It may seem like I have been complaining about the climbs on the A.T., but nothing could be further from the truth. After all, I can’t claim bragging rights to climbing the equivalent of Mount Everest 16 times if I don’t do the climbs. But more importantly, I think climbing, although quite strenuous, is actually easier than going downhill.
Everyone on the trail talks (moans) about the climbs, but climbing is just a matter of providing the leg muscles with enough oxygen to keep them operating. Going downhill, however, is a matter of slowing down and incorporating techniques to prevent crushing your knees with the downward momentum of you body weight plus the weight of your pack. As long as the terrain allows me to walk with a heel and toe step, I can stretch out my stride and cruise down the trail. Once the decent becomes steep enough to prevent a heel to toe motion, I revert to a motion than can best be described as a Charlie Chaplin waddle (I hope you are enjoying that visual). When the angle of descent becomes even greater, especially while moving over large rocks and steps, I will stop at the top of the step, place all of my weight on my trekking poles, and lower myself to the next level. That is how you protect your knees, but it also takes as much time as climbing.
Today was a perfect day to illustrate this. Starting at Wesser Bald Shelter at 4,092 feet, the trail went almost entirely downhill for 5.9 miles to the Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) located at an elevation of 1,732 feet. From the NOC, the trail went almost entirely uphill for 6.7 miles to the Sassafras Gap Shelter located at an elevation of 4,391 feet. The walk downhill took me 2 hours and 45 minutes. The walk uphill (with the extra mile) took me 3 hours and 30 minutes. Although the miles per hour were almost identical, the downhill walk was a lot more painful.
Despite the extreme nature of today’s journey, it was perhaps one of the nicest hiking days of the trip so far. The day started nice and cool and quickly warmed up to the high 50s with sunny, clear blue skies. The downhill portion of the trail was marred by the continuation of the fire scorched forest, but it was punctuated by one bright spot called the Jumpoff. The Jumpoff overlook provided magnificent views of the Nantahala River Gorge.
At the bottom of the hill was the NOC, a large commercial complex that caters to whitewater rafting and kayaking activities. Although the complex features the full line NOC Outfitters, the main draw of all the trail hikers was the legendary (at least among hikers) River’s End Restaurant. Located on the south bank of the Nantahala River, the restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and has an extensive craft beer selection. I had to take a pass on the latter, since I was still facing the big climb, but I did enjoy a huge salad and a couple of refills of Coke while using one of their outlets to charge my phone. The little things that are taken for granted have taken on new importance now, e.g. washing your hands in a sink, and having a place to throw out your garbage.
The most striking element of the today’s uphill section was that it was the beginning of the forest fire free zone that will last for many miles. This, however, hasn’t always been the case. On a cool December 7th morning in 1968, an alarm went out that there was a forest fire in the area of Rock Creek. The Chief Forest Service Ranger of Swain County, 52 year old Wade A. Sutton, and his assistant went out to investigate the fire. Discovering that over 100 acres had already burned, Sutton’s assistant separated to start a backfire, while Sutton called for additional help. Help soon arrived, but near evening a search was begun for the Chief, who hadn’t been seen in several hours. Around 7:30 pm, they found Ranger Sutton dead from carbon monoxide poisoning and severe burns. Chief Ranger Sutton, who was survived by his wife and two adult children, was buried at Swain Memorial Park in Bryson City, NC.
About three miles past the NOC, on the side of a hill in a beautiful second growth hardwood forest, is a stone marker bearing a plaque in memorial to Wade Sutton. It reads, “On December 7th, 1968, 783 feet southwest from this point, Wade A. Sutton, North Carolina Forest Service Ranger, gave his life suppressing a forest fire, that you might more fully enjoy your hike along this trail.” When considering the hundreds (or thousands) of firefighters who risked their lives attempting to suppress the wildfires in the decimated forests through which I have recently walked, my appreciation for their dedication and service cannot be overstated. It was indeed a poignant moment on the the trail.
A few miles past the Wade Sutton Memorial, like a mirror image of the downhill section of the trail, you arrive at an overlook called the Jump-up. Once again, we were rewarded with a grand vista of the Nantahala River Gorge. If you look closely at the picture, you can actually see the NOC. It was pretty cool to be able to look back to the point where I had lunch less than three hours ago. I walked that far?
Tonight, I’m staying in proximity to the Sassafras Gap Shelter. I walked down towards the shelter to get water and noticed that there were no available campsites that were level. It gets so annoying to keep climbing in your tent while trying to sleep, so I staked out my claim to a flat spot on the ridge adjacent to the trail. Namaste, Hulahoop, and CCOTT are in the area.