Monday, May 14, 2012

Frozen Hands... in Summer

The rain started in the afternoon and continued steadily through the night.  After getting wet a few months ago in a storm, I was pleased that my tarp held the rain out, and I was glad I decided to go backpacking despite the forecast and my apprehension about backpacking in the rain.  In morning rain, I packed up, and began the hike back to my car.  The temperature was a mild 60 degrees, cool for Georgia in May.  As the day wore on, winds started whipping and the water soaked through my rainskirt, but I just kept moving fast over the difficult mountainous terrain to keep warm. 

It wasn't until that hollow feeling of low blood sugar stopped me for my morning snack that I realized anything was wrong.  My fingers were literally frozen and numb from the rain and wind.  I fumbled for five minutes to get my pack buckles opened.  I had lost all dexterity-- this is a problem I've struggled with repeatedly in winter, but I couldn't recall having it this bad.  I could barely do the simple task of opening my pack, pulling out the food bag, opening the ziplock bag with my snacks, and pulling out my protein bar (anything requiring a spoon was out of the question).  I summoned all my strength and channeled it to my fingers-- just grip the wrapper and tear it open.  But I could not!  My lame fingers fumbled but I was unable to open that darn wrapper.  My stomach growled in protest, but I could not physically get any of the food-- which was all there in front of me-- into my mouth.  I tore at the wrapper unsuccessfully with my teeth.  My knife was in my pack, but I knew my useless hands couldn't open it anyway. 

Negative thoughts and fear swirled inside me.  If I couldn't move my hands, I couldn't set up my tarp, or do other things to stay safe.  I started shivering-- I was mildly hypothermic, and not thinking clearly.  I felt helpless and very scared.  This seemed like the complete antithesis of self-sufficiency.

Was I really having this problem in Georgia in SUMMER during a f?@?#$ing DROUGHT!?!?   

What do you do in these difficult moments?  When you haven't seen anyone for two days on the trail, you have to pull that inner strength.  Meltdowns are for safe places like at home or with friends.

I fell back on what I know I do well, which is hike fast.  I reluctantly put the unopened snack away, put on my pack, tucked hands into my shirt, and felt my legs carrying me swiftly down the trail.  As I generated internal heat from the exertion, I could feel the life creep into my hands as I nestled them in the warmth of my armpits.  (Though it wasn't until a full hour later that I had enough dexterity to do anything that required fine motor skills like undoing my buckles of my pack again.)  And I didn't stop moving until I reached my car where I could blast the heat.


Backpacking brings us to places far outside our comfort zone.  Difficult situations are inevitable in the wilderness-- nature has a way of throwing us storms, wild animals, dry springs, rocks, and mountains that never seem to end.  You can pack your backpack with expensive and heavy gear to protect yourself, but let me tell you-- no amount of gortex is going to keep you dry in the end.   When confronted directly with our fears with no one else to fall back on, resourcefulness and inner strengths shine through.  What we discover about our ourselves when things get scary is often more beautiful than any flower or viewpoint.   While I was disappointed about getting hypothermic in the first place, I also know I can take care of myself.  Each time I struggle this much but still make it through, I see myself as someone who is strong and capable, and this is incredibly empowering and one of the true joys of solo backpacking.


Note: This trip was a solo out and back on the Benton Mackaye Trail Sections 1 and 2 from GA 60 to Long Creek Falls and then on to Springer.

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