What next? Hiking the Appalachian Trail?

Photo by adrian on Unsplash

I’ve only hiked one brief section of the Appalachian Trail. It was just over the NC border in Tennessee, it was steep, and it was beautiful.

I’ve been hiking twice in my now 7 months of living in Nairobi. One of those hikes lasted 2.5 hours longer than it should have and was essentially straight up and then straight down a river of mud – and I got altitude sickness.

And yet I’ve gotten a strong itch to hike the entire Appalachian Trail as a thru hiker.

Why?

Thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, all the way from Georgia to Maine, has always appealed to me. But I’ve never seriously thought about training for it and fitting it into my plans. I want to do so much (I want to do about 10 different grad programs), and taking 5 months “off” for an expensive trek in the wilderness isn’t very convenient.

But living in a city for the first time is reinforcing for me how much I love and miss nature. Every moment I spend hiking, rock climbing, or just surrounded by green refreshes and energizes me.

I grew up in a well-treed town, with a whole network of trails and a creek just behind my house. I went to college in a small town nestled among the Green Mountains and the Adirondacks. I miss the East Coast trees and mountains. Trekking through that landscape, getting intimate with the dirt and rocks and trees, getting offline – that sounds like the best way to return home.

Plus, I think it’d be pretty badass to carry your life on your back for 2,181 miles.

How?

Hiking the AT requires a lot of prep and money. It costs about $5,000 not including gear. And it takes about 5 months: April-August if you’re hiking from Georgia to Maine (NOBO) or June/July-October/November if you’re hiking south (SOBO).

Most people hike NOBO, ending the hike with the most challenging sections in the White Mountains before summiting Mt. Katahdin for the finish. So many people hike the AT every year now that the NOBO route can be pretty crowded. As of May 16, 2,508 people were registered to thru-hike NOBO, while only 218 were registered for SOBO hiking.

The idea of doing SOBO appeals to me just on that basis, but I’d have to weigh a lot of variables carefully before choosing.

The timeline alone makes SOBO a difficult choice. Unless I’m going to do it starting next July. Which I am wholly unqualified to do.

I have never been backpacking. I’m working on planning my first trip soon, but I’d need to go on plenty of longer trips before heading off for 5 months. (Assuming I like backpacking!)

I’d also want to get trained in wilderness first aid, wear in my gear beforehand, and coordinate how friends can join me for sections of the trail. I’m fine to hike alone if no one else wants to take 5 months off to join me, but I’d want my favorite humans to join for at least a little bit each!

I know my father and brother would join for at least a week each. And the boyfriend. And I have several friends who I could probably convince to do a few weeks each.

Fitting the hike into my own schedule will be hard enough… although the NOBO timing probably works pretty well for right before starting a grad school program.

It’s likely that I won’t end up thru-hiking the AT. I’ve never taken such a big risk to do something so outside the normal career path. But I’m going to start doing some backpacking, just in case I fall in love.

On a rock wall. Afraid of heights.

Two weeks ago, I had my first opportunity to climb outdoors. My friends were going to Hell’s Gate – the national park two hours outside Nairobi that inspired much of the Lion King film.

I have been afraid of heights my whole life. That fear is one of the main reasons I’ve never gone rock climbing outdoors. In a rock climbing gym, the controlled environment feels like a pretty safe space to dangle from a rope two to three stories up. But when I get near the edge of a cliff, I feel like I suddenly have to fight the urge to leap into the void.

This really freaked me out when I was younger, even though the fear was tinged with a sense of exhilaration, too.

Aside: Recently (read: five minutes ago), I learned this urge is called the “high place phenomenon.” In one study on the feeling, researchers found the desire to jump wasn’t correlated with suicidal thoughts and was instead correlated with “anxiety sensitivity.” Anxiety sensitivity is essentially how anxious being anxious makes you – specifically how reactive you are to the physical sensations of your body telling you it’s in danger (like the quaking in your knees as you look over a cliff).

It was one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced. It had been rainy all week (we’re just wrapping up the rainy season in Kenya), but the day we were climbing was all sunshine and scudding clouds.

We hired a climbing guide to set up two top ropes so that we could belay ourselves after that. We had one easier climb and one harder one. Later, another climber showed up and set up another climb and we moved the easier rope to another wall. I was able to try all four and got to the top of three. The fourth had an overhang and was the last one I attempted. I got my arms onto the overhang but couldn’t haul myself over the top that late in the day.

Nervous? Who, me?
My friend Maddy documented my first climb of the day
I learned some actual climbing technique on the many cracks in the wall. Improving over the day felt like the biggest win.

I was pretty freaked out by the view and the drop off at the top of this one, but after the first descent I got comfy sitting on the rope and hanging out at the top of the other climbs.
Also got to learn how to belay with a gri-gri.
It was Maddy’s first time climbing outside, too.

After we “cleaned” the routes (removed the equipment we had used for top-roping), we drove through the rest of the park to reach some sulphur hot springs on the opposite side. The whole landscape was wide open and gorgeous.

At one point a giraffe just started running alongside our car. It was magical.

10/10 experience and made me really want to climb more!

Elephant Hill

Two weekends ago, I went on one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve ever been on – Elephant Hills in the Aberdares.

The optimistic first minutes

Unfortunately, the hike was 3 hours longer than advertised, we ran out of water, we had to hike in the dark (with hyenas??), and I got altitude sickness and threw up. Otherwise, best hike ever.

The second fall and we weren’t even in the woods yet

“The Aberdares? In the rainy season? Are you crazy?!” – My boss when she heard about our trip at work the next day

Lots of recovering from falls

Mikala found a group hiking Elephant Hills – a hike we’d all heard was crazy beautiful – and invited Brooke and me. I added Nick and Alice from work to the hiking crew. Women Who Hike Kenya organized the buses, park fees, park rangers, and “personal photographer” (which is why I have so many pics from the hike – I didn’t get my phone out to take any pics until we reached the peak).

Unfortunately, the personal photographer took pictures of everything, including my return from peeing in the bushes

The best section going up and down was the bamboo forest we passed through. On the way up, we thought this was the middle third of the hike up – it was more like one of the middle tenths of the climb.

We started out by criss-crossing a muddy road, then followed the road through potato farms, through a pine forest, through an electric fence to keep the game out, through more trees, and along another open grassy section before reaching the bamboo part. On the way down, these pre-bamboo sections all merged into one quick burst in our minds… instead, it kept going and going and going. The bamboo section was just a vertical shoot up a mud slide between gorgeous bamboo shoots – lots more falling.

This pic captures the beauty, but not the steepness

After the long bamboo section, we took a quick break on a grassy knoll. A bunch of us thought it was the elephant’s head, so we ate all our lunch. But then on we went.

Me finding out this isn’t the top as the peak in the background emerged from the clouds

The next section was just a muddy stream of squelching mud sprinkled with safari ants (vicious biters, but I thankfully wasn’t bit). We also thought this was the last section…

Valiantly attempting to keep up the pep as the altitude starts hitting us

…until we arrived at another grassy section leading us up into the clouds.

“Really?”

After that, I started feeling really sick and decided I had to just power through to the peak. The clouds faked us out at least 5 or 6 times before I finally made it. As soon as I reached the top, the clouds parted and we were treated to incredible 360 views. I was too busy dying of altitude sickness to notice at first. I recovered a bit and ate some of my leftover “I’m not going to Liberia for two months!”chocolate cake from Java.

I was desperate to get down from altitude (about 12,500 ft at the peak, up nearly 3000 ft from the trailhead), so I tried to keep up with Alice and Nick. They hadn’t been feeling the altitude sickness like Brooke, Mikala, and me. Pretty quickly, though, I had to stop and almost started crying my head hurt so much. I let the rest of the summiters pass me by until Brooke and Mikala reached me and rallied my spirits.

Still, Mikala and I were hit pretty hard and it was slow going. Meanwhile, Brooke was calculating how long it would take to get down, comparing that timeline to when it would get dark, and debating whether it was better to push us to go faster when we were feeling so crappy or to be in a national park with wild animals after dark. Actually, at that point, we were more worried about being in that dense, slippery bamboo in the dark.

My head was pounding, I felt hopeless but knew I had to keep going, and my legs were quaking. I’ve never seen my legs shake as hard as they did each time I paused to take a sip of water or breath more deeply. I’d been sitting on the idea that I needed to throw up for about 15 minutes when I finally sped up a bit, turned off the trail and puked. After that, I felt AWESOME. My legs were still shaking, but now my head wasn’t pounding.

We made it to the first grassy knoll where we’d eaten lunch. Happily, another group of friends on the hike had over-prepared with extra gatorades and lent us some. We refueled and then plunged back into the bamboo forest.

Just leave me here to die

We had some great jungle-woman moments slipping and sliding down the increasingly dimly lit bamboo section. The bamboo  on the edge of the path were key; we swung between them rather than trust our weight on the muddy slope.

By the time we made it to the end of the bamboo, we were euphoric and wanted to power through the final spurt. But by the time we hit the pine tree forest again, it was already dark. At that point, one of the more experienced hikers who had done Elephant Hills seven or eight times before started getting antsy. He kept hiking super fast but also yelling at the few stragglers to stay with the group and warning everyone about hyenas.

At that point, though, I was actually in a great mood. I had a stick to wave menacingly at the dark edges of the path, I wasn’t at a crazy altitude anymore, and I knew where we were and how to get back.

In all, we hiked 12 miles, straight up and straight down through deep mud. No switchbacks in the Aberdares, apparently! I was out on the trail from 9 am to 7 pm.

10/10 would do again… but maybe only through the bamboo section. And probably not in the rainy season!