A few years back on a cold, clear January day, cabin fever drove me from my fire-warmed home in the Bald Mountains of Unicoi County to search for a hidden waterfall in the nearby Rocky Fork Watershed.
It was a great day for exploring this iconic wild area. The temperature hovered around freezing, but the sun was bright, the air calm, and after only a few miles of hiking I discovered the 30-foot waterfall and spent an hour or more photographing and admiring the beauty of the place.
Leaving the waterfall, I descended the rugged drainage, still thinking about the dramatic, half-frozen cascade I had seen. In negotiating a seemingly easy step along the edge of the small stream, the sole of my left boot suddenly failed to grip the surface of an icy rock lying just below the thin layer of snow. The next full thought I had, which came about a millisecond after my rear end slammed hard onto the frozen ground, was that I had just fractured my right leg, roughly at the knee.
Once I realized my leg was badly strained, but not broken, I began the natural, immediate process of figuring out why I had taken such a potentially devastating fall. The first and most obvious realization was that off-trail hiking in winter, with light snow on the ground, meant that I should have brought my trekking poles to greatly minimize the chances of falling. Second, I had chosen to go it alone into remote, high-risk terrain. And third, I had come without letting someone else know where I was headed. All of these were greenhorn mistakes I knew to avoid, and for the next several weeks, each time I felt the dagger-like pain shoot through my knee joint, I cursed my stupidity — sometimes out loud.
Certainly, winter can be one of the most rewarding times to explore and experience our southern Appalachian Highlands. Winter views and landscapes can be spectacular. Lower temperatures mean less overheating on long climbs—for hikers, bikers and horses. Winter campfires are actually for keeping warm, as well as for conjuring our primal connection to a time when we needed them, every day, to survive. And for those who fear or dislike such wilderness residents as snakes, bugs and bears, winter provides a welcome respite.
But to experience the rewards of exploring or playing in the winter wilds, we still have to be smart — and prepared. The right clothing, plenty of water (yes, even in winter) and a basic emergency kit with the skills to use it are fundamental.
Another case in point:
One beautiful, late February day, many years ago when I was a naive novice hiker, a friend and I set out to do one of the classic Great Smokies hikes to the famed Gregory Bald. The round trip distance for the hike was about 11.5 miles with an elevation gain of almost 3,500 ft.; a fairly strenuous trek, but the scenic rewards at the top were said to be well worth the effort.
The temperature at the trailhead, when we set out, was in the high 50s with blue skies and no wind, but when we reached the Bald, things were a bit different, with temps in the 30s and a brisk wind blowing fairly nonstop. After a short lunch and some wandering around the meadows, checking out the views, we headed back down the mountain.
After about a mile of hiking I started to chill and feel a little nauseated. At two miles I was feeling very weak, shaking hard and convinced I had come down with the flu. With my friend's help I made it off the mountain and was promptly driven to my home in Knoxville, where I took a hot shower and fell into bed. The next morning I awoke with zero symptoms and was perplexed about what had happened to me.
A couple of days later I was talking with a highly experienced hiker with whom I worked. When I described what had happened to me on our hike, she asked one question: "What were you wearing?"
"Blue jeans, a sweat-shirt over a t-shirt and a windbreaker," I replied.
She looked me sternly in the eyes and said, "If you had been alone up there you probably would have died."
Such was my personal education on the dangers of hypothermia and the long-proven outdoor adage, "Cotton kills." Had I simply been wearing different clothing — specifically, synthetic and/or Merino wool based layers that are the best for cold and cool weather hiking — I would have experienced the rich rewards of one of the great hikes of the Southern Mountains, without the misery and danger that resulted from my ignorance of the tried and true rules of wintertime outdoor adventure.
David A. Ramsey is a regionally and nationally recognized outdoor photographer and writer. His new book, “ROCKY FORK: Hidden Jewel of the Blue Ridge Wild,” is available at www.ramseyphotos.com.