Days 10-12 on the Appalachian Trail

In which cold – indeed, very cold – realities make themselves known.

Wed 4/3: Day 10

11.8 Miles, 4,567′ Elevation Gain

We caught a morning shuttle out of Hiawassee and were back on the trail by about 9:15 AM. Before leaving, the shuttle driver opened the back of the shuttle bus and unloaded a couple of bags’ worth of trail magic in the form of fresh fruit and snacks into a big cardboard box there. The town also provides these shuttles for free. They really like their hikers here.

There was rain in the forecast but it didn’t materialize. However the temps were supposed to drop over the next couple of days, and as we climbed you could feel it starting to happen, like a welcome mat being unceremoniously yanked away. The wind started to rise as well.

There was a nice sunny stretch in the afternoon, though, that happened to coincide with crossing the border from Georgia into North Carolina. A small simple sign on a tree marks the location. People stopped to get selfies of finishing their first state.

Farewell to the Peachtree section of the trail.

Overall, the trail and terrain in Georgia were… dare I say easy? It seems weird to characterize it that way – I mean, it was enough to give my foot some issues, after all – but compared to a lot of the hiking in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the early sections of the trail were decidedly not as difficult. The grades were more forgiving and the climbs were just not as long.

There had also been a number of instances where the trail would be heading for a visible rise or peak up ahead, and I’d mentally prepare myself for some serious climbing, and then the trail would just… go around it. That was a pretty bizarre feeling. In the Whites, it’s like: Look around. Find the highest point. See it over there? Okay, well, get ready, because the trail definitely goes over that.

The other thing people always talk about is how the trails in the south use lots of switchbacks to get up a steep slope, whereas in the north the trails just go straight up the damn mountain. This isn’t entirely true – it’s not like there are no switchbacks at all in the White Mountains trail system – but it’s probably fair to say that switchbacks are a thing that the the Whites really just kind of dabble in, rather than being full purveyors of. The heavier use of switchbacks in the early sections of the trail was noticeable as I hiked.

So, to those wondering whether the trail gets harder as you go: the answer is yes.

But of course, New Hampshire’s a long way away. For now the challenge was continuing the daily hiking while trying to stay relatively injury-free. We were only 80 miles into it, so you could say that there was a fair bit of hiking ahead of us.

The climb into North Carolina actually begins with a couple of “NH steep” sections that are a bit of a slap in the face after the relatively gentle Georgia climbs I just mentioned, but they’re short and were actually kind of a fun change of pace.

A well-known twisted tree at Bly Gap.

But as we arrived at Muskrat Creek Shelter, it was evident that the good times were rapidly coming to a close. The temps continued to drop. One thing that’s been evident on this hike is that once the end of the day arrives, the temps tend to dive rapidly. Today, combined with the change in weather, you could visualize the mercury falling cartoon-style. A few people wrestled with making a fire in the fire pit at the shelter, but it mainly guttered and smoked. After dinner I and many others dove into our tents, hoping we’d survive to see the morning light.

Even the tents are huddled close together.

Thu 4/4: Day 11

12.5 Miles, 2,254′ Elevation Gain

Exiting the tent in the morning was just downright unpleasant. There was a light layer of snow and ice crystals over the tents – not a heavy precipitation by any means, but certainly enough to discourage wanting to get out. It was somewhere in the mid 20s, with a stiff breeze blowing through the campsite. It was immediately, relentlessly, bitterly cold.

The trail, framed by an icy layer.

When it gets cold my fingers are generally the first thing to go, which makes things like breaking down camp, prepping breakfast, and packing up pretty difficult. I forced myself to pull out my cooking stove and do a hot breakfast and coffee, thinking it would help chase away the cold, but the wind made you feel like you had to keep moving to retain any feeling, so it was kind of a wash. By the time I was ready to go I was thoroughly chilled.

I set off at a breakneck pace. When I get uncomfortably cold in a backcountry setting I can sometimes get a mildly panicky feeling, as though I need to immediately chop down a tree and set it on fire to avoid dying, even though I have backup layers and hand warmers in my pack for a true emergency. I practically ran along the path, Birch trotting alongside in her thick fur coat wondering what was so urgent.

The day stayed brutally, unpleasantly cold, with a blustery wind and the sun hidden for most of the day. I moved as fast as I could to stay warm, but a good portion of the day was either on the shaded side of the ridge, exposed to the wind, or both. It was a struggle to get feeling back in my fingers, and stopping for any length of time meant that the wind just pulled the warmth away again. This was easily my most uncomfortable day on the trail so far. There’s something that really messes with you mentally knowing that you can’t get away from this. You can’t just, you know, go inside. There is no inside. There’s no crying uncle. You just have to deal.

It’s beautiful, but unfortunately there’s not a lot of time to enjoy it. Snap the photo and keep on truckin’.

A Polyphemus mouth just chilling (literally) motionless on a rock as I passed by.

A very brief window of sun with a lull in the wind in the afternoon gave a taste of what the day could have been, but it disappeared before long and wasn’t enough to get rid of the deep body chill that had settled in. For most of us, the day was reduced to a forced march to maintain body heat and as quick a dinner as we could prepare, people trading sentiments of how much their day sucked.

And yet one guy rolled in and said he’d had his best day out here yet. Hike your own hike, indeed.

The rest of us hid in our tents with the sad knowledge that tonight and tomorrow morning would be just as bad.

Fri 4/5: Day 12

12.2 Miles, 2,054′ Elevation Gain

The morning began with another visible icy crust on the tent – but the wind had died down overnight and after a while the sun came out, and that made all the difference. The morning camp breakdown was still pretty difficult and the first half hour of hiking was frigid in the shade, but then the trail swung up onto the ridge and we were bathed in glorious sunshine for the rest of the day.

Stark, beautiful views from up on the ridge.

And it was a day to celebrate hitting our first mileage milestone – 100 miles on the trail!

Up on the fire tower that marks 100 miles (FINE, 99.9 miles) along the trail.

As with finishing my first week on trail or crossing from GA into NC, these milestones are somehow important, even so early in the trail – perhaps because it’s so early. When I started, I had literally no expectations for myself to get past Springer Mountain. Honestly. None. Maybe I didn’t want to let myself believe that this fever dream could actually become a reality. But hitting these markers starts to tack the fabric of this journey of the mind down onto the surface of the real world. No, seriously, for real, you just hiked a hundred miles of the Appalachian Trail, dude. It’s a bit of the same kind of feeling as finishing a race like a marathon, which I’ve done a handful of times. Once you’ve done it, you’ve done it, and no one – literally no one – can take it away from you, unless they invent a time machine and go back and kneecap you, which seems surpassingly unlikely (not to mention unnecessarily mean). No matter how much the world may doubt you, no matter how much you may suffer the various slings and arrows of life, you made your accomplishments a reality, and you hold them in your possession forever.

Feels pretty good, doesn’t it?

A gorgeous cool sunny afternoon guided us down to Rock Gap Shelter, where, after yesterday’s truly awful ordeal in the cold, we were treated to trail magic of mythical status, two words that people usually put together ironically as a joke, something so beautiful it couldn’t possibly be real – but it was:

Free Beer.

The fine people of Lazy Hiker Brewing Company hiked in from the nearby road crossing with a couple coolers’ worth of their frothy wares and handed them out to us eager, smiling hikers, assembled like awestruck children on Christmas morning. There’s something truly exquisite about setting up your tent accompanied by sips from a beer a guy has handed you just for being there.

Happiness is.

Happiness is.

Probably my best bear hang yet, ready to thwart any and all ursine challengers.

Later, around the fire (which this time burned merrily, sending out pulsing waves of warmth against the oncoming temperature drop), a group gathered around the fire and recounted their past couple of days’ adventures. Maybe it was the beer, but it seemed that people were heaving a collective sigh of relief. It was great to see people thawing out literally and figuratively after the past couple of days.



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Comments 3

  • Dee : May 1st


    So I’ll turn 55 this year and signed up to be an adult advisor for my son’s BSA trip next year to Philmont. It’s a 12 day 100+ mile trip… ironic 🙂 So thank you for showing me it’s possible! ( have I mentioned I have exactly one night of backpacking experience under my belt at this point…..?)

    As a previous Muggle, and now researching the heck out of this backpacking world ( my first step to ‘train’) – somehow I came across your post about starting the AT and have been following along. Your writing style? Birch’s cuteness? I don’t know. It just resonated.

    Just wanted to let you know some random person is reading and learning and rooting you and Birch on!

    Congrats on 100!

  • Sylvia Jones : May 8th

    Hi Chris,
    First of all, I am really enjoying following along with your adventures on the trail with Birch! I am a fellow dog person and so it’s nice to see a hiker doing this amazing journey with their furry best friend!

    I don’t like to go negative but I just read something disturbing in the trail news and wanted to pass it on in case you hadn’t seen the article. Apparently a hiker found dog treats stuffed with fish hooks in Pennsylvania near the Lehigh Gap Nature Center. Please be careful with Birch in that region.

    It’s been nice to hear about the trail magic, the lovely scenery, and to otherwise follow along with your trip! I love hiking but haven’t done a thru hike myself so it’s fun to hear of others experiences.

    Keep up the wonderful progress Chris and Birch!!!

  • Jason Brown : May 10th

    Yeah buddy! Congrats on 100! Been keeping up with the posts and so excited for you – what an incredible adventure. Enjoy it, my friend, it’s pretty f-in awesome! Katheryn and I are cheering you on.

    Bear hugs (not literally),


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