Storms became some of our most vivid memories of hiking the Appalachian Trail last year. Up until then, most hiking and camping consisted of nearby shelters, whether car or cabin, or a carefully planned weekend based on the weather forecast.
During our six months hiking the trail, there were a few heart pounding storms that I can remember like they were yesterday. Our first severe storm blew down on us near High Rocks, with an elevation of 4,100 feet, but not without warning. It was our own denial, and the fact that we thought we could make it to the campsite before she poured down upon us, that caused to us to be stuck in this situation.
Just before the peak we quickly learned what would soon become our best known defensive measure to remaining calm. With the thunder and lightning now upon us and pea size hail pelting our skin, we proceeded back into the western or northern side of Whistling Gap. Because of the severity of the lightning we sat up on our backpacks to isolate ourselves from the ground. I’ve read about these situations, but until that moment never had to rely on it. I kept thinking to myself, “How much difference does this make and will this prevent us from getting struck down?” Well, we’re both here today, and that’s good enough for me. Meanwhile, I had pulled the ground cloth for the tent from my wife’s backpack, and we covered ourselves, shielding the wind and hail. It became evident that keeping the ground cloth easily accessible was a necessity. Not only did it protect us from the elements but more importantly it helped calm our nerves. Was it the best idea to blind ourselves from the situation? I don’t know.
Remaining calm was put on trial once again when we were hit by a storm while on top of Bear Mountain, just before the Connecticut / Massachusetts border. The trail proceeded down a steep ridge with slippery loose rocks and tree roots protruding above the ground and across our path, making for very dangerous terrain. With the constant distraction of lightning and deafening thunder, we hiked with caution and remained patient with each step we took. As I think back, once again we had plenty of warning that this storm was coming. Haven’t we learned anything yet? Was it that important to make it to the next campsite? Not really…
We were lucky it wasn’t like the storm we encountered a couple of days after. I believe it was about a mile from the Mount Wilcox South Lean-to, just beyond the ledges. This time we were in a valley but it wasn’t any less dangerous. In fact, in turned out to be quite the opposite. It became so loud. The wind, thunder, and nearby lightning strikes all made the sounds of hell. We found ourselves once again on our backpacks covering our heads with the ground cloth. I remained peering out from under the tarp, watching the trees in a silent panic – watching them twist and turn, with sounds of branches breaking. It was unsettling at the very least. This only lasted for about fifteen minutes before the worst had past, leaving us with a long exhale.
We were thankful to have made it to the shelter that evening without injury and so very thankful that a few other hikers made room for us to stay.
A lot was learned on our journey, so I’ll leave with a few words of SvenSaw wisdom. Never try to out hike a storm if you have the option to stop before it hits. You’ll never beat it. Remain calm and think before you hike more.
Our thanks to SvenSaw, a 2003 Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, for submitting this article about his experiences on the Trail