Monday, March 9, 2009

Slip-Sliding Away

AT Backpack Weekend – Day One – 3/6/09 - AT/Hughes Ridge – 14.9 Miles

Cast of characters for the big adventure:  

Sharon (Smoky Scout) – Closing in on the Smokies 900  

Judy (Heartfire) – Also working on Smokies 900

Jeff (Ken) – Working on SB6K Challenge and any other named peaks  

Carol (needs a trail name) – Gear testing for AT thru-hike in 2011  

Carolyn (Nanuck) – head cheerleader and jackrabbit hiker

Carolyn, Carol and I drove to Gatlinburg on Thursday afternoon, had a great meal at Ogle’s Brick Oven Pizza, and checked into Smoky Pines, my favorite hotel. Then I met Jeff under cover of night at Cosby Campground to leave my car and then back to Smoky Pines for a good night’s rest. Don (wearer of Old Glory) had to back out last-minute because of illness and we missed him terribly. He was also the second vehicle in my master plan, so we made hasty arrangements on Thursday with A Walk In The Woods for a shuttle ride on Friday morning to our trailhead. (I can highly recommend them.)

Friday morning we ate a big breakfast, loaded up on the shuttle and were deposited at Newfound Gap where Judy was waiting for us. Snow and ice were piled up in the parking lot and we hoped that was all we would see (wrong). And off we went, headed not for Katahdin but just for Peck’s Corner shelter. Jeff, our weatherman, had promised blue skies and very warm temperatures, 60’s at 5800 feet, and to emphasize his confidence in the forecast Jeff did not bring rain gear or gloves. Jeff, Jeff, Jeff…

The clouds rolled in and the temperature did not climb as we climbed. We passed this charming pirate snowman (one-eye) and began to dig into the icy white stuff. Judy, Carolyn and I put on our YaxTrax and got good traction, but Carol didn’t have them and had to pick her way more carefully. Jeff just put his (gloveless) hands in his pockets and kept moving. (BTW, would you believe we found a pair of thick fleece gloves laying on the trail that day? What luck!)

We walked in the clouds to Icewater Springs Shelter where we stopped for a bite to eat and were surmising that we would skip Charlie’s Bunion – no point if there’s no view, and it might be too icy anyway. A thru-hiker arrived at the shelter for a food break, a 20-something young’un who introduced himself as Primitive. His trail name derived from the fact that he had started his thru-hike about a week after the idea came to him, bringing along a tarp and a wool blanket and little else. Somewhere around Neal’s Gap he decided to get outfitted to continue. A week ago his hiking buddy had gotten off the trail for a break because of the rough weather, so Primitive was traveling alone for now. He said he was headed for Tricorner Knob Shelter. We told him we were headed to Peck’s Corner and he could take that as either an invitation or a warning. He was kind enough to take a group photo of us before he took off.

We drew closer to Charlie’s Bunion and…wait, what is that?? I can see…I can see mountains…I can see sky! We were out of the clouds. Yippeee! We dropped our packs at the spur trail and walked out to the Bunion for that jaw-dropping view. The summit of Mt. LeConte was wreathed in clouds but everything else was clear. Here is how it looked from where I sat.

Okay, back on the AT, now known as the Appalachian Snow Fields, the Appalachian Ice Floes and the Appalachian Slushee. The snow was melting and we learned that slush is as slippery as ice. When you’re carrying a loaded backpack, you don’t just step in the slush, you stomp in it, and our feet were getting wetter and wetter. I had neglected to wear gaiters so my pants were wicking moisture all the way up to my knees. It looked like we were in for three days of this slip-and-slide. Meanwhile, Carol was meeting the challenges of a tall backpack and blown-down trees on the trail.

Peck’s Corner Shelter is about .4 miles off the AT, down on Hughes Ridge Trail, and we sloshed our way down. The privy is the first thing you come to, sitting right on the trail, begging for photos. And guess who was at the shelter? Our thru-hiker, Primitive! Was he nuts? Judy talked with him a good bit during the evening and said later that she thought he was lonely and looked forward to our company.

Judy and I, working on that Smokies 900 map, still had some miles to put in and the rest of the crew joined us in hiking down Hughes Ridge Trail for 1.8 miles to the junction with Bradley Fork Trail. This is where Jim and I were about a month before. We turned around and sloshed back up to the shelter, still struggling with the snow everywhere. Snow makes a nice contrast for photographing plant life, though. Even spent blooms look lovely against the white backdrop.

The day’s hiking ended around 6:00 p.m. and we hustled to cook and eat and get organized before dark. No other hikers arrived, so the six of us had room to spread out. Primitive had gathered some wood (very little available and most of it covered in snow) and was attempting to build a fire, but we never truly got it going. With the temperatures dropping and no backcountry TV to watch, we climbed in our sleeping bags and it was lights out and quiet at 7:30 p.m.

And the moon and stars came out to shine as we snoozed high up on top of the mountains.  

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares drop off like autumn leaves.” ~John Muir

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