AT Sobo Part 7 – Learning how to cope with the never ending mountains of a Sobo thru hike
So it began; The Maine Mountains. Ever since I had left the 100 mile wilderness dirty and exhausted, all I heard was how easy it was compared to what was coming up in southern Maine and the Whites of New Hampshire. I’ve hiked plenty of hard coastal path at home in Cornwall and some big old hills beyond, but I’d never actually climbed and descended mountains multiple times a day for weeks on end. I don’t really think I was nearly prepared enough, but I actually don’t know how I could have been. Shock and awe seemed to be my best approach.
I have an app on my phone called ‘Guthook’, which maps the Appalachian Trail through each state and shows the elevation profile. As I stood in camp early that morning and opened the map for the day, I watched the semi-flat lakeside trails tick up and up and up to what was definitely peaks. I thought about my pain levels, did some half assed stretching and contemplated whether my patched-together body would keep holding up.
To this point I’d been very impressed and surprised at the fact that I hadn’t suffered much with my old pain patterns, but I knew that the hard work was still ahead and that elevation was the trigger, especially carrying heavy weight on my back. As per my usual approach however, I thought there was only one way to find out! We broke camp early, at around 6am. Hambone strode ahead; at six foot four he could really cover ground. Avery and Morgan lingered behind packing up steadily so I set off alone. I broke the elevation down into chunks and mini-goals to make it easier for me to handle. The trail was initially kind to me, although still unkempt and full of treacherous rocks that would spin out under my feet, roots to snag me, deep puddles and rivers to ford. Sometimes it felt like Lord of the Rings, and that hobbits might pop out from under the deep green thickets to whisk me off with them on their journey. Alas, no such distraction. Guthook kept me on the right path, and I would stop to check it regularly; probably too regularly. Each .4 or .5 of a mile was a new goal, and I would stop and breathe and drink water when I had done it, sweat streaming down my face. Nothing too horrendous so far…just up and over and up.
I stopped after a few hours at a shelter called ‘The Tubs’ which was really lovely. Shelters are usually three-sided wooden structures set between 12 and 20 miles apart throughout the trail. They are maintained by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy club in each state and usually have a water source and compost or mouldering privy close at hand. They are purely shells, with no amenities provided inside, but are there to provide shelter in storms and long rainy days. They also condense the impact of human activity in the wilderness into pre-set locations and encourage people to stay there. Stealth camping is allowed in most states, but if people don’t follow the ‘leave no trace’ principles effectively then this approach can lead to destruction of the wild and natural environment that we’re all trying to immerse ourselves in.
Shelters are fantastic on all fronts – except when you’re wedged in 10 people deep in a storm or have a particularly heavy snorer! But this shelter was special, because the name ‘The Tubs’ referred to the swimming holes dotted down the large stream in front of it, carved smooth and deep from continuous water and large enough to contain two to three people each. Sadly however I had no time to indulge, as I had many miles to cover. Hambone had been there an hour when I arrived and he was leaving, so I said goodbye and that I’d see him at the col – the dip between two mountain peaks where you could camp on bare platforms. I didn’t know it then but I wouldn’t see him for days, as he hiked many tens of miles that day and the next, over repeated peaks and deep into the night. He has trouble stopping.
The day ultimately turned out to be a huge success. I talked myself up and over the Bigelows and Avery Peak, which was many thousands of feet of elevation. I didn’t experience enough pain to stop me, and was encouraged by the Northbound hikers I passed who were moving towards the end of their hikes. I also passed so much moose poo on the trail that I was convinced I’d stumble into one round every bend, but sadly got to the Col without bumping into any. It was cold and windy there; high between the two peaks, and I had to figure out how to put my tent on a wooden platform because there was no earth on the rock to put the tent stakes into. I hurried, as a storm was predicted, and spent the night thinking I was going to blow off the mountainside, but actually feeling too delighted that I actually made it up to the top to worry too much.
Morning saw an incredible sunrise and friends catching up from behind. We spent the next few days repeating this gruelling challenge; checking elevation and maps, filtering water pulled from some dank pool or mountain spring, grinding ourselves up washed-out and almost vertical mountainsides between pines, roots and rocks as the rain and sun clocked in and out above us on rotation. I can’t actually describe how I managed to get through these days as I don’t remember how I coped. I honestly just tried to put one foot in front of the other and not cry or give up or feel disheartened. I was exhausted more than I have ever known (another level was to come but I didn’t know it at this point!), and I was constantly dirty, injured and bleeding.
I thought often of home, of my family and friends in Falmouth who all believed in me and what I was doing. I wasn’t going to let myself down and I definitely wasn’t going to let anyone else down – I was just at the start! However I still hadn’t had a zero day and was hurting in every way possible, so the night before we could get to our next town we built a fire on a waterfall and treated ourselves to an icy night-time dip to soothe ourselves, then falling asleep to gushing water and crackling wood. It was enough to boost my spirits into the next day, and the beer that was definitely waiting for me in the local bar.