It is the 34th Winter Annual. This is a trip that I have been invited on for the first time. John Deho and Terry Broehner invited me when I met them along the AT near Davenpoert Gap back in October of last year.
I got to Hot Spring on the evening of the 11th and waited for the others to show up the next day. That day would prove to be the warmest and clearest of the upcoming weekend. Terry arrived early afternoon and the rest began showing up a bit after six all the way to around eleven. We would hang out at the campground cabin telling tales, lies, and stories while all drinking whiskey It was great. I ended the night in my splurge of a suite across the street by using the hot tub (to be honest the splurge wasn't really worth it, not bad but not as good as I had hoped). Bedtime at 02:00.
Our plan was simple - to hike from Max Patch to Hot Spring. We started driving to the patch around 11:00 and get there at 11:30. The drivers drove back to town and got shuttled back to the patch. During the intervening couple hours most of us hung out on the windy bald watching the clouds fly across the sky or seem to remain totally immobile. It was definitely going to storm and we just hoped it would hold off until we were under cover. The temperature was in the upper 50s to low 60s. Too warm for the clothing I was wearing, but that is the way it is. Once everyone got there fill of the great views we all started to hike. All is, John, John, Jonathan, Tom, Tom and Kelly with their dogs Jackson and Solomon, Bart, Seth, Mike, Tim, Terry, and Andy with his dog Mo (and, of course, me). We spread out a bit as we walked. I found myself at the start with Andy and Mo. Later with other too numerous to recall. I just have no memory for names.
Not long after passing the newly installed shelter it began to spit. By the time I crossed the next major stream the spit had increased enough to warrant pulling out the rainjacket. The rain would continue steadily for the rest of the day. We piled into the shelter and began the tasks of getting ready for dinner and bed. Some set up tents and most of us just figured we would use the nicely provided shelter. Even with the on and off rain the campfire that Tom and Kelly got going was a great addition to our lively camp life. Add the antics of the dogs to the carefree atmosphere and you can imagine how good anight we had as the temperature steadily dropped and the rain changed to sleet and graupel (very much like soft hail, but smaller; also known as snow pellets).
During the night the temperature plunged and the snow began to fall. I don't know what time I had to go to the bathroom, but when I did the snow was covering the ground though still less than an inch deep. During the rest of the night the wind swirled the snow into the shelter pricking our faces (it stopped bugging me when I put my down hood on). The snow also condensed onto the foot of my sleeping bag, but I was warm throughout the night. It probably dropped to the mid-20s.
Once one of us got up everyone else did too. So when the roars of canister and liquid fuel stoves burning took over our world no one was bothered. By now, just after 08:00, the snow had buried the ground to a couple inches. The wind was blowing and the temperature was hanging around 25 degrees. By 0930 we had begun to leave camp. I was in that middle group of folks to depart with some leaving well after I did. We would all trudge through the snow wondering how it would affect our hiking. The wind whipped the snow into our faces and made the trees sing to us. We pushed forward and up Walnut Mountain. It seemed tougher this time than it had back in October. But it would turn out that I reached the shelter in just over an hour which was only a bit slower than October's time. I found the quicker hikers had only preceded me by about 10 minutes. No one wanted to stay still long for long cooling their heels and freezing their feet so we soon set out again. Striding down the backside of the mountain went quickly and I was having a great time even though the weather really was rather poor. The snow kept deepening pushing over my shoes and wetting my socks (the gaiters I had were ineffective). It wasn't an issue while I was moving. Others were moving up behind me plodding through the snow. Some were having issues with their clothing, but people were making progress.
When I went over Bluff Mountain the wind was blowing harder and the temperature was probably about 20°F. A couple hours later when Deho went over he had the thought to take a reading and the windchill was -8.4°F. I don't think it was that frigid when I went over. As some of us pulled ahead we began to worry about some of those trailing behind. We worried about Mike and Tim swathed in cotton, Deho and his steel-toed boots, and all the dogs. We knew it would be about 16:30 before we reached the shelter and they were at least an hour behind. Prudence suggested that we set up a camp at Gerofilo Gap and wait for them and shuttle into town. Once we settled into the gap that was it, at least for me. My wet feet got cold and the energy just went away. I was not the only one though some like John Homer went back to check on the trailing group. After an hour Andy and Mo arrived and John Deho trudged in proclaiming he felt great (who knows) not long after. But the rest were considerably behind them. No way they would make the shelter until well after dark. I think our decision was a good one. I know had I not stopped I would have reached the shelter well before dark, but the others certainly would not have. When we got into town having meals at Paddlers Pub and Smoky Mountain Diner hit the spot for all of us. We would then, after some fiddling about, find a roomier place to stay than Elmers where we would have had to squeeze in. Andy decided to go home, near Asheville, and the rest of us are now hanging out in what can best be called the party room at the Family Inn in Newport, Tennessee.
I am sitting on the coach with the strains of the closing music from The Gladiator playing in the background here at Miss Janet's house. Terry and John have gone to McDonalds for coffee (been gone long enough for me to shower and watch at least the last half hour of the movie). We said goodbye to everyone else as they went back home and we began to drive to Erwin. We stepped at a Walmart where John bought himself a new set of boots. By 13:30 we were finding our way to either Indian Grave Gap or the AT intersection with USFS 230 to hike to Beauty Spot. I am not sure what the distance hiked was. I know the AT distance is 1.1 miles but I am certain we hiked more than that (started at 14:10 or so). Whatever the distance was the day was spectacular. The skies were blue and very clear when we began. The sun brought the frost covered trees into brilliant relief. It was an exquisite afternoon. The temperature was about 35 degrees and the wind in the forest was all but still.
We marched through the three or so inches of snow following cross country ski tracks and a few other footprints. But after passing a fellow with his dog on the forest road we would not see anyone until fairly near the top when we passed two ladies out for a stroll too. It was a wonderful still winter's day. It is too bad they can't all be like this. When we reached the top and Beauty Spot proper the views were pretty good, verging on great. Cirrus clouds were slowly filling the sky and it was clear to us some weather was coming in. We'll see if this weather impacts our future plans.
We took a little more than an hour to reach Beauty Spot and maybe 40 minutes to zip back down. Heading down was certainly easier even, or perhaps because of, with the snow covering the trail. It was great hiking with John and Terry this day.
We are the only one (beside Janet and her daughters) at Miss Janet's house. We spent a quiet evening talking. It's always fun to chew the fat with Janet and I probably stayed up later than I should have doing just that. Tomorrow we'll visit Roan Mountain.
We are at Roan Mountain shelter. Inside here it is easily 45 degrees, outside is naturally colder and windier. The day has been a good one with partly cloudy skies. We are having a good evening now under lantern light with some whiskey and cigars and conversation.
We began the hike just after 2PM. We made the slow steady climb through the fir trees and spruce chatting about all manner of things. In fact, we got so involved with our discussions of religion, politics, and philosophy that we walked past the side trail to the shelter. We reached Roan High Knob and the views were pretty good.
Then the disagreements reared up in our group. I was sure of where we were but the others were not. Of course, I was right (in this case). We went down to the double decker shelter and settled in. John and I returned to the top where I took pictures and John went in search of the trail to the High Bluffs. We regrouped just after the end of twilight. A fine day and with any luck the weather will hold.
This has been a wild and wacky trip, but it is coming to a close. John and Terry are heading out tomorrow. John will scout out grouse hunting spots on his way back to Cincinnati. Terry is going to visit his Mother before returning to Florida. That leaves me here by myself. I am not sure what I will do. I could do an overnight but that seems silly. I think I will just find some day hike opportunities instead. Hopefully the weather will improve and make my last days more enjoyable. But if it does not then that is how it will be. The weather certainly has had an impact on the trip so far. But I am getting ahead of myself…
The weather started to turn foul during the night. We had packed it in around 9PM falling asleep to the drip-drip-drip of water from the snow melting through from the upper level. The wind picked up and the rain began to fall hard and steady. The temperature probably never dropped below 38 degrees. When we got up the morning was sheet gray, with slush, snow, ice, and bare spots all over the ground. It was just not a pleasing scene. We were in no rush to leave and so did not even begin our day hike to Roan High Bluffs until about 11:45.
When we stepped out we found a world shrouded in mist and cloud. The ground where not bare or snow covered was coated in ice or inches deep slush. The winds though mild blew steadily and gusted often shaking water from the trees. Slipping and sliding were easy to do and I greeted the day by slipping and placing a hand fully in freezing slush as I negotiated the steep side trail to the AT. We hiked to Toll House Gap where it was easy to see the mists whipping across our path as we ascended the road to the fee station at the top of Roan Mountain. From there (the fee station is closed, the road gated miles below) it is an easy half mile or so walk down a gravel and quartz laden road to the trail that lead 0.7 miles to the Roan High Bluffs.
This trail was also covered in snow, slush, and ice. It was also quite well protected from the wind by rhododendrons and fir. It is a nice hike even under these less than perfect conditions. The views from the bluffs make it worth it. The sun never quite emerged but the threatening skies were still holding their water in and we were having fun even if we were a bit uncomfortable.
Things began to change on the way back to the shelter. John zipped on ahead - he hikes a lot faster when not carrying a pack (I suspect Terry could have kept up, or kept it close, but he stayed back with me). By the time we returned to the shelter it was starting to drizzle and it was becoming clear to us all that when we reached the car we would be done. But first we enjoyed a brief repast with hot water (and dry feet for me. My Lowa Renegade - or are they Tempest? - have clearly lost their waterproofness and the gaiters I have do not cut it. My socks were quite wet, verging on soaked). We shuffled out just after 14:30. Terry and John strapped on instep crampons and took the AT back down. I took the trail back to Toll House Gap and then followed the road through wind and rain back down. Even if I had crampon I would not have taken the trail. I think it would have taken me at least twice as long as the others to get down. It took nearly 20 minutes to reach the gap from the shelter proper. The road walk was easy and fast but I always seemed to be hiking into the wind and rain. Still in about 30 minutes I reached the car which was now being pelted by constant rain and considerably stronger (gusts 35-40mph) winds. John and Terry were already there and we tossed my wet gear and self into the Bronco and began the drive back to Erwin. It was about 3:40PM and the temperature was still about 40 degrees which was what it had been all day.
Now as I sit at the kitchen table in Miss Janet's House I wonder what to do next. I also ponder the strange similarities of this trip to a trip with people like John O and Ron Richards. This trip has that same quality of trips like our AT hike in Georgia several years ago.
I never really did get out in any serious way after John and Terry left. I spent time relaxing at Miss Janet's. I took Faiban for a couple nice walks in Erwin especially to the new park they're making by the river (just beyond the McDonalds). And, of course, I spent time chatting with Janet and other people. Perhaps the best of those chat were the last night when a NPS law enforcement ranger (whose name at this late date I now cannot recall) passed through to stay the night. He was on his way to, I think, a training or some such. He's one of two (yes, I think that's right) law enforcement rangers for the entire trail (remember the AT is a national scenic trail and as such is a national parks unit. This fellow has a really long and skinny beat). Talking about trail issues from the points of view of a hostel owner who loves the AT community, a ranger who wants to ensure the trail stays good for everyone and that people follow the law, and a hiker (me) was great fun. We all brought different views to the discussions and we kept it up for probably much longer than any of us should have. I know Janet had plenty to do (she always has plenty to do). But conversations like those are what make the AT and places that are near it so interesting when you go beyond just the hiking of the trail itself.