Submitted September 9, 2010

Twilight was now upon me and the coldness seemed worse than ever

I don't know what made me decide to go up into the mountains on that warm March afternoon. Maybe it had been the string of successful and highly enjoyable excursions into the wild on many previous weekends that made me feel comfortable enough to pack up all my camping gear and strike out for the trail head. I had done it numerous times, headed home from work on a Friday afternoon and during the ride convinced myself that I needed a weekend in the woods on the beautiful Appalachian Trail. A weekend comprised of no cell phones, computers, printers or fax machines. No din of a proposal team scrambling to meet a near impossible deadline and blood pressure elevating time tables. Just pure air, stars, a campfire and wilderness. Usually I hiked with my buddy but he had other things to do this particular trip and would not be going with me.

As I wound down South Mountain on the highway towards my home, I made a mental list of the things I would need. It was particularly warm that afternoon, almost 72 degrees in the city, the sky was clear blue and some buds were just beginning to appear on the trees. The sun was making a lazy descent on its way behind the westward mountain range warming my face and making me squint slightly as I drove. It felt good and I had a good feeling about my decision to camp. I had to pull it off quickly however if I were to reach my campsite by sundown. I had a headlamp for night travel but didn't particularly enjoy setting up my camp in darkness unless it was absolutely necessary. I decided not to take the headlamp.

I was pretty convinced that my skills as an outdoorsman were sufficient to keep me safe and sound on a solo trip. After all, I was the best fire-builder out of numerous friends who also considered themselves relatively handy in the bush. I had grown up being near to the trail as a kid. My Dad owned about 80 acres of mountain land and we would routinely hike up to the property every chance we got, sometimes spending the weekend in a canvas tent. We had to cook all our food on an open flame in cast iron pots or skillets. It wasn't easy hauling all that heavy stuff up into the mountains but it served to strengthen our bodies and our resolve. My Dad had taught my brothers and I how to properly build a fire first by using tinder, then graduating to small twigs, wrist sized sticks and then logs when the whole thing was going strong. It was some of the most fun I can ever remember having in my youth and I was proud of my ability to maintain the source of warmth, light and heat for cooking.

Perhaps I could get away with light clothing and my summer weight sleeping bag with the other incidentals that I normally packed in I mused. Food was easy, two bags of Rice dishes, a can of tuna, a few granola bars, some instant oatmeal and of course, coffee and hot chocolate. Normally I would carry in two quart size Lexan water bottles for immediate use and consumption on the trail to the camping area. Once there, I would take my water filtering device down to the spring and refill, or simply boil the water for ten minutes if I were using it for cooking or hot drinks. My tent would sleep 4 people and that would give me plenty of room for my extra clothes and any other gear I needed to keep inside. It also had a nice vestibule in which to keep my shoes and cooking gear in case of wet weather.

I had a self inflating mattress, cook set, propane lantern and stove to also think about. Rounding out my gear was a first aid kit, flashlight, folding wood saw, Swiss army knife, fixed blade survival knife, a small folding dung shovel and finally my trusty camp hatchet. Yep, I was all set. As far as I could see, there was nothing more that would be useful. Once home I scrambled to get my gear into my pack and ready to travel. I became indecisive about my clothing and sleeping gear. I wanted to travel light but had the nagging feeling that I should follow my instincts and layer as if it would get much colder than I anticipated. I also decided that I would take my zero degree sleeping bag in favor of my summer weight bag which only covered to about forty degrees. If I got too warm, I'd just have to vent the bag or lay on top of it. Better safe than sorry, or worse, hypothermic.

Just as I was leaving for some strange reason, I decided to take my cell phone with me. In my haste I had let no one know what my plans for the weekend were. I would call a friend on the way to the trail head and leave notice of my intentions. Then, I could ditch the phone in my car. I doubted that I would have service up on the trail anyway.

Soon I had loaded my internal frame pack into my vehicle and headed up Route 40. 42 pounds packed weight was a considerable amount to haul up through the woods, especially in the spring time. However, I felt I was up to the physical challenge. I was losing light fast and would have to hike the five miles in as fast as I could possibly go. The challenge was exciting and my adrenaline was pumping. A weekend in the woods by my self was appealing, a regular test of my mettle as a camper. A big grin crossed my face as I hoisted the pack onto my back, snugged it in, engaged the buckles and set out for the hills. I had forgotten to call my friend in my haste and decided to take my phone with me in the off chance that I would have enough signal to call her from camp.

I knew that as I hiked I could shed layers if need be. I had enough sense to wear thermal pants under my jeans. My torso was also encased in a thermal under-shirt, fleece sweater and finally a heavy weave vent-able nylon shell. A woven acrylic knit cap topped my head to further conserve body heat. I packed an extra pair of thermal socks and wore my favorite mid-weight hiking boots. I fully expected to have to take off the shell as I hiked. I usually knew at the first sign of perspiration that I would need to adjust so that I wasn't soaking wet when I got to my destination. A dangerous situation at best if the temperature dropped suddenly.

As I crested the first ridge I noticed the air rapidly becoming decidedly more brisk. The sun was dropping fast and the temperature with it. As best I could figure it had gone from late afternoon mid-sixties to about forty five degrees. This was not uncommon, for it could be in this range in the city and at least ten to fifteen degrees colder in the mountains, not to worry I thought. That is, until I started up the next ridge. In a short amount of time it seemed to have dropped another ten degrees. This is impossible I thought. How could it go from seventy two to thirty five in the space of a few hours?

My breathing became a bit more labored as I scaled the oncoming hills and the air stung my nose and lungs with a curious gritty bite. I was becoming a bit parched and decided to rest at the top of the ridge and to have some water. To my utter surprise and dismay there were ice crystals beginning to form in my water bottles. The sun was now balancing on the mountain horizon, it almost seemed to take a rest right on top of the far mountain range mimicking the position I had taken sitting on the length of a fallen tree. I had made good time and there was still enough light left that I could make my destination and still be able to see to set up camp. This was probably my first of numerous mistakes, to think that setting up camp was more important that getting a fire started for the night. The way I figured at the time, I would get everything done and then search for firewood with a flashlight if necessary. It may have been at this point that I started having the first few doubts about my preparation and skills for this trip.

The wind began to kick up and leaves were swirling about my head and racing over the ridge, with it the wind brought another drop in temperature. I still had two miles to hike. I knew that if I got going at least my activity would stave off the cold. I began pounding down the trail with a new found urgency. Twilight was creeping slowly but steadily over the mountains. I could see the first few glimmerings of the evening stars. The sky was bracing and clear. It was then I felt the first few needles of cold in my boots. I had been ignoring the sting of the bitter wind on my cheeks but now my nose had begun to run and my eyes were welling up with tears as the icy bursts irritated them mercilessly.

Even as my concern grew, I was able to pause briefly to enjoy the flickering lights of the city far below me. The cold however bothersome was preferable to the burgeoning masses. In the distance I could hear cars hissing down the highway, tires moaning against the blackened ribbons of asphalt. Headlights and taillights stabbed the bluish-orange horizon. Horns blew a cacophonous chorus that echoed off the valley nearly drowning out the agreeable barking of dogs and foxes nearer to the mountain. The last mile into camp was indeed a race against time.

Twilight was now upon me and the coldness seemed worse than ever. As I dropped the pack from my shoulders and eased it onto the ground I grabbed a water bottle to get a drink. I was stunned to find it nearly frozen solid. All at once the impetus of this situation hit me. I loosened my tent from my other gear as quickly as possible and began to spread it out on the ground. The wind was coming in steady bursts and was making setting up the tent a tedious chore. Once my shelter was up I thought I could get out of the cold and be a little more meticulous with other tasks. I was terribly worried that I would waste precious fuel thawing my water bottles. I remembered the nearby spring and this lessened my stress.

Once inside my shelter I unloaded my pack and noticed that the cold wind was cutting right through my tent, even with the added protection of the heavy rain fly I could see my breath already condensing on the inner walls. I decided that I would go to the spring and get some extra water filtered into my cooking pot. It was now completely dark and I needed my flashlight to make the trek to water. It was only a short walk of about 50 yards but when I approached the spot where I would normally replenish my supply I was taken aback by the sight of a completely dried up water source. Several curse words escaped my lips. I was beginning to get frustrated and starting to let my circumstances get the better of me. Not a good thing to do so early on in the game. The spring no longer being an option, I began the walk back to my camp. It was then that I noticed a few short bursts of shivering.

Back in the tent I quickly got out my sleeping bag and thought it a good thing to crawl in for a few minutes and warm up as best I could. I desperately wanted to go out and find wood for a camp fire but lethargy began to set in. I decided to fire up my propane stove and get what little heat that would afford going. Knowing better than to use the stove inside the tent I scooted my sleeping bag close to the opening and left a little portion of the main flap open into the vestibule where I set the stove. Luckily I had several methods of starting a fire with me. My trusty butane lighter, some water proof matches and if all else failed; a bar of magnesium with a flint rod attached to it. Unfortunately I had forgotten that butane must be warmed in this sort of cold and I could not get a flame. This freaked me out until I got a hold of my senses and realized that all I had to do was hold the lighter close enough to get a spark from the flint wheel to ignite the stove. BOOF! I had a flame! I warmed my hands over the sputtering stove and the inside of the vestibule began to feel a little more comfortable. I was extremely fortunate that the fuel cartridges and stove I was using were made specifically to ignite without pre-heating in this kind of weather.

It is important to note here that, even though I was well equipped to make it through the night, I was making several classic mistakes that can sometimes quickly make a situation a real matter of life and death. I was cold, beginning to shiver and becoming lethargic which meant hypothermia was a very real threat. I was starting to panic and letting my mind run wild and not concentrating on the more important issues at hand, namely a fire.

One thing in my favor at that point was that I normally carried a propane lantern with me. This meant I had two cartridges to work with instead of one. If I used my flashlight as a candle, I could conserve fuel for heat and cooking. Once the stove was burning consistently I began to rotate one of the water bottles well above the flame and managed after a while to get the water to a more slushy state. I squeezed the slush from the bottle into my cooking pot and soon had about a quart of water coming to a point where I could make a soothing cup of hot tea. Again I thought about going out to find wood but the mere thought of stumbling around through the woods with a flashlight looking for enough fuel to start a fire was disheartening. I thought it best to stay in the tent and try to get as warm as possible.

I looked at my watch and was amazed to find that it was only about 6:45 pm. A long, cold night was ahead of me and I was very unsure of its outcome. I allowed myself to indulge in self pity and started to beat myself up about my stupidity. What if I died out here in the woods? How stupid would it look to the people who found me that I had just crawled up inside my sleeping bag and froze to death? Should I break camp and walk down the short side of the mountain? Should I leave all my gear here and just get the Hell out? I regained some of my composure after a bit and looked for my phone. Just maybe I would have enough signal to call my friend, but how could she be of any help? I was too embarrassed to ask her to have anyone come to get me. As it happened, the signal strength was sufficient to get a call through. I punched the numbers in and waited for what seemed an interminable amount of time for her to answer, but at least she answered.

Anna don't freak out about what I'm about to tell you. What's wrong Rob? What are you talking about? She replied with obvious stress and worry in her voice. I decided to go camping and I hiked up into the mountains and it' s freezing up here! She nearly went ballistic. Rob! Its twenty eight degrees down here in the city! It's got to be eighteen or twenty up there! There was a long pause, I didn't know quite how to reply. Finally I verbalized my disappointment with myself. Anna, I know it was kind of idiotic for me to come up here by myself, but I'm here now and all I can do is make the best of it. As I talked, I was actually calming myself. I began to put together my plan for the evening and assured her that I would be alright and that if she came to get me at the foot of the short trail in the morning, I would pack up and hike out first thing. She tried several times to convince me to leave my gear and hike out and go home, but I felt like my best chances were in reality to stay put and stay calm. After speaking with her, I actually felt a lot better for having formulated on the fly, how I would approach the rest of the night.

After finishing my cup of tea I got warmed a bit and began to arrange my gear and to get ready for the long night ahead of me. I shed my outer shell and replaced it with the extra fleece sweater I had with me. I pulled on the other pair of socks I was to use for the next morning and warmed my feet a bit over the stove before shutting it down. Had I been thinking a little more clearly, I would have gotten out my space blanket to use as an extra layer inside the sleeping bag, or gathered some pine boughs and leaves for even more protection. Alas, I was resigned to staying in the tent and not facing the bitter cold. I stripped my acrylic beanie down over my head as far as it would go and nestled down inside the sleeping bag. My good Lord in heaven was I ever glad I brought the heavy bag.

As I write this particular account of my adventure, I look back and am amazed at my lack of clear thought. I now realize that many people who believe they are experienced campers are even less knowledgeable than myself. I've been camping out in the woods essentially since I was a child. With all that experience under my belt I still began to rely much too heavily on modern equipment and technology. Though you won’t hear me complaining about my cell phone working on that night, I still am somewhat embarrassed at my failure to utilize the things in my environment to ease my situation. Erecting my tent first seemed to be the quickest way to get out of the elements, however building a fire at the outset may have well meant the difference between sleeping miserably to being totally comfortable and well rested. There happened to be at my disposal a veritable wealth of insulating material which included an emergency space blanket that I totally failed to deploy. The mountain ground was rife with dry leaves, pine boughs and needles. All I needed to do was to pack my tent with these excellent resources and crawl in. What stopped me was my ill-founded distaste for soiling the inside of my tent with these wonderful natural materials. Why worry about having to clean a little sap or dirt out of my spiffy high-tech tent when it could have very well meant my general well being? What if I had to endure a little more discomfort in the cold to get a nice warming fire going? My priorities were clearly askew as I believe many folks are when venturing into the woods. Our thoughts are not to exist within the laws and boundaries of our awe inspiring planet, but rather to conquer the wild with man-made technologies and snazzy gadgets that afford us the luxury of not having to physically do or think about anything strenuous or seemingly primitive. When in all fairness, it is the primitive mindset that would best serve modern day man as he encroaches on the last vestiges of nature. To exist in the rough while expecting all the comforts of home is idiotic at best. I was forced to re-examine my thoughts and beliefs about enjoying the outdoors in a way that was consistent with the elements I would be faced with. Certainly it makes no sense to enter the primal forest with expectations that you will remain clean, well dressed, entertained, and fed appropriate to your city lifestyle. If you have the need to drag your citified self and all the trappings of modern life into the woods, why go at all?

I zipped the mummy bag up and cinched the hood tightly around my face. The only part of my head that was exposed was my mouth and chin. I began a fitful night of broken sleep. Periodically I would wake up with a slight shiver, and would begin rubbing my feet and hands together for a small respite. Each time I did this I checked my watch, it seemed like I was waking up nearly every forty-five minutes to an hour. Every time I did this I was dismayed that I was not seeing the warming rays of the morning sun beating on the back of my tent to the east. At one point I woke to readjust the beanie that would work its way up on my head until it was almost off, I took my flashlight and turned it on. To my incredulity the entire inside of the tent was covered with crystallized condensation from my breath. Again I checked my watch; it was 3:49 am, the coldest part of the night was between now and approximately 6:30 am.

I suddenly felt the urge to urinate. I lay there in the dark, prolonging the agony of my inevitable journey out into the black and frigid woods. Usually I would pull on my untied boots and seek out sufficient cover behind a tree to do this however, on this particular morning I considered something I had never before thought a viable choice. I decided to urinate in the vestibule. I zipped open the main flap of the tent and lifted up the side of the vestibule to gaze up at a starry sky so vivid and beautiful that tears welled up in my eyes. It is as glorious as any a morning to freeze to death. I smiled at this morbid thought and chuckled at bit as I fumbled through opening my jeans and pulling down my thermals. Hope I don't piss on myself I laughed again, my spirits were lifting. I knew the worst of it was almost over and if I could just get back to sleep it would soon be day break. As I hurried to relieve myself and jump back into my marginally warm sleeping bag I noticed that practically as soon as the steaming urine touched the ground, it began to crystallize and freeze. My God! How cold was it? Ten, maybe even Five degrees? I nearly leapt back into the bag, zipped it and once again cinched it down to my mouth and chin. A little smile crossed my lips and I drifted off, this time, with hope in my heart.

The morning broke cold but sunny. The wind was still whipping the sides of my tent and it seemed to be breathing all on its own. I didn't want to get out of my cocoon. If it had been any warmer and I would have thought to face the opening of the tent to the east, I would have lain there for awhile and just enjoyed the day. As it was, it was still raw as an Arctic morning, at least in my mind. I threw on my boots and shell and emerged into a beautiful mountain scene. The sky was a cloudless deep azure and the air so crisp you could almost run your fingers through it. The sun was sending golden shafts of light through the trees which held tenaciously to a few brightly colored leaves that refused to converge with the rocky soil through the harsh winter winds. How I admired their resolve.

The sparrows were chirping and an occasional jay would sound his alarm as I moved about. Squirrels were busying themselves with gathering some of their winter stash to join me in my first meal of the day. I fired up the stove and prepared to make some oatmeal and coffee with the water bottle I had kept warm in the sleeping bag with me. Breaking camp was not an easy task, but the difficulty was assuaged with the anticipation of a warm breakfast in my belly and the subsequent descent down the short trail to the main road. My car was six or seven miles to the south, so I was glad that Anna was coming to pick me up. I didn't have it in me to hike back out the way I had come in.

One cold night in the woods. Man was I embarrassed. My anxiety and reactions to corporate life had led me to react to a near survival situation with the same way I handled work. Do whatever necessary to make it look like you're doing something important to get a certain task done. I realized that I was not taking the time to think things through. I was reacting and not responding to a situation that required clear thinking and concise actions. Prioritization was a hell of a lot different in the woods than it was in the workplace. At work I had the leeway to make mistakes in priorities, in the woods in a critical situation I was not afforded that luxury even though I had fared well enough.

My confidence was shaken but not totally destroyed I had learned a lesson for certain. No longer was I so complacent about my supposed skills that I would just assume that everything would work out just because I had been in the woods before. Every situation was different and each situation could possibly turn into something beyond what I had expected. Preparedness with high-tech camping gear and other goodies that I thought were necessary now seemed a bit silly. Good gear is essential, but great gear that you don't have the wherewithal to use correctly is worthless. Even more so, all the greatest gear in the world won't save your hide if you don't have an understanding of how to utilize the things within your environment to the fullest.

- Rob Bachtell

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