Smokey Mountains and No Return Smokey Wars

I fell for the old trap of commenting in my last post on how good the weather had been and set myself up for a fall, and what a fall it was.

In my last update, I was on the verge of the Smokey Mountains, a national park which is loved by the locals for its soaring peaks (the highest on the trail at 6643 feet), pristine nature and, of course, the bears.

The pristine nature is guarded on the trail by enforced camping at the shelters which are of a much larger size than their preceding kind, so I guess I should talk a little about them. Shelters are small buildings usually made of wood, sometimes stone with three walls and a flat wooden base allowing people to camp underneath without the need for a tent. Generally they are 5 to 10 miles apart and can fit between 5 to 12 people underneath depending on the size of the shelter. They are usually near a water source (spring or creek) and have a privy (bush toilet) on the opposite side to the water.

Sometimes they are on the trail itself but just as often they are a short walk off the trail (or in one case 1.2 miles off the trail as in the rarely visited Whitely Gap Shelter).

Until the Smokey Mountains, I hadn’t even visited any of the shelters on the trail because there are plenty of campsites where those of a solitary bias (i.e. me) can camp in peace and usually at a much more scenic location. That and the weather had been great.

Smokey Mountains and No Return Smokey Wars Photo Gallery

In the Smokies however, you have to stay at the shelters and are only allowed to camp if the shelter is full. The shelters at the Smokies are much bigger, given the increased traffic in them and have a double storey wooden platform so that up to 14 people can stay in them They include such luxuries as extended roof awnings, stone construction, wooden benches/seats and even indoor fireplaces.

All of these luxuries however don’t really compensate for the loud snorer that invariably picks the sleeping spot with the greatest acoustics and falls asleep before anyone else.

Despite the regulations, I have only had to sleep in a shelter for one night so far at Silers Bald Shelter as the rest of the nights the shelters were full due to the abundance of THRU and section hikers. I pitched my tent which gave me my happy, little space.

The walking through the Smokies… The night before at Fontana Dam a group of us hitched a ride, 6 hikers and 1 dog into the back of a pickup truck into the local servo which also doubled as a bar. We had a few drinks, played some pool and then headed back to the shelter, the Fontana ‘Hilton’. I was primed for the Smokies albeit camera-less because I am a hopeless Luddite, I had laundered, swum in the dam, showered, resupplied, updated blog, filled in my permit form and was on a mission to get to Hot Springs. The start of the walk was all uphill which I tackled with gusto and soon caught up with Gandalf and Bush Goggles who had started a little earlier. Ended walking with them and Lady Slipper through the whole Smokies. Well, walking together is a bit of a misnomer as generally we walk at our own pace and meet up in town or at a campsite.

The first day the weather was grey but the rain held until the afternoon which was just before I got to a shelter. As the next shelter was 7 miles away, that was it for the day, so I set up my tent as the shelter was full: well technically it wasn’t but I was sure it was going to fill. The rain went through the night and continued through the morning so I decided to read my Kindle instead of braving the elements like the rest of the hikers. Some may call it ‘soft’; I prefer ‘safely negotiating hazardous environments’ which I did until 11 am By then the rain had stopped, so I packed and walked to the next shelter and as I arrived, the rain started again so out came the Kindle and I waited for another hour until it stopped. Once it had, I made a bit of a dash to the next shelter and only got a little caught out by the rain so by the end of the day I was quietly satisfied that I had ‘dodged’ the weather. For the Smokies however, that was only round one.

Round two was day 5 in the Smokies which came after some great scenic walking through Clingmans Dome, a visit to Gatlinburg which I’ll go into some more detail later, and some awesome ridgewalking with great views on either side on day 4.

Day 5 was at the northern boundary of the Smokies and pretty much involved the descent out. Gandalf, Bush Goggles and I had camped just outside Tri-corner knob shelter in a bit of a tent city as the shelter was full. We had just passed the 10% mark of the AT trail and were planning to push hard that day so we could get out of the national park and go back to camping away from the shelters. Lady Slipper caught up with us early in the morning and as he and Bush Goggles were the fastest walkers, they took off together. Then the rain came and there was no avoiding it.

Walking downhill in the rain on a hiking trail is pretty much like walking down a steep creekbed. You’re trying to avoid walking in the puddles as much as possible, as you want to keep your feet dry, but seeing as the kickers on my boots had separated from the soles, due to all the times I’d kicked stones or tripped on roots, it was kind of a lost cause.

Still I plodded on, trying vainly, both in the hopeless sense and the ego one, to catch the boys ahead of me. I found some shelter at an overpass after I had finished my descent and managed to wring my socks dry before pushing on hoping to find the boys camping nearby.

Unfortunately for me, I walked past their campsite as I was climbing Snowbird Mountain and kept on going into the cold rain, cursing the boys for their indifference to the weather. By 6.30 pm, I’d had enough, so I warmed my hands enough to pitch my tent and set up a soggy camp. Luckily my 50 cent black garbage bag, instead of a $50 bag cover, had kept my bag and the gear inside dry and I was in pretty good spirits that I’d catch them tomorrow.

TBC. (to be continued) got to meet up with the boys to go for a dip in the springs.

The Smokies strike back!

Ok, back from a dip in the springs.

Nothing sexier than 6 grown men with blistered feet wearing hiking shorts crammed into a hot tub. Despite that, it was great to soak in the mineral waters and chew the fat and I feel a lot more relaxed.

So where I left off last post, I felt soaked but was drying, running a little short on food as I had underestimated but nothing too bad, I still had 2 power bars, 2 ‘granola’ muesli bars, 2 packets of pasta and a packet of tuna. The rain kept going all night and into the morning and I wasn’t prepared to take a ‘zero day’, a no mile day, as we planned to take one at Hot Springs and I didn’t really have enough food to do that. Instead I packed as much of my gear that I could whilst in the tent, put on my wet hiking clothes and boots. squelch, then tore down the tent and shoved it into the backpack.

Day 6 walking, whilst technically not in the Smokies anymore, I still group it together as I regard going into town as the start/end point of each ‘session’. Day 6 was continuously dripping wet. Day 6 was freezing, bitterly cold. Day 6 added a new dimension to the walk, some unvegetated summits, which were more like the rolling moors in Scotland with icy cold wind blasting unhindered by any trees.

I hiked onward, no point stopping anywhere as there wasn’t any shelter and I wanted to catch up to Lady Slipper and Bush Goggles (who were actually behind me). I hiked for 10 miles until I came to a shelter frozen, numb and cold. I’d eaten one of the pasta packs for breakfast and had planned to have only 1 power bar for lunch but the cold had leeched everything out of me so I ended up putting on warm clothes and eating everything I had except the tuna and pasta pack, for dinner and one muesli bar for breakfast. After lunch, I was feeling a bit more human and luckily there were no more windswept summits ahead, so I pushed on. As I came across other crazy hikers, I’d ask them if they’d seen the boys and I would get vague responses which convinced me that they were still ahead.

Then the temperature started to drop and when I got to the next shelter, the hikers there told me that it was forecast for 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Now I knew that was going to be cold, but for some reason I thought 0 degrees Fahrenheit = 0 degrees Celsius, so I thought, well at least it won’t be freezing. However, as I’m now aware 32 degrees Fahrenheit = 0 degrees Celsius and believe me it makes a difference.

Blissfully unaware, I found a nice campsite at altitude about 10 miles out of Hot Springs and set up my wet camp. Unfortunately a stick had ripped my garbage bag and the bottom of my backpack had got wet which meant the end of my sleeping bag had got soaked. As I was cooking dinner, Bush Goggles came into camp, he’d been chasing me all day and even run up Bluff Mountain in order to catch up. There wasn’t much time for civilities though as it was getting really cold and we had to try and warm up for the night ahead. It was a miserable night for me. I couldn’t stretch out my legs or else my feet would get wet and I only had the bare minimum clothes on as everything else was soaked. Still I managed to sleep eventually and woke up to find the tent covered in snow and everything that had been wet was now frozen.

Try to picture this. Numb hands trying to take down my tent of which the fly is held by clasps which had frozen. Every 10 seconds or so, blowing onto my hands to try and get them to work. I couldn’t for the life of me, get the poles out as they were tensioned into slots but luckily Bush Goggles was from cold country and did it for me. He also had to tie my shoelaces, as I couldn’t grip them either.

Finally, the nightmare of breaking camp was over and we ran down Bluff Mountain, 2-3 miles, by which time my feet began to get feeling. Bush Goggles said it was just a bit of sleet but I’m not calling my second time in snow sleet and I’m also calling the small specks of falling snow that morning, a blizzard.

I’ll definitely give the points to the Smokies for that morning as I felt like a big baby having to ask to get my shoelaces tied. At least I feel I’ve earned this zero day today, it’s a hard life when you get to have a holiday inside a holiday

And no. there’s no ‘Return of the Smokies’ planned.

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