Friday, November 24, 2017

Tom and Bill's Appalachian Trail Death March


In the fall, Tom and I usually try to do a long-weekend bike tour, but this year we indulged his dream of through-hiking the Appalachian Trail with a four-day backpacking trip. I'd never been overnight backpacking before, and the trip gave me the excuse to research buy a lot of gear. 


We hiked 46 miles over two full days and two half days, from Harpers Ferry to just north if I-70 and back. 


The unanswered question from this trip is why do I turn every endurance activity into a death march? On Day 2 I wanted so badly to make it to Annapolis Rock, even though it was at least 18 miles, and not just because I thought it would be a nicer campsite than the Pine Knob shelter. What is so appealing about finishing an event completely on fumes? On this trip, it was not about the speed--I was more than happy to stop at the overlooks, but I definitely wanted to have every day be a stretch.

Maybe I'm addicted to that level of exhaustion. Maybe I it's that "we can always do a little bit more."

After trying to turn every day into a death march, I was struck by how much harder the days were than I expected.  After our diagnostic hike in September, I thought it would be within our capability to do at least 15 and probably 20 miles per day, which would have allowed us to get to the Pennsylvania border and back. I was never tired at the end of the day, but my legs felt like someone had beaten them with a stick, and my feet were in real pain.

Did I need to carry so much food? I never really saw Tom eat anything substantial. I would be gnawing away at a salami and shoving pecans into my mouth, and he would be quietly sipping a Cup-o-soup.

Day By Day

Day 1  Harpers Ferry to Ed Garvey Thursday 2017-10-19

We ended up parking at the National Park visitor center around 12:30 and hiking down to town, which added another couple miles. The day was spectacular, and first three miles are on the towpath were delightful. 

The trail from Weverton was rocky and vertical. We slogged on with our heavy (to us) packs. As the afternoon wore on, we began to wonder if we had missed the Ed Garvey Shelter, though it seemed impossible that we could have simply walked by it without noticing. We stopped for a nature break, and Tom noticed that the shelter was visible through the woods.  Neither of us felt like pushing on to Crampton Cap, so we stopped.

The shelter already held five more people: 2 late-middle-aged guys who disappeared pretty quickly, a lone middle-aged guy, and a 30-something with his 4-year-old son, whose backpack was large enough for him to get into. Amusingly, the 30-something turned out to be a bike racer. 
The lone-middle-aged guy was a snorer, and I slept poorly. 
Ed Garvey shelter. Day 1

Day 2 Ed Garvey to Pine Knob Friday 2017-10-20

I really thought we could make it to Annapolis Rock. The segment near Lambs Knoll really slowed the pace down. The path was so rocky that you could never really take a stride. Instead it was all half steps, staring at the boulders and making sure you didn't fall over.
We came first to Gathland State Park, home of the National War Correspondent's arch. I've been to Gathland many times, mostly on rides, so I didn't know the history of the place. It's basically the failed estate of a famous Civil War correspondent/essayist. It's the 19th-century equivalent of visiting Dan Rather's home. 

Obligatory photo of the National War Correspondent's Arch at Gathland state park

Our quick lunch was at the White Rocks overlook, which is probably the only trail-side overlook on the entire 20+ mile section.  We then bushwhacked trying to find the map-listed Lambs Knoll Lookout tower, which I later discovered was closed to the public in the 1980s. So much for accurate maps. The descent from Lambs Knoll was pretty grim, with lots of boulders.

Next on tap was Reno Monument, which memorializes Union General Jesse Reno who as killed at the battle of Fox Gap during the 1862 battle for South Mountain. 

I guess we're still in the south. Jesse Reno monument at Fox Gap. Note that Reno was a Union general, and the CSA general killed here has his own monument down the road. But apparently somebody felt it was important to claim this site for the noble cause as well. 

Shortly after Reno Monument, we came to the original Washington Monument, which was originally built by citizens of Boonsboro to honor GW himself. The CCC completely rebuilt the derelict monument in the 1930s.
Tom on the original Washington Monument, first built in the 1820s, and then completely rebuilt in the 1930s by the CCC.

By the time we hit the I-70 bridge, I was pretty sure we were not going to make it to Annapolis Rock. My feet were killing me, and I had to call a short halt so I could take my shoes off.  My aching feet meant we were camping at the Pine Knob shelter. We had it to ourselves, since it's a terrible shelter. The constant whine of traffic going downhill on I-70 acted like a white noise machine, though.

Tom and his 250 calorie "cup-o-soup"dinner at the Pine Knob shelter. 

Day 3 Pine Knob to Crampton Gap Saturday 2017-11-21

My legs and feet recovered for Day 3, and after a quick breakfast we were off back across the I-70 bridge.  Tom stopped for a shower at the Dahlgren campground, but I opted to stay dry. Since it was Saturday, the trail was positively crowded with people, compared to the day before. The day sped by, possibly because were covering ground we had already seen, and we reached the turnoff for the Crampton Gap shelter around 4PM.
Lunch break at the White Rocks overlook. We're avoiding the guy behind me, who was wearing a kilt.
We shared the Crampton Gap shelter with three millenials. They were carrying an impossible amount of gear, including a shovel. They played some kind of monster-themed card game. The shelter was completely unbearable, since one of them had sleep apnea. Initially it was like sharing the shelter with a demon, but as the evening wore on the snuffling became more feline. It was like sharing the shelter with a mountain lion. I gave up and pulled my pad out of the shelter and finally got to sleep.

 Day 4 Crampton Gap to Harpers Ferry Sunday 2017-11-22

We pretty much hauled through the last day to get back to the car, since we were covering ground we'd already traversed. 
And we rescued a tiny turtle!


  • Pearl-Izumi trail running shoes. These were too light, and beat up my feet.
  • Since I was paranoid about weather, I had a gore-tex jacket. I was prepared to spend days outside, soaking wet at 45F. 

Lessons Learned

  • Water is heavy. I was worried that the water sources were well off the trail. I was completely wrong, of course, but I started the trip with 4 liters (8lbs) in two camelbacks. 
  • The shelters are full of snorers. I thought the first night was bad, but our companion Devon on the third night was unbearable. In the future, I'll just use the one-person tent. 

By the numbers

With 4l of water and the food, my pack weighed 34lbs--too heavy.


DayDistance (mi)Segment
17.8Harper's Ferry Visitor Center to Ed Garvey Shelter
215.5Ed Garvey Shelter to Pine Knob Shelter
311.8Pine Knob Shelter to Crampton Gap Shelter
411.5Crampton Gap to Harper's Ferry Visitor Center


My food supply. 
Weight Calories Description
32 oz 3200 cal 4 salamis
28.8 oz 3000 cal 12 Clif bars
16 oz 2700 cal bag cashews
8 oz 1600 cal salted pecans
12 oz 1760 cal trail mix
5.6 oz 800 cal Kind bars
16 oz 1100 cal Prunes
5.25 oz 860 cal chocolate bars
123.65 oz 15020 cal
16 oz 1600 cal 2 salamis
2.4 oz 250 cal 1 Clif bar
8 oz 1600 cal salted pecans
1.4 oz 200 cal Kind bar
1.75 oz 267 cal chocolate bars
29.55 oz 3917 cal
94.1 oz
11103 cal