Appalachian Trail Trek 2012

After a pair of brutal neuroscience and physiology exams, I took advantage of my spring break to plan a backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. The original plan was to hike the ~73 mile section from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap (the entire length of Great Smoky Mountains National Park) in about four days. Allison was sadly unable to come due to teaching obligations, but I was able to recruit three guys to join me.

Raman, John, Les, and Myself (L to R)

Day 1:

Since Les is from the Chicago area and John, Raman and I live in Milwaukee, we stopped for a couple hours of sleep at my parents’ place in southern Indiana before driving the rest of the way on March 9. We ended up making it to the trailhead somewhat later than expected, thanks to a few wrong turns and an ill-fated attempt to follow a gravel road through the mountains.

Definitely not lost

The skies were clear and the view from the top of Fontana Dam was terrific, but the trek only lasted two miles or so before we hit our first major setback.

Crossing Fontana Dam

The initial section of trail leading to the Mollies Ridge shelter (our destination for the night) features a 2000-foot gain in elevation over about three miles. All of us were a little drained from a lack of food and sleep, but Les had some additional problems during the climb. After quite a bit of vomiting, he decided to head back to the car and meet us at Newfound Gap on day 3 (the only road-crossing on the trail). I watched over the packs while Raman and John helped Les back to the car. When the three of us started up again, the sun was already beginning to set.

Raman, about two miles east of Fontana Dam

Our pace that first night was pretty slow – uphill, in the dark, with fully-loaded packs. We felt pretty bad for Les at the time, but would later learn that he was enjoying a $50 steak and playing some blackjack at a nearby casino.

Raman, about four miles east of Fontana Dam

We didn’t reach Mollies Ridge until sometime around midnight, and managed about six hours of sleep before the shelter’s other occupants started waking up and making breakfast. And yes, you know you’re on the Appalachian Trail when you’re awakened by the voices of unemployed philosophy majors discussing Buddhism, marijuana, and “the mystical nuclear energy that binds us all together, dude” a few feet away. True story.

Day 2:

We broke camp around 9:30am and continued eastward toward Silers Bald (our shelter for the next night, a little less than 18 miles away). The terrain was pretty easy for the first 6 miles or so, until we reached the Spence Field Shelter. The three of us were way behind on food and rest by this point, so we decided to bust out the freeze-dried meals for an extended lunch break. It was nearing 2:00pm when we packed up and continued on, and the remaining 12 miles would prove to be some of the toughest terrain we would encounter.

John and Raman on Rocky Top

Appalachian Trail, near Thunderhead Mountain

The first 2 miles offered some spectacular views from Rocky Top and Thunderhead Mountain, but we were all beginning to realize that we wouldn’t be making it to Silers Bald by nightfall.

Matt atop Thunderhead Mountain

We reached Brier Knob late in the afternoon, still about 8.5 miles short of our goal. Raman especially was suffering from exhaustion, so we decided to stop for dinner and reevaluate our plans. By the time we finished eating, we’d reached the conclusion that we were going to have to split up. John and I would continue as planned in order to reach Newfound Gap by the evening of day 3 (and keep our meeting with Les), while Raman would spend the next three nights at the Derrick Knob, Double Spring, and Mount Collins shelters (reaching Newfound Gap on day 5).

Raman was a little tired

We hastily divided up our supplies in the waning daylight, then John and I redoubled our pace for a long hike in the dark.

I failed to mention it before, but I was doing this trek on a bad knee. To make a long story short, I’d re-injured my IT band during the Frozen Otter race, which you can read about HERE. I’d been limping to class only two weeks before leaving, so for the first time in my life I was using trekking poles in hopes of reducing the impact on my bad knee. Since I didn’t have any free hands, this meant that John got to follow me around with a flashlight.


These woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

-Robert Frost

Thanks to the terrible footing, a rather long stop to filter water (not an easy task in the dark), and a few instances when we nearly lost the trail, we didn’t reach the shelter until almost midnight…for the second night in a row. To give you an idea of how exhausted I was, I actually fell asleep halfway through changing my pants. It was only about 30°F, so the cold woke me up twenty minutes later and prompted me to crawl inside my sleeping bag.

Day 3:

There was only one other guy in our shelter that night, and he must have slipped out quietly that morning, because John and I didn’t wake up until well after 10:00am. By the time we packed, ate, and broke camp, it was nearly 11:00am. The day had just started, and we were once again playing catch-up.

Thanks to some GU gels and a nice, fatty sausage I’d brought along, we had plenty of energy to cover the 13.1 miles to Newfound Gap in just a few hours. This includes an extra 0.7 miles from when we accidentally took a side-trail down Clingman’s Dome and had to retrace our steps.

"Why climb Clingman's Dome once, when you can do it twice?"

Despite our other misfortunes, we were treated to our third consecutive clear day. The views were pretty exhilarating. So exhilarating, in fact, that I walked right into an old tree and knocked it over:

Sorry about that...

When we met up with Les at Newfound Gap, John and I decided to throw in the towel. Between his sore hip and my sore knee, it seemed like the smart thing to do.

Ironically, had we made it to Raman’s car at Davenport Gap, we would have been stuck there. His Honda Fit was “unfit” to drive, with two screws in the back tire and a dead battery.

Day 4:

Raman was still on the trail and John’s hip was still pretty sore, so Les and I took a short, 8-mile day hike along the AT to Charlies Bunyon. The hike seemed pretty effortless without a pack to carry.

Les on Charlies Bunyon

But as you can see, we were pretty much hiking through clouds.


Day 5:

John and I hiked another 8 miles on Tuesday morning, retracing our steps along the Appalachian Trail to meet up with Raman and accompany him back to the car. It was pouring rain most of the morning, so I didn’t take any pictures.

Raman, it turned out, had managed just fine without us (and our midnight death marches).

“I had an awesome time! Seven miles each day. Whenever I felt tired, I’d just lay down on the side of the trail and take a nap in the sun.”

John, Raman and I back at Newfound Gap

Approximate Total Distance: 58.6 miles, including the two day hikes

All my gear

Mountainsmith Lariat 65L pack
0° mummy bag
Small KA-BAR field knife
750mL water bottle (x2)
Maglite (x2)
foam sleeping pad (maybe)
map & pen
water filter
Jetboil with spare fuel
Black Diamond trekking poles
waterproof tarp
matches and fire-starter
emergency blanket

Terramar thermal pants
underwear & lightweight shorts
polyester sweatpants (x2)
polyester base layer shirt (x2)
middle insulation layer shirt (x2)
REI Elements rain pants
REI Elements ultralight jacket
SmartWool socks (x2)
North Face 105 GTX XCR mid trail running shoes
SealSkinz waterproof socks
fleece balaclava
multisport sunglasses
REI Switchback gloves

4 freeze-dried dinners
1 jar of peanut butter
2 sausages
7 protein bars
6oz dried mangos
11oz dried granola
GU gels, energy chews, roasted espresso beans

pocket Bible
IT-band strap
ibuprofen, ace wrap, bandages, sunscreen
toilet paper
garbage and Ziploc bags

Total Pack Weight (loaded and with water): 31.6 lbs

Published in: on March 19, 2012 at 8:54 pm  Comments (9)  

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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. “…I actually fell asleep halfway through changing my pants.”

    Literally laughing out loud. Thank you for posting your adventures. I find myself hoping you have many more just so I can read about them.


    • Thanks! I hope we have more as well!

  2. Nice post detailing your adventure!

    • Thanks Dad!

  3. […] Appalachian Trail Trek 2012 ( […]

  4. Wonderful photos- thank you Matt for sharing and taking is with you

  5. Loved this, Matt. I hiked a section of the AT last summer near Roan Mountain. Amazing! But I only did 28 miles in 3 days. And no vomiting!

    I plan to go out to CO this summer and try a 5-day trip. Am I up for this one?? We’ll see.

  6. […] third National Scenic Trail I’ve hiked along in as many months (read about the other trips HERE and HERE). North Country Trail […]

  7. […] those who remember, the same trip last year also got cut short. We’d only managed to finish the western half of the park that time around, so I was still […]

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