Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Roan Highlands: or how I almost injured my friend John

"YOU DA MAN, WIND!" I scream into the clouds as the words whip away into the air before anyone has a chance to hear them. I turn and wait for the sight of John's foggy figure to emerge from the rain cloud we're currently walking through. I'm impressed with his cheery mood as he labors up the Little Hump Mountain and the wind knocks him back and forth out of the rutty trail. The mist we left at camp this morning has turned to a light rain. The high wind has turned that rain against us as it stings the right side of our faces. It puts my mind on the sand blown evening wind biting my face in Arches NP, the rain and wind blowing me off my feet on Franconia Ridge in the Whites, and of course the second time I made the walk across these same balds with sideways hail.  This is probably one of the strongest winds I've felt in this part of the country and rivals the strongest I've ever felt.

John's going strong. We haven't taken too many breaks today, even though we're well behind my usual pace, its nice to hike with a friend after going solo the past few years. We're on the second day of John's first backpacking trip. I tried to pick an easy one, but will later find out how poor my judgment was.

Yesterday we started at Carver's Gap. We're both very familiar with the place, but we'd be going a bit further than John's been before. He's more knowledgeable than most from Carver's Gap to Grassy Ridge, but beyond that its all new territory. 

Taking an easy pace we get to Overmountain Shelter just before the rain hits. An easy going 5ish miles. We're both feeling pretty good after dinner and in the social spirit of the weekend we chat it up with the other 30 people sharing the area with us for the night. This shelter has a way of making a traffic jam of thru-hikers, but luckily it can support the number. As a former thru-hiker I love being around people going through the journey, but usually I leave the social talk to the trail and camp alone. It was nice to meet new people, have a fire and listen to a few musicians (of varying talent) play through dinner. 

The next morning we stay late and rest up as John didn't sleep so well that night. Shelters always take some getting used to before one learns how to sleep solidly. I think the lack of sleep is one of the many factors that would come to haunt my friend later. John's a strong guy, but as a grad student he spends much of his time sitting in front of a computer. This is something I failed to take into consideration when I planned this weekend out. I figured he'd feel rough, spent and worn out at the end of it, but didn't realize just how much it would take out of him. It all went pretty well up until about 5 or 6 miles in the last day. John had a cheap pack that couldn't handle its load and him straining to stabilize it in the wind had worn him out and he started getting muscle spasms in his sides. We took frequent breaks for him to take his pack off, stretch and rest up. I gave him some electrolytes hoping maybe it was just cramps. The last few miles were slow going at less than a mile an hour. It got to the point were he wasn't just hurting, but at the risk of getting hurt so I offered to switch packs with him. With little food in my pack and me wearing almost all the clothes I brought my pack was probably less than 5 lbs where his was more like 40. It took some convincing, but he finally decided it was a good idea to switch up. (note: I'm a firm believer in carrying your own stuff even if its too heavy. Its a good way to learn what you need and don't need, but when its a safety issue I will do what I can to help) It was tough to watch John the last couple miles, but it was also inspiring. He wasn't letting it get the best of him and he wasn't giving up (well he had no option to give up). Its always impressive to watch someone push beyond the limits they thought they had before. He could've turned into a death march and I'm sure at moments it felt like that, but as John fought through the pain and struggled over every obstacle he powered through it and didn't let it take over his attitude. Don't get me wrong he was cussing, but not complaining or feeling sorry for himself.

John texted me the next couple days to tell me he was feeling much better and saying we should do a long day trip soon and some shorter over nights this summer. Which made me feel good until I ran into his roommates on Friday and scolded me for "crippling" John.

A lone Iris standing tall near the shelter

Some type of violet

 John Hiking out with the shelter in the back ground. 

Its beautiful what thrives in a landscape that has such harsh weather so often.

My best guess is some kind of Waterleaf?


  1. Always going to be a great story! I learned many lessons from that trip and I am excited to get back out there.

  2. Great story, Patrick. I especially like the photo of John on the trail with the shelter tucked into the misty hills behind him. Good to know that he recovered and is eager for more trips.