Shenandoah AT - Compton Gap to Gravel Springs Loop - December 2004

Trip theme - "Gear Failures"

Several of us had planned to backpack this weekend, however in the end only Ed and I didn't chicken out. I wanted to scout a route that started in Compton Gap going south on the AT, loops around below Skyline drive to Gravel Springs, and then comes back to Compton Gap via the AT. It turns out that this is a great loop and will work out well as a potential club trip next year.

Despite the rain we encountered on our way down to Shenandoah, when we got to the trailhead it was a very pleasant day with partly cloudy skies and moderate temperatures in the 40's. Our day started pleasantly at 10:00 as we explored Compton peak and found our way across Skyline drive down the Mount Marshall trail. Eventually we came to a large blowdown where a small troop of boy scouts was trying to get around. We asked them where they were going and they indicated Gravel Springs Shelter. Drat. We wished them well and passed them. A bit later we are eating lunch at a stream crossing and here come the scouts. Whereas Ed and I ambled quickly across the stream, the scouts stopped and agonized over the seemingly simple crossing. Some went low and some went high. The first one who went high dumped feet first into the stream and soaked himself up to the knees. The rest somehow got across and it was all very entertaining. We passed them back a short while later and tried to guess how long it would take them to get to the shelter. I figured we would make it by 3, so I guessed 4 for them. We took a detour down the Big Devil Stairs trail where we ran into some day hikers. The Big Devil Stairs is a deep, steep, rocky canyon in the park. It is really quite an unusual feature for the area and definitely worth the trip at least to the first few overlooks. Around 3:20 we arrived at the empty shelter. The campsites are down the hill so I decided to sleep wherever the boy scouts didn't. Around 4:30 I decided it was time for some hot soup. And here we come to our first gear failure, the threads on my stove got cross threaded and wouldn't mount to the propane canister. Not only were we not having soup, but we weren't having dinner either as I brought the only stove. Perhaps we could beg some hot water from the scouts when they arrived. Ed built a fire and then nearing 5 the scouts finally made it. They chose to camp so I chose the shelter (another failure that comes later). The scouts continued their comedic dance which we found immensely entertaining. The adults had one stove and the scouts another. The adults stove was the same brand as mine so I borrowed it long enough to boil water for our dinner. The scouts stove was a Coleman and guess what, it failed. Which started another comedy of them trying to boil 11 cups of water in a huge pot on a small canister stove. 2 hours later the pot fell, and the noodles were luke warm and salty.

Ed's fire continued to burn, stoked by the scouts. Problem was it was smoking pretty heavily too. We decided to make for our sleeping bags around 8:30 and thankfully the scouts weren't too far behind. Problem was the smoke continued to pour out of the fire and wafted in and out of the shelter all night. Which brings us to our next gear failure. It turns out that the reason I had been cold at night during various trips this year was due to the Z-rest sleeping pad and not due to an old sleeping bag like I thought. Apparently 32F on a wooden floor in a shelter, with a Z-rest pad that only goes as far as your butt, is going to be cold even with the bag that kept you warm at 18,500 feet on Kilimanjaro. I'm not saying I froze to death, but the cold was just uncomfortable enough to keep me from sleeping worth a darn. I suppose technically this isn't a gear failure, but rather a gear limitation. Not helping was the fact that my eyes and throat were burning from all the smoke in the shelter. On the positive side, there were absolutely no mosquitos at all and I learned that the Z-rest pad isn't good outside of warm weather.

I must have slept more than I thought because eventually it was 6AM and we were discussing the merits of getting up and moving on. Since I was not sleeping and not overly warm any way, I voted for get up and go. It was still dark when we packed up and just getting light when we left. It was fairly cold and windy as we found our way back to the AT and ambled along to the north. There are several nice overlooks at South Mt. Marshall and North Mt. Marshall, but were far too cold this morning to stop and enjoy for long. Almost back at the cars we came across two female day hikers who asked us if we had passed some people to which we indicated "no". They thought this was awful strange so we asked them where they were trying to go. Come to find out they had gone south on the AT instead of going north from Compton Gap. Doh! So we got to enjoy their company the rest of the way back to the car. This was my first backpack in December and it was a very nice time. I think I'd like to do December again except next time with a better sleeping pad and a stove that works.

Ed pulls his massive load out of the car I'm going ultralight
Mark at the viewpoint on Compton Peak Looking up our route
Uh oh. Here come the boy scouts Big Devil Stairs
Ed at the Big Devil Stairs overlook Ed's &$*&^@! campfire
Am I backpacking with the Michelin Man? Mark on the North Mt. Marshall overlook
A very empty Skyline drive Once again, only Mark makes it back


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