It’s been seven days since my last post from the Gatlinburg public library, and I haven’t hiked (I mean, really hiked) since. Not on my own accord, of course, but because I saw a large counterclockwise rotating mass of rain and thunder and nasty shit cloud on the radar and decided to wait it out at a lower elevation. That decision turned into my cousin Bert picking me up from Gatlinburg and allowing me to hang out at his place for a few days; it’s about an hour south of Gatlinburg in Whittier, NC. I cannot even begin to express how amazing Bert is: first of all, just a really cool, down to earth fellow with a completely level head about everything. But more than that, he has opened his home to me, cooked for me, taken me out to eat, drove me an hour north to pick up me absentee ballot (that I was supposed to have hiked to by now), and just been all around fucking cool. I honestly would have been sleeping on the ground and sitting in the Gatlinburg McDonald’s all day long for the last week had he not come to my rescue. Trail Magic does exist, friends! And in large quantities!
It’s been four days since Hurricane Sandy dumped four to six feet of snow at the top of Clingman’s Dome, about 1,000 feet above Newfound Gap where I got off the trail and will be getting back on. However, I was getting antsy yesterday. Like, really, really antsy. Bert could sense this and agreed to let me attempt to hike North from Newfound Gap, which was a huge relief for me. I could finally get back on the effing trail. I even purchased gaiters (these long black things that attach to the outside of your pants just below the knees and cover the entrance to your boots, to keep out snow and other stuff), and trail cleats (like crampons, but shorter spikes; more for actually hiking than traversing glaciers) just for the ice and snow I knew I would be encountering. On the way up we stopped at the welcome center to talk to a park ranger who told us the snow was still pretty bad, and there was even a hiker being rescued via helicopter deep in the park, trapped by five foot snow drifts. I felt a slight chill and shot of adrenaline at the news.I thought I’d give it a go anyways – what’s the worst that could happen? As we got out of the car and I loaded up my backpack, I began to adjust my hiking poles, and as luck would have it (and as all experienced hikers had told me) my cheap-o $40 poles fromSports Authority weren’t locking in place. We tried for about 10 minutes and gave up, realizing the poles were just broken (for no apparent reason) and I would have to buy some new ones. (Key voice of expensive trail outfitter shop in Tallahassee echoing in my head, “You’re going to want to just go ahead and buy the nicer stuff to start with, you’ll end up spending less money in the long run.” Fuck me, right?)
So, we jetted down to Gatlinburg, picked up some $100 Leki trekking poles from the Nantahala Outdoor Center outpost there, and got back to Newfound Gap. I started at about 3:00 p.m., giving me 3-3.5 hours of daylight to get to the nearest shelter, a mere 3 miles in. Now, on a regular trail day when it’s sunny, 70 degrees, and dry, 3 miles is nothing. On a day when there is a shit ton of snow on the ground, 3 miles is more like 10 miles. I had to discover this myself. On the way out everyone noticed the size of my pack, “How far you planning on going, man?”, “I don’t know, probably just to the first shelter, it’s only three miles.” “Well, about a mile in all this snow pack is gone, it’s just white powdery drifts, man, 4 foot deep in most spots.” “Oh, shit. Well, I guess I’ll see for myself.”
I should’ve just heeded their words on the spot. Nope, my stubborn ass kept going. I got to the farthest anyone had taken any steps since the snowfall from Sandy on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. My heart began to pound. It was an eerie combination of boldly going where no stubborn hiker has gone before, the fading daylight, the fact that I could fall and die in the slippery, dangerous conditions, and that a hiker was currently being airlifted somewhere out of the middle of the park because he had been trapped by five foot drifts a few days earlier. As I trudged through the virgin snow, one step landed me six inches deep, the next two feet, the next four, then back to a few inches, then one up to my chest as I almost fell completely forward and into the white abyss. This was tough. I was panting, sweating profusely (and it was evaporating quickly from the cold, dry air, quickly dehydrating me). I began to realize if I did continue, I was probably not going to make it 3 miles before sun down. The ass-kicking athlete in me would not let me stop. I kept trudging, about 30 minutes (probably a total of only .2 miles past the last person’s farthest attempt) until I came to a large downed pine, obviously a result of the high wind from the hurricane. I stopped for a minute to assess my options. I could,
a) Try to climb over this massive tree and land in an ambiguously deep snow drift on the other side
b) Turn around.
Of course, I tried to climb the tree. My pack snagged on branches and I almost fell backward. I finally got to where my head poked over the top, and realized the snow was so thick I couldn’t even make out where the trail continued after this obstacle. Not even a white blaze to signify the trail was this direction. It all began to add up and I looked down, sighed, and acknowledged I’d have to turn around. Luckily, Bert had decided he’d wait an hour and a half in the parking lot in case a situation like this occurred. I attempted to text him at my immediate turn around spot but of course, service was sparse. As I backtracked for the first time in my AT experience, I felt a huge amount of relief. I wouldn’t be freezing my ass off, alone, on the side of a mountain, not tonight at least. I wouldn’t be trudging through any more ridiculously deep, ridiculously dangerous snow for hours. I was, for the most part, safe. As I was almost back to the parking lot I saw a large blue jacket on the ground and thought, “What the hell? Someone just left their jacket sitting here in the snow!” And once I got closer, I noticed it was MY blue LL Bean jacket with fleece zip in, and my camp pillow rolled inside. It had fallen off my backpack (where it was secured with two tightly wound bungee cords) about a tenth of a mile into the trail. If I had gotten to camp that night without that jacket I would’ve been very, very cold. Perhaps my turning around was, dare I say, meant to be?
I got back to the car, ego bruised, but alive, and somewhat happy that I wouldn’t be suffering for the night and next few days. I’ll just be hanging out at Cousin Bert’s until Sunday or, more likely, Monday, when enough snow has melted to make the trail actually passable again. Bert was very proud of me for having the sense to turn around. And, more likely, remain breathing; I was somewhat agitated, but relieved as well. At least now I have a chance at trying again in a few days. We’ll see. As one of the members of WhiteBlaze.net remarked when I posted this story on the site forum – “Good job man. Learning to turn back is perhaps the most important rule to survival.”
Walk on, my friends, and Hike ‘Til You’re High!