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Backpacker Magazine – November 2008

Pack Man: The Appalachian Trail Guru

Thirty miles up the trail from Springer Mountain, Winton Porter shelters and feeds thru-hikers–and works tirelessly to slash their pack weight.

by: Jim Gorman, Photos by John Johnston

Winton Porter
Winton Porter
Packs outside Mountain Crossings
Packs outside Mountain Crossings
Porter shows Serafin how to drop 10 pounds
Porter shows Serafin how to drop 10 pounds
Socks drying outside Mountains Crossing
Socks drying outside Mountains Crossing
Porter's boot collection
Porter's boot collection

Nobody walks by Mountain Crossings without stopping. The combination hostel and gear store and hiker aid station, at Walasi-Yi in northern Georgia, sits quite literally on the Appalachian Trail. It's the first outpost of civilization that northbounders encounter–and the last for southbounders. Each year, up to 2,000 thru-hikers drop in. Some just pause for the few minutes it takes to grab spare batteries and a Clif Bar. Many linger for a hot shower and a soft bunk and to soak up the history of a lodge that was established in 1937, the same year as the AT itself. Others have no choice but to stop.

Christine Serafin was one of the latter. On a raw morning last March, she limped into Mountain Crossings with a bum knee and an uncertain future. The would-be AT thru-hiker had just completed her first 30.6 miles–only 2,144 to go!–from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap, and she didn't know if she could go on. One in six thru-hikers make it no farther, and Serafin feared her dream would end here, too.

It hardly seemed fair. Serafin, 66, a former timekeeper at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, had trained diligently and made a significant investment in high-end gear prior to embarking from Springer Mountain. She already had a trail name (Indy Girl, natch). But the burden of carrying a 31-pound pack (before food and water) had caused her right knee to swell. Suddenly, Katahdin was looking about as doable as Everest. Hair coiffed short and dressed in black from socks to ear band, Serafin looked the part of the hip and confident aunt from New York City. But apprehension was written across her face.

Winton Porter, proprietor and unofficial AT guru at Mountain Crossings, didn't need to guess what Serafin was thinking. Like many northbound hikers, Serafin had been sucker-punched by the deceptively arduous trek from Springer Mountain to Neels Gap. The relatively short distance is arguably the toughest stretch on the AT: The route is surprisingly rugged and steep, with cold and wet weather in the early spring when most thru-hikers tackle it, and it gives the unfit and poorly outfitted no chance to ease in. Countless hikers drag themselves into Mountain Crossings riven with doubts–about their quest and their gear and their resolve. So desperate are they to keep their dream alive that they'll willingly subject their outdoor knowledge, their basic judgment, even their most intimate possessions to public scrutiny. Serafin was in just such a state. Porter needed only one look to know that she was primed for the Mountain Crossings signature service: the Shakedown.

That smell. Push open the door to Mountain Crossings at the height of thru-hiker season in early spring, and a peculiar aroma assaults the olfactory receptors. It's a pungent blend of boot leather, toaster pizza, sweat, factory-fresh Cordura, sock funk, and sandalwood-scented massage oil, with undertones of history. It's safe to say you won't sniff anything like it anywhere else. Then again, there's no outpost quite like Mountain Crossings, which straddles the Appalachian Trail at Neels Gap. So narrow is the mountain notch here that the AT is squeezed into a breezeway separating two squat stone structures. ("The only covered portion of the trail's 2,100-plus miles," boasts the Mountain Crossings website.)

Up here, at 3,110 feet, the rhododendron grow tall, waterfalls tumble within earshot, and about the last thing one expects to find is a boutique dedicated to the fine art of lightweight, long-distance backpacking. To label Mountain Crossings a mere gear store, though, is like calling the AT just another trail. In an era of 30,000-square-foot mega-stores, Mountain Crossings unapologetically and exclusively celebrates backpacking in all of its quirky and unsanitized glory. But even that description falls short. The full extent of what Porter and his staff of seasoned thru-hikers provide includes a home for wayward souls, museum of backpacking, gear-testing skunkworks, roadside tourist attraction, coaching service, personal organizer consultancy, and circus sideshow.

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rather go up
Jan 14, 2012

hat, ltwgt gloves, lighter, headlight, hiking poles, cord for hanging stuff, duct tape - BTW Winton is a great guy providing a valuable service!

Sep 23, 2011 don't need two sets of baselayers.

Sep 23, 2011

Watch out for the shakedowns. They'll replace your $$$ gear with lighter cheap gear.

Lee Thompson
May 23, 2011

So the cold weather list omits any need of a warm hat or gloves...even basic polypro liners...right...and yet you mention the need of a frickin' mug?! What about a lighter or some source of spark production in order to light the stove? Come on...literary license is one thing but that's a pretty egregious omission. Backpacker, you need to update this information...some folks may actually use this, you know?

Monte McCraw
Nov 28, 2009

Geat source of information, and if small minds take offense to literary license and writers opinions, you know what they say, "small matters bother small minds".

Jan 22, 2009

Well, I dont have much credibility as far as hiking the AT, although I would love to. I live up north (MA) and hike on the AT in my area. And all this talk about Springer Mtn being the hardest part? I hear from MA on up to ME is the hardest. How many people back out going southbound starting in ME vs. starting off in GA? Just out of curiosity...

Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez
Jan 07, 2009

A question for Winton. I live in Mexico and like to go trekking nearby my home town. Is it possible that he provides a list of the minimum items needed for a three/five days treking? And maybe mention the most common things we should not include in the backpack and that we carry by error. Thanks a lot.

Pat Florence
Dec 19, 2008

I'll bet most anything that I've logged more miles hiking than Mr. Hayes. There are very few people I've read about or heard about who are more 'real' than me when it comes to hiking. I love Backpacker Magazine even when I sometimes criticize it. Mr. Hayes needs to lighten up. After all, he's arguing about whether or not this is the toughest section of the AT. By definition, that makes it 'arguably the toughest part' of the AT.

Dec 19, 2008

Its funny you make your comment on Back Packer website. I guess your not a real hiker either.

Todd Miller
Dec 19, 2008

Mr. Hayes obviously has some interest in 'fluffy literature' if he's made the effort to read the article.Contrary to his comment, 'real' hikers enjoy Backpacker Magazine. Keep up the good work.

Alex Park
Dec 16, 2008

How does one prepare for such a long trek? The physical endurance and mental capability needed for a trip like that could only be built up by taking the actual thru-hike. Of course it doesn't hurt to be in good physical standing when you embark, but where does one attain that kind of mental preparation? Interesting, I love hiking adventuring and exploring the wilderness hats of to you all, and to the spirit of adventure!

Jeff Gray
Dec 16, 2008

The first 3 days on the trail are a wake-up call for the uninitiated. There's tough stuff ahead, like Kelly's Knob or the first two miles of North Carolina, for sure. By the time a hiker gets to Walasi-Yi any mistakes he or she has made will have begun to compound themselves. Without Winton and his crew the number of folks who bail out after the first week would be even higher.

Jeff Gray

Jeff 'BP' Chow
Dec 14, 2008

Re: William Hayes - I believe this article is re-framing the idea of the "toughest section." Springer to Neels Gap (if that's what you meant to type) certainly isn't the toughest in elevation gain nor in treadway, yet the combination of early spring weather, fresh-on-the-trail thru-hikers, and drop-out rates make this the only section many hikers ever see. More hikers drop out here than anywhere else on the trail and in that sense it is the toughest section.
Frankly, I loved Mahoosuc Notch (famed "hardest mile") and even enjoyed skipping over the PA rocks yet my toughest miles were hiking SOBO on the flat ridgeline South of Waynesboro mid-December - due to loneliness. Toughness is more than physical exertion, it is a perception that is different for each person.
In response to the magazines credibility, many of the editors and writers have hiked large swaths of the trail. And if you question whether someone associated with BACKPACKER has hiked it, turn to page 48 - that's me, and that red line tracing 2175 GPS mapped miles is where I walked.

Jeff 'BP' Chow
BACKPACKER Magazine Map Correspondent
AT 2000-miler

William Hayes
Dec 12, 2008

You obviously know nothing about the Appalachian Trail if you think that the approach trail to springer mountain is arguably the toughest part of the trail. GO HIKE IT THEN WRITE ABOUT IT. most real hikers find Backpacker Magazine an amusing piece of fluffy literature that caters to euipment manufacturers


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