Surviving the Snow in the Smoky Mountains
No question, the Smokies are a tough section of the Appalachian Trail. The terrain is rugged, the climbs are steep, and the bail-out points are few. But what makes them really tricky is the unpredictable weather.
Arriving in Fontana, I had sweat through every piece of clothing I owned. Temperatures in the 70s, full sun, no leaf cover, left me dehydrated and sunburnt. But that was all about to change. Hikers talk about three things: mileage, food, and weather. A winter snap was heading in, and the hiker anxiety was palpable at the Fontana Lodge. All conversations focused on everyone’s hiking plans. Are you going in the storm? Are you going to skip ahead and come back to this section? Did you hear the latest weather reports? Around and around we went.
From the start of my hike, I had planned to zero in Gatlinburg. Part of my reason for being out here was to explore the US a bit, and nobody does tacky tourism like we do and I love it, and Gatlinburg puts all our crazy on display in one mile-long main street.
The first half of the Smokies was the only thing standing between me and my zero of fun. But now I had to factor in this approaching storm. Snow doesn’t scare me. I spent the last few winters in Ukraine, and prior to my hike bought a home in western Massachusetts. My last training hike was on extremely icy trails. And I had already spent the last several weeks sweating my nights out in my winter hiking gear and cold weather quilt.
However, hiker anxiety can be insidious and extremely contagious. With every well-intentioned yet patronizing opinion regarding my decision to hike into the storm, I started to second guess my own skillset and confidence. Fortunately, my fiery side started to fight back, and I began to get angry. I am not on this trail to receive other people’s negativity, in any form. By the time I started to climb out of Fontana, I was pissed off and determined. I had taken a very sober assessment of my gear, my skill set, my hiking ability, and my cold-weather experience. I was as prepared as I could be.
My main goal was to hike around others, so if the storm was as bad as predicted, I could hunker down with them and not try to get through it alone. I had no idea then just how amazing that decision would turn out to be.
Meg was loaded down with extra food and my feet hated the extra weight. When I showed up at the Derrick Knob shelter the day before the storm, I admit my spirits were down. That quickly changed as I met the other eight people I would end up sharing the shelter with. We were all different ages. We came from different levels of experience. Some of us kept hiking to stay ahead of the traffic jam of hikers in Fontana. Some of us kept hiking because we couldn’t afford to stay back. Some of us kept hiking for the simple thrill of the challenge. But all of us were determined to see this storm through.
Those first to the shelter had cleared the surrounding forest floor of every scrap of wood to keep a fire going if we needed it. Then we set to the task of hanging tents, groundsheets, footprints, and rainflies to block the wind that was supposed to bring the most danger with sub-zero wind chills. We went to bed that night, four on the bottom bunk, five on the top, and waited for the storm to arrive. Being on the top bunk, I was more worried about the roof leaking in the rain, so when I felt cold drops on my face, I didn’t even open my eyes, I just slid my mat a little closer to the next person and ducked under my quilt. When we woke the next morning, we realized that the rain didn’t get in, but the snow did. The five of us on the top bunk were dusted with varying levels of snow. OK, cold winter storm day coming in. Fire was made, things were dried as best as they could, fingers and toes were warmed. Then began the next very long, very cold 24hrs.
So, what do you do when you’re snowed in on a mountain at almost 5000ft in a three-sided shelter for that long? Depends on the people. And we had the very best.
You meet a lot of different personalities out here. There are some that mesh well with you, and some that just grate on your every nerve. It is nothing short of a miracle that we had such a cohesive group of personalities for those days. Everyone pitched in. Some braved the water runs, others made sure the fire kept going, some kept us entertained and positive, others checked in on each other, reminding us to eat and hydrate and move and make sure all our fingers and toes were the right color.
Out of nine of us, only one had any sort of cell service (it would be another 36 hours before we discovered Verizon connected about 200 yards further up the trail), so we each sent out brief texts to loved ones to let them know we were OK. We told stories, we read books aloud, we told jokes. We had impromptu dance parties to keep us moving and warm. We gave each other pep talks when nature’s call had to be answered and then rotated spots around the fire to make sure everyone was able to warm up when they returned. We learned way too much about each other’s bowel functions. But most importantly, we stayed positive and, dare I say, had a lot of fun. It was truly a team effort.
After the previous night’s show, we decided to move everyone down to one bunk. After all, the really cold temps had yet to arrive. Fun fact, you can absolutely fit nine people on one bunk. We put ground sheets on the top bunk to keep wind and snow squalls from coming through and used what was left of our tents to block the wind from the higher points in the shelter. Fortunately, fate provided us with a rock climber amongst us who was able to spider monkey up the side of the shelter with ease. That night I slept better than I have since I set foot on Springer Mountain.
The next day was clear and cold. We assessed the situation and decided on a plan for all of us.
Waking up the next day and seeing a clear blue sky was simply amazing. One of us set out to check the condition of the trail and came back reporting on the depths of snowdrifts and ability to see the blazes on the trees in the snow. We knew with the storm passing, the floodgates of hikers at Fontana would open. Did we dare start hiking to stay ahead? Without any knowledge of what conditions other shelters were in after the snow, it was a tough decision. In the end, we chose to stay put one more day. We had plenty of wood for a fire, something that was not guaranteed when we would arrive at the next shelter with cold, soaking wet feet. The day was going to get above freezing, and the sun would melt the snow off the trees at least, making blazes easier to find. Let that sun take care of some of the snow on the ground, too. While the stronger hikers among us probably would have been fine, we made the decision that we would stay together. Nine solo hikers showed up at Derrick Knob, but we were now a team.
The decision to wait it out was made. Now what?
In some ways, the second day was harder than the first. We are hikers after all. We have become uncomfortable with sitting still. Cabin fever started to set in and we all became a little silly. OK, a LOT silly. As soon as temperatures were above freezing and the sun was shining strong, everything was brought out to dry out and warm up, including us. Snowball fights were had, Derrick the Snowman was created. Games were played, bodies were warmed up and stretched. The vloggers amongst us documented our adventure.
We all smiled and laughed, but the desire to get moving again was real and palpable. Two zero days in any conditions have hiker legs wanting to move. We started sorting our communal piles of gear and organizing our packs to set out early for a big following day. We ate extra food to make our packs lighter. We sent out last messages to family to let them know our plans. Eventually a day hiker/trail runner showed up and confirmed our concerns about the snowdrifts. We had made the best decision for all of us. As night finally arrived, because of course all of this had to happen over daylight savings weekend, we celebrated with a larger fire and we settled in for a ‘cozy’ 25-degree night, comfortable enough with our nine member family to see no reason to spread out now that the danger had passed.
Heading out and breaking trail.
We had decided to hike as a group. Strongest groups of 3 in the front and back, slowest (like me) in the middle. The goal was roughly 13 miles to the Mt Collins shelter, a lot of mileage for some of our group. There were several waypoints and shelters along the way, and we decided to take it one shelter at a time, knowing we would be breaking trail but not knowing just how deep the snow would be.
I have to admit, I was a little sad when the last rainfly came off the shelter and we said goodbye to our temporary refuge, but mile 200 was on the menu and we were pumped. We left the shelter with the same determination that we had when we first hiked into the Smoky Mountains. We stayed pretty close together to the first shelter, out of breath at the work it took to hike in the snow, realizing we could have made it the day before, but also glad we stayed where we had firewood.
We cheered each other on and kept moving all the way up to the breathtaking views of Clingmans Dome and finally made it to Mt Collins shelter as the temperatures started to drop again in the late afternoon. But now we were a group of eight, as our fastest decided to get into Newfound Gap. I need to mention he was also the oldest of the bunch. And an absolute badass. As we gathered at the shelter, we met a new face who promptly announced he was our worst nightmare. He meant because he was the first of the Fontana flood of hikers. After what we had all just gone through, a hiker bubble is hardly scary.
Magic was with us all along.
We had one baby hiker amongst us. A section hiker, just out for a shakedown hike in the Smokies. She was the one with cell service. And snacks! And games. Most importantly, she had someone to pick her up at Newfound Gap. A couple trips later, all of us were resupplying and doing our town chores in Gatlinburg, but you could tell we didn’t quite want to say goodbye to one another just yet. Since I already had planned my zero in Gatlinburg, I had a room, and sure enough, a hiker trash pile of gear explosions and wet towels and sleeping hikers soon followed. Honestly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
So what did I learn?
Trust your gut. Have confidence in yourself. And sometimes, just when you need it, the trail will absolutely provide. Long live the #Derrickknob9
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What a great story! Thanks for posting about this- y’all will remember this part of your hikes forever. How wonderful ?
Thank you! We have truly become a little crew. We don’t all hike together, but we stay connected through texts regularly.
You are so inspiring – I love following your journey.
Totally enjoy your storytelling! Adventures like yours are why so many hope to one day hike a long trail thru hike.
wow I don’t think I could have done that, hoping snow doesn’t catch us out on the trail.
what a great story and i was glad to meet you. I just subscribed…happy trails!
You are an exceptional writer. I do not read all the blogs I signed up to follow, but your writings, your tales, your spirit is hard to neglect.
Thanks for sharing- the good and the bad- aka “the real”.
Wow, thank you! I am humbled.
I’m so happy the Derrick Knob 9 made it through and did it together. This is a great story- an enjoyment to read. Thank you for sharing in such a fun and eloquent way.
I stayed in Fontana Dam village, leaving early first day after temperature drop, met 1 of the dirty 8 I think they were calling themselves.
Also 1 guy qho was on mollys ridge shelter on his own, wish I had gone up.