Memories of the Smokies: Cold and Snow

Weeks have passed since we left Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is a very brief summary and only a collection of what immediately comes to mind.

Our Smokies experience was preceded by rain, something I mentioned in another post. It never poured, thankfully, but was persistent, save an hour break at lunch.

After a fitful sleep (and fried chicken dreams) at the Fontana Hilton, we made our way to the park’s AT. trailhead. A soft coat of snow heathered trees green and white higher up. Nothing had fallen lower. When we started our climb, snow fell around us. At least half an inch fell in the morning. Not much, but enough to burden blades of trailside grass.

On our way up we passed a ranger in shorts. His hike would be brief, to the fire tower and back. A hiker we passed wore shorts, too, but was hiding behind a tree, ill-prepared, debating whether to turn back or keep going.

More snow fell but not nearly the amount I would expect earlier in the hiking season, say late February and early March, when thru-hikers first began trickling north. Walking through the snow and huddling in cold shelters accorded us a deeper appreciation of what Bruce and Marcia, Lauren’s parents, endured on their 2009 thru-hike; their March start date meant colder temperatures, not to mention over 50 days of precipitation (including snow) in their first 60.

Overnight temperatures dropped to the teens. Keeping my toes warm was an endless task. At over six feet tall circulation to any of my four bodily extremities does not occur without some difficulty; my long, gangly toes and skinny fingers freeze over, go numb.

Here are the two methods I tested in attempting to keep my feet warm: 1) wrapping a fleece neck buff around my chilled feet, a buff my neck then misses and 2) curling my legs closer to my warmer core, a difficult contortion for an inflexible body made impossible by a fully zipped mummy bag. An unsuccessful effort was made.

That first night we shared the shelter with only one other person. Had more people been there, it may have been warmer, or had we been tenting and in a smaller space – trapping heat around us – we might have slept better. (Park rules stipulate shelters must be full before tenting is allowed.)

All unpleasantness aside, the sudden freeze made for some dazzling sights, notably hoarfrost. The ice crystals look like white shadows frozen on the branch. It would melt later in the day.

At Clingmans Dome an Asian tourist asked to take a picture with us. His wife took the photo. He posed with his arm around my shoulder, as if we had known each other all along and then left, ambling down the concrete spiral, hand to hat against the wind. As for Clingmans itself, it was windy and anticlimactic – a tall wheelchair ramp but nothing more.

At the next gap we received trail magic organized by a Gatlinburg-based women’s hiking group. Half-slow showed up not long after and told a dirty joke. It did not go over well. (He’ll also quote entire pages of Muir and Thoreau from memory. He’s generous, always offering a parting gift: food, pickled plums; a wise word. We enjoy running into him.)

We hiked on to Icewater Springs, where we were greeted by a full shelter and potential tenting.

With better weather, the roads opened back up and hikers who had gone down into Gatlinburg – and who were subsequently stranded there due to weather closures – were able to get back on trail. The influx meant two bubbles converged and shelters were suddenly packed. We estimated 40 or more at one Smokies shelter alone.

At Icewater, we were met by our friend Snickers, a section hiker near the end of his penultimate section; next year he will complete the trail after two decades of piecing it together. (Snickers is an amazing guy – soft-spoken, a calming presence.)

One mile downhill from the shelter is Charlies Bunion, a famous rock outcropping. Lauren convinced me to walk the extra mile to watch the sunset. I wasn’t excited given that we were looking at our first 20-mile hike the next day, but I went, grumbling, and when we arrived, my tune changed. Something about scrambling up rocks perks me up. We climbed out to the tip of the jutting formation and sat for an hour as the sun dipped below the mountain across the valley and lit up the horizon in color.

Twenty miles the next day ridge hiking to Cosby Knob Shelter. Then, bon voyage Smokies.

More to come later.

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