Don’t hike tall mountains with the wrong gear

So my brother Kevin invited a bunch of us to go hiking over Easter weekend (he had Good Friday off of work, so a good time to go.) I have not been on an overnight, not-car-camping hike since I was 12 and was going to Trailblazer Camp at Bethelwoods  (I’m certain my dear friend Jenny remembers that well!) but we’ve been doing lots of car camping and a few day hikes, so I felt I was up for the challenge.

Kevin’s friends backed out (one at the last minute), our friend Ronnie backed out at the last minute, and my husband Jeff got sick … so on hike day, it was just me and Kevin and our dogs (one of my dogs, and one of Kevin’s.)

Signs warned us this was not quite camping weather yet ...
Signs warned us this was not quite camping weather yet ...

I should mention that the reason Kevin wanted to hike Mount Mitchell above other places is this: He had tried it several weeks before and COULDN’T DO IT. Partially because of the time of day (it was getting dark and they had to get back to camp) but partially because of the level of difficulty. Mount Mitchell is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. It’s 5.7 miles from the bottom to the summit, so almost 12 miles round trip. The most difficult hike I’ve done as an adult prior to this is probably Crowders Mountain, which is 1.8 miles round trip, and not even technically a mountain, but a monadnock. A slight difference! As a runner, I was thinking of the distance as a flat surface. I can run 6-7 miles in a day, and we had 2 days to do it, plus we were walking, not running, so a piece of cake, right?

The gear

Although I was certain this trip would be the first of many, rather than go out and buy a bunch of gear, I thought it smart to rent a pack and a tent from REI  before investing a bunch of money and then deciding this wasn’t for me. The woman who helped us at the rental counter was very helpful and honest. (“Have you ever done this before? You do realize Mount Mitchell is extremely difficult, right? So you are insane, then?”) The bad news: The smallest tent they rent is a 3-person, but she assured me that Jeff and I could carry the tent together without a problem (note I said we could carry it together – and Jeff then backed out!) Kevin has his own tent; and I couldn’t share with him because our dogs don’t hate each other, but they don’t exactly love each other either … could you imagine a middle-of-the-night brawl?

The morning of the trip, Kevin and I stopped at REI on our way out of town to pick up the rental gear. The guy manning the counter this time wasn’t quite all there – he clearly didn’t know how to work the rental counter (he did admit later that hiking is not his thing – cycling is.) It took him a long time to find the gear, get the contract worked out (I had to fill it out 3 times because he kept messing up!), etc. Long story short, I was inside REI for more than an hour, which was crazy considering I’d already been fitted for and reserved my gear days before.

One red flag regarding the gear: They gave me an REI Mars pack. The reason this seemed odd to me is Jeff had just purchased an REI Mars pack the day before (before he realized he was too sick to go with us.) Jeff also told me he had already picked out the REI Venus pack for me to get later. (Mars, Venus, get it?) So why were they renting me a Mars pack? Isn’t that a man’s pack?

I paid for the rentals, went back to the counter to pick up my gear and a new guy was back there. He mentioned the tent being really heavy for one person to carry. But they didn’t have a smaller tent so I didn’t have much of a choice! I asked him at that point “So this is the correct bag for me, right?” and he was like, “Yeah, yeah, that’s the right bag.” Well, ok then! I was more concerned about the heaviness of the tent at that moment anyway, so I didn’t think too much more about the bag.

Check out the space between my shoulder and the pack!
Check out the space between my shoulder and the pack!

I am probably going into way too much detail about the gear – but it was a very significant part of the trip because let’s just say, I learned the hard way how having the wrong gear can be extremely detrimental. We got to Mount Mitchell and Kevin helped me pack my bag. He thought it looked big, and when I tried it on we realized that REI was very wrong about this being the right pack for me. There was a 3 or 4 inch gap between where my shoulders were and where they were supposed to be. The waist portion was also very low on my hips. This clearly was a pack meant for someone much larger than myself. (The end result was a lack of balance – the pack was very top heavy – which is very bad when you’re planning to climb a mountain! And I ended up with some battle wounds – bruises on my hips and shoulders from where the pack was rubbing at the wrong spot.)

To REI’s defense, however, when I went hobbling back in at the end of the hike to tell them what happened, they were very apologetic and issued a full refund. Later I would go back to purchase a pack from them (ended up with the Osprey Aura 65), and when I mentioned to the saleslady that I had been rented a Mars pack, she was appalled. It was a mistake made by one employee – not the company, thank goodness. Other than this glitch, I love REI!

The hike (day 1)

Did I mention I hadn’t done this in many years? We have enjoyed many day hikes with our good friends Tammy and Zan at Crowders Mountain, but it’s quite different with gear and a much taller mountain. Kevin and I hiked the first 3 miles on Good Friday.

He is much more used to hiking than I, so he was able to keep a good pace. I focused on keeping up and not toppling over with my huge pack! My dog Breanna was the perfect hiking partner. At 45 pounds, you wouldn’t think she could help much, but she was able to pull just hard enough to give me some leverage at the difficult points. At one break, Kevin casually asked me if I had waterproof boots. “I’m not sure,” I said. “Why?” I had bought them several years ago at Jesse Brown’s, so I was confident they were good quality. Kevin inspected them and said that yes, they are waterproof.

Right before we arrived at camp, I had to walk through a creek! There were stones to step on, and I rolled up my pants but still got a little wet. No wonder he was asking about the boots! To be honest, he had mentioned crossing a creek before we left, but I assumed he meant via bridge …

But I made it, and we arrived at camp at dusk. We scrambled to set up our tents and look for firewood before it got dark (it was getting cold, too!) While Kevin collected water from the creek and purified it, I found the jackpot of firewood – a huge pile of knocked down trees. I then noticed a LOT of knocked down trees, so I asked Kevin about it. “Oh, that’s from tornados,” he said. Tornados? Um …

So we got the fire started, I had macaroni and cheese (I won’t even tell you how MUCH of it I ate that night! I was famished!) and Kevin had an MRE (thanks to Jeff, the former Marine, of course.) We’ve had MREs at our house for years, but that was the first time I’d ever seen one opened. I was impressed with the amount of food packed into that little pouch (and the amount of calories!). I did taste a bite of the brownie Kevin had for dessert and I will say, although I am the world’s biggest chocolate lover, that was not good. Oh well. …

It was only about 8 p.m., but the fire was dying out and we were cold and tired. We decided to hit the sack. Breanna was so happy to be sharing a tent with me, and I snuggled up with her for a nice cozy sleep. Except … I couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t tired once I got settled, but it was too cold to put my arm out of the sleeping bag to get my reading light and my magazine. I was dehydrated but I didn’t want to drink too much because I didn’t want to have to pee in the middle of the night. As I tried to get sleepy, I heard the wind picking up – and then I heard it howling. All night long … I imagined tornados in the distance, picking up speed and heading toward us. I imagined my tent circling about in the air before it landed at the base of the mountain … I wondered, what does one do when a tornado come and he or she is in a tent? Do I leave the tent to look for a ditch? Or do I stay put and pray? Needless to say, a sleepless (but tornadoless!) night ensued.

The hike (day 2)

Just before dawn, a wild beast jumped on top of my tent! Oh wait, that was Althea, Kevin’s husky/German shepard mix. But needless to say, we were all awake. Kevin and I got out of our warm sleeping bags, took photos of the sun rising behind the trees, decided to eat granola bars for breakfast instead of starting another fire, and got to hiking.

We left our gear at camp and Kevin packed his day pack. Wow, what a much easier time! Without the wrong gear on, I felt lighter and faster. The sun came out and dethawed us, and we hiked toward the summit (close to 3 miles). We saw other campsites and I realized we hadn’t been as alone on that mountain with the scary winds as I had thought. It was a steady climb uphill, but almost more along the lines of a nice stroll. We even ran into a Boy Scout  troop taking a break just before the extremely difficult part of the hike …

An icy trail awaited us. Yikes!
An icy trail awaited us. Yikes!

Oh, and it got difficult. Not only did the hike turn into purely stone and very steep, but the stone was covered in ice. Covered. I felt as if I were ice skating! Kevin, with his experience (and probably much better balance than I!) was able to maneuver past the ice as if it were no problem. Breanna and Althea, the dogs, also did very well. I on the other hand …

Let’s just say at one point I was on my hands and feet trying to keep from falling, and I look up and Kevin is laughing and filming me. That’s my younger brother for ya! I don’t blame him, though – I would have done the same thing! He said later perhaps he should have helped me, but really, there’s nothing he could have done … Had he tried to take my hand, I probably would have ended up pulling all four of us down!

At any rate, we reached the summit with no injuries! There was construction all around, but the view and the sense of accomplishment were amazing! We even got a small cell phone signal. We called Jenn, Kevin’s wife, and she could barely hear us. Then we called Jeff, got the answering machine, and I left a message – not knowing if he could hear a word I was saying. We decided to hike down a little before breaking for lunch – it was so cold at the top!

Kevin and Althea at the summit
Kevin and Althea at the summit

The hike down, as you could imagine, was extremely difficult with the ice. Eventually, though, the ice thinned out to “normal” ground. At one point, Kevin and Althea stopped to wait for Breanna and me. Right as we caught up to them, I heard a noise. In the woods. It sounded like a bear! I looked at Althea – was it her? Meantime, Breanna’s ears lowered and she put her head down and started moving forward quickly – she looked as if she were trying to make herself as small as possible. We decided to follow her lead and hightailed it out of there! I found out later that was the second growl Kevin had heard – the first one he was hoping (but knowing better) that it might have been Breanna. We never did find out what it was – a bear, a mountain lion, a tree leaning in the wind? Probably good we don’t know.

We made it back to camp and it was only around noon, much earlier than we’d thought. So we decided to hike the rest of the way rather than spending a second night as we’d originally planned. I was relieved after the first sleepless night and after the crazy sound in the woods.

The hike down was brutal for me. Imagine the weight of a pack that doesn’t fit, and now it’s pushing you down instead of pulling you back! I was terrified of falling the entire time. Breanna and I took it very slow, and she kept looking back as if to check on me. I think that weekend is when I realized what a truly good dog she is. When Kevin and Althea got out of eyesight, she would bark periodically – as if to let them know where we were. After a slow and painful hike on my part, we were down at the bottom. I took off my gear, inspected my bruises and settled in for a drive home. I truly meant to stay awake to keep Kevin company during the drive, but that lasted all of a few minutes before I was out …

Overall, what a great sense of accomplishment and I can’t wait to do it again – with the correct gear this time, of course!