Monday, July 16, 2012

Clingman's Dome the Hard Way

Saturday's little 8-mile hike to Newfound Gap turned into a 20-mile nightmare with huge lessons learned in survival mode. Our plan had seemed so simple and so familiar that we made little mistakes that doomed us from the get-go! We dropped one car at Newfound Gap and drove the second car to the end of Clingman's Dome Road where we excitedly donned our packs and headed up the paved path toward the tower at the top of the highest peak in the Smokies. All of us had been to that observation tower in the past, so this felt a little like hiking in our backyard. We also hadn't hiked recently with this particular group of ladies, and we were excited to be back together. Upon reaching the little sign that led us off the paved path and toward the Appalachian Trail, we were giddy and silly. At the intersection with the AT, we tried to find a place for one of the cameras to perch on a rock so that all four of us could be in the picture at the onset of the hike, but that never did work out. Finally after taking separate pics of groups of three instead of four, we took off in what we thought was the direction of Newfound Gap using really just our gut instinct. We did go in the direction of where our car was parked and what we thought was the direction of the road which we had just come up because the AT was supposed to parallel that road back to our waiting shuttle vehicle. At that moment, we were doomed. We just didn't know it yet.

Turk's Cap Lilies near Clingman's Dome

The hike began innocently enough. Although there was considerable fog surrounding this peak limiting the view, the early morning was pleasant and the air was cool. The AT is different from most of the trails in the Smokies--rougher, more challenging in spots. This section descends the face of the highest peak in the Smokies and does so using lots of log or rock steps with some steep drop-offs which were hard on my bad knees. With the help of my hiking sticks, I made it down fine and was busy enjoying the wildflowers that were growing along the trail. Since the views were obscured by cloud cover, I focused on the flowers. Turk's cap lilies were the surprise for me--they grew prolifically along the trail and because of the heavy humidity and literally being inside the clouds on this morning, they were dripping moisture from their anthers. Droplets of water clung precariously to the ends of these pollen production facilities surrounded by bright orange flower petals speckled with brown which recurved back away from the anthers exposing them to the pollinating insects that might pass by.

Within a couple of miles we came upon a shelter. I remembered reading that there was a shelter along the path we would take on this day, and this one was particularly nice with a stone fireplace and double decker bunk area. There was a privy nestled in the nearby woods along a little trail that was surrounded by a stand of daisies and bee balm blooming just for us it seemed. No one noticed the name of the shelter, so we assumed it was the Mount Collins shelter. We continued on.

Bee Balm and other wildflowers blooming at Double Spring Gap Shelter along the AT
After another couple of miles we came to another, much smaller and less impressive shelter. It really almost seemed to be abandoned. There were tree limbs inside that looked like they had been blown in by one of the numerous storms that have ravaged the Park in recent weeks. At this point, Jennifer and I began to wonder why this shelter wasn't on the small section of the map that I had copied to bring with us. We discussed the idea that it was disused and abandoned so perhaps that explained it. We both had a bad feeling though. The problem was that the other two members of our hiking party were nowhere to be seen. Being over 20 years younger, they hike much faster than we do and had gone on ahead of us. They had waited for us at the previous shelter, so they didn't feel a need to wait for us again at this one. We had no choice but to continue hiking until we got to the next place they decided to wait for us. We left that shelter with nagging doubt growing in the pits of our stomachs--doubts neither of us really wanted to voice or face yet.

The AT through this area was an absolute obstacle course with roots, rocks, and dips that seemingly tried to trip you up. At several spots the foliage that surrounded the trail had completely overgrown the trail necessitating the use of our hiking sticks to push back blackberry vines and other vegetation out of our way. A machete would have been nice at a couple of spots! But we pushed on believing that we were nearing the end of our hike, approaching the spot where the AT would cross Newfound Gap Road and we would find our other vehicle waiting for us.

Finally, we came to a trail crossing where the younger girls had waited for us. One of our rules is that we regroup at trail crossings so we are sure we all take the same path. As we came into sight they said they were unsure which way to go because there was no mention of Newfound Gap. I told them I knew for sure that the AT crossed the road we were looking for and that's all I was sure of at this point. They immediately took out following the sign that said Appalachian Trail. When Jennifer and I got to that sign, it said we had hiked 7.4 miles since leaving Clingman's Dome. We hoped the road was just ahead because that was the exact distance that we were supposed to have hiked on the AT to Newfound Gap. The younger girls were again already long gone, so we hiked on. When there was no road crossing after a short distance, we knew the truth--we had been hiking the wrong direction all day. We began blowing the whistle that I carry for emergencies and yelling for the girls to stop, but it was too late. Our fates were sealed. Again we just had to keep hiking until the younger group stopped to wait for us. That ended up being almost 2.5 miles more.

Where we finally turned around!  Not a happy moment!
At the next trail crossing, near Derrick's Knob shelter, after having hiked over 10 miles, we faced the ugly truth and turned around, already exhausted and now facing a 20+ mile day to return to our car at Clingman's Dome. This also meant that we would have to climb that peak that we had planned so carefully to descend, not climb. Honestly, at that point, I was devastated. I felt that I was personally responsible for this mistake and had let the group down. My knee and hip were both killing me, and I just didn't know if I could do another 10 miles before dark. I wouldn't have been able to without the encouragement of Jennifer. That hike back was the single hardest thing I've ever done in my life. We could hear thunderstorms in the valleys around us, and we prayed continuously that they would stay away from where we were. Two separate storms skirted around us that day drenching us with rain, but not subjecting us to lightning. Each storm that we heard brewing in the distance though acted as incentive to pick up the pace even though we were totally out of energy. None of us had packed lunch for such a short hike, so we subsisted on Clif bars, beef jerky, and the Energy Bites that I had made the night before. Those, by the way, were delicious and I'm not sure where we would have been without them to give us the energy we needed to make it out.

When we made it back to the smaller shelter, which turned out to be the shelter at Siler's Bald, we snacked and rested. There were two young guys there who had cleared out the brush and were carrying water up from the water source. Funny, this shelter no longer looked abandoned and desolate. After a short rest, we then trudged off to the next shelter which was approximately 2 miles on up the trail. From there we would have another 2.5 miles to the end of this nightmare. We kept telling ourselves that we could do this. I tried not to think about what those last couple of miles would be like trying to ascend Clingman's Dome as tired as I was. I remember looking up at one point when the slope of that mountain came into view and actually whimpering out of despair because it was so very high, and I was totally drained of energy.

Views from the AT near Clingman's Dome
That ascent was an act of sheer will, desperation, and divine intervention. I no longer looked up. I simply watched the trail right in front of my feet, willing myself to put one--foot-in--front--of--the--other. Those steps I had hated coming down the mountain were even worse going up. With each step, I told the Lord I was out of strength and that this step would be taken with His strength, not mine. I was dizzy occasionally, and lost my footing more than once. My balance was weak, and there were times when I was no longer sure we would get out by dark. It had rained so hard that the trail was like a river in spots, but going around the water took too much energy so we just trudged through it. Up and up and up that seemingly endless face of the summit, we willed ourselves to go.

At 8:43 pm we made it back to our car--dispirited, disheveled, and blistered, but thankful that this ordeal was over. We had spent 13 miserable hours on the AT instead of the 5 hours we had planned. Lessons had been learned the hard way but that will be another post. We had been severely tested, and I wasn't very proud of how I had responded, but we had survived.

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