Global Warming Leading Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers to Begin Early
“I’m giving up my lease in February,” a 2013 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker wannabe recently told me.
“Why February?” I wanted to know.
“Because I’m starting on March 4th, my birthday.”
Let me say that again. Wow. Because I started the Appalachian Trail (AT) two times–once on April 5th, and the other on April 10th. And if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t begin a bit earlier. Why? The Southern Appalachians. The most difficult two states on the AT are widely considered to be the last two, New Hampshire and Maine. But the next most difficult are the first two, Georgia and North Carolina. Potential thru-hikers should remember that for two reasons. First, you need to have you ‘trail legs’ from the get-go, because the first 76 miles in Georgia are steeply inclined, especially after Neel’s Gap.
But the most important reason to not begin before April 1st is simply the weather. Yes, cold, wet, miserable weather are existential to an AT thru-hike. It’s just part of the bargain. However, cold and wet are one thing. Dangerous is another. Even for those beginning on April 1st, you are bound to get into a couple days where the stakes are raised due to violent storms at high elevations. Cold and wet are a recipe for hypothermia, pure and simple.
For those of you have read my narrative, Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail, you probably remember the incident on the fourth day on the trail where I tried to clear Blue Mountain in some truly diabolical weather. I kept hitting false summits and getting colder, wetter, and more parnoid by the minute. I finally decided to abandon my backpack to get down to Unicoi Gap. Call it a close shave, if you will. Fortunately, the next day I was able to retrieve my backpack with the contents of months worth of shopping.
Yes, I know. The earth’s temperature is rising. This aviso is not to downplay that one bit. That is probably the biggest single issue facing humanity. However, up to now the rise has been a fairly moderate one degree. And when you’re stuck out there on one of those balds, with the wind whipping and the rain lashing, it’s not going to matter much. Your ace-in-the hole on the Appalachian Trail is the shelters. In 2010, I did the first two states of the AT again, hoping to enjoy them more and suffer less than I had in my 2005 thru-hike. While I’m far from blunder-prooof, I did show I had learned something.
In Great Smoky Mountain National Park (the highest point on the AT), I got caught in some very bad weather while midway through. Instead of exposing myself further by heading on to even higher elevations, I took a ‘zero day’ in a shelter. Yes, I was miserable and bored. But it prevented any ‘drama’ (hypothermia) from cropping up. Unless you are a very seasoned mountaineer, cold wet weather is not to be played around with. I highly recommend Appalachian Trail thru-hikers to not begin before April 1st.
Bill Walker is the author of Skywalker–Close Encounters on the Appalachian Trail. He is also the author of Skywalker–Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, as well as The Best Way–El Camino de Santiago. Walker, who is nearly 7-feet tall, is currently working on a book on the subject of height.
One of the problems with the climate issues you address so succinctly, is the naming. Early on, when scientists started grappling with the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, they incorrectly pegged it as “Global Warming.” This may be true, but the effects of this is much wider swings in temperature. The overall average keeps increasing, but the swings in the cold direction can also be severe.
This in turn affects local weather with serious outcomes. Storms are much more intense, and frequent in some areas, and milder or absent in others. One area will experience extreme drought, and another, flooding. It is this radical climate change that will more and more, become the norm. It should have been named Climate Change from the beginning, instead of Global Warming.
Some friends from our local club were doing the AT last year and were complaining about black flies in the middle of March, in North Carolina. In previous years, snow was an issue at that time. The problem here is, nobody can predict, with any certainty, what the future will bring. Will it be black fly season or a blizzard in March? Could it be both? I can’t say.