1997 Winter Hike: I Dream of A White Devil
Ed. Note: The following true story, as told by Marty Lamp with an introduction by Don Parks, took place during the 1997 "Winter Hike". This hike has become an annual adventure started by the author and Brad Yurish in 1993. Since then, they have rallied several friends every year to take a hike during the days between Christmas and New Years. The group of hikers take off to endure five to six days and nights of the best that Appalachia has to offer for winter expeditions. In 1997, an otherwise mild year for winters in WV, the year's group of five were caught in a blizzard while hiking in the Monongahela National Forest's Cranberry Wilderness.
|Emory(L) and Brad(R) unsuspectingly get ready for another year's adventure|
How'd We Get Here?
On the morning of December 26, 1997, Marty Lamp, Brad Yurish, Dennis Vass, Emory Rogers, and myself left the Cranberry Mountain Visitor Center for a 6 day/5 night, 70 mile hike on a clock-wise loop starting out northwest through the Cranberry Wilderness. (See our Route Map for details. Page numbers referenced are from the Monongahela National Forest Hiking Guide by Allen de Hart and Bruce Sundquist.)
The weather was chilly with a thin layer of old snow on the ground as we started out that morning. We relished the thought of some real snow on our winter hike for 1997. The previous year's hike had been done in unseasonably warm weather and had really left us feeling a little unfulfilled.
|The first night's snow was just a sign of things to come|
Snow fell intermittently throughout the day as we trudged along the Pocahontas Trail (TR263) and dropped down Fisherman's Trail (TR231) to the Cranberry River. We were prepared for this weather and our rugged boots and gators did the job as the snow continued to accumulate. However, we were not prepared to ford the Cranberry River. Eventually, after searching various places up and down stream, we each took routes which we hoped would not be too deep. Everyone took frigid water into their boots in differing quantities and now it was time to quickly make our way to camp.
Night two's camp was another two miles of hiking along the river to a shelter on the banks of the Cranberry River near the Lick Branch Trailhead (TR212). Everyone made camp with some folks feet colder than others. The shelter proved vital as the snow fell during the night and we did our best to get warm and dry our boots. Building a fire proved to be futile and quite a few boots were seen dangling over camp stoves.
|(L-R) Marty, Dennis and Brad take a break on day 3 with the snow still manageable|
The third night of camping was where things began to get interesting. As the sun set that evening, we searched for rock outcroppings after climbing the west end of the County Line Trail (TR206). Our trail guide had said that "several large overhangs offering shelter" should be present. The only rocks we could find made for very little shelter. We spent the night in less than ideal conditions but, at least we did find sufficient overhangs providing dry ground for our sleeping bags.
|Emory hikes with the sun at his back on his last day with the group|
The four of us that remained, not knowing what was to become of Emory, headed east toward the District Line Trail that would take us back south. Not long after we began this fourth day of hiking, the gods of winter decided it was time to get serious. The snow came in abundance that day and mercilessly continued for the two nights and days that followed.
|Brad begins a treacherous crossing of one of the forks of the Williams River|
The following story tells of these final two nights and days out in snow that was measured, not in inches, but in feet. It begins with the final night of camping and looks back on how we got there and what happened when we left. We all knew that we were becoming dangerously close to being out matched by Mother Nature. The hike was no longer about testing our toughness and pumping our egos in the mountains of the Cranberry Wilderness, it was about survival.
I Dream of a White Devil
Laying here, itchy and wet, I try to justify to myself the circumstances which have me forced into the corner of this public restroom*. Tonight this restroom is as far from public as this blizzard is from the cozy confines of our warm homes. There is no one to blame but ourselves, we know that, and the lack of conversation drives this point home in a hard way. Brad shakes his fuel bottle like a can of paint, and the look on his face tells me all I need to know... empty. "Thank god we brought an extra bottle", I think to myself as I reach down between my legs and pull our last bottle out from the relative warmth of my sleeping bag. My sleeping bag is frozen solid, and it crackles like a bag of chips as I stuff anything that needs to dry, or at least not freeze, down to my cold, pruned feet.
"Do you think it was worth the fuel to have the water", Brad asks, and we both know the answer. We are all so dehydrated that if we used all of our fuel to make as much water as we could, it still wouldn't be enough.
"We need the water", I say. Brad nods in agreement. We both know that with using this much fuel, we have to get back tomorrow. We figured to have only 10 or 12 miles to go, an easy jaunt by our standards, in reasonable conditions, but mother nature felt no need to be reasonable.
Thongk, thongk, thongk.....
"We would have to get this side", I complain, while laying with my hands between my legs, shivering like a frightened puppy in my bag that is slowly starting to thaw from the inside out. I welcome this thawing, but the cold, clammy, wetness brings a dead stare to my eyes that seems only to be able to focus on the thin crack that makes the outline of our door. Snow, soft and powdery, bursts through this crack as if its only mission in life is to cover Brad and me, and all of our beloved possessions.
"Don did get here first", Brad points out with a tone that says he knew I was aware of this already.
|Marty, deep in his sleeping bag, listens to Brad explain that we can't find the trail|
We had only walked a little ways from the trail to find the cave the night before, but when we started to leave that morning, it took our best team effort to locate our trail; we had found the cave under headlamps, tired, wet, hungry and so dehydrated that our urine seemed to glow. We had planned on finding our tracks in the morning, but our tracks were somewhere below the 12 inches of fresh snow. Cranberry Glades Wilderness Area was written across the top of our map, but the map did little to help us. All of the yellow blazes that once marked the trails were removed from the trees, making Cranberry Glades a horrifying wilderness area, but this also didn't really matter, because the horizontally driven snow clung to trees, covering them as it did anything that was attempting to face its wrath.
We needed to get to a road. The road would be our quickest way back to the vehicle. Trouncing through the snow and underbrush with heavy packs was slow going, not to mention incredibly tiring. We would take turns in the lead, breaking the trail. In actuality, we were taking turns being the guinea pigs, as the guy in the lead would inevitably tumble to the ground, covered with a fresh coat of snow, only to have the rest of group walk by laughing with appreciation for finding the unseen obstacle.
Finally, with sweat frozen to our bodies like some sick protective shell, we find a road. The jubilation was short lived once we took our first few steps out of the woods. The trees had provided quite an impressive wind block, and the temperature seemed to plummet due to wind chill resulting from the 30+ mph winds. Few words were spoken, and everyone nibbled away at their remaining bits of candy, and sipped their melted snow, all the while trying to keep a pace of any kind. To stop was to freeze, literally. We were soaked from the prior exertion, and although Polypro and Gore-tex is great stuff, it only does so much.
The snow was now just below our knees, and we managed to keep a pace of around 2 miles an hour. This is dreadfully slower than we hoped for, but we knew we were pushing our bodies too much just keeping this pace. To "bonk" in this weather would be a lethal thing, and with 3 hours of daylight left, no one wanted to think such thoughts, we just wanted to keep moving. Once again we would take turns at the lead. The only rule was to keep the lead as long as you could without crashing, then you were rewarded with the back of the line. I remember thinking that this transition seemed to be a 1000 times more rewardable than any drafting I have ever done on a bicycle. I stared down at the heels of the man in front of me, replacing each of his steps with one of my own. Then suddenly, I was in front and every step was a mental battle, frustration and fatigue fighting for the right to call me their slave.
The guard rails proved to be a surprising ally in this battle against mother nature. They were covered with snow, but the leeward side, with snow only up to our calves, provided enough relief to make these rails the object of our collective attention. While in the lead, Don scraped against a sharp corner of one of the guard rail posts and ripped his pants from the top of his thigh to his knee. We quickly stop and pulled out some duct tape, but the bitter cold makes the tape as useless as Don's pants. Within 1/4 mile, his pants are ripped down to his ankle due to the unforgiving winds, and his drive to walk faster picks up considerably. Don would stay in the lead for what remained of the day.
With roughly an hour of daylight left, we huddle together to decide on what we would do for the night. If we stopped now, soaking wet and shivering, in sub-zero temperatures, we realize that setting up a tent, much less cooking something warm to eat, would be a very sketchy choice. Just removing our gloves long enough to get food from our packs may well render our fingers useless. In a beautiful display of democratic process, we decided to go on.
By now, the snow was above our knees, and Don was 100 yards in the lead when I heard Dennis yell. I look up from Brad's heels to see some sort of little building, and in an instant I knew what an oasis meant to the desert traveler. My first thoughts were that it would be locked, and my second was that I would get in anyway. This was quickly forgotten when I saw Don disappear into the leeward side, the reward for being up front, and with Dennis right behind, no questions were asked, nothing was said, we just wanted shelter. We were going to spend the night in a public restroom, Don and Dennis in the female side, Brad and I in the male side. We were immensely thankful.
Thongk, thongk, thongk, thongk...
"Do you think Don will be all right?", I mumble, as the light beam from my headlamp pierced the steam coming from my drenched bag, as well as my boiling pot of water. My breath crystallized and fell prey to the air currents inside our frozen abode, moving in time with the snow that would burst in unannounced from the outline of the door.
Don was using a down bag, and as a result of our exertions, his bag was soaked. We had all huddled together in their side of our wintry oasis to melt some snow for water. Between the four of us, we had less than 1/2 a quart of water, and we needed at least a quart a piece for dinner, plus as much as possible for the next days adventure, and at this time, we had no idea how adventurous it may be. Don was in his bag, with all his clothes on, in the fetal position shivering, while Brad and I melted the snow, and Dennis questioned the sanity of ever being associated with us.
Jokes were passed, and thin smiles were forced, but none of us expected weather like this, not in West Virginia. Our collective travels and experiences are respectable when it comes to survival skills, yet none of us anticipated this. We had heard stories of the nasty winter weather on the Allegheny Plateau, but we were in West Virginia, our home, not the rockies of Colorado, or the cascades of Washington. We were only around 4000 feet above sea level! Nothing we said could do anything to change our predicament; we had been duped.
"His best chance at staying warm is to snuggle up to Dennis, you know", I answer to Brad's silence. I was speaking from experience, and although sleeping tight against my buddy is not something I like to do in my spare time, there is a time and a place, and this was it for Don. Brad's headlamp comes on and I notice that everything in our little 4x6 space is covered in white. My hot freeze-dried meal quickly puts a smile on my face, though, and the smell of my food puts an eagerness into Brad to get his own meal going. Brad is busting with expletives, like only he can, with the task of keeping everything organized for the quick departure in the morning, but it brings laughter, and the tension dissipates somewhat like the hunger in our bellies. Tomorrow will come, it's time to rest.
I dream of a white devil knocking at the door, waiting to devour me. I refuse to acknowledge him, but he beckons me all night by shaking the door, wailing against it, determined to come in one tiny flake at a time.
Thongk, thongk, thongk, thongk, thongk....
At the first glimpse of sunlight, we poke our matted heads out of our bags to find 4 inches of fresh powder that had blown in through the cracks in the door covering us. The noise from the other side tells us that Don made it through the night, and the pitch of his voice tells us that he is ready to boogie. Brad and I are out of our bags and mobile in less than ten minutes, freezing to death, but we dare not put too many clothes on for the hike ahead of us.
After 5 hours of some of the most gut wrenching hiking I have ever done, we finally arrive at the vehicle, only to find that it is blocked in by the 3 feet of snow, and going nowhere. The wind was still vicious, but the snow had eased up. We pile into Don's van and turn the heat on, getting a game plan on what to do next, but it was easy from here; we were back to civilization. We were all a little humbled after West Virginia showed that she is capable of bringing mother nature's wrath right to us; we needn't travel far for an adventure. We talk of where we will hike next year, and laugh at the memories only days old, but precious none the less.
"Well Don, it looks like you made it through last night", I joke with all seriousness. Don smiles, but he knows how close we were to being in trouble out there. But it's all good. Just another winter's hike in West Virginia.
* The "public restrooms" that are referred to here are those available on the Highlands Scenic Highway where we camped for the final night. These are tiny little rooms about 4'x6' including the single septic fixture that each contains.