After my stress fracture from my previous long hikes this summer, I was a bit nervous about this hike, though its short nature left me reasonably confident that my rehab efforts would pay off. My girlfriend and I had planned this trip a full month out (a necessity when trying to get permits for these popular shelters). My girlfriend is not a strong hiker and we had tried and failed to reach the summit of Mt. LeConte on a previous occasion, so we intentionally chose to break the trip into three 5-mile days with a total elevation gain of about 2300 feet and loss of nearly 4000.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
After the drive and time-zone change from Nashville, we stepped off up the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap Trailhead at 3 PM. With cloudy skies and thunder booming in the distance, we made decent time for the first half hour until the rain set in. I helped my girlfriend into her poncho (awkward in the wind) and I pulled on my Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape. I was happily surprised by how well it held in place in wind, much better than my older Integral Designs Silponcho, which my girlfriend wore.
The trail continued its gentle ascent and the rain dropped off to just a hint of its previous intensity. After a couple of hours, we arrived at Icewater Springs Shelter, a beautifully renovated stone and wood hut with broad upper windows to allow in light above the long front sloped roof for the kitchen area. This is a dramatic improvement from the chain-link fence days when hikers felt like prisoners looking out at lurking bears while defending their food bags from marauding mice inside the shelter. With food bags hung on steel cables and food odors and crumbs 15-20 feet in front of the sleeping area, the shelters are now opened up.
We picked out a couple of sleeping spots on the lower bunk area. A father and two young daughters were set up on top, along with a mom and her teenage son. Once we had set up a space for the night, we transferred water, raingear, first aid kit, headlamps, and snacks to our REI Flash Packs and stepped off the mile to Charlie’s Bunion.
Charlie’s Bunion is a large hillock which protrudes from the main ridge of the Appalachian Trail and offers marvelous views to the north. While clouds obscured some of the view, it was still an excellent moment. We tromped back, and I cooked dinner. My ankle was very sore and a bit weak, so I took a couple of ibuprofen and wrapped my ankle snug for the night. We drifted off to sleep just a bit after dark.
Friday, July 27, 2007
The ankle was just a bit sore and tweakish in the morning, but not bad overall. Rain was pouring down when my alarm rang at 7:30. With only a five mile day ahead, I rolled over and went back to sleep for another hour. When I got up, I heated oatmeal for my girlfriend, and I had a couple of oatmeal cookie pies. We packed as the rain ended and the flashes of sun began to peek through the overcast sky.
It was nice not to walk in rain gear. We backtracked ¼-mile to the Boulevard Trail, and headed up. The trail is a narrow ridge walk in many places. We dropped several hundred feet in the first mile, then gradually gained them back and more for the rest of the day’s walk. At one point, my girlfriend slid one leg over the crumbling edge of the trail. She grabbed a tree before her foot dropped more than maybe 18 inches, but she was very unnerved. After I helped her back up, we continued and to my surprise, she did not balk about walking a 50-yard section of loose open rock with a steel cable in place as a hand rail.
Once we reached the ridgeline of Mt. LeConte, we dropped our packs and walked the ¼-mile to Myrtle Ridge. It offered great views from a sun-warmed flat boulder, where we both sat for several minutes and enjoyed ourselves. Then we headed back to the Boulevard, and walked the remaining ½-mile to Mt. LeConte Shelter, another long-roofed, renovated shelter. We staked out our places for the night, then walked the 400 yards to LeConte Lodge, a veritable village of cottages with a central dining hall where campers make reservations a year in advance, then hike up to LeConte with a fanny or day pack. They have meals and comfortable beds waiting for them for a $120 price tag. I was content to enjoy my free shelter for the price of carrying my gear with me. Usually there is a great view to the east, but the clouds were rolling in by 3 o’clock, and thunder was beginning to rumble. So we filled up on potable water from the developed spigot next to the lodge and we headed back to the shelter.
We enjoyed an evening with the father and his 6-and 9-year old daughters from Icewater Springs again. The next day would offer a 5-mile, 3000 foot descent. My ankle was much better than the previous day, but I wrapped it well and steeled myself for a rocky downhill in the morning.
Saturday, July 28, 2007
Just before midnight, the sky opened up and rain began to pummel the shelter roof. Fortunately, it was weather worthy, and we could all drift back to a contented slumber.
My girlfriend and I were up around 6:30 because we were supposed to meet my sister and her boyfriend at Alum Cave Trailhead at 12:00. I budgeted four hours for the five mile downhill. This would seem like substantial overkill, but my girlfriend does NOT like heights or even steep downhills, and I knew there were many steep sections with wire cabling to help with with exposed ledges. I also wanted to baby my ankle, which thankfully was much better than previous days, almost 100 percent.
We stepped off under our raingear to a substantial rain (Mt. Leconte got over 2 inches the previous night), and waded through ankle deep water in many places. As he headed down Alum Cave Trail the streams flowed quickly past our boots. I would estimate the cable railings covered ½ - ¾- mile of the 5-mile route. It was much more exposed than I suspected. It was not dangerous in my opinion despite the wet slabs of rock, but I’ve worked as a mountaineering instructor. My girlfriend was really pushing her comfort level with every step.
She made her way along many log bridges, almost closing her eyes as she eased along. Her near breaking point came on a steep section of rock steps which went through a large hollow of rock. It almost looked like hiking into a vertical cave. I had to help her along emotionally, and she was very pleased (and rightfully so) when she emerged from the other side.
Alum Cave Bluffs offered great views, and big crowds, but we continued on. Shortly thereafter, I changed from my Gatewood Cape to my GoLite Ether Windshirt as the rain had essentially stopped, but a cool wind still blew. As we walked a wide rocky ledge with traffic going both ways, my girlfriend took a slide. She sat there laughing, still hanging onto the cable. “My *ss is SOAKED!” she laughed. But up she came and we continued on.
In the last mile, the trail leveled out dramatically, following a swift flowing stream. The trail returned to a generally muddy state. ¼-mile from the trailhead, my sister’s smiling face rounded the bend. We all headed out, piling into their pickup truck for the 5-mile ride back up to my truck at Newfound Gap.
The rest of the weekend in Gatlinburg awaited as my girlfriend and I looked forward to a shower, a bed, microbrew beer, and great pizza. I was as proud of her as she was of herself. She had hiked a 60-mile trail with me before, but this was her first real backpacking trip in real mountains, with significant elevation change and exposure. She is already looking forward to more challenging adventures.