February 14th 2014
The weather was dicey when I went to Gatlinburg. My boys were headed to a youth retreat there for the weekend. My parents had come for the week prior. That Saturday was my mom's birthday. So I was headed down with my youngest to be with my mom on her birthday. I figured I could come down a day early and get in an overnight hike on Friday night.
I went into the backcountry office Friday morning to get a permit. It had snowed the previous two nights. There were basically no park roads open. There was an older couple in the backcountry office hiking up supplies to the caretaker on Mt. Le Conte.
Here's a partial list of things I did not know that morning:
- There is a recreational lodge on the top of Le Conte that has a one year waiting list for reservations.
- There is a caretaker living up at the lodge during the Winter
- How to pronounce "Mt. Le Conte" (the final "e" is completely silent)
The Ranger suggested I follow the other couple up to Le Conte. It was pretty much the only trail head that had road access; and even still, I had to hike about a mile along the road to actually get to the trail head. Of course, I knew Clingman's Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies at 6644. Here's another thing I didn't know: Mt. Le Conte is 6594; just 50' lower than the tallest peak.
The Great Smokie Mountain National Park is famous for many things. Among hikers one of the things it's famous for is requiring you to sleep in one of their designated campgrounds or shelters. As a hammock camper, I like to just find a good set of trees along the trail. You're not supposed to do that in GSMNP. There's a pretty stiff fine if your caught camping outside the designated areas. I knew it was going to be cold. My only insulation was down: two under quilts and a borrowed sleeping bag for a top quilt. Hanging in a hammock, this would have been more than adequate. Sleeping on the ground, all the down compresses and looses almost all of it's insulation value. Sleeping on the ground in the dead of winter without a pad of some sort is a recipe for a cold night.
All that said, I really wanted to get an overnight hike in. I had driven down, had all my gear and had the time set aside. My choice was to sleep in a shelter on top of Mt. LeConte or go home. I couldn't skip the trip. And so I hiked.
I had done a bunch of research on trails prior to coming down to Gatlinburg. I had my favorite route that depended on Newfound Gap being open. Of course, it wasn't. I knew it wasn't open when I went down there. I was hoping it would magically open, but it didn't. After calling the backcountry office, I had a couple other routes planned that departed from Cades Cove or Elkmont. I was mainly looking in the Western portion of the park. I had studied the maps and read up on the trails. Mt. Leconte is on the Eastern half of the park. I didn't know anything about the trails. Rather than buy the park's trail map for $2, I quickly downloaded maps onto my phone while in the backcountry office.
I met up with the older couple on the road to the trail head. The two of them combined didn't weigh as much as I do, but each of their packs were about three times the weight of mine. Of course, they also had trekking poles; but they also brought snow shoes "just in case." I refer to them as "the little old couple" in the most respectful way. They totally kicked my butt on that trail. After the trail head, I didn't see them again. My base weight was about 22lbs; with food and water I was pretty close to 30lbs. Since they were explicitly hiking up supplies to the caretaker, each of them were carrying almost 60lbs!
I started the hike out all bundled up. At the trail head I saw the "little old couple" strip down to shorts and a t-shirt before they took off. Learning from them I stripped a complete layer so that I was in thin hiking pants (not shorts) and a short sleeved running shirt that wicked moisture. It's probably 35°F or so, but after the mile hike on the road to the trail head I'm pretty warm and sweating. I also wore my very thin wind/rain jacket that's supposed to be breathable.
I used my iPhone's GPS to track my route up the mountain. I'm not quite sure how fast I was hiking, but I felt like I was making pretty good time. I was headed up the Rainbow Falls trail which would join with Bullhead trail that would lead right up to the shelter on top of Mt. LeConte.
Right from the start, the trail is almost straight up. The trail head (and most of Gatlinburg) is at about 2500'. Before the day is over I'll climb over 4000 feet. There's probably 2 - 3" of snow on the trail. Sometimes you can actually see rocks peek through the snow, but most of the time you have no idea what you're stepping on. I didn't have trekking poles or even a staff, so all the weight was on my knees and ankles to keep me balanced.
For the first four or five miles, the trail follows LeConte Creek. I love hiking beside creeks. I love the sound they make. Creeks in the Smokies are full of giant boulders and interesting shapes. Of course, on this trip those boulders are covered in snow and the creek has ice forming around things. It's just beautiful. Quite often I stop to rest and just watch.
All the way up to Rainbow Falls my hike it like this. I'm elated to be out in the woods by myself. It's quiet. The snow is almost completely undisturbed save for the tracks of "the little old couple". It's a tiring climb, but I'm glad to do it.
I get up to the Falls mid-afternoon. There are two treacherous creek crossings along the way. The "bridge" is a tree trunk hewn in two so that it's flat on top with a rickety handrail nailed on. In both cases the handrail is leaning way out to the side so you almost have to lean over to touch it. The handrail has snow on it. The "bridge" has snow and ice on it. I'm very afraid of slipping off and falling into the icy water below. If that happens, I'm not sure what I would do.
Just shy of the falls, I pass two women "speed hiking" down the mountain. They are wearing trail running shoes, tights and t-shirts. One has two trekking poles, the other just a staff. They water bottles on their belt, but no other gear. They had hiked up another trail that morning and were on their way back down. Probably a 10 mile day for them and they were moving fast. I was surprised they could find and keep good footing.
Once I passed the falls, I stopped for lunch. Sitting on a boulder (covered in snow) on the side of the trail, I managed to cook some ramen noodles and make a cup of coffee. At this point, I'm about five miles into my hike and about 2,000' of elevation gain. I'm pretty winded and my legs are tired. I took about a 30 minute break just sitting and drinking my coffee. I was passed by another couple doing a day hike. They had come up the same trail I had. While on my break, they came back down and headed home.
At this point I made a serious tactical error. I didn't have a printed map; I was just relying on the Gaia GPS app on my iPhone for directions. I didn't have trail conditions or distances or anything. I'm just looking at the map on my phone and trying to judge distances and directions. At the backcountry office, I saw it was only a half a mile from the end of the Rainbow Falls trail on Bullhead trail to the shelter. I mistakenly assumed that the Rainbow Falls would be at the end of the Rainbow Falls trail. So I figured I was almost up to the shelter. It was mid- to late afternoon. I figured I had plenty of time to make it to my destination for the night.
Unfortunately that is not the case. I still had another three plus miles to hike and another 2000' of elevation gain. I didn't know that. I thought I was almost done. About this time my iPhone battery completely died. So I had no way to checking my progress or figuring out my mistake. All I could do was just keep hiking. Really, I probably should have just turned around at Rainbow Falls and gone home. I was too stubborn though. I wanted to get an overnight hike in. So I kept hiking.
I was so completely tired. I could only hike about 100 steps before stopping to rest. I am so thankful for the footprints of the "little old couple". It was all I could do to follow them. Walk. Rest. Walk. Rest. Follow the footsteps. It is still amazingly beautiful: snow on the trees; rock formations; foliage. At one point I'm sitting on my butt on the trail in the snow completely exhausted. I look up and there's this little Douglas fir tree that can't be more than 3' tall. It reminded me of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree. It was so tiny and frail looking covered in snow. I thought, "if this little guy can survive this I can too" and got up and walked another 100 steps.
I finally finish the Rainbow Falls trail and intersect with Bullhead trail. It's here that "the little old couple" don their snow shoes. Previously there are too many rocks and roots on the trail for the snow shoes to really be of much use. The snow's less than 4" deep. But as we get higher, the snow depth gets deeper. On the Bullhead trail I'm at about 5600' and the snow is at least 7" deep. Their snow shoes hardly leave any prints at all. I'm at my worst shape and I'm having to break trail by myself. That last mile has me climbing over 800'. I'm just doing my best to follow footprints. I'm a little scared at this point. I have no idea how far it is to the shelter. I don't know if I can actually make it or not.
I do make it. Here's what I find at the top of the mountain. It's like a little village with all these little cabins. Each of them can probably sleep four people. They're all within 100' of each other or so. There's the lodge. It's basically a kitchen with a bedroom for the caretaker. I follow the footprints right into the kitchen. I know I'm supposed to stay at the shelter. All these cabins are locked up. The shelter is some distance further down the trail. But I've been following footprints and a I follow them right into the kitchen of this lodge. Nobody's there. It's unlocked. I walk in. There's a rocking chair next to a gas furnace. I sit down, take off my coat and gloves and warm up. It's not terribly warm, but much warmer than outside. After a bit the caretaker comes in from outside. I think I scare him a little and he makes some remark about how I should be glad he's not carrying his gun. He looks like a 20-something hippie; not some redneck hunter and I'm not worried he actually has a gun. In fact, I'm pretty sure he doesn't. Anyway, I know I'm not supposed to be there. I'm supposed to be at the shelter. There's no sign of "the little old couple". So I say thinks for the warmth by the fire and head out to the shelter.
It's less than a half mile to the shelter, but the snow is very deep. I can see footprints to the shelter, but nobody is there. My guess is the caretaker came out and hung this huge tarp across the front of the shelter. I really don't want to sleep in the shelter, so I shed my pack and go looking for a place to hang my hammock. I'm keenly aware of the fine if I'm caught not sleeping in the shelter. So I'm wandering around looking for a good place to hang that's also not that discoverable. Of course, my footprints would give away any location I might choose. I finally find a place I like and head back to the shelter to get my gear. By the time I get there I'm so very, very cold. I decide it's more important to warm up than to try and hang my hammock. I'm so cold I'm not even sure I can hang my hammock.
It's probably less than 20° out and windy. The shelter lives up to it's name and provides some relief. But I have to strip all the way down to change clothes. Everything I'm wearing is soaked with sweat. I also want to put on a dry base layer. With warmer clothes on I crawl into my sleeping bag. A friend of mine, Peter, has loaned me a Western Mountaineering down bag. At this point I think I may head back out and try to hang my hammock and I'm just trying to get warm. Pretty quick though it's clear getting and staying warm is going to be a struggle. So I end up sleeping on the wooden decking of the shelter without a pad. I didn't eat anything that night. I only had about a quart of water left from the day's hike. Throughout the night I kept boiling that water and then putting the hot bottle in my bag to help me stay warm. It would cool down and I'd re-boil it. I did this probably three times during the night. I got very little sleep. The wind was blowing like mad and the tarp made quite a racket.
The next morning I found another 6 - 8" of snow on the ground. When I stepped out of the shelter it was over my knees. The sweat in my boots from the previous day's hike had frozen solid. I packed up my gear to leave. For breakfast I had a granola bar conserving my water for the hike down the mountain.
At this point I can honestly say a miracle happened. I have no other explanation. Unfortunately, I'm sworn to secrecy by whom the miracle was delivered. I cannot tell you what happened, but I can say I am tremendously thankful.
I started down the mountain on the Bullhead trail. This is supposed to be a little easier trail than Rainbow Falls. The first two miles or so is directly across the ridge line, there was almost no elevation drop. This morning I was breaking trail by myself while at 6500' elevation in at least a foot of snow. It was dry and powdery; perfect skiing snow. I was very much wishing for "the little old couple's" snow shoes. When I would walk the snow would fan out in front of me like the ocean on a ship's bow. This was a beautiful hike, but also completely exhausting. At elevation and being out of shape, again I couldn't walk more than a couple dozen steps without stopping to rest.
One time I'm sitting in the snow resting. The ledge I'm hiking on is at the point of a "V" looking out over a gorge or a valley or whatever it's called. I can see a very long way. Beautiful evergreen trees covered in snow. It's like no other Winter scene I've ever seen. Below me a few hundred feet is the cloud ceiling. I'm up above the clouds. It's perfectly clear where I am and the clouds looks like a soft carpet floor to the forest below. The sun is coming up over an adjacent mountain peak and everything has a soft, golden glow. I do not think I've ever seen anything as beautiful.
I did a few miles like this along the top of the mountain ridge and then turned down. About this time I heard someone coming. It was the caretaker. He was headed down the mountain to meet with some friends. For the next several miles I hiked and talked with him. He was in quite good shape, of course, and his pace was pretty quick. Since we were going down it was somewhat easy for me to just keep up with him. He did much of the talking and I did my best to keep up with him. There were many spectacular views. He commented how much he loves hiking during the Winter. Most people give it up during the Winter; but they are missing some of God's greatest beauty.
Eventually, I couldn't keep up with him any longer. I stopped to rest and he pressed on. After a short bit, he came back up the trail with his friends! His day included not just the down hike, but back up as well. They assured me I was very close to the end.
I had brought a battery with me to recharge my iPhone. Unfortunately, when I plugged it in that night I had left it outside my sleeping bag. The cold had zapped the battery of any charge. The phone said it had a tiny bit of charge, but I wasn't using it at all. I wanted to save that charge in case I needed it in an emergency (ha!). The Bullhead trail didn't end back at the trail head where I had started. It ended in an intersection I didn't recognize. My phone was stone cold dead. I didn't have any paper map. I had no idea whether to go right or left on this intersection.
So I sat down to rest and wondered what to do. Remember I was in Gatlinburg to spend the day with my mom on her birthday; which was today. I had told her I'd be there well before dinner; probably between 2pm and 4pm. According to my new friend, the caretaker, I was "close" to the trail head and it was about 2pm. At this point another couple comes up along the trail. I chat for a minute or so and then ask them if they know the directions. They are also without a map, but assure me, "Yes, the trail you're looking for is just right over there." So, I follow their directions. Unfortunately, they were dead wrong. They pointed to the left, I should have gone right.
There were lots of trails with sign posts giving directions. But I didn't recognize any of the trail names. I spent the next two hours wandering around the trails at the base of Mt. LeConte looking for my car. I have no idea how far I walked, but at 2mph that's probably another 4 miles after I had hiked 8 miles down the mountain. Finally, one of the trails ended on the Newfound Gap road. This was probably another 4 miles from my car. Again I was exhausted and probably dehydrated. I wasn't sure what to do, so I started walking along the road towards my car trying to hitch-hike. Lots of cars going past me, none stopped. After about 10 minutes of this I reassessed my situation. My phone was dead and I couldn't call for help. I didn't even know my mom's phone number as it was stored on my dead phone. It was quite a ways from my car and probably couldn't walk it. But I could actually see the Sugarlands Visitor Center where the backcountry office was located. They had my mom's phone number on file with my camping permit. So I decided to walk to the backcountry office and ask them to call my dad to come pick me up.
I trudged along the road dragging my feet. Of course, the backcountry office was "uphill". Not really, but it felt like it was. When I opened the door to the office, my dad was standing right there! It was a little after 4pm and he had gotten worried about me. I wasn't answering my phone and he didn't know where I was. So he had gone to the backcountry office to see if they knew where I was. They didn't and were in the process of sending him away when I walked in. I was so relieved to see him I almost sat down and cried right there.
My wife (who likely won't read this) was a little freaked out by the portions of this story she's heard. She says, "It doesn't seem like you're making wise choices and thinking about your role as the family leader." Of course, she's probably right. This whole trip was foolish. It's an experience though that I'll not soon forget. I learned quite a bit about myself and my limitations.
Let me count the ways I could have died on this trip:
The first day's hike was too much for me; too many miles with too much elevation change at too high an elevation. I should have turned back earlier in the day, but it never occurred to me. I kept thinking I was almost up to the lodge and I'd be fine there. If it hadn't been for the "little old couple's" tracks in the snow I don't think I would have made it.
I was very poorly prepared to sleep on the ground. Peter's Western Mountaineering down bag probably saved my life. Really? I'm not sure. I can't imagine how I would have survived that night without it.
I'm sworn not to speak of it, but if that miracle hadn't occurred Saturday morning I'm not sure how I would have made it down the mountain.
Following the caretaker down the mountain allowed me to move much more quickly and safely than I could have on my own. Who knows how long that would have taken me at my own snail's pace.
It wouldn't have been death, but I count it a miracle my dad was standing in the backcountry office at the visitor's center when I walked in. I was so tired I could hardly think straight. When I saw him there I knew God had a hand in it. We were seconds within missing each other.
Really, I was vastly unprepared for this trip. There were lots of little things I could have done to make it safer.
Maybe you don't see any of these as near death. My conclusion from this experience is that God wants me for something here on this Earth. Otherwise, how could I have come unscathed from this experience? Only by the grace of God.
Besides learning my own frailty here's the things I learned from this. First and foremost, don't ever, ever go into the backcountry without a printed map of the area. There are too many things that can go wrong with an electronic GPS; particularly a phone. Second, I really needed to pay attention to my water supply. I should have taken more time to filter water. I was just so tired I didn't want to spend extra energy to do it. Trekking poles would have helped a great deal on this hike. I've read that poles can increase your energy output by 10 - 15% just by relieving the weight of your arms from your legs. The added stability and arm strength on the climbs would have been welcome.
I'm a little torn on this last point. Should I have even gone on the trip? Should I have recognized my limitations and lack of preparedness and just stayed home? It seems like the wise answer is "yes, I should have stayed home." But there's also something to be said for pushing your limits and taking the opportunities that come.
UPDATE: There's a nice discussion following this post about knowing your limits over on HammockForums.net