Trip Report: Great Smokey Mountains II (March 16-18, 1998)
Trip Map, National Park Map
After having had such a lovely time in the Smokies last year and suffering from some monumental cabin fever, I headed off to them again this year intent on doing a week-long solo trip being more ambitious mileage and elevation wise. Little did I know at the outset just how much of a barrier the weather would prove to be. Whereas last year was a pleasent mix of sun and warm rain, this year would be an uninterupted week of rain following colder temperatures and a good quantity of snow.
The small but lovely Chasteen Cascade.
Also a nice example of how a neutral density
filter effects waterfall pictures.
In any case, with hopes high, I packed up the new pack... stuffed to the gills really... with all the gear for a safe winter hike and headed out from Smokemont Campground on the NC side of the central ridge. The proposed hike would take me to campsite #48, Peck's Corner Shelter, Icewater Spring shelter, and campsite #49 before leaving me back at the car. It was not particularly ambitious milage wise averaging less than seven miles per day, but on the advice of the backcountry office folks, I planned conservatively. Modifications could be made at a later date.
Monday was cloudy for the drive over Newfound Gap and Smokemont was warm with light rain. Undaunted I did a final editting of the gear and set off in good spirits at 11am. The trail, one of the broad road-like paths which pass as trails in the Smokies, was essentially level and passed along the side of a large stream for 1.2 miles before splitting off and heading up Chasteen Creek. Along the way I passed a lovely but otherwise unremarkably waterfall of the cascade variety. By 2pm I rolled into campsite #48, a pleasent wooded site near a fan of foot-wide creek feeders remarkable only in that they left almost no area level. Debating the options openned up by my unexpectely early arrival, I determined that there was nothing else to press on to that I could reach in three hours of daylight, so I settled down and set up camp. A fire was layed, the tarp errected and dinner prepared. The night passed uneventfully.
Tuesday came with no discernable change in the weather except that the rain had left off and the dense fog begun. Soon enough the rain would rejoin the scene and form a trio with the fog and soon to arrive high winds. I packed up camp and set out up the last 1.7 miles of the Chasteen Creek Trail to the crest of Hughe's Ridge. It was a steep climb and the combination of my beginning of season torpor and beginning of hike, heavily weighted pack made the going slow. Never-the-less, by 10:30 I had attained the ridge and set off through the woods. The trail was moderately muddy and after 3 miles, sizable patches of snow started to appear. Both factors, combined with a steadily worsening rain cospired to make hiking unpleasent.
Finally, after a total of 6.7 miles, I arrived at Peck's Corner Shelter (again at 2pm!). The shelter was done up in the usual style in the region in that it is constructed of stone with a metal roof and chain-link fence front wall to keep the bears out. Deep snow surrounded the area and the idea of finding dry firewood was laughable. Furthermore, the shelter was occupied by two groups of very wet college students who had just arrived from hiking along the ridge.
Since the time was early and there was general pandemonium in the shelter, I ditched most of my gear and set off up the 0.2 remaining miles to the Appalachian Trail. The map listed Eagle Rocks as a likely looking destination within about a mile of the shelter. An easy trail led up and down a little bit before gaining an impressive selection of non-views. I use the term non-views because, had the visibility been more than 20 yards, I'm sure there would have been spectacular views out over the lower lands. As it was, however, a stiff breeze blew from the Tennessee side driving with it big, fat rain drops. I wandered back to camp with the sinking feeling that my formerly waterproof boots were becoming soaked through.
When I returned to camp several things happened simultaneously. First a pair of rugged-looking through-hikers (Wrongfoot and Packrat) arrived asking after a friend of theirs. Secondly, several of the college students were attempting to light a fire using wet hemlock boughs (avec needles) and a good portion of their cooking fuel supply. In the ensuing chaos of many wet hikers trapped in a small shelter in which large fireballs are leaping about, I ducked out to filter some water.
Eventually things calmed down and we got good and social. The group of three hikers; Walter (Partly Foggy), Chadd (Big Cheif Naked Bare), and Brian (Duct Foot), were from Berry College of Rome, GA. They were hiking the AT through the park south to north and had two more days to go. The other group of five (Heather, Gabe, Scott, Mark, Nikki) was from Iowa State and were bound for site 48 the next day. We had a fine old time as Brian burned the Terriyaki, Heather slaved away over the stoves with fresh veggies for her cohorts who were all huddled in sleeping bags, and I tried to just stay out of the way. It was a pleasent, social night all round.
A typical view from the trail. It was just
as cold and dank as it looks here.
Wednesday, rising before 7, we found no change in any aspect of the weather. The non-essential dry articles stuffed into my boots had not dried the boots at all. Unhappily, I pulled on the squishy things and headed out as the Iowa State group was stirring. Up to the AT and then "south" for a long 7.5 mile slog.
Were the weather more cooperative, this would have been a spectacular hike. If this kind of terrain existed up north, it would be called a knife-edge. A thin path runs down the exact centerline of the ridge and is perhaps a yard wide. On either side there are steep dropoffs of unknown depth but by the map they must be at least 1000'. The terrain is a gentle undulation with trees on both sides except for the frequent rocky parts where one side or the other would be clear. Again, if it weren't for the fog, this would be great!
Unfortunately, large snow patches are prevalent and a lot of melting is occurring. Since the trails are dished slightly, there is a thin lip between the edge of the trail and the precipitous trailsides. Thus, instead of running over either side of the ridge (into one state or the other), all the meltwater runs directly down the trail at an average depth of about an inch. Each boot at this point was carrying about a pound of water! I pressed on past Charlie's Bunion, a dramatic crag of rock reported to have spectacular views. The last mile to Icewater Springs Shelter featured a lot of icewater, but a lack of both spring in my step or shelter over head.
When at last I limped across the mud doorway to the shelter, I had pretty much made up my mind that THIS WAS NOT FUN ANYMORE and that it was time to GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE. I shared the camraderie of a father/son pair of thruhikers and cooked one of my now-surplus dinners as lunch just to have something hot to keep me going.
With grim determination, I shouldered the pack for the last time and set off on the mostly downhill 2.9 mile trek to Newfound Gap where the road intersects the Trail and cars can be found. And indeed when I finally arrived, I was a sight to see. Wet, bedraggled, miserable through and through! After about a mile of hitching, I was picked up and taken the remaining 11 miles back to Smokemont and cautious defeat at the hands of the capricious weather gods.
In the words of Lao Tzu, a good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving. It was certainly an interesting trip, though not at all as I had planned.
Total trip milage by day, 4.0, 6.7, 12-ish. (in actuality)
As planned: 4.0, 6.7, 7.7, 9.0, 4.5