Since departing Erwin, TN our journey to Damascus has entailed hiking in every sort of weather imaginable, testing the limits of both our gear and our fortitude.
Here is the daily play by play:
Thursday–We left Erwin with full bellies and high spirits but found ourselves almost immediately in the same thick fog we’d been trudging through all week. A few south-bounders mentioned snow in the forecast but, having woken up to a dusting twice before, we pressed on boldly.
In camp, temperatures quickly fell below freezing thus requiring us to put both our water filter (susceptible to damage if frozen) and the dog (remarkable foot warmer) in the sleeping bag with us. We awoke, on April Fools Day, to an inch of snow and temperatures in the 20s.
Friday–Chilly mornings are typical on the trail and usually your best bet is to break camp quickly and get moving until the day warms up. We did our best (packing up with numb fingers is quite unpleasant) but even after a few hours of hiking, temperatures didn’t get out of the 20s. Our water was freezing solid in our packs and the filter was out of commission until things warmed up. Willett quenched his thirst by eating snow.
We were slated to head 2,000 feet up Roan Mountain to get to the highest shelter on the AT (one of very few featuring four walls and a door). The thought of the likely temperatures up there made us seriously consider bailing for the night and staying at a nearby hostel, but somehow we convinced ourselves that four walls and a door was practically a hostel anyway, so we sallied forth up the mountain.
The climb was rigorous and the snow was getting deeper as our elevation rose, rendering our legs oddly weak and wobbly after so much sliding around. We got to the shelter around 6pm and saw no signs that anyone had been there recently. We set up our sleeping bag as quickly as possible so that every subsequent task (changing, cooking, eating, etc.) could be conducted from within.
Another hiker joined us later that evening and we were glad for the company. We all commiserated about the cold (below 20 at this point) and drank pure, unfiltered water from a spring a hundred feet from the shelter as all of the water we carried with us was thoroughly frozen.
The sleeping bag performed admirably in the cold–it is rated down to 15 degrees and we certainly were getting close to that. I’m not sure that rating system accounted for a dog down in the foot, but we were glad for his presence. We slept well, all things considered, barring the following incidents: 1. Thundersnow!!!! 2. The door of the shelter blowing open dramatically 3. The window nearest us also blowing open dramatically and coating us with driving snow. Travis heroically handled the last two but was rather useless re the thundersnow.
Saturday–We began our day in the cold snow and proceeded over three snowy balds before descending 3,000 feet to camp in a warm, sunny orchard.
The last of the balds, “Hump Mountain,” featured 50 mph winds that sent us two feet sideways for every step we took. While exerting so much effort to stay upright, we found ourselves stumbling to the snowy ground during errant lulls. Our descent was long and gentle on the other side, however, and we wound up at a most idyllic campsite.
Sunday–This diamond in the rough of our weather streak was well timed and enabled us to get the most out of a section abundant with water features–rivers, streams, falls and cascades. Abundant sunshine, warmth, and yet another lovely campsite.
Monday–Our trip into Hampton for a shower and trip to the grocery began warm and pleasant. Temperatures kept rising and by the time we got to town it was nearly 80 degrees. We noticed that everyone in town kept referring to “bad weather coming” and got a chance to watch the Weather Channel while drinking beer and eating chili cheese fries in the local saloon. The forecasters were predicting some sort of apocalypse involving hail, tornados, thunder, and massive winds.
Hampton does not feature any places to stay for the night and we had one major mountain to climb before getting to a shelter at a safe elevation so we scooted out of the bar as soon as possible. Sprint-hiking 8.6 miles to escape an epic storm with a belly full of beer and cheese fries is not recommended. Luckily, we made it to the shelter to join to fellow hikers we quite like, set up our tent as a tarp across the front, and slept safely through the storm.
Tuesday–Thankful we had survived the night, but sad the storm had brought on a cold front, we set off for what looked a relatively easy day. Our morning ascent brought us to a ridge line we quickly realized we’d be following for the next 12 miles. The problem with hiking on such a ridge on a cold, windy day is that there is no respite from the elements–no leeward side of the mountain, no dense groves of trees, just an abundance of cold, blowing air. And, just our luck, hail. Hail approximately the size of: styrofoam bits, Israeli couscous (that’s the big kind), or the ice cream novelty known as Dip n Dots.
After hours in the wind, we passed up tenting near the shelter where we had planned to stop in favor of heading down to lower elevations and hopefully finding a campsite off the ridge. Graciously, the skies parted and the ridge dissolved into a pleasant valley. We completed a .4 mile section of the trail that was paved to be handicap accessible and shortly thereafter found a flat, grassy spot to stop for the night.
Stay tuned for the thrilling conclusion to the Tennessee chapter of our hiking adventure… Damascus, ho!
On the edge of the world near Erwin… A foggy, foggy world.
The dense spruce forest on Unaka Mountain, plus dog and blaze. This type of landscape has been very rare thus far.
Lovely snowiness on the way up Roan Mountain.
Still climbing Roan…
Tracking a big bird! Travis says turkey, and I trust his ornithological genes.
We made it! The shelter was about a half mile from here.
Our first bald after Roan.
Ramps!!!!! We found these poking through the snow and knew by their garlicky scent and purple bases that these were worth foraging.
Travis in a calm interval on Hump Mountain.
New day, new world.
Jones Falls, a perfect spot for snacking.
Elk River, reminding Travis of West Virginia.
Oddly, these are named the “Hardcore Cascades.”
Sunset coloring the woods near our campsite.
Laurel Falls on the way to Hampton, TN. Very legitimate at about 40 feet high.
Dip n Dots hail. Boo. Not tasty at all.
Hail on tail!
After hours of wind, hail, and more wind we found a beautiful spot for the night.