Apr 17, 2013

Hike Report: Appalachian Trail 4-State Challenge

(GPS battery died a couple of miles prior to the finish)
Most people have heard of the Appalachian Trail, a recreational footpath that extends a couple thousand miles from Georgia to Maine. Fewer people have heard of the Four-State Challenge, which is not an event, but an attempt to dayhike the trail from Virginia to Pennsylvania, passing through West Virginia and Maryland, almost entirely along the spine of South Mountain. This section is about 43 miles long and, depending on which GPS log you believe, contains between 6000' and 12000' of elevation gain. I love long hikes, so when a Hudson Valley Hikers meetup to do it came up, I eagerly joined. 3 of us showed up.
L-R Dorothy the organizer, Vince, Me

The invitation for this hike came out on November 8, and I sprained my ankle on January 2. The ankle hadn't healed completely by the hike day, but I had run as much as 16 miles on it and was reassured by a bail-out option at mile 25 in case it presents problems (it didn't.)

The ankle did present one problem in that I hadn't really been able to train long for three months, and the loss of fitness was apparent. Also, the long never-ending tail of a cold I caught two weeks ago was still manifesting itself as a persistent and productive cough. Both of these things would be a factor in the  fact that it took me over 20 hours to complete this, when this time last year I know I could have done it in 12. But I did complete it, exhausted but without serious issues.

We spotted cars at the beginning, mile 25, and the end, and water at miles 13 and 35. The car at mile 25 had water and lunch, and was a good bail-out option if necessary. This effectively broke the hike up into quarters.

The First Section  - VA state line to Gathland State Park

The crossing from WV into MD
Harpers Ferry, West Virginia is not only a very cool little town, but it also is home to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Headquarters. So on the day before the hike, when we walked in, talked to the guy who worked there and mentioned our plans, he told us that the start wasn't at the Shenandoah River as we thought, but an 800' climb opposite the river where we had to "touch the blue blaze" that marked the state line. It turns out that not only is the WV/VA state line NOT the river, but the trail doesn't cross it perpendicularly, but rather runs along it for 20 miles.

We changed our plans accordingly and parked on a road that crosses the trail about halfway up the hill, as close to that spot as we could. The first 3/4 of a mile of our hike was on the AT south until we found the blue blazed trail - we touched the blue paint, took a picture, and then turned around and hiked north.

The trail descends the hill and crosses the river into Harper's Ferry. It climbs a hill there, and then descends right through the middle of the town! It then crosses the Potomac River on a rail bridge (pictured above) into Maryland.

The next 15 miles or so would be familiar to anyone who has run the JFK 50 miler, except in the opposite direction. Our first three miles (including the mile that I ran to maintain my daily running streak) were on the C&O Canal Towpath, followed by the steep ascent to Weverton Cliff, and then northbound on smooth gently rolling terrain along the ridge to Gathland State Park at Crampton's Gap, where we stashed water.

Section 2 - Gathland State Park to I-70
Looking South from White Rock. The AT follows that ridge for ten miles to this point from Weaverton
This was the longest section of our day, and I personally started to feel a little worn out here. From Gathland, we do a 4-mile gradual climb up towards Lambs Knoll Peak (1758'), where the JFK50 course joins the AT. Then the trail gets very rocky for a few miles as it descends, seemingly completely off the mountain (but really only to just below 1000'). The hiking through Fox's and Turner's Gaps is gentle and smooth, and filled with backpackers. We seemed to be the only people day-hiking!

After Turners Gap we start the ascent towards Washington Monument, but not without going up and over a hill Southeast of Monument Knob, which is another climb to 1540'. Passing the stone tower to the left, the trail descends towards I-70, 3 miles away. There are three small climbs in this section, and a lot more dayhikers who can make a nice trip out of parking at I-70 and hiking to the Monument.

Section 3 - I-70 to Wolfsville Road
View of Maryland farmland to the West towards Hagerstown, from Black Rock Lookout

As was our plan, we rested at I-70 for an hour. It was really good to eat some real food, take our shoes off, and relax in the grass for a while. The calories re-invigorated me for the next 10 miles, and I also had hiking poles in the car, just in case, and I was glad to be able to grab them.

The section itself looks like a very aesthetically pleasing 8-mile walk along an uninterrupted section of the ridge. Climbing gradually out of the I-70 valley to Pine Knob, the trail reaches the ridge and is, again, gently rolling and smooth for a few the stretch, with a mile-long rock garden interrupting what is otherwise quite runnable terrain. However, this section also seemed to take forever. Its long duration and position within the day (miles 27-34 or so) really was taxing mentally, and we were all glad to finish it.

Section 4 - Wolfsville Road to Pen Mar

The finish!

This northernmost section is probably the hilliest of the entire hike. It has five distinct climbs, with four of them are in the 100-400 ft range. Between Wolfsville Road and Foxville Road (Pleasant Valley), there's a 400' climb after passing a large campsite, then a mile of tranquil grassy meadows. Between Foxville and Warner Hollow Road (which is dirt), there's a short climb of about 100' followed by a 400' drop, and after crossing you climb another 150' and drop about 300' to Raven Rock Hollow, where MD 491 is the northmost road crossing before the Mason Dixon Line.

With 5-6 miles to go, this section of the hike is a difficult way to end a long day. There is no water access until Pen Mar, and I got really thirsty on the 750' climb out of Raven Rock Hollow. After topping off my 3-liter reservoir at Foxville Road, I ran out about with 3 miles to go and immediately got extremely thirsty. The climb itself isn't too bad - I was tired and had to take a couple of breaks in the first half-mile where it's steepest (and where we gain the majority of the 750'), but I didn't have any serious issues. We then walk along the gently climbing ridge for a couple of miles before reaching the High Rock Lookout, which is the highest point on the AT in Maryland, on the shoulder of Quirauk Mountain, which is the highest peak on South Mountain.

Unfortunately, this is where things got really sketchy with me. I basically hit a wall very hard, and if I had it to do over again I would have left the AT at this point and walked down the road that goes from High Rock to Pen Mar. The AT doesn't stay up on the ridge at this point, but turns south, drops steeply down a rockfall / scramble called Devil's Racecourse to a point about 500' below High Rock before turning north again and gradually climbing a couple hundred feet before going parallel to the aforementioned road. It was on the descent down Devil's Racecourse where I apparently reached my limit. I needed to rest multiple times, and my thirst was really starting to feel extreme (though I knew this to be psychosomatic.) I asked Dorothy, who was fine, to go on without me. Overcome by thirst, and unable to eat due to the thirst, I probably took close to two hours to complete the last two miles. I was also unable to sleep the night before, so I was extremely tired at this point and felt an overwhelming need to take a nap.

When I finally reached Pen Mar Park, it was about midnight. A pepsi machine promised immediate gratification in the form of calories, hydration, and caffeine, but it only took dollar bills, a drink cost $1.50, and I had only a single $1. (plenty of 5's and 20's though.) Likewise, the water fountain near the restroom was turned off, and the doors were locked (though the lights inside the restroom were turned on!) I had no choice but to continue to the finish line, then to the car, where Dorothy gave me what was left over of her drink.

The water fountain would have been really nice, and I made say so to Washington County.

This 44-mile hike took me 20 hours, but only because I rested often, was overcoming a cold, am largely untrained due to the sprained ankle, and crashed and burned at the end. A more fit person can do it closer to 16 hours, and your average mid-pack ultrarunner should be able to do it in 9-12. It has a few technical sections, but it's largely runnable provided the runner is used to east-coast rocky trails, and while there are numerous climbs, only a few are steep and none really exceed about 1000 feet. While you're in the neighborhood, it's definitely worth checking out Harper's Ferry, which is one of the neatest towns I've ever come across. And, finally, don't underestimate Western Maryland as a hiking destination. It may not have the huge mountains that New Hampshire has, but it definitely would be a mistake to ignore it.