Into the Black Forest…again

By Jim T. Ryan, Hooligan-in-Chief

It was a cold and rainy January morning when we set out, but we had conviction on our side. Happy, raging at the soggy trail under foot, we plowed over ridges, through downed forests scattered like toothpicks by violent storms maybe a year earlier. Forty miles. We could do it. We had conviction on our side…

From left, Shaun Rennicks, Zack Schlappi and Josh Stadler
on the Black Forest Trail, Day 3, January 2012.

Eight hours later, we were sliding down a 1,300-foot mountainside, our legs too exhausted to hold up the 200 pounds of human and pack. The mountains of Pennsylvania’s “Black Forest,” the eroded chasms of the Allegheny Plateau north of Williamsport on the Pine Creek Gorge, had sapped all will to climb upwards even a mere 20 feet on clear trail. Doom stared us in the face and laughed.

We were beaten back. The four of us retreated from the marked Black Forest Trail, well aware that with the dropping temperature and the rising wind our soaked bodies would likely become human-sicles at the 2,100-foot top of what we dubbed “Pirate Mountain.” Some terrified day-hiker would find us huddled in icy tents. Instead, we took our chances with the leafy slopes for the shelter offered in the gorge below at a mere 800 feet in elevation.

Exhaustion was so heavy, I could barely scribble two-word phrases in my trail notes. Pure gibberish.

Beaten dogs lick their wounds

Zack calls it quits upon reaching the highway. 

What was intended to be a four-day trek to complete the BFT last January ended in agonizing failure when we cut the journey short after just three days, only making it about 17 miles. The trail beat us down and we escaped to the warmth of the Waterville Tavern for burgers and beers before driving home.

The BFT caused me to drop 10 pounds in three days. It ate my boots. It caused four healthy young men in their 20s and early 30s to walk like arthritis-ridden old men for two weeks.

The trench foot — so called because numbness and tingling from prolonged exposure to cold moisture was documented heavily among soldiers in trench warfare — lasted nearly as long as the muscle and joint pain.

I was never so glad to be away from wilderness. My trail mates — Zack Schlappi, Shaun Rennicks and Josh Stadler — couldn’t have agreed more at that point.

Once more into the forest

But I’m a wilderness junkie and I need to go back. I spent the rest of the winter and spring conducting longer day hikes around south central Pennsylvania, including to the Pinnacle and Pulpit Rock on the Appalachian Trail near Hamburg (thanks to Dave Pidgeon and CPM for that trip), and to the top of Big Mountain on the Tuscarora Trail near McConnellsburg.

Panoramic view of lower Pine Creek Gorge (left) and Hemlock Mtn. (center) from the Moss Hollow Overlook on BFT, Day 3, January 2012. Approximate elevation, 2,080 feet.

Some of us are gluttons for punishment. It’s hard not to be when the specter of the winter’s failure haunts you each time you look at a trail map or a pair of hiking boots. Josh and I will make the return trip to the BFT, the wretched Black Forest, to complete all 40 miles. We could no longer take the humiliation of defeat.

However, today, we understand why some of our hiking friends have called this one of the hardest trails in Pennsylvania. This may not be the Alps, or even the Adirondacks, but it’s one of the better challenges outside the eastern high peaks regions. And certainly the ruggedness of the terrain makes it a top challenge in Penn’s Woods.

For the summer, we’re looking at max pack load: 20 pounds. Tents? No. Better hiking boots? Yes. Part of me wants to try it again in winter. Then the sane side of my brain slaps the other side out of its delirium. Summer is good enough. For now.

We’ll complete that trail or die trying. We must. Failure is not an option. We have conviction on our side.

As well as a healthy dose of humility, respect and experience. 

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