Week 9: Stairway to Hell

Double Spring Gap Shelter > Unicoi Gap

Days 57-63

Week 9 miles: 145.8

Total AT miles: 982.5

If you’ve been following along, you may have noticed a very long delay between posts (a delay of 880 trail miles to be precise). I have to admit that seeing the huge number of Trek bloggers posting this year made the whole thing seem kind of pointless. Why bother forcing myself to find time to update when so many great accounts of the AT, Pinhoti, and PCT are readily available?

Well, a couple of former colleagues and current friends reminded me that they aren’t generally interested in thru-hiking. They’re interested in my thru-hike (thanks for reading, Julia and Rachel!). So, I’m back at it. Fortunately I’ve been keeping detailed notes and just need to turn them into complete sentences.

The theme of this week was terrible, knee-destroying trail design.

The best piece of thru-hiking advice I received also came from a colleague. She had hiked a LASH (long-ass section hike) from VA through PA and said, “I wish I’d been as protective of my knees from the beginning as I was once they were injured.” Or something to that effect.

I took her advice to heart and my knees were doing great until I hit the hellacious stairs of southern NC and Georgia. Yes, the 32-mile day with 10,000 feet of descent to Fontana Dam didn’t do my knees any favors, but the real discomfort didn’t start until I hit all those log (and occasionally stone) stairs. Bad trail design isn’t just aesthetically unpleasing; it damages joints.

So here is my trail design advice reduced to its simplest form:

Switchbacks = good

Stairs = bad

I realize limitations like narrow easement corridors can sometimes prevent good design and force stair building. But often it seems that stairs are used by default, even in places where, with a little creativity, they could be avoided entirely.

Trail with green rhododendra in the background and golden beech leaves in the foreground

Pretty marcescent beech leaves brightening a gloomy day

Day 57: Double Spring Gap Shelter > Fontana Dam Shelter

February 27

31.7 AT miles (6299 ft up, 10,033 ft down)

Today was extremely windy: 30-40 mph with 45 mph gusts. And that was at the shelter, so probably even higher on the ridge. With the way the trail was oriented, the wind was almost always coming from my left. The light rain early in the day soaked just the left sides of both legs. I had to walk in a diagonal left line just to travel straight, and the occasional gusts would grab my pack and try to spin me around. I waited for the leeward side of the ridge to eat my snacks so they wouldn’t be ripped out of my hands.

The bald spots on the ridge between Thunderhead and Rocky Top were especially tricky. No vegetation blocked the wind, and the trail between the tufts of grass was only about six inches wide. Not nearly wide enough to accommodate the stance needed to be stable in the gusting wind.

In addition to wind exposure, following the ridge most of the day meant needing to descend for water. I’ve been spoiled with easy water access throughout my hike. Regular precipitation has meant that I can almost always collect water flowing across or right beside the trail. Today I had two short but very steep descents for water, and those were chosen for comparatively easy access.

Despite the challenging conditions, I felt great until around mile 27, but my knees and feet definitely weren’t happy with the last few miles of the long, long decent to Fontana Dam. Fortunately I already had a nero planned for tomorrow.

Misty trail through the woods

The Smokies living up to their name

Day 58: Fontana Dam Shelter > Yellow Creek Gap

February 28

7.5 AT miles (2726 ft up, 1558 ft down)

I didn’t have a great stay at the “Fontana Hilton,” as the spacious shelter is known because of its beautiful location and amenities like potable water and a nearby bathroom with showers. The shelter seems to attract local riffraff as well as thru-hikers. On the bright side, after a night listening to drunken snoring, I didn’t feel particularly bad about the unavoidable noise of packing up early.

The short hike to Yellow Creek Gap started with some lovely views of Fontana Lake, followed by a mix of good and bad trail up and over a few hills. Neros can be tough because I feel like I should just be there already, whereas when I plan to hike all day I don’t pay much attention to how quickly the miles are passing. This nero seemed to drag on forever even though I arrived at the gap 45 minutes ahead of schedule and well before noon. Mother Nature was kind to me and waited until I was off trail to start the day’s downpour.

View of a lake with mountains in the background

Fontana Lake

Day 59: Yellow Creek Gap > Rufus Morgan Shelter

February 29

22.4 AT miles (5541 ft up, 6394 ft down)

I was in great spirits after a very comfy night and enormous delicious breakfast at Creekside Paradise B&B, though petting their adorable pups was probably the highlight. They weren’t supposed to bother me when I was at the table, so they’d wait until their humans left the room to come put their heads on my leg, presumably hoping for food but content with pats.

Today was again a mix of well- and poorly designed trail, including way too many log stairs. I’ll probably need to do lower miles in this section, since it sounds like the really smooth trail following elegant lines up, down, and around the mountains is finished until I get to the PCT. We were, however, fortunate to have a partly sunny day between two days of rain.

I passed a ton of NOBOs today, though there was only one person in the shelter and a tent nearby when I arrived at camp this evening. I decided to set up my tent because I was arriving after dark and it looked like the shelter dweller was already asleep. This turned out to be an excellent decision — I could hear him snoring from my campsite 50 yards away!

Delicate ice crystals against a background of dirt and leaves

An exceptionally clean example of needle ice

Day 60: Rufus Morgan Shelter > Siler Bald Shelter

March 1

22.9 AT miles (7418 ft up, 4908 ft down)

As you can see, there was a lot of elevation gain today, but fortunately the majority of it came early on. I don’t usually look too closely at the day ahead, so I was surprised to find myself hiking uphill for hours on end through rain and dense fog. The trail followed a narrow ridgeline that must offer expansive views in both directions when it isn’t inside a cloud.

I stopped at Cold Spring Shelter for what I think was my first sit-down lunch break since the Grayson Highlands. I’d already eaten the few snacks that were easy to consume under my poncho and was planning to shovel in the rest of the day’s rations while protected by a roof. I joked to the other hiker who was doing the same that I was eating more than today’s share of reese’s pieces but that I thought it was important for morale given the terrible weather. Turns out he was taking the same approach with his jelly beans.

Today’s section again had way too many tall log stairs for my poor knees, so I was glad to take a break and walk a parallel forest service road for a couple of miles when I had the opportunity.

I thought I might have Siler Bald Shelter to myself because it was down a long side trail, but I guess the rain was motivation enough to make the trek. There were four other hikers at the shelter when I arrived after a slow descent during which I could barely see because my headlamp light bounced off the fog no matter which setting I used. They’d pretty much filled up the available space but were good natured about scooting over to include a fifth.

Several of them had hiked various long distance trails, so I had a nice time chatting with them and hearing about their adventures. I especially enjoyed how charmed a woman who had only hiked out west was by all the southeastern flora.

Narrow trail in dense fog

Narrow ridge with expansive views of the inside of a cloud

Day 61: Siler Bald Shelter > Standing Indian Mountain

March 2

26.3 AT miles (5650 ft up, 4797 ft down)

Today was a very fun day on trail, and looking back, I’m amazed that I had time for a marathon’s worth of hiking when I mostly remember a lot of hanging out.

Other hikers in the shelter started to get packed up early, so I followed their lead and managed to get going not long after sunrise. The weather was still foggy and drizzly when I started out, but the precipitation stopped soon and the clouds started to clear by mid morning.

Around that time the NOBOs I was passing started letting me know that there was trail magic from Fresh Ground at Rock Gap. Fresh Ground is a legend on trail for feeding hikers all over the AT from his mobile kitchen. The reports featured blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, and although I’m not a big pancake person, I was still pretty excited for the treat.

Trail magic setups with food for hikers at the gaps, where roads access the trail, are pretty common on the southern part of the trail during the peak NOBO hiking season. Not surprisingly, no one was sitting out there in January in Virginia, so I hadn’t yet experienced this aspect of trail culture. I tried not to get my hopes up too high, however, because I knew it was possible he’d be packed up before I got there.

Well, I totally lucked out! Fresh Ground had just wrapped up breakfast and was getting the chili started for lunch, so he asked if I wouldn’t mind a stir fry instead. While I would have gratefully accepted and probably enjoyed the pancakes or chili, getting a dish I actually like off-trail was amazing. Even better, when he heard I was SOBO and had hiked from Harpers Ferry, he knew that meant hiker hunger was in full swing (unlike the NOBOs who were only 100 miles in) and gave me three times as much food as everyone else.

That giant mound of stir fried veggies was heaven on a plate, especially the broccoli, which was the best I’ve ever had.

Fresh Ground was being assisted by a past AT thru-hiker, Lost and Found, who was visiting the trail for a bit before starting her Continental Divide Trail hike. The two of them informed me that I was only six miles from the 100 mile mark atop Albert Mountain and decided that the milestone deserved a celebration. So Fresh Ground sent Lost and Found and I off to Albert Mountain with some trail beers (from a personal stash purchased for guests visiting that evening — the nonprofit Fresh Ground trail magic operation is alcohol free). Lost and Found insisted on carrying them, so not only did I get celebratory trail beers, I didn’t even have to carry them.

I had a great time hiking and celebrating with Lost and Found. As with the cool hikers at the shelter last night, spending time with her helped turn some of the dread of crossing the AT bubble and later being part of the PCT bubble into excitement for all the great people I’ll be meeting. Wonderful trail magic all around!

Later that afternoon I also had the opportunity to pay it forward a bit. I stopped at Carter Gap Shelter for a quick visit to the privy and met a hiker who was running low on food. She’d gotten so wet and cold in yesterday’s rain that she’d had to stop early and so was going to get to town a day later than expected. I was so full after my Fresh Ground visit that I hadn’t eaten any of my snacks today, which I was happily able to pass along to tide her over.

View of far-reaching hills with a blue sky and clouds

View from Albert Mountain — only 100 miles to Springer!

Day 62: Standing Indian Mountain > Dick’s Creek Gap

March 3

18.3 AT miles (3389 ft up, 6201 ft down)

I woke up perfectly positioned for the first rays of sun to shine directly into my tent and the next to finish drying my stuff on the clothes line I’d strung up between two trees. I’d arrived atop the mountain after dark and just selected the first flat spot I saw, so my ideal positioning was a happy surprise.

While I soaked up the sun and lazily packed up camp, I decided I would see if I could check into my next planned hostel a day early and slackpack (hike with just dayhiking supplies) for a day, something they’re willing to facilitate for free as part of a two-night stay. My knees have been bothering me way more than usual the past few days because of the excessive stone and log stairs installed to compensate for the poorly routed trail.* I figured the lighter load for a day might help them recover a bit.

I was basically already slackpacking in my mind by the time I got to an overlook with a cell signal and took my phone off airplane mode to update my hostel reservation. Instead however, I received a text from the hostel owner letting me know she had a family emergency and would have to cancel my stay. I was amazed how generous she was with her mental energy to send me a detailed explanation of other options and plans for me to get my package when she was in the middle of dealing with something much more important.

Fortunately, Hostel Around the Bend was up ahead at the next gap, had space for me, and also offered slackpacking. Unfortunately, the package containing my three-season hiking clothes so I could get out of these much too warm fleece-lined running tights seemed to have disappeared into the void after being recorded as leaving Philadelphia last week.


View of distant hills with fog in the valleys

A cloudy morning down below but sunny up on the mountain

* I promise this is the last of my whining on this topic, even if the stairs continue next week.

Day 63: Unicoi Gap > Dick’s Creek Gap

March 4

16.7 AT miles (4829 ft up, 5115 ft down)

I was NOBO for a day! Hostel Around the Bend makes a shuttle run to Unicoi Gap in the morning, so it made more sense for me to hike north back to Dick’s Creek Gap from there. Between the light pack and a delicious breakfast with plenty of coffee at the hostel, I was flying down the trail and today’s hike only took a few hours.

Another hiker slackpacking with me was my complete opposite in hiking style. It was fun to see the contrast. She was slow going uphill and then would run the downhills, something I was shocked to learn she does even with a full pack. My pace, on the other hand, is fairly consistent because I’m faster than average going uphill but slower than average going downhill. All of my hiking injuries have happened on the descent, so I tend to pick my way carefully down the rocky trail.

Rather than have us repeatedly leapfrogging, I would stop for a water break whenever I saw I was going to pass her on the uphill (which later became pee breaks because I was drinking so much water). This worked out great because I easily caught up with her just before the gap so we could share a shuttle back to the hostel.

I had plenty of time that afternoon to do laundry, shower, and resupply at the hostel’s little store. I was amazed how much gear they were able to pack into a small space and what good prices they were offering. Hostel Around the Bend would be a great resource for NOBO hikers who are still figuring out their gear, especially since they also buy and sell used gear, which could lessen the blow of having to change things up early in a thru-hike.

Sign saying: Do not let the cats inside (no matter what they tell you!)

My favorite hostel sign so far. I could see why that second line was needed — those cats were really selling it!

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Comments 3

  • Sol Moure : Apr 26th

    I’m so glad to have another great read about your travels! If you want to hear the truth, there’s a little army of us always waiting for your next trail recount and happy to start a meeting debriefing about it! I specially loved that you got a mountain of veggies for your first trail magic experience!

  • Chicory : Apr 26th

    I really appreciate your blog and am glad that you are back at it, Somewhere! Have been following since February in preparation for my AT flip flop thru hike this year. You share unique observations and details that have been very helpful and inspirational. Cheers!

  • Nature Boy : Apr 29th

    Good to hear from you again, Somewhere! Was afraid we’d lost you….
    Wow, conditions will be so different for you once you get back to Virginia!


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