Leaving south from I-40, the Appalachian trail climbs roughly 6k cumulative feet to the crest of the smokies in great smokey mountains national park. Nancy drops us off in a light drizzle, and we begin making our ascent up into the clouds and onto the crest. It’s a gradual climb, by AT standards, and feels pretty easy for all.
Just before reaching the top of the ridge, the sun begins burning up the clouds, and we’re greeted with amazing sun rays in the evening, followed by grand views of the surrounding high peaks. Hiking with Arbor, who gets excited about the smallest of ‘scenic overlooks’ listed in AWOL’s guidebook, means the enthusiasm is at an all time high. These are the biggest mountains the entire Appalachian trail traverses, and the 360 views of peaks towering over the clouds is epic. The smell of dense spruce is in the air, and the vegetation surrounding us has changed dramatically. Immediately, I’m taken back to memories of Vermont, and the smell of their dense forests. I love the northern forests, with their thick spruce covered in moss, high alpine ponds, and humid air, exaggerating the smell of the spruce. The high alpine here is very similar to that, And I get great sense of joy out of the natural smells and look of this alpine zone.
Arbor and I fall way behind the group, taking pictures, studying the landscape at overlooks, and stopping to point out the different interesting things we see along the way. This seems to happen often in our group, with arbor and I either way ahead, racing up the big climbs as we both get a kick out of pushing ourselves on the inclines, or way behind, as we often take more pictures and geek out over our surroundings not realizing how much time we’re spending not moving south. Scudz, wolfburger, and the kid are much more consistent, much less excitable hikers.
We all get to tri-knob shelter that night, and it’s packed with others, including a ranger. We all stay up late, sharing stories and picking the rangers brain about this and that before calling it a night. I put my ear plugs in (thank you Ren for sending those in your care package) and only wake up to obnoxious snoring once in the night. That’s a good night, on those standards, and just a good first day in the smokies. Hopefully this is a precursor of what is to come.
The next two days are beautiful, and we traverse through most of the smokies in that time. Scudz arbor and I traverse a beautiful ridge to Charles bunion; a large Rocky outcropping overlooking the valley. There are still great colors far below. Arbor and I meet two cute Austrian girls touring America, and somehow they offer to take us to Gatlinburg to resupply. It’s a long drive, about 15 slow winding miles; they stop for waterfalls and scenic outlooks, and we don’t mind one bit.
“Stop as much as you’re like,” arbor tells them, “we love scenic overlooks and waterfalls!”
He’s not lying, but the emphasis is still laughable.
The next day, we all wake up early and hike 4 miles in the dark to clingmans dome, the highest point on the entire Appalachian trail, and the state high point in Tennessee. We watch the colors turn and the mountains come alive from the tower constructed at the summit. It’s a beautiful and cold morning.
After twenty some frantic miles later, we make it to Russell field shelter just as it begins to downpour. We heard in Gatlinburg that we could get up to 14 inches at higher elevations, but even as we go to bed, it’s still just rain, which looks to be turning to ice. There’s some douchy section hikers who started a fire (which is awesome), but turned things south by making many off color comments, most notably about the safety of a family that took off, and many sexist things about women on the trail and why they would be out here. Complete jerks. We all go to bed hoping for the best with the weather – maybe it won’t snow as much as they call for. Maybe we’ll be lucky. We still have about 8 miles of hiking over 5,000 feet before we start dropping to Fontana dam, so we cross our fingers.
(See nice pictures below, no service while writing this so I cannot upload photos here. They’re below, pre snowmageddon.)
I wake up having to pee so bad. This happens nearly every morning. Thru-hiking for 6+ months has shrunk my bladder tenfold. The trail is a giant urinal, and as such, you pee whenever you need to. Pretty quickly, your bladder adjusts and shrinks, as you never have to ‘hold it’. This has happened to me on every thru-hike, even those that are just two weeks. Thanks to my small bladder, I wake up nightly with urges to take a piss. One of the joys few talk about when describing their hikes, but it happens, to men. Girls don’t have this problem as it isn’t as easy to just take a piss. Some have come up with comical (yet rewarding) ways to combat this constant urge to pee. Famous thru-hiker Andrew Skurka pees while he walks. Sherpa and McButter would pee as they walked. I’m not so skilled.
Whoa, that’s a lot about pissing, likely more than you needed to know. Anyways, when I step outside to take my morning pee, I’m greeted with over 14 inches of fresh pow, and it’s still snowing hard. I remember waking up a few times in the night to snow hitting my face as the wind blew it into the shelter, but I couldn’t have dreamed it being this much snow. I quickly get back inside and tell the group of my findings.
“So much snow!” I yell enthusiastically.
“Snowball fight, yessss!” Arbor groggily states as he sits up in his sleeping bag.
“Looks like my thru-hike attempt is over, I gave it a nice effort..” Wolfburger says, still curled in his mummy bag, “it was nice knowing you, kids.”
The only real thing I did to prepare for this forecasted snow was to buy foot and hand warmers, the disposable kind. I put one on the bottom of each shoe, and one each in my light mittens. I put on all of my layers; wool tshirt, R1 thermal top, golite down jacket, long underwear bottoms, wind pants, wool socks, wool beanie hat, and my homemade synthetic puffy hat. I don my backpack, which is unusually small, shove food into my mouth for a minute, drink a liter of water, and throw my frogg toggs rain poncho on top of myself and my backpack.
I look back at kid, arbor, and Scudz, who are fully bundled as well, all wearing ponchos over everything as well. Kid has boots (and we always make fun of him for it), but today, he wins. Scudz, arbor and I will be wearing our little lightweight trail runners. Awesome.
“15 miles to Fontana damn, and Fontana village where we can get a warm shower.” I say to them. “We need to stay together, keep our eyes open for the trail, and always keep moving. Don’t ever let yourself start to sweat, always delayer before that happens.”
They all nod, and I take a deep breath before I open up the tarp that’s shielding the shelter from the cold. ‘Welp,’ I think to myself, ‘let’s get this over with.’
I step outside and nearly get blown over by a gust of wind, full of snow. The scene is so much different than last night; over a foot of snow on the ground. There’s no leaves to see, no small bushes, just snow. The trees are all hanging low, some hanging enough to touch the ground. Ice built up last night on the trees, then snow, so there is a ton of weight on the branches. The trail is hard to find in many places, and the sagging branches fully cover the trail in many spots.
We push on, taking turns breaking snow, all sticking together. Soon, my feet are soaking wet, and not long after, my feet are completely numb, and I can no longer tell that they’re wet.
“I didn’t know hell would be so cold!” The kid says while laughing, “I’ve never in my life seen this much snow, and I love just a few hours away.”
At first, it’s beautiful. The snow falling sideways with the wind, a whitewashed, dense forest in front of us. It’s amazing how much snow has fallen. I take a few pictures, and we all marvel at this and that.
But soon, as the slow miles add up, and my body gets much more cold, it begins to become miserable. You can’t stop, or you’ll freeze to death, literally. No ones going to come to our aid and help us. It’s times like these where you earn your thru-hiker name.
I bite my cheek, and narrow my focus. ‘Just keep moving forward. Don’t stop. You have to keep going’ I repeat this in my head over and over again, determined to help our group get out of this mess.
Nearly two hours later we pass a shelter. We’ve gone 2.7 miles in just under two hours. Shit. It felt impossibly hard, too. At this rate, Fontana village might come in the night. We all look at eachother with long faces. It’s so uncomfortable. We grab some food, suck up enough energy to take a few pictures of frozen beards, and push on.
Soon, we find ourselves insure of where the trail is. In the smokies, the AT has much less frequent white blazes. This makes it really hard finding the trail in this condition. There are a few paths that look like they may be the trail, but we don’t know which one to take. We stall out, not sure what to do, and I can feel my body getting colder, and anxiety starts to set it. I fight off feelings of panic, and we begin looking to see where the trail goes, all looking in different directions. I begin backtracking to find the nearest white blaze, to make sure we are actually on the right path in the first place when I hear shouting from below. Our friends who have been hiking with us since the second shelter, Dillon and Emma, must have found the trail below. We all rush down, and Dillon tells us e believes this is the way. There’s no blaze anywhere, and it’s not necessarily obvious that this is it, but it’s the eat option we have, so we continue forward, digging trough the deep snow down the trail. In just a few minutes we find a white blaze, and I let out a huge sigh of relief. Thank goodness, that could have been terrible.
The next few hours are brutally slow and cold. The wind continues to batter us on the high ridges, and we find ourselves pushing through snow drifts nearly up to my waist.
There’s no complaining from anyone, despite how uncomfortable and crappy this is. We all know how important it is to keep moving and get off this mountain. It shows a lot of mental toughness by the group, especially the kid, who is just 18 years old, to understand the situation and grind it out. That’s all you can do. And for the next few hours, we keep pushing.
Eventually, we run into some weekend hikers, fully prepared for the snow (unlike us), and the trail becomes blazed for us. It’s all downhill from here, and will get warmer and much less snowy. Every few hundred feet down is noticeable.
After a few hours and several thousand feet, the snow turns slushy, and we’re walking off trail consistently to avoid fallen trees until we reach a snow covered road. We take it a mile to the dam, and I’m shocked at how many trees are down across it. Hundreds of them are down, blocking the road everywhere. Things got crazy down here.
We cross the Fontana damn, the tallest east of the Mississippi, with cold wet feet and wet gear, excited to get to town to dry off and enjoy a warm room and got shower. We see the visitor center at the damn is closed, and there’s a man there waiting for Dillon and Emma. He tells us he’ll take us to Fontana village after he drops them off. So we wait half and hour.
He comes back with Dillon and Emma, and tells us the village is closed – out of power. Sweet. We spend an hour cold outside trying to get a ride but no one will pick us up, and there is very few cars passing by. It starts getting dark, and we give up. There’s a large women’s restroom where we all lay down our gear to sleep. It’s heated in the bathroom (so good!) and we actually don’t fully mind. We fully take over the bathroom, spreading our stuff over the walls separating the toilets to dry. We have to use headlamps, as the lights in the bathrooms won’t go on; it’s pitch black. We joke about how hobo and campy this is. But we’re sheltered from the bitter cold, and we’re ok. We made it out of the smokies, alive. I’ll never forget this leg of the adventure. The last test of just how bad we wanted this.