I have a new phone that I love. I know that I've mentioned this in other posts, but I'm still just floored by the sheer amount of data at my fingertips at all times of day. For example, I can check the weather in my exact location any time I want to. My phone has GPS, too, so I don't even have to input a city or ZIP code or anything. I just press the weather button, and I find out that it's currently 72 degrees Fahrenheit and mostly cloudy. I find myself checking the weather all day long now. I'll be sitting at my desk at work, and I absolutely must know the temperature and cloud cover at that moment.
I haven't always had such easy access to the weather.
During high school, I was a backpacker. I saved up and bought hundreds of dollars of hiking and camping supplies. I had a backpack, cooking kit, portable stove, tent, sleeping bag, hiking shoes, special socks, first aid kit, compass -- you name a piece of hiking gear, I probably had it or had plans for how much a good one was going to cost me.
I and my two best friends, Scott and Jeremy, liked to go on overnight hiking trips. We would pack up the gear, hop in Jeremy's beat up Chevy Nova (the 4-cylinder compact version from the late 80's), and drive up to North Georgia to walk all day, sit around a campfire half the night, and sleep on the ground in a tent. I've learned in the intervening years that not everyone understands the fun in this. Actually, I don't even understand why this is fun. It just is.
If I remember correctly, we planned a trip in early March one year to the Cohutta Wilderness in extreme North Georgia. We checked topographical maps and National Park Service maps of the area. We decided on a trailhead and parking area, planned our route, and decided to avoid river and stream crossings. Although the winter had been mild, we didn't want to deal with mountain streams so early in the year, even in Georgia. We planned our meals, loaded our packs, and tested Jeremy's new pump-operated water filter. Water gets heavy when you have to carry a couple of day's worth at a time, so he had researched filters and decided on a mid-priced filter that had gotten some good reviews in Backpacker Magazine.
Even in the days before the internet became central to our lives, research and planning were easy tasks. Apparently, though, despite all our planning, turning on the TV and planning for weather was a task beyond the likes of us.
Although the weather was nice at home -- in the 70's, I think -- we discovered upon reaching the mountains that winter had not exactly loosened its grip. It was cold up there! No worries, though, we had sleeping bags and a tent and fire-making supplies. Our elevation increased, and I could have sworn that I saw a little ice on the road. Yeah, that was ice. Probably just a little bit of leftover stuff from earlier in the season, though -- nothing to worry about. We kept listening to Frank Sinatra or Take 6 or Manhattan Transfer, or whatever it was we were trying to sing with that week.
The point of no return came when we were within just a couple of miles of our destination. As we rounded an especially icy bend in the road and headed up an icy hill, with an approximately 25 to 30 foot drop at the bend in the road behind us, we hit the real stuff. Not just a little ice, the kind that causes a little bit of tire spinning. We hit ICE. The car's front wheels started spinning in place and we started to slide backwards. Jeremy turned the wheel and stopped our backwards slide by sticking one of the back wheels in a small ditch. Now what? A car came around the corner behind us and got similarly stuck, and a truck and another car started to approach from the top of the hill and soon joined us. Scott, who at the time fancied himself a bit of a ninja, turned out to have foot spikes in his pack. (Honestly? I don't know. Perhaps he could shed some light, but I've never asked.) He and I got behind the car, each took a foot spike for digging into the icy sheet covering the road and tried to push as Jeremy fruitlessly spun the wheels of the car. Ultimately, the four vehicles' owners all got together, sat on hoods, pushed from behind, and slowly, ever so slowly extricated the four vehicles from their predicaments. We had made a few friends, the temporary kind who come together, despite their differences, because of shared hardship, and we went on our way, still intent upon hiking.
We got onto the trail a couple of hours after we had planned. This left us two fewer hours until dusk, when we would need to have camp set up, water filtered, fire built. We walked, but really spent our time looking for a combination camp site and water source. As it turns out, finding a clear spot to set up camp and finding a stream near camp when you've planned your route to avoid water presents a daunting challenge. By the time we found a spot, it was already fully dark. Scott struggled to collect wood and build a fire in the dark, while I wrestled with the tent, and Jeremy risked frostbitten fingers to filter enough water for tea and ramen.
We ate. Sat around the fire. Retired to the tent and our sleeping bags. We had good bags, but we still shivered. Upon waking in the morning, the extra gallon of water that Jeremy had filtered was a solid block of ice. Not a cold gallon of water with a sheen of ice over the top. A solid block of ice. We had spent the night in 25 degree-rated sleeping bags, and the temperature had dropped to 17 degrees. We shivered through building a morning fire, packing up camp, and eventually heading back to the car. Were our lives ever in danger? No, we had pretty good gear, and we were never far from a fire or the car.
We camped again, but the three of us never hiked again.
Some lessons? Bring water, even if you plan on filtering refills for your bottles. Don't avoid water when you know you'll need it.
Most importantly, you can never check the weather often enough.