CONNIE WAS ALONE on the flank of Kennedy Peak, not sure which trail to take. It would have been no more than an inconvenience on most days, because the Massanuttens are by no means remote or uninhabited; the lights of Luray were spread out below and a cross-country push in any direction would soon lead to a well-traveled road.
But this was last Sunday, and the record cold front that was sweeping toward Washington already was whipping through the Shenandoah Valley. After a beautiful day on Saturday, the temperature had dropped 15 degrees to near zero and strong winds had brought the chill factor to around -40. The sun was setting, the wind still rising.
It was near the end of Connie Bone's second day on the mountain, on a weekend trip that had begun at Jack's Notch and would cover some eight miles. She is a veteran backpacker, but she had begun to realize early Sunday afternoon that this hike in this weather, over steep and rocky terrain covered with crusted snow, was beyond her safe capacity. She is 55 and smokes heavily; she had sat up late around the campfire the night before, and then such sleep as she had managed was fitful because of the cold.
Connie's style of trekking is slow and steady. She never tries to keep up with the buoyant teenagers and the hardened ground-gobblers, but seldom is far behind at trail's end because while the sprinters are taking long breaks she keeps on keeping on. For most of this hike, an outing of the Wanderbirds club, she had been kept company by Woody Kennedy, 63, the leader of a party of 14 boys and girls and men and women of very different levels of experience and conditioning.
Woody prides himself on carrying the heaviest pack and the widest assortment of gear on every trip, which combines with his age and considerable weight to guarantee that he will be the slowest-moving person in any party. So he leads from the rear, whooping from time to time to let people know he's alive and whooping it up in camp after he straggles in. By his own testimony he has a tendency to let his enthusiasm for backpacking carry him away, and he had gone ahead with this trek against the advice of other club members.
The Wanderbirds are people who get cabin fever if they sleep indoors more than five days in a row any week of the year. They are distinguished from other area hiking clubs by their propensity for going farther, longer and faster.
"We never cancel a trip, whatever the weather," Woody said. "If we can't reach our starting point because of a hurricane or whatever, we go as far as we can and hike on from there."
When Woody and Connie reached the side trail to Kennedy Peak (elevation 2,550 feet) Connie decided it would be foolish to expend the energy main trail, which saves a few hundred feet of elevation and, on this day, many precious kilocalories of body warmth and energy.
Woody, no less tired, went on to the peak, arriving at the lookout/shelter in the early stages of hypothermia. Hot soup was pressed on him, and when it spilled from his trembling hands more was supplied, plus cheese and candy and anything else he would take. He was uncharacteristically subdued, and while his mouth still was smiling, his eyes were not. The bitter cold was sapping the strength of other hikers, some of whom were in the grip of the deep shivers that signal the onset of serious hypothermia.
From the moment uncontrollable shivering begins it can be a matter of minutes before the body reaches the point where it no longer can generate enough heat to maintain life, even if the victim is placed in a good shelter (which the opensided fieldstone hut on Kennedy Peak is not). Hypothermia, by far the principal killer of hikers and campers, often develops at temperatures as high as 50 degrees on windy days; the conditions on Massanutten Mountain were perhaps as severe as they have been in this region in this century.
The smarter hikers took on food quickly and started moving on the trail again rather than let their body heat drain in the gale. The best hiker stayed behind and busied himeself melting snow to make soup and snacks for those huddling against the wall and displaying the passiveness and mental dullness symptomatic of hypothermia. And trying to get them back on the trail.
"I don't think anyone was in serious danger at that point," said the young and expert outdoorsman from McLean. "The problem was that we were running out of margin. We had fooled around too long (until 11 a.m.) that morning before hitting the trail; some people in the party just were not physically up to the demands of the terrain; the temperature was dropping to the point where some of the group's clothing was inadequate, especially the guy who came without a hat or gloves; and there was no daylight to spare. It would have been very easy to break a leg coming down that ridge, and there wasn't time left to deal with any real emergecy before dark.
"We probably could have managed whatever might have come up, but I don't mind telling you I wouldn't have gone with this group if I had known more about them and the territory. I love backpacking, and this would have been an easy trip for me, even a daytrip, but it was no pleasure because these people had put me in the position of feeling morally responsible for their safety! When you undertake to go out in weather like this you don't just go pack a sack and go bopping off; you have to realize that nature sets the terms of the experience."
Connie, meanwhile, still was wandering. The trail she was supposed to be on is broad enough for Jeeps and well-blazed, but she had gotten off it somehow. Several members of the party passed through the area without seeing her bright-red clothing, and when a group of three young men finally encountered her she was back on the right trail but going the wrong way, burning up her reserves of strength going up Kennedy Peak.
"This is the wrong trail," she told them, "or you are going the wrong way." They argued with her briefly and went on. She followed them for about 100 yards and stopped at a trail junction. A novice hiker came along, an aging suburbanite who was overweight, overloaded, overheated, overtired, underconditioned, and near the end of his rope.
"We have lost the trail," Connie told him. "This is not the way we should be going. We got off the main trail somehow, and God knows where this one will take us."
"The blazes are the same ones we've been following all day," he said uncertainly. "Here's a turn blaze, and all the footprints are going the same way. Don't you think we should too?"
"They could all be wrong," she said.
"Well, I'd rather be wrong in company," he said. After more urging Connie went with him. Ahead of him in fact; once she had decided to take the dubious path her steady trail pace was more than he could manage.
"You know," she said over her shoulder, "I wonder if I might have been in the first stages of hypothermia back there. I was pretty confused. I should have known better than to come on thris trip. Woody is always doing things like this, and it was very bad judgment on my part."
The suburbanite by now was limping and staggering, another classic symptom of hypothermia. As Connie became a dwindling speck of red ahead of him he began to recall with close attention some of the stories Woody had told around the campfire the night before.
One was what Woody called "The Grim Tale of Robert Grimsley."
Grimsley, 35, of Washington, was a Scoutmaster with the rating of Master Camper, chairman of the map committee of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club and a hiker of long experience in this region.
One Saturday in February 1958 he led three Boy Scouts up North Mountain in a snowstorm ad promptly lost the trail. At length they floundered through drifts to Wolf Gap shelter. They were safe there, but the next day decided to press on to Sugar Knob. They started out too late in the day and Grimsley, as was his custom, trailed behind.
He did not show up at Sugar Knob shelter and the boys, two of whom were frostbitten, backtracked the next morning, hoping he had made camp when darkness caught him on the trail. As it happened, the map expert had wanderd off the trail again. Grimsley had made camp, or tried to; his sleeping bag was laid out oh his groundcloth, although his tent still was packed, when Woody, one of the searchers, spotted him two days later.
"It was a pitiful sight, him lying there," Woody said. "He had no gloves, and his hands were just balls of ice. We couldn't understand how a backpacker with his experience had gotten himself into such a fix. He had broken all the rules: went too far into bad weather, sent the boys ahead, started out too late in the day, waited too long to make camp, didn't have adequate clothing . . ."
The story was made all the more poignant by the fact that North Mountain is intermittently visible from the trail the aging suburbanite had been following all day, the trail Woody had promised would be "really short and easy, nothing to worry about."
He kept going, taking baby steps through the dragging snow, and eventually caught up with Connie, sitting on a fallen tree beside the trail.
"I'm sure we must be going the wrong way," she said. "I've been hiking around here so many years these trails all run together in my head, but this doesn't seem right. We're just going along the ridge here, there doesn't seem to be any road, and we've come farther than it's supposed to be."
The suburbanite was not prepared to argue. Neither was he prepared to go on; he sat down beside Connie and stated blankly at the snow.
"Well, lets get moving," Connie said. "I'm going back." But she didn't get up, and he said nothing.
And then along came Ralph May, one of the older and more fit members of the group, who had gone ahead long before. He was striding along, carrying no pack. "It's about another three-quarters of a mile," he said. "Here, Connie, let me take your pack."
"Ralph," she said, "I've never even considered doing such a thing in all my years of hiking, but I'm too tired to argue with you. Yes, please, take it."
Other members of the party appeared on the trail, and suburbanite found the strength for the last push, mainly because he was one of the drivers for the party and had to go with the shuttle car to pick up his van, which had been left parked in front of the house of Joe and Nancy Sottosanti of Shenandoah River Outfitters, near the head of the trail.
"Man, I wanted to tell you people you were crazy when you went out yesterday," Sottosanti said. "That's too much trail in snow in this cold."
The Sottosantis were assembling four-wheel-drive vehicles and a search party when the hikers appeared. "Hey, don't do that again," Joe said. "I know this mountain as well as anybody, and I wouldn't have been up there today. Stay the hell home when the weather's like this."
Bt the time the van reached Luray Woody was bubbling again. "Now, that was quite a trip," he said. "It's just thrilling that we were able to get down that mountain today," he said.
"It would have been even more thrilling if we hadn't been able to," someone said.