I pulled into the parking lot at Dicks Creek Gap around 9:00am and checked the map, ate a banana, and did a few odds and ends to get my pack ready for the trip. Around 9:20 Russ Slater and his friend Rob show up and we start to talk while waiting on the last member of our group, Jim to arrive. The plan was to meet at 9:30, but that quickly turned into 10:00 and then 10:30 and Jim Bailey still was nowhere to be found. Russ mentioned that his GPS was probably screwed up and had him who knows where. We tried to call him, but we didn’t have cell service from the parking lot, but finally, I went out to the road and got enough of a signal to get a garbled half-understandable message from Jim so we loaded up in Rob’s SUV and decided to get to an area where we could get a better cell signal. It turns out that Russ was right and Jim’s GPS had taken him on a wild driving adventure but that he was in Helen just a few miles from Unicoi Gap, so we just met him at Unicoi Gap and would all shuttle back in my truck. Thus our trip began.
It was cold and windy at Unicoi Gap with an inch or two of snow on the ground, but if we were cold, it didn’t last long as we immediately climbed 1100 feet to the summit of Ricky Mountain. The snow was a little deeper up there and it covered every leaf, limb, and twig in a glorious white that looked like a picture from a calendar. We then dropped down into Indian Grave Gap and started our big accent of the day, Tray Mountain. Heading up Tray Mountain we begin to have ice covered tees and mountain laurel lean over into the trail. The ice on the trees at this point was as big around as the grips of a trekking pole even on pencil sized twigs. Up to this point of the trip we had been following two footprints in the snow, reassuring us that we were not the only crazy individuals out on a cold February weekend, but then we ran into two hikers coming down the mountain and they tuned out to be the footprints that we were following. They were thru hikers that had gotten to the top of Tray and turned around due to a “solid wall of ice” and told us the trail was impassable. We decided to push on and spent the next thirty minutes of our trip crawling under ice covered laurel sometimes with packs off, others on our hands and knees, and sometimes both. We then got to the point where the footprints stopped, an imposing tangle of ice covered branched and limbs that did indeed look like an impassable wall of ice.
As we stood there assessing the situation and looking north at the mess in front of us, and south at the thought of going back through the mess that we had just come up, Russ decided to attempt to plow through the ice covered bramble and did indeed break through enough that we could squeeze though. After we had gotten through the wall of ice it didn’t get much better. We took turns breaking through the ice and looking for any signs of the trail as it was almost impossible to tell where the trail was. The whole mountaintop was a covered in broken trees and drooping mountain laurel all covered in inches of ice. After at least an hour of busting through brambles and crawling through the tiniest of gaps we were down below the ice line of Tray Mountain. The next few miles of the trail were pretty easy with just a few inches of unbroken of snow on the ground but as we got a little further along things took a different turn. Apparently there had been ice at the lower elevations too, but at some point the wind and sun and caused it to fall from the trees covering the ground with six inches of chunk ice. It had then snowed and there were at least two inches of snow on top of the ice and that was how we walked. It was like walking on a scree field. While our original destination was Addis Gap, due partly to the late start and partly because of the incredibly hard trekking that we had done over Tray Mountain, we stopped about a mile short at Sassafras Gap when it started to get dark.
We had a variety of shelters at the campsite that night, Russ was using a hammock, Jim was using a Mid, Rob was using a freestanding tent, and I was using a tarp style shelter. The highlight though was the Supermid. It was big enough for all four of us to sit inside, cook, eat, and swap stories. If we had been outside exposed to the wind and cold we would have all headed to our sleeping bags and quilts as soon as we had eaten dinner. It was a cold humid night with temps dropping to at least 24* and the fog condensing to rime ice on everything, tarps, trekking poles, guylines, I mean everything.
We packed up the next morning and hit the trail, happy to have an uphill climb to start the day so we could get warmed up. Russ was moving a little slower as the day before had taken its toll on his knee, but for the most part we were lucky we went banged up more than we were after the previous day. It wasn’t long after we started hiking that we reached our intended destination for the previous day, but I don’t think any of us regretted stopping where we did. We then began the climb up Kelly Knob, which at 4200 feet was the highest point on the trail since Tray Mountain, and sure enough, near the top, we ran into the same ice we had on Tray. After pushing, crawling, and breaking our way through the ice toward the summit, the sun begin to break through the clouds which made all of the ice glisten like crystal. The appearance of the sun had another undesirable affect though, it was causing the ice to melt and fall from the trees. It soon became apparent that this was a war zone and unless we wanted to be impaled by ice falling from 30 feet above our head, we had better get off the top of the mountain quickly.
As we descended to Deep Gap, the ice on the trees changed from the heavy solid ice that was a serious danger to cause bodily discomfort, to light airy rime ice that rained down as snow as we made the final push toward Dicks Creek Gap. We finally reached our destination, Dicks Creek Gap and packed like sardines into my truck for the ride back to Unicoi Gap. After we got everything squared away there, Jim and I headed into Helen for a bite to eat and he so graciously treated me to lunch, while Russ and Rob decided to just pick something up on the way home. Overall it was a great trip with great people and some very interesting trail conditions. I want to thank Jim for inviting me on this trip and for putting it all together.
Ice on Tray Mountain
The Trail goes through this
Our camp at Sassafras Gap
Ice on Kelly Knob
The lower elevations had Rime Ice instead
View from Powell Mountain