WEEK # 3
My third week on the Appalachian Trail might be characterized as a prelude to the Great Smoky Mountains. Having been “at it” for two weeks, the hiking and camping were not unique, however, as I drew closer the prospect and anticipation of entering the Smokies, it became very real. That said, the week was filled with some special experiences, including
real winter hiking, the iconic Nantahala Outdoor Center, and a visit by my daughter Brooke.
3/7 (Day 12)
Snow! The temperature was 17 degrees and the snow was blowing as I started my hike at Wayah Gap. It was very solitary day hiking NOBO. (I did see a group of spring break girls hiking south, who still looked chilled from their overnight in the cold). [later rumor on the Trail was that someone died that night from hypothermia in this area.] Overall the climb up to Wayah Bald was beautiful, but cold. Maintenance personnel were atop the mountain working to repair 2016 fire damage, which destroyed an observation tower. I looked around and took photos, but it was much to bitter to linger.
After Wayah Bald (which is not “bald”), the trail was well-maintained and smooth for a long run where the temperatures moderated. Still I saw no other hikers. I finished the day with a climb over Rocky Bald and then down a long downhill into Tellico Gap. It was an excellent hike on a very cold and windy day, but I was comfortable with my balaclava and gloves.
I was shuttled back to NML where I had a great meal and then spent time on journal work, planning with Brooke, talking to Cheryl, and charging devices.
Very chilly start (20 degrees), but sunny. Snow flurries developed and became heavy at times, but I was dressed properly so it was a very pleasant hike. Interesting thing was how the snowflakes tickled my face. The first mile and a half was all uphill which allowed me to warm up. The sky threatened to clear, but the snow showers prevailed. The ridges and surrounding mountains were obscured by the snowflakes seemingly suspended in air. I’d never seen such light fine flakes. They reminded me of the driest dandelion after the dead flower releases its seeds after a youthful blow. I climbed up Wesser Bald and the observation platform, but the views were limited by the increasing snow flurries.
The day remained cold, but hiking with balaclava and gloves was pleasant. The descent into the Nantahala Outdoor Center was over 4 miles, but seemed like twice that. There were places, especially around and below “The Jumpoff” where the trail was both severely vertical and difficult to maneuver. It bordered on dangerous, even with caution. Before crossing the street to enter the NOC, I did get a little trail magic (a very cold beer) left by “The Crazy Brit.”
I finally arrived at the NOC in time to have a burger and look out over the river that serves as the center of and focal point for the NOC. Seeing the slalom gates hanging over different points on the river reminded me that I competed in some intercollegiate canoe races right there almost 40 years ago to the day.
While I picked up a resupply box, I ran into an old lawyer friend who retired from the law to guide rafting trips here at the NOC. l ate a Trailtopia dinner instead of the pizza I was craving because I was carrying too much food.
The climb north out of the NOC is well documented (in blogs, Trail Journals, YouTube, etc.) as a long very, hard slog out of the deep gap – 3,000 foot ascent from the NOC to Cheoah Bald (over 8 miles). Fortunately the weather was sunny, clear and cold. I had the treat of meeting my daughter at the end of the day. I got an early start and tried to prepare mentally for a tough day.
Initially the climb was surprisingly pleasant – I focused on a deliberate pace that was slow, but always moving forward without losing my breathe. A great trail brought the hiker up through a pine forest which was pleasant with birds singing (something unknown to thruhikers on my pace thus far) and the sound of the Nantahala River followed along the trail.
Even though the temperature was under 30 degrees, the hiking was most enjoyable as the trail design offered different experiences, from ridge walks to switching between the sunny and the shaded sides of the hills being climbed, the later offering rock outcroppings dripping in icicles, snow-covered hill sides and tunnels of Rhododendron.
Before I knew it I was within striking distance of the day’s gem – Cheoah Bald. Having completed five miles in four hours I was pleased, not because of the pace, but I had thoroughly enjoyed a hike reputed to be unwelcome. The remaining three miles to Cheoah Bald were tough, but the final approach of about a half a mile was a killer, among the toughest hikes to date. There was quite a reward – Cheoah Bald is a grassy summit (just over 5,000 feet) with a broad view of the surrounding mountains. A group gathered at the bald to enjoy a late lunch, photographs, and the views, including Hungary Cat, Ross, Swagman, Hot Dog, Pioneer, and Turbo.
Having not just completed, but enjoyed the infamous climb, it was time to descend to our planned meeting/tenting area – still 2.5 miles north. Although a bit fatigued, I climbed down about 1,500 feet and reached our camping area about 20 minutes before Brooke showed up. (She had driven 5 and a half hours and then hiked a tough 3.2 miles south
from Stecoah Gap to meet me).
We set up our tents and cooked Chicken Pesto Pasta (Trailtopia), vegetables, and Peach Berry Crisp (Trailtopia). The tenting site was somewhat exposed to the wind and the temperature was dropping, so we had to retreat to our tents and sleeping bags – still amazed and excited that Brooke is visiting for two days/two nights.
Although predicted, the evening rain never came – yet, it threatened so we packed up quickly. We had a moderate to tough, 12-mile day planned with a number of climbs. We (I) got beat up early with an immediate climb and drop into Simp Gap and then a climb out of Simp into Stecoah Gap and then (after a quick water/snack break) out of Stecoah. (Brooke had done all of the 3.2 miles south from Stecoah the day before.) The rain did come and we had to battle it off and on with the very cold morning. The first 4 miles were tougher than I thought they’d be, and then we faced “Jacob’s Ladder.” This proved to be one of my top 5 toughest climbs thus far. Unlike much of the trails (which utilize switchbacks and other gradual approaches to climbing high summits), the AT at Jacob’s Ladder is a direct, frontal attack straight up the vertical. Ouch!
Shortly after completing the difficult climb up Jacob’s Ladder, we arrived at Brown Fork Gap Shelter where we took a lunch break. We were joined by Candyman, Fifty, Hailie and Livvy as well as earlier by Rivers and another thru hiker. Having been wiped out for the day, I was glad the rain subsided early and most of the rest of the trail appeared to be downhill. We still had seven miles to cover. We saw few hikers during the day, but there were about 6 in the shelter and 6 tenting when we arrived at the shelter area a little before 5 pm. I was tired. Brooke seemed as though she could have gone farther.
We set up our tents (on somewhat challenging sites), filtered water and cooked dinner, visiting with a 60 year-old businessman planning to hike only to Damascus. As it got darker and colder, we retired to our tents. Within 30 minutes of getting settled inside the rain came and came very hard. Whew! We had gotten the day’s work completed without any rain except a little during the early miles.
Daylight savings time meant that 7 am was much darker than the day before. Our tent flys were wet from the evening’s rain, some of which was light and intermittent as we were waking. Determined to get an early start, we packed up with the assistance of our headlamps and, thankfully, no rain interrupted the effort.
We dressed for rain, but nothing came immediately. Our first hike of the day was a climb so we both were overheated and had to shed a couple of layers. Overall the hike was about 3 miles of climbing and 4 miles of downhill. We hoped for a noon arrival so Brooke could get on the road back to Chapel Hill. We passed one thru-hiker who had tented near
us the last two nights, but otherwise did not see other hikers until 4 younger hikers caught us at Fontana Crossing (marina) where we called to arrange our shuttle and enjoyed a vending machine beverage.
The trail was very wet and slick in many places, perhaps from the prior nights rain. After Fontana Crossing the hike was pleasant as it followed the lake shore. A mile and half after Fontana Crossing we came upon the famous “Fontana Hilton” shelter, on high ground overlooking the lake with picnic tables, seats surrounding a fire ring, running water, and a charging station (and a hundred yards away, there are tenting spots, flush toilets, and even a shower with hot water). Most thru-hikers have heard about this shelter (and seen YouTube videos), but it was even nicer than my impressions.
After some photos Brooke and I made our way to our pickup at Fontana Dam. We were picked up and taken to The Hike Inn, where Brooke could clean up and where I’d take a zero the next day.
Brooke ran me into town for errands and we enjoyed lunch at a Mexican restaurant before Brooke had to head back to medical school. It was great having her on the Trail for two days. .
Brooke headed off and I settled in for the evening and for my first zero day.
I took a rest or “zero” day and prepared for my entry the next day into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – a place most thru-hikers face with varying levels of eagerness and apprehension.
I was eager because the Smokies really are the biggest mountains on the AT, their reputed to be beautiful with pleasant hiking, but there is ALWAYS the caveat that winter or other severe weather can show up at anytime.
Last modified: March 22, 2018