Virginia Part 2 – When it gets freezing cold, the Aussie gets going

Before I started the AT, I did a lot of research and planning. One of the things I looked at was the average temperatures for each state that I would be crossing if I were to cross. This research formed the basis of my clothing and sleep gear decisions. However, the temperature is of course not always average and my time in Southern Virginia brought with it some unseasonably cold temperatures – lows as low as -8 degrees Celsius (17 Fahrenheit) overnight and highs at around or just above freezing for 10 days at a time.

My sleeping bag is rated for -6 degrees Celsius and has treated me well so far. I’m not a particularly cold sleeper, so up until this frigid stretch I’d slept comfortably, often in a t-shirt and shorts. However, the first two nights of the polar fracture pushed my sleeping bag to the limit and resulted in two nights of poor sleep due to the cold, even with all my layers on.

A change of plans

It’s important to know your limits and I knew I couldn’t sleep another 8 nights in freezing temperatures without changing something. At this point I was still 3 days away from a city so going to an outfitter wasn’t an option on short notice. Luckily I was close to some hiker hostels and started what turned into a first stint of 5 straight days sleeping in the hostel. This included another zero day (my second in four days) due to a forecast day of sustained rain and sleet. I felt bad taking another zero so close to my last but watching the weather outside it would have been dangerous to be so cold and wet all day.

Leveling up my cold weather gear

Arrived in Marion, Virginia, I was able to buy a warmer jacket and a fleece lining for my sleeping bag. Armed with my new warmer gear, I set out for a big test – a night in accommodation in the Grayson Highlands, with a forecast low of -8°C (17°F) and wind chill up to -23° C (-10°F). With all my clothes (including my jacket) and fleece inner jacket, along with five other warm bodies in the shelter, I actually managed to get a good night’s sleep. However, the real challenge turned out to be the next morning.

My toughest morning on the trail

The morning hike was over Mt Roger, an exposed peak in the Grayson Highlands. Fully clothed and with “hot hands” in my gloves, I attempted this ascent. However, all of my gear was not up to the elements. The wind whipped me around, and several times I had to brace myself against the wind with my sticks out to keep from falling over. Visibility was poor and there was no one around so I was actually a bit afraid of how I would safely get out of this situation. This feeling, together with the temperature and especially freezing hands, became too much for me and I burst into tears. I kept crying as I moved forward as there seemed to be no other way to get out but to walk out myself. Within moments my tears had frozen onto my eyelids and my snot had frozen into a ball. It did little to make me feel better.

As I continued down the mountain, I began to warm up a bit, although my hands were still frozen. All of my water in my water bottles was also frozen but luckily I ran into two guys I had camped with the previous night who had some thawed water. They were also at the next road junction, having decided to disembark early in the day due to the conditions. I didn’t need any further encouragement, so I asked to be taken to Damascus, the next city. Although I could possibly have continued, I didn’t trust myself to warm up properly without a shower or I wouldn’t get one until the following evening.

When I arrived in Damascus and had my hot shower I felt exhausted and took a nap for two hours. I think my body was just exhausted, mentally and physically, from the cold. I was then dropped off at the point where I lost my way the next morning and walked back to Damascus.

thanks, go on

Fortunately, the frosty days are over for the time being. However, I still have some numbness in the tips of a few fingers and thumbs to show from that freezing cold day. I was really looking forward to the Grayson Highlands and I’m sure it’s beautiful on a nice day but unfortunately I didn’t experience that. The saddest thing for me was that I didn’t see any of the famous ponies. As any smart pony would, they all hid from the conditions as I walked through.

Hopefully it can continue to get a little warmer for this next stage, otherwise I’ll consider sending in my snow gear from Canada!

my rescuers

Many thanks to the following hostels who (mainly) got me through in one piece:

– Burke’s Garden Hostel

– Bear Garden Hostel

– The Merry Inn Hostel (& Marion outdoors)

– The broken violin

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows on the AT as this last stretch demonstrated, but I’m still excited to continue my journey. Three states to go!

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