Always check the weather before you camp on an exposed summit at 5,000 feet…
Everyone always asks me if I ever felt afraid as a solo female doing a flip-flop through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. Luckily, I experienced very few truly scary moments on my hike. I had a handful of animal encounters that made my heart skip a beat, but nothing bad came of them. And not once in 6 months did I feel threatened by another human being.
The most afraid I felt on the A.T. was the summer night I camped alone atop Cheoah Bald just before the Smokies.
It was a gorgeous late afternoon when I came upon the spot after a strenuous uphill climb. I literally laughed and sang with joy as I reached the summit because the view of the surrounding peaks and valley–framed by clear skies–was so beautiful. I immediately whipped out my phone to take a panoramic photo, and said to myself, “This is one of the best camping spots I’ve ever seen!”
Little did I know how wrong I was.
I was whistling happily as I set up my tent, excited that it seemed I was going to have the summit all to myself that night. I stretched for a bit on my Thermarest Z-Lite pad while admiring the view, then gathered my camping stove, pot and cous cous to make dinner. A chilly wind began pestering me, making cooking difficult, but I didn’t take it as an ominous sign. I went to bed cheerful and relaxed, stoked to watched the sunrise in the morning from my eastern-facing vantage point.
Then, at around 11pm, I awoke to the pitter-patter of rain on the walls of my thin ZPacks tent. An unexpected summer thunderstorm had crept in. I groggily started counting the number of seconds between lightening flashes and rumbling thunder.
Very suddenly, a storm was upon me, and the gentle rainfall became torrential. My grogginess vanished and my heart started racing. With trembling hands, I frantically turned on my cell phone and Googled “thunderstorm, what to do, caught on a peak.” (Thank you, technology.)
But I read the same things I already knew–get the hell out of my tent (which was pitched with a metal trekking pole) and get off the summit. The article said:
“Go quickly. Seconds matter. If you feel hairs standing up on the back of your neck and arms, there is a strong electrical current around you and you are in immediate and severe danger.”
My hairs were raised all right–from fear more than anything else!
I threw down the phone and ripped open my backpack to get my rain gear out, cursing wildly and wincing with each flash of lightening and subsequent crack of thunder. I shimmied into my rain jacket and rain kilt but didn’t bother putting my trail runners on. In soggy flip-flops, I ran/slid as fast as I could away from my tent and down the trail leading up the mountain.
When I was deep enough into the forest that I thought a lightening strike was unlikely, I stopped and squatted to minimize my height and contact with the ground. I instantly noticed how cold and wet I was, and started bouncing furiously to keep warm. I hadn’t brought my cell phone because it contains metal, and I started to regret it as I pondered what the hell I would do if my tent and all my possessions were struck. I would have no way to call for help, and nothing to get warm with.
I shoved that thought out of my mind and tried to comfort myself with, “When this is over, this will make a great story!”
But thinking beyond the present moment didn’t make me feel much better, because I was immersed in my fear…and the cold…and the pitch blackness of the dripping forest around me.
Although I’m not religious, I started chanting the character Jenny’s prayer from Forrest Gump: “Dear God, make me a bird, so I can fly far, far away from here.” I crossed my fingers and willed the storm to pass quickly.
Suddenly, I started to notice twinkling lights in the bush across the trail from me. At first I assumed they were some bioluminescent insect. But then, in my terrified state, I decided I would rather the twinkling lights be fairies, looking out for me in my hour of need. (Hey…whatever works, right?)
I smiled then and felt less alone.
Miraculously, within moments of this, the rain started to let up. I heard the thunder further off in the distance, and I started to count the seconds between the lightening and the thunder again.
I realized then with tremendous relief that I was relatively safe.
I hobbled back up the mountain to my tent, which was unharmed, but enveloped in a cloud of mist and dribbling rain. I tore off my soaking wet clothes, threw them unceremoniously into the back of my tent, and jumped into my sleeping bag to fight the shivers that were now racking my body.
“Should I pack up and walk on?” I considered, even though it was now almost midnight and I knew the descent from the peak would be treacherous in the wet darkness. The last thing I wanted was for another storm to roll through and to have to repeat that scene all over again. But I was getting deliciously warm in my 10-degree bag, and I decided to have faith that it was going to be OK.
And it was! Only rain, no thunder and lightening, visited me from then on, and eventually I drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, I didn’t get to see the sunrise I had been hoping for. The entire summit was shrouded in a veil of mist. I sat on the log outside my tent sipping instant coffee, reflecting on what I had just experienced. I was stunned and exhausted; my easeful relationship with the trail had been slightly tarnished; and all of my gear was soaking wet. But I was so grateful to be alive that I didn’t mind one bit. And, ultimately, I was reassured that I can trust my own instincts in scary situations–which is key for adventuring alone!