Fact: You can get hypothermia in temperatures at or above 50°F if you’re exposed to wet or wind. The rain is not your friend when you’re miles from the nearest access road.
The edge of my rain cover sagged like a boxer on the ropes. Water sluiced off the side and ran directly into the front of my hammock, forming a river that slid past my neck and shoulders to pool around my hips. I’d thought about jumping out of the hammock and retying the rain cover more securely but had decided hours ago that it would be no use.
The rain had started as my group crossed the narrow log bridge over what had been, at the time, a peaceful creek and was now a fast river greedily devouring the bank at the edge of our campsite. Our fatigue had melted faster than the Wicked Witch of the West as we sprinted to pitch tents, string hammocks, and secure food in the bear box, but we were too late. It was as if a painter had taken the gathering dusk and dragged it down in heavy strokes. Our things were soaked before anyone could unfold a tarp or unroll a sleeping bag. Worse, the gray sheets of rain had vanished into roaring, pelting, freezing darkness as the Appalachians vomited utter black from their coal mines and smothered the forest in night. If I got up now to fix my rain cover, I would be fumbling just as blindly as when I tied it the first time, and it would mean sacrificing what feeble body heat I’d managed to hold onto curled up in my sleeping bag with my knees crowding against my chest inside my jacket.
“Hey! Anyone still up?” My brother’s best friend half-yelled, the closest he could get to a whisper without being drowned out by the rain. I wiggled one arm out of my sleeping bag then out of the hammock so I could lift up the rain cover and grumble a reply. Andy was crouched under his own hammock, hunched over the quivering flame of his single burner camping stove to protect it from the rain. In the darkness he was all jutting limbs and sharp joints, like a daddy longlegs in denim and camouflage. “D’you want Mongolian beef?” he whisper-shouted at me, wagging a freeze-dried meal packet. In our rush to set up camp, nobody had eaten dinner, and I was distantly hungry, but I let my tarp flap fall and rolled over as best I could with my limbs still inside my coat. It was two in the morning. No, I didn’t want Mongolian beef. I wanted to sleep so I wouldn’t have to feel myself shivering anymore.
The night stretched, feverish and whimsical, as impossibly long as reflections in a funhouse mirror. Eventually I slept, waking up over and over to check the color of the sky until dawn wrestled into a stalemate with the clouds and fog. Six of our group of seven had also spent the night shivering and looking for the light, and we all rolled out of our tents and hammocks and started packing in silent determination. Our seventh member, Mr. Charest, the most veteran hiker among us and the only one who had slept through the night, bounced out of his tent and sang, “Good morning! How did you all sleep?” and was met with groans and dead-eyed stares. He smiled in sympathy.
“I’ll help you guys pack up if a few of you want to start the stoves and make coffee,” he offered, and the men of the group perked up instantly. Something warm in my hands . . . something warm . . . something warm . . .
I realized my thoughts were looping, and I was standing motionless by my hammock when Mr. Charest materialized in front of me, stooping a bit to look me in the eye.
“Are you okay?” he asked. I bit my lip and silently held up my red, cramping hands, shivering. I was horrified to find my throat closing up and my eyes prickling as I tried to speak. Mr. Charest’s eyes crinkled.
“All right, wait right here.”
He ducked back into his tent and emerged again, quick as a blink, with a pair of his own thick gray hiking socks.
“These are clean, I promise.” He smiled, helping me work the socks over my shaking hands. “I used to do this with my son all the time.” He pulled me closer and tucked my socked fingers under his arms. He pressed his biceps in tight to his ribs, trapping my hands next to the warmth of his body. Heat radiated through my fingers and down my wrists and arms. With less than an arm’s length of space between us, I could feel the warmth from Mr. Charest’s body and breath, and my shivering slowly abated.
“I know this could be awkward,” Mr. Charest said. “It’s the best way to warm your hands, though. When my son was little, he would get cold on camping trips all the time, and I’d have him do this for a few minutes until he was ready to go again.” He was barely a head taller than me, with eyes as blue as Caribbean oceans and faint laugh lines creasing tan skin. He was too wiry to have the same comforting softness as my dad, but somehow I felt like I was getting a dad hug anyway.
“Ed, coffee’s ready when you want some,” Dad said. Mr. Charest gently let me go, and I followed him to where oatmeal and coffee were steaming in tin cups over camp stoves. I retrieved my bowl and spork and took a helping of oatmeal, my hands clumsy but warm in the wool socks. I sighed and shuffled over a couple of steps—chafe, squish, chafe, squish in wet pants and soggy boots—and tucked myself into my dad’s side, looping his arm around my shoulders. He chuckled and switched his coffee to the other hand so he could rub a big, gloved hand up and down my arm, shifting so I was closer to the tiny propane stove at our feet.
Andy and his father joined us on Dad’s other side, and my brother stomped around on the other side of the camp, packing up his hammock, angry at nothing and everything in a way that made him seem much younger than he really was. He must have slept as badly as I had. His grumpy mood also infected Andy’s sister, who was yanking her tent pegs from the ground and insisting she didn’t need breakfast.
“You do need to eat something,” her dad insisted.
“She’s right, though,” Mr. Charest put in. “We’ll warm up faster once we start moving.”
With that inspiration we ate, guzzled coffee, and stowed our camp back into our packs at record speed and trudged back across the split-log bridge to the main trail.
Two hours later, we hiked out of the trees and onto a fog-drenched summit. The fog was solid white, like a photographer’s backdrop sheet. We could barely make out the bald, pockmarked stone sloping toward a sheer drop-off ahead of us. The tortured shrubs and hunched evergreens that clung to the face of the bare rock reached gnarled fingers out of the fog and grabbed at raincoats and backpacks. Mr. Charest took the lead, since he was the only one who knew the path, and picked slowly along the mountain’s crest. The paint stakes and rock cairns that usually marked out the trail had vanished in the fog.
“There’s usually a gorgeous lookout to your right,” he called back to the group, discouraged. “It’s beautiful! The whole time we’re on the summit, we’re walking along the ridge.”
Usually, tracking along a ridge means miles of breathtaking vistas and daring cliff faces. That day it meant an unseen cliff edge a scant number of paces beside us, with a gauzy wall, floor, and ceiling that would collapse like wet tissue paper under a wandering boot. We all looked determinedly at the back of the hiker in front of us and the solid stone under our feet.
A raindrop skittered sideways on the breeze and struck me hard in the cheek. Another bounced off the shoulder of my raincoat, and another hopped over my boot. Tiny diamonds started to litter the path, sparkling and bouncing as they fell.
“It’s sleeting!” I said.
“Nah.” Andy scuffed at the tiny ice shards with his boot. “These are too big for sleet. It’s hailing. That’s better.”
For once, I wasn’t annoyed with Andy’s fact-checking because he was right: as painful as the tiny hailstones were as they fell on us, it was a lot better to be caught on the summit in a shower of hail than in a shower of sleet or freezing rain. The hail would skip easily off the path, while sleet or freezing rain would meld into a solid coating of wet ice, making the trail more slippery than a cartoon banana peel. Helpless against the vicious terrain, we could have found ourselves in a potentially deadly standoff, forced to either creep along an icy cliff edge or wait out the rain, wind, and chilling cold above the shelter of the tree line. I laughed into the damp collar of my jacket. If anyone had told me that I’d ever be grateful to get hailed on, I would have laughed at them; but here I was, grateful for the hail.
We pulled our hats down tighter and trudged ahead until the path led us off the summit and back into the waiting arms of the pines and mountain laurel. We were on the opposite side of the mountain we had started off at and only a few hours’ hike from our destination. After a brief stop for lunch, a failed attempt to start call-and-response karaoke, and one pit stop to reapply Band-Aids and moleskins to blistered feet, we finally reached a track of wide, flat dirt studded with dirty puddles and a patchy layer of gravel. After a hike made up of long silences and grumbled complaining, we suddenly found our voices again.
“Just another few minutes, guys!”
“Less than half a mile to go!”
“Can anyone hear the road? I thought I heard a car, but it might have been the river.”
“Hey, let’s get pizza on our way home! I’m starving!”
Finally, we spilled out into a tiny clearing of vibrant green grass. A few cars sat patiently in a crooked line, including Mr. Charest’s red Kia. Mr. Charest went to the trunk and produced water bottles and energy drinks that he handed around to everyone. Then he got in the car, and my dad and Andy’s dad joined him; he had parked here and hitchhiked back to our starting point, while the rest of us had left our cars at the trailhead. As the men drove off to retrieve the vehicles, the handful of us teenagers left behind dropped our backpacks and leaned heavily against the side of a stranger’s gray SUV.
For a long minute, we waited in silence. My brother kept an eye on the road while I let my head bob, eyes closing and shoulders slumping. A bird chirped despondently and shook its wet feathers in a tree nearby.
Then someone started to laugh. I don’t know who started, but suddenly all of us were collapsing into giggles, slapping each other’s shoulders and adding nonsensical exclamations.
“It started to hail!” Snort!
“Snnrrff!! Guys, I’m—ha—I’m never going on a hike again!”
With each peal of laughter, the situation got funnier, until we were all leaning on our knees and wheezing. At some point it would sink in how dangerous the situation had truly gotten, and Andy’s sister would make good on her promise to never go hiking with us again, but at the moment we were laughing. I was wearing socks on my hands, and my dad was pulling into the parking lot with our old minivan, heat on full blast and music blaring.
Mr. Charest had come back with our dads, even though he wasn’t transporting anyone but himself. He hopped out of his car to help us heft soaked backpacks into the vans and give each of us a quick, tight hug.
“We need to do this again when the weather is better,” he said. And like all hikers who hate hiking while they’re shivering in wet sleeping bags or slipping across an icy summit but get amnesia as soon as they enter the parking lot and trick themselves into thinking they actually love hiking, I said yes immediately.