The Captain’s Gaf: zero

Dan has an awesome Polaris Ranger ATV and took some of us for a spin around the neighborhood; dirt tracks, hillsides, and steep ups ‘n downs. We had a blast, totally awesome bouncing around and whipping through trees and over gravel roads (I took video of the whole ride, it was epic). Afterwards we popped round to see Dick and Suzie, a really nice couple that live in the same private riverside community. We chit chatted for about a half hour and headed back to Dan’s gaf.

We took a trip to REI later in the day and I picked up some new trail runners, La Sportiva Wildcats. My other shoes don’t provide enough support under and around my heel/ankle and I spent a good half hour with the footwear rep.

Tie Dye and I went food shopping for dinner at Walmart, and I got to drive Cap’s 6.7L Ford F250 – it’s a freaking beast.

Back at the cabin, the fire pit was blazing and Alfalfa wanted his head shaved; I obliged, of course. Ken Jolley pitched in with the shaving as I snapped a pic. A great steak, pasta and salad feast quickly ensued.

We chilled by the fire towards the end of the night.

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Hot Springs, halle-effing-luljah (273.9m)

Six o’clock and I figured it was a good time to get up. Cap shouted across to see if I was awake. We’d expected rain through the night but it never came; it was pretty windy most of the night, though, and it ripped out one of my stakes in the early hours, turning one corner of my tarp into a loud flapping cuben flag.

Tie Dye headed out onto the trail at 6:30am as she’d not slept, and Cap, Tank, and I were on the trail by 7:30am – the earliest we’d broken camp since starting our thru hikes.

We had 7.6 miles to get to Hot Springs and our pace was quick out of the gate; we got to Deer Park Mountain Shelter — 4.3 miles away — in a little less than an hour and a half. Steep climb to the top of Deer Park Mountain and then a long 2.4 miles downhill to Hot Springs.

Have I mentioned how much I hate downhills?

After being dropped off on the outskirts of town by the trail, we followed the white blaze across the street to a set of steep (and slippery) stone steps leading down to the main road through town. Looking left we could make out the “AT” tiles laid into the sidewalk. It wasn’t long before we rounded a corner and saw the restaurant: Smokey Mountain Diner. Tank, Cap and I took a table and ordered coffees and food; both lads ordered their “hungry hiker” burgers and I opted for their “skillet breakfast” – our plates were cleaned with ease. Camel and his son Alfalfa made it into town shortly after and joined us for breakfast. Tie Dye had been in town a little longer and had already paid a visit to the outfitters to collect her packages. She joined us for breakfast, too.

After breakfast I walked over to Bluff Mountain Outfitters and picked up my packages; one had some awesome goodies all the way from NY: a new Sawyer Squeeze filter (my original one had frozen on night #1 at Hawk Mountain Shelter), a nice sheet of Polycryo, and some post-it notes with cute messages on them!

I picked up some XS sized nylon stuff sacks for my first aid kit and other gear that I’d kept in the small cuben sacks I’d ordered from ZPacks. As it turns out the cuben used for the small stuff sacks isn’t that “thru durable”, and certainly not long distance worthy; there are small tears appearing in all the sacks I’ve been using.

I also picked up a new pack, a ULA Circuit. I’ve been using my Six Moon Designs Swift pack for some time before the AT, and it’s a great weekender. What I found to be a negative on this long distance thru hike is that the hip belt has no real benefit. 99% of packs have wraparound waist/hip padding that provides support and comfort, then the hip belt pockets are attached to the belt. With the Swift, the pockets are the hip belt. No matter how tight I pull them around my waist they’d always end up slipping down. Another negative that had recently started happening is that both shoulder strap buckles don’t hold the webbing as firmly as they used to. I’m constantly retightening and retightening. It’s annoying and frankly it’s just not an appropriate product for my needs. Oh, and the left sternum strap webbing has come loose of the buckle when trying to adjust the height. I’m pretty dissatisfied with it.

After being measured and fitted for the Circuit by one of the outfitter’s specialists, I feel it’s going to provide me with a much sturdier ride, and the popularity of the ULA line with thru hikers is also very encouraging.

Captain Dan’s good friend, Ken Jolley was picking us up from the outfitters and driving us the ~90 miles to Dan’s cabin in NC. We’re taking a zero there and I’m hoping that I can rest up my ankles again.

The skies opened and it bucketed. We threw our packs inside large plastic sacks that Ken had brought with him and tossed our gear in the flat bed. Four guys on the back seat, Cap riding shotgun, and Tie Dye straddling the console. Sardines.

The rain was torrential the entire trip to Cap’s cabin and eased off later in the day.

His cabin is fantastic and had an almost Aquone Hostel feel to it. Completely open concept inside, 60″ flat screen, awesome kitchen with a massive butcher’s block island, and two bedrooms. There were two large leather sofas which were so comfy; I baggsied one right away.

By early evening we were all starving again so we made haste for a local Italian restaurant: Tuscany. Plates piled high with different types of pastas and sauces along with 25 wings, there was little left after our wolfing. Dessert followed, and with full hiker bellies we retired back to the cabin and chilled.

The sofa was hella-comfy.

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Cabin in the Woods, zero day

After the battered knees and swollen left ankle, I felt it prudent to zero in Stecoah Valley, specifically at the Cabin in the Woods. Cap insisted on sleeping outside on the porch sofa, claiming he’d have a sound night of sleep. I made sure I took a pic of him in the morning; it had dropped to 28°F.

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Tie Dye, Cap, and I had a relaxing day which was kicked off with an excellent breakfast of biscuits and sausage gravy, bacon and eggs – thank you so much, Donna!

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Donna dropped us off at Fontana around lunch and we grabbed a burger and some wings, whilst also resupplying for our five days through the Smokies day after tomorrow. We took a walk around the Lodge as we have a room booked for tomorrow evening.

The evening was a quiet one with dinner at Stecoah Diner down the road from the cabin; good Southern grub and Donna treated me to a cold bottle of Guinness when we got back home.

We’re packed and ready to go back on the trail tomorrow.

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Stecoah Gap: Screaming ACLs and Three World Trades (150.7m)

After a hearty breakfast of grits, eggs, toast, sausage, and griddle cakes with Don’s Brother, we headed over to the trail head behind the train tracks. DB and I got I to a good stride as the trail veered upward and leftward for the first mile.

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At the 4 mile mark we passed a gorgeous spring which cascaded down shimmering rock; time for a complete refill so I decided to camel my current supply of water. So cold and fresh.

20130406-182926.jpgAbout 4.5 miles in and now at 3,805′ from 1,785′, we reached The Jump, a fantastic vista with an unprecedented view of Nantahala Gorge. Don’s Brother and I stopped and soaked in the view for a few minutes and took photos.

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As we continued to head upward, we passed Swim Bald which is commonly misunderstood as the “summit” before the downhill. It’s not. After a short downhill and passing Sassafras Gap Shelter (and meeting Sinner), we were treated to another climb. As we passes through and over the high 4,000s’, there was still ice falling from the trees overhead, crashing around us as it melted off. The slippery and 45° ascent to the summit was a total huffer. Up to Cheoah Bald we trudged, which would be our highest point of the day at 5,062′. It had been warming up over the last hour, and as we hit this open area of land at the summit, it felt like a toasty Summer’s day; probably 70°F. We stopped for lunch, and caught our breath.

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DB was fatigued and gave me the mid to go on without him; I whipped out the iPod and down I went, booking it. The descent to follow was agonizing, pounding on my already destroyed knees from the day before. The brutality lasted for 3.6m to Simp Gap, then it was up again, for another 400′ – what the f*ck. Approximately every 100′ I’d let out a “ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!” as I sucked wind, knees throbbing, my ACLs feeling like they were about to snap clean off their anchors.

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The final downhill to Stecoah Gap was reminiscent of my NOC downhill sans freezing rain, but it had all the steep descents and rock and root ridden shenanigans. At one point the trail ended and just turned magically into giant boulders that slowed me down to a crawl, literally.

At about 4:30pm I came down the final steps of the trail and into a small parking area at Stecoah Gap where Captain Dan was waiting with our shuttle. There were bags of chips and bottles of water on a picnic table which I made short work of – love me some trail magic. I met Phil who would take is to our abode for the evening: The Cabin in the Woods. We arrived at the “Coop” cabin where Tie Dye had already settled, and Don’s Brother was going to be shuttled in later that evening once he got to Stecoah. We all had dinner at Phil and Donna’s cabin which was a delicious medley of pork, chicken, creamed corn, dirty rice and green beans/potatoes.

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With full bellies and tired limbs, we retired to the cabin and crashed.

As a side, I calculated that I hiked ~5,800′ of elevation change during the day. The new World Trade Center stands at 1,776′, which means I walked up and down the length of the tower three and one quarter times.

Oh, and I passed the 150 mile mark, too!

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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Zero day #1

Woke up to a pretty crappy weather front that had made its way through Georgia during the night, so [newly-named] Tie Dye and I decided to take a zero (a day of no hiking miles) at the cabin we’d snagged the night before. Obie and Turtle decided that they’d face the rain, and after we got back our clean clothes from George — one half of the lovely couple that runs the Blood Mountain Cabins — they packed up and headed out. I think they’re trying to make it to Low Gap by tonight, and we made soft arrangements to meet in Hiawaassee.

After seeing them off I bumped into Scootini and Olive Oil inside the outfitters; Scootini had mentioned yesterday that she, too, would take a zero if the weather turned sour, so she took the third space in the cabin (they hold four each, max). Olive Oil definitely wanted the fourth spot. Cool, full house again with friends.

It’s 12:45pm on a rainy and cold Saturday March 23, and I’m sat in my hiking shorts and my new AT t-shirt watching Chasing Amy.

Got to speak to my better half this morning at least — big smile on my face and a huge shout out to my honey!

(edit) Tie Dye just came back from the store with the news that there’s a tornado warning in effect for tomorrow… Damn. I was not planning on taking a zero this soon into my thru-hike, never mind two days.