North of Gainesville, the higher folds of the foothills ripple toward the upper Piedmont’s meeting with the mountains. North of Dahlonega, the clouds drifted low and unbroken, a solid ceiling of discouraging gray from horizon to horizon. Past Suches on Highway 60, the weather looked even worse. The sky was now a denser and darker gray. The clouds had become a thick matting, an opaque lid, sealing off and shutting out the sun.
Two friends and I had met shortly after sunrise to begin our drive from Athens to the North Georgia mountains. I was on the clock, under pressure to complete a second edition of my trail guide. Steve and Greg had joined me for a day of ridgecrest hiking along the northern border of the Coopers Creek Wildlife Management Area.
Steve parked his shuttle car on the pull-off shoulder of FS 4 at Mulky Gap. Then he joined Greg and me for the drive back down the dirt-gravel forest service road to 60, where we continued northwestward on the winding mountain highway to our starting-point trailhead beside Little Skeenah Creek.
My goal for the day was to hike the first half of Section 2 of the Duncan Ridge National Recreation Trail. Despite its relatively low elevations, Section 2 was the most strenuous long stretch of trail in Georgia. Back in 1985, the route roller-coastered along its namesake ridgeline, climbing up and over nearly every peak before dropping to the next gap. Because of its length and difficulty, I had made the easy decision to split the section into two manageable segments for wheel measuring and note taking.
The TV forecast—rain accompanied by colder temperatures likely—had seemed more abstract, less bothersome, the night before. A cold front was closing in on the mountains, but there was a chance it would arrive late enough for us to finish our hike dry, or wet us only for a mile or two at the tag end of our trek. But now the dark sky was working on our minds and moods. Our good-humored banter at the early morning rendezvous had turned glum. Our conversation became intermittent, then sagged into silence. We were three sons of World War Two fathers; no one wanted to be the first to pull the plug, to whimp out. We held our own counsel and followed our flagging momentum to Little Skeenah Creek.
It was early April, transition season in Highland Dixie, when winter eddies back into spring’s flow: bipolar-weather time with meteorological swings from sunny and warm one day to snow in the highcountry the next. But I wasn’t particularly worried. Weather forecasters had cried wolf way too often; time and time again my days in the mountains had turned out better than predicted. I had begun to view forecasts as worst-case scenarios and started to ignore anything less than an 80 percent chance of an all-day rain with scattered tornadoes. I also had begun to view myself as a hardy and competent backcountry hiker, one who always carried map, compass, and matches, extra flannel shirt, rain jacket, and poncho.
Across the bridged creek we began the meandering ascent to the first mountain—the one with the euphonious name of Wallalah—through red maple, American holly, and towering white pine straight as sunbeams. Spring’s annual resurrection had just begun its first blush down low along Little Skeenah. Christmas fern crosiers poked up pale green and fuzzy. Trout lily and Catesby’s trillium had punched small leaves up into the vernal light. The flowering dogwoods seeking the highway’s sun gap had yet to whiten the roadside woods. Their newly born-again leaves were still tiny points of pastel green.
We ascended a ridgeline with mountain laurel under oaks and a few tall shortleaf pines. Ten minutes later, we flipped the calendar back a page as we climbed into the colder country of Southern Appalachian winter above the last trees with thickened buds. Back at our lowland homes, the greening forests and fields matched the month’s picture of a warm and resurgent spring. But up here, above spring’s quickening thrust, we walked through hardwoods winter-stripped and starkly skeletal against the somber gray sky. The thatch of their discarded leaves rasped underfoot. The temperature felt like low to mid-50s, not bad at all heading uphill with a pack on your back. We followed the blue blazes past our first good view of the day—a rock outcrop overlook open toward Toonowee Mountain across Highway 60 to the south. The higher peaks were already shrouded in mist, their summits sheared off and buried in cloud belly.
The undercoating of the flat-bottomed clouds continued to grow thicker and darker. They were now as dark as the air-borne water bladders of thunderstorms and looked ready to burst. The three of us crossed Wallalah’s rocky crown and kept walking, descending to Section 2’s first prominent saddle. After a straight-up-the ridge grunt, we took our first sit-down break at mile 3.2 atop the nearly level summit of Licklog Mountain, at 3,470 feet a modest peak by Mountain South standards. On Licklog’s crown—1,455 feet higher than the trailhead, close to five degrees cooler from elevation gain alone—we could still look out and down from late winter to early spring.
The cold front’s first volley gave a low whistling voice to the tuliptree and oak. Our climb sweat chilled in the wind. As we were standing up to start moving again, Greg—a contemplative botanist and reluctant long-distance hiker—announced that he wanted to turn back. Steve and I now had cover; neither of us would be the first to wimp out. The three of us fidgeted through an awkward silence. Normally good to go in most any kind of weather, Steve finally said he still felt weak from a bad cold and didn’t want to risk a relapse. Momentum and an unwillingness to lose a day of work made me want to forge ahead. Sensing my reluctance to turn back, Steve called my bluff and offered to swap car keys and wait for me at the courthouse in Dahlonega. Greg agreed. I accepted their gracious, guilt-induced offer, told them I would hike hard, then pushed my measuring wheel away into the late morning and worsening weather.
The lowering sky wrapped the rising ridgeline in a dim and gauzy gray. The final grade to Rhodes Mountain rose through forested mist. On the backside of Rhodes, the hardwoods shaped themselves again as I followed the downgrade toward the next gap. The turbulent mix of the colliding air masses—Gulf of Mexico warm, Canadian cold—began to spawn small slanting raindrops as the track began its ascent to a low, unnamed knob. I stopped and thought about turning back, but a quick calculation of time and distance convinced me that I couldn’t catch Steve and Greg before they reached my car. Now I had no vehicle behind me and five peaks, over 6 miles, deteriorating weather, and a car with a good heater in front of me.
I slung off my daypack and quickly donned my wool sweater. I looked inside the double lining of trash compactor bags for my poncho. I saw only one stuff sack: my rain jacket. I felt around for the other stuff sack in the bottom of the inner bag. Nothing. I pulled the two water-proof liners out of my pack. Nothing in the bottom of the pack, nothing between bag layers. Then I remembered. The week before I had removed my poncho from my daypack to prolong its life with seam sealer. I had hung it up to dry in the spare bedroom and forgotten to pack it in my hurry last night.
I put on my rain jacket and stood there, mulling over what no poncho meant. It meant I was going to get wet below the waist and cold. Wet was a given, how cold the wild card. I now had on all there was at hand: ball cap, cotton T-shirt, flannel shirt, wool sweater, rain jacket, lightweight and fast-drying khaki pants. The night before I had debated whether to wear my polypro longjohn top instead of the cotton T-shirt. Cotton had won because I could put three layers over it, and between poncho and rain jacket, I knew I wasn’t going to get wet anyway. The night before, in the warm house, the insulating long underwear seemed like hot and sweaty overkill.
The cloud-dark sky clamped down lower and colder. I stopped to weigh my options, then started wheeling at a slightly faster pace. The cold rain fell harder and settled into the steady rhythm of a shower. Despite the cooling temperature, I still sweated inside my jacket on the upridge pulls. Although I was hiking steadily between stops, I wasn’t making good time or even average progress. Note taking had become an excruciatingly slow process. Each time, I took the notebook out of my jacket pocket, hunched over, forced the wet pages open to the place-holder pencil, wrote as fast as I could until the page was too sodden to accept lead, thumbed ahead to drier paper, wrote some more, skipped ahead.
The rain popped on my jacket. The temperature continued to dip, down into the 40s now for sure. My breath billowed white smoke when I stopped to take notes on the harder uphills. The interiors of the monochromatic clouds—formless and flowing—darkened to charcoal gray. My pants were soaked from jacket bottom to boots. My wool sweater was becoming increasingly wet from rain water finding its way down and through my beat-up jacket. I would have been fine if only I had my poncho like on every other hike except this one. Yeah, and if frogs had pockets, they could carry pistols to shoot snakes with. And if your aunt had balls, she’d be your uncle.
I rolled my measuring wheel east along the well-defined line of Duncan Ridge, following the lift and fall of named mountains and knobs through the dense gray void of liquid vapor. The ridge crowned over Gregory Knob at mile 5.8, over Payne Knob at mile 6.3. Well over half way now for sure—cold but still OK. The afternoon was now the deepest shade of gray I had ever hiked through: a dark dusk nearly the color of wet cement.
As I stood writing notes on the way down from Payne, I held stock still and stared as a slow-moving mammal crossed straight over the top of the fold, left to right, no more than 30 feet in front of me. The primitive animal remained unperturbed; it scarcely picked up its pace after spotting me. It was a possum, its prehensile tail scaly and rat-naked, its fur a much lighter gray than the surrounding mist. A minute before, I would have bet the wet shirt off my back and the two twenties in my wallet that such a mid-day sighting of an active possum would have been out of the question, impossible.
The dim-witted critter broke my tunnel-vision concentration. I stood there, cold and baffled, trying to process the rarity and portent of crossing paths with a possum on a Southern Appalachian ridgeline in early afternoon. The day had darkened enough to stimulate the nocturnal marsupial into diurnal activity, that much was certain.
The appearance of the possum struck me as a reprimand and a warning—nature’s own foreshadowing as potent as any image a director could have plotted on the same cold-mountain movie set. The whole scene seemed incongruous. Neither of us should have been abroad in this weather at this time of day. I should have been home waiting for a sunny and dry day; the possum should have been denned up waiting for nightfall. Looking around, I now felt the full foreboding of being all alone and cold in the dark gray rain. Alone and cold in mist-bound mountains indifferent to human error—or beseeching prayer.
I walked faster. My world turned inward to a small, tag-along circle of visibility, increasing cold, and growing worry. I began to shiver when I stopped to write notes. Sleet mixed with the rain, then switched to all sleet as I followed the narrow treadway up the northern flank of Parke Knob. The wind quartered in steady from what I guessed was the northwest. The breeze blew just hard enough to shoot the icy birdshot down at a slant that stung the left side of my face a bit. No big deal, but definitely another bad sign. The wind-slung ice lasted only fifteen to twenty minutes, but the emphatic sound of it ticking off my jacket, then crunching underfoot, drove home the certainty that I should not have pushed ahead without my poncho. Dumb move. I chanted a pep talk through chattering teeth: stay positive, keep moving, you’ll be OK, keep thinking, keep moving, you’ll be all right—my mantra crowding out increasingly uncomfortable thoughts.
By the time I reached Fish Gap at mile 7.9, I had begun shivering violently every time I stopped. I guessed I had no more than 3 miles to go and, if necessary, I could stop wheeling and haul ass for the warmth and security of Steve’s car. I reached the topknot of the penultimate mountain, Clements, as the rain lessened to a thick, glasses-fogging mizzle. But as the rain subsided, the temperature began to drop even more as the cold front wedged through and the wind increased its evaporative cooling. Upper 30s at least, possibly mid-30s on the summits according to my bare-hand thermometers. My convulsive shaking continued for longer distances between stops.
I quit taking notes. On my way up the last mountain, Akin, I slipped on a sleet-slick root and fell, thudding to the ground on my right-side hip, ribs, and shoulder. I lay on the thin layer of pellet ice a few moments, taking inventory of pain and moving parts. Other than the shock of its suddenness and having the breath knocked out of me, I was uninjured and soon scrambled to my feet. It was the first time I had ever fallen while holding a hiking stick in one hand and a measuring wheel in the other.
The fall knocked out more than my breath. It knocked out the last of my denial too: I was more than just cold and wet—way more. I was already in the early stages of hypothermia and getting colder fast. My body and brain were sliding further down the list of increasingly serious symptoms. My movements were becoming uncoordinated; my thoughts were becoming sluggish and stuttering. I remembered what I had once read about hypothermia: that by the time you realize you’re in trouble, you’re really in trouble.
Fear’s first clench grabbed my gut: natural selection’s greedy fingers come to say hello. All right…buck up…get with it…get moving…keep moving…keep going…watch your footing. Heat…heat is only…a mostly downhill…a mostly downhill mile away. OK…yeah…keep moving…keep moving.
On top of Akin at close to mile 10.0, several piles of branches barricaded the continuing trail straight ahead. I stood there for a few moments, dumbstruck, trying to process what this meant. Then I got it: this stretch of the tread had been rerouted, or was in the process of being rerouted, for an indeterminate length. I backtracked and searched for the new blaze and reroute that had to be there. Nothing. I traced a couple of concentric circles through the mist-murk atop the mountain’s small crown. Nothing, no luck.
I stood there, trying to think, my head shaking furiously, my teeth clicking like cartoon dentures, the warm outflow of my breath pulsing in quick white puffs. My shivering was now a brain-rattling seizure I couldn’t stop. My whole body screamed for relief. I had reached a tense and teetering edge, one where all control would start to slip away if I dropped any further down the symptom list.
Time to go, time to get out of here. Get warm. That’s it. Get warm. Get off this mountain. Car. Car. Get to the damn car. Something. Anything. Get moving. Get going. Do it. Do it! Do it!!
I unfolded my Chattahoochee National Forest map, but couldn’t hold it still enough to make out the details. I tried to chant my drill sergeant’s marching commands out loud—“rock steady, rock steady”—to calm myself, but all I managed was a series of gasping grunts, loud and panicked. I wadded the map to the area I needed, sat down, stretched it taut across my trembling knee and located Akin. I abruptly decided to bail, to jump off the north side of the mountain, then curl to the right and down as I lost what turned out to be 750 feet of elevation to the road. I was afraid I would strike the road in a place where it wouldn’t be obvious which way led to Mulky Gap, so I decided to intersect the road either at the car or to the north of it. No time for screwing up now.
I dropped straight off the mountaintop. After a minute or two, I ran smack into slash from a clear-cut. I skirted the cut down and to the right from its upslope edge. Thrashing through the wet woods generated some heat but drenched my pants even more. I kept getting the spokes of my measuring wheel hung up in branches. It shouldn’t have been that difficult to hold the big orange wheel so it wouldn’t get snagged, but I couldn’t manage it. I bushwhacked through the forest down and down, below the view-obstructing clouds now, my movements increasingly clumsy, my route choices often slow and wrong. The synapses between the rest of my body and brain had grown gummy; neither focus nor force of will would make my body behave with customary coordination. I fell in semi-controlled slides, feet first on the wet or sleet-covered leaves.
I kept slanting downslope and to the right through hardwoods and evergreen heath shrubs. The road had to be out there somewhere. I was confused by muddled and conflicting fears for a minute or two. I stopped to weigh the worrisome thoughts, but the racking shiver-seizures immediately shook me like a terrier shaking a ragdoll. I started down the pitch again, moving faster. But the faster I bushwhacked down the steep slant of the slope, the more likely I was to fall. And the more I fell, the more likely I was to become hurt or seriously injured. Injured? An injury…Jesus Christ…that would be dicey. But a slower and more careful pace…that…that…that meant continued exposure to the cold…which might…could…freeze my ass beyond mindful function. The conflict was short lived. My mind was too numb to fear falling for long. Both mind and body became fixated on the same objective again: the car…the white car…the white car with its savior heater.
I stumbled down and down, crashing through the low understory brush, in a single-minded rush, a barely controlled panic. I worked my way to a light gap opened by half a dozen wind-thrown oaks. Down and to the far left margin of the partial view sat Steve’s white Mitsubishi, not where I thought it would be but as welcome as a winning lottery ticket and only a few minutes away. I had angled too hard to the right; my trajectory would have led me to the road south of the gap and car. I patted my pocket to quell a “what-if” that had suddenly erupted through my good cheer. The car keys were still there.
Changing tack, I slipped and stumbled and slid down the steep slope toward deliverance and Dahlonega. I tried to grip hiking stick and measuring wheel in my left hand so I could use my right to grab trees to keep from falling on the slush-slick leaves. I repeatedly dropped wheel or stick as I pin-balled from bole to bole, and fell in slow motion several times as I attempted to pick one of them up. My legs became even more uncooperative; they frequently failed to accomplish the bidding of my mind’s will in a timely manner. I told my feet to stop, hit the brakes, but they kept right on stepping instead. I told my feet to coordinate with my hand’s quick reach for branch or trunk holdfasts, but I tobogganed on my butt instead.
My spastic hand clicked the key on surrounding metal before I managed to slide it into the car-door slot. Same with the ignition switch. I buried the heat lever into the red zone and drove off into the dusk. I met no other vehicles on the dirt-gravel road, which was good because I couldn’t steer Steve’s car in a straight line while my hands trembled against the wheel. I was drunk from the cold.
My fits of full-body shakes slowly subsided to intermittent spasms, then gradually abated to quick shuddering gasps as I entered Dahlonega. The city lights were shining, and it was nearly dark when I made my first circuit around the square. I cruised slowly around and around, but couldn’t locate either my hiking buddies or my old Subaru. Finally, Steve jumped off the curb and flagged me down. He told me they had gone into a Laundromat to dry some of their wet clothes. They had seen me make four passes. Each of the last three times they had run closer and closer to the road, yelling and waving, sure I would see or hear them. “You looked right at us several times.”
He told me to call Page, my wife to be, before I drove home. He had called her at least an hour earlier to find out if she had heard from me. “She’s really worried. I told her what happened; I told her about the rain, but I didn’t tell her how cold and dark it got. We were worried too; we thought you might have gotten lost in the fog or gotten in trouble because of the cold. Man, it was spooky dark up there; we were in the clouds until we descended way down off Wallalah. It must have been rough up there for so long. We waited for 15 or 20 minutes at the trailhead, but we knew that you knew you couldn’t catch us, so we left and came here. How was it? I know you were wet and cold.”
I wanted to tell him about the possum, the sleet, the first fall; about shaking out of my shoes, the blocked path, the bushwhack, and almost missing his car, but I was unable to utter the necessary sentences. All I could manage was a laconic, “Yeah, it was rough out there. I don’t think I’ll do anything that dumb again.”
I drove home with the heater blowing full blast. After my clothes dried some more, I stopped at a convenience store pay phone and called Page. I started quaking again before I finished dropping the quarters into the slot. The same thing happened in the driveway at home. As soon as I opened the back-seat door to grab my gear, I immediately started quivering with the startling intensity of a flu-fevered chill. After nearly two hours of high heat, the reflex was still ready and waiting to pounce with the slightest provocation from the cold.
Page had a well-heated home, a mug of hot chocolate, and a bowl of soup waiting for me. After a quick supper, I stripped out of my still-damp clothes and submerged myself in a tub of warm water. As my body relaxed, the long muscles running down the front of my thighs cramped repeatedly and painfully from hip to knee. Another first.
Later that night, thoroughly thawed and cramp free, I remembered the compass I always carry in my daypack. I couldn’t believe I had forgotten about my compass. Map and compass, map and compass, I always carried a map and compass in my pack’s top pocket, but what good had it done when I was too addled to remember it. I lifted The Hiking Trails of North Georgia off the bookshelf and looked up what I had written about hypothermia:
Wet clothes can lead to heat loss and increase your chances of hypothermia. Remember, wool retains its insulating qualities when it is wet; cotton does not… The first symptom is shivering. Continued shivering means continued seriousness. Shivering may be followed by slurred speech, impaired judgment, weakness, and loss of coordination. The final symptom is unconsciousness.
The next morning I quickly came to two conclusions concerning the woefully wrong-headed and compulsive thinking of the afternoon before. Why hadn’t I made the obvious choice, the only rational and logical and no-brainer choice, and followed the blue-blazed path behind the brush piles down to Mulky Gap and the car? Most reroutes are relatively short and tie right back into the existing treadway. Even if there were a few deadfalls, the soon-to-be bypassed segment would have been exponentially better than stumbling headlong willy-nilly off the side of the mountain. So why hadn’t I followed the blocked-off path once I couldn’t find the reroute? I had looked at the map and made a blatantly bonehead decision, a decision hopelessly impaired by the loss of judgment and panic of hypothermia. The hindsight answer was easy: I had butted up against the bottom of the symptom list, the final one where you don’t make it home to a hug and hot chocolate.
And once I had made the helter-skelter decision to plunge off the top of the peak like a crazed mountain goat, I repeatedly worried about striking FS 4 south of Mulky Gap. That, of course, was an unfounded fret. If I had swung a little more to the south than I did the day before, I would have run right into the trail and followed it down to the gap. And if I hadn’t come to or crossed a well-defined footpath, that, of course, meant a right turn onto the road would have led to the car. Duh.
That morning hypothermia transformed from a CYA passage in my own guidebook—something as alien as a mid-day possum that might happen to someone else, some inexperienced rookie—to a real and relevant danger. I had learned an important lesson about hypothermia’s cold-weather conspirators, collective risk and human error, and its insidious MO. Hypothermia’s early stages are comparable to the beginning symptoms of drunkenness, in that your steadfast belief that you are still in control is the illusion, while the denied reality of impaired function is increasingly the fact.
Hypothermia can turn you—anyone, everyone—into a stammering, stump-dumb, scatter-brained fool. It can make you clumsy and incoherent. Unconscious and dead. The invisible line between calculated risk and recklessness is a highly permeable membrane, slick as a sleet-covered root. Poor judgment is the most dangerous grizzly in the woods. Nature bats last and natural selection never sleeps; it doesn’t even catnap. It’s always out there—unwavering as gravity, silent as a meditating shadow, indifferent as time.
In his book Natural Acts, David Quammen borrowed a detailed description of hypothermia to add factual data to his chapter A Deathly Chill. Here is some of that description borrowed again:
…As that core temperature falls, the symptoms of hypothermia trauma develop in progressive stages. A physician and mountaineer named Ted Lathrop, in a pamphlet published by the Mazamus Climbing Club, has described those stages in detail.
Dropping from a normal 98.6° down to 96° at the body core, the victim will show uncontrollable shivering and a distinct onset of clumsiness. From 95° down to 91° the shivering will continue, and now speech will become slurred, mental acuity will decrease, there may also be amnesia. During this stage often come those crucial mistakes in judgment that prevent a victim from taking certain obvious steps that could save him from death. Between 90° and 86° the shivering will be replaced with extreme muscular rigidity…