Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Lessons Learned on Clingman's Dome

A few days now after our disastrous hike from Clingman's Dome, while my blistered feet are still recovering, I want to reflect on what I learned on that eventful day.

1. If you don't have time to do the preparation for a hike, don't do the hike! Never again will I assume that because I've been somewhere before, I know the territory. My usually strong sense of direction surely failed me on the Clingman's Dome hike. I still cannot make myself understand, unless I'm looking at the map, why you wouldn't turn left on the Appalachian Trail to head out for Newfound Gap. But you don't! If you attempt that trail, be sure to go right on the AT toward the Mount Collins shelter. There is NOT a sign that says Newfound Gap at this juncture, even though you'd think there would be. Trip preparation for me in the future will include on every hike what I usually do on hikes in areas that I have no previous experience. I usually make a list of every trail crossing or shelter or other notable feature in the order in which they should appear. Had I done that on this hike, I would have realized at the first crossing that we had gone the wrong way--only 2.2 miles into our hike.

2. Packing light does not mean assuming nothing will go wrong. As our hikes have gotten longer and more strenuous, I have switched to a smaller, lighter day pack. Thankfully it still holds the large water bladder that my larger pack holds or I would have been in trouble on Saturday. However, in the interest of limiting the weight I carried, I had taken out some equipment that I deemed unnecessary on a hike that should end by 2:00 in the afternoon. The most crucial piece of gear that I left at home was my flashlight. I will never go on another hike without it no matter what time I expect to finish. It was this lack of light that pushed me so hard to finish before dark, which we accomplished with a mere 15 minutes or so to spare. That, in my opinion, is too close for comfort!

3. Always leave an exact itinerary with someone who will worry about you if you aren't out on time. This is something I always do, but again, on this fateful day, things were different. My husband didn't really want me to go on this hike because we had a major vacation coming up soon after, so he went to bed mad at me on Friday night. I got up early on Saturday morning, cut out a small section of the map that covered the trail we were going to do, and went to meet my hiking buddies. I had told him it would be a short hike, but that's about all we talked about. When I was late coming home, he wasn't worried, he was just mad. He had to come to understand how scared I had been before he realized he should have been worried. Had he known exactly what time I expected to be out of the woods, he might have begun to be concerned and be aware that there were probably problems.

4. Conditioning, conditioning, conditioning! I realized during that 20-miler that I need to be in better shape. I need to be able to hike much further than I have scheduled. I did the 20-miler, but I was miserable the last 4 miles. The fact that the last 2.5 miles was almost straight up as it climbed the highest peak in the Smokies didn't help me any. I will be working on improving my conditioning, that's for sure.

5. Always carry a map. The little piece of a map that I had copied to carry with me was nowhere near enough. When we hiked the wrong direction on the Appalachian Trail, we quickly hiked right out of the map I carried. Thus, when we began to be concerned about our location, the trail crossings and shelters were unidentifiable. We also considered alternative routes, but without a full map, we had nothing to get our bearings with.

6. No boots are waterproof in a torrential rain. I love my Keen hiking boots, and they are waterproof under most circumstances. However, if you get caught in a downpour, the Keen-Dry fabric protector can't keep the water from running down your legs or pants and into the top of the boots. My socks and feet were soaked and I ended up with the worst blisters of my life--the only blisters I've ever had in Keen hiking boots. I'm still not sure what I can do in such conditions to prevent that type of blistering; maybe gaiters are the answer. I don't know, but I need to find out.

7. Hiking groups need to either stay close enough together to be in touch at all times, or we need to carry walkie talkies. We could have saved ourselves about 5 miles had we been able to hail the faster hikers in our group when we finally figured out how terribly wrong we had gone. As soon as we realized the error of our ways, we began to blow the emergency whistle and yell their names, but they were too far away to hear us. I understand the desire to hike at whatever speed is your best speed, but the need to be in contact with everyone in the group must be paramount for safety's sake if nothing else.

I blame myself for every aspect of this disastrous hike. I could have prevented the whole thing by simply having looked a little more closely at the map before leaving. I let my hiking buddies down; I disappointed myself; I put others in danger. But, in spite of my many mistakes and weaknesses, as a group we pulled together, supported each other, and made it out. That's what friends are for, and I've got great friends to hike with. I wouldn't trade them for anything! That realization along with our determination to just do what had to be done made this an experience that will not be a negative. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger! Yes, we are all stronger, in many ways!


  1. Sorry you had to have this experience (Oh No! - Not another leaning experience), but it's good to see that you at least learned from it. Preparation, including physical preparation, is essential for a safe and enjoyable hike or backpacking trip. The trip starts when you start to prepare, not when you hit the trail. Hike on!

    1. As my husband says, experience is what you typically get right after you need it. :-). I still have trouble believing what a stupid mistake we made on that hike, but I really wouldn't take anything for the experience. Live and learn---and learn I did! Maybe others can learn from my mistakes without having to go through them on their own.