NOC – Nantahala Outdoor Center (137.3m)

I’m trying hard to put into words how my day was today as it was brutal. With the harsh weather and the amount of elevation change, I’m rating today as my toughest day so far.

I woke at around 6:30am and removed my ear plugs; I could hear the rain pattering against the window next to my bunk. The sky was dreary, grey, and fatigued. It was going to be a wet day, and I felt ready.

After a hearty breakfast of a thick omelette “cake” which was filled with sausage and basil along with a warm bagel and cream cheese, we (Don’s Brother and I) hopped into Maggie’s truck and headed back to the trail head at Burningtown Gap. The rain had become heavy and colder than at the hostel, and I raised an eyebrow as I hoisted my pack onto my back with an upward swing. Noodles, Mountain Man, Nomad, and Piper were camped here and had spent the night. I bade a good morning to Noodles, and he said that they were taking a zero; their tents were soaked, and nobody else took the time to poke out their heads – I could hardly blame them.

DB and I headed onward, and upward; a two mile incline of about 850′, and then the freezing rain kicked in. I’ve never hiked in freezing rain before and I won’t be mourning its absence before the next time either. It wasn’t too long before DB tore off away from me, so I hung back and got into my stride.

Quickly the trees and foliage along the trail began to collect large under-hanging frozen rain, like short, wide, stubby icicles clinging on for life. The trail leveled for a little over a mile and the rain showed no signs of abating. I was soaked to the skin from the waist down, and I was freezing – even the moisture down my trekking poles had turned to ice. I’d decided to hike without my gloves, and even though my hands did warm up, they were still pink and puckered with the constant rain.

There was a long and steep downhill to Tellico Gap — which is where Tie Dye and Cap’n Dan had been dropped off (they were on their third and final day of their slack packing deal with Steve and Maggie’s hostel) — no sooner had I reached the forest road and I saw the trail looming upwards ahead of me. I think I’m getting used to the fact that every “Gap” is essentially a forest/back road that cuts through the AT; that means its always downhill towards any Gap, and an uphill the other side. The climb to Wesser Bald was tough, freezing cold gusts raging from the side, throwing broken ice from the trees into the side of my head and exposed hands. For the next ~3,000′ it was downhill on some of the steepest, most slippery, and unforgivingly narrow trail (read: 12″ wide mud slide). The total distance down was seven miles, and each step was brutal. Slowing around trees to navigate their bulging roots to using my trekking poles as stabilizers that I would jut out in front of me about three feet to slow me on muddy downhills: it was miserable. It was miserable and dangerous. I kept thinking as I had to scramble down rocks on my arse how stupid this was, how I didn’t want my wife to be a widow after being married not even three years. I almost quit there and then; I was done.

But I kept going. I had to get off this mountain, and there was only one way down. I rolled into NOC at about 3:15pm, and I regrouped with Tie Dye and Cap at the store as I crossed over the main road – I threw my arms in the air and shook my poles as I let out an almighty “I FUCKING MADE IT!” Steve from the hostel was there and greeted me with a big hug and a congratulations, and handed to me his England flag bandana – I was taken aback as I’m sure this held some sentimental value from his own thru-hike a few years ago. He made me promise to take it to Katahdin with me, I complied happily.

Hitting the shower at the cabins I stood underneath the hot stream for a couple of minutes until my bones had warmed. I didn’t realize how cold I’d gotten up there.

Washed clean and dry clothes donned, I made a beeline for the restaurant and called the wifey on the way – it was really satisfying to hear her voice, I miss her, and especially when I hike on my own.

As I walked into River’s End restaurant, I was startled by the shout of “Jolly!“, and I saw Rainbow Brite, Willow, and Mr. Cleveland sitting at a window table, which was a cool surprise as I hadn’t seem them since Bly Gap. I must have really been booking it to catch up given I’d taken two zeros at Franklin. I joined them at their table and pounded a plate of wings and then a burger with onion rings; I enjoyed a frosty Newcastle Brown Ale, too, which was my prize for getting to NOC alive. We caught up and exchanged stories, then I hit the outfitters and bought myself a pair of rain pants. I also picked up a rain jacket as the ZPacks rain jacket I bought just isn’t practical – no pockets (pockets would have helped with my frozen hands earlier today), and I’m afraid the seams may not last another five months. I’d rather have one less thing to worry about and dress safely.

It’s after [hiker] midnight and I’m ready for bed, today was brutal… and also strangely enlightening. I’m not giving up.

The forecast tomorrow and the next five days is great, sunshine and high 50’s into the 60’s. Perfect. I’m slack packing with TD and CD tomorrow to Stecoah Gap which is 13.4 miles from NOC; the first 7.9 miles is directly up, and from 1,749′ to 5,062′.

I got my first blister today; it’s on the inside of my right thumb from the constant pressing against my poles going downhill. None on my feet though, not even a hotspot. Lucky northern bugger.

The photo of the AT map below shows where I started from (by my finger) and the trail that follows north to the intersection with the horizontal line.

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