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Freezing in The Smokies

Day 146: Davenport Gap Shelter to Peck’s Corner Shelter (19.8 mi)

I woke up with a start as my phone read 6:53 am. Everyone in the shelter was still sound asleep. I woke up Fresh Feet and said “we’ve got to get up! It’s 7 o’clock!” He moved as quickly as I’ve seen in a long while. It was still oddly dark, but we were in a dense forest and it was supposed to be an overcast and rainy day, so I just thought it was super cloudy. Once we had everything ready to go, I looked at my phone, which read 7:40. Then FF was like “hey! I thought you told me it was 7!” We compared phones. His said 6:40 am.... so odd! By now Rebound and Scout were up and we checked with Rebound about what time it was. It turned out it was 6:40 and my phone was on central time, but the Smokies are in EST. We were literally straddling right on the time zone border. Phew! That explained the darkness and I felt like I got an extra hour back in my day.

We climbed for 4.2 miles after leaving the shelter. It was slow going. Our bodies were definitely fatiguing and we just don’t have that same energy that we once did.

We had some nice views this morning even though it was a cloudy morning, but as we climbed higher and the day wore on the weather got cooler and wetter as we were in a cloud.

We had our lunch smoothies at Guyott spring, probably the highest water source we’ve drank out of on trail at 6200 + feet. We got cold pretty quickly so made it a short break and then pressed on. Only 7.1 more trail miles and then another 0.4 mi off the ridge to the shelter. We debated trying to go further and maybe stealth camp, but the weather was nasty and we were fatigued. FF was tired from all the climbing today and was especially hungry. He is needing more calories each day.

We finally got to the shelter around 4:30 and we set up and had an early dinner at 5:00. Fresh Feet made a fire in the fireplace in the shelter, but we think it was too far back because it really wasn’t giving off any heat. When we were eating dinner the rain came. It rained with varying degrees of intensity throughout the night. We decided to have hot dessert (chocolate, coconut, chia seeds and blueberries!). YUM! It really hit the spot. 

The shelter had a very large tarp acting like a curtain between the sleeping and cooking area, which helped block the wind and hold in a tiny amount of heat from the fire. The shelters in the Smokies are much bigger and nicer than the ones we had been sleeping in for the last few hundred miles. The shelters had gotten pretty bad after VA, no privies and falling apart and ridden with mice. We didn’t see any mice at this shelter, but the two section hikers who were here said they saw a few bears about half a mile before getting to the shelter. This shelter had cables for hanging our food bags, so that was good!

The fire was beautiful and nice but a bit smoky. I was in my sleeping bag and ready for sleep at 7:10 pm! The rain REALLY picked up and I just really hoped it would let up by morning!!! There was no service here so no way to check the weather forecast...

Day 147: Peck’s Corner Shelter to Mt. Collins Shelter (15.4 mi)

Woke up to the sound of rain and Fresh Feet and I couldn’t get out of our sleeping bags. The rain finally let up and we decided it was our window of opportunity and we should get going. I remembered the forecast saying that the rain wasn’t supposed to really pick up until noon. We agreed instead of taking an on-trail-zero that we would at least hike 7 miles to the next shelter.

Those first 7 miles took forever. We got there at 12:30 pm. Made smoothies and decided to push on to the next shelter.

The next 8 miles went by faster, but when we finally got to the shelter we were ready to be done. We were wet and the temperature was dipping.

We got to the shelter and there were three older section hikers (Sugar foot, Fireman, and Niel). They come out each winter to chip away at all 800 miles of trail in the Smokies. They gave us some snacks and had hiked in dry firewood from the nearby parking lot. This was a GAME CHANGER because the mossy wood in the area was pretty wet so it would have been much harder to have a good fire. Fireman made a nice fire and we were actually able to dry some of our things by the fire, which was amazing! Fireman also gave me a huge puffy down jacket to sleep with as an extra layer! His sleeping bag was a zero degree bag and it was supposed to get down into the teens tonight. He had a device for blowing up FF’s air mattress because the water vapor from his mouth would freeze in the mattress and make it cold underneath him. These section hikers with their trail magic really saved the day because having dry shoes the next day would prevent them from freezing overnight and then becoming wet. Having our clothes dry by the fire probably saved us. I was just so filled with gratitude by their generosity.

Day 148: Mt. Collins Shelter to Spence Field Shelter (19 mi)

The day started out COLD and bitter. I was hungry an hour after my morning soylent (pretty sure FF didn’t put enough scoops in, which admittedly it can be hard to keep track of all the scooping). Hungry and numb hands and face just made for kind of a miserable climb up to Clingman’s Dome (the tallest peak on the AT).

I was frozen solid. Like legitimately couldn’t feel my face or fingers. My toes warmed up once I was walking, but I just could not get warm or into a positive headspace. I was way too cold. I decided to get my hand warmers out and use them. This helped some. I then ate a bar, this also helped some. The wind was ripping at probably 20-30 MPH and it was just harsh conditions. I just started to give in to the misery and felt like I didn’t want to be out there hiking anymore. I searched and couldn’t access a “why” for being out here suffering day after day. In the wet and cold and just unable to feel safe and secure with such extreme weather conditions made for heightened stress.

After the 4 mile steep climb to Climgman’s Dome, I started to not feel like I wanted to quit anymore. I was really feeling like I couldn’t last another few days. It just didn’t seem worth it. I could get to Fontana Dam and go home. Come back some other time in the spring or summer to finish the trail. It would be warm and beautiful then, with plenty of daylight.

There were a lot of sections this morning that were totally iced over and FF and I both slipped quite a bit. It was scary and I caught myself with my pole, but each time I did it strained my back and shoulder and I had pretty intense pain when I had to use my pole to prevent a fall.

During the hike this morning our water bottles froze. I decided to put mine inside my pack so it could be more insulated from the wind and it helped and I had only half of it in ice cubes. FF did not follow suit and his froze even more.

After creating Clingman’s the south side of the mountain was much tamer. We got some views and a lot more sunshine. I had a total mood shift. I suddenly felt awe struck by the winter wonderland that surrounded me as everything had a nice layer of ice and snow on it from over night precipitation. The cold was no longer a force to fight against but rather to be harmonious with. The sun shining (and hand warmers) helped A LOT!

The beauty struck me all day long. It was hard to take my hands out of warmth to take pictures, but I couldn’t help it. Now that I wasn’t trying to fight the cold anymore I didn’t feel as tense and cold in my muscles. I would try to jog when the trail was dry and sunny and downhill to make up for the slow morning start.

Midday we hit the 2,000 mile mark! We missed the sticks in the ground (they were pretty camouflaged), but took a celebratory selfie anyway!

Then I hit the last mountain (Rocky Top) at sunset and it was BEYOND BEAUTIFUL. I had a strong spiritual experience with the incredible sunset and a feeling of my ancestors close to me. I felt connected to this force much greater than me, a tiny human speck in this big, harsh, but pristine landscape. The moon began to appear in its tiny crescent sliver as what we call an “uña” (fingernail) and the orange and red light, colors and layers of mountains overtook my senses fully. I’m not even exaggerating, I was just awestruck and kind of paralyzed by the tug I felt. There was such a strong force pulling me to stay and “just be”. I made peace with the Smokies on our last night there and felt lighter and changed in some inexplicable way.

I then ran down 1.1 miles to the shelter and it got dark very quickly and I had a hard time reading the signs (there were a few trail intersections before the shelter trail). I was still processing what had just occurred with the summit sunset but knew that I had the cook set so FF was probably getting hungry and couldn’t make dinner without me. I finally used the flashlight from my phone instead of getting my headlamp out since I knew I was so close. The light on the snow sparkles in the most majestic way that recaptured my attention and awe as I closed in on the shelter. 

Craig and FF made a fire which was nice even just as a a beautiful thing to have in our presence. Even if it’s not throwing off much heat it is such a morale booster in the cold and dark. I made dinner by the fire and then finally Loon showed up. It was quite a bit colder in this shelter because it was open on top in the rafters so we were unable to trap any heat from the fire. FF burned a pair of socks and melted his water bottle and his headlamp ran out of batteries. He also was totally out of bars but I had extra to give him for tomorrow (plus what the section hikers at Mt Collins had given us). We only had one more day (tomorrow) and then we would get a resupply box in Fontana Dam.

Day 149: Spence Field Shelter to Fontana Dam, NC (19 mi)

Phew! Last night was probably our coldest night yet because the shelter was a lot more drafty than the one the night before. Unfortunately, I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee! It was so devastating to leave the cocoon of my sleeping bag to face the frigid night air, but my spirit was lifted with fantastic views of the stars for a short moment. When I returned to the loft where FF and I had set up in the shelter he had the idea to use the rainfly as a blanket over both of us. This made a huge difference actually!

We woke up slowly and made hot chocolate soylent (SO YUMMY! I can’t believe we aren’t sick of this yet!). Fresh Feet stoked the coals and rekindled the fire and Craig and Loon woke up after us. Patrick, the section hiker from Chicago left early with a giant canister of bear mace and a machete attached to his hip belt. It’s incredible how much fear people bring with them to the woods. His bear mace was the size of a spray paint canister. Yesterday there were three bears that supposedly followed him on the trail for a little bit and wouldn’t leave or get scared of him. I would think if he didn’t use the bear mace then, I can’t imagine a scenario where he would need it? And the machete? Can’t think of anything. A saw or axe for getting firewood maybe, but no one needs a giant weapon-sized knife. Just no one.

The four of us (Craig, Loon, Fresh Feet and me - Sprout) had breakfast by the fire which made leaving the shelter difficult. I was the first one to leave and I knew FF wouldn’t be too far behind. Once I left the sun was shining through the bare trees and it actually felt much warmer than the previous days!

Today had two climbs in the morning and the afternoon was basically all downhill. Since our packs were light and we were rolling into town (which always makes me happy!) we jogged the not-so-steep downhill sections to make better time. 

We passed the last shelter in the Smokies, Mollie’s Ridge, and saw a little bear in the trail studying the cables where hikers hang their food. 

 The sun was out, the wind was nonexistent, and the temperature probably rose to the 50s easily by lunch.

About a mile after lunch we stopped at a fire tower with incredible views of the Smokies. I accidentally left my gloves here though!! SHIT!!! We were too far down the mountain by the time I realized it and we just figured I could buy some in Fontana Dam (not realizing how our in the middle of nowhere we really were). The gloves were on their last leg because my pole straps are so abrasive they were wearing holes in two sections of the gloves anyway. This turned out to be a bigger mistake than we realized at the time as replacing them was a bit of a hassle.

We cruised downhill until we left the park and then had a nice road walk for a few miles. We walked side by side (Jamie’s favorite way to hike) and crossed the infamous Dam. We eventually made it to the parking lot where someone from the Lodge came to shuttle us back to the hotel.

At the hotel we showered, ate dinner at the restaurant, and Fresh Feet did the laundry while I unpacked our resupply box and packed it into our food bags and washed out our dishes. I then addressed a giant spider bite (and 3 satellite bites) on the back of my right thigh which I had sort of been ignoring. It had been there about 10 days now and seemed more red and inflamed each day. It was getting worse, not better and was starting to actually concern me. I sent pictures to my parents and they thought maybe it was infected and I should get on antibiotics. I went to the front desk to inquire about hydrocortisone cream and antibiotic ointment which they gave me and they also looked at the pictures and urged me to seek medical attention ASAP since it had been there so long.

I decided to use Teledoc and spoke to a Dr on the phone (which was a hit of an ordeal because I didn’t have cell service so they had to call my room number at the hotel). The dr. said it didn’t look infected, but rather severe inflammation (likely related to my autoimmune disease), so he ordered me steroid cream to the nearest pharmacy in the nearby town of Robbinsville - which hopefully we can get to tomorrow. My autoimmune disease makes these inflammatory responses so much more flagrant and long lasting than someone else dealing with the same spider bite. Anyway, glad to not be taking antibiotics for the last 10 days of trail! They can really mess up my stomach!

Late night with Teledoc and looking at weather trying to make decisions about what would be best. The next four days look very cold and rainy, but at least there are hostels we can escape to if need be. I don’t think we can sleep in the skimpy regular AT shelters in this weather. We got so spoiled in the Smokies with their enclosed shelters and fireplaces! We were debating about taking a zero at this very comfortable hotel, but decided we would make the decision in the morning.

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