Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Smokies to Erwin.

Sorry for leaving it so long between posts, internet can be thin on the ground here.

So, you left me, in Gattlinberg, running for the hills. And that's how it went, I caught a shuttle to Newfound Gap, got there at 3:30, 4 hours of daylight and 10 miles to my preferred shelter. (There was a shelter three miles in, but that's a little over an hour and you'd barely be warmed up.)

Those ten miles are among the prettiest on the trail to date, narrow ridges with the ground falling away steeply on both sides leaving you with views out both sides stretching for over a hundred miles and a slight case of vertigo.

I reached the shelter shortly before dark, it was full but I found somewhere to pitch my tent easily enough and was done with food and camp setup just as light failed.

The following day I decided to push it a little to get to a hostel I thought was at Davenport gap, turns out I was wrong, it was about another two miles, pushing it from a 21 to a 23 mile day. Those last miles hurt.

The hostel was good fun a little more hippy than my taste runs, but indoor food and a bed can't be wrong. From there, great views, a shelter, tent. Great sunset that my photo again fails to do justice. 'Red Sky at Night' lead me astray, in the morning the wind changed and it started pissing rain. I had a fairly short run into town.

Hot Springs is one of two towns that the A.T. runs straight through, no hitching no pickup, just straight to a saloon, rent a room above the bar, and wash the dirt off my back. Today the western feel was completed by my tendency to walk like John Wayne, chafing is the scourge of the trail!

As it had been a while since my zero-mile day at the NOC I decided to hang out in town for a day. That night we found Karaoke, a pool table, and a jukebox, it's not quite all you need for civilization, but it's close!

As a bunch of my friends from the trail were about to get to town I decided to try a thing called a slack-packing.

A Slack-Pack is where you arrange to get a ride somewhere up the trail, and then hike back to town. This allows you hike without most of your pack. The difference between a 5lb and a 25lb pack is hard to fathom, running becomes an option when you're not carrying your house on you back.

That day we slacked 16 miles back to town. Between the slackers, the people who zeroed, and the people who arrived that day we had a big group for dinner. I find my hiking is enhanced greatly by wine, company and steak.

This post is expanding beyond all reasonable scope so I'll speed it up.

From Hot Springs, four days, including the slack to Uncle Johnny's hostel where I arrived last night. Today I did another 21 mile slack, and god does it hurt. Testosterone poisoning, pure and simple, hammering along trying to keep up with fitter guys lead to a limping finish. No damage done, but I may hurt in the morning.

Total mileage : 360.
Still fun. :)

My next planned internet is Damascus, May 1 or 2.

Thanks for listening, sorry this isn't as polished as usual, too much to say too little internet!

Newfound Gap to Pecks Corner Shelter. 10.4
To Waterville School Road, Bear farm hostel. 23.3
To Walnut Mountain Shelter, 20.3.
To Hot Springs, 13.
To Log Cabin Drive, 16.
To Flint Mountain Shelter, 16.
To Bald Mountain Campsite, 19.3
To Nolichucky River (Uncle Johnny's Hostel), 16.5
To Iron Mountain Gap, 20.1.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shuckstack fire tower.

Diaries will continue shortly, but first, some pics.

From Fontana Dam, if you look up into the Smokies, you can see a tiny spec of a tower. It's about 5 miles from the entrance to the national park to the tower. It's a hard climb, but when you get there, the tower is no spec.

About a hundred feet high and well clear of the tree canopy, it's a rickety, shaky, climb, up loose wooden boards, past bent and missing struts, to one of the best views you've ever seen. It was originally used for fire control, it's not in use any more, and I suspect health and safety will eventually have it taken down, but right now, it's fantastic.

My pics don't do it justice, I guess you'll have to visit.


Watch "View from Shuckstack fire tower." on YouTube

Into the Smokies.

After a slow, sleep and breakfast filled, morning I got back on the road.

The weather again perfect, I left Fontana Dam behind to enter the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. This was the first road hiking I've done while on the trail, it feels odd to be walking on an unyielding surface and hearing the clack-clack of my poles on the road.

To enter the park you walk along the dam. A lovely lake, slightly marred by a brown line, where the lake was lower than usual, it looked like a bath after a hiker. Like a giant had just gotten out of the tub.

Just as we were walking onto the dam we came upon some trail magic.

'Trail Magic' is where someone, usually a hiker who lives in the area leaves out a treat for hikers who pass by. Juices, fruits, water, donuts anything a hiker would like but is unlikely to carry, because it's heavy fragile or otherwise impractical.

The magic on the dam was beer. I didn't take one, I'd started late and had too many miles to go, but those who were closer to home partook and enjoyed.

Into the park and up into the hills I went. About 4-5 miles in I got to the Shuckstack tower. (See previous post.) I've said it already, I'll say it again, magnificent view. Being able to look down on the dam, where you started the day gives a disproportionate amount of achievement.

Four peaks of over four thousand feet got me through to the end of the day,15 miles total.

The real joy of this section was the wild flowers. Whites, blues and purples that carpeted the forest for the last few miles.

It looked like something Snow White would have sent back to Walt saying 'They'll never buy that, put some ugly sticks and muck in.' Again, my image doesn't do it justice.

Overnight we received delivery of a storm. 70 mile an hour winds, according to the radio. The radio also suggested care when driving high sided vehicles, suggestions of what to do while trying to traverse a bare mountain top in these conditions was not forthcoming. Buffeting winds and some high peaks (Including Thunderhead, at 5,527' our highest yet) made for tough going, by the end of the day, the weather worsening, I was feeling it. It was the hardest day to date.

Some times the mountains are magical in the Disney sense, and sometimes in the 'Who angered the wizard?' sense.

That night the rains came.

Here's the problem, the shelters are 3-sided, with the rear wall facing the prevailing wind, however, as this storm was coming in from the wrong direction we were essentially sheltering in a concrete wind sock.

Using a tarp, some rocks, and a piece of bungie chord someone magic'd from their pack we got comfortable.

The shelter, was a large one with sleeping for 16, and space for a fire we were better off than we had any right to be with the storm raging away.

Rain fell heavily all night, the rattling of the tin roof ensuring we knew when it stopped. By morning it was down to heavy showers. We rose to a camp covered in cloud, in an odd 80's dry-ice music video type of way.

First order of business was Clingmans Dome (6,643'), highest mountain on the A.T. The assent was complicated by the previous night's rainfall. The trail changing from track, to stream, to river, to swamp, with an occasional cameo as a slick cliff face.

It was like dagobah, only colder, and carrying a pack.

While expending an exceptional amount of attention trying to not fall on my face I missed a turn. I'm not sure I've ever experienced anything as disheartening as negotiating my way down stream for thirty minutes to find a sign, pointing behind me saying 'Appalachian Trail, .5 miles'.

Rather than going back the way I came I decided to follow the tourist path up to Clingmans Dome, as I knew that the A.T. had a junction there.

As I began the climb visibility was maybe twenty feet, the cloud flowing quickly from left to right across the road, then suddenly it lifted. Like a fog machine running in reverse, or someone pulling a white blanket off the mountain. Thirty seconds later there was easily ten miles of visibility, and sweet, sweet, sunshine.

Shortly after that I found the A.T., and determined north from south with the aid of some passing hikers. (Thanks Forest and Goldilocks!)

I decided to take a look out from the observatory, a large concrete spiral structure that allows people unwilling to smell as badly as I do to get a good view of the mountains.

At the top it has annotated views in each of the directions, it was pretty special to trace our progress of the last week along the ridges.

I could see Standing Indian Mountain, where I'd stayed 8 nights and 130 miles ago.

Down off the peak and back into the swamp. The decent was slow, messy and unpleasant. I'm not sure what I looked like to the bubbly, bouncy, clean scout group that passed me going up. The creature of the black lagoon in an orange headband.

I surfaced again at Newfound Gap, hitched into Gatlinburg.

I've eaten, drank, and been merry. Three meals in town.

There are four hours of daylight left, and ten miles to where I want to sleep tonight. Looking forward to being back on the trail.


Sun hats keep the rain off just as well.

As I was finishing my last post I was feeling pretty cocky, ready for another hot days hiking.

New hat, a buff to protect my neck, one water bottle chilled, one frozen.

I am ready.

And then, as I clicked 'publish' on my last post, a huge thunder storm kicked in. Starting with a change of pressure like a smack in the face, and huge raindrops that sounded like cheap movie rain on my window.

By the following morning the light and noise had moved on, but the rain remained. I left the NOC fairly early to get back on the trail, remembering that the main problem with human settlement is that it takes place in valleys. Five miles up a steep incline later I was feeling OK, a hard climb, but job done. Unfortunately, once I reached the ridge line it got worse. Without the mountain to break the wind, the rain came in horizontally and hit like hail. I dragged myself as far as the shelter at seven miles and stopped to consider my options.

It occurs to me at this point that I've not explained what a shelter is. Throughout the A.T., at seven to ten mile increments, there are shelters. They vary in design, but most are three walled affairs with a slightly raised sleeping platform and a covered area for food prep and shelter. Most nights I'm more comfortable under canvas, but when the weather is foul, I'm really glad of the shelters.

After about 10 minutes in the shelter, my frozen water bottle looking increasingly daft in the cold rain, I decided to call it a day. Sometimes it's important to remember this is a vacation.

It turned into a bit of a party. A great crew, good spirits, terrible singing. (If that version of 'jack and diane' ever ends up on YouTube, I may have to stay in the woods.) It finished with a dramatic reading of Bilbo's party from the beginning of Lord of the Rings, in a thick southern accent.

We closed out well after hiker midnight, almost 9pm.

The following day was perfect, the storm broke during the night and left us with a glorious morning. To make up for the rain shortened day, I put in 21 miles, to Fontana dam.

The combination of the weather and the terrain made this one of the best days hiking yet.

Late in the day, the sun casting long shadows over the hills, the green coming out on the trees. The barren woods finally beginning to get their summer colors. It's beautiful.

That night I teamed up with two other hikers and stayed in the lodge, a hotel / resort. Dinner was probably the best on the trip so far and it lead to a few pints of ale drank in leather chairs.

Sometimes it's important to remember this is a vacation.


Monday, April 11, 2011

Bye bye Georgia.

The last man to peel this much was asked to carry a bell.

The payment I received for hauling ass into Hiawasse was to discover it's a dry town, so no beer with dinner, and to be kept awake by guys who were taking the next day off. It's embarrassing to be kept awake by drunken singers that don't even know the words.

Groggily, I caught the 8am shuttle back to Dick's Creek Gap to get back on the trail. Hot weather and three serious climbs took their toll, I was restricted to 12 miles that day.

Despite the lowly mileage, a landmark as reached. In the middle of the afternoon, I left Georgia behind. One state down, thirteen more to go. North Carolina Ho!

That night, Amber, a girl from Tennessee, worried that some of our German cohorts hadn't ever had 'smores', produced the makings of this campfire delicacy.

It's hard to get across the insane effort this education required. Amber had hauled the ingredients (Graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate) over 38 miles, catching the Germans who were a day ahead.

The makings of Smores are probably as heavy as my multi-day food bag.

An exceptional effort lead to an exceptional evening. Communal eating, discussing the correct marshmallow roasting technique, was a lot of fun.

The following morning was delightfully awful. Thick, chilly fog nestled over the campsite, and the shining sun was reduced to a hazy shadow of itself.

I loved it.

Crisp and chill, without having to worry about the risk of catching fire I was able to put in a hard day's hike. Caught up in the excitement I managed to miscount the shelters and do by far my largest mileage. (24.6) A great day, but unfortunately it distanced me from my friends of the previous night.

Next day, high (and tired), from my previous exertions I tried to take it slower. I took an actual lunch break, and found a point on the mountain with a good lookout and a sliver of phone signal to talk to home.

As is traditional, about half an hour after I'd told my Dad I was feeling good and injury free, I kicked a rock. It overextended my left ankle, spraining it slightly. Nothing too serious, but did leave me hobbling into camp grouchier than usual.

The following morning, after a Neurofen Plus, my ankle felt OK and I decided to push into the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and take a '0-day' there. (0-day is a day with no hiking.)

My push to the NOC wad greatly aided by other hikers. Usually I prefer to hike alone, picking my pace, taking my time, but twice yesterday I encountered hikers who's pace matched with mine and helped me over a hump or down a hill.

In cycling and other sports, keeping with a pack gives you broken air to work with, an aerodynamic advantage, on the mountain there's nothing as easy to point at, but it works the same. Keeping at someone's heels, or feeling their breath on your back gives you the impetus to keep going when lungs and limbs should have given up long ago.

Today I took a wonderfully lazy day. Resupply, food, icing the ankle, that's about it. I'm feeling tired, ready to sleep, and ready to hit the trail tomorrow.

G'night Y'all.
P.S. I've things to share on how shelters work, and trail-names, and scouting and rope-use, but I'll forget the diary stuff if I don't get it down, so you'll have to wait.

Hiawassse to Muskrat Creek shelter 12
to Rock Gap Shelter. 24.6
to Wayah Gap 14.8
to NOC 18.3

Wednesday, April 6, 2011


The sensations of being on the trail, not the feelings, but the shivers, scents, scorches, are a big part of what makes being here different.

The smell of a wood-smoke fire. I can't say I missed it, I hadn't thought of it in years, but when I hit the first shelter, fire burning, laughter, the occasional moan, it felt like home. A home I hadn't been to in a long, long while.

There's the shiver, cold along your back, you're dressed for the weather, but it's early and the weather hasn't arrived. There's the glorious warmth that hits when you crest a ridge catching the sun switch fills the valley below. Enough to take your breath away if the climb to get you there hadn't done that job already.

I met a man, who's name I sadly can't remember. He was sitting in a van, waiting for someone, I think his daughter, to get to the crossing. He said hello, asked if I'd seen her and offered me some supplies: water, OJ, fruit. Being less in need of pampering than a normal hiker, after all I'd slept in a bed last night, I picked some fruit.

Later, sitting on a peak, looking out on the shadows mountains make, I bit into the, still chilled, crisp red apple.

It might be the best thing I've ever tasted.

Today I hiked from Helen to Hiawassee. 16.6 miles. The original plan called for fewer miles, but this one gets me another bed.

It went well, a stretch, but a comfortable stretch.
Talk soon.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The story so far.

tl;dr Tiarnan still not dead.

I'm writing this in a Hotel room in Helen, GA., before you condemn me for falling off the trail, some back-story.

Raiford is, a friend from work, an eagle scout, and Georgia born and raised, so my odds of survival took a distinct uptick when he decided to join me on the beginning of this adventure. (This also lowered the chances that my coworkers think I'm actually drinking by a pool in Buenos Aires.)

Tim, another friend from Atlanta picked us up and brought us to the trail head. (Thanks again Tim.) Thanks to some directions we got from the guy on the gates of the national park we were dropped at the car park by Springer mountain, .9 miles into the trail, and not the 'approach trail', the 9 mile trail that brings you to the beginning of the A.T. Completists that we are, we hiked back to Springer so we could begin properly.

(I've added a couple of photos to this post, but as I'm lacking a preview feature god knows what they'll look like or where they'll appear.)

We had a good opening day, getting to hawk mountain shelter, 7.8 miles in. There we met the thirty-plus lunatics who were also trying their hand at thru-hiking, and were starting on April 1. Tent pitched, food made, we settled down for the night. Today's major campcraft errors were pitching the tent on too large a hill, and having to be shown how my stove worked by Raiford.

The next day we hiked the twelve-ish miles to Woody Gap. Another beautiful clear day, from the top of Ramrock mountain we could see the Atlanta skyline 60+ miles away. We camped behind the carpark at Woody's gap, cleaning up some of the trash we found there. (Who visits beautiful, pristine wilderness and abandons the box from their tent?) Campcraft faux pas: Snapping a tent peg. Ultra light, Ultra hollow, now in two parts.

From there it was off to Blood Mountain, third tallest in Georgia and tallest Georgian mountain on the trail (4461ft).? Another beautiful day, too hot for my liking but clear blue skies all the way. We met with Raiford's father on the mountain,  and I decided to part ways with them to get to Neal's Gap, the first outfitters on the trail, early the next morning.

The next day I picked up some supplies in Neal's and hit the road by 9:30. Making good time, I seemed to overtake many of the people that had left before me. By 3pm I'd made it the 11 miles to the Low Gap shelter.

The night before in the cabin, all the talk had been of a storm, but as I'd stood on top of a mountain with full visibility all around me for miles and ner a cloud in the sky, I assumed it was probably wrong.

Hubris is thinking 'I know if I really push it I can make the town 20 miles away and I'll be in a hotel bed if the storm hits'.

This turns out, not to be the case.

To make that plan work, I'd need to do 10 more miles, over a couple of mountains, starting tired in the afternoon.

I failed. I was at a clearing when the weather turned, exhausted and 3 miles shy of the town I quickly bedded down. Tired but happy I lay in my tent, only extreme force of will got the sleeping pad inflated and the sleeping bag out. It was lucky I set up right.

A while later, I was smuggly drifting off to sleep. Lying there, enjoying the pyrotechnics of thunder, lightning and hail. I hadn't made the town, but the tent was up and I was safe, dry inside, and miles ahead of schedule.

Then the tent fell.

No sense of drama. No slow hint that something is wrong. I'm just suddenly awake and trying to breathe canvas. The sky is constantly bright, the thunder unending, and the hail is big enough to hurt my face through the tent.

I try and hold up the roof and work out what's gone wrong. The peg I broke in act two, and forgot to replace at Neal's Gap, has let go.

And then a second peg pops.

I'm now inside a slack, slowly filling, canvas bag. Rain falling hard enough that going outside will soak me instantly. Thinking about it I decide there's no way to fix it without making it worse. I might get the tent pitched, but in that wind it's not got a better than 50/50 chance of holding. So I give up. I guess that my mat is thick enough and my sleeping bag good enough that it'll hold till morning. I was more or less right. 6am when I woke up with a shiver is more 'morning' than I usually go for, but it counts.

The storm broke about 7, and I crawled out to see the damage. Tent and bag soaked, but otherwise not too bad, some collateral damage but an Irish habit of double bagging everything meant that I had some clothing to get into.

I dragged myself over the last mountain to town, 3 miles that felt like 15, and caught a ride into town and this fine motel.

As I sit surrounded by my dripping things, I miss my friends and my creature comforts, bit I know I'm walking again tomorrow.

Talk soon.
And for both of you that got this far, your endurance trumps mine!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Today's the day.

That's my bedroom, kitchen, entertainment center for the next five or six months.

I don't have a scales here, but fully loaded, food and water, I can still easily lift it onto my back with one arm.

I'm happy with my prep.
Now it's time to walk the walk.