So Vertical, We’re Practically Horizontal
Up, Up, and More Up
Days 13-18: Franklin to Fontana
Feel the Burn
After a much needed rest in Franklin, we hopped back on trail on Day 13 at Winding Stair Gap to start going…you guessed it: back up. A controlled burn near the trail (trail stayed open) filled the area with light smoke, drying our throats. Muscles burning, we ascended the steep side trail to Silar’s Bald and were rewarded with 360* views. The remaining miles on trail were uphill, but the view from the historic Wayah Bald Observation Tower was worth the hike. Miles of mountain peaks stretched before us, and we could even see the smoke rising from the burn in the valley below. The day ended with a glorious sunset, which we enjoyed with friends at Wayah Shelter. Also, I did get a new sleeping pad (it’s yellow, so I dubbed it the Banana Boat) and enjoyed my first night back on trail not sleeping on the ground.
By a weird happenstance, Day 14 started out downhill. We enjoyed views from both Cooper Ridge and Rocky Bald on our way down to Tellico Gap. After we descended into the Gap, it was time to go back up. The view from Wesser Bald Observation Tower called to us, but our ticket to that view was paid for with sweat and exertion. Perched atop the Wesser Bald, the extraordinarily sketchy observation tower invited us to climb just a little bit higher. With rain threatening, I hastened up the tower, ignoring the rusted, loose railings and focusing instead on the platform above me. The views from the tower were amazing. For the second day in a row, we were treated to 360 degree views from the top of the world. Thankfully, the rain held off all day, but as our day drew to a close, the clouds descended.
Wind and Ridge Walks
I woke up on Day 15 to howling wind and driving rain shaking my tent. We decided to wait out the rain, and at almost precisely 9am, the sky’s faucet turned off and the sun emerged. We packed up camp and hit the trail. This section of trail was my favorite to date. We climbed onto a partially exposed ridge line with expansive views on both sides. I thoroughly enjoyed the rock scrambles, and I’ll admit that I even enjoyed navigating the blowdowns. For once, we were descending, and emerging from the woods at the NOC felt amazing.
UV Index: 8. Campsite: 18.
The nearly vertical ascent out of the NOC had been looming over us for days. On Day 16, it was finally time to conquer it. Lucky and Snapshot turned on the steam and powered up the mountain, shooting past me early in the day. Thankfully, Mountain Crusher waited for me to catch up, and he stuck with me all day. For hours, we baked under the sun as we steadily climbed up, up, up. It was like walking up the down escalator; it felt never ending. We scarcely enjoyed the view from Cheoah Bald as we struggled to catch our breaths under the sun’s rays. When we finally descended into Locust Cove Gap to set up camp, we found ourselves in a city. Fifteen tents and three hammocks were crammed into a campsite meant for six.
Above and Below
After an early morning climb out of Locust Cove Gap on Day 17, I was finally greeted by terrain that I could excel in: smoothly graded downhill switchbacks. I practically flew down into Stecoah Gap. In the Gap, I threw back a Honey Stinger packet and mentally prepared for the day’s challenge: Jacob’s Ladder. Unfortunately, it was no stairway to heaven. It was a massive hill with nearly vertical switchbacks. The grade was so vertical that I was practically hiking horizontal to keep my balance. I must have turned on beast mode for the climb because I conquered it in one go and rolled into the next shelter shortly behind Mountain Crusher. I was pumped! After we ate, we hit the trail again in the rain, but I had used up my energy for the day, and the last few miles were an honest struggle.
The Final Push
Just one more mountain! Day 18 was town day. Fontana Village was calling our names, and we were determined to answer. Up and over one more mountain. As we descended into the Fontana “Hilton” Shelter, we could see summer emerging before our eyes. Everything was lush and blooming. We had conquered the highs and the lows that lay between Franklin and Fontana, and we felt strong and confident. As we dropped into our last stop before the Smokies, we took a rest. We’d worked hard, climbed hard, and come out on top. Nothing like the vertical to make you appreciate the horizontal!
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