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Catawba Challenge in Zombie Weather

Photo Courtesy of Rachel Miles
Photo Courtesy of Rachel Miles

By Rachel Miles


On March 14, Outdoor Adventures hosted their biannual Catawba Challenge. Led once in the fall and once in the spring, this semester’s twenty mile hike was led by Allie Velchik and Alex Weant. The trip leaves campus around seven thirty in the morning, arriving at the base of the trail at about 8:00 a.m. – twelve or thirteen hours before the far more tired group arrives at highway 311 at the end of the trip. This year’s group contained fourteen students from every year at Roanoke College to take on the challenge. Besides the two guides, there were also two assistant guides who took charge of some of the middle groups when they broke off to tackle the trail at different paces. Additionally, six of the students on the trip were training to become OA guides in the future, two of them doing it as a practical and evaluated experience. Usually, OA keeps their hiking groups together, but on the twenty mile full day event this is tweaked slightly with only a few points marked out as break sites for regrouping.

The hike generally begins peacefully with a handful of students prepared for what awaits them and a handful unaware of what really lies ahead. Before embarking, everyone’s water and food supplies are checked, a group photo is taken, and everyone steps foot onto the beginning of our college’s chosen trek, midway through the great Appalachian Trail. Confidence is high early in the trip as participants enjoy a relatively mild journey with a couple switchbacks that they can tackle to further their self-assurance before reaching the first mini peak. This first break spot houses a tall electrical system where students without fail find the tallest rock in the vicinity to stand on and watch the hair raise on their arms. Guides encourage everyone to take in calories and water, and anyone who doesn’t listen soon learns the importance of those regularly repeated words.

The majority of this particular trip saw murky weather, but it wasn’t until about four hours in, far too late to turn back, that the rain started. Participants had been warned of the weather at a pre-trip meeting, but a raincoat can only keep so much of you and your belongings dry, as wet-socked and soggy-snacked hikers soon discovered. The group continued on, hitting a picnic area for lunch about nine miles in and trying to keep food dry on its journey from backpack to mouth. After the major break, the hike went on to hit Carvins Cove, Tinker Cliffs, and finally MacAfee’s Knob, the most photographed location on the Appalachian Trail. The group was relatively well matched and managed to trek together in larger groups than usual for the Catawba hike.

The trip was unfortunately plagued by regular rain patches in both the morning and the afternoon, and consequential fog at the earlier usually scenic stops. The drop-offs at Tinker Cliffs were hidden completely by a white wall of clouds that also crept through the trees on the opposite side, giving the hike a very eerie feel that was described by one hiker as “zombie weather.” By the peak of MacAfee’s, though, the weather had cleared some, allowing for pictures and a chance to forget some of the trauma the weather had caused earlier in the day. The final descent took about five miles and concluded in the dark with headlights and phone flashlights to guide the way. The only thing that felt better than finally sitting on the cushioned seats of the school’s buses and the hot showers that came later that night was wearing the Catawba Challenge t-shirt proclaiming the major accomplishment to breakfast the next morning on shaky legs.