Appalachian Can Be a Trail of Peers or a Solo Endeavor

George Heavey, a retired U.S. Customs official, prepares to set off from Corbin Cabin on a midweek hike in Shenandoah National Park.
George Heavey, a retired U.S. Customs official, prepares to set off from Corbin Cabin on a midweek hike in Shenandoah National Park. (By Angus Phillips For The Washington Post)
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By Angus Phillips
Sunday, October 12, 2008

A celebrity was in the mix when the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club's Midweek Hikers tackled Corbin Cabin Trail in Shenandoah National Park last week.

"Mark Sleeper is here," trip organizer John Lyon said. "You'll definitely want to talk to him."

Sleeper, 50, of Annandale, gained local fame this year by trekking the full 2,176 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. He left in March and finished in August, having built his endurance by hiking for a year or so beforehand with the midweek group.

"But you'd better get to him now," Lyon said as about 30 participants gathered at the foot of Old Rag Mountain for the 12-mile circuit hike. "You won't be able to keep up with him once we get going. He's really fast."

He who hesitates is lost, and by the time I had my boots on and backpack stuffed, Sleeper was charging up the trail, not to be seen again. Fortunately, we caught up later by phone. Meantime, there was a hill to climb.

Every week, PATC's Midweek Hikers tackle some scenic obstacle, usually in the Blue Ridge Mountains. October is prime time. Dogwoods are ablaze, the maples are starting to turn, the air is cool and fresh, the sky's generally bright and clear, and there are always a few people who move slowly enough that even an unprepared novice isn't left behind.

The Corbin Cabin Trail is typical -- a bracing three- to four-hour slog with 2,200 feet of altitude gain that gets the blood pumping and still puts everyone back at the parking lot in time to beat rush hour on the way home.

Lyon gave a short briefing before setting off, advising that two routes were available to get to the cabin, our designated lunch stop. Almost everyone picked the hard route over the top of Corbin Mountain, despite his warning that the initial climb would be wearying. Hey, that's the point, no?

The group split at a Park Service trail marker deep in the woods, with a handful taking the easy way. The rest turned left, forded the burbling Hughes River and started scrambling up a three-mile-long series of switchbacks and rock stairs through the forest primeval. It was beautiful, but after awhile the view narrows as eyes train on the rough terrain at hand, mapping the jarring route from rock to rock.

Slowly but inevitably, the regulars pull away and you find yourself in arrears, struggling to stay ahead of anyone. Allegiances form.

As the group ahead grew small, then vanished, I focused on the petite woman just behind, who I feared would suddenly pop up at my heels and pass. On aching thighs and unsteady ankles I forged on, determined not to let that happen. Then I heard her sigh and murmur aloud, "No relief in sight."

A kindred soul! I slowed so she could catch up and when she did, Kay Miller said she really could use a break. It was music to my ears. We found a log, sat for a few minutes and caught our breath. "I don't understand why these folks are in such a hurry," she mused. "What's the rush?"

Miller and I strolled along together for an hour or so at a leisurely pace, making small talk and soaking up the scenery. Before you knew it, here stood Corbin Cabin and lunch time. Sleeper, of course, had finished his snack and was long, long gone.

Finding a like-minded soul who walks at the same pace as you is one of the predictable challenges of hiking at any level, Sleeper said later by phone. When he left Georgia in March, he was one of more than 2,000 hikers attempting the through-route, only a few hundred of whom would make it all the way to Mount Katahdin.

He credited his success to months of preparation, much of it with the Midweek Hikers. About 80 percent of the Appalachian Trail is similar to hikes in Shenandoah National Park, he said. "Just a lot of miles." The hard part was at the end, in New Hampshire and Maine, where rock staircases go on for miles and steady rains made for trying times.

"You could walk alone or not," said Sleeper, lithe and strong after his great adventure. "I tended to walk with other through-hikers. You group up with folks that go the same speed."

Sleeper kept follow PATC members updated on his progress with frequent e-mail reports, sometimes filed by his relatives after cellphone check-ins. He said one of the toughest challenges was staying healthy while burning 5,000 calories a day. "If you carry enough food to stay fit, you're working too hard," he said. "If you don't, you end up without enough to eat. I wound up losing 20 pounds, which may be why I struggled at the end."

Sleeper said his favorite stretches of the Appalachian Trail were the Smokies at the beginning, then "The Balds," a stretch of grass-covered, 5,000-foot peaks in North Carolina and Tennessee where the views were spectacular, and the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. He said a clever hiker could skip the drudgery and cherry-pick those highlights, thus seeing the best of the Appalachian Trail without wearing himself out.

But Sleeper's favorite spot was Mount Katahdin, at which point he knew the ordeal was over. "It felt great to be done." Now, he's heading back to work as a computer networking specialist in Centreville. "I was planning to stay retired," he said, "but with the stock market going the way it is . . . "

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The 7,000-member Potomac Appalachian Trail Club oversees the Appalachian Trail from Waynesboro, Va. to Boiling Springs, Pa. It offers trips for all levels of hikers, including family hikes for folks with small kids on Mondays, easy and moderate hikes on Wednesdays and vigorous hikes on Tuesdays. The club also runs weekend trips and offers 36 cabins for rent along various trails.

For details, check the Web site or call 703-242-0315.

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