The Tale of Frozen Boots (3/19, 3/20, 3/21)
Day 22, 3/19: Mt Collins shelter -> Gaitlinburg, TN (4.3 miles)
Last night was the coldest night I’ve slept through. My feet were so cold all night I thought one of my zippers was open on my sleeping bag. My feet weren’t cold because a zipper was open, they were cold because the temperature dropped into the teens. We all woke this morning with all of our wet gear completely frozen solid. Our wet boots were blocks of ice. Our water bottles were frozen through and through. Our previously wet socks were stiff when we picked them up. It was a disaster. We spent over an hour just warming up our boots with our hands and feet enough to pry them open so they’d fit our feet. Once we got our feet in them, they weren’t warming up and it felt like we were going to get frostbite.
All of the people planning to hike past Gatlinburg decided to do a nero and hike the 4 miles into town. We needed a place to legitimately dry out our clothes and boots and mentally recover from the morning. Earlybird had already left, but the rest of us made plans to hike to Newfound Gap and either hitch or call a ride into town.
Caboose, Engine, and Captain left early while I was still trying to warm my stupid boots. When I finally got them on my feet, I hiked out with JAM. I was wearing my micro spikes because all the slush from yesterday turned the trail into a big block of slippery ice. The micro spikes worked surprisingly well, despite them occasionally popping off my feet. I tried to check my feet every few steps to make sure they were still on there.
Even with micro spikes it was slow hiking. It was really cold out but the forest was beautiful and white. Most the fir trees had accumulated frost overnight. I hiked alone and tried to appreciate the beauty in the forest instead of focusing on my frustrations of having to go into town unscheduled and how cold my feet were.
Towards the last mile or so, I realized my left foot started slipping. I checked and sure enough, my micro spike wasn’t on my foot. I panicked and started backtracking uphill. I remember having both on when I walked over a metal grate a few tenths of a mile back, so I backtracked to the grates. I didn’t find the stupid micro spike, but I did find JAM, Molasses, and Tiptoe. I walked back down the trail, looking off the steep side of the mountain, and sure enough, my micro spike was sitting 2 feet down the mountainside. It’s a miracle it didn’t fall further. I happily put both spikes on and continued my hike.
At Newfound Gap, JAM, Tiptoe, Molasses, and I tried hitching into town, but after a few minutes we found an Uber driver dropping some hikers off, so we got an easy ride into town. Our hotel rooms weren’t ready, so we walked down to meet the others at 5 Guys. After an incredible burger, we went to Baskin Robbins for ice cream. This made our painful morning feel like a distant memory.
After filling up on food, we walked through town with our packs and tourists stared. We did not blend in well. When our rooms were finally ready, we showered and hung out until it was dinner time. Tiptoe and I went for resupply at Walgreens and then met the others at the Mellow Mushroom. We all sat at a big table and gorged on pizza. We ate so much pizza so fast that tourists took pictures of us! I’m not sure if we should be flattered or ashamed.
Back at the hotel, we drank beer and all the hikers hung out in our room. It was great having everyone together (minus Earlybird). Afterwards, I packed and rearranged my gear. Tomorrow we’re leaving bright and early for the trail to squeeze in a 16 miler. Hopefully the trail conditions are good and not too slippery. We’ll be at 6,000+ ft elevation so unfortunately we’ll probably see some ice.
Day 23, 3/20: Gaitlinburg, TN -> Tri Corner Knob shelter (15.1 miles)
I woke up at 6am sharp this morning despite going to bed at 1am. I packed up the rest of my stuff and met the others for the Uber to take us to the trail. Breakfast was leftover pizza which was delicious.
We had two Ubers that came early to take me, Caboose, Engine, Captain, Friendly Ghost, Beetle, Rash, and Pinata to the trail. The drive up was windy and we saw wild turkeys! We all started hiking together and slowly spread out. In the first mile, we came across the brother and sister from Maine who we’ve met before, but they were hiking southbound to get off the trail. The brother tore his Achilles and needed time to recover. It’s really sad seeing hikers get off trail. Every one of us knows how much work and planning goes into a dream like this, and to have it cut short is tragic.
The initial few miles were very icy and slippery. Caboose and Engine stopped to put on their spikes, but I was fairing well without mine so I continued on. Caboose and I joked that I was channeling my inner billy goat, hopping from rock to rock to avoid the ice. We hiked together with Captain for a while and then spread out again.
We met back again at Charlie’s Bunion, a short blue blaze trail with a spectacular view. We could see Captain’s orange shirt in the distance so we took pictures of him with Beetle and Friendly Ghost on the rock.
After the initial few miles of ice, the trail dried up and became easily hikable. What a huge difference it makes in my hiking speed. We had some beautiful views today and the weather wasn’t too cold. It started sprinkling so I stopped to put on my rain gear, but we never got a downpour. The forests were serene and wonderful to hike in, and I realized this must be why people love hiking the Smokies (when it’s not blizzard conditions!).
After the nice hiking conditions most of the day, the last 1.5 miles were a pure sheet of ice. There was no bank to walk on either. I was being stubborn and didn’t get out my micro spikes, and I wish I had. I was moving at a snail’s pace, and all I wanted to do was get to the shelter and take off my pack.
I rested on a downed tree and took some Ibuprofen since my shoulder was bothering me where my pack strap was pushing. I was exhausted, wet from the misting rain, and my pack (which had felt light as a feather all day) felt like a ton of bricks. I only had a little ways to go but motivating myself was hard.
When I finally got to the shelter, Earlybird was there with Caboose, Engine, Friendly Ghost, and Beetle. We also met Boots, Beeline, and 50 Shades. I was so exhausted that I took off my pack and sat on the bench for a few minutes staring off into space just to mentally recover enough from the day.
I think I’m starting to find the sweet spot between the amount of food I eat and how comfortable I am hiking. The more calories I take in, the less grumpy I am, and the more enjoyable the hike. Tonight after I recovered enough to get out my cookpot, I ate 2 dinners (a packet of ramen and a teriyaki noodle dish), 4 small candy bars, pecans, and trail mix. I hung my food bag and lay in my sleeping bag chatting with Caboose and Captain, and realized I’m still a little hungry.
Just as the sun was setting none other than T-Rex, JAM, and Tiptoe rolled into the shelter! We were really excited to see them.
It sounds like some people are trying for Standing Bear tomorrow which is a heavy 17-18 miles, so I think I’ll stop at the nearer shelter. I used to be sad hearing everyone’s hiking plans for the next day because we usually plan to hike to different shelters and that means our little group is disbanding, but there are fewer and fewer people out here I don’t recognize, so hopefully whichever shelter I go to I’ll see familiar faces.
Day 24, 3/21: Tri Corner Knob shelter -> Davenport Gap shelter (14.8 miles)
This morning I woke up because Earlybird was packing up but also because I was too hot! I was amazed. After all the times of waking up freezing, finally I woke up too warm. I was wearing two bottom layers so I took one off and went back to sleep, listening to the rain on the shelter roof.
When the sun came up we started packing up. Beeline and Boots stayed behind to wait out the rainy weather it was calling for today, but the sun was shining for now, so I headed out around the same time as Rash and Pinata. We had a small steep climb from the shelter and ran into a 1/4 mile of ice, but after that the trail was ice free. Today’s elevation profile had a long slow descent of 3,000 feet.
Since it was warm starting off at the shelter, I wasn’t wearing my fleece tights or my synthetic puffy, but I was wearing my rain pants and rain jacket. I was comfortable starting out, but as the elevation dropped and I hadn’t felt more than a misting of rain, I started getting too hot. I shed my rain gear, but I was feeling like the day was going to be hot so I also shed my thin fleece pullover. I’ve only hiked without the fleece twice since I’ve been on the trail. Today ended up being the hottest day I’ve had so far, which is crazy because only 2 days ago was my coldest day.
Today’s hike was warm and sunny, requiring both sunglasses and suntan lotion. There were lots of views and the trail was beautiful with birds chirping and a few flowers blooming. I even saw a snake on the trail sunning himself (that makes snake #2 I’ve seen).
I was tired but not completely spent coming into the shelter. There were 2 fast hikers that passed me with less than a mile to the shelter (Fresh and Karaoke) who were the first ones in before me. I’d seen them before but I didn’t know them well, so I set up my gear with the intention that no one in my little crew was going to show.
A little while later, Rash, Pinata, T-Rex, Tiptoe, and JAM showed up! Also Half Price (middle aged British guy from Arizona) who was with us at the last shelter. We all set up in the shelter while T-Rex and Tiptoe gathered wood, having fun smashing the logs to break them into fireplace sized pieces.
We cooked dinner (I ate ramen, 3 packages of grits, several small candy bars, a lot of trail mix, and some cheese) and I called Louis since I had reception. Tiptoe, T-Rex, and The Machine played dice and cards, and then I joined for Egyptian Rat Screw which I lost to T-Rex. Tiptoe and T-Rex started the fire from all their hard work of wood gathering from embers that were still burning from a previous fire.
We all chatted in the light of the fire, with Tiptoe and T-Rex doing the bulk of the talking. During our conversation, it started to downpour and thunder/lightening. This shelter has a chainlink fence instead of a tarp for the 4th side, so we could see and hear the thunderstorm. After we ran out of wood for the fire we got in our sleeping bags and listened to the thunderstorm from the warmth and coziness of our bags.
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