Day 1. April 11th.
Awoke at 4.30, got up at 5. Time to rock and roll.
Weighed the pack on the hostel scale: 14kg (30lb) with the poles, all food and no water. Not too happy with that but I still carried some food that was designated for the 2 travel days and all the food was about 10lb so maybe it wasn’t too bad. Don weighed in at 50lb and was worried it was too heavy. I advised him that the way it felt was more important than a number and he said it felt fine [later note: that was prophetic of me]. Plus you can change gear and get advice at the Neel Gap outfitter Mountain Crossings after about 3-4 days.
Breakfast at 7.30, left at 8.40.
9 people, all going to Springer except Blake.
Weather great, sunny and cool. The parking lot is actually adjacent to the AT but 0.9m from Springer.
I set off confidently and more briskly than usual knowing I could rest in just 0.9m.
Within 10 minutes my thumb started tingling like pins and needles on the way to becoming numb. After a short time my whole left hand was part numb. And puffy. And purple. In fact my whole left arm was half numb, the forearm stiff as a board.
I pushed on to Springer and did the picture-taking, register-signing thing but quickly and distractedly. Once I took my pack off the numbness subsided, descending back to pins and needles.
On top of a mountain in the middle of Georgia I had little choice but to push on and hope it was a one time thing. I left my hostel-mates rather abruptly and went full speed back down the trail, happy to finally be clocking up mileage as I had planned for so long.
But soon it became apparent the numb arm wasn’t a one time thing. Basically, I could get 20 minutes out of it before the numbness, tingling and swelling became unbearable and I had to take a break with my pack off for a further 20.
I spent the whole day like this in short bursts and learned to hike with my arm completely or partly out of my left shoulder strap. I repacked so that more of the weight was on the right side. I also took to carrying my food bag of about 3kg (6.5lb) in either hand just to reduce the weight of my pack on my back. Needless to say, this was very unergonomic and put a huge amount of strain on the rest of my body, especially my right shoulder, the one just recovered from a tear. I also had to stow my trekking poles to achieve these changes and my knees that I was supposed to protect first and foremost were left to bear the full brunt of any descents.
This made for a day of extreme contrasts. On the one hand I was overjoyed to be on the AT finally. The sun was out, it was a pleasant 20c (70f) or thereabouts, spring flowers were pushing through the soil, birds were chirping away, squirrels were busy (aren’t they always?) and the trail was highly scenic.
On the other hand, well, I couldn’t feel my other hand. When I took my pack off at Long Creek Falls the pounding in my arm was so intense I almost fell over. I didn’t understand why wearing the pack made such a difference when it literally didn’t tough my left side any more [later edit: still don't!].
As the hours ticked on the physical discomfort of my left arm and the pain in my back and right shoulder from carrying all the weight blotted out any enjoyment from hiking and the day became just a trial. I was also worried about what was actually happening – was it nerves or a blood clot, was I risking long-term damage by carrying on? In my ramshackle state I was grateful to see hardly any other hikers, only occasionally crossing over with one girl with an Alsatian dog that looked as big as her.
All of this did not make for fast or elegant progress. I camped at Horse Gap, 10.5 miles in. Horse Gap is not a common place for thrus to stay as it is miles from the nearest shelter and there is no water anywhere near. [It is actually 2.4m past the most common first-night stopping place, Hawk Mountain at 3209 feet elevation and 8.1m in which is the last water for another 6.3 miles]. In fact the next water source past Horse Gap is 5 miles further along over two big mountains.
I had made a big mistake when refilling with water at Hawk Mountain because I was so preoccupied with my arm, only taking 750ml and drinking another 250ml at the time – that was half what I should have picked up with Justus Creek still 6.3m away. I had thought I could make it there on Day 1 but it was not possible.
I stopped at 5pm knowing I couldn’t make it any further. My body was done. My knees, both shoulders, back and left arm were all in trouble. On the final descent into Horse Gap at 2681 feet I would have looked a wreck if anyone had been around to see.
I made camp on some flat ground with a good view through the still-bare trees.
It took me a while and I didn’t eat any real dinner as I was down to 350ml of water and was still about 16 hours from Justus Creek with two big peaks to get past. Instead I picked out jelly bears from my rations as I figured those are 95% water.
I didn’t see anyone else until 8.30, half an hour after sunset, literally as I was getting into my sleeping bag. Two section hikers turned up in the dusk on the first day of a 7 day trip. I was happy to see them on balance especially when they shared a half litre of water just as I was running dry.
Oh and I ‘used the facilities’ for the first time. Not too much hassle actually.
After some online research and discussion with base it seemed the arm numbness may be caused by nerves in the left trapezium being impinged by the strap. Why it had not occurred before on hikes and other trips with the pack on (not least the day before when I had it on for 2-3 hours) is not known. Perhaps the 30lb weight plus water was over a tipping point not found when testing with 25lb. Still, I carried 7lb of food in my hands and that didn’t cure it, though it helped. Or maybe the flight from the UK caused extra muscle stiffness which made it happen.
Even as I write this 4 hours after shedding the pack for the night it is still slightly numb and tingling all over and various parts of my arms and left side twitch and tremor of their accord. A bit concerning.
My plan is to see how it is in the morning. If back to normal then I may test it for 10 minutes with an empty pack and see how that turns out. Either way it is still another 21 miles of tough terrain before I reach Mountain Crossings, an outfitter who can try adjusting my pack to ease the strain on my shoulder or fit me a new pack, heavier perhaps but less likely to cause nerve damage. If that doesn’t help then I’ll have to seek medical help or quit.
So not really looking forward to tomorrow.