An Appalachian Trail Experience

The Appalachian Trail – the 2,181 mile trail that runs from Georgia to Maine – an epic trip attempted by hundreds each year.  While my dad and I did not have the 6 months often required to complete the whole thing, we were interested in completing a piece.  We chose the approximately 75 mile section of trail that runs through the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, and on Sunday, August 11 we began our adventure.  We had spent the evening before checking gear and making sure we had everything necessary.  We then left early the next morning to drive to our starting point – the ranger station near Davenport Gap.  We had arranged to hike from the north to the south end of the park where mom would pick us up at Fontana Dam on Friday afternoon.

[Mileages for the trip – http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/appalachian-trail-smokies.htm]

Dad is ready to hit the trail!

Dad is ready to hit the trail!

I look so clean!

I look so clean!

We started around 4 PM from our car and hiked about 3 miles up to Davenport Shelter for our first night.  This shelter is one of the last remaining “old” shelters, with the fence across the front.  The fence is needed because the food is kept inside the shelter with you, rather than being hung on bear lines outside of the shelter.

Davenport Shelter

Davenport Shelter

Dad and I ended up getting the place to ourselves, which we both decided was a little spooky.  However, we were both happy to have the shelter because shortly after arriving it began to rain…. And rain….  It rained most of the night, but was nice enough to stop before we had to set off the next morning.

Monday morning was our first official full day – a really full day – 16 miles of fullness to be exact.  We hiked from Davenport Shelter to Tricorner Knob Shelter with several breaks in between.  We stopped by Cosby Knob Shelter for a break and to visit the ever rare privy – highly prized break locations for those hiking the AT (really).  Many of the shelters had high bear activity signs posted, and this was one of them.  We found out later that a bear had been there only that morning.

After a brief break we hiked on and took a side trail to visit Mt. Cammerer Lookout Tower, a structure built on the side of a high point used as a fire watch tower earlier in the park’s history.  Unfortunately, the mist that makes the Smokey Mountains famous arrested most of our views.  But we still stopped for a snack and to enjoy the fleeting views we could get as the mist shifted.

Mt. Cammerer Fire Lookout

Mt. Cammerer Fire Lookout

The fleeting view from Mt. Cammerer.

The fleeting view from Mt. Cammerer.

Finally we arrived at Tricorner Knob Shelter – the last arrivals at a very full shelter.  Dad and I shared the shelter with 12 other hikers, including another father/daughter team from Bloomington, IN.  Tricorner Knob Shelter ended up being a favorite of mine due to the close proximity of all necessities to the shelter (privy, water, and bear lines).  It was also sheltered in a cove that made it warmer than some of the later shelters that were up on the ridge.

Dad and I awoke early Tuesday morning to… you guessed it – pouring rain.  Great… a wet day.  Dad and I got ready to leave and took a break in the rain as an opportunity to get started on the trail.  Our routine was becoming an easy habit.  Wake up with the sun, go to bed with darkness, and hike in between.  However Tuesday was our easiest day, only 12.6 miles on the trail.  Our destination was Icewater Shelter, located on the ridge with a great view.  The day turned out to be a grey one with views of mist as we hiked the ridges.  We attempted to stop for a snack break in the morning on a stone outcropping, only to be rained on shortly after arrival.  It was one wet day.

There is supposed to be a view....

There is supposed to be a view….

Fortunately we did get a rain break for lunch with stunning views from Bradly’s View.  We took our time and rested there, chatting with hikers that came by and enjoying a bit of sunshine!

Bradley's View

Bradley’s View

View along the AT

View along the AT

Unfortunately, my knee had started hurting, so the second half of the day was slow going as I tried to walk in such a way as to not irritate my knee more.  Late in the afternoon we arrived at Charlie’s Bunion, and we had a decent view of the surrounding area.  The other father/daughter pair were enjoying the view and Dad and I got our first picture together!

Charlies Bunion

Charlies Bunion

Icewater Shelter was just after Charlie’s Bunion, much to our relief, as the rain was moving in.  And sure enough, within minutes of arrival it began to pour, again.  We were once again in a full shelter with 12 other people, an interesting mix of people on their first hiking experiences and section hikers who have been hiking the AT for years.   Because of the rain, we never saw the amazing views Icewater Shelter has to offer.  Even the following morning, as we prepared to leave, the clouds still hung low on the mountains.

Icewater Shelter

Icewater Shelter

What a view! ;)

What a view! 😉

My knee was feeling refreshed this morning, but once we hit the trail, the soreness set in.  Dad and I decided it must be an overuse issue, because without my pack on, it hurt way less – and once rested, not at all.  So for the rest of the trip I just took ibuprofen to control the pain.  And there was a bright side to the day (Wednesday)!  Today we hit our halfway point of the trip.  Plus, we would walk by the only flushable toilets of our trip at Newfound Gap, only a few miles from Icewater Shelter.  So we set off with excitement from Icewater Shelter and quickly made it to Newfound Gap.  There we rested and amusedly watched the stares of most people as they looked at us and our packs.  Many stopped to ask how far we were hiking.  (Newfound Gap is the one area where the AT crosses the road through the Smokey Mountains, so most people just drive to it)

After the break we started down the trail again into what became one of our favorite sections of the trail – the section between Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome.  We weren’t on the ridgeline for much of this section, but we were walking through deciduous rainforests that looked just like the forests found in the Pacific Northwest.

The beautiful deciduous rainforest.

The beautiful deciduous rainforest.

A tree that had been uprooted.

A tree that had been uprooted.

This tree took the rock with it.

This tree took the rock with it.

When we arrived at Clingmans Dome, it was shrouded in mist – so much so that you could barely see the base of the tower.  So instead of climbing, we just took a break at the base to enjoy the, as Dad put it, United Nations stream of people coming the see the Dome.  And to enjoy the stares aimed our direction as people wondered what we were doing with giant packs.  And of course to answer curiosity questions from those brave enough to ask.

Clingmans Dome... it's hiding in the mist.

Clingmans Dome… it’s hiding in the mist.

After that we took off again, heading to our final destination of the night – Silers Bald.  This section of the trail was full of evidence of the wild pigs that have rooted up many of the mountain slopes in the region.  We also met a group of women who had gotten lost – they headed the wrong direction when leaving Clingmans Dome – and made sure they got pointed in the right direction.  We had already noticed that since leaving Newfound Gap, there were fewer hikers on this side of the park.  And most that we did encounter were day hikers.  So we were anticipating a less crowded shelter for the evening – and we got it.  In fact, we had the shelter completely to ourselves.  Upon arrival we noticed that the temperatures were dropping, and a nasty, cold wind was blowing right through the shelter.  Plus, we still had wet gear from the days of rain that really needed to be dried out.  So we decided to gather wood and start our first fire of the trip.

Silers Bald Shelter

Silers Bald Shelter

It was wonderfully successful.  We were able to dry out socks and clothing, as well as stay warm from the wind until it was time for bed.

Making a fire.

Making a fire.

Thursday morning dawned with mist and a chill in the air, so Dad and I got moving fairly quickly just to warm up.  Today we would hit more ridgeline along Thunderhead and Rocky Top Mountains, and we were hoping the mist would clear out for the views.  Unfortunately, we had some hiking to do before we got to the viewpoints, and much of this section of trail was destroyed by the wild pigs as well.

We took a break at Derrick Knob Shelter and enjoyed the – wait for it – SUNSHINE!  Yes, the sun had made an appearance and Dad and I decided to bask in it for a while.

Basking in the sunlight at Derrick Knob Shelter.

Basking in the sunlight at Derrick Knob Shelter.

Apparently we were not the only ones coming out for the sunshine, as we made a friend in the form of a young male deer also out for a snack.

Our deer friend.

Our deer friend.

While he decided to hang out for a while longer, we had to press on.

A steep section on the trail.

A steep section on the trail.

An interesting mushroom found on the trail.

An interesting mushroom found on the trail.

A bear print on the trail.

A bear print on the trail.

When we reached Thunderhead, the mist was moving in and the moisture was so thick in the air that raindrops occasionally fell from the mist.  Thunderhead Mountain is now so overgrown with rhododendrons that you have to stand on a pile of rocks at the top just to see a glimpse of the surrounding landscape.

A rhododendron tunnel leading to Thunderhead Mountain.

A rhododendron tunnel leading to Thunderhead Mountain.

We made it.... I'm tired.

We made it…. I’m tired.

The rock pile at the top of Thunderhead Mountain.

The rock pile at the top of Thunderhead Mountain.

So we pressed on to Rocky Top where the vegetation is not so thick.  We could see some around the mist, but we were rather disappointed that we had yet to get a completely mist free view on our trip.

The view from Rocky Top.

The view from Rocky Top.

We did have a bright spot on our horizon – Spence Field Shelter had a privy!  And we would pass the shelter that afternoon!  Regrettably, we were planning to stay at Russell Field Shelter (about 2.5 miles past Spence Field Shelter), but we could still take a break at Spence Field.  Which we did… and almost didn’t leave because by this time, we were a little footsore.  But we pressed on, and upon arrival at Russell Field found a fellow hiker hunkered down in his sleeping bag looking a little scared.  We quickly learned that a bear had come into the shelter not 5 minutes before as he was napping and had come right up to the hiker sniffing.  Needless to say, the guy was happy to have some other people around in case the bear came back for another visit.  We were just disappointed we’d missed the bear.

Russel Field Shelter

Russel Field Shelter

Cooking our dinner at Russel Field Shelter.

Cooking our dinner at Russel Field Shelter.

Friday morning started pretty full of excitement.  Tonight we were going to get real food!  Just 13.5 miles and we would be done with our 75 mile trek!  We set off full of energy and made good time to Mollies Ridge Shelter.

We took a break at Mollies Ridge Shelter, our last high point before descending to Fontana Dam.  As we descended, we decided to take a short side trail to the site of an old fire tower – Shuckstack Tower.  According to what we had read, it had been torn down, but the views were said to still be good.  Much to our surprise, we found the tower still standing, and still climbable.  So up we went – to enjoy the best views of our whole trip.  The clouds had mostly cleared out, and we could see a lot of the ridge we had just hiked in the past few days.  We could also see down to Fontana Dam – our ending point.

Shuckstack Tower

Shuckstack Tower

The top of Shucksack Tower.

The top of Shucksack Tower.

Fontana Dam from Shuckstack Tower.

Fontana Dam from Shuckstack Tower.

A view over The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

A view over The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We also found a lizard hanging out in the chimney of the old building that once stood beside the tower as a place to house those stationed there.

The remains of the structure that stood beside the tower.

The remains of the structure that stood beside the tower.

DSCN4576

Well now that we could see our destination, we were ready to tackle the last of the trail.  So down, down, down, we went.

The pretty butterflies on the flowers.

The pretty butterflies on the flowers.

The trail ends at a road, that you can drive, but we had decided to walk it to the dam so we could walk across the dam as our last piece of the hike.  As we hiked along the road, just before we reached the dam, we finally saw the bears we had been waiting for all trip.  Two bear cubs ran across the road and down into a ravine.  They were too fast to get pictures of, but it was a cool way to end the trip.

Dad and I on Fontana Dam.  We reached the end!

Dad and I on Fontana Dam. We reached the end!

And of course mom was there waiting on the dam for our arrival.  And with a car, so I could stop walking.

75 miles in 5 days!

75 miles in 5 days!

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Smoky Mountain Trail Run: Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap

For spring break this year, I’d been planning a 5-day backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail (traversing the 72-mile section through Great Smoky Mountains National Park). I started the trip with my father-in-law and two other guys from Milwaukee, but unfortunately had to turn back after the first night thanks to a raging ear infection.

For 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 really wanting to see the 32-mile eastern section.

By the time I got over the ear infection, I still had a few days of spring break remaining…so I got the idea to trail run the section from Newfound Gap to Davenport Gap (approximately 31.8 miles, with 6,000 feet of elevation gain and 9,000 feet of elevation loss). I’ve covered this distance a few times before, but this would be the first time I’d be doing it completely self-supported. Since it’s a one-way run, I managed to convince my buddy Joon come along and pick me up when I finished.

DSCN4044

Scouting trail conditions with Joon the day before the run

As you can see from the picture above, the trail conditions were less than ideal. Roughly half the total distance was covered in either snow or ice, which made for some really slow progress at times.

DSCN4050

Gearing up at Newfound Gap

We spent Thursday evening watching basketball and enjoying some Mexican food, then I got off to an early start on Friday morning (since hitting the trail at 8:20 am is an “early start” by my standards).

DSCN4055

View from Charlies Bunyon (4.4 miles in)

The initial section from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunyon gets a lot of daily foot traffic, so it was especially icy. The mountains had received a lot of snowfall the previous week, and you can imagine how a week’s worth of thawing, refreezing, and constant trampling can turn a blanket of snow into a sheet of ice.

So calling this thing a “trail run” might be a bit of a stretch. The reality is that I skated ~4 miles (across ice), shuffled ~12 miles (across snow), and jogged the remaining ~16 miles (across rock & dirt).

DSCN4056

Somewhere near Laurel Top (7.5 miles in)

When I reached the midway point at Tricorner Knob, I had to stop for 20-30 minutes to filter water from a stream. I was carrying a 3-liter hydration reservoir, and the cool temperature (mid-40’s most of the day) meant that I was able to get away with only making one such stop.

DSCN4058

Mount Guyot, looking north (17 miles in)

Once I hit the far side of Mount Guyot, the trail began losing a lot of elevation. The downhill sections went by pretty quickly, but they really did a number on my quads. My feet were also starting to feel the mileage at this point, so I decided to make another stop at the Cosby Knob shelter to take an Ibuprofen and change into dry socks.

SAMSUNG

The aftermath

You can see from the splits just how much I was slowed down by the terrain and trail conditions. For the sake of comparison, I covered roughly the same distance in October in 6:01:17.

gsmnp splits

*Both of these sections included 20-30 minute rest stops

Osprey Raptor 10

My gear

Pack List

Osprey Raptor 10 pack (w/ 3-liter bladder)
Outdoor Research Paladin jacket
soccer shirt & shorts
SmartWool socks (2 pairs)
Montrail Masochist trail running shoes
thermal shirt & pants
Black Diamond trekking poles
REI fleece glove liners
fleece balaclava
Black Diamond Icon headlamp (w/ spare batteries)
map
tissues
emergency blanket
lighter & fire starters
camera
cell phone
Katadyn water filter
energy gels (x7)
Honey Stinger waffles (x5)
Snickers bars (x2)
Gatorade mixes (x3)
painkillers/benadryl/imodium

Published in: on March 18, 2013 at 6:57 pm  Comments (3)  

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.

John

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.

Onward!

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

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

Clothes:
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

Food:
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

Misc:
spoon
pocket Bible
IT-band strap
ibuprofen, ace wrap, bandages, sunscreen
toilet paper
toothbrush/toothpaste
camera
phone
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)