Day 2 in the smokies was hellacious. It continued to snow and the path itself became a watery, slushy, muddy mess that came up above your ankles. I'm one of the only guys out here wearing hightop, goretex/leather boots and even my feet were saturated through. Rob (now known as Talula) mailed his Asolo Fugitive boots home at the end of week one and replaced them with a pair of Oboz trail runners (essentially running shoes). It had to be done because his feet were killing him but the agony was obvious since he had slush pouring into the top of his shoes with every step. The days goal was 12 miles flat and to be honest, we should have shut it down before then and set up camp anywhere we could have. Arriving at Derricks Knob shelter, we walked into a massacre. The shelter was wall to wall with people's wet, smelly, muddy gear. The majority of the occupants where a bit older, 7 of which had decided to zero there that day. As a friendly community, people are generally tolerant of everyone's individual hiking plan. And given the weather, it was understandable that hikers in there 50's and 60's wouldn't want to venture out that day. But the circumstances were such that nerves began to flare a bit. There had been no attempt to make a fire (we arrived at 5pm), so we quickly began gathering fire wood and clearing out the fireplace in attempts to dry out some socks and gloves at the very least, boots and shoes will dry by a fire but only if there is enough wood to burn a really hot fire. There wasn't. No help came from any of the zeroing hikers. There only comments to us were concerns about the placement of their shoes next to the nonexistant fire. Had they made an attempt to start their own fire instead of sitting complacently in their sleeping bags eating Mac n cheese all day we may have been a little more inclined to accept requests for fireside realistate. With my father in need of warmth, sleep and dry clothes; my particular priorities were to get his affairs in order so we could finish out his final day with relative comfort. All the boys we are hiking with were extremely helpful in this task. Big thanks to you fellas.
Day 3 was just more of the same. Foggy, cold and slushy. The cherry on top was another 2600ft climb to The highest elevation on the entire AT atop Clingman's Dome at 6655ft. Because we were already at a solid 4000 and change, the air getting thinner was unhelpful at best. The finale of the hike was a painful mile of what seemed like straight uphill trudging. Slush and mud was still ever present. By the time we got done with the hike we were all completely gassed. The top of Clingman's Dome has a parking lot where picnickers can drive up to enjoy the view. Our intention was to have our friend Rooster's mother (mama Rooster) meet us at the parking lot and drive us into Gatlinburg, TN for our resupply and to get pops on his way back to Wilmington. To our dismay, there were no cars in the lot. Upon calling the rangers service, we were told that the park was closed until April 1st.... This being March 31st.... Shit. While trying to resort to another means of transportation, we made calls from the public bathrooms at the top of the mountain to get out of the rain. O yeah, it was pouring freezing rain by now. Lovely. We made call after call to the rangers service, ridge runners, and park maintenance staff to see if there was any way they would open the gate so we could get down off this godforsaken mountain. No dice. 2 to a stall, times 5 stalls, we gathered ourselves and weighed the potential alternatives.
The options were to either continue 7.3 miles by trail to Newfound Gap (not an option considering the climbing involved, the energy we had and the food in our packs) or to walk ourselves out of the park via the access road (a similar distance of 6.7 miles, although all downhill and on a paved surface). We chose option B. After about a half dozen more calls to the rangers service on the way down, they finally came clean with us that they had 2 units on the access road responding to a cardiac call made by a fellow hiker in the same situation. He luckily was able to get down off the mountain without aggravating his heart condition, and the rangers were able to give a lift to one other person so we elected to get my father out of the elements. The ranger gave him a ride to the bottom and we trudged int out for another couple hours and met up at the gates. Mama Rooster and Uncle Rooster were waiting with two trucks to give 10 saturated hikers a ride into town. Some of us chose to get into town and get settled at the motel while others took Mama Rooster up on her offer of pulled pork dinner at the nearby campground she was staying at. I regrettably opted to get our sleeping situation under control as it was now 8pm, instead of eating dinner in my soaked gear and boots, but I've been told it was well worth the discomfort. Having eaten a few meals prepared by Mama Rooster since, I am inclined to believe the pulled pork was something to behold. We're all contemplating moving to the south just for the variety of slow roasted meats doused in BBQ sauce. Nom nom. Later that evening, on the breaking news there in the metropolis that is Gatlinburg Tennessee, a report of 10 hikers that had to be "rescued" from Clingman's Dome came across the air. Apparently the rangers service reported to the news that we were "unprepared to hike in snow", "had inappropriate gear" and were "saved by the efforts of the parks department". I distinctly remember walking every step of that 7 miles off the Dome, but I guess we couldn't have done it without the words of encouragement from the rangers service dispatcher...
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