I decided I wanted to be in the woods for my birthday this year, as usual. So I recruited my buddy Frank to plan a return trip to the Dolly Sods Wilderness Area for the beginning of November. Nate would be joining us and we looped Loren in to the email chain, even though he wasn't going to be making the trip - he was heading for California that weekend. We watched the weather closely, ready to make a last minute change if there was a chance of getting snowed in. Aside from some seriously cold temps, the forecast was looking much better than it did when we made this trip last year - it rained for 3 days straight. Frank, Nate and myself set out from Baltimore the evening of Nov. 9th. We rented a SUV incase it did snow on the plateau, we figured that would give us a better chance of getting back down to civilization.
We arrived at our dinner spot, El Jinete, in Cumberland, MD pretty much right on schedule with Frank's itinerary. We sat down, ordered some drinks and prepared to be amazed by the local talent - it was of course karaoke night. As we waited for our food to show up, someone that looked oddly familiar walked quickly up to our table and took a seat in the booth next to Nate. It was an El Jinete miracle - Loren Clapp. No one knew he was coming - we had all of course told him to change his flight and come on the trip, but he said it would be too costly and shut us down. He had been texting us, a somewhat annoying amount, on our journey to Cumberland - now we understood why. With our bellies full of delicious Mexican vittles, and our ears surrounded by the sweet melodies of Cumberland's best voices, we made a plan to leave Loren's vehicle at a park and ride a few miles away, and then head to the trailhead from there. We encountered two more bits of excitement before the trip started : a sobriety checkpoint along the highway, which we were happily waved through, and a close encounter with a car chasing dog at the base of the mountain - in which I found out the Nissan Pathfinder has a great antilock brake system. We arrived around 1030 at the top of the plateau, and since we hadn't wanted to be in long underwear the entire 4 hour drive, had to change into our adventure gear at the trailhead. This turned out to be a bad decision. The car thermometer read 36 degrees, and the wind was whipping - it was a miserable place to prep, but we all powered through and were hiking by 11ish.
The moon was rising as we began our hike, it was beautiful, but way too late and cold to mess around with tripods so you get no visuals of it. We hurriedly made our way to a section of trail that was in a small valley and much less exposed to the wind, 36 degrees never felt so pleasant. We hiked for just over a mile, to a campsite I had been wanting to stay at since my first trip to the Sods. A pretty little spot right along Red Creek, with just enough room for 3 hammocks and a tent. We had to cross a creek to get to the site, but it was a piece of cake, with the water being much lower than it had been on our last visit.
We went right to work setting up our sleeping quarters, enjoying the few beers that we had hiked in for the night. Once were were all set up it was around 1230 or so, and we debated just going to sleep, but why would we do that when there was more beer and plenty of wood to burn? After a few unsuccessful attempts at starting a fire, a mishap with the hatchet (by me), some blood and skin glue, we finally prevailed and reveled in the small amount of heat it provided us. I'm not sure what time we turned in, but I'd say we closed the bar down for sure.
I was quite warm, surrounded by a cocoon of down - but I had to take a leak, so I was forced out of my hammock around 730 AM. It was shockingly cold out side of my down barrier, but I managed to slip on my frozen boots and find a good tree to lean on.
I was up, so I set about the chore of getting the bear bags down, which turned out to be more of a task than normal. The ropes had actually cut into the bark of the branch they were thrown over and froze in place. When I untied our fancy knots, the bags stayed exactly where they had been all night, about 15 feet in the air. I've never encountered this issue before, so it took me a while to figure out what to do. I ended up procuring a very long stick to lift and then dropped each bag so that the weight of the food pulled the rope loose.
After getting our food down, I grabbed my camera and took some shots of our site before I decided it was time to wake the rest of the crew - they hate when I do that, but they would sleep all day if I let them. We all made ourselves hot breakfast, and began the chore of packing up camp. Frank busted out his fancy technology, and confirmed that yes, it was indeed cold enough to freeze standing water. We witnessed about 20 people hike right past our campsite that morning, which was something we hadn't expected. Given the chilling forecast, we thought we would be close to alone out here.
As we were finishing our load out, it started to snow. We all got a bit worried, we had heard some pretty crazy stories about feet of snow falling in the Sods, when it wasn't predicted anywhere else.
We were on the trail by 10ish, with a plan of hiking about 8 miles and choosing a campsite from a mile long stretch of them. The wind was once again blowing hard, and we stopped on top of the plateau to add some extra warmth to our layers before continuing on.
We made our way across the frozen plateau, stopping every once in a while in the outcroppings of pines to check out new campsites and get a break from the brutal wind.
We marched on, with the sun dramatically popping out for seconds at a time, then quickly disappearing. The clouds were whipping across the sky, the arctic blast that the weather people had been chatting about was definitely to blame.
As usual, the trail was wet and muddy, and this time it was also icy. We spent a large amount of time dodging giant icy mud puddles, but sometimes there was no choice but to stomp right through them. Below is Loren's example of how not to jump a mud puddle in the Sods.
We got lucky, and Loren didn't injure himself. His overstuffed pack had even saved him the embarrassment of hiking with skid marks on his pants the rest of the day. We discovered quickly that when you get muddy in 20 degree weather, it freezes almost immediately and you can simply scrape it off. After Loren's misstep, we all were slightly more cautious when hopping over puddles.
By 11:30 we had made our way to Rocky Ridge trail, which is mostly exposed with incredible views to the west into the canaan valley. Last time we were here it was rainy, foggy and windy and we couldn't see squat. Although it was a few degrees colder this time - we were able to see it in all its glory.
We stopped for a group photo at one of the outcroppings. I forced them to stand here for the longest 2 minutes of our lives in the freezing cold and howling wind while I waited for break in the clouds and a little peak of sunshine. Not sure it actually paid off, but those don't shoot me orange hats look great.
We hung around long enough for that awesome group picture and got back on the trail to find some shelter from the relentless wind.
The Rocky Ridge trail is one of those hard to follow ones - we were quite happy the ground wasn't covered in snow yet. There are cairns every once in a while that aid in following the trail, but other than that, its just a blind stumble through rocks and pine trees. We definitely lost the trail for a solid half mile, and just bushwhacked our way through. We used Frank's GPS to orient ourselves and head the proper direction to finally stumble back upon the proper trail.
Towards the end of the Rocky Ridge trail, after about 6 miles of hiking we thought about eating lunch, but with only a few miles to go we decided upon a quick trail snack and continued hiking. We figured tonight was going to be the coldest night, so we would get to camp early with plenty of daylight to collect firewood and get set up. The temperature did not rise above 25 while we were hiking, even in the full sun on the ridge. Our water supply suffered - we had to punch through frozen over openings every time we wanted to take a sip. At one point Loren and I decided to put our water bottles inside of our jackets to attempt thawing them with body heat while hiking - it barely worked. My water bladder, stored inside my pack did not freeze which was great - I ended up never tapping the reservoir with the drinking tube, since I assumed that would freeze immediately. I just dumped water from it into our water bottles to replenish the drinking supplies.
We began our decent on the Stone Coal trail, and said goodbye to the false sense of warmth that sun the provided. We passed up quite a few nice looking campsites as we made our way down the valley, but found a gem in the pines right beside a small creek. There were two other decent looking spots here, but we collectively decided this one was best since it was heavily guarded by pines on all sides, just incase the wind was going to pick up again.
We figured out who was hanging where, finally ate some lunch and set about gathering fuel for what promised to be a long cold night.
After our last experience in Dolly Sods - where every downed log was completely saturated and near impossible to get burning - and given we knew it was going to be colder this time, we brought along a hatchet and a folding saw to help. We spent the next three hours setting up our sleeping quarters, searching for dead standing or downed trees that were not rotten, dragging them back to camp and processing them into much smaller pieces fit for burning. It made the time fly. Before we knew it, the sun had disappeared and we were well on our way to the coldest night any of us had ever experienced while backpacking.
After a lot of grief and frustration, we finally got the fire to a point where it could sustain itself. Building a fire out here never seems to be easy. This time we had chosen a tree that looked and felt fantastic, but apparently it had a bunch of moisture frozen in it, every time we had the fire going and added some some of the suspect wood, the fire quickly died down. We identified the culprit wood and banished it back to the forest from whence it came. We boiled up some water for MRE's and got busy stuffing our faces with calories for the long cold sleep ahead. The plan was to turn in early, no one wanted to stay up to see how cold it was going to get plus we could be up early and back on the trail.
That plan was ruined when the whiskey began to flow freely from our flasks, and the fire continued to burn much longer than we had expected. We sipped ice cold whiskey of varying degrees of deliciousnesses and the time flew by. Loren was the big winner of the night, some how killing three hot cocoas spiked with whiskey while the rest of us had only enjoyed one. It was soon apparent that we were going to have to tuck our good friend in that night, to make sure he didn't lose any digits to the cold. Loren completely disagreed with the fact that he may have been over served, and began offering up hand and foot warmers, as though he were making commission on them. Not one to turn down warm hands or feet, I took him up on his offer and we coerced him into his hammock. After a solid 15 minutes of wrestling with his quilts, he finally said one last good night - and we immediately came over to make sure he was snug as a bug in a rug. Luckily he has good friends. I quickly realized his feet were not covered by his under quilt and remedied the issue, and he was soon sawing logs of his own. We continued to add logs to the fire and quickly found ourselves ready to turn in as well. We gathered all the food items and hung them in our bear bag, which we had strung earlier in the night. The temperature was in the teens and we all wondered just how cold it was going to get. I climbed into my hammock, put on some dry socks, busted out those foot warmers and put on my full face balaclava to prepare for the long chill. I was woken a few times, once by Loren's incessant snoring, and another by Frank climbing out to take a leak, otherwise I slept like a log - a really warm log surrounded by fluffy goose down and a warm pocket of air.
As usual I was the first one up, it was about 8 AM and I of course couldn't pinch the bladder any longer. I swung my legs out of the warm cocoon and struggled with my frozen boots. As far as I could tell we had all survived the night. I grabbed my camera and wondered around the campsite, snapping photos to serve as evidence of the extreme cold we had dealt with the night before (Franks thermometer showed a low of 10 degrees).
After thirty minutes or so of photographing the cold, I decided to see if anyone else was up yet. They were not. I grabbed a stick and stirred the ash pile in the fire ring. Surprisingly it was still full of hot coals, a wonderful thing to find on such a cold morning. I set about getting some small sticks and prepping some larger ones, excited to have some heat while I waited for the rest of the gang to get up. The fire quickly sprung back to life, and oddly enough we hadn't burnt all of our cut wood from the night before, so I was able to get a good fire burning with very minimal effort, for once. I boiled some water for a hot breakfast, and got the bear bag down from the trees. I finally got folks moving with the promise of hot beverages and a fire, probably around 9 AM.
The morning fire ended up being a time suck. We were enjoying the warmth so much that we slacked off on the morning chores. I finally dumped the final pot of water on the fire around the crack of 11:30, and we were ready to hit the trail. After a quick chat about our route, and given the time of day, we decided to cut out a few miles - which ended up being a great idea. We had six creek crossings ahead of us, possibly seven. Three of the crossings we figured would be quite simple, since we had seen them before and the water was much lower than when we had seen them, the others we were unsure about.
Our first two crossings were simple rock hops across stone coal run, and we made it over with no issues either time. Our third crossing of the day was the first of two on Red Creek, and much more challenging. Red Creek was low, as most of the water ways were, but it is a much wider and deeper creek than any of the others we would encounter. The suggested crossing required wading, and looked like it would be up to our knees or beyond. Although the temps were on the rise, it was still hovering just below freezing and the thought of having wet boots was something none of us were willing to entertain. We decided to bushwhack our way upstream and look for better options. We found an area where the creek widened out a bit, and was split into two sections by a dry island. Everyone slowly picked their own route across the first section on exposed rocks. After 20 minutes or so of delicate boulder hopping, we were all now in the middle of the creek, on the island with dry boots. We quickly explored our options of leaving the island to finish our crossing. After a few minutes Loren decided a fallen tree, that was 4-5 feet off the surface of the water was the best option. Before we knew it, he was carefully inching his way across. He made it safely and the rest of us followed suit. I found a large 10' stick I was going to use as a wading staff to help my balance, but Frank was already on top of the log when I showed up with it, so I reluctantly handed him my prized stick. He made it quickly across, and tossed the stick back over to me, when I picked it up, it broke right in half. I didn't want to waste anymore time searching for a new one, so I climbed onto the tree and nervously inched my way across. With plenty of not-so-helpful coaching from my teammates on the dry side, I made it safe and sound. Nate was the last one to cross, and was able to find a large stick to aid his crossing. He made it safely as well, and we all decided it was time to eat some lunch, and fuel up for the second half of our day.
It was about 2pm, and we still had some serious miles to cover before we arrived at our planned destination for the night. We quickly ate our lunches, and were back to hiking by 215. We had expected the next part of the trail to stay at the same elevation and follow the creek, instead we found our selves on a serious ascent, up 600 ft or so from the creek below. We put our heads down and hiked quickly, not really enjoying the views as much as we could have, had we managed our time better. There were two more small creeks to cross on this section, and thankfully we skipped right over them on exposed rocks. After 1.5 miles of hiking "along" Red creek, we descended again to its' banks for our 6th crossing of the day and second crossing of Red Creek. It was again a little deeper than we wanted to see at the suggested crossing. We continued up stream to find a better option, and finally we found what we thought were enough dry rocks to make it across safely and dry. With my camera safely tucked into a dry bag, I slowly picked my way across the rocks, the crew watching safely from the shore. After some trial and error, I made it across with dry feet, dropped my pack on the bank and made my way halfway back across to coach the rest of the team. Loren is the shortest of the group and smartly decided his legs were not going to be able to cover the distances between rocks that mine had, so he painstakingly found his own route across while I guided Frank and Nate on my route. After another long crossing, we all thankfully still had dry feet and again began an ascent out of Red Creek Canyon to find ourselves a campsite. It was about 4 o'clock and the sun had disappeared behind the mountains. After another mile and half and 600 vertical feet, we were out of the canyon and on basically flat land. We found a quick pace and powered through, darkness was setting in as we came to our 7th water crossing of the day. We quickly picked our way across a tributary of Red Creek, and began exploring the campsites to find a place to call home for the night. After a scan of the 6 or so campsites, the ones that were not occupied did not have enough room for our group of four, so I decided to cross the creek again to back track and check out some sites we had passed before our last crossing. I ended up making the decision to stay at a campsite we had used on our previous trip. I dropped my pack in the darkness, found my headlamp and jogged back to the creek crossing to tell the rest of the guys to join me. They reluctantly picked up their heavy packs one more time to cross the creek.
We were happy to find a few large dead trees in a neighboring campsite and quickly drug them to ours, to begin processing them for warmth. We had a fire going by 630 or so and spirits were high as we set up our sleeping quarters for the night. We had hiked close to 7 long miles, the night was going to be much warmer than the previous, and we still had a good amount of whiskey between the four of us to get a little buzz going. We prepped our meals while cutting and chopping more wood for the fire. We filled our bellies with delicious re-hydrated meals and sipped ice cold whiskey watching the fire as it quickly turned solid wood into ash. After a few hours, the booze was gone, and we were ready for sleep. We hung the bear bags, and climbed into our beds. I was pretty excited it was going to be twice as warm as the previous night and even left my balaclava and gloves off this time. The low was only 25 degrees!
We hatched plans to get up early the following day, so we could make it back to the car at a decent hour for our long journey home. I slowly climbed out of my hammock around 730, and was surprised to see Loren already up cooking water for breakfast. We methodically went through our morning rituals of boiling water, eating, breaking down camp, packing our bags and filtering water for the day ahead. We were able to resurrect a very small fire from night before but the temps were pushing to climb above freezing for the first time since we had arrived, so we weren't to invested in it. We were on the trail by 930, a much better departure time than the day before. We had 6.5 muddy miles ahead of us, but the sun was shinning and temps were on the rise, so spirits were high as we set out.
We had 3 stream crossings on our last day, which we had all seen before on our previous trip, so we knew they wouldn't slow us down. The only large obstacle of the day was our initial 400 foot ascent out of the red creek canyon. We took plenty of breaks, mostly to shed layers as our blood began to flow. Back up on the plateau there was plenty of sunshine, we spent the rest of our morning soaking it in and dodging giant sections of mud, crossing from one side of the trail to the next to keep from falling down. We were making good time and stopped for a nice long lunch at the top of a small hill climb - we of course discussed our next meal - which would be prepared for us, and consist of wayyy more calories than we should probably consume in one sitting. With somewhat full bellies and the lightest loads of the trip, we made quick time back to the car.
The sun was suddenly swallowed up by clouds during our last few miles, but the temperature was nearing 50 degrees, so it wasn't missed all that much.
We were back to the car by 130 I believe - I changed into some non muddy clothing, others opted to skip the formality and keep rocking 3 day old clothing. We loaded the car and were on our way to pizza and wings in no time.
We again stopped in Cumberland for a victory meal - this time at a pizza place that took way to long to feed our smelly asses, but at least the Steeler game was on the T.V. After our drawn out meal we dropped Loren off at his car, said our farewells, and pointed the car back east to Baltimore. It was a great trip, and we certainly tested our limits of cold weather camping. The biggest issue we encountered was freezing water filters, and water bottles, which we remedied by always staying near a water source and opting to boil rather than filter our water until the very last day, when the temps were above freezing. Lesson learned, now onto the next adventure!