Saturday, February 16, 2013

Mountains, Part II: Thunderhead

After scrambling around mountain trails in Snowmass Village and Hanging Lake in Glenwood Springs a couple times during the family vacation to Colorado in the summer of 2011, I felt prepared to take up the challenge first proposed by David a few months before of tackling a multi-day backpacking trip. We'd originally talked about trying it out West. However, it worked out that we could take a few days and hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail in Great Smoky Mountain National Park on the return of a trip to North Carolina to visit my brother at school.

David did some research of possible routes to hike, and we decided on Thunderhead Loop, which would take three days and two nights, hiking up to the AT and following it for a few miles before coming back down. It seemed like a challenging itinerary, but one we were confident we could handle without too much trouble. About a week before our planned departure I called the park office to make reservations for the shelters along the AT on our route and to inform officials of our itinerary.

When I called the park they informed me the shelter we planned on staying in the first night of our hike was closed due to increased bear activity in the area. Apparently a bear had gotten hold of someone's backpack near the shelter, so there was a high risk of bears revisiting the site looking for more food, especially since it had been a bad season for berries.

This threw quite a wrinkle into the plan. Inside the park you can only camp at designated spots, so when one of those is unavailable the next nearest one could be several miles away. Fortunately the next shelter on the AT was still open, but staying there instead of the closed one would make for a very long hike on the second day.

We thought about reversing the route to try to even out the mileage by staying in another campground, and I asked the park about availability at that site. It was also off-limits due to increased bear activity. Yikes. We ended up deciding to keep the original planned route, but adding several miles of hiking to the first full day to make it to the open shelter. It would be a tougher schedule than we had originally planned, but we didn't feel too nervous about the difficulty of the hike.
We were still confident in our abilities after arriving in the park.

What I was becoming nervous about was the bears. The Smoky Mountains is the first place I had seen a bear in the wild on a trip about fifteen years ago, so the possibility of seeing a bear felt very real to me. I thought it would be neat to see a bear in the Smokies again. Ideally, we might spot one off in the distance from the safety of my brother's Kia as we were driving out of the park after finishing the hike. I had absolutely no desire to come anywhere near a bear while we were hiking in the wilderness. The prospect of it terrified me. Bears are majestic creatures but not ones to be taken lightly or bothered with. We read up on how to properly navigate the backcountry to avoid bears. We took the precautions of having lots of airtight bags for any food or anything with a strong scent and extra line in case we needed to string up our bags in the trees. Bear encounters are rare, and we intended to keep it that way.

We made the drive to Winston-Salem, leaving in the afternoon and stopping for a night in a hotel in Knoxville. Or was it Lexington? Either way, it was nice to break up the drive a bit. I've done it straight through a few times, including one solo drive, and while it's surprisingly relaxing in a way to cover all that land in one day, it's safer and more comfortable to get some rest in the middle. It's kind of strange being in a country that's not an island where you couldn't drive more than a few hours in a straight line before you'd have to head in a different direction. That drive to North Carolina takes about twelve hours just driving. Throw in the necessary gas refills and the preferable lunch break and it easily takes fourteen hours. I could almost be home from here in the time it takes to drive from my house to Winston-Salem. It would cost a lot more, but in the sense of time I'm really not so far from home at all.

view from Clingman's Dome, highest point in the park

There's our destination: Thunderhead, the tall one in the back

Though the journey is fulfilling, it's undeniably exhausting to me, even when someone else is driving (though I drove this one...thanks to Dylan and my parents for letting me use the KIA, though I'm sure the Accord would have been game for the trek). It was thus with great relief that we finally reached the campus, parked, and stumbled up to the main building to wait for my brother to come meet us. I now wish I had a picture of the scene as we sat on the outdoor patio area of the central building overlooking the quad and scanned the grounds waiting for him to approach.

Visiting my brother was, as it always is, a pleasure. He's a great host, and it's nice to see him at his school, which he seems to genuinely love. We were there for the better part of a couple days. David was able to look around the campus, since it was his first visit to the school. We dropped off some supplies my parents had sent for my brother. When we packed up and prepared to drive west it was with a mix of sadness at saying goodbye to my brother for a few months, excitement at the adventure ahead, and trepidation at the thought that for the next three days there would be no showers, no bed, and very little hot food. Of course, that's exactly what we were going for.

footbridge at the first campsite
We arrived at Great Smoky Mountain National Park a few hours later without much daylight to play with. We stopped at the visitor's center to check the directions and buy a detailed trail map to supplement the information we had gathered online. On the drive out to our trailhead we took a detour to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park. From there we looked out toward the portion of the Appalachian Trail we intended to hike the next day. With daylight waning we hopped back in the car to drive the rest of the way to the trailhead near the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont.

The Institute ended up being more remote than we realized, and by the time we'd parked the car, dropped off our hiking info, and found the trailhead, the light was nearly gone, and we still had a few miles of hiking to get to the first campsite. We strapped on our headlamps and walked into the woods. We soon needed to turn on the headlamps as the already diminishing sunlight was blocked out by the increasingly dense foliage. Hiking at night was definitely not part of the plan, but soon we were completely out of sunlight. It was tricky at times making sure we were on the right path, especially when we came across a recently fallen tree right in front of us. We had to crawl through the branches and make sure we were back on the trail on the other side.

We arrived at the first campsite after a couple of hours of hiking. Not only is following a trail more difficult with just headlamps; setting up camp is an even greater challenge. We scanned around for a flat space without too many rocks, then used the headlamps to get the tent and blankets out of our packs. Then we had to find the pack hangers to hoist up our packs in the trees to avoid attracting bears. This was all complicated by an unwelcome visitor: a particularly curious (to the point of seeming downright aggressive) hornet that would buzz at full speed toward any source of light. This led to us turning off our headlamps to try to get the bug to wander off, only to have it return once the lights were back on. After nearly ten minutes of waiting for it to remove itself from harm's way, we lured the hornet to a visible area that was not our faces by tossing a lit flashlight into the tent so we could see the bug crawling on the outside of the tent walls trying to get at the light. We approached it slowly with our headlamps out, then swatted it to the ground and stomped it. We don't take life lightly, but hornets can hurt, and we were glad to be rid of this one despite the unfortunate way it had to go. Alas, that was not to be our final encounter with those creatures.
Building a campfire at night is also quite the challenging task. We scrounged around for suitable burning material without much luck, in large part because we were hesitant to wander too far from the tent since we hadn't seen our surroundings in daylight and weren't sure what may be lurking around there, or how easily we might get lost. We also noticed while searching some reflective orbs that appeared to be small eyes watching us from afar. This was slightly creepy, so we walked toward it to investigate. Up close, we couldn't see any possum or other such animal we suspected might be behind it. After looking more carefully we realized the orbs were the reflective backs of spiders waiting on their webs for a meal to come along. I wished it had been a raccoon instead.

Our campfire was a resounding failure, sputtering out shortly after we got the flames to catch a couple of times. We were tired anyway, so we put it out and went to try to get some rest. The stars were beautiful and abundant, but as I suspected it was difficult to stop myself from imagining a bear stumbling across our camping spot while we slept while also trying to decide what would be the best escape route should that happen. At some point I fell asleep, thank goodness. The next day was going to require all the energy we could muster.
We were still feeling rather confident at this point
We tore down camp quickly after waking and lowered our bags from the tree hang. We had around fourteen miles to cover, and we weren't sure how long it would take us. We'd never done backpacking like that before, so we didn't know exactly what we were reasonably capable of, though I think we were confident. It is certainly better to have extra daylight, though, so we got moving as soon as we could. The trail veered steeply uphill from the campsite. We had a lot of elevation to gain that day. The first portion of our hike would be on Bote Mountain Trail for about 8 miles, which would lead us to the Appalachian Trail between Spence Field and Rocky Top, several thousand feet of elevation above where we had started on the West Prong Trail. Once on the Appalachian Trail we would climb Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain before continuing on to the Derrick Knob shelter, where we had registered to camp on the second night.

Despite the challenges ahead of us I was beyond excited. We had a full day in the backcountry ahead of us, miles away from the nearest road. We would summit a couple of Appalachian peaks before the day was out, and we would cover more than six miles of the legendary Appalachian Trail. Yes, it was warm and the packs were heavy, but we were fit and highly motivated. My nerves from the previous day were settled. This was going to be awesome.

We trooped up the rocky, sloping trail in high spirits at a good clip, stopping from time to time to snap a picture through a clearing in the trees of the tree-covered slopes across the valley and take a drink from one of the many water bottles we'd thrown in our packs. We'd brought along a lot of water. After all, this was the Tennessee/NC border in August. In retrospect, we should have taken a backcountry water filter in case of emergency, but even so I'd have carried along a lot of water. The nice thing is that as you drink it your pack gets lighter. After a few hours we dipped into our supply of snack bars, granola, and beef jerky. Things were looking good. We were covering plenty of ground, our provisions seemed to be plenty, and fatigue was at a minimum. Just a few more miles on Bote Mountain Trail and we'd run into the AT, a moment we were both greatly looking forward to.

Bote Mountain is a heck of a trail. It's steep, rocky, and unrelenting, especially in the final few miles before the AT junction. If I remember correctly, it was used as a cattle trail for farmers taking their herds up to Spence Field to graze. As it nears the AT it becomes steeper and switchbacks up the slope on a path that has been worn down to a rocky rut that makes it like climbing up a gutter. We stopped to lean against the steep walls or sit all the way down quite often in this stretch, anxious to reach the AT, which we were actually starting to think could be a relief since we would be following a ridgeline and not climbing up the side of a mountain.

Indeed, it was a with a sigh of relief that we came to the Appalachian Trail and dropped our packs next to the sign pointing to Spence Field in one direction and Rocky Top in the other. Spence Field is where we originally planned to camp on the second night before I called the park and was informed it was closed. The shelter there is where a bear got into a hiker's pack. Finally being on the AT brought a thrill of satisfaction, but we did not bask in it for too long. Derrick Knob shelter was still over six miles of hiking away, and it was already mid-afternoon. We still had to get over Rocky Top and Thunderhead and get to the shelter with enough light left to hang our packs and hopefully have a bite to eat before getting some sleep. The morning's hike had taken more out of us than we expected, so we didn't want to be too pressed for time.
I actually felt a bit tempted while we were paused at the AT junction to venture a ways toward Spence Field, an open area where the cattle climbing the Bote Mountain Trail used to graze. I'd heard the area was popular for bears because of an abundance of berries growing in and around the field. Probably the heat was starting to get to my head, because I realize now this would have been a mistake several times over. Not only would we have lost precious time, but seeking out a bear encounter would not have been wise, to say the least. I had some vision of myself being on one side of a large open field, looking across and seeing some docile bears feeding on berries on the opposite end of the field, hundreds of meters away. A nice thought, but an unlikely scenario. And within a few hours we would realize we needed every minute of sunlight we could get that day.
We pressed on along the Appalachian Trail, thrilled to be hiking the classic American path. We made our way up Rocky Top, where we paused to take in the spectacular views. The Appalachian Trail actually straddles the Tennessee/North Carolina border in that section, so we could look to one side at the beautiful mountains of North Carolina and to the other at the beautiful mountains of Tennessee.
The summit of Rocky Top

After Rocky Top, the next objective was Thunderhead Mountain, the highest point of our hike and the namesake of the loop David had found through Backpacker Magazine's website. I don't remember it seeming very difficult to climb, because there wasn't that much more elevation to cover. We'd done so much climbing just to get up to the AT that the extra elevation to the tops of these mountains wasn't that bad. Like I said before, the AT follows the ridgeline there, so it's not as though you're climbing from the base to the summit of these peaks. Still, it felt like quite the accomplishment to reach the top of Thunderhead. In a way, the rest would be downhill from there.

Thunderhead Mountain
We rehydrated and refueled while taking in the views from Thunderhead, which were about the same as those from Rocky Top. We didn't know exactly how far we had to go. The detailed trail guide we had bought at the visitor's center was helpful to us for gauging the changes in elevation and making sure we were on the right path. But again, this was our first time doing this kind of hiking. It's not all that helpful knowing that you have four miles to hike with so much elevation change until you've done something like it. It was very abstract for us.

We thought we probably had enough water, and we had iodine tablets to use to purify water from a spring if we ran too low and needed to replenish. There was a spring at Derrick Knob that we would definitely need to use to have water for the next day's hike, but we hoped we'd have plenty to get us to the shelter for the night. We threw our packs back on and continued on the AT.

As we were descending from the top of the mountain we saw some bear scat. We'd seen other instances of this earlier in the day, but this pile seemed much fresher. A bear had been there not too long ago, maybe within the last couple of hours. I hoped it had made its way far from there by that time, and I tried not to think too much about it as we continued on our way.

By this time we'd been hiking for over six hours and had traversed around ten miles. We were making good time, but we had only a few hours of good daylight to play with and several miles still to hike. I was starting to feel a bit nervous about how soon night might approach and about how well my legs were going to hold up. For the most part we'd been going uphill or on flat ground all day. Now for the first time we had some rather steep descents to navigate as the AT wound from Thunderhead to Derrick Knob along the ridge. Going downhill can be hard on the legs, especially when they're already tired, and especially when you've added a full pack onto your usual weight. It takes a great deal of energy to stop yourself from continuing uncontrollably downward with each step. After about an hour of up-down-up-downs my legs were a mess, shaking and complaining.

When my strength goes, it goes quickly. When we left the summit of Thunderhead I thought we may be a bit pressed for time to reach the shelter before we lost too much daylight. An hour later I was beginning to doubt my ability to make it there at all, I felt so fatigued. We trudged on, realizing we had no other options. We were tired enough that we needed more breaks, yet rushed enough that we couldn't pause too long at any spot or we might be risking having to hike in the dark. We had to estimate how much ground we still had to cover by comparing the elevation maps in our trail guide to the terrain we had hiked, which provided us with some very vague guesses about how far we had to go and how long it might take. What could we do. The shelter was somewhere ahead, and onward we trudged. Fortunately the trail started to even out some so the going was easier. We kept up a decent pace and stopped every twenty minutes or so to drop our packs for a few minutes and have some water, which was actually starting to run a bit low, considering we weren't sure how long we had to go until we'd have a new supply at the shelter.

We alternated point after each stop. During one section while I was point I missed a hornet nest on the path but must have disturbed it because as Dave passed it the hornets swarmed out and he was stung while we ran as fast as we could while loaded down with our packs to get away from the angry buggers. Doubtless they'd heard tell of our skillful annihilation of their lowcountry cousin.

While Dave was on point I heard a sudden loud rustling of leaves and branches down the slope to our right and looked up from the trail to see Dave motioning toward a fleeing bear that I just barely caught a glimpse of as it rushed into the thicket and was hidden from sight. He was much better at spotting things than I was. That was, fortunately, the closest we came to a bear on the whole of our trip (as far as I know. I shudder to think of a bear stalking around one of our campsites while we slept. That is very unlikely).

Despite these bits of excitement (one more welcome than the other) extreme fatigue was setting in when we came upon another steep section of trail as the sun began to set. We'd seen a hint of a climbing section on our trail map, but it hadn't seemed to difficult when it was a diagonal line on paper. Somewhere up that slope was the shelter, but the climbing was exhausting. I stumbled several times, often just sort of crumpling to the ground and taking a few minutes break. It would have been so nice at that point to just leave the packs and get ourselves to the shelter, but we would need all of our gear. Also, abandoning packs for any period on the AT is a big no-no, especially when there are various warnings about bear activity. If a bear were to get a hold of a pack, it could begin seeking food near campsites, which is how the Spence Field shelter ended up shuttered before we got there. After each break we'd hoist the packs back onto our shoulders and do our best to keep putting one foot above the other, trying to find the right frame of mind between thinking about how close the shelter might be without being too disappointed as it remained out of sight. The light was fading quickly now, and our water was nearly depleted. On and on we climbed. The exhaustion I felt may have been greater than it is when I finish a marathon when we finally reached a point where the slope tapered off a bit as the trail curved through some tall grass. I looked up, and there it was.


I actually shouted this when the shelter came into view, such was my thrill at not having to lug that pack around any more that day. I was a bit embarrassed once I realized there were half a dozen or so other hikers gathered at the shelter who had clearly heard me, though I'm sure they understood. We dropped our packs at the shelter and made our way to the spring with our emptied water bottles. I'd originally imagined a waterfall of sorts under which I could rinse away some of the grime of the day in mountain cold water and then quickly fill my bottles with clear, gushing water. What we got was this:
Yes, that's a pipe propped up by a rock with a stream of water that's less than what I usually use to wash my hands. And it was a godsend. We gratefully filled up our bottles and dropped in the iodine tablets. They take several hours to be effective, especially with cold water. Fortunately we had a bit of water left over from the day to hydrate a bit before getting some sleep, and the treated water would be potable by the next day.

We picked out our spots on the first of two levels of wooden planks in the three-walled shelter and set up our sleeping bags. We looked on with envy as our fellow campers displayed sufficient energy to build and sit around a campfire. I'm sure they'd have welcomed us to join them, but we were both to the point where we could barely walk and were ready to pass out from exhaustion. I wanted to get a bit of fuel in me before falling asleep, despite my complete lack of an appetite. I forced down some beef jerky and granola. I knew my body must be craving energy, but it was a struggle to eat. It actually made me feel sick, which I knew wasn't a good sign. We still had about eleven miles to cover the next day to make it back to the car at the trailhead. We were going to need plenty of energy. We'd burned a ton of it that day, but my stomach was showing no interest in being replenished.

Sure enough, sleep was hard to come by that night despite our exhaustion. First were the chills. Before getting into the sleeping bag I had changed out of my sweat-soaked hiking clothes into the dry base layer and sweats I'd packed knowing that the temperatures would probably get chilly on the mountain. When I first climbed into the sleeping bag I felt comfortable, but soon the chills set in. I encased myself completely in the bag after a while, folding the top end under me to seal it even more tightly, which allowed me to fall asleep for a bit, but I awoke what I imagine was not long after, shivering and with a roaring headache. I think Dave was feeling similar discomfort, though my memories of that night are very fuzzy. I remember being hesitant to wander away from the shelter to relieve my bladder but making myself do it anyway, and trying not to imagine happening upon a bear while doing so. I remember scrounging around for an ibuprofen while in a violently shivering, brain-addled daze, desperate to relive my headache and get even just a little bit more sleep. And I remember the relief I felt when it was finally light enough to wake up and set out on the trail, just so that I wouldn't be stuck laying on a row of 2x4s with nothing to distract me from how sick I was feeling but the thought of hiking eleven more miles the next day to make it back to civilization. I'm not sure what was the exact cause of how miserable we felt. Probably some combination of dehydration and complete exhaustion. The feeling I had while trying to eat before going to sleep was very similar to what I've felt after marathons. I know I'm hungry and need energy, but making myself swallow down food brings no satisfaction and all I really want to do is fall asleep so I don't feel the aching, but the aching makes falling asleep more difficult than it would be. That night on the mountain it was even harder to fall asleep, probably because of the cold, which is especially disheartening when you realize there's nothing you can do to make yourself warmer. You have your clothes and your sleeping bag, and with that you have to make do.

Anyway, we survived, and I was actually feeling decent by the time we had retrieved our bags from the tree hang, eaten a bit, and drank a lot before hoisting up our packs and hitting the trail again the next morning. That day we would get to undo all the elevation we had done the previous day, so we were in for less physical exertion. Still, I was nervous about the downhill climbing. As I noted before, it works the legs in a different, and sometimes more painful way.

Shortly after leaving the shelter we veered off the AT to begin our descent toward the trailhead. After about an hour of gradual descent we came upon a waterfall, where we stopped for a break. We would be generally following the path of that water as it made its way down the slopes, forming the Middle Prong, namesake of the trail we would reach in a few miles which would lead us to that beautiful black KIA.

We kept at it, pushing ourselves forward with the thoughts of all the delectable calorie bombs of which we could avail ourselves after escaping this gorgeous, gut-wrenching park. Steak 'N' Shake kept coming to mind. Steakburger and cheese fries. And Coke. Just six more hours of hiking, and an hour or so of driving, and we could be rid of this granola and beef jerky and eat something hot, and maybe even shower for the first time in over 48 hours.
On the way down we passed the junction leading to Campsite #28
We'd originally planned to stay at that camp our first night, but like Spence Field, it was closed
Down, down we trooped, joining the Middle Prong Trail as the gently cascading stream we'd paused beside earlier in the morning revealed itself as a rushing mountain stream cutting a dramatic channel between the slopes. As it got bigger and bigger, we knew we were that much closer to our escape. Still, we were beginning to realize just how much of our energy had been sapped from us by the previous day's hike. Those final few miles to the parking lot would not be easy to come by. We stopped for breaks every twenty minutes or so, dropping our packs and sitting on the ground, hoping for some strength to find its way back into our legs. During one of those breaks I took this picture of the trail we were following.

It had flattened out considerably. We passed along the river banks the remnants of an old Civilian Conservation Corps camp that this road had serviced long ago. As always, we trudged onward, dreaming of driving out of the park and indulging in a huge hot meal. At the end of this old road we emerged into a parking lot with several cars parked, left behind by some of the small groups of day hikers we'd begun passing near the end of the trail. From that parking lot we had a couple of miles yet to go down a gravel road that would lead us to the KIA at the lower parking lot. We were so close.
We kept hiking, though now we were just on a plain gravel road that made the experience feel significantly different from the AT type hiking we'd been doing the previous day. And that road seemed to stretch on interminably, curving here and there, keeping its end point safely out of sight. When we heard a vehicle approaching us from behind we were worn out enough to gesture for it to stop, if it pleased.

The two kindly gentlemen in the open-top Jeep were generous enough to agree to drive us to the parking lot at the road's end. We really appreciated it, especially considering the foul odor emanating from us after two full days in the backcountry. They didn't deny that we reeked, but did allow that it was to be expected after such an endeavor. Finally, we reached the parking lot. They dropped us off and wished us luck, and I gazed upon that KIA with a fondness that I've never felt for a car.

Perhaps in this moment I subconsciously developed an affinity for Korea

We dumped our packs in the trunk and climbed into the car. We blasted the AC and downed several bottles of Gatorade we'd left under the backseats. We drove out of that park and stopped at the first burger joint we spotted, and were still ravenous. Unfortunately, there was no convenient place to grab a shower, so we made our way on toward Nashville, where we had a hotel reservation for the night. That drive would have been much more difficult and exhausting if I weren't so eager to get there and be cleansed. And that little KIA did indeed get us there reliably. Thank you, KIA. Sorry Dylan for stinking up your car so badly.

Overall, that hike was a greatly rewarding challenge, and an experience I learned a lot from that I won't soon forget. I realize now how ill-prepared we were in some ways despite our many preparations. It was a trial by fire that has given me confidence in subsequent adventures as well as reinforced my understanding of the need for thorough planning and caution. However, I believe that, more than anything, it impressed upon me the need to get out there and do it, and I thank David for pushing us to try something I probably would not have found the guts to put together on my own. Thanks for that, and may we have our next adventure soon.

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