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Overnight trip to Spence field and Thunderhead MNT (GSMNP)
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James Klein

Locale: Southeast
Overnight trip to Spence field and Thunderhead MNT (GSMNP) on 01/07/2014 19:07:02 MST Print View

.the three of us
Gary (my dad), Josh (bother) and I (L->R above) got in a quick overnight trip in the Great Smokey Mountains last Thur-Fri (1/2/14->1/3/14). We did the Russell/Spence Field Loop and slept at Spence Field Shelter on the Appalachian Trail. On day 2 we did a side trip to Thunderhead Mountain.

Quick notes
Day 1: 8miles, elevation change of 3000' (highpt is ~5000'), 45F-20F during hiking and overnight low of 0F, Starting hiking in a moderate-light drizzle, next sleet, then snow.

Day 2: 11mi including side trips, 5-600' up to thunderhead then 3000' back down to the trailhead. 0F-30F, crystal clear skies by late morning.

-------------DAY 1---------------

We hit the trail at maybe 10am. The Anthony Creek trailhead starts near the eastern edge of the popular Cades Cove Driving Loop. The first few miles of this trail are very easy going with little elevation gain, bridged creek crossings and easy footing. After 1.6mi the valley splits into S & SE segments. Anthony Creek Trail takes the SE and Russell Field Trail branches to the S.

Russell Field Trail is where we gained most of our height - ~2000' over 3.5mi. It accomplishes this with one large and anther smaller switchback. The sky offered up a steady drizzle to go with the cooling 40F air but I happily accepted the crummy weather bc I knew coming behind it (hopefully) would be snow and clear skies. The overcast sky coupled with the rain resulted in me keeping to camera put away for most of the morning...but I was tempted a few times to drag it out.



By 1pm we stopped at Russell Field Shelter for lunch. This is one of the many renovated shelters in GSMNP. It a 3-sided lean roofed lean-to with a tarp covering over the 4th wall (for winter). There is a fireplace and the roof has skylights! This proved to be an excellent stopping point and good timing. The wind and rain picked up significantly but we were high and dry-er-uh damp.

After a hot lunch (thanks Dad) we continued onto Spence field (no on the AT). Within minutes the rain was turning to sleet and the trail to slush. In fact the majority of the next 2.9mi was in mixed conditions, trending toward snow. The hiking was pretty easy with only a few hundred feet of climb. View are still limited on this section but there are a couple of slightly open mountain balds along the way.



Josh greeted me at Spence Field Shelter at ~3:30pm with a small fire, Dad made it shortly after. Spence shelter is also renovated and similar ammenities as the Russell Shelter. At this point the air was in the 20sF and we had swirling dry snow. After a quick chat, me and Josh got water from the piped spring 100yd S of the shelter and then spent 30mins collecting wet wood for the fire. After unpacking I cooked (rehydrated) some chili and baked some cornbread. After dinner Josh and Dad dried much of the gear by the fire. I sat back and tried to dry most of my clothing with body heat (fairly successfully)...though it was comforting to know the fire was there if needed.



After eating and drying what we could we prepared for the long night cold (0F). I slept pretty comfortable in down garments and a 20F down quilt.
Three men had to be rescued (via helicopter) out of the park early in the morning after sending out a distress call overnight. They were about 10mi SW along the AT from our camp...the early report really panicked our families at home "Three male hikers requiring search and rescue near Fontana Lake". It appears they couldn't make the mileage they had hoped and weren't prepared to have to hunker down on the trail (vs in a shelter).
Read about it here

-------------DAY 2, EARLY MORNING---------------

By 7am I was packing up for a morning trip over to Rockytop - hopeful for some morning light/sunrise views and pictures. I stepped out into 3-4" of fresh powder but it looked like the lingering clouds/fog would block any views. I pressed on, hoping the skies would clear in the 1.2mi trek over to Rockytop. I turned back about 1 mile in; it was just too overcast, my thighs were freezing (slightly damp compression short + light nylon pants + wind = cold) and I was supposed to cook breakfast for Dad (eggs/bacon/biscuit/gravy).

limited view


biscuit and gravy

-------------DAY 2 LATE MORNING---------------

The brunch ended up being time well spent, as the skies cleared nicely while we ate and packed up. With the views I couldn't resist heading back over towards Rockytop. I quickly talked the other two into coming.

frozen trees

Spence Field shelter

From the eastern end of Spence field we get a good view of Thunderhead mountain (behind us in the picture at the top of the post). From here it is probably 1mi over the 1st of is three subpeaks, Rockytop. And maybe .25mile btw the remaining two subpeaks (Rockytop II and Thundhead (highpoint)). The views were some of the best I have seen in GSMNP.


fresh powder

From Thunderhead

lunch on Rockytop




cold ugly mug

Josh and Dad headed back after Rockytop, while I continued onto the next two subpeaks alone - I had the mountain to myself for ~1hr! Though I spent a few minutes at each taking the views in, time and core temp were getting the best of me, at 12:30pm it was still ~10F and I had to start getting some miles in. The snow up and down varied from 2" to kneedeep but the trail was easy to follow and footing was mostly stable - the biggest problem was coming down on rocks/roots hidden by the snow. By the time I got to the loop continuation my knee was really bothering me and substantially slowed my progress.

-------------Day 2 AFTERNOON---------------

Bote Mountain Trailhead:
my last stop on the AT

Following the Bote mountain Trail for 1.7mi you lose much of your elevation via quick switchbacks along a descending ridge - almost each switch associated with a small stream crossing. Soon you are at the Anthony Creek Trail junction which drops into the SE valley I described earlier. Here I caught back up with Dad. Together we hiked remaining 3.2mi back to the car where Josh was waiting.

This was a trip we all threw together the week of. A confluence of time off and time away from the woods got our wheels turning. I hadn't been backpacking since we had our second daughter (now age one), Josh hadn't since his last job change and most impressively, Dad hadn't been since he had open heart surgery to replace a failing aortic valve and small section of the adjacent, damaged artery a about 4months ago. This was a bit of a feeling out trip for day for summer plans dad has in the JMT and then in the Yukon - he handled this trip very well and Josh and myself are grateful to have him back to normal and so quickly

Edited by jnklein21 on 01/07/2014 20:27:40 MST.

James Klein

Locale: Southeast
Reserved for gear discussion on 01/07/2014 19:14:59 MST Print View

I decided to attack the cool/rainy-colder/snowy weather with clothing that wouldn't hold much water and stood a chance of drying out if/when we got out of the weather. Thin and breathable was the theme. Below is what I hiked in.

•MEC RD wind jacket
•MEC T2 1/2 zip hoody
•Light nylon pants
•smartwool liner calf socks
•NRS hydroskin socks
•New Balance mt1110 trail runners
•light polypropylene mittens and/or rag wool fingertip-less mittens
•dirty girl gaiters
•buff (only worn day 2)

This all worked generally well. Even though I wasn't overly dry anywhere I stayed warm as long as I was moving. And at the end of the day I was no more damp than my companions in waterproof jackets/shoes.
-Even though the wind jacket wetted out in the first half hr of drizzle my torso stayed pretty dry and the base layer never got too wet with sweat or precipitation. Adjusting hoods, zippers and sleeve position I was able to avoid ever getting to warm but then never got too cold.
-My feet were also wet within the first hr of hiking on day one. But even while stomping thru frozen slush they stayed pretty warm while on the move. At times on day one I would purposely step in puddles just to give the foot system a thorough test.
-Legs were damp at times but generally warm.

When stopping for lunch and for the night I threw on a driducks rain jacket to help with warming up and drying out. I also took off the hiking socks (liners/neoprene) and squeezed out all of the water I could before putting neoprene back on my feet and liners in my pants pocket.
By night most everything had dried (shoes and noeprene still damp).
At bedtime I put both jackets in a stuffsack that was stacked on the shoes and used as a pillow.
Both pairs of socks went between my sleeping pad under my butt. Nothing was frozen come morning and the socks were warm. I slept in the hiking pants T2, hoody, ragwool mittens, buff and the following:
•golite bitterroot down parka
•goosefeet down pants
•EE revelation down quilt req/wide
•thick wool socks
•cutdown lawson 60"x3/16" pad
•nemo zor torso pad

The quilt worked great. I was worried I wouldn't be able to keep it tucked with the down layer I had in but I no trouble even while rolling around over 1-2hrs. At times I vented the backside of the quilt to avoid getting g too hot.
I found the sleeping pad setup more comfy than the thicker inflatables I've slept on even while side sleeping. The pillow arrangement worked ok - not super comfy but not really a sleeping hindrance. A doubled over buff about right for prewarming air and capturing some of the moisture from my exhaled breath.

On returning home I notice a fair amount of condensation in the quilt even though I thought I had done an admirable job of sleeping cool. I believe vbl clothing would have helped here and will try these again next time I'm in the cold.

Cooking was accomplished in a cheap greasepot and imusa frypan using a remote canister stove (olicamp xcelerator) and a wick type alcohol stove(zelph modified starlyte). The butane stove did all of the work on day one and I used both the next morning - alcohol for biscuit while I made eggs, bacon and then gravy using the butane stove.
I used the simmer device described here to tame the alcohol flame for dry baking and prewarmed the stove in my jacket for a few minutes.
To help with low canister pressure in the morning I tried my modified water bath described here. After setting up the bath I didn't have to make any further adjustments - much less fiddling than is usually req'd at these temps than with a normal water bath.

Other items carried:
•zpacks arc blast - maiden voyage this pack carried very well at 23-24lb. The inside stayed dry and the outside absorbed little- no water. One early, minor, knock is the front of the hipbelt tended ride up towards my bellybutton while the pack slid downward. This only happened on the steeper climbs and wasn't BC the pack was too short. I think it is related to the wide (comfy) hipbelt and inability to balance squeeze above illiac crest with squeeze below. I think independent upper/and lower hipbelt buckles would solve the issue but I'm not sure they'd be worth the effort as it was only a minor annoyance. Overall I think this is a fantastic piece. It was more comfortable than my previous liteweight pack and about one lb lighter.
•sitpit cut from the lawson equipment foam mat. I liked always having a dry/warm seat. I recommend something large enough to fit your feet and butt on.
•4lbs camera gear...maybe 2 were used...found I didn't care for messing around with extra lenses and filters etc in the cold.
•hexamid tarp - brought as an emergency shelter and never used it.

Edited by jnklein21 on 01/09/2014 20:35:26 MST.

John Ray

Locale: Central North Carolina
great trip on 01/08/2014 09:48:24 MST Print View

That sounds like a great trip. I did that same loop with my kids when they were 12 and 8, in 3 days, and they handled it really well. It was summertime, though! That's a beautiful loop.

Paul Croxton
(Croxton99) - F
nice on 01/09/2014 18:40:11 MST Print View

Beautiful pictures.

John Taylorson
(heyjt) - M

Locale: SoCal
Nice Post on 01/11/2014 21:10:22 MST Print View

You all look like you had a great trip. Your photos are beautiful, although new-fallen snow always makes a nice subject for sure. Cold! And here is Los Angeles, 30F makes front-page news.

Bradford Rogers
(Mocs123) - MLife

Locale: Southeast Tennessee
Re: great trip on 01/14/2014 08:36:56 MST Print View

Awesome trip! Thanks for posting.

Ben Crocker
(alexdrewreed) - M

Locale: Kentucky
Overnight trip to Spence field and Thunderhead MNT (GSMNP) on 01/17/2014 14:47:41 MST Print View

Beautiful photos. I spent some time up there in October. Rockytop is a pretty nice view. Even better with all the snow you had.

Tom Clark
(TomClark) - MLife

Locale: East Coast
Re: Overnight trip to Spence field and Thunderhead MNT (GSMNP) on 02/15/2014 08:27:02 MST Print View

Looked like a good (cold & snowy) trip. Really liked the winter wonderland photo of the shelter & trees.