Fall 2012 Backpacking trip - Kentucky Pine Moutntain trail - Highland Section, Oct. 26-29.

By Bull

Death is the whisper one never hears wrote Hemingway in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. He succinctly depicts a seamless transition of conscious life into the afterworld as a rescue by plane and flight over the snow-covered top of Kilimanjaro the final thought or dream of Harry getting to this beautiful place, "The House Of God". It is this moment of death which Harry and the reader do not recognize until it has passed, a whisper never heard.

On this Pine Mountain hiking trip other whispers were not heard. There was also a snow-covered mountain. It was not heaven, but a living hell. Fortunately, no one got on the rescue plane with Harry and we all remain part of the living. But there were moments of extreme duress, and doubt that held the possibility of our demise. It was almost as if one more thing could tilt the balance beyond our control, only one more thing.

Whisper #1

Hypothermia is a whisper we did not hear. Classic symptoms start when the body's core temperature reaches 94 degrees. Fatigue, compromised coordination, decreased dexterity, and of course shivering are all early signs. Victims of hypothermia seldom recognize the early symptoms until it is too late. We all have been cold with the shivers, but never so cold as to have trouble walking, remembering the simplest task like putting up a tent that you had owned for 10 years and pitched 50 times, or having your heart race at 120 beats per minute without exertion, the dreaded condition of tachycardia. Tachycardia will kill older and younger folks in minimal amounts of time. Even seemingly healthy individuals can not sustain the elevated heart rate without developing arrhythmia We all know that this will kill the most innocent from the influence of alcohol to an energy drink. A sustained heart rate of 120 is fairly normal for vigorous exercise, probably comparable to a 10 minute mile, easy for exercise tolerant individuals, but potentially deadly for others. Within 30 minutes Ischemia develops and all external capillaries begin to shut down, leading to delirium, irrationality, and unconsciousness. We were that close.

Whisper #2

The weather forecast was a pending forecast, a whisper we sort of heard but choose to ignore, pending the movements of Hurricane Sandy, moving up the eastern seaboard, and at this time north of the latitude of Pine Mountain. The night prior to the hike was clear 70 degrees, bright moon and stars, with a wind gently blowing in from the Northwest. Although, late into the evening it was noticed that the wind had changed 180 degrees blowing from the Southeast. Very curious and the thought evolved that this could delay the arrival of the cold front. We would be afforded even better weather than the 55 degree high and 30% chance of rain. A whisper heard, but the way we wanted to hear it.

The actual movement of the Hurricane Sandy swirling in a counter clockwise rotation created a low pressure area over Virginia and West Virginia along their Kentucky borders allowing vast amounts of moisture to be drawn in and from the Southeast, our observed wind shift, basically parking it directly over our hiking area. This resulted in the buckets of rain late Saturday and Sunday. Sandy came ashore spreading out the swirl over Pittsburgh and down into West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. Along with it, the cold front arrives early with teeth. A 25-30mph wind pushes the front and turns the aerial parking lot into vast amounts of snow. We had somehow managed to find the center of the snow fall and possibly the worst place to be in the United States, except for Staten Island, and the Jersey shore.

The Hike

The first day of hiking started badly and turned quickly for the worse before 2:00pm. Within 3 hours the temperature dropped from the low 50s' to the mid 30's, and the rain fell in buckets and then sheets. Wind made things worse resulting in a wind chill below freezing. Good rain gear, new Merrill waterproof boots, layered clothing, wool socks, and gloves were no match. Each completely soaked and exposing all body surfaces to rapid heat loss. Mooch, Bull, and Bullbro separated from Bgoat, Tarpboy, and Silverpops by an early mistake hiked an hour behind. Unable to find the designated camp and unable to find any suitable place to pitch their tents, started to back track to what was thought to be a lower and more suitable place. They took a wrong turn, missed the trail marker, stumbled down a new trail, and were lucky (very lucky) to find a dry sandy area under a rock ledge/cliff to pitch their tents, not 10 minutes too soon. It was only 5pm. On a good weather day with 2 more hours of light they would have pressed on. Today a different story, with each knowing, and verbalizing, "We are in trouble". Bullbro, and Bull erected their tents, climbed in, and prepared to get into their sleeping bags. Mooch became frustrated with his tent. Every simple movement a chore, the set up became impossible. Bull offered help but there was an obvious immediate need, an emergency if you will, to get warm. Bull and Mooch would need to share a tent for the night. It took 3 hours to warm up and somewhat recover. There they slept, affected from the close encounter, knowing that the morning would require another two hours in wet gear to join the others in a shelter at the half way point. The leading group made the shelter by forced march after dark. They had no choice, they too missing the designated camp spot, and experiencing similar duress pushed on to the shelter assuming our party was ahead of them. The two hour morning hike for the rock ledge group proved to be difficult in a more fierce and cold rainfall. By the time the rock ledge group arrived at the shelter, they were hypothermic again, unable and unwilling to advance down the trail in the driving rain. We all had, at the very least, a roof over our heads, the potential to maintain a fire to dry our gear, and time to wait for a break in the weather. We stayed the night leaving a 7 mile hike for the next day, hoping for the break in the weather that would not come. The temperature dropped below freezing before dark, the wind increased blowing across the shelter. Tarpboy's tarp was hung to deflect the wind from the common area and the fire was maintained to allow shoes, socks, gloves, and every imaginable piece of clothing to dry. We fixed a big meal, and watched as the snow started to fall in flakes the size of nickels. We speculated and feared that the next day's hike could be out of our range if it the weather continued. If the trail was as similarly steep and rocky as the first day, there would be little chance to complete the 7.8 miles remaining. We pulled the tarp over the shelter opening, the wind blowing the snow through the cracks in the shelter, bundled in our sleeping bags with full dress, and went to sleep hoping for the best.

The final day we awaken to approximately 3 inches and accumulating rapidly. We start at 9am very cold, but dry. We knew immediately water was short but water was on the trail 3 miles out. The first mile turns out to be an easy one. Within 5 minutes we are walking a fire break or access road for a natural gas pipeline. It helps morale as it is level and the blazes are easy to find. The bright green trail blazes painted on the trees lead us away from the access road as the pipeline runs a different direction over the other side of the ridge. A steep climb, followed by a steep descent into a Gap where the wind velocity is extreme stinging our faces with sleet. This repeats again, and again. It seems we are exposed to the west as we walk without cover from the mountain, on the ridge for some time, until the trail seems to turn away from the wind. This seemed to be a relief until we discovered that the trail blazes were covered by the ice and snow. Until this time, we had not noticed that the trail itself was covered by snow weighted branches of rhododendrons and other underbrush. There was no way to recognize the natural trail by clearing or indentation. We needed the blazes. We are into the hike possibly 2 miles and now must shuffle from tree to tree to find blazes, connecting the dots of the trail by scraping ice and snow from the trees with our cold, and now wet hands. The blazes are painted on the back sides of other trees for hikers walking the opposite direction, at least every 500 ft they say. This we finally realized and were able to speed up our game of connecting the dots. There were numerous moments when we all stood motionless trying to see the next blaze. And finally, to the relief of all, one of us would shout out; "Got one", "Up here on the left", "There's one over there". We did this over the next two miles at a speed of less than one mile per hour. We are 4 miles and 4 hours into our hike and no water is found at the designated water sources. Collectively we have 8-10 ounces of water between us mostly held by Bgoat and Tarpboy. We split again into two groups. Tarpboy, Bull, and Bullbro forging ahead, anxious to get out and thereby splitting the water ration. The split seems to be best for all as the trail begins to change traversing to the southeastern side of the ridge protected from the wind and snow. The trail also begins to gradually descend, with a few bumps, but much easier than the trail of day one, no steep slopes and no rocky climbs. We all were relieved that this part of the trail had a lower degree of difficultly and for choosing to hike the trail in reverse. Otherwise, the slippery rocky climbs and snow covered trail blazes on rocks would have prevented our departure from the woods. Again, we were very lucky this all worked out. The next 3.8 miles are paced as normal at 2 miles per hour and we are out of woods before 3:00pm. It is still cold and snowing side ways but we could see the roof of the truck stop where the cars were parked from the trailhead.

Whisper #3

The Bull feels the need to sign out at the trailhead and stops to sign his group's names. Before the sign out box is a large tree weighted with snow that releases a large slug from one of the branches just as Bull walks under. It hits his right shoulder with enough force that he must step forward to keep his balance. It is reminiscent of a small boy being pushed forward by an adult backslap. Like a Dad, Uncle, or Big Brother that greets or congratulates a small child a little too enthusiastically and the child is thrown off balance. The child does not necessarily appreciate the enthusiasm as much as he is reminded that his greeter is much bigger and stronger.

This whisper is one that needs to be heard.

Bull 11/2/2012

Attached are listed, for Patio Boy reference, the various stages of Hypothermia. From comments heard during the trip everyone lived 2 days in and out of one or all of theses stages.

Stage 1

Body temperature drops by (1.8-3.6°F) below normal temperature (95-98.6°F). Mild to strong shivering occurs. Victim is unable to perform complex tasks with the hands; the hands become numb. Blood vessels in the outer extremities constrict, lessening heat loss to the outside air. Breathing becomes quick and shallow. Goose bumps form, raising body hair on end in an attempt to create an insulating layer of air around the body (which is of limited use in humans due to lack of sufficient hair, but useful in other species). Victim may feel sick to their stomach, and very tired. Often, a person will experience a warm sensation, as if they have recovered, but they are in fact heading into Stage 2. Another test to see if the person is entering stage 2 is if they are unable to touch their thumb with their little finger; this is the first stage of muscles not working. They might start to have trouble seeing.

Stage 2

Body temperature drops by (3.8-7.6°F) below normal temperature (91-94.8°F). Shivering becomes more violent. Muscle mis-coordination becomes apparent. Movements are slow and labored, accompanied by a stumbling pace and mild confusion, although the victim may appear alert. Surface blood vessels contract further as the body focuses its remaining resources on keeping the vital organs warm. The victim becomes pale. Lips, ears, fingers and toes may become blue.

Stage 3

Body temperature drops below approximately (89.6 °F). Shivering usually stops. Difficult speaking, sluggish thinking, and amnesia start to appear; inability to use hands and stumbling is also usually present. Cellular metabolic processes shut down. Below (86.0 °F), the exposed skin becomes blue and puffy, muscle coordination becomes very poor, walking becomes almost impossible, and the victim exhibits incoherent/irrational behavior including terminal burrowing or even a stupor. Pulse and respiration rates decrease significantly, but fast heart rates (ventricular tachycardia, atrial fibrillation) can occur. Major organs fail. Clinical death occurs. Because of decreased cellular activity in stage 3 hypothermia, the body will actually take longer to undergo brain dead.