First Snow on the Trail

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In my previous post, Done with Georgia, I teased you with references to an impending horrific storm. At the time, I didn’t know it was going to be horrific. I just knew it was going to rain then freeze, and I didn’t want to be stuck in that transition. Thus, I pushed myself too hard, and the horrific storm was indirectly the cause of my hobbling knee pain. But enough teasing. Let me share that story of that storm with you now.

100% For Sure Rain

For several days, I saw the weather forecast predicted two days of rain followed by freezing temperatures. I still had only my intermediate mesh shoes because of my ghastly toenail injury documented in my previous posts. I needed to get to an outfitter before the Smokeys, either the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center) on the AT or Outdoor 76 over in Franklin.

All the while, there’s this impending storm. 100% chance of rain. Think about that for a moment. Forecasts are a guess. Sometimes vastly inaccurate guess, like “partly cloudy” while it’s raining on you, or “scattered showers” because they have no idea where or if it’s going to rain. This forecast was, “We are absolutely positive that it is going to rain. Not scattered. Not 50/50. Not even 99% chance to give us a miniscule opportunity for error. It is 100% for sure going to dump rain on you wherever you are. Then freeze.”

To me, that sounds like a big storm for weather forecasts to be that certain. I wanted to make sure I’m snuggled in a warm bed during that, under the guise of needing new boots. But I still hadn’t grasped the intensity of said storm.

As the rain approached, the two days of rain changed to one day of rain, then one day of snow, then freezing temperatures. Great! I like snow way better than rain. But that first day of rain was still 100%. Once the rain got into the hourly forecasts, I kept vigilant watch. First, it was supposed to start at 10 AM. Then noon. Then 1 PM. Then back to noon.

I pushed myself for two days, persevering through knee pains, even hiking 20 hours straight from 8 AM one morning to 4 AM the next morning to beat the storm.

I rolled into the NOC right at noon. No storm. Overcast certainly, but no storm. I went to eat at the NOC’s restaurant. No storm. I saw a fellow hiker, Sharon, at the restaurant and joined her briefly. We had be leapfrogging each other on the trail for several days. Beez, another hiker, popped in and joined us. But I had a shuttle to catch, so I said my goodbyes and headed across the street.

I stood under the eave of the NOC’s General Store looking for my ride’s silver Subaru. They’re just a few minutes late. No biggie. Until…

We Couldn't See the Hood of the Car

Rain! But more than just rain. It was an instantaneous downpour. Moments later a silver Subaru pulled up just a few feet away. I rushed out, threw my pack in the back, and jumped in the passenger seat, fully drenched. I wasn’t in the rain more than 20 seconds, and my clothes were already saturated.

Patricia, my shuttle driver, started down the road. Her wipers tried in vain to keep the windshield clear. She tells me there’s a shortcut to Franklin down a gravel road beside the river. Saves a lot of time. She thinks it will be fine because it would take a lot of rain for the road to flood.

As we’re driving down this windy two-lane road, the rain gets worse. Several times we pass through a wall of water. It’s so heavy that the entire windshield immediately becomes a gray, shapeless blur. We couldn’t see the hood of her car, much less the road. Whenever that happened, Patricia took her foot off the gas and kept our course steady while the wipers frantically tried to clear away the thick layer of water. Several times this happened when there was another car coming the other direction. We just had to hope that the other driver followed the same procedure and neither of us veered across the invisible line.

As if things couldn’t get worse, I notice little white balls collecting at the end of her wiper blades. Now it’s sleeting, too! Then suddenly the pavement stopped and the road became a wide, gravel path. I looked to the left and through the rain I could see the white-capped waves of the river. In the summer, this river is a mecca for whitewater rafting and kayaking. Fortunately, right now in the winter, the water level is still low and unlikely to overflow the river banks even with this raging storm. So Patricia says.

Thanks to Patricia’s diligent driving, we made it safely to Franklin. She dropped me off at my motel, and I ran inside. After I checked in, I had to run across the parking lot in the still torrential downpour to my room. It was cold. Heater wasn’t on, so I cranked it to maximum heat output, stripped off my soaking clothes, and took a long, hot shower.

Three-Foot High Snow Drifts

Like I said in my previous post, I took zero day to get new shoes, do laundry, and resupply my food. It snowed a little that day, and then continued to snow overnight. I was back on the trail early the next morning.

Light dusting of snow on the Appalachian Trail.
Light dusting of snow on the Appalachian Trail.

The trail at the NOC was beautiful. There was a light dusting of snow over the entire valley. I was the first person on the trail, so the snow was untouched. Pristine and white. The lower part of the mountain was covered in 1–3 inches of snow. About halfway up, the mountain had 4–5 inches of snow, and the trail was no longer visible under a blanket of white.

Occasionally, there were snow drifts across the trail a foot high, sometimes two feet high. I plowed through the drifts, and my new Altra boots dutifully handled the fresh snow. (But they don’t handle slush as I’ll tell you about next post.) It was serene.

However, one small problem was the snow on the trees, particularly the bushy rhododendrons with their large leaves. These line the trail in dense clusters. Trail maintainers do a great job of trimming back the lower branches, but the upper branches extend over the trail. This creates “The Green Tunnel” effect of the Appalachian Trail. The snow on the large leaves caused the limbs to droop low. As I marched up the trail, I would brush against these low limbs, and the snow would dump on me, particularly between my back and pack. Despite wearing waterproof jacket and pants, the snow would slowly melt and seep into every crack and cranny. Soon I could feel it seeping into my underwear.

Eventually, I ran into places where the snow-covered limbs completely blocked the trails. I had to tap the branches with my trekking poles to knock off the snow, and branches raised enough for me to pass. As a bonus, they didn’t dump snow down my back, so I started tapping every low branch to keep my underwear dry (or at least no wetter than they already were).

Just before the mountain peak, there was a shelter. Someone had spent the night there, and now I had a set of footprints to follow. This was fortunate because the other side of the mountain received a foot of snow with drifts regularly three feet high. The deep snow completely hid the trail, but the other backpacker’s footprints made it easy to stay on trail.

The Smoky Mountains

I continued through the snow and into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The weather got warmer, and it rained while I was at the plush Fontana Shelter, nicknamed the Fontana Hilton because unlike other primitive shelters on the Appalachian Trail, this one has running water, flushable toilets, and even a hot shower!

The Smokies are beautiful. There are multiple old fire towers on mountain tops that provide amazing views. Also in the park is Clingmans Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. Again, amazing views. I took lots of photos, panoramics, and video.

Unfortunately, the warm temperatures and rain semi-melted the snow and created slush. My new boots eventually became saturated. I could feel water sloshing inside. My socks were drenched. Then the weather took a turn and dipped below freezing. My boots and socks froze solid. But I’ll talk about my Smoky Mountains adventure in my next post.

Wet socks frozen solid.
Teaser sneak peak of my frozen socks in the Smoky Mountains.

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2 Responses

  1. This is fun to read. Thank you Bennett! It makes me wonder if/how I could take on such an adventure some day. Meanwhile, living vicariously through you, your descriptions produce inspiring imaginations. Keep safe, best wishes!

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