I faced a formidable obstacle this morning but didn't realize just how risky
it would be until I was beyond the point of no return.
I'm talking about the very steep climb out of Lehigh Gap. Oh, I could tell
from the elevation profile that I'd be going up 1,100 feet in just over a mile.
Been there, done that.
What the profile and AT guidebook don't tell hikers is that this "open rock -
continuous views - extreme exposure in adverse weather" climb necessitates the
use of both hands and that one miss-step on the cliff could send you to an
untimely death far below.
I don't mean to exaggerate. I faced the scariest climb I've ever done, worse
than the 14ers I've climbed in Colorado. I don't regret doing it, I just wish
I'd known what I was in for.
But then, I might have chickened out and taken the alternate "blue" winter
route up the mountain. It was so much more satisfying to overcome my fears and
keep going on the official "white" AT route. My other reward was the 300-degree
view of the valley and river below.
I take some pride in following only the white blazes for almost 1,300 miles
so far on the Appalachian Trail. The only blue-blazed trails I've used are to
shelters, and I've always returned the same way back to the white-blazed trail.
I have not needed to take any of the blue foul-weather routes yet to avoid a
storm on precarious, exposed rocks. In this regard, I'm a "purist."
But lemme tell ya, I don't ever plan to go up the official route on Blue
Mountain on the northeastern side of Lehigh Gap again! And if I were to find
myself going south on the Trail, I'd definitely take the blue route. My knees
(and heart) couldn't take the loose rocks or the "air" between steps going down
If you like rock climbing and have no fear of heights, you might get a rush
out of this climb. Just don't try it when the rocks are wet.
I'd heard about the barren landscape on top of Blue Mountain but I wasn't
prepared for the variety of terrain and plant life once I reached the summit. It
was ugly, but in a fascinating sort of way.
For some really bizarre reason the AT goes right through the 10-mile
diameter Palmerton EPA Superfund Site caused by the zinc smelters that used to
operate in the area. According to the AT guidebook, "The U.S. Public Health
Service has advised that hiking this portion of the AT does not represent a
public health threat."
Then why are there signs that advise parents not to take their children up
there on a regular basis, and tell hikers not to drink water from any springs in
This was also the only place today that gnats weren't swarming around my
face. What does that tell you??
I think there are more small trees, shrubs, and other plants up there now
than when David Horton ran the AT in 1991. In his book, A Quest for
Adventure, he writes that it made him think "this is what it would look like
after an atomic war" because it was devoid of vegetation.
The photo above with just rocks and downed trees reminded me of the area
surrounding Mount St. Helens in Washington state. Much of the area has some
vegetation now, however, as in the photo below:
Although part of the Trail went through rocks like those above (note the
cairns marking the route), about two miles of trail followed a runnable gravel
jeep road along the summit.
I was glad to be hiking this portion of the Trail in the morning when it was
cooler and breezy. It would not be any fun in the mid-afternoon heat.
After two-plus miles of this barren landscape the Trail rather abruptly
entered a lush green pine and deciduous woods with ferns covering the forest
floor. It was like that most of the rest of the day. Halfway through the section
I started seeing beautiful birch trees with white bark. Now I feel like I'm
getting up north!
(While I was in this ferny paradise Jim called to tell me he got the camper
out from under the power lines at the campsite he was vacating, and found
another way to get to the next campground near E. Stroudsburg besides going
through the very narrow streets of Jim Thorpe. He's been worried about both
obstacles but he overcame them. I was happy to hear from him so I could stop
worrying about how his day was going. When I'm concerned about him it's harder
to focus on my job of getting from Point A to Point B.)
I'm also happy to report that there were fewer rocks today than yesterday.
The worst were in the initial climb, the steep but shorter climb out of Low Gap,
and the last five miles after the Leroy Smith shelter. Yesterday it was hard to
find any dirt under the rocks. It was mostly rock rivers, rock piles, and
boulder scrambles. Today there was more dirt to aim for!
I still took a long time to complete the section, though. My pace was again
about 27 minutes per mile, including all stops. It took me an hour to get across
the Lehigh bridge and up to the summit (only 1.5 miles), I hiked a bonus mile
near the end when I got turned around at an intersection and went south
through a rock pile for half a mile before realizing my mistake. And I still
can't run. I was able to walk faster today until mid-afternoon, when I strained
my right leg fighting for balance after stubbing my foot into a rock really
Ouch. Back to square one. My leg did fine with all the stretching going up
the two rocky ascents, but the last five miles were painful after hurting the
muscles/sciatic nerve again.
Although there were two thru-hikers ahead of me all day (Jim talked to them
at the end, before I got there), I saw only three hikers on the Trail today. The
first was a local day hiker, a middle-aged man who climbed up from Lehigh Gap
just ahead of me. We talked at the intersection with the Blue Trail. He
regularly goes up
the white trail and down the easier one.
The second hiker, a female, was sitting along the jeep road through "hell,"
next to two other back-packs, and wasn't talkative at all. I was thinking about
how more and more of the day-hikers aren't very friendly since I've gotten out
of the South (Jim notes the drivers are less considerate, too).
Then later I met probably the most friendly, talkative person I've
seen the whole Trail! He's the ridge runner for this section. "Happy Bug"
is a retired teacher
who is active with the Appalachian Mountain Club, the local AT maintaining club.
When another fella reneged on ridge runner training classes two days before
classes began, Happy Bug was selected to fill the slot. He's employed by the AT
Conservancy (new name for the former AT Conference) during June, July, and
August, the peak months for hiking in Pennsylvania.
We talked about fifteen minutes. I was curious about the PA Game Lands
through which the Trail has been weaving all along (the very long) Blue
Mountain. Hunting is allowed during season; I thought maybe it was more of a
sanctuary. Yesterday I was surprised by a HUGE critter that looked like a deer
on steroids. I wondered if it was an elk. Happy Bug said no elk are around, but
the bucks are very large because the woods are so full of food and water for
We also talked about bears, which are present in Pennsylvania and are
reportedly very friendly. Too friendly. It's not good for the bears because it
means people feed them. Happy Bug told me New Jersey now allows bear hunting to
try to stop the problem. I guess if bears learn that people might shoot them they
won't beg for food any more.
Dang. I was really hoping to see more bears in New Jersey. I heard they are
as common there along the AT as in the Shenandoahs. Maybe they aren't so common
When I was crossing the road at Wind Gap to get to our truck, Jim and I saw a
cute young lady hiking right behind me. When she got close, I immediately
recognized "Cucumber" and she remembered my name, too. I saw a note left for her
on the Trail a couple days ago, so knew she was nearby. She read my shelter
register comments this week. It's great to know she's still out there and
should complete her thru-hike! The only time I've seen her was in Virginia the
day it was raining and she had on a bikini. She didn't have much more on today,
but I've since seen other young women in similar dress so it's not such a
novelty to me now.
I don't mean to sound like an old fuddy-duddy. I wear fewer clothes than most
female hikers, with my skimpy running shorts and singlets. Gotta be comfortable!
Saw my first trail magic since returning to the Trail this week - six gallons
of water at Low Gap. Nothing really interesting recently, like strawberries or
grapes . . .
FOLLOW THE BLAZES
Jim had a funny comment after the Vermont 100 that I forgot to mention
earlier. Even though he's not on the AT every day like me, he still has
"white-blaze fever." During VT100 he found himself looking for white blazes
instead of the yellow plastic pie plates race management used!
Ya know, so did I. Gets in your blood - and your dreams.
Tomorrow I'm done with Pennsylvania - YES!!!!!