Sunday, June 11, 2017

How I lost my bear vault down a mountain

I think the first time I remember having my breath being taken away by nature was approaching the Grand Tetons from Yellowstone on a road trip my mom and I took in 2006. Every time I drive north towards the Appalachian Trail and see the peaks on horizon, I feel myself take a little gasp.

Anyone who knows me knows my obsession with endurance/survival stories. I love reading anything to do with conquering physical challenges and the bigger/longer, the better. I've read multiple books now about people hiking the AT and am fascinated by how many humans are drawn to this challenge on a yearly basis.

It's kind of surprising that while I done a number of trail runs and hikes on the AT, I had yet to do any proper camping. So being a complete newbie at anything beyond car camping, I thought I would take baby steps in this adventure. I decided on 2 days/1 night of running/hiking/camping. The "plan" slowly came together and I knew a lot of the adventure would just be deciding how I felt at the time. I borrowed a backpack from Megan and a sleeping bag from Dan and bought a bear vault to store my food.

I got up at 6 on Wednesday morning and had a quick breakfast before hitting the road to Unicoi Gap. My plan was to run south on the AT from Unicoi and aim for about 20 miles total. 10ish out and 10ish back. I knew the first climb would be tough and the elevation profile heading back would prove challenging on tired legs. But the purpose was to spend some time on the trails and get some ultra training under my belt.

The morning was unseasonably cool and I was super comfortable in a tank and shorts. I contemplated bringing a 3rd water bottle for my pack, but ultimately decided against it due to the weather and my water filter. 

From Unicoi, I began my adventure. The first mile was indeed a beast. Around 1000' of gain in a mile. I barely ran 10 steps and instead power-hiked for about 20 minutes. 
Fortunately, it leveled out a bit after a mile and then I enjoyed a nice little decline for a short while as I approached the Blue Mountain shelter. It was a bit rocky and technical so I just took my time as I traveled down the south side of Blue Mountain. Once I got to mile 3, I came upon a really beautiful descent full of ferns, greenery, and smooth single track. If you are a trail runner, you know this paradise is what we live for!

Though it was short-lived, I experienced a lovely little "up" on this section and had fun navigating the twists and turns as I descended the mountain. Soon, the trail returned to rocks and I was frustrated that I had to slow down and watch every step. Knowing that I wanted to keep the adventure going for another day made me a bit more cautious in my speed and step.
 Fortunately, I hit mile 5 and then cruised down a very low grade descent for the next 3 miles. There were a few hikers out and about, but it was really wonderful to just enjoy a bit of solitude. The temperature was holding out and while I wasn't feeling super fresh, I did feel like I had another few hours of good, hard running in me.
At Low Gap, I stopped and looked at my map and knew that another 1.5 miles was very doable (for a total of 20). I didn't have anywhere to be and I could spend all day running if I really wanted to. When I hit the 10 mile marker, I felt as though the terrain looked pretty familiar and so I pulled out my phone to look at some Strava data. Last summer, I ran south to north to a section very close to where I was. Comparing maps, I decided to close the gap and ran until I was sure I had passed the section. I was now at mile 11.3ish. I ate some jelly beans and took a selfie.
On the way back, I felt pretty decent through the rolling hills. But as soon as I started up the very gradual ascent, I started to hit my low point. I was still running, but it was very, very slow. And I had no energy. I had a Huma gel. I drank some water. I stopped at a teeny waterfall. I was really warm and looped my shirt up to get a little relief.
 I stopped to take a few pictures. 50% because the tree tunnel was beautiful. 50% because I needed to rest.
I knew I was nearing the rocky section, the climb back up Blue Mountain, and the terrifying descent of 1000' on dead legs. I'm not sure if it was the knowledge of completing the task at hand or if I just was riding the wave of a long run, but I did start to feel better towards the end. Though I wasn't really hungry, I was shoving gels and jelly beans down in order to give me any sort of boost I could get. I was getting pretty low on hydration, but there were plenty of water sources along the trail and I knew I could stop if I started to feel really bad toward the end.

Luckily, I hit those last 5 miles pretty smoothly and managed to do a short parking lot loop to hit 23 miles total on the day.
 I pulled out my camping chair and downed some icy water and a mandarin from my cooler. It was heavenly. Because it was mostly cloudy, I sat out for probably 30 minutes just relaxing after my run. There was no rush to get back to civilization. I was camping that night and it was only 3pm. I changed into a dry top very awkwardly in my car, ate half a bag of kettle chips, and fell asleep in my car seat.
When I woke up from my nap about 45 minutes later, I felt really good. I drank a bunch of water and then made my way to my next parking spot. A fire road with a river crossing and plenty of bumpy holes made for an interesting and beautiful drive to Indian Grave Gap.
I fumbled around in my car for a bit pulling all my stuff together to camp for the night. I planned to hike up to the top of Tray Mountain and find a spot to camp within a half mile or so of the summit. I could do a short run or hike that even if I had time and felt up to it. I shouldered my pack and headed up the trail. Though I had 23 miles under my legs, the walking actually felt good once I got into a groove. 
 There were a few scenic lookouts along the way up the mountain and it was really, really quiet as many hikers had likely stopped for the evening.

 I hit the summit and started to descend the other side after hiking nearly 3 miles. My pack must have started to bounce going down and my bear vault full of my dinner and snacks popped out of my pack. I had it wrapped with bungee cords around the top and it seemed to be okay in my short tests. Luckily, it fell towards the mountain and I retrieved it easily. I used my long-sleeved shirt to re-position the vault and then kept going. A short time after that, it popped out of the wrong side.

Tumbled down the mountain.

Like Plinko, it knocked into trees as it rolled easily down.

I threw my pack off and tried to listen for it as I awkwardly "chased" after it. The side of the trail was very vertical, very covered in thorny underbrush, and very hard to navigate. I went down about 1/10th of a mile and the very vertical trail dropped straight down. The only hope I had was that it might have landed in front of a tree. Except I couldn't even see my own feet because the underbrush was so thick.

Well, shit.

I stood for a moment. No food. 26 miles on my legs. 3 miles from my car.
The good news is that I was able to climb back up to the trail and easily find my backpack. I was hungry, but I knew that another hour of walking was not going to be horrible. I wasn't hurt. I had water. I was just really annoyed that I lost my $70 bear vault that I didn't even get to really use. And I really wanted that rice I had cooked the day before.

I hiked back down the mountain. I went through the stages of grief about the stupid vault. By the time I made it to my car, I was laughing at the stupidity of my situation. Though I wasn't smart enough to pack food in various places in my pack, I was smart enough to have a bunch of stuff in my car. So I opened up my camping chair and used potato chips as a spoon for a tuna pouch. Because my damn spoon was in the bear vault.

As I was sitting in my chair, a thru hiker who set up camp a feet away came over. His trail name was Pudge and he had just graduated college. We ended up have our weird dinners together. He had a Lipton rice/noodle thing and I had my tuna pouch/potato chip dinner. I was covered in mud up to my knees and I am fairly certain he probably hadn't showered since he left the prior Saturday. But somehow we don't even notice these things. We talk about our significant others, hiking, running, food, life, etc. I tell him about my bear vault (and he offers me food!) and how I am going to need to go back up the mountain at least partially so I am not car camping. He tells me that bear vaults are not really needed after June 1st. Or at least that's what he'd read. Doh!

After about an hour, I start to pack up my stuff again and offer him a mandarin from my cooler. I remember reading that many hikers crave fresh fruit because it is so hard to carry on the trail. He was thrilled at the offer.

As I shoulder my pack again, I tell him that I will leave my spare key in the gas cap for him in case he wants/needs anything from my cooler or the myriad of weird stuff I keep in my car. I tell him to use my camping chair as long as he'd like and just toss it in the car either that night or when he breaks camp in the morning. He seems shocked that I am trusting him with my 12 year old car after our brief encounter, but I think how the value of human experience is worth more than any junk in my car/including my car.

I head back on the trail and am comfortable hiking in my long sleeve. Oh wow. June. Georgia. And I am wearing a long sleeve. I make it to a clearing on saw on my initial ascent/descent and decide to set up camp.
 This is the view from my camping spot.
The sunset is very, very orange and though it is partially covered by trees to the west, I take a few minutes to just sit and watch the sky change colors.
As I climb into the tent, I realize I am still caked in mud from the day. I take my time using baby wipes to clean off the grit. Over 30 miles on my feet and 7.5 hours is certainly far from any distance or time PR for me in a day, but it definitely was a unique experience doing all of it solo.

 The wind was really strong throughout the night and I woke up a few times as it whipped through. However, I felt reasonably refreshed when I got up and started piling in the calories as soon as I could.
 The scenic view spot was a bust. It was incredibly foggy in the morning and the mountains were completely covered.
But it was also blissfully chilly and I got dressed and packed half in the sleeping bag. Once I got going, I was really comfy in a long sleeve and shorts.

I got back to my car around 8:00 a.m. and decided to go for a run along the fire roads because I was literally surrounded by mountains on the trails. With 5000' of gain in running the day before, I was happy to run just 1000' of gain. I ran a few miles in once direction and came back to my car before heading a couple in the other direction. I finished at 9:45 and my friend had arrived to hike a bit with me. I decided to run one more mile for an OCD and even 31 miles (50K) of running between the 2 days. Afterwards, my friend treated me with Starbucks and a yogurt smoothie. I downed both and we headed up Rocky Mountain. 
We hiked 1.2 miles to the top, had a little rest at the summit, and then turned around to head back. He needed to get back to Atlanta, but I was happy to share a little bit of my adventure with my running buddy.

I drove back to Unicoi Gap and then refilled my pack. I planned to hike the mile section of trail I had missed between Unicoi and Indian Grave and then play the rest of the day by ear. I saw an adjunct trail on my way up and remembered seeing the same trail name on my run earlier in the day. I used my map to find where it might intersect and headed that way. It was starting to get hot and I was glad when I finally found the the tree-covered trail again.
When I got back to my car, I was at 47.6 total miles between hiking and running. I didn't have anything else I had to do the rest of the day, so I decided to make that crazy climb back up Blue Mountain in lieu of going to another trail.

This was about a mile from the finish. I had to get back to my car so getting to 50 miles was inevitable.
 This picture of all the greenery was in the final descent. Like most nature photos, it doesn't do it justice. The sounds, the smells, the feel of the air. But don't worry, I can take you there!
50 miles total. 31 running. 19 hiking. 12,058' of gain. 160 ounces of water. A bunch of candy bars. 5 Huma Gels. 3 clothing changes. 1 bag of jelly beans. 1 bag of kettle chips. 1 bag of granola. A lot of dirt. A lot of character building moments. A lot of fun. Ready for my next adventure!


  1. What an adventure! The tuna part reminded me of Yellowstone.