SMOKY MOUNTAINS TO MAX PATCH SUMMIT AND BEYOND: SNOW
Miles hiked thus far: 274.4
Location: Hot Springs, NC
The eastern seaboard and southern Appalachia have been hit hard by Winter Storm Jonas. It came in quick, and dumped without restraint, up to two feet of snow in the mountains and in the towns and cities that rest not to far from the trail’s now very white, snowbound path. Lots of people were concerned about my whereabouts, and about my saftey. Yes it was cold, and yes it was snowy, but honestly, it was awesome up in those mountains. Slow moving no doubt, but enjoyable as I pressed on through the winter wonderland.
It began six days ago. I was a few miles south of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak on the Appalachian Trail, and one that rests at 6,643 feet. I really wanted to stop at the shelter south of Clingmans Dome, called Double Spring Gap Shelter. It was 5pm, and I figured that I could relax that night, catch up on my journal, and then try to rise early enough and reach the summit by sunrise.
But I knew there was weather on the horizon, despite the bluebird skies. But how soon? When I turned my phone on, I suprisingly had internet. But before searching for weather, the warning texts from Allgood and Tomato, two good friends of mine who are notable and respectable thru-hikers, appeared at the top of the screen. Indeed, weather was coming, and it was not to take lightly. Not wanting to see what the weather could do to the highest point on the AT, I pushed the summit. Tired and weary, I made it up to the top. The sunset was incredible, if only I could have reached it a few minutes earlier. Oh why, oh why did I sleep in. Right, because it was nearing zero degrees that morning and who wants to get out from under their down sleeping quilts to go hiking in the cold?
But I made it. And then I downclimbed via the light of my headlamp on a layer of frozen snow. Hidden patches of ice had me slide enough times I strapped on my Vargo Titanium Pocket Cleats. They would become the norm in the days to come.
By morning, I slept in once again. It was 7am when I finally crawled from my quilts, and I made a mental note to not make this a habit. So vital is that time the light first kisses the earth, that I need to take advantage of it so as to not leave me hiking in the dark by evening.
That next morning, the ground was covered with snow. Ankle deep, and enough to cover the ground thoroughly, the walk was pleasant…at first. A series of slips and slides were caused by terrorizing and unpredictable ice sheets that lay beneath the freshly fallen snow. It made for an amusing twirl or two before my body and pack came unfailingly crashing to the earth. Whole hillsides were covered ice. Lingering, laughing layers of ice waiting for the oblivious hiker to come along.
Later that day, I’d climb up beneath icicles and along a trail that was more like an ice skating rink camaflauged by snow, than the soft brown earth we all have come to love. Bracing myself for the fall, I continued on while wearing my cleats, which helped significantly, but not flawlessly. Half way through that day I also envisioned the dual purpose of butter, which is a lubricant for the Titanium Pocket Cleats so as to avoid the snow sticking to the straps webbing. Ingenious! Lube up the cleats and nibble on some creamy, salty calories!
And so the days accumulated like the snow. It’s so bewildering how the time continues to tick by, miles and miles stacking on one another. I’m more than 1/10th of the way through, which seems like a miniscule amount, but in the course of only two weeks, that’s progress people! I have no idea what’s to come of this winter hike, and thoroughly embrace it as a hike in the winter.
There’s certainly challenges that don’t exist on other hikes. This is a list of some of the other things I’ve experienced/seen in the last few days:
Water sources can be covered and inaccessible beneath the snow. Water that would generally be free flowing at a piped spring may be frozen. Looking up or downstream may help, but not always. I try to carry at least several ounces of water always, so that if I need to, I can melt snow, and can avoid wandering down side trails fo find running water. My 40oz insulated Hydroflask keeps water from freezing and I don’t need to sleep with it in my sleeping quilts which is nice.
There’s heaps of animal tracks, but few animal sightings. I’ve only seen one squirrel and several birds, but I’ve seen tracks of bear, turkey, deer, coyote, bobcat, mole, mice and plenty of rabbit.
Shared a shelter with another northbound hiker, his trailname Blizzard. With this being the off-season, it’s nice to have companionship even if it’s for a short time.
I’ve been deemed the “fast-one.” Rumor is spreading along the trail about this girl who is crazy enough to aspire to hike all three trails in one year. I’m moving at a pretty fast past, despite the snow, and often show up in town at dark—hungry and happy to see another human being.
The balds are beautiful. Max Patch, a treeless, meadow-like summit that sits at 4,629 feet, was absolutely beautiful. It was absolutely frigid up top, but the rime ice, 360-degree view, and wintery horizon was one of a kind. Blew any summer view I’d had ten years ago out of the park.
The trail can be hard to find at times when buried under snow, and when the blazes are camaflauged in all the white smothered across the tree’s bark. Blizzard commented that night at the shelter at how natural and easily I found the trail even in moments of doubt. I suppose it’s intuition or having hiked the CDT or perhaps understanding the mind behind those who build trails.
Hmmm, what else. Oh right. It’s hiker midnight. BEDTIME!