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[at-l] HATT section 4B trip report (very long saga)

Note: I stayed up all night to write this, I hope someone reads it. :)

First a little background so you can get a feel for my previous AT experience.
I am currently 56 years old and first backpacked in 1997 with my 21-year old
son on a loop in the Mt Rogers area from Old Orchard shelter to Whitetop and
back. One item I remember from that trip was going up Whitetop and meeting some
hikers who asked my son "Is he ok?". I must have looked pretty bad....
My second trip was the next year (solo this time) from Pearisburg north
to the War Spur trail (ended up at Mountain Lake Hotel).
The last one was I77 north to Pearisburg in 1999 (also solo) ending up a day
early and stayed at the Rendezvous Motel, ate the Chinese buffet at the Lucky
Star, and visited the Holy Family Hospice.

Each of these trips was about the same as a HATT section so I was pretty
confident I could easily do one.

For equipment I carry a technical North Face Exocet modified to carry a
sleeping bag external. Strapped onto the sides are a 7-pound CampTrails
Phoenix tent and a Thermarest. For a stove I use the wood-burning Sierra Zip,
and filter water with the Pur Hiker.

This year I was waiting to see what HATT 2000 sections needed filling up.
I was toying with the idea of doing Saddleback but that section had filled up
by late May. By early June the only section left outside of Maine was
HATT section 4B (VA route 624 south to FS road 156). I thought this was strange
because it includes Dragon's Tooth, Audie Murphy mounument and the Keffler Oak.
So I signed up. My plan was to hike south and then turn around and re-hike
the section northbound to my car by Wednesday evening (6 days total). One
problem with section 4B is there are no services or easy bail-out points
if you don't have outside support.

I drove down from Ohio Thursday night (too late for the chicken dinner at
the Homeplace Restaurant in Catawba so I settled for MickeyD's), stayed in
a motel near Roanoke, and met Woodelf and Ratboy on Friday morning. After a
short shuttle from the parking lot to the trailhead we shook hands and I
was heading up towards Dragon's Tooth at 11:30AM. The trail was easy grade
and after a while became rocky in spots. The rocks became more numerous near
the top (there are two spots with metal handrails to help). I passed three
hikers who were playing around on the rocks, and I had Dragon's Tooth all to
myself for a half-hour lunch/snack. The mist and fog was swirling around and
I saw 10 large birds (eagles/hawks?) soaring way up in the mist in formation.
The mist and overcast conditions kept things cool for the easy ridge walk on
Cove Mtn and down the rocky trail off the mountain. The three guys I met
earlier caught up with me at the blue-blaze down to Pickle Branch shelter.

I got to the shelter at 6PM, 6.5 miles in 6.5 hours. I usually do 2MPH, except
on uphills where I slow to a 1MPH+ crawl, consuming water liberally.
After getting some water at the nearby stream and cooking some vegetables and
corn pasta (thanks, Ray Jardine), I set up the tent and got some sleep.

The next morning I got going by 10:30AM, said goodbye to the 3 guys who were
returning to Dragon's Tooth, and headed down the easy walk to Trout Creek. On
the way up to Brush Mountain I met a hiker who said he had started northbound
at VA42 and would have bailed out after the walk over Sinking Creek mountain
if he had the chance. Strange, it looks easy on the map. Hmmmm....
I could see the thunderstorms on nearby mountains and was thankful that I
was being spared up to now. It was becoming more overcast with only sporadic
patches of sun. When I got to the Audie Murphy monument at 3PM, there was a
young couple there carrying nothing but two beer bottles. They said they came
from the parking lot. It must be on top of the mountain somewhere off the AT,
I didn't see it. When I got near the bottom near VA621 and Craig Creek I saw
a hunter coming up the trail and later heard some shots in the area. I was glad
to be on the other side of the road, heading up to Niday shelter. I arrived
at 6:30PM,  9.4 miles in 8 hours. Soon after, 8 students from VA Tech arrived
for a cookout. The shelter normally sleeps 8, but I was tenting anyway.
I found out that they were in a bible study group whose home-base church
is in Worthington, OH where I live. For some more "small world" stuff, they had
just come from a football game where VA Tech had beaten my alma mater, Akron U,
by 52-23. At about 7PM a northbounder came in who started near Atkins VA
and was heading to Pennsylvania to get his 2000-miler patch. We talked until
it was too dark for me to do anything but filter some water in the nearby
stream, munch a few cold snacks, and go to sleep. He said he had seen a bear
north of War Spur shelter and also bear hunters who were practicing.
He also mentioned that Sinking Creek Mountain had lots of slanting rocks
that made his ankles sore trying to navigate, especially in the rain he went
through. Another Hmmmm... (read warning).

At 3AM it started to sprinkle so I had to get out and put the rain fly on the
tent. I also noticed that my water bottle had spilled and created a puddle in
the tent, getting my shoes wet for the first time. Little did I know in a few
hours it wouldn't matter. Overnight I also learned that the students had
chased away a black snake in the shelter rafters (at least there was no mice).

I left Niday shelter at 10AM, and it was overcast and still wet from last
night's sprikles. This was supposed to be my big-mileage day (12.3 miles)
a long ridge-walk aross Sinking Creek mountain.
I saw some small slanting rocks on the trail which I avoided, but I was not
prepared for the sections of big slabs of slanting flat rocks about the size
a car that were in bunches of 10 or 20 separated by bramble bushes. There are
4 or 5 of these sections and some of them do not have obvious blaze marks.
Twice I took off on the wrong slab and ended up having to scramble back
through the brambles back to the trail near the top. Now I know: when in doubt,
take the uppermost slab. By the 3rd section of slanting rocks it was starting
to rain steady, and then it was a downpour. At least there was no lightning.
I put my poncho over my backpack, and was using my trusty umbrella,
but everything was getting soaked. There were three tame goats on the ridge
looking for handouts (didn't get any). When I finally reached the blue-blaze to
Sarver's cabin it was 4:30PM. I wanted a picture of the cabin, so I turned
left and proceeded for about 10 minutes when I noticed the rock piles and
white blazes. Wait a minute, I must be on the AT, so I backtracked and found
the blue-blaze heading sharply down the hill toward Sarver's (trashy) cabin.
By the time I was back at the AT/blue-blaze junction it was 5:30PM.
When I got to the powerline area I was looking around for the blaze on the
opposite side (it was on the tower) and I stumbled and took a header,
fortunately in some tall grass. When I finally reached the Keffler Oak it
was getting dark and I knew I couldn't navigate the blazes through the
farmfields near VA42 across electric-fence styles, so I set up my tent
in a farm-field behind some big rolls of hay. No hot food again tonight
and everything was soaking wet. It was 8:30PM, 9 miles in 10.5 hours. Going
to see Sarver's cabin was looking like a mistake.

For Monday I was planning to go from Laurel Creek shelter to Johns Creek
(USFS 156), 5 miles, which I should easily be able to do in the morning.
But since I had stopped short, I had an additional 3 miles to go to get to the
shelter. I figured I needed to start at 5:30AM to finish by 12noon.
When I awoke at 5:30AM it was foggy and still pitch black. I got my stuff
packed and waited until there was some light. At 7AM I started out, going
as hard as I could. I replenished water from Laurel Creek and ate a snack
at Laurel Creek shelter and started up torward Kelly Knob at 9AM.
The trail up had lots of small rocks which at least kept away the mud.
It was still overcast but not raining. I bypassed Kelly Knob and Big Pond
side-trails and headed down the gentle grade (an old road) toward Rocky Gap.

At Rocky Gap it was 11:30AM. I knew there was no way I could do the last
2 miles in 30 minutes. Fortunately there was a woman hiker there saying
goodbye to her family starting a 95 mile southbound hike (with 2 small dogs).
She said "see you up the trail" and I said "not a chance" (I was half-dead),
but I asked her to look for some RedHATTs (or green HATTs) at USFS 156
and tell them I was coming. This plan worked and at 12:30PM I dragged myself
across the bridge at Johns Creek and saw Don Masselli and two RedHATTers. :)

We shook hands, took pictures, they gave me a cold refreshing drink, and Don
rescued me from having to hike back over those mountains by shuttling me 30
miles back to my car. Thanks again, Don. Would I do all this again?
Yep, next year (but NOT section 4B).
Dave Hughes
Worthington, OH
(shelter/campsite reports later if you want them,
the pictures that turned out are also available).
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