Freezing Down The Great Allegheny Passage

Shot of snowpack on the trail early on day 1.

Snowpack on the trail early on day 1.

Bitter cold seeps through a pair of clipless pedals, into the affixed cleats and shoes, then intrusively into the feet much too rapidly when the temperature is hovering around 23 degrees with an icy layer of snow on the ground. Perfect weather for a bike touring adventure.

In 2008 an ill-advised group of us set out to complete a slog from Pittsburgh to Washington DC on the Great Allegheny Passage (GAP) and C&O Canal. It was in late November, hence the ill-advised part… In our heads we were on a mission to get home for Thanksgiving. Family and friends often reminded us what they really thought, saying “you must be nuts!”

To a degree, they were right. November 2008 brought unseasonably cold and wintery weather. Snow in Western Pennsylvania is not totally uncommon at this time, but how were we to predict this months ahead when plans were made? “It’ll never snow before Thanksgiving!” – the thought didn’t even cross our minds.

Further, the Big Savage Tunnel, a major and quite unavoidable part of the route through Savage Mountain was set to close for the winter in just a few more days and based on the weather, I’m surprised we didn’t find it closed early when we arrived.

Not to be showed up by the unpredictability of nature though, we decided not to cancel the trip and to saddle up no matter the weather. So we loaded the car with bikes and what seemed like a ton of gear that would never fit into the bike trailer and drove west.

Mile 0 for this expedition was at the Boston Trail Access, Boston, PA. It’s not quite as far as Pittsburgh, but in 2008 the GAP trail had some unfinished sections remaining that we didn’t want to screw around with. To our delight, the snow on the trail was light and we could see crushed stone!

This luxury soon gave way to a 2-3 inch deep layer of white stuff. Doesn’t sound like much, but after 57 miles it makes a big difference. It only seemed thicker and harder to navigate on bridges.

The cold set in quickly. Feet and hands first. In the shade, your body is freezing. In the sun, you want to shed layers but don’t because you’ll soon be back in the shade. It’s a tough balancing act. Start sweating, and the moisture just makes you that much colder. Hauling a heavy trailer through snow makes avoiding sweating pretty difficult though, even when it’s freezing out.

Frozen feet take a toll mentally, but without sensation, you complete tireless pedal stroke, after stroke, after stroke. It’s almost a relief when they become so numb that you forget about the discomfort and creeping thoughts of frostbite. The majority of the time though, is spent thinking of ways to warm back up. You have daydreams about scorching sand, and coal-walking, and ordinarily undesirable shit like that.

As miles ticked away, we soon found ourselves in what felt like the most desolate wilderness imaginable. After Connellsville, are thick forests in the area of PA State Game Lands Number 51, with Bear Run Nature Reserve just across the Youghiogheny River. The quaint little towns the trail cuts through don’t exist here, just woods.

Out here, a person’s thoughts effortlessly stray into the realm of real scary shit. You start thinking things like “if I get hurt or if my bike breaks down, we could easily lose track of daylight, freeze, and DIE out here!… this is bear country and we’ve haven’t seen a human since we left… Shit, I wish I had a gun, or at least bear spray, just for piece of mind…”

At Ohiopyle, we threw in the towel. The goal was confluence, but the sun was going down and our resolve was a shattered slab of ice. Trudging the snow up to this point proved to be too much. The freeze in our bodies was deep. We got a ride to the place where we were staying.

Day 2: Confluence to Cumberland. We skipped about 10 miles of trail between Ohiopyle and Confluence. Kind of pitiful, but we decided to leave it for a later date. Total mileage for the day would be around 62, and with the imminent early sunset already looming, we determined this was good enough.

The start of this ride was extremely cold, in the mid teens – so cold that we had to pick ice from our bikes’ components with sticks so we would be able to shift and brake. This section had probably the deepest snow yet. Not improving our comfort level, were sizable bear tracks in the snow on the trail somewhere near Harnedsville.

This portion of the trail has great views and scenery. The Salisbury Viaduct near Meyersdale is an incredible sight and the Big Savage Tunnel is very impressive. The crushed stone that the trail is made of was exposed in most areas after the continental divide. Although, this sounds like a good thing, it wasn’t. We almost preferred the snowpack to this because the sun actually thawed the trail surface to the point of making it mushy. It was even slower and required more effort than the snow.

With this soft surface slowing us down, and despite cutting miles at the start, we were soon seriously delayed, and alas the early November sunset reared its ugly head again. From Borden Tunnel, west of Frostburg, to Cumberland we rode in the dark. The descent from Frostburg is the steepest (most fun) grade of the whole trail. Flying down this section at around 20 MPH in the dark with weak lights is a frightening blast. That is, until a rogue dog jumps right in front of you, nearly sending you into a panicked, front brake-grabbing endo. Fortunately, no crash, no bites, no rabies, just a little shook.

Getting to the hotel in Cumberland was a relief. Miles seemed even longer in the dark. Exhaustion from hunger and cold had set in long ago, and as weird as it sounds, simply staying awake on the bike was becoming difficult. The dark sky really amplified the effects of the cold. Our hands and feet were the coldest they’d been yet, with completely no feeling left. As soon as we got into a hotel room, we ran hot water in the tub to thaw them.

Next up: Sleet and Mud on the C&O Canal

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