through hiking

All posts tagged through hiking

Last year, I found a forum thread on Whiteblaze with a debate about “what is the steepest climb on the Appalachian Trail?” I thought about it for a while, then decided I might use my elevation profile data for the AT, plus my programming knowledge, to analyze the climbs of the AT to come up with a good estimate of what really is the steepest part of the Appalachian Trail.

My method for measuring the steepest climbs requires a little bit of explanation: the program broke the trail down into 0.5 mile segments (initially 1.0 miles, but I decided 0.5 would give better results), including overlapping segments (0.0 to 0.5, 0.1 to 0.6, 0.2 to 0.7, etc.). It first sorted through all segments to find the largest elevation change in any segment, then discarded any overlapping segments (if 2.0 to 2.5 was steeper than 2.2 to 2.7, the latter was discarded). Shortening the length of a measured segment might provide a more accurate measure of the absolutely steepest climbs, but I had to make a cut-off somewhere, since if we looked only at 0.1 mile segments we might just find flukes in the elevation data, like a single ladder that climbs over a boulder.

More recently, I applied the same measure to the PCT as a fun way to compare the two trails. Obviously, the steepness of the two trails doesn’t entirely reflect the challenges, but it’s fun to look at. Also, since my apps have the same vertical exaggeration for all elevation profiles, we can look at the profile of the AT and PCT and really see how they compare.

Here are the results:
Edit: Bobcat requested I run the numbers for the CDT as well, so I’ve added them as of 1/6/2015. The Overall gain/loss is calculated only with the CDT Proper, while the steepest climbs include the various alternate routes as mapped by Bear Creek Survey.
Overall elevation gain/loss on Appalachian Trail: 917,760′ over 2185.3 mi (avg: 420’/mi)
Overall elevation gain/loss on Pacific Crest Trail: 824,370′ over 2668.8 mi (avg: 309’/mi).
Overall elevation gain/loss on Continental Divide Trail: 917,470′ over 3029.3 mi (avg: 303’/mi).

Fifth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #5: Mono Creek toward Silver Pass (a section of 550' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #5: Mono Creek toward Silver Pass (a section of 550′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #5: O Joy Brook to the Tableland on Katahdin (2100' in 1.4 mi, with a 860' climb in 0.5 mi)

AT #5: O Joy Brook to the Tableland on Katahdin (2100′ in 1.4 mi, with a 860′ climb in 0.5 mi)

CDT #5: The climb to Grays Peak Summit in CO (about 800' in 0.8 mi)

CDT #5: The climb to Grays Peak Summit in CO (about 800′ in 0.8 mi)

Fourth Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725' in 0.9 mi)

PCT #4: Descent from Smedberg Lake (725′ in 0.9 mi)

AT #4: Mt Garfield's North Shoulder (970' in 0.6 mi)

AT #4: Mt Garfield’s North Shoulder (970′ in 0.6 mi)

CDT #4: The descent from Knapsack Col in the Knapsack Col alternate (1400' in 1.3 mi)

CDT #4: The descent from Knapsack Col in the Knapsack Col alternate (1400′ in 1.3 mi)

Third Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900' in 1 mi)

PCT #3: Descent into Stubblefield Canyon (900′ in 1 mi)

AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130' in 0.8 mi, with about 900' in only 0.5 mi)

AT #3: Galehead Hut to South Twin (1130′ in 0.8 mi, with about 900′ in 0.5 mi)

CDT #3: The climb to South Peak on Columbus Gila alternate (1900' in 1.8 mi)

CDT #3: The climb to South Peak on Columbus Gila alternate (1900′ in 1.8 mi)

Second Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #2: Near Surprise Creek, WA (about 700' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #2: Near Surprise Creek, WA (about 700′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #2: Asquam Ridge to Kinsman Notch (2200' in 1.7 mi, with one 930' climb in 0.5 mi)

AT #2: Beaver Brook Shelter to Kinsman Notch (2200′ in 1.7 mi, with one 930′ climb in 0.5 mi)

CDT #2: The descent from Temple Pass to Temple Lake on Cirque of the Towers alternate (900' in 0.6 mi)

CDT #2: The descent from Temple Pass to Temple Lake on Cirque of the Towers alternate (900′ in 0.6 mi)

Steepest Climbs on the Triple Crown:

PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700' in 0.6 mi)

PCT #1: Old Snowy Mountain (about 700′ in 0.6 mi)

AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000' in 1.5 miles, with one 1000' climb in 0.5 mile)

AT #1: Pinkham Notch to Wildcat E (2000′ in 1.5 miles, with one 1000′ climb in 0.5 mile)

CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400' in 1.1 mi)

CDT #1: The climb to Parkview Mountain in CO (1400′ in 1.1 mi)

Here is my original response on Whiteblaze with more detailed AT results.

What are your reactions to this silliness?

Duff, Trigger, and I left Front Royal after a half day at the Quality Inn, drying out and recovering from the nasty conditions of the previous day. I’m always amazed at how quickly the body can heal with just a half day of rest on a long backpacking trip— my feet had been in a lot of pain when we got into town from the huge miles I’d done in the national park, plus the mad dash to town on the rainy final day (14 miles to town in the rain by 11 AM), but by the morning my feet felt totally fine. My mind wasn’t quite back to 100%, but I’ll get to that later.

Welcome to the jungle... of Northern Virginia.

Welcome to the jungle… of Northern Virginia.

We all decided to hike on the same schedule to Harper’s Ferry, since I had a train ticket, Duff had family meeting her, and Trigger was right on schedule hiking, all of us aiming for a Monday arrival. So we set out into the last bit of the AT in Virginia, the section between Shenandoah and Harper’s Ferry, a section that is often overlooked because it just flies by for most AT hikers. It is, after all, a section with no major mountains, little exciting terrain, and a lot of filler where the AT is routed between tightly packed roads and private property. Much of the trail in this area was practically a jungle, with undergrowth so thick it was impossible to get off trail for anything like camping or using the facilitrees.

What few views the trail passed were mostly overlooked by the through-hikers I saw, everyone focused solely on getting to the 1000-mile mark of their grand journey. I must admit, I felt much the same way, as I was now in the stage of the hike where I was mostly just eager to get home for some rest and relaxation before heading west to teach at NOLS. The heat and humidity weren’t as oppressive as they had been in southern Virginia, but they were still more than I ever care to deal with. To add another nasty side to the hike, pulling ticks off my legs was now a daily occurrence. At least none made it past my shorts, with their heavy duty permethrin treatment.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

Sky Meadows State Park was a highlight for scenery in this section.

The last few days before Harper’s Ferry highlighted the biggest problem of this trip for me— as I had feared from the beginning of this trip, I had wound up right in the middle of the giant herd of through-hikers. The crowd had thinned out since Shenandoah, thankfully, and the folks I hiked near for the last few days were all wonderful people, but the trail was packed none the less. Being so close to Washington DC, being in the middle of the through-hiker crowd, being in an area that has such mellow hiking— I can’t even count how many people I ran into on a given day.

Before long I was standing in the little office at the edge of Harper’s Ferry, just as I had seven years ago, feeling a little bittersweet about the end of the trip. I stayed at the Teahorse Hostel, a fine place within walking distance from the ATC headquarters, with a great group of fellow hikers. We all had a relaxed evening in town, with dinner and a World Cup match at a bar, and that was it. Early the next morning, I was on a train to DC, then Boston, then Portland. I had my parents send my computer to me at Harper’s Ferry, so I was able to get right into working on updating my apps.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

Happy to be done, happy to be at the ATC.

It’s always best after a long hike to stay busy to avoid post-trail depression, but that doesn’t stop you from missing the hiking lifestyle. I have a love/hate relationship with long distance backpacking, and this time was no different. I was so sick of the heat, the blisters, the younger partying hikers, the crowds, the humidity (again), but as soon as I changed into some cotton clothing and packed my things up for the train ride, I felt like I was leaving home rather than going there. Luckily, I had a few days in Portland with my best friend before heading further up the coast, and then a big dinner at Conte’s with one of my best hiker buddies, Uncle Tom. And I’ve been plenty busy ever since.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte's 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.

The best place for a post-hike dinner, Conte’s 1984 in Rockland, Maine, with my buddy Uncle Tom.


From my 2007 through-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I have only two memories of Shenandoah National Park: that it was easy hiking, and that it was fairly boring. This time through, I wasn’t so excited for hiking this section of the AT, but I did learn that my old memories weren’t entirely accurate.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Morning miles are the best miles.

Coming out of Waynesboro, I had lost all of my previous week’s hiking partners. A few had gone into the park earlier in the morning (I chose to take a half day on the first day in the park), but most I had just lost track of in the large town. So for the first three days in Shenandoah I saw no other hikers I’d met before there. With the easier hiking on mellow grades in the park, I was moving faster without trying, wandering through many grassy meadows and crossing Skyline Drive almost a dozen times each day. There were more day-hikers out now– I mostly ran into other backpackers at the few campsites at the end of each day.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

Setting sun on Stony Man summit.

My memory of Shenandoah being fairly boring, with all the views concentrated on the road, turned out to be just plain wrong. There were several jagged peaks and cliffs with wonderful views down into the valleys below. The humidity this week was just as bad as ever, so I would try to hike early in the morning and late at night, as the haze and stickiness in the air was settled in the valleys. This turned out to be a good plan. Some of the best views came when the sun was low in the sky, there were fewer people crowding the trails then, and I was able to move faster by hiking long hours. On my third and fourth days in the park, I covered 60 miles of trail, the highest mileage I’ve hiked since the PCT.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Later sunset from Skyline Drive.

Then there was the food. Since Shenandoah is primarily a park devoted to motorists, there are several Waysides and camp stores near the trail. I was able to eat town food almost every day in the park, which turned out to be good and bad. I ended up spending a lot more money on this trip than I’d expected, and probably lost a lot of time that I could have been hiking while I lay on the lawn of the Waysides, incapacitated after gorging myself on pancakes, burgers, ice cream, and soda. Not exactly a healthy diet, but burning 4000 or more calories per day, I finally let my inhibitions go.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

More humidity is on the way, but early in the morning I could rise above it.

That was the good part of hiking through Shenandoah. Unfortunately, being crowded in with a new crowd of through-hikers at cramped campsites in the evenings began to take its toll on me. As I’d feared before this trip, I was smack dab in the middle of the partying, obnoxious, entitled crowd of mostly early-twenties hikers, and I did not care for them. I started to lecture one hiker after he’d complained that the trail maintainers didn’t do enough for through-hikers, which is utter bullshit, but I realized I was essentially talking to a brick wall. In the past few weeks I’ve seen more than two dozen coolers left at road crossings, and countless instances of people going out of their way for through-hikers, but none of those people or the hikers have ever done any trail maintenance themselves, or even joined their local trail club. I’m so sick of the attitude that the hikers matter more than the trail itself, but it seems to be the prevailing mentality.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

Leaving the Shenandoah, this was all I could see.

The last night in the park summed up my feelings pretty well. After having lunch at the last of the Waysides, I stopped at the next campsite, which was already overrun by backpackers at 4 PM. The site was a reasonable size for a campsite, with a shelter and half a dozen tent spots, but by evening there were more than thirty hikers crammed into the dense woods around the site. Without any space for tents, most of us ended up camping on trails around the site, wedged in next to the spring, next to the shelter, and all around. That’s when the mother of all thunderstorms hit, flooded every tent in the area, and left everyone grumpy and soaked. With the ground so heavily compacted by overuse, water had nowhere to go but into pools under each tent. I was up at 4 in the morning, headed out of the park and into the town of Front Royal to dry out in a hotel room with a few of my new hiking friends (including Duff, whom I’d hiked with in Washington on the PCT).

I had a lot of time to think in the night about the overcrowding at the campsite, and in the National Park and Appalachian Trail in general. There’s been a lot of talk about this on the trail this year, since the numbers of hikers continue to grow. I don’t fault anyone for the overcrowding, since the trend has always been that the numbers are growing, but the problems of overuse can’t be fixed by complaining about trail conditions and not doing anything to help the trail maintainers. That’s the only behavior I saw in Shenandoah, and it left a nasty taste in my mouth about the state of through-hiking. At least I was able to sleep well on a hotel bed the next night to raise my spirits.

After a day off in Roanoke, I was doing much better than when I’d arrived. My aching and blistered feet were well rested. I had a new pair of sneakers, purchased at the wonderful Walkabout Outfitters (whose manager had driven all the way to Harrisonburg to fetch the right sized sneakers for me, which is pretty amazing). I’d filled myself up with good southern food, loaded my pack with six days worth of trail food, and hit the trail once again. The humidity and awful heat of the previous days was now down to a very manageable level, and I was feeling good.


I was now in the section of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the Blue Ridge Parkway, with a few long climbs up to the ridge before walking easily alongside the road. This is a funny section of trail, since many of the best views are roadside pullouts on the parkway, but I’ve also found plenty of gorgeous mountaintops when the trail wanders away from the road. The first few days, though, I could safely tune out while in the woods, then get the views when I got near the road. That’s kind of unusual for the AT, but it’s a nice that this section has some kind of local flavor.


With my new feet and my new plan to cut my hike short at Harper’s Ferry, I was back to enjoying the trail and just relaxing, even as I averaged about 22 miles a day. I would get up early each morning, walk all day, and arrive in camp around 7 with plenty of daylight hours to rest before bed. I mostly met new groups of hikers each day, since many of the through-hikers seem to be going a little slower at this point. This surprised me a bit, but it has allowed me to meet a lot of new people, most of whom are pretty awesome. Halfway through this stretch of trail I met No Plan B and Torch, a father and son duo who were hiking together until NPB injured his foot, so now he’s driving up the trail providing road support for Torch. They’ve both been using the AT Hiker app extensively, and made me really happy when they told me how useful it has been for them. Check out their website sometime– they’re raising money to build a veterans’ rehab center, and they’re super dedicated to the cause as well as the hike.


My plan for this 150 mile stretch of trail was to stay in the woods for six days and have the full wilderness experience. Things didn’t quite work out that way, though. After three days, I realized I wasn’t feeling very connected to the trail, partly because of the number of people I was running into. Last year, while mapping much of the northern section of the AT, I was alone most of the time and really enjoying it. This time, it wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy being out there, but the connection to the trail wasn’t so strong. I decided I might as well head into town on the fourth night for some burgers and extra snacks. The decision was made a little easier since my food bag was looking just a tiny bit light for the next few days. I made a last minute decision to go into the town of Buena Vista, and arrived at the road to town after all of the day’s traffic had stopped heading over the pass. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought. After half an hour at the road with almost no traffic for hitching, though, the trail provided. A carload of hikers arrived from town to start hiking out at night, and there was my ride into town. It was too late to get a spot at the hostel, but No Plan B and Torch had a campsite at the town park with extra space, so everything worked out just fine. I got my burgers, then a big breakfast in the morning, and an earlier than expected ride back to the trail, and all was well. The only real backfire of the plan was that with all the town food now in my belly, my food bag had a little too much food. I’d been hoping to walk into Waynesboro with an empty pack. Oh well. Sometimes when things don’t go according to plan, they work out better than anticipated anyway.


The last few days to Waynesboro were smooth sailing over some of the last big climbs in the south. The Priest, Cold Mountain, and Three Ridges seemed daunting to everyone out here, but a little time and a lot of sweat were rewarded with much nicer views than I remembered from my last time here. The temperatures fell steadily as well, making the hiking more pleasant. In the last few miles to the town of Waynesboro, the foliage and undergrowth got thicker and thicker, cutting down on the views, but the surroundings still overwhelmed my senses– the sounds of songbirds singing were louder than ever, and the smell of flowering plants was so thick it seemed like walking through a bouquet.


The final leg of this trip will take me through Shenandoah National Park, and then to the town of Harper’s Ferry, home of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. The terrain is supposedly much easier in the park than elsewhere in Virginia, and with my feet feeling better than ever I could probably be done in less than a week. I’m planning a few extra days, though, just in case I find some interesting side trails or people to spend the last few hiking days with. As eager as I am to get home, I can always spend a day or two more on the trail.


When Joe and I left Damascus, we started into the Mount Rogers National Recreation Area, one of the busiest parts of the AT in the south. It was an early spring weekend, Trail Days was happening just a few miles away, and hundreds of hikers were swarming into the woods for the weekend.


We hurried into the highlands surrounding Virginia’s two highest peaks– Whitetop and Mt Rogers– just after a cold front had moved through and dumped a few inches of snow. Hikers everywhere were bundling up and hunkering down with the cold and wind. We just hiked a little harder over Mt Rogers and the Grayson Highlands.


After the open ridges and wide views of the highlands, the trail through VA turned into more rolling mountains at slightly lower elevations. We also entered the notorious green tunnel, with no open views for days. For many people, that would kill the fun of the hike, but there was plenty of gorgeous scenery, even if it didn’t come from the top of a mountain. Blooming rhododendron groves, quiet mountainside pastures, and long stretches of deep forest were plenty scenic in my book.


We kept up a blistering pace along the trail, passing dozens upon dozens of through-hikers, but the blistering mostly happened to my feet. More specifically, five days in a row of huge miles pounded my feet until they were swollen and bruised, which made walking agonizing. It turns out that my leg muscles get in shape much faster than the bones of my feet, so while my legs felt great, my feet did not. Luckily, we were able to take a restful day off high in the mountains at Woods Hole Hostel, one of the most relaxing and idyllic trail stops I’ve had. It helped that there was no cell signal or internet access, so I was able to spend an entire day lazing on the porch, icing my feet, and eating. It was perfect.


After plenty of rest, I had another hundred miles through terrain that I remembered as being uneventful, but it was anything but. The long ridge walks with rocky outcrops and mountaintop meadows had plenty of views, and the rhododendron groves continued on. The company along the trail was pretty great, too. I’ve been hiking off and on with several through-hikers, getting a taste of the hiking community. (Shout out to Aloha Niceshirt, since I hear his wife reads this blog)


Unfortunately, the heat and gravelly trail didn’t let up on my feet. Maybe they hadn’t healed entirely during the stay at Woods Hole, but I think that even if they had they wouldn’t have done so well with these conditions. The day before reaching Daleville, the temperatures were in the high eighties with humidity so high I couldn’t see more than five miles from the mountain vistas. Now that I’m in town, it’s time for some more rest before the next stretch. I’ve got a new pair of shoes, a full belly, and a stack of New Yorkers to read. Life is good!