In my last post I attempted to reenter the Smoky Mountains where I had gotten off the trail just before Hurricane Sandy, at Newfound Gap. After having to turn around and wait for more snow to melt, I was incredibly frustrated and eager to get back to it. I finally got the chance on Monday, November 5th, 2012. There was still some snow in Newfound Gap, but it seemed to have melted by about 50% from the solid 4-5 feet that prevented me from going further than a mile down the trail a few days earlier.
As I started off and wished my cousin Bert goodbye, I couldn’t help but crack a huge grin. I was FINALLY, after a week of gluttony even Dionysus would be jealous of, getting back on the trail. I had my gaiters (nylon sleeves that slide over your pants from the knee down to below your ankle, where they attach to your boots to prevent snow and dirt from getting in) and trail crampons (metal spikes that slip on the bottom of the shoe to prevent slipping or sliding on slushy and icy surfaces), new hiking poles, and a ton of (literally) stored energy ready to burn. I was back in black. And khaki. And orange. And grey.
As I got to the first shelter about 3 miles in, I had plenty of daylight, so I thought I would be able to make it to the following shelter, about 7 miles north. However, as I got past that first shelter, the snowpack became noticeably less worn from the Newfound Gap day hikers over the weekend, and soon I was following what looked like a single person’s “post-holing”, where each step sinks so far into the untouched snow that it looks like a post-hole dug for putting a wooden post in! However, this person’s post-holes were going South, and I was headed north, so the ball of my foot was forced to land where his heel had, making the walls of snow squeeze the front of my boot and cause a twinge of pain with each step. You may have guessed that this slowed me down considerably – I began to move about 1 mph through the thick, white blanket, but it felt like I was barely moving at all.
As 5:00 rolled around, I came to a sign that read “Next Shelter: 3.0 miles” and knew that I had misjudged how fast I would be able to trudge through the snow. With only an hour of daylight left, I knew I’d have to set up my hammock. Now, I know hammocks are naturally colder than tents due to the fact that you’re surrounded by free flowing air, which wicks away body heat quickly and uncomfortably – but I figured this was my only option and it couldn’t be that bad. Plus, the temperature was about 50 degrees as the sun went down, without a cloud in the sky. I laid comfortably on two sleeping pads, my 20 degree down bag with a 20 degree warmth insert, and plenty of warm underlayers and jackets while I continued to read On the Road and fell asleep. At about 2 or 3 in the morning I heard a “pat pat pat pat” against the rainfly of the hammock, a sound softer than rain that only means one thing: snow. I was so groggy, though, that I barely acknowledged the flurries as I tossed and turned to avoid the cold. Finally, I awoke, turned on my headlamp, and saw a thick layer of frost lining the mosquito net just inches above my face. “Oh, shit.” I thought. I tried to look out to the ground to see just how much snow had fallen, and I could barely see my boots, backpack, and other gear on the ground – it was all covered by an inch of snow.
My sense of dread was overpowered by the desire of sleep, and the knowledge that if I didn’t sleep through the night, the next day would be hell. So, I continued to toss and turn as the slow, cold wind sucked away the body heat of any limb or appendage that touched the part of the hammock unprotected by sleeping pad. Finally, my alarm beeped at 6 a.m. and I jumped out of bed, ready to clean up and get the hell out of this annoying, cumbersome snow. Unfortunately, I also knew I had many miles to go. As I cleaned off the layer of snow covering my gear, I discovered that frozen water is like sand: it gets in every corner and niche it can find in EVERYTHING. After which it decides to melt either because of body heat or the outside temperature. Which means you now have an extra two pounds of water weighing down you and your gear. Not fun.
To add insult to the already frustrating situation, when I attempted to put on my boots, I discovered that they were frozen solid! The sweat inside them had become ice during the night, and I had to wiggle my feet inside each one for about two minutes before any of it began to melt. This obviously made my toes extremely cold, numb, and wishing they hadn’t accompanied this go-round.
I didn’t eat breakfast that morning. I didn’t have any water, and I didn’t feel like waiting 20 minutes to melt snow, then allow the water temperature to rise to 212 degrees. So I hazily packed everything up as my fingers went numb from the still sub-freezing temperature and resumed my trek north.
About three hours later I arrived at the shelter that was three miles from of the sign I had camped near. This confirmed for me that I was traveling the painstakingly slow speed of 1 mph. However, that shelter, and thus its water source, was .5 miles off the trail; did I take an extra hour to get water and risk not making it to the next shelter by nightfall? Or did I continue on and risk dehydration in the snowy abyss that lay before me? I decided sleeping in the hammock again was undoubtedly not an option, skipped the chance of a water refill, and continued on. About an hour later I arrived at, perhaps, the eeriest and most haunting site I had encountered on the trail as of yet: an abandoned tent.
Now, normally, seeing an abandoned tent on the trail during the summer months is not completely out of place, some people decide to take a zero day to a side trail to enjoy waterfalls or springs. Some just abandon their tents because they’re tired of carrying the extra weight. I hadn’t given it much thought since I reentered the park, but I suddenly remembered the news story of a thru-hiker who had been airlifted out the Friday prior. It dawned on me that, of course, if you’re getting airlifted out, they probably forced you to leave all your gear behind for weight, safety, and time’s sake. This was that man’s tent, sitting alone, completely and utterly still, in the unearthly, yet fantastic silence of the snow.
Stunned by the reality of the sight before me, I decided I really needed water and that becoming a headline like this guy was a terrible idea. So, I sat on a log just across from the tent, scooped up a few cups of snow, and fired up my stove to let them melt for a cup of hot chocolate. This would at least provide me some water, a bit of quickly usable calories, and a small amount of caffeine. It was, in retrospect, perhaps the best idea I’d had all day.
Upon finishing I felt, at least somewhat, a bit higher in spirits and knew the shelter I was attempting to reach couldn’t be much further, even at 1 mph. Another hour down the trail and I passed the first people I had seen since Newfound Gap: some southbound thru-hikers who were eager enough to finish the trail that they decided hiking through snow was a good idea. One guy was even wearing Chaco’s hiking sandals with socks!
“We didn’t think anyone else was crazy enough to try and hike through here right now!” They exclaimed.
“Well, only a Floridian or a thru-hiker who just wanted to finish would be.” I said, somewhat sarcastically.
“Hah! Yep. Well, good luck, the next shelter isn’t too much further, and once you get below 5500 feet most of the snow is gone.”
I smiled, thanked them and wished them luck, and was on my way. I couldn’t help but smile. Seeing people in an environment you’re incredibly virgin to, after not seeing another human for almost 30 hours, is perhaps the most refreshing, energizing event you can experience. I made it to the next shelter by 4 p.m. with plenty of time to relax, cook, read, and reflect. “This is insane.” I thought, “I cannot believe I am in the middle of the Smoky Mountains, covered in and completely surrounded by snow, with the only ways out being the trail or a helicopter. Hell yes – THIS is living.”
And it was. There have been many times in my life I’ve really felt alive. But not like this. Not completely sober, alone, and freezing my ass off. Not thirsty, hungry, and with a small amount of base-level adrenaline constantly coursing in my veins. No, not at all like this. And it dawned on me, “Of course. Duh. This is why I came. This is what it’s all about. To be in perhaps one of the most uncomfortable physical situations of my life and find the light in it. I am truly experiencing joy. Wow.”
Three more people arrived at the shelter that night, two Canadian girls and a guy from Virginia, just as the sun was setting. They were also southbound thru-hikers almost done with their journey. I was extremely pleased and comforted to have people accompanying me that night, especially considering the aloneness I had experienced so recently. We all chatted and joked until well past our usual bed time of 8 o’clock. Needless to say, the extreme fatigue I was experiencing from the lack of quality sleep the night before catapulted me into a deep, dreamless slumber. I’d say it was the best hibernation I’d had on the trail yet.
Check back soon for Part 2 of “Holy Smokies!” as I leave the snow, continue north, and encounter my first black bears in broad daylight! Until then, keep walking, and hike ’til you’re high my friends.