Friday, December 12, 2008

Part 1 - The Bunion

AT Loop Hike Part 1 – 12/5/08 – Appalachian Trail/Dry Sluice Gap Trail/Grassy Branch Trail/Sweat Heifer Trail/AT – 14.1 Miles

The day began with a predawn shuttle to leave Mike’s car at the Cosby Campground. He and Daniel were hiking the AT from Newfound Gap to Cosby, staying one night at Peck’s Corner Shelter and one night at Tricorner Knob Shelter, coming out on Snake Den Ridge Trail to the campground. Then we drove to Gatlinburg in search of a hot breakfast. Do you realize how much backpackers can eat before heading “into the wild”??

Our timing was right to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center by 8:00 a.m. for the guys to register for their shelter spots (already reserved by phone). As we came around the corner we were dismayed to see that Newfound Gap Road was…closed! The backcountry rangers informed us that the road was being treated for ice and would be opened sometime during the morning, so Mike and Daniel formulated a new plan. Since their hike would start later, they changed shelters for the first night. Then we went into the VC and watched the excellent movie about the Park.

  By 9:15 a.m. the road was opened, early enough to go back to the guys’ original plan – and I would still have time to do my own plan, a loop hike starting on the AT with them, if we didn’t dawdle. The drive up to Newfound Gap was stunning, with rhime ice formed on the trees.

At the parking lot the guys jumped out of the car and posed for a couple of quick photos. (A fellow told me once that he always takes photos of a hike group before they start out so they can be identified by what they are wearing…how morbid is that?? But that’s what I always think of now…)

Anyhoo, the temps are in the 20’s and so it began. The guys were ahead of me as I took more pictures in the parking lot and the trailhead. I’d been here before and could probably come here once a week and still be awed by the view. Today the AT was coated with snow and ice and my new equipment purchase, YaxTrax for my boots, worked like a dream. I was cautious, but no longer afraid of sliding off the mountain. I was very happy not to be wearing a loaded backpack to make balancing even more precarious.

I soon caught up with and passed the guys and wished them a safe journey. I had 14 miles to go and wanted to get back to my car by 5:00 p.m. They had about 10 miles to go to their first shelter. (Turns out they walked an hour in the dark that day…well, I guess it was that night, actually…) I stopped at Icewater Shelter for a little snack and warmed up with some sunshine on my black shirt.

At Masa Gap I got some great photos out to Mt. LeConte. Interestingly, there was no rhime ice at the higher elevations.

I could not pass up a stop at Charlies Bunion, a huge craggy rock outcropping exposed by a terrible 1925 wildfire and a 1929 cloudburst that washed away the soils. The story goes that a crew including Horace Kephart, George Masa and Charlie Conner went to check out the damage, and they felt that this newly exposed promontory should be named. Apparently Kephart remarked that it had the same knobby appearance as Charlie Conner’s bunion.

Today I stood on the outermost part of the Bunion all by myself with conflicting emotions. One, it was awesome to be alone in a place that is normally crawling with people. Two, I wished I had someone there to share it with. If we had been on the same pace today, Mike and Daniel would have been there and very much appreciated the inspiring beauty. (They did stop there on their trek.) But for now, it was just me and my shadow.

As I sat on the Bunion I could see the clouds down below moving slowly, leaving rhime ice on the trees.

From the Bunion I walked a short distance further up the AT and turned right onto Dry Sluice Gap Trail. Judy and I had hiked the lower part of this trail a few weeks ago on our route from Kephart Trail down to Smokemont, Today I completed the 1.3-mile upper section, and at the junction with Grassy Branch Trail I chatted with 3 backpackers who were taking a break. They were heading in the same direction as I was, so I felt good to know someone was coming along behind me in case I needed them. I had a good laugh on Grassy Branch Trail when I passed this glove stuck on a branch. Hmmm…Part of Michael Jackson’s G.I. Joe ensemble?

At the end of Grassy Branch I stopped for a break at Kephart Shelter, where the backpackers were going to stop for the night, but they never did catch up to me. The temps had warmed up only a little and snow was melted on the sunny south-facing slopes and dense on the shaded north-facing slopes. Finally, there were no more excuses – I had to face the most challenging trail of the day, Sweat Heifer Trail, which was going to be 3.7 miles back UP to the AT.

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