch break became scary
when the shivering hit & I retreated to dry clothes and my sleeping bag. It
was 3 hours before the shivering stopped. All along I was feeding myself,
making soup and hot drinks. When the shivers stopped I was out of trouble
but the rain was continuing and the thought of putting on wet clothes was
anathema.)

October 2 - Poplar Ridge Lean-to (Day 192 ~ milepoint 1950.2)
The wind was blowing a steady 50 mph with gusts up to 60. The temperature
was mild though, around 35, so the wind chill was only around -15 degrees F.
Snow had plastered all the rocks so the white blazes were all hidden from
view, so I had to find the cairns that mark the trail and follow them. As I
made my way over Saddleback today, the 3 miles of above-treeline hiking, I
remembered that if I stop or lose the trail I really could die under these
conditions.
But it all went smoothly. I took my time to make certain I stayed on the
trail, ducked down behind rocks a couple of times to rest and have a snack,
and when I couldn't find the trail made methodical circles until I came
across it. Met no one else up there today.
The wind tore open both pockets on my jacket and I lost my handkerchief.
Otherwise I was fine, but a bit drained, from the experience. As I descended
the Horn of Saddleback the cloud cover broke open and gave a dazzling
display of bright, white ice contrasted against the garish Fall red, yellow
and orange hillsides. Spectacular Day!
Met Charlie Brown, a south bounder, here at the shelter. Nice guy - I wished
he was heading north.
(Charlie Brown came into the shelter about 4 hours after I arrived. By that
time I was well on my way to recovering from the day. It was similar in
feeling to my Sept. 20 hike but here, again, I can't tell how far gone I
was. My mental sense was along the lines of "I'm in trouble, be sure to do
everything right, this is important, you have to get dry and get warm". )

Me again: The insidious thing about hypothermia is how we can be taken
without knowing, and that our internal sense of "Danger, Danger" will be
diminished as you sink deeper and deeper into the cold. There is a point,
however, where we cannot rescue ourselves. That could be from lack of
physical ability to change clothes, seek shelter, prepare food; but it can
also arrive because we no longer sense the danger. There are only a few
anecdotes of those who rescue themselves from deep hypothermia. Read the
story of Beck Weathers and the 1996 Everest disaster, for a miracle story.
For a story of suicide by hypothermia in the White Mountains look up the
story of Guy Waterman. His death was off the AT, on the north summit of Mt.
Lafayette.

Arthur D. Gaudet
RockDancer on the Appalachian Trail
Rockdancer97 at comcast.net








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