Waking up in our on-trail camp site, the morning greeted us with pouring rain. We expected it, so most of us went to sleep in our rain gear and packed up quick. 2.7 miles to US rt 40 marked the end of the Smokey Mountain National Park. Immediately after exited the park, most of us turned and faced the mountains with a few choice words for the range. We gave the mountains an ear-full but the mountains were still going to get the last laugh. Lined up liked hobos under the overpass of US 40, we waited for mama rooster to swing by and drop off the next 3 days worth of food that we left with her individually packaged so we could reduce our weight as much as possible. We made the hand off and quickly hopped back on the trail to complete the next 10 miles to Groundhog Creek Shelter. At the gap, we were at 1000 ft. The climb back into the mountains was a whopping 3200 foot climb over 6 miles. As the elevation increased, we quickly realized the error of our ways. The winds had increased to about 40mph, the temp dropped to the low 30s, the wind chill combined with rain caused extreme freezing rain. The branches of the trees were thick with ice and as the wind caused the trees to sway and collide, the branches and chunks of ice were breaking free and falling to the ground all around us. Every few seconds you could actually feel the thud of falling debris vibrate the ground around you. Everyone was being pelted with golf ball sized pieces of ice but I was lucky enough to be struck with an ice coated branch the size of a drain pipe in the right shoulder. Scared me more than anything, but honestly, these conditions were dangerous. We made a mistake by not turning around and seeking shelter at the Standing Bear hostel in Davenport Gap. Making matters worse, we had chosen to each pack-out a 6 pack of beer from Davenport Gap to celebrate our friend Thunderfoot's 28th birthday. The extra weight was an unwelcome addition after about 2 miles from US 40. All in all the hike was nothing short of agonizing. In fact, every day I come up with a word of the day. Guess what today's word was? arriving at groundhog creek, every one of us was on the brink of tears, happy to have arrived at the shelter but worried about the rocess of camping in these conditions and with completely wet gear. We have never been so wet, so cold or so tired. It was a group consensus that this day was, barr none, the most uncomfortable, miserable day on trail.
Of course the shelter was full, no surprise there. But the people who were there we're nice enough to slide aside and let us have a few moments under cover to sort out our clothing situation (individually of course, it was just a 6 man shelter) and make a plan for setting up our tents. Needless to say there was no fire to be had and we were sentenced to a couple more days in wet boots. Upon opening my pack, I realized that a ragged piece of metal from my frame had punctured one of the budweisers and the beer had trickled down through my pack to the sleeping bag compartment where my new down bag (my pride and joy) had absorbed the beer like a sponge. The curse words I wish to use to describe this scene are too graphic for a family audience. Let's just say this was the last straw for me... But the misery wasn't quite over. Setting up a tent in the rain is a tricky thing. The idea is to get the tent on top of the ground sheet ASAP so as to avoid trapping moisture between the sheet and the tent floor. The tent floor is not water proof and as such will allow moisture to permeat through, especially with the weight of a person on top of it. I'm sure many of you have already pieced it together that none of us were able to execute a dry tent set-up. And even if we had, the tents were already wet just from our packs being saturated by the rain. As I said, it was an agonizing experience. We did what we could to induce sleep (we did have beer after-all) and get the hell out of there as soon as we could the next morning.
Packing up camp wasn't too bad, all things considered. Sleeping in a wet bag is pretty damn uncomfortable but the fact that any of us got sleep was a blessing in itself. We chose to spend a little time waiting out the rain so as to avoid compounding our discomfort. We had heard the weather forecast was supposed to turn in our favor by around noon so we took off once the rain turned to a fine mist around 11. There is a massive bald (probably about the size of 10 football fields) called Max Patch that we were going to reach about 7 miles into the hike. By mile 5, there had been no change in the weather and the terrain was getting more difficult. The day was shaping up to be a another uncomfortable walk through the wet woods. We had all agreed that if the sun was out we would wait for everyone to regather at Max Patch and lay out our gear to dry (we leave camp staggered so we can hike alone or in pairs, rarely as a 10 person group). Approaching max patch, it seemed like this wouldn't be an option as the sun had yet to come out. I was ugly. Everyone was. The innate need for warmth and dry clothes was starting to wear our patience thin.
As though someone literally flipped a switch, the fog lifted. I was shocked. I truly could not believe that we were seeing patches of blue shine through the grey backdrop. The sun appeared. As though I had just learned I won the lottery, I cracked up laughing, raising my hands and poles up and screaming with victory. Not being funny or anything, but I may have squeezed out a couple tears of joy. It was a victory like no other. Too busy celebrating to notice my surroundings, I looked uphill to see our friend rooster, perched on a stump, watching me rejoice. He too was a little watery eyed. What a feeling. It have the sun on your back after such an outrageously uncomfortable stretch of weather is something none of us will soon forget.
We sauntered on up the next couple miles to Max Patch, wading through steam which rose from the saturated carpet of fallen leaves. The forest reeked of earthy soil smells from the evaporation. It reminded us more of the rain forest than it did the woods of Tennessee. Residual ice and moisture loosened their grip on the tree branches and, again, was falling all around us. We didn't care. We knew we had the necessary tools to get dry once we got up onto the bald; sunshine.
Being the first ones to reach Max Patch, we admired the unbelievable 360 degree view and then wasted no time taking care of business. We drove two hiking poles into the ground and strung a clothes line between them (no trees up there). We hung all our lightweight clothing and laid out the heavier stuff including jackets, sleeping bags/pads, and boots across the mountaintop field. We held our tents and rain-flys in our hands and flew them like kites to catch the warm wind. It's amazing how fast sil nylon will dry with the presence of sunshine and air current. My tent went from saturated to bone dry in a matter of 5 minutes. A task I had spent 2 hours trying to complete with a hand cloth the previous night. Before long, our little clan had all made it up the hill and laid out their gear. We now had 4 clothes lines and hundreds of items cast across the grassy bald. After being joined by another 10 hikers, some of which we knew, some we didn't, the field looked like a small village of hobos laughing and cooking small portions of starchy goo in our little soda can containers. It was bliss. Zach Davis, author of "Appalachian Trials" describes the highs and lows of hiking the AT as "the Appalachian roller coaster" for it's unpredictable bouts of both pleasure and pain. Although I understood the idea in a conceptual sense, it wasn't until this moment that I could relate to how quickly one emotion can become the other. We had both our best and worst moments of the trail (thus far) within a 24 hour period.
Some of the boys enjoyed Max Patch so much that they chose to camp there for the night even though it meant a 20 mile day into Hot Springs NC the next day. Rob, Novy, Genius, and our new friend Fig all decided to set up shop on top of the bald to catch what I'm sure was an unreal sunset. Thunderfoot, Rooster, Pepa (47, from long island), Brown Sugar (23, from CT) and myself chose to push the next 6 miles to Walnut Mountain shelter where we would be within striking distance of Hot Springs. Arriving at Walnut, we found the shelter was located on a nice big bald of its own. Thus we too were able to catch a kick-ass sunset with a Smokey Mountain backdrop.
We hit the sack and set the alarms for 530 am. The intention was to get up and kill the 14 miles to hot springs by noon so we could get our laundry taken care of and get our camp ground reservations all settled for when the rest of the group arrived.
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