Smokey Mountain Breakdown: Part I
Temperatures were dropping, rain chances increasing, and our elevation would be going drastically up. Day 19 was an ominous morning. Many hikers were planning to wait out the bad weather at the Fontana Hilton, but tomorrow would be even worse meaning two days lost and even more dollars lost to nachos. So we tried our luck.
Crossing over Fontana Dam a ranger asked us for the bottom halves of our permits. He made a positive remark about Kyle’s sandals, and we took it as a good sign that at least the ranger wasn’t too concerned about the thick grey clouds above us. Before long we had officially entered the Great Smokey Mountain National Forest. We hiked fast and hard, so hard we were short on water, hoping to reach the first shelter before the rain did.
It’s important to note the special nature of the Smokies. They’re the most regulated section of the trail, requiring permits and forbidding camping outside shelters. There’s a whole system of priority as to who sleeps in a shelter and who tents it when a shelter is full. If a regular hiker with a reservation shows up to a full shelter in the middle of the night, the last thru-hiker in is supposed to stagger outside and set up their tent. We weren’t particularly excited about the crowded, mousey shelters to come.
We hiked up and up and the rain never came. In fact, the weather seemed so good that we pushed past the first shelter to the second, making a 13.9 mile day. We met two more thru-hikers there, Turbo (cuz he’s fast) and Heavyweight (ironic name), both Virginia Tech grads who met on the trail. Heavyweight we quickly learned was a master and enthusiastic fire builder; he insisted on dry wood and stoked that thing into an inferno. They roasted some enviable dogs. We soon met another group of hikers: Knock, Cliff, Burnout, Scout, Gumby, and Gruffalo.
After dinner a Boy Scout troop passed through back towards the first shelter. Bad news for the thru-hikers set up in there! We slept fine in our shelter, listening to the long awaited storm roaring at the roof.
By morning we had two inches of snow and slush and a white cloud of h2o that couldn’t decide if it was a gas or a liquid. Water bottles froze in the night.
Rain and wind stung us from the side as we trudged forth that day. Our feet were soaked through and only warmed while moving. Those endowed grew beardcicles.
We settled on a shelter 9.2 away, though we could have pushed on. Heavyweight stayed with us while Turbo advanced with the others. We heard stories of all the hikers pushed out of the first shelter by the boy scouts at 7pm last night. Then a party of seven overnight hikers showed up at our shelter, and we began to worry. More and more thru hikers arrived until we had 18 for a 12 person space. Temperatures were suspected to plummet. Fortunately it was an amenable crowd and all were squeezed, shoulder to shoulder. That night hit a low of 14°. I never felt quite warm enough in my bag and liner and jacket. But I managed to sleep well enough.
That night yet more snow fell, leaving four inches average with 1-2 foot drifts. But it was clear. Heavyweight and we carried on through a day of crystal. Icy cold but up on the 6,000ft Smokey ridge the vista sprawled with pine and white so infinitely finely into the distance it hinted at that fabric of all things at once.
We hiked to the top of the highest point on the AT: Clingman’s Dome and it’s awesome observation tower.
Where we encountered a park ranger and the first of a stream of tourists. The ranger had just opened the road and path up to this tower for the Spring season. The ranger checked our permits and offered us a ride to Newfound Gap because the shelter ahead was already full and tonight would be dropping to zero. A knot and a sword to go with it! We rode down the mountain in the back of a ranger car like a trio of smelly rapscallions.
And just as we were wondering how to find a ride at the gap a man named Mark “Godspeed” Booth loaded us in his pickup with sodas and sandwiches. Trail magic. Turbo showed up just in time with two more thru-hikers, PeaceDawg and Dancemove (or Dansmooth), and we bruised it into Gatlinburg for the night.
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