Monday, April 20, 2009

Smokies Mis-Adventure

This is the trip I wrote about earlier. Greg and I have been planning it for a while now. Laura gave me the green light for one last multi-day trip before Gabriel's due date arrived. We planned a 4 day, 3 night trip in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As the jump off day arrived, wouldn't you know the weather forecast brought us bad news. Spring weather had been in the air for a solid month now, but our week of hiking included the Smokies' last winter storm. Of course! We could expect nightly lows in the single digits, daytime highs no better than mid-40s AND heavy snow that would turn into heavy rain and thunderstorms late in the week. I have always thought the fear of thunderstorms is highly over-rated, but it's one of the top trail killers due to landscape and elevation factors. After only minor deliberation, we decided to press on.

Greg's plane was to arrive in Charlotte at around 4 pm, which would put us at our upscale Gatlinburg resort (or a Super 8 Motel) at around 8 or 8:30. Charlotte is only a 2 hour drive or so from the house, so I was planning to sleep in. At around 8 am the phone rang. I jumped out of bed to answer it. It was Greg. He missed his flight. He got a new flight that had a layover in Atlanta around 8 pm. We're still good. Atlanta is also about 2 hours from the house and we could be in Gatlinburg 4 hours after he touched down. Negative. I can't pick him up on a layover because his bag would still be on the plane. The airline was going to charge him like $1600 to change his flight to actually drop his bags in Atlanta. He wouldn't get to Charlotte until after 10, which would put us in Gatlinburg after 2 am. Our shuttle to the trailhead was scheduled to pick us up at 7:30. Awesome. By the time we got to Asheville, which is about halfway between Charlotte and Gatlinburg, we were already looking at not getting to bed until after 3. I had called the shuttle folks earlier and pushed our pick-up time back to 9:30. The real bad news was that, even though we weren't at any real elevation, the snow had already started falling. By the time we rolled into Gatlinburg 2 hours later, there was about a 3-inch layer on the ground. Not that big a deal. We got in the room and checked the weather report for the park. Snow was up to 14 inches on some peaks. Cancelling at this point really wasn't an option.

We woke up the next morning as late as we possibly could to still be ready for the shuttle pick up at 9:30. My phone rang at 9. The shuttle folks called with bad news. The park had closed all its roads to traffic. Even though the snow wasn't terrible, because the park stays so busy, anytime there is even slightly bad road conditions they have to close them. Our original plan of being dropped off at one end of the park and hiking back to the trail had to be changed. We decided to do it backwards. We would hike out of the hotel, and later thumb a ride back to the hotel. So with the snow only falling lightly that morning, we headed out of the parking lot on foot. Our destination was about 7 miles and 5500 feet away: Mt. Le Conte. We hiked up a road for the first 2 miles or so, gaining about 1500 feet. It was tiring, but the road wasn't collecting any snow, so the going was fairly easy. We finally reached the trailhead and were surprised to see a decent amount of traffic, despite the terrible conditions. Since technically we weren't in the park yet, most of our fellow hikers drove to the trailhead. Nonetheless, we headed up still feeling peppy and ready for a week of the best the Smokies had to offer.

Right at the trailhead sign we were passed by a guy with his two sons. He was probably late thirties, carrying limited gear. He asked where we were headed, and wanted to know if we planned on staying overnight. We told him our goal was Le Conte, and if time allowed we would take the 5.5 mile Boulevard Trail over to the Appalachian Trail and stay at the shelter there. He laughed. Literally laughed. My initial reaction when I run into people like this is to just stop talking to them and continue on with my hike. Greg, however, usually likes to go a little deeper. He wanted to see why the guy doesn't think we can reach it. The guy told us how he has hiked all over this mountain and he knows that when it is covered with fresh powder it is nearly impassible and that with our heavy packs it'll be more than we bargained for. Greg gives him a "you're an idiot" shrug, and we press on.

(forgive me for picture quality. I couldn't take my usual big honkin' SLR on this trip. Had to carry the ol' point and shoot. In this picture I had also just dropped it in the snow.)

The trail was beautiful. The snow had covered everything in white. A picture perfect stream tumbled alongside the trail. The trail itself hadn't collected much snow at this point, so tread was still good. My excitement for the journey ahead was keeping my mind off the pain that was already collecting in my thighs. Not long into the trail we passed a very cheery looking couple. After a few back and forth passes and small conversation at each pass, we finally introduced ourselves to each other. Rebecca and Larry. They were lightly packed and told us their destination was the Le Conte Lodge. Le Conte lodge, simply put, is a little slice of mountain nostalgia heaven on the second highest peak in the Smokies. It's a dining hall and an office surrounded by separate mountain shacks that are truly log shacks. Their only post 19th century amenity is a propane space heater.

(again, sorry for the fuzziness)

We passed Larry and Rebecca again at this small waterfall. We knew Rainbow Falls should be around here somewhere. Knowing that the falls was our halfway point, I asked anxiously if this was it, and Rebecca promised me we weren't near halfway. We slowed enough to grab a snack and Larry took this picture of us. We took a few sips of water, threw the packs back on, and kept on climbing. It wasn't too much later that we reached the real Rainbow Falls. At this point we were high enough that we kept getting these off and on bursts of high wind and snowfall. As soon as we would stop and put our weather gear on, it would stop. The trail was still in good shape, with only a few inches of packed snow. We had to climb past a family that had dropped their packs at the base of the falls for a snack. I was shocked to see that not only had they brought grandpa, they also had a daughter (about 12) and two boys (I would guess 10 and 7 years old). They appeared to be well-equipped though. They offered us some fruit and the dad told us about -15 degree temperatures at the summit the night before along with about 28 inches of snow. Me and Greg both laughed at how the further up the trail we got, the worse and worse the weather reports got.

We crossed below the falls on a skinny snow-covered log bridge and immediately the trail conditions got worse. This was obviously the turn-around point for many of the day hikers who had the trail pretty well packed down up to this point. Now we were more on our own, and prepared to make the final push to the summit. At around 5000 feet I hit my wall. My legs didn't feel terrible, but my body just wasn't letting me travel more than 30 to 50 yards at a time without a break. Now the trail conditions were really started to get bad. We had heard everyone talk about all the snow on the summit, but until now had seen no evidence of it. As slow as we were walking, somehow we were still passing people. Finally we reached a sign saying we were .6 miles from the lodge. Still passing a few slow hikers, we were met by two lodge workers checking up on hikers. They told us there was a warm stove in the dining hall and even those without reservations were welcome to come in and warm up. I think the thought of that warm stove was the motivation that got me up the last 300feet to the lodge.

Walking into this crappy little dining hall felt like walking right into the gates of heaven! We dropped our packs, took off all our weather gear, laid all the wet stuff near the stove, took a seat and started to thaw. It was still somewhat early in the day, probably no later than 4 p.m. Technically, we thought we had time to get across the 5.5 mile Boulevard Trail, but the energy just wasn't there. Not to mention that after walking onto the lodge grounds, we could see that the ground was covered in about 18 inches of snow. We decided this would be it for the day. Looking around, we found no sign of our nay-sayer friend we ran into at the trailhead who told us we couldn't make it up in these conditions. The dining hall was empty, except for one patron who had come up the day before and all the workers. They asked about anyone else headed up to the lodge. We told them about the family we passed at Rainbow Falls and an immediate feeling of worry came across all of them. A couple workers put on snow shoes and went to find the family. They came back about thirty minutes later carrying the small backpacks of the kids, and sweating profusely. One of the workers summoned anyone who could still walk to help with carrying the kids the rest of the way into the lodge. I was ticked at myself for not having enough energy to help, but Greg geared up and headed out with a couple other workers. Another half hour passed and they came rolling in with the most exhausted bunch of people I think I had ever seen. I helped the little guys get out of wet clothes and get set up near the fire. We later learned that the reason for such urgency on the part of the Le Conte Lodge staff was because, at this same time last year, a storm a little less extreme than the one we were in hit, and a man sat down at the sign that read ".6 miles to lodge". The next morning they found him frozen to death. He was wearing tennis shoes, blue jeans, and a cotton sweater.

Next on the schedule was dinner. Earlier, the lodge manager offered us one of the rooms. To get a room at this lodge you have to enter your name on the list on the first day it comes open, and even after that you have to get your name selected from a lottery pool. Its pretty hard to do. Larry and Rebecca told us that this was the fifth year they tried to get a room. So when he offered a room, he had my attention.. that was until he said it cost $120 per person. I reluctantly declined. After the mini rescue, he offered again, only this time he said it was on the house. Sweeeeeeet! Talk about a once in a lifetime deal falling in your lap. I immediately accepted, then turned to Greg. Greg, of course, felt the need to decline. He wanted to stay out in the shelter. Trail shelters almost always resemble a life size version of the stable from a nativity scene; three walls and a roof with one wall completely open to the elements, and on this mountain at this time of the year, there was no shortage of elements. In any other situation I would have went along with Greg. I would have declined the room and slept in my bag in the cold. But this, this was different. Declining that room wasn't even an option. I told Greg he was on his own, and I carried my pack to the cabin they let me stay in. That night we had a meal on the house, then parted ways for the evening.

I put all my wet clothes around the furnace, took some pain pills, and was out of it in a matter of seconds. The next morning I woke up and peeked outside the door. Even though we arrived early the evening before, the clouds kept all the mountain vistas hidden. Peeking out the door gave me my first glimpse of what makes Mt. Le Conte one of the Smokies' finest jewels.

After soaking all that in for a few minutes, I walked back up the dining hall for a delicious breakfast. The day before, me and Greg had sort of taken on a celebrity status amongst the other hikers. They thought we were crazy for hiking up all the way from town, with huge packs on, to stay in the shelter. Greg caught everyone's ear when he refused the room, so when I showed up, all the other patrons wanted to know if Greg survived the night. I laughed and told them I didn't know. They began serving breakfast when Greg finally rolled in. Applause broke out and he sat down, taking a glass of water and no food. We said our goodbyes to Rebecca and Larry and all the other people we had come to know over our short stay at the lodge. I ran up to the office to buy a T-shirt and took a couple more pictures from the deck. After that we were off to break trail on The Boulevard.


We had been politely warned by some of the Le Conte workers about The Boulevard. No one had been on it for the entire three day period of the snow storm. They told us how it was a ridge hike, meaning that it was exposed to elements from every angle. Also, when you hike on ridges, wind is always much worse than it is in other places. We expected it to be slow going, but we really didn't consider not going an option. Immediately after leaving the lodge the snow on the trail started to slow us down. A few tenths of a mile up the trail we passed the shelter Greg stayed in the night before, only reaffirming that I made the right choice by staying in the lodge.

It didn't take long to get out of the tree line and get our first 360 degree panorama of the Smoky Mountains. Those views were some of the best views I've experienced anywhere. The fresh powder added an artist's touch to an already surreal scene.

The further down the trail we got, the deeper the snow got. Often times we were hiking through drifts that were waist deep. After every step we had to take a break, swing your weight forward, pull your back leg out of the snow and swing it forward to take the next step. The going was slow across the entire trail, but in those sections it was super slow. The elevation change along the trail was minor. 5.5 miles like this would normally take us 3 hours, maybe less. We didn't reach the junction with the Appalachian trail until around 3 pm, 6 and a half hours after we started. Again we had to revamp our itinerary.

We were supposed to press on another 6 miles, cross Newfound gap and Hwy 441 and climb part of the way up to Clingman's Dome. Again, the snow got the best of us. We decided instead to just head down the trail in the opposite direction about two tenths of a mile to Icewater Spring Shelter. This was the first time Greg was completely onboard with cutting our day short. He led the way across the Boulevard, so he did all the trail breaking.

When we first got to the shelter, we had the place to ourselves. Honestly, in these conditions I didn't expect much of a crowd. Through the early part of the evening we had a couple of groups stop there for lunch, be they all pressed on. At about 6, a couple and their 7-year-old stopped in for the evening. Then a couple of AT thru hikers. Then another group of about 5 guys from Ohio. Then a couple more AT thru hikers. After the sun went down, still more AT hikers showed up. Before it was all said and done there were about 17 people crammed into that shelter for the night.

This picture was taken when we were still at only half capacity.

The crowd was less of a bother than I originally thought. It was interesting hearing the thru hikers talk about their adventures up to that point. By then most of them had been on the trail right at a month. They all agreed on one thing, the Smokies sucked. The elevation changes here are the worst of their entire trip. The other good part about sharing the shelter with them was that in the morning we didn't have to worry about listening to them anymore. They were fun, but one night was enough.

The next morning we took our time fixing breakfast and seeing off thru hikers. We caught a sunrise and packed up. The evening before, some of the snow started to melt, but it refroze overnight, once again ensuring that trail conditions were as far from optimal as possible. On the way down, a hot spot I had on my heel really started to get bad. I tried doctoring it a few times, but it just felt worse and worse. By the time we got down to Newfound Gap, it was so bad I couldn't walk. I took my shoes and socks off to have a look. A woman with a first aid kit came running over and tried to help. We got it taped up enough to make it stop hurting, but we still didn't know how it would hold up on our 3000 foot climb up to Clingman's Dome. We crossed 441 and headed up the AT. We made it a mere 500 feet in elevation, and probably no more than a mile or two when the blister dressing came off. Luckily the trail came back in contact with the road, and there was an area we could stop and take off our packs. Again, a woman with her family caught a glimpse of my heel and offered to give me a ride. I hated to do it, but I had to bail.

Greg wasn't very happy, but what could I do? I gave it a pretty good effort I thought. I probably pushed about three miles too far actually. I told Greg my hike was officially over. There was a couple of AT thru hikers there. I offered them all my trail food and took the lady up on her offer for a ride up to Clingman's Dome where I was going to meet Greg.

From here the rest of my trip in the Smokies consisted of thumbing rides, doctoring my blister, and taking in roadside views of the Smoky Mountains. Later that evening I picked up Greg from the top of Clingman's Dome. He decided to go ahead and go back to the hotel a night early with me. We grabbed a good steak dinner at Texas Roadhouse and crashed at the luxurious Super 8 Motel at an early hour.

The next morning we woke up to rain and thunderstorms. We knew Friday's forecast called for rain, but we both expected it to be evening showers. Had we been on the trail it would have been frozen snow on the ground, heavy rain falling from the sky, and lightning. I looked at Greg and said, "Not a bad move getting off the trail, huh?" Of course, he disagreed. We laid around for a while, and at about noon the rains finally let up. According to the Weather Channel we only had three hours or so of clear skies. We rushed up the road and took a short hike to Laurel Falls.

Even this short trip gave us a little something unexpected. The hike was along an asphalt paved trail with only slight elevation change. We were passing people of all physical ability levels. We got to the waterfall. It wasn't thirty seconds later when we heard a rumble, then a loud crash. The family that had just left the falls to return to the parking area came running back to the other side of the falls with pale faces. There was a rock slide right next to the falls. The rocks came from high above the trail, hit a free-fall of about 50 feet and crashed into the trail. It didn't stop there. The boulders were so big they went right through... yes through the asphalt trail, taking about 6 feet of dirt and rock from beneath the trail with it, down to the river below. The boulders missed us by less than thirty seconds, and they missed that poor family by a matter of inches. We went back to the ranger station and let them know of the damage to the trail. With the storm pressing in we decided to head back up to Clingman's Dome and see what it looked like in a hail storm.

From there we went back into town and completely destroyed a 20-inch pizza. We spent that evening recovering from our trip and walking around the crummy tourist town that is Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It was pretty cool to look up at the mountain that stood over the city and know that I climbed it. The next morning we packed up, stopped for pancakes at a diner that amounted to a glorified Waffle House and headed back to Charlotte Airport.

I got the vibe from Greg that he considered this trip a bit of a disappointment. I saw it coming. Anytime we don't go from start to finish on any trail, it's like a failure to him. We discussed how he puts more emphasis on covering ground than having a good time, like I do. To me, if having an enjoyable trip means 10 miles instead of the 15 we planned, I say do 10. Its a dilemma many hikers face. I got to stay at Le Conte Lodge for free, we saw the Boulevard Trail like only very few people ever have, and we spent some time in Gatlinburg laughing at the abundancy of white trash. The weather didn't agree with our itinerary, but I felt we still made the best of it. All in all I considered this one a success.

Not long after dropping Greg off, I got a call from my brother. He was cruising down 95 with his two kids, headed to the house. He said he should be in Columbia the same time I get there on my way home. No break on this weekend adventure.

To be continued....