THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS: THE COLD
Miles hiked to this blog post: 203
Nearly eighty years ago, the Smoky Mountains were established as a National Park. It is a prestigious park, one that offers hikers the opportunity to gaze upon beautiful horizons or the ample wildlife that lays within. The 70-mile segment of trail through the park meanders, up and down, along ridge-lines that can be thin and snake-like at times. The elements can take their toll on this scenically dense environment, and a hike in the winter can test one’s aptitude pretty quick.
Before I reached the southern boundary, I had no idea that I’d have this park literally to myself. 72+ hours of solitude with views in all directions and frigid-as-all-get-up temperatures. But before I dive into the depth of the park, let’s back up a few miles and connect the dots, shall we? I thought it best to break up the Smoky Mountains in two parts, the first being about the COLD and the second the SNOW. It’s only a matter of days, but there is so much to say! So, if I was you, I’d snuggle up next to a fire, or dream about a nice toasty warm fire like I have, and perhaps pour yourself that hot cup of tea, or coffee, and hell, throw in a little BAILEY’S while you’re at it. Do it for the sake of that cold-to-the-bones hiker out there that is writing this to you… (I know you got my back Candi!)
Mile 137.1: I left the Nantahala River Valley early afternoon on sunday. I was fortunate to run into an ALDHA gathering, and they took a parental obligation to feed me. Serendipity led me to meet a very kind couple who offered me an extra bed in their cabin, and that night we shared stories with two other hikers, a SOBO (southbound) AT hiker, and Moonpie, who is a strikingly similar female hiker who aspires to hike the CDT in 2017, having hiked the AT and PCT years earlier. We all stayed up past midnight (real midnight, not hiker midnight), and I was eager to lay my head down to sleep. By morning, I checked off my chores and finally set back up the trail after 1pm. The trail then climbed to over 3,300 feet in the course of eight miles, topping out at a stunning view from Cheoah Bald, 5,062-feet. Rime ice smothered the northern slope, and when exposed on the north-facing slope, my body shivered. A hundred yards later, in the warmth of a protected mountainside, I was stripping layers off as fast as I put them on. On-off. On-off. That’s the nature of a winter hike and something that simply needs fo be embraced otherwise you’re going to go crazy.
That evening I was still hiking, a common habit for a gal trying to complete the Calendar Triple Crown. Just after Stecoah Gap, I began a steep-as, kiwi-style ascent up an unnamed mountain. I passed a tent halfway up, pitched two inches from the trail, no doubt a hiker who was exhausted by the calf-straining ascent. I, on the other hand, huffed my way to the top, pausing intermittently to catch my breath, lean on a tree, and laugh about the hilarity of the steep slope. Finally, just after eight, I made it to Brown Fork Gap Shelter where another northbound thru-hiker was camped. We exchanged hellos, I devoured a sandwich, and then shortly after studying the upcoming miles while trying to keep my fingers from freezing, I turned my headlamp off and fell asleep. A mouse would later use my head as a trampoline and dive bomb into the chips I had left by my head.
Without further ado, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park…
I knew there were two days of bluebird skies ahead, followed by what would be the first of multiple snow showers to come. Make the miles while I can is my mentality, and therefore I hiked into the Great Smoky Mountains strong and steady. The solace was disbelieving, and the flawless views more so. But the COLD… oh was it wicked cold. Zero degrees at night and no more than twenty at the heat of the day. Essentially, when I wasn’t wrapped up in my sleeping quilts inside the comfort and protection of a shelter, I was hiking. I took few breaks, and when I did, I boiled coffee and layered on my Fitz Roy Jacket. Everything freezes at those temperatures. Spent coffee grounds. Toothpaste. Granola Bars. Wet gloves. Standard writing pens.
I am fortunate that the hydro-flask I carry doesn’t freeze. I fill 40-oz. of water in the evening, and then twist the cap ever so lightly, and by morning I have liquid water for coffee and rehydration… It’s a learning lesson… I sleep with my phone and power charger in my Purple Rain skirt. Gloves, even if wet, stow into any available pocket as the heat will inevitably dry them out…at some point. Spare batteries are permanently placed in my synthetic camp skirt. Toothpaste and arnica salve in my Fitz Roy Jacket. I sleep with my socks on, and within my toasty warm down booties, because they will be dry when I wake. You move slow and deliberately.
Up and over a series of beautiful vistas, and down to a number of gaps. I crossed paths with the foottracks of coyote, rabbit and a dozen small rodents en route to the highpoint of ths AT, at Clingman’s dome. AND THEN THE SNOW STARTED.
But suprisingly, despite how cold it was, it was tolerable. My gear is bomber, and I’d be hopeless and on a plane back to Oregon right now if I didn’t know that I could rely on all my synthetic, down and waterproof layers.
So, that’s the Smoky Mountains Part I. I’ll get the SNOW report up in the next few days. Off to Hot Springs, NC…looks like another wild snow storm meets me outside.