North Carolina: Winter Giving Way
It’s been a long while since my last update. That being said, it simultaneously feels as though no time has passed at all, and also as if Georgia was a lifetime away.
Since my last update, I’ve walked in nonstop snowstorms, torrential rain, blazing heat on exposed ridgelines… the AT has really shown us her fickle side, weather-wise, and these have been the hardest and gut-wrenchingly beautiful miles I’ve ever walked.
Let’s get into it:
I walked off trail right after crossing the border into North Carolina, straight into a double zero with my partner, Phil, in Otto (a little town just outside Franklin.) My goal had originally been to make it to Winding Stair Gap before he picked me up, and though I was disappointed that I fell short of that goal, I was happy to have reached the milestone of finishing a state before he plucked me from a forest service road.
During these rest days, my knee began to feel much better and a lot of my anxiety about having to get off trail for a longer stretch of time to let it recover was quelled.
I started slow when I returned to trail, only 8.5 miles on the first day, 12.2 on the second, and then a minuscule 3 miles to Winding Stair Gap where I caught a shuttle into Franklin because I was coming down with some crud/fever/coughing that my partner had brought me from civilization with his People Germs™️.
I wasn’t feeling 100%, and there was a cold rain in the forecast, so I decided a Nero was in order… Especially after climbing Mt. Albert and reaching 100 miles while stopping to mouth-breathe and blow my nose every 50 yards or so. (My condolences to anyone hiking near me that day!)
After the Nero and armed with DayQuil, I cruised from Franklin to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in a trio of 10+ mile days. My knee, wrapped in KT tape, was feeling much better with that support and daily PT. But there was another challenge of a different kind just around the corner…
As I ate breakfast at the NOC, the restaurant was buzzing with news of incoming snowstorms… and the sky looked pretty ominous.
While my devices charged, I considered my options. I’d hiked in worse winter weather on the Ouachita Trail with the same gear I had with me and had stayed comfortable, warm, and dry.
My only concern was that I had traded my double-wall Lanshan 2 for a single-wall Gossamer Gear one person tent, and I knew that frozen condensation would be an issue if I had to tent camp.
Since everyone I spoke to was planning on waiting out the weather, I figured my chances of getting into a shelter were pretty good. So, I set out for Sassafras Gap Shelter as the rain turned to sleet and the sleet turned into thick, swirling clumps of snow… and walked right up to a full shelter.
I had hilariously underestimated the crazy of my fellow thru-hikers. As it turns out, a very high percentage of us is pretty solidly insane (myself included!) and would happily do things like hike into a blizzard for the hell of it. So, I set up my tent in the snow.
As I feared, I woke up to snow both inside and outside my tent. I did my best to scrape off as much frozen condensation as I could, but after it fell in flakes onto my quilt and instantly melted, thought better of it and made my priority keeping my quilt and sleeping clothes as dry as possible.
It was going to snow that entire day as well, and while I stayed perfectly warm all night in my 0 degree quilt, I knew that would change quickly if my gear got wet.
After packing up, I slowly hiked from Sassafras to Brown Fork Gap shelter in gorgeous, but challenging snow that that “fell” sideways in frigid, howling gusts of wind, and enjoyed some very surprising mid-blizzard trail magic from a couple of ‘21 thru-hikers (Thanks Unfiltered and Mud Duck! Y’all saved some thru-hikes that day.) There was one spot left in the shelter, and I snagged it as soon as I walked up.
The next day, I hiked to Fontana Dam on a cloudless day. While I walked, I shed layers as the snow melted and the temperatures climbed. When I made the last descent into Fontana, the entire trail had changed… winter giving way to spring within hours.
Stubborn flowers pushed through snow, bees tentatively hummed around the frozen mud, and bare tree branches seemed to leaf out before my eyes. I stopped for long breaks that day just to take pictures and try (fruitlessly) to record what I was seeing. It seemed impossible for the seasons to change that quickly, even with the elevation change considered.
But as beautiful and humbling as that blizzard experience was, it didn’t come close to what the Smokies were about to do.
But, that’s for next time!
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