*A little Foreshadowing*
A little foreshadowing should have warned me of the potential for disaster when I slipped on the ice near the Mt. Mitchell Summit parking lot.
Over the years of hiking, all the way back to the Boy Scout timesÖI have developed three rules.
Rule number one - itís hard to be too careful when undertaking a winter camping expedition. Be prepared, mentally, physically and gearwise.
I had just started down the trail from the summit of Mt. Mitchell, the highest point east of the Mississippi River. The air was a crisp 14 degrees. For several years, I have sought out true winter camping conditions in the Black Mountain area and I had finally found them. I wanted the real deal. I wanted life-threatening cold conditions. I wanted to test my training, skills and equipment against the elements.
After I slipped, I thought about it. "What would happen if I slipped on the ice and injured myself."?
No problem, I thought. Got the fix for this problem. Feeling quite proud of myself, I retrieved a pair of Yax Trax from a side pocket of the Kelty. Donning them and walking across ice was like walking across a rough asphalt parking lot. "This is beautiful," I thought. A Yax Trax is a rubber frame with steel wire on the bottom designed to increase ice traction. They work well under benign circumstances, and are exceptionally lightweight, but they are none too rugged. I had never used them in this particular situation, but they came highly recommended by many folks who hike in far worse conditions than I was expecting.
Rule number two - never use untested equipment when your life might depend on it.
I noticed that I had blown out a Yax Trax on the way down. "Bummer," I thought to myself. Iíll take them off and save them for the ascent back up, where I really need them and proceeded to continue down the trail avoiding the ice by walking outside the trail when necessary. This worked well and I made it to Commissary Ridge before dark.
"Perfect," I thought to myself. I had enough time to set up camp under a ledge on the leeward side of a small hill. I love camping under the stars and with little chance of rain, because of the temp mainly and a dry high-pressure system moving into the area, there was almost no risk of the camp becoming sodden by a sudden downpour.
Quickly, I rolled out the tent bottom, which I decided to use as a ground cloth, placed the sleeping pad on top and fluffed out my Kelty Light Year 25 bag and a Marmot bag liner on top. For the temperatures I expected, this would be enough, though in hindsight, next winter camping trip, I am going to bring my 0 degree bag. It is warmer than the combination and about the same weight.
Behind a screen of rocks, I set up the kitchen which consisted of a titanium pot and a Svea 123 Climber stove. The Optimus Svea is one of the most dependable stoves on the market. I own several stoves, ranging from the Optimus Nova, which can burn any hydrocarbon lighter than tar to the Primus Titanium Alpine cartridge stove which weighs less than three ounces. I chose the Svea because of itís proven reliability and ease of use. Cartridge stoves are notoriously unreliable when the temp drops below freezing. I took out the amount of food I would need for the evening meal and hung the rest as a precaution against bears. I had seen scat near the trail and didnít want to take any chances.
Purposefully, I did not carry a lot of water down the mountain because I knew water would be available at the campsite I had selected. When I went to fill up the bottles, I noticed a pair of campers with a dog filtering water out of a nearby spring. They were set up in a tent at the foot of the open space, quite close to the trail. They were the only people I met during the trip. One of the hikers was struggling with a frozen filter and having quite a time getting water.
While the wind screamed by at 35 mph, I cooked supper - a freeze-dried meal of Polynesian Chicken, some miso soup, trail mix and that most wonderful winter beverage hot chocolate. Ate rather quickly because the food was getting cold as the evening wore on. At first, I planned on reading a novel before bed, but the cold drove me into my bag early.
All the while, the temperature was dropping. I had measured the temp on my Motorola two-way radio at various intervals both driving up the mountain and climbing down the mountain. The coldest temperature was at the top - a scant 8 F. At the campsite, out of the wind, the temp was 22 F. This seemed normal to me. The summit of Mt. Mitchell is 6,700 feet and Commissary Ridge is about 3,000 feet lower. I measured the temperature during several bathroom breaks at night and the coldest I recorded was 18 F at 3:36 am.
After a good nightís sleep, I woke up at 7:30 am to 22 F temperatures and a light dusting of snow. I got up and started the stove to cook breakfast, which consisted of two packages of instant oatmeal, hot chocolate, trail mix and an energy bar. I piddled around camp for a couple of hours trying out gear and packing everything back up. Filled up the water bottles and treated the water with Polar Pure, an iodine treatment which has a temperature indicator telling how much iodine is needed to treat at a given temperature. This stuff is proven - I used it for over two weeks in Peru while drinking from questionable water sources and never got sick.
Things were warming up a bit, warm being a relative term. I measured the temperature at 31F, still cold, but approaching melting point. This means in certain places, ice begins to melt somewhat - and become very slippery. Shoulda been a warning to those in tuneÖ
But I was making good time and walking to my own tune, as I am wont to do in the mountains. Better time than I expected. Getting good and warmed up, which meant I was moving faster and feeling better. So good in fact that I decided to push on until I got to one of the balds where I could brew up a nice cup of tea, some soup and have some lunch while watching the hawks circle around looking for rabbits and mice.
Local Native Americans called this entire region Nantahala which translates to "Land of the Noon-day sun." True to name, the sun peered out from the clouds as noon approached. With golden sunshine drenching the otherwise dreary, yet lovely, winterscape, my spirits soared. Thin wisps of clouds flew by overhead. The trees were shorn of their normal adornment of leaves and the rugged grey and mossy green flanks of the Black Mountains were visible. This is what I had come for.
Almost lost in thought, I rounded a curve in the trail which brought me to an interesting place - a sheer face going up on one side and a very steep cliff going down on the other side. Not much space in between. At this point, the trail was frozen solid with a thick ice. Like I had been doing all along this morning, I tried to tiptoe through a narrow leaf-covered, seemingly ice free spot in the trail. However, I mis-stepped and slipped.
Vibram soles are no match for slippery iceÖ
In less than the blink of an eye, I went from walking vertically to laying horizontally on the ice. I heard a sharp crack, like a tree falling. When I came to, I was face down on this ice slab. The 50-pound pack had slammed into me when I fell. Stunned and disoriented, I couldnít move. I was not in any immediate pain, save for the breath having been knocked out of me. When I realized what had happened, I tried to get up.
Disaster had struck.
But this is what I had trained and prepared for since I decided I would hike alone more than six years ago.
Though the ice was cold, I kept still and began to regroup. I wiggled my toes and moved my fingers to make sure I hadnít suffered that most dreaded of all injuries - a broken spinal cord. To my relief, I had not. So I tried to get up and in doing so, found my left arm unable to move. I thrashed about on the ice for a few moments and tried to get up, but to no avail. Struggling wasnít going to get it, so I relaxed and began to think things over.
By now I realized that I had to get the beast off my back. There was no way I could get up with the pack on. Using my right hand, I managed to unfasten the hip belt and chest strap. All hell broke loose when I began to wiggle out from underneath the pack. My left arm felt like it was on fire to the bone. I winced and rolled off the ice onto a relatively dry piece of leaf-covered rocky ground.
As I stood up and my arms relaxed to my side, my left arm hurt like nothing ever before. My left arm was definitely broken, possibly with a compound or complex fracture near the shoulder. The pain was excruciating. The only comfortable position I found was to keep it bent at the waist.
Then my training took over. I fashioned a sling out of my scarf. Yes, I carry a silk scarf in winter camping because it has many uses. This time, the scar turned out to be one of the most important pieces of gear I brought along. With my arm stabilized and not yet throbbing, I began to take stock of the situation.
My arm was broken and the hiking over for this trip. I could do one of two things. Make camp on the trail as best I could and wait for someone to come by and help. This was not appealing because I had told everyone I was going to be gone for seven days and not to assume anything was wrong until day eight. I had plenty of provisions, but the thought of spending what could be days in pain waiting for rescue in the sub-freezing weather sounded dicey at best. The other option was to hike out. That meant hiking back to the trailhead over nearly four miles of rough ground and back up the mountain. With a broken limb. neither option sounded great to me.
Weighing the choices, I decided to hike out. The previous night was cold enough when I was healthy. I didnít want to spend another night out in the cold if I did not have to. I was going to go for it. If I were going to hike out to safety, I would have to do it in one shot and have to make it out before dark. It was 1:30 pm and getting dark already.
Deciding to hike out meant making more choices. What gear was I going to carry? Carrying the pack was out of the question. So I ended up taking my survival kit, a space blanket, several energy bars and extra matches along with a fleece and my Northface Gore-Tex rain jacket. My plan was to hike as hard as I could to make it to the summit before dark so I could get help. If I didnít make it, I would have to dress in the jacket and fleece, wrap up in the space blanket and hope for the best.
It wasnít going to be easy.
I took the remaining Yax Trax device and put it on so I would have some traction over the ice. My hiking poles were gone - down the mountain. I couldnít have used them anyway, so I was going to have to be extra careful to avoid falling again. Another fall may have been the end. I took two Vicodin which my doctor had prescribed for just such a situation and drank my fill of water and headed out.
About halfway back to the summit, the remaining traction device gave out. I had to cross one larger patch of ice before getting to a trail, which would take me to the road leading to the summit. Not willing to risk walking across bare ice again, I got down on my hands and knees and scooted across.
My training helped. Each night, I usually walk between four and ten miles to help build and maintain cardiovascular fitness. It made the difference. It took me about four hours to it out, but I did. I hitched a ride with some friendly tourists who were heading for the summit. They brought me to the ranger station. The ranger, a North Carolina Parks and Recreation employee, called for an ambulance to meet use halfway to Spruce Pines, a small community with a hospital.
The hospital staff were friendly and professional. Soon, I found out that I had a simple fracture of the upper humorous - and let me tell you it wasnít too funny. Soon, I had a real sling rather than the makeshift sling I had improvised and was on the way back home.
I reaffirmed a few things after the event. First, training is essential. Second, equipment is vital in winter camping. Together, they will prevent panic and keep you out of trouble.
Also, much to the consternation of my friends and family, I will continue to hike alone when I feel like it!
That is a hikerís thingÖ.not many people understand.
Oh, by the way, Rule Number three is have a blast!
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