Appalachian Trail Update #4: How Crispy Got His Groove Back
Let’s say you spent the night packed in Double Spring Shelter in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in negative degree temperatures and awaken to a land of untrammeled snow with temperatures that show no sign of rising. What do you do?
For some people around me, the answer was to find a way to descend out of the mountains to find warmth and shelter in civilization. For others it was to stay put in their sleeping bags all day, never leaving the protection of the wind blocking walls of the shelter. For me, however, the answer was to push on full speed ahead. With not enough food in my pack to take an extra day to stay inside, and having no interest in returning to civilization where I just was two days prior and in which I’ve already spent too much time this thru hike (not by choice), my goal was to continue through the Smokies and get my hike back on track.
I had returned to the trail on Monday, March 13th, but still didn’t feel too great. Not that my prior injury was bothering me again, but I had an aching hip (that would subside on its own) and had made not as much progress as I would have liked on March 14th, having to break trail myself through a snow storm.
However, on March 15th, I woke up and told myself nothing would stop me from reaching my day’s goal, which was 13.8 miles over Clingman’s Dome and across Newfound Gap to Icewater Spring Shelter. Not the unbroken snow piled up in knee deep drifts, not the negative temperatures and wind chill that created a high risk of frostbite and hypothermia, and not my paranoia of re-injury. It had been too long since I expressed myself on trail. Too long since I had hiked with power and control. Too long since I had fun.
After summoning the will to slip out of my sleeping bag and choke down some breakfast with my fingers freezing, hydrate with some icy water that only made me colder, and pack my things, I bolted out of Double Spring Gap at 8:20 am into powdery snow and Arctic like temperatures shouting “Chattanooga!” (an inside joke me and some other thru-hikers picked up from spring breakers from Ohio State that became our rallying cry). As I bolted into the a frozen land, I knew I’d be alone. No one was dumb enough to join me.
I had my water bottles tucked inside my jacket, so they’d stay warm from my body heat and would not freeze. That was only somewhat effective. I had my snacks located in easily accessible pockets so I wouldn’t have to stop to eat. Stopping only increased my risk of hypothermia, I had to move to keep my body heat up. I had a sleeping bag liner (so graciously lent to me by my friend and backcountry ranger Will. Thanks Will!) around my neck as a makeshift scarf to protect my neck and face from the wind. And learning from Maurice Herzog, the first man to climb Annapurna who lost his glove on the upper reaches of the mountain and let his hand succumb to frostbite as he forgot he had an extra pair of socks in his pack he could have used, I had wool socks on my hands over my fleece gloves. Even that was barely enough.
Let’s talk about socks for a minute. Socks are one of the most important things to a hiker. I carry two pairs, I hike in one and sleep in the other (full disclaimer: I don’t sleep in socks in the front country. That’s just gross). The socks I put over my hands were my “sacred socks,” the ones I sleep in. I do everything I can to make sure these socks stay clean and dry and are only used for sleep, so they help heal my feet overnight and prepare them for the next days hike. But on this day, my socks had a different calling, they had to put in overtime. It felt sacrilegious as I watched my sacred socks get covered in snow falling off tree branches and snot from my runny nose. But these socks were probably the reason I didn’t get frostbite on my hands. Thank goodness for these socks. Shoutout to SmartWool. [side note over].
I pushed through snow, knee deep at times. I was eternally grateful that my mom shipped me my knee high snow gaiters and microspikes overnight the previous weekend, items I had shipped home from the Nantahala Outdoor Center in an attempt to lighten my pack to reduce the stress on my injured leg. Had I gone uninjured and remained on my original schedule, I would have completely avoided the snow. Hilarious. Now, the gaiters and microspikes were essential pieces of gear. Or if not essential, they made my life much easier and happier, helping me retain traction and keep my feet and legs dry through the snow.
I summited Clingman’s Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail at 6,644 feet, just before 10 am, with temps supposedly around -3 degrees Farenheit, wind chills of -15. As I climbed the summit outlook tower, I felt as if I had somehow transported out of the southern Appalachians to Chernobyl, Ukraine. With the tower seemingly designed in communist soviet style (although I’m no expert in architecture) covered in rime ice and snow, I stood sleeping bag liner around my neck and zinc oxide caked on my face in a cloud amongst the ghosts of Frasier fir trees affected by acid rain and Balsam Wooly Adelgid. Despite having worked in the Smokies and visited many times, this was my first time stop Clingman’s Dome. An interesting way to see it.
Too cold to linger, I dipped back down into the trees and kept moving. I pushed on towards Mt. Collins Shelter. Having broken trail alone between Double Spring Gap and Mt. Collins, I assumed SOMEONE must have been at Mt. Collins Shelter the night before and would be pushing towards at least Icewater Springs. I was looking forward to not having to break trail any longer. Much to my surprise, I found no footprints and I was the lone hiker past Mt. Collins. Having been on the section of trail between Mt. Collins and Icewater Springs in bad weather before on Halloween Day 2013 and despite being by my lonesome, I felt a sense of reassurance in that I was familiar with this section of trail and knew that even with some distance to go, I was in the home stretch. I wanted so bad to make it to Icewater Spring Shelter, as I knew it was on the eastern side of the ridge and out of the winds that had been prevailing from the west for days.
I plowed through the snow into the afternoon as the sun came out but did little to relieve the bitter cold. I crossed Newfound Gap on March 15th, nine days later than I had originally planned to arrive. Because of the road closure, I had the gap entirely to myself, a rare occurrence in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I stopped in the bathroom for a quick break out of the wind. Despite the lack of sanitation, I was tempted to sleep there by the warmth of the indoors. But instead, I trudged back outside and did the final three mile climb up to Icewater Springs Shelter by 3:30 pm.
After a long and taxing day that had my body working overtime in freezing conditions, I probably needed then more than ever the caloric boost of a hot meal and hot liquids, but it was too cold to think about toying with my stove or spending any time at rest outside of my sleeping bag. Instead, I pulled on every layer I had and slipped into my sleeping bag with a block of cheese as dinner. All alone the entire night, I dreamed of warmer weather.
Long story short, it took me two more days to get out of the Smokies. The first day was slightly warmer and sunnier, but I once again broke trail all alone through the snow across the northern ridges of the national park, navigating cliffside trail and admiring absolutely spectacular views of a wintery landscape. As I settled in for what I expected would be another night alone at TriCorner Knob Shelter, a group of 15 hikers rolled up seemingly all at once, apparently having all rushed to Newfound Gap to get hiking again as soon as the road opened after having spent multiple days waiting out the cold weather in Gatlinburg, TN. On the second day, I had plenty of company and made it in fact 18.6 miles all the way down to Davenport Gap, out of wintery snow in the summits and into springlike warmth and sun in the valley. It was my longest day since I sustained my injury on February 28th, and with some good company pacing with me, my leg felt strong enough to take me all the way.
If I could do it all over again, I would absolutely choose 70 degrees and sunny with a light wind and dry trail. While gaining in confidence, I was still unsure about my leg and I probably shouldn’t have been pushing myself double digit miles through knee deep snow. I probably shouldn’t have even considered putting in an 18.6 mile day yet. With lasting road closures, and difficult trail conditions, a rescue in the event of injury was highly unlikely, so I probably shouldn’t have been out alone deep in the Smokies. With ridiculously cold temperatures and frostbite and hypothermia as legitimate concerns, I probably shouldn’t have been outside anyway. In the event of an injury that was entirely immobilizing, my life would probably been at serious risk due to exposure, even with the good gear I had with me.
But I had good gear. I have skills, knowledge, and previous experience in bad weather to help me make safe decisions and mitigate risks. I had backup plans in my brain. Still, given my questionable physical status and numerous environmental threats, my time in the Smokies was probably some of the more ill advised backpacking I had ever done. But it was also some of the most epic and beautiful backpacking I’d ever done. To experience a national park in such an intimate yet challenging way, with such privacy, was a unique experience which I will not soon forget. It was also the first time I felt I was hiking the way I like since I was injured, with power and confidence. Despite the environmental obstacles, I felt in control of my pace and thermoregulation. I finally felt like myself.
But most importantly, I was having fun. And that’s how Crispy got his groove back.