All 2015 Reports

DC UL: Four State Challenge 2015

6-8 Nov 2015

- Dave MacLuskie

So after two aborted attempts at this hike Karan (B.A.) was able to will the Four State Challenge back into existence. Never mind that November is too dark and too cold. Who needs day light? This was an all-Forester weekend after all. Adventure will happen!

For those not in the know, the Four State Challenge is a section of the Appalachian Trail near Maryland. You can camp in Virginia, wake up and enter West Virginia for a few miles, hike the 40 miles of the trail through Maryland, and cross the Mason-Dixon line into Pennsylvania. You touch four states in one day. If you can hike about 44 miles in a day. The DC UL way this work is you have to camp overnight, with gear at both ends. This isn't a day hike or ultra-run. It's a backpacking thing. Still it's best to go as light as you can.

I took Friday off of work to enjoy a relaxing, mid-day, traffic-free drive to PenMar. I was immediately dismayed that the bathrooms were closed and the water turned off. That didn't bode well for our water plans. Sharon (MacGyver) had already arrived and was doing a bit of pre-exploration, checking out the Mason-Dixon line and, like any good assassin, taking a photo of her target. On the way to Harpers Ferry we hid the sign-in sheet at Wolfsville Rd along with a gallon of water. Ditto for I-70.

We did a quick check-in at Harpers Ferry Visitor Center then decided to head out for some food. I had barely taken a bite of what had to be a 2500 calorie sub sandwich when Karan called. He'd gotten off work earlier than anticipated and was coincidentally a couple blocks away deciding on a restaurant. He joined us shortly for a rare group pre-hike meal. With our bellies full we headed back to the visitor center, donned our packs and hit the trail. Darkness had fallen earlier than we expected so the trip was in the dark. The air temps of 70+ deg ensured we were all sweating by the time we hit the VA state line.

We were in bed by 7:30pm. An absurd bedtime for sure but we had a 2:30 am wakeup call. Unfortunately something loud sounded around midnight. I'm not sure what it was but I have to figure it was a bird, squirrel, or harbor seal. Whatever it was it had an airhorn. The conversation went something like this:

Karan (cautiously): "Dave?"
Dave: "Yeah?"
Karan: "Um.. What was that?"
Dave: "I have no idea... maybe a bird?"
Sharon: - slept through the whole thing -

After Michael's comment that he had thought about just showing up on Friday I half wondered if he hadn't hiked up there at midnight with an airhorn just to mess with us. The noise didn't return though.

Predictably 2:30 am arrived earlier than desired. We were packed up within 15 minutes and hitting the trail around 3am. The descent went quickly and soon we were crossing the bridge. Karan squeezed by and said his farewells. By the time Sharon and I crossed the bridge Karan was out of sight. We'd see him about 15 hours later. My memory from last year proved comforting as I deftly moved though the sleepy town of Harpers Ferry. Even the construction detour didn't phase us. Sharon and I enjoyed cross the train bridge while a long train rumbled by on the far set of tracks. The next few miles along the C&O Canal in the dark went quickly.

With temps in mid 50's I was comfortable in a short sleeve merino t-shirt. The temps stayed in the 50's pretty much all day. The sky remained overcast with a slight breeze. We had a bit of misty spit rain for 10 minutes or so but nothing of consequence. Really it was ideal weather for a long hike.

At one point before the big climb up to Weverton I noticed Sharon disappeared. I wait 5-10 min for her wondering what was up. She's apparently stopped for coffee and an apple. We established a no-wait policy after that. This is a hard core group.

We were each alone from this point out. Sharon and Karan had a group text message thing going but apparently you have to have your data plan turned on to get in on that. I clever turned mine off to save battery power so I missed the chatter. The trail to Gathland State Park was rockier than I remembered. Last year the fog/wet lodged in my mind. I made it to Gathland at 7am sharp. The bathrooms were closed but the water pump was running. Phew! I was completely dry so topped off water, fixed my shoes and headed out. The slamming of a porta-potty door announced Sharon's arrival as I hit the trail.

The park near Washington Monument (the original one, not the one in downtown DC) was packed with scouts. The bathrooms and water were both operational and I took advantage. I dogged the climb out of the Monument area. On the descent to I-70 a crazy lady in a red shirt yelled from behind me. "I caught you!" I looked back to see her raising her arms menacingly and brandishing her hiking poles. It was pretty terrifying and I got a pretty good dose of adrenaline before realizing it was Sharon. Having satisfied herself in startling me she almost immediately stopped for some food and something she called "rest", whatever that is. I haven't looked it up yet.

I-70 sign in

B.A. (Karan): 10:02am. "This thing is long. Podcasts help :)"
EZBake (Me in MacGyvers slot - I wasn't paying attention): 11:15 "Ugh"
MacGyver (Sharon in EZBake's slot): 11:17 ":)"

I didn't need water at the I-70 cache but signed the sheet and kept moving. I was determined to make good time on the flat trail after the climb up to Annapolis Rocks and did much better than last year. Even the rock garden didn't annoy me (quite) as much. I had the song "Got to Fly" running through my head through this section, especially the middle section. The curious can check it here: Got to Fly The song is track 8; the section in my head was around the 2 min mark. Firefly fans might enjoy the "Got to Fly" album in general. I enjoy it and her album "Vanilla".

Wolfsville Rd sign in

B.A.: 1pm. "Feet hurt! Podcasts rock man!"
EZBake (in his own slot this time): 2:05 "no more rocks!"
MacGyver : 2:20 ":-)"

The next 5 miles seemed harder than I remembered. I began to dread each road crossing because it meant a big climb. Finally the steep ascent to Raven Rocks and the continuous ascent to the ridge. It was 4:15pm and I rushed to High Rock trying to get there so I could descend before it got dark. I made it by 4:47pm (sunset was about 5pm) and cursed my way down as dusk settled. Fortunately I made it through the rough part and was on the annoying last couple endless miles before I had to stop and pull out my head lamp.

Karan greeted my as the AT drops onto the "road" by Penmar. He'd already setup camp, eaten dinner, and was half way through a novel. I bent my feet to my will and walked on to the Mason Dixon line, signed the book, then headed to my car for a liter of water I happened to have for everyone to share (as the water was turned off at Penmar). I caught Sharon's headlamp as I walked back to the trail and was pleased she was so close. She was also able to descend the tricky part of High Rock in the after glow of dusk.

Camp was established. Food was eaten. We were again in bed by 7:30 and I feel asleep pretty quickly. Morning arrived at a crisp 34 degrees. Everyone was quite mobile while we packed and I didn't see any limping as we walked to the car at 7am. We were soon back at Harpers Ferry then onto a Cracker Barrel in Fredrick, MD for some food before we went our own ways.

Ultimately Karan set a new DC UL record of 13 hrs, 26 min. Extremely impressive. He did NOT have the lightest pack.
Sharon's debut was an impressive 15 hrs, 35 min.
I came in at 15 hrs 15 min, about 45 min faster than last year. My overnight pack with food and water came in just at 15 pounds. It hovered around 11 when my water was mostly gone.

Fun fact: Sharon picked up the sign-in sheets as she passed them (last to sign) AND the water caches. She came into camp with two 1-gallon jugs hanging off her pack. They were empty but it was a sight. I think it enhanced the MacGyver reputation for having an extra 2 gallons of carry-capacity and/or emergency flotation devices in the event of disaster.

For those looking to hike this be aware that available light is a real issue. Sharon clocked an impressive time and still barely made the tricky descent with available light. The traditional October time frame is definitely nicer. Also, while the trail doesn't have a ton of elevation gain for the distance what it has is pretty steep. Much of the flat area is rocky and it's tricky to walk in the dark/covered in leaves. You could pick a much faster 40 mile stretch, but that isn't the point. Water turned out to be OK despite the parks being closed. With Gathland and Washington Monument having water and being at key points the only real issue is the Wolfsville area. The cache there was nice to have. The creek wasn't running but had some small stagnant puddles. The creek next to Foxville Rd. and MD 491 both had water but the discarded dirty diaper sitting next to the 491 source confirms my reluctance to take water from sources so near a highway.

Photo courtesy of the waitress using Karan's phone during our post-hike breakfast at Cracker Barrel.

dave.macluskie AT