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The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia
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Evan McCarthy
(evanrussia) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/22/2012 21:11:23 MDT Print View

While groping wildly around my bivy sack to find and turn off my alarm at 5:00 a.m., I heard the plunking of rain on my tarp and groaned. Max, Mark, and I had hoped blindly that the vicious thunderstorm that chased off of the ridge the evening before had signaled the end of the front. Boy were we wrong. Generously, the rain halted briefly to allow us to pack up in the dark but returned and stayed once we were on the trail. And not just any rain. This front, rocking the entire East Coast with flood-level rain and a twenty-plus degree temperature drop, was here to stay with us all day long of our final 28 Sunday miles, almost all of it on the knife-edge of the ridge top. The night time low of the evening ended up being higher than the day time Sunday high.

Max and Evan
(From left. Evan and Max)

We had set out at 6:15 p.m. on Friday for a 71.1 "thru hike" of the Massanutten Mountain Trail in 48 hours. It would be my third spring in a row hiking the entire iconic mountain loop, though a whole day shorter in duration than our previous outings. Most DC-area hikers and hang-glider aficionados know the various Massanutten peaks as day adventures but few take advantage of the perfect 71 mile loop taking in two ridges and countless miles of 360 views, packed with elegiac scenes of the Shenandoah Valley, Great North Mountain guarding the West Virginia border, and the length of the Blue Ridge wending through Shenandoah National Park, not to mention the George Washington-surveyed Fort Valley tucked in between the two ridges.

A View of Fort Valley and the East ridge from the West ridge

Friday evening's ten miles to get a jump start on the weekend allowed us to take in a breathtaking sunset at Signal Knob, which we earned by accidently parking in the wrong parking lot and having to bushwhack to the Massanutten Mountain Trail and past a large group of high school girls out for a backpacking trip -- and snickering at my kilt as we squeezed past. Warning: don't spend too much time by the tower at Signal Knob.

Evan radiating personality.

Soon stars and planets took over the night sky, causing Mark to get lost in the heavens and bounce off of me and straight into a stream. Saturday brought a perfect day -- though even a little too hot and sunny for us on the first few ridge lines. We moved fast and hard and ended up ahead of our mileage plans, eventually finishing the day with 33 miles under our belt.

Sunset at Signal Knob

Saturday wasn't without hazard, though. In the afternoon our sun was snatched from us, first alleviating our heat exhaustion and then hounding us with intense wind, rain, and lightning bolts. With few trees and no place to go but forward we counted the seconds between flashes and thunderclaps. We picked up our pace and stayed hyper aware when the the two became nearly simultaneous. Our flight took us past taped off fire burn area warnings and into a control-burned ridge from a couple weeks before. There was no warning about this at any of the trail heads or intersections, so we shrugged and held our nose as we picked our way along the hell fire scent of the trail. When the storm broke and we caught our second amazing sunset of the trip, we figure the corner had been turned and our 71 miles in 2.25 days would be a piece of cake.

We were wrong. Sure, the feat of the mileage (eventually coming out at 10.1, 33, and 28) was a bit of challenge for us. But the pummeling of cold, rain, and fog, soaking us to our bones and staying with us for eleven hours, almost took the joy out of living. Our long mileage day ensured that we would be a target for the elements. The twenty-mile ridge of Massanutten Mountain between Kennedy Peak and Shaw Gap is normally one of my favorite in all of the mid-Atlantic. Almost continuous views of valley, ridge, and sky are enhanced by blooming mountain laurel, lichen-covered rock formations, and the cones, needles, and craggy trunks of pine. Today the cold front replaced all that and gave us a wall of biting fog, freezing rain, and slick slabs of rock. We were too cold to even stop and drink our carefully hoarded water. We were too wet and cold to talk, to listen to music, to appreciate anything. We hustled silently along the 20-mile ridge with barely a five-minute break. I started muttering incoherently by the end of the stretch, fists clenched and cramped shut with cold, body losing temperature control. We finally decided to stop at a shelter to get in our insulating layers and make a warm meal. It changed our moods and gave us the strength, just barely, to finish the trip ahead of our 48 hour plan.

Max and Mark
(From left. Max and Mark.)

As we huddled brain-dead in our cars for half an hour just trying to take control over our shaking hands and shivering bodies, I promised myself that I would never again willingly schedule trips that would guarantee a full day of cold rain hiking. I had made a similar promise last spring. Who was I kidding?


[A big thank you to Max (2008 AT thru hiker - aka Yeti) and Mark for coming on our foolhardy adventure and smiling as you drove home. It's also fitting to note that the only other backpackers we saw on the trail all weekend other than our friendly gang of girls, were our own buddies Ryan and Chris, smiling in Sunday's deluge as we chatted and crossed paths on the ridge. A final comment for Sport Kilt: your Velcro waistband on your hiking kilt fails to hold after ten hours in the rain. Very embarrassing. Just sayin']

The ridge flora -- my camera was put away Saturday afternoon to never return for the trip, sadly.

Trail Map and Notes (PATC):


Edited by evanrussia on 04/23/2012 05:32:22 MDT.

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: Mind your own business
Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 02:07:05 MDT Print View

Thanks for posting. Did you have rain gear and an extra base/layer or fleece to wear during he day?

Evan McCarthy
(evanrussia) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 05:23:14 MDT Print View

We sure did. I had the Montane Spektr eVent smock as my shell, over my Patagonia LS Fore Runner shirt base layer and Icebreaker 260 merino "mid" which I packed at the last minute to give myself some more warmth for the Sunday rain (which was predicted but not at the levels that hit us). This kept me warm and dry for four hours Sunday morning, which is pretty admirable. But for ten-eleven hours of straight wind, rain, and 3+ mph moving on ridges, I'm not sure what possibly could have kept any of us dry. For our final nine mile stretch I even layered my Patagonia Nano Puff under my shell, which gave me another two hours of warmth before it wet through for our final hour.

In hindsight, of course, I would have added a fleece or soft shell to the combo, something I rarely do for backpacking trips.

Edited by evanrussia on 04/23/2012 05:35:15 MDT.

Stephen M
(stephenm) - MLife

Locale: Mind your own business
Re: Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 07:10:18 MDT Print View

Hi Evan,

Conditions must have been horrendous, I hike a lot in Ireland and Scotland and find I always get a bit damp when wearing my Event Montane Quickfire jacket and Rab Bergen trousers but I never get cold while hiking as I adjust my layers to suit

I try not to hike in Primaloft as I get far too sweaty in it, I aways wear a Rab Alpine Pulover Soft shell(its unlined) and I swap out various weights of Capilene or add a Montane Jackal or R1 for Winter.



Nigel Healy
(nigelhealy) - F

Locale: San Francisco bay area
Re: Re: Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 12:08:26 MDT Print View

Do you think were eating often+enough to keep making enough body heat?

John S.
(jshann) - F
Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 13:44:50 MDT Print View

Evan, thanks for sharing the difficulties in hiking in prolonged, cold rain.

Doug I.
(idester) - MLife

Locale: PNW
Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 15:39:11 MDT Print View

Dude, great trip report. We're gonna miss you in the mid-Atlantic!

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Trail conditions on 04/23/2012 16:02:15 MDT Print View

What is the trail like on the Loop? Smooth, Rocky. I may soon be spending a lot of time in that neck of the woods and I'm looking for some long loops to trail run.

Ryan S

Locale: Mid Atlantic
Massanutten Loop on 04/23/2012 16:12:14 MDT Print View

Good to see you guys out on the trail, and kudos for finishing the monster loop. I was sick of the cold, rainy, windy trail by about hour 4! :)

I ended up hiking in an Icebreaker 150 t-shirt, NW Alpine Black Spider Light Hoody, and a Feathered Friends Jackorack windshirt for my upper body, with the PrAna Stretch Zion pants. It was warm enough through the quick ups and downs along the ridge, but stopping even briefly was quite chilly.

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Hype and Heat Stroke on 04/23/2012 16:14:29 MDT Print View

Wow... I had the opposite problem this weekend -- heat. Got up to 107F on Saturday and 106F Sunday. Has been in the 70's and 80's. Each year I gradually get re-acclimated to the summer as the temperature increases. This weekend boom! Summer temps. Didn't have a hat and not enough salty foods. Sunday afternoon had to rest behind a rock for an hour because of a queasy stomach and a little dizziness. At least I had plenty of water.

This fellow didn't fare as well

Edited to fix hyperlink

Edited by ngatel on 04/23/2012 16:20:59 MDT.

Evan McCarthy
(evanrussia) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Staying warm and dry on 04/23/2012 16:51:33 MDT Print View

24 hours after getting off the trail, I'm trying to think back on what we could have done differently. In all honesty, we were fine. I think the other two dudes weren't even as cold as I was. We even managed to warm up two-thirds of the way through Sunday and load our bodies with food and an extra layer before the final push. If the plan had been another night out instead of finishing the trail, we would have been warm and okay.

But . . .

How do you stay dry and warm when moving fast on hard terrain with constant wind and rain (in the low 40s)? My quick reaction is you can't really. You just mitigate the damage, smile, eat, drink, and get warm when you stop moving for the day. Anything I would have worn would have wet through at some point. And after several hours of wetting through, I would have gotten cold.

Any thoughts on beating the chill in these conditions (28 miles . . . 12 hours of cold rain . . . light weight considerations of 71.1 miles on the trail in 48 hours)?

Evan McCarthy
(evanrussia) - MLife

Locale: Mid-Atlantic
Re: Trail conditions on 04/23/2012 16:52:55 MDT Print View

Greg, the trail is quite rocky but people run it all the time. We met a couple trail runners on one of the rockiest stretches, and there's a 100 mile ultra marathon that uses the entire Massanutten range. You're in luck!

Justin Baker
(justin_baker) - F

Locale: Santa Rosa, CA
Re: The Fine Line Between Hype and Hypothermia on 04/23/2012 16:56:45 MDT Print View

Sounds rough. In all day long hauls through cold rain, I wonder if a wool sweater would be a good choice as a layer under your rain jacket. Wool keeps you a lot warmer when wet, and while synthetics dry faster it's not like you going to actually be able to dry them out in that kind of situation unless you get a fire going or dry them in your bag.