The original plan was to take a day off from work, pack light, drive to western PA, run several miles in on the Laurel Highlands Trail and then spend the night in a trail shelter before running back out the next day. That, of course, was before the coldest weather in recent memory parked itself over the entire country and working up a sweat before attempting to survive a night in the cold seemed especially suicidal. A tight budget at home and a busy schedule at work also silently campaigned for me to stay home.
Rather than stay home, I retooled the plan to make the target a closer one, saving toll money and a tank and a half of gas. Nothing to be done about the temperature, but the perspiration-guaranteed running could be replaced by hiking. The Appalachian Trail is just a half-hour drive north of Manheim and a bit of Google-ing unearthed a shelter that could be reached by a 4-mile hike. Now that I’d shelved the run part of the adventure, it felt more likely that I could rustle up some companions. Perhaps foolishly, Jefferson and Taylor took me up on the offer.
In a want to steal as little time from home as necessary, we agreed to meet at 2:00, grab a bite at a diner situated along the way (just in case, as was likely, the fuel canisters on our stoves wouldn’t cooperate in the sub-freezing temperatures) and hit the trailhead in the late afternoon. With the trusty white blazes of the AT and the beams of our headlamps, we were sure to find the shelter sometime soon after dark. Right?
Our plan was almost derailed by my discovering during an otherwise routine ATM transaction, that my checking account had a negative balance and the savings account that supported it was down to fumes. It should come as no surprise to anyone that knows me that there isn’t much that normally lives in either of those accounts, BUT neither one of them should’ve been anywhere near empty at the present time. A quick call to my bank revealed that one of the she-means-well tellers at my local branch had inadvertently routed my last sizable (for me) paycheck to a third account (thankfully, also in my name) that is normally not accessed. I had a mess on my hands that pale in comparison to what I thought initially was the theft of my identity, a theft from a fiscal payoff standpoint that would have hardly been worth the effort.
Derailment avoided, we were still on track.
After a satisfying meal at the diner (if I do say so myself—and I can’t help but notice that I was in fact the only one to say so), we ended up rolling to a stop at the Route 501/Appalachian Trail parking lot sometime shortly before dusk. As we were pulling on extra layers and making final adjustments to our packs, a large white pick-up truck almost passed by, thought better of it and pulled into the lot alongside us. A “gentleman” in a long white beard and a tree-bark-camouflage wardrobe climbed from the cab of the truck and ambled over to eyeball our car and make a really poor stab at small talk before telling us about how many cars along this stretch end up with their windows smashed in by the locals. I, for one, found little solace in his claim that it’d had been awhile since he’d seen an occurrence and that the teenage offenders were probably long since “dead or in jail”. Realizing that, per our plan, this was where the car was going to remain parked, with or without the threat of break-in, we bid our adieus and hit the trail.
The next few hours were fairly uneventful, as we made good pace and, hugging the ridgeline, didn’t find the temperature to be too daunting. Night did end up descending upon us long before we got where we were going, but the combination of a cloudless night, snow on the ground and headlamps made for good visibility.
Except for a bit of confusion at the spot where the spur trail for the shelter crossed the main trail, we found the shelter without a hitch. From the moment I’d hatched the idea for the trip, I half-imagined reaching the shelter and, because of the frigid cold, simply crawling inside our sleeping bags and hoping to make it to morning. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case.
The William Penn Shelter is a sturdily-built two-level shelter perched on an eastward-facing ridge at about 1300 feet above sea level. Though this is obviously a hill at best by mountaineering standards, this elevation put us high above the farming valleys below. We were surprised by the blanket of twinkling distant lights that reminded us that the AT really is just a narrow tunnel through the highly populated eastern seaboard. Two steps led to the lower level of the shelter which was enclosed on three sides but completely open on the front side. Two ladders led to an upper loft that nestled beneath the eaves at the front of the shelter and provided far better protection from the elements.
As a group, we seemed to be managing the cold pretty well and with the loft to escape to, each of us settled into preparing food and/or hot drinks. I was thrilled that my Jetboil fired up without a hitch. Taylor, always prepared, had a liquid-fuel stove that was sure to have us covered, but I still really wanted to rely on my own gear. Jefferson too found his stove responsive and soon we were all enjoying hot meals. I did my best to snap photos and was pleased with the odd photographic effects of our limited lighting.
The temperature was certainly dropping, but we appeared to have been spared the winds that were expected. The forecast had called for a low of 9 degrees Fahrenheit, but we had no way of knowing how close to that low we may have gotten. The loft was definitely warmer (maybe I should have said “less cold”) than the lower level, but it was still cold. We donned what extra layers we had and settled in for the night.
Several hours later, I was torn from sleep by a couple of shouted “hellos!” from down below. Though I didn’t fully rouse and only heard the full story in the morning, two hikers who had nearly decided to try and survive the night out on the trail after pooping out a few miles from the shelter had come to the realization that that would’ve been a very foolish idea and had pushed on, stumbling at last upon the shelter shortly after midnight. They had a thermometer with them and by 10:00 had watched the mercury dip below 0 degrees. Supposedly, an additional check of the thermometer in the pre-dawn hours of the morning revealed a temperature of -6 degrees F.
Jefferson reported the existence of a taun-taun (apologies to any reader who doesn’t know his or her The Empire Strikes Back references) sleeping bag and it reminded me of a comment I’d seen posted on a friend’s Facebook page: “Some like it Hoth”. Turns out, we were amongst the “some”.
There were certainly some cold moments during the night and my always unreliable back was being uncooperative, but all-in-all it wasn’t a bad night’s sleep. At some point just before finally deciding to crawl from my bag and face the cold, I recognized a throbbing head that greets me when I’ve failed to stay hydrated. It seemed like the least of my worries when I discovered just how cold it had gotten.
As we packed up our gear and listened to our new neighbors tell us of their close call from the night before, we did our damndest to warm our fingers and toes while fueling up on oatmeal. My headache did what it tends to due and brought on nausea that resulted in my emptying the contents of my stomach. Just what I needed to help fight off the cold and prep for a chilly 4-mile hike back out to the car. I shook off the effects as best I could and we wished the other two hikers well before striking out on the trail.
Again we made good time, soon crossing over Route 645 that marked the halfway point. By then, I’d heaved up whatever else remained in my stomach, so I was traveling light as could be. Jefferson and Taylor did a great job leading the way and setting a strong pace, so we covered the last 2 miles in no time and found the car still sporting all of its windows. We’d survived the night and except for having to chip some ice off of the drinking tubes on our hydration systems, we’d gotten off pretty easy.
It wasn’t until getting into the car that I really felt the cold in my extremities. It ended up taking most of the afternoon for the chill to finally leave my bones. I played with the girls all afternoon, snacking on toast and sipping on water until my head and stomach seemed to stabilize. Lily and Piper Bea didn’t seem to mind that I was huddled beneath a blanket during most of our playtime.
I knew I was feeling better when my normal cold-weather hankering for ice cream became too much to bear. A pint of Turkey Hill Choco Mint Chip later and I’m back to my old self.