This post was written in my sleeping bag at the end of a long day. Please excuse any errors.
There’s a quiet beauty to the AT that doesn’t translate well in photographs. It’s the way the light plays on the clouds, beams streaming through the layers. It’s the way the mist caresses the hillside, moving in and out. It’s the pine forest, air so still and heavy that even the light seems trapped, moss growing on everything. And I’m starting to appreciate it just as much as the towering spires of the Wind River Range and the Sierra Nevada.
I’m antsy in the morning as always, leaving the hostel in Erwin before 8. There’s a storm moving in as always, and a long climb that will be even worse in sweaty rain gear. It spits rain as I head across the bridge, but my umbrella keeps it at bay. I pass the first shelter and the wind picks up, so I throw on my rain coat. I climb up and up, over beauty spot and a quiet, pine tree covered mountain. We’re gaining elevation- close to the height we were at in the Smokeys. The sleepy trees we’ve seen so far have mostly been oak, still leaveless, but I love these high elevation pines. I drop down and find Old Soul, stopped on a switchback. She’s headed to the same shelter, so I fall in behind her so we can chat. We wake up to rain. I have a choice- a big day that will put me on top of Roan Mountain, in the highest shelter on the AT, in rain that is supposed to turn to snow. Or seven easy miles to Greasy Creek Friendly, a highly recommended hostel. It isn’t much of a decision. Old Soul heads out first. Scoutmaster and I dilly dally- there’s no rush with such low miles. It starts to rain heavily as I make my way down the side trail to the hostel though, and I wish I’d hurried a little more. Still, we are welcomed with hot showers and hotter coffee. There’s a town shuttle to an all you can eat buffet. I don’t need to resupply- I have enough food to get past Damascus, but the hostel owners need to run some errands, so we drive around town. By the time we get back to Greasy Creek, the wind has picked up and it’s pouring rain. I check the weather forecast- high wind warnings tomorrow and a low of 23. With wind chill, it will be below zero. I have an elderly 10 degree bag. This isn’t going to work. But there’s a hostel in 28 miles. I can make that, right? I don’t sleep well. Both my ears and my throat hurt and it keeps me awake, so it’s easy to get up at 6am. Two cups of strong coffee later and I’m ready to fly. I leave as the sky is lightening. Just a few hundred feet above the hostel and there’s a dusting of snow. I climb up Roan Mountain as the wind picks up. It blasts one side of the mountain as the trail switchbacks around: the other side is sunny and calm. I alternate between freeze and thaw, until I am high enough that the wind scours everything. There’s ice covering the trail and I stop to throw on microspikes and all of my layers. Then I crest the top. The wind is relentless, blasting the pines, so they shake and moan. It must be below zero up here with wind chill. I can’t stop hiking for fear of hypothermia, and my water freezes. On the way down, I run a little, trusting my microspikes to catch me on the ice. This works well until I punch through a puddle, soaking one foot and then the other. Great. Now I have no choice- I have to make the hostel or risk frost bite. The trail leaves the pines and climbs up Round Bald, and then Jane Bald. I run a little- I can feel my shoes freezing, which is disconcerting, but my toes inside are warm enough. I drop down, past one shelter and then another. It’s warm enough to stop for a few seconds, so I grab a honey bun and eat as I walk. I don’t dare sit down. I climb back up, over little hump and towards big hump. The wind has picked up again, and it blasts at me as I cross the saddle and climb towards the summit of Big Hump. I can’t stay on the trail as it gusts and I realize I must look drunk, staggering against it. A few hundred feet from the top, I can barely stand and I think I may have to crawl. Then, somehow, I am over, dropping down the leeward side of the mountain, literally running the last five miles to town. I make it to the bar in Roan Mountain at 5:30. I open the door and am met with cheers. Everyone inside had known I was on my way and was betting on when I’d show up. The owner hands me a free beer and tells me only one guy made the same run last year- and he didn’t show up til 7:00. I wake up sick in the morning. My cold is worse, and I’m seriously dehydrated from the day before. I think back- I drank less than a liter, didn’t eat lunch, and only sat down for a second to put on my microspikes. No wonder I feel so bad. I sip water, and by the time everyone is ready to go to breakfast, I feel well enough to head out. It’s an easy enough day- flat by AT standards, with lots of waterfalls to look at, but I’m dragging. I stop after just 12 miles, pitching my tarp under a rhododendron in the most protected spot I can find. It’s supposed to get to 23 again, so I wear every stitch of clothing I own. I barely sleep. I’m so congested I can hardly breathe and my feet ache from the cold. At 6, I give up, packing everything away, shivering in the morning chill. All my stuff is covered in frost. I cough and wheeze my way up the trail. There’s a hostel in 21 miles. I’ll feel better if I can just be warm, right? It’s going ok, until I hit a root. My ankle gives out and I go down. There’s no pain and I’m not injured, but I stay down for a few minutes, crying a little and feeling sorry for myself. I was eating a bar when I went down, so I keep eating while I cry and it suddenly strikes me how ridiculous this is and my tears turn to laughter. Why do I do this to myself? I pick myself up and keep going, down to spectacular Laurel Falls. I leapfrog with Scratches, who’s getting off trail at the hostel, a little. I drag myself up and over Pond Mountain, a pointless, viewless lump that deposits me by the hostel. I shower and sleep and in the morning, I don’t feel any better. It’s the last good weather day for a while, but I know when to push and when to back off. It’s time for a zero.