In early November some friend of mine and I hiked north along the AT to the NOC (Nantahala Outdoor Center). Winter hiking has its challenges, not the least of which is picking a decent hike length to go along with the reduced amount of daylight in the winter. Oops.
We started out leaving Columbia, SC around 6am, got to the NOC before 10, and caught our shuttle rides. Ron and Craig drove us down to Winding Stair Gap and shoved us out of their cars, bidding us goodbye on a cold November morning. Our first day saw us going up over 1500 feet, not counting a down and some more ups in the middle, for a total elevation gain in one day of over 2000 feet. Our goal that day was 11 miles away at Wayah Bald shelter. The following day would only be 10.5 miles. Yeah…oops.
Normally I try and do three day hikes like this: Drive and short hike (under 10 miles). Day two long hike, up to 13 miles. Day Three, short hike (under 8 miles) and drive home. This hike didn’t work out, because of the shelter spacing. It was Long hike, slightly shorter hike, and really short hike.
I was having a tough go of it at first, doing all those ups after not hiking for a while. Also, I took a side trip up to Siler Bald, which was REALLY worth seeing, however it added half a mile to the trip and about 30 minutes on top of the slope. Several of the hikers were in front of me, and I met Christine at the top of the hill. As far as I knew, three of the others were behind me. Because of the detour, I would be at the back of the pack, but, I had a backup plan: Wine Spring.
Wine Spring was only 8.5 miles in, after Siler Bald, but 2.8 miles from our end goal of Wayah Bald. When I got to Wine Spring I estimated I was probably going to run out of daylight before reaching the Wayah Shelter. I got some water and looked around. It was a GREAT camping area. Flat ground, lots of good hammock trees, and a nice little stream.
But I was alone. Not that it was a problem, I’ve camped alone before, but I was really hoping to be with everyone else, AND I didn’t want to tack 2.8 miles on to tomorrow’s hike, starting out with an uphill climb. I figured I could just hike until dusk and find a little campsite somewhere off the trail. The AT is often bordered by small campsites. So, I headed on up towards Wayah Bald and its tower.
Wayah bald has a neat little stone tower you can drive up to along a paved and gravel road. It a nice place for sightseeing. Unfortunately as I arrived, it was fast becoming sunset. I also hadn’t seen a campsite in a couple of miles of hiking, which didn’t bode well for the future. I figured I might as well take a gander from the tower, and got a few sunset pictures. A lot of times in the mountains, what looks like sunset isn’t really. You might not be able to see it anymore, because of a ridge between you and the sun, but to the rest of the area on the other side of the ridge, the sun is still up. So “sunset” is really often dependent on altitude, and even if the Sun is gone, that sky overhead is still lit up.
But this was sunset. Pure, unadulterated, “uh oh it’s getting dark” kind of sunset. When I reached the top of the tower (little more than a single flight of stairs up about 20 feet), I was on the highest peak around, and the sun was GONE. The town in the valley below me was in darkness and the streetlights were all on. The horizon to the west was a little orange, but mostly grey and purple, with no bright star to be seen 92 million miles away (or 3000 miles away if you’re a Flat Earth type).
So I climbed back down and looked around. There were lots of suitable hammock hanging trees around the peak. But it was supposed to get cold with winds up to 20 miles per hour. Being on the peak would suck, PLUS there was lots of traffic in and out and I wasn’t sure if the peak was a popular drinking/drugs/intercourse spot for the locals and I didn’t want to get assailed, assaulted, or intercoursed against my will. So I started down the hill away from the tower and parking lot.
I crossed an old forest service road that looked possible as a campsite, but it was wet and muddy in the middle, and I was still pretty darn close to the tower. I headed on down the hill and got out my headlamp. At this point I was a mile from the shelter and going generally downhill. I had a severe case of “get home itis” and should have stopped at the first slightly open space and hung my stuff, but I wanted to get with the rest of the crew. Plus, I tried texting from Wayah Tower and didn’t get a response from the others, and I was sort of worried they would come back looking for me and waste their energy thinking I was dead.
Night hiking is its own unique experience. First of all, the trail is sometimes hard to find in the best and brightest of conditions, much less in the dark in early fall when leaves have covered everything with no regard for the weary traveller. But I managed to stay on the trail and follow the white blazes, and soon found my shelter mates spread out below, headlamps twinkling in the darkness. By now it was FULL ON DARK. Darker than the inside of a sack of buttholes… It was cold, but the promised 20mph wind never arrived. I was safe, I was with friends, and I was plain damn tired. I set up the hammock, ate my food, and just did beat hiker midnight as I pulled my covers up.
Today I did well and managed to drink a LOT. I had a bout with gout two weeks before the hike and had really cut back on everything but a cup of coffee in the morning and water all day, and it seemed to have worked so far. But… now I had to get up and pee twice in the freezing cold.
Day 2! Sunrise by the shelter.
After the screwup yesterday it was good to see everyone together. We even picked up a temporary new friend at the shelter, who happened to be a memeber of the hiking club that built the shelter. Is was dedicated to two people who were also hikers, a married couple that had been killed a year apart while riding bikes on mountain roads. Ouch. Sad way to start the day. So, we were all together briefly, and set our goal of meeting at Wesser Bald shelter. With less elevation gain here than the day before, it looked like a more promising hike. And with plenty of daylight to go, it also looked like a good easy day.
The problem was: the third day was supposed to be rainy. Even the best hiked can be made easily worse with rain. Rain and 40 degree temperatures can really, really suck. One of our group, Christine, told us she might not stop, but instead may just go ahead and head for rufus morgan shelter, giving her a 15.5 mile day. It would also mean hiking only 1 mile to the NOC in the rain in the morning. The rest of us headed off one by one. I was one of the last out, with Karen just behind me.
The day was pretty much just a normal hiking day with nothing special. Ups, downs, water, views. A brief stop at Cold Spring shelter for lunch, and onward and up. The group spread out quite a bit. Thomas, ever the fast hiker, got to Wesser Bald shelter before 2pm and hung out. I had a really tought haul up the last up. It was 900 feet from the valley up to Wesser Fire Tower. When I finally reached the peak, at the base of the fire tower, I collapsed at the base of a tree and gasped for breath. I ate a little and drank a lot, finally glad to be up the hill. I knew three of our group were behind me at that point, and I was hoping they would come along and put me out of my misery, or at least bring liquor. I never did go up the tower, but the view from the little overlooked I passed out on was pretty nice.
Wesser shelter was less than a mile and 600 feet of downhills, from the fire tower. It was a nice relaxing hike. Someone had the audacity to build the shelter in a holler on a steep slope, so I felt a little bad for the tenters. If you weren’t in the shelter itself, your tent was going to be at an angle. Thankfully with the hammock, I only had to pick which side of the hill to step into the thing.
Most everyone was at the shelter when I arrived, except for three of our group behind us. I went to the shelter and made my food after getting my hammock set up. There was wine that someone had carried in, so we shared wine on the trail as we counted heads. We picked up two strangers at the shelter, but we were missing Karen. Right about dusk someone wandered by and we called out, but the hiker kept on moving. No one had seen her since camp that morning, but she had gotten a text through to Jim and said she was fine and was also going to try and make Rufus Morgan with Christine.
The sleet and rain started right about dusk, and the quit, then picked up again once it was full on dark. It was nice to be in the hammock at a lower altitude, and to not be cold at all. Even preparing to get in the hammock, and then getting out to pee later, it wasn’t freezing like the night before. I fell asleep at 8, and woke up ready to be up at 4am.
Day 3: Home stretch. Six miles to go!
Day three started cold and raining. More of a drizzle than a pouring rain, but enough to be a pain in the butt. Most everyone was up early getting packed. I woke up before the sun, and Paul next to me started packing before 530. When I got up at dawn Paul had left. The others were in various stages of packing, and I quickly ate a pack of crackers and a clif bar and was ready to go. No time to waste on hot foods in the rain.
Jim and I started off together and stuck together for about 4 miles. The start of the hike from the shelter was a few ups and downs, but after a mile it was all downhill, over some pretty technically challenging rock outcroppings, especially in the rain. I couldn’t imagine doing them in the dark in the sleet and rain the night before, as I’m sure the lone hiker had to do. There was just nowhere to camp. Even finding a spot for a hammock would have been tough.
The farther down we went, the colder and stronger the rain was. I totally missed the Rufus Morgan shelter and finally dropped into the NOC. I ran into Jim, Thomas, and Paul at the general store at 10:30, and we sat inside the warmth and had a cold coffee and snacks. We all changed in their bathroom, and it was nice to get out of wet clothes.
It turns out that Christine had made it to the Rufus Morgan shelter and stayed the night with another person. Karen totally missed it in the dark and walked all the way to the NOC in complete darkness. Unable to find a campground in the dark (and after 16 miles in one day she was exhausted and slept under the eaves of one of the buildings.
Karen is a BAD ASS hiker.
We were waiting on the last of the group to arrive when Jim really needed to get home, so he filled his van with the first crew and they took off. They didn’t make it far before the van broke down, and then the second adventure began:
The two drivers shuttled everyone back to the restaurant, then went for a rental car 25 minutes away. Between all the shuttling and eating and more shuttling we overstayed our welcome at the NOC restaurant, but it was a nice end to the hike, even with the breakdown.
A few things:
I didn’t take the Ham Radio. I’m glad I didn’t. See, the ionosphere doesn’t play nice with ham radio after dark on 7mhz. So winter radio time is pretty limited. The ham radio kit weighs 3.5 pounds, and the rest of my stuff was already at 31 pounds. So it was an easy choice to leave home. I did take the handheld radio, as it weighs 8 ounces. But the cold killed its battery the first night.
Pooping in the woods is REALLY hard in the winter. There are no bushes, its all just trees and wide open areas. Thankfully the trail is much less busy in the winter, so if you wind up having to dump your load behind a tree, odds are no one will catch you.
I need to update my hammock. I really need a few more pockets inside for stuff. I also need to trim some loose fuzz around the zippers, because they kept getting stuck. But I’m still really pleased with the Taco Wrap hammock system. Very little condensation the first night, and nothing the second night.