Hello Heelhook Universe! My name is J and I’m one of your content creators. For my introductory blog post, I’ll be telling you the story of a backpacking trip that spiraled into a disaster, what I learned from it, and how you can mitigate the danger of this sort of experience. Winter backpacking can be dangerous and even life-threatening. With the appropriate gear and preparation, a bad situation can be saved, but it’s always better to plan ahead and have ready bail-options. Let this story be a warning and an opportunity to learn from the planning mistakes of someone else so that YOU don’t fall into the same situation.
When most people think of the ideal conditions for river crossings, they generally don’t think of a wet, cold winter day. In fact, most people would probably consider even touching a river in those conditions to be completely ridiculous. Chest-deep in freezing rapids with a swollen ankle, I couldn’t help but agree with that sentiment and think back on the string of misfortunes leading up to that cold moment.
About 24 hours earlier, my partner at the time and I arrived at the Wolf Pit trailhead at Linville Gorge, one of the premier hidden gems of the Southeast. We had arrived a little later than we had hoped in order to complete the 21-mile Linville Loop with only one night in the backcountry, but decided to press on with the full loop anyway. After all, we were feeling strong from a fun season of Winter backpacking and climbing and felt comfortable hiking at night. We made good time descending to and making our way across the first river crossing. Though it was a little cold, the river was slow-moving and only waist-deep.
Upon reaching the other bank, we quickly dried off and started moving north along the west bank of the river as dusk started to fall. Soon, we reached the dreaded “Blue Dot” trail. Formally named “Leadmine”, this path snakes its way along the bluffs that watch over the beautiful river below. Known for roots, steep inclines, and lingering mud, Blue Dot isn’t the easiest of trails. This especially holds true at night, when the trail can barely be seen via dim headlamps cutting through the icy mist. About halfway down Blue Dot, I felt my ankle give out and a jarring pain thudded through the joint. With no campsites till we descended from the bluffs and desire to cross the next river crossing prior to an anticipated rainstorm the next day, I knew that I had a painful night ahead of me.
Limping along, the technical, root-laden hills transitioned into quick, flowing dirt tracks alongside the river. With the conquering of blue-dot, our spirits soared and we made plans to hike all the way to the next river crossing that night, our sights set on what we hoped to be another relatively easy crossing in the morning and then less-primitive trails in the afternoon. As the early AM’s crept in, we finally reached the Spence crossing. Though the online tracker had informed us that the river was a little higher than usual, Linville had thrown another wrench into the cogs of our plan: the fast current sent water rushing over what looked to be precarious stepping stones and the other side of the broken bridge, though a short stone-throw away, looked unattainable. We walked back to our campsite, significantly less high-spirited than moments earlier, and quickly fell asleep.
In the morning, we returned to the river to have our fears confirmed. The stepping stones that make this crossing so simple in the Summer months were wet and slippery, the water ran high and fast, and the cold wind whistled through the gorge like the breath of an angry giant. Energized by the thought of kinder trails, we devised a plan: I would strip down to my base layer and wade across a little further up the river, where, though high, the water was moving a little less quickly. Upon reaching the other shore, my partner would throw me a rope, which I would use to pull our packs across the static wire hanging across the river. Alas, this wire was too weak to climb across. With our packs in hand, I’d dress, light a fire, and warm up inside an emergency blanket and zero degree bag. Finally, at this point, my partner would cross and immediately jump into the prepared warm bag and clothes on the other side.
The first part of the plan went off without a hitch. I crossed the chest-high ford and, after a good few attempts, caught the rope from the other side. With hands that felt like rubber from the cold and wet, I dragged the packs across, wrapped myself in an emergency blanket while laying under a rock formation to warm up, and made some tea for my companion on the other side. As they began to cross, we quickly noticed a small problem: height. Though the river was shallow enough for me to wade, their smaller size would require them to swim. Pushing through the frigid water, they made it to the east shore in a state near delirium. Teeth chattering, they were barely able to speak upon reaching the other side. After taking some time to recharge in the zero-degree and emergency blanket, and with a quick drink of tea, our spirits shot upwards again. We were back on non-primitive trails, no river-crossings separated us from the car, and the sun peaked out from behind the clouds, sending glimmers of light dancing across the foaming river. We packed up our gear and began to make our way towards Table Rock, a stunning summit along the path towards Wolf Pit.
Painful step after step, my ankle swelling, we worked our way up the mountain. Clouds covered the sun and the temperature began to drop, forcing shivers despite the intense incline. As we neared the top, we noticed icy coatings upon the surrounding pines and felt the first icy drops of the rainstorm we feared fall from the sky. Luckily, at this trying time, we stumbled back into what, at the time, felt like a saving grace: cell phone coverage. A brief check found our worst fears to be true: these drops weren’t the start of a light rain, but instead the beginning of a massive storm that would drop hail and freezing buckets on the gorge for hours.
After the swollen ankle and frigid crossing, the lack of desire to ride out a torrential storm in our tent (and therefore missing classes the next day) was the final straw. We decided to phone a friend to shuttle us from Table Rock to Wolf Pit. The friend, also a backpacker and true example of the kind of camaraderie one dreams of in a fellow adventurer, was in the car within minutes. As she drove to Table Rock, we waited in the only unlocked building: a pit toilet. The rain roared around us and the wind howled, but we were safe. Soon, we were seated in our friend’s car, toweling off on the way back to Wolf Pit, where we had left from just a day and a half before.
In retrospect, the conclusion of the trip was lucky in more ways than I can count. Though our misfortunes snowballed, we had the right gear with us to counter the situations and were lucky enough to emerge, other than the ankle, relatively unscathed despite crossing a treacherous river and doing quite a bit of technical night hiking in muddy conditions. The first lesson to take from this story is to think deeply before taking risks. Depending on your location, there are a million safe places to backpack in the winter that don’t involve cold river crossings. The decision to take risks like this doesn’t just impact you. If you don’t have the experience and tool-set to face these challenges, they could also impact those who care about you, as well as the Rangers and Volunteers who, hopefully, will arrive in time to rescue you. If you choose to take these risks, or even if you choose to hike a safer path, make sure to bring appropriate gear and know all possible bail-out options. If we hadn’t brought a rope, emergency blanket, and first-aid kit for the ankle, a tough situation could have turned into a disaster. Finally, consider investing in a Satellite Phone. Though a regular phone can contact emergency services without signal if you are in-network for any other carrier, the only way to contact emergency services from a true no-signal zone is with a Satellite Phone. Though expensive, this option can save your life if an emergency arises in the wrong place.
Looking back, I’m glad for the trip and the lesson I learned from it. Though I would take far more precautions if I were to repeat the trip (especially in regards to the crossing), sometimes occasions when disaster nearly strikes are the most enlightening and build your love for the adventure that is life. I’ll see you on the trails!