The weather forecast for my next shelter was calling for 1-4 inches of snow, temperatures dipping down to around 32, and wind at 30 mph with gusts to 60 mph. I wasn’t too worried about the snow because it had been fairly warm lately, and I’m well equipped for 32 degree temperatures. I should have paid more attention to the wind forecast though.
There have been few places along the A.T. that I remember having visited before, but as soon as I could see Sam’s Gap through the trees, I distinctly remembered driving through here with my Mom last September. I went into my ohh ohh, ohh ohh mode and said, “Look Momma! The Appalachian Trail comes down that mountain there, crosses under the interstate here, and climbs that mountain there!” She said, “That’s nice, but keep your eyes on the road as there are a lot of trucks here.” Well, maybe that wasn’t her exact response, but I’ll bet it was something close to that.
Sam’s Gap is located at 3,725 feet and is the beginning of the climb to Big Bald, which is located at 5,516 feet. I bring this up because as a result of my experience here, I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to elevation and the effect it can have on the weather. As soon as I started to climb, it started to snow. There is something so peaceful about walking through a leafless forest while big puffy snowflakes are coming down. Even wearing glasses, a snowflake would occasionally land in my eyelashes and remind me of the joy of playing in the snow as a kid.
The higher I climbed, the heavier the snow came down and the harder the wind started to blow. At some point, the temperature reached critical mass and the snow began to accumulate. Even higher, and the trail became a jumble of rocks. There was a guy named Twin Hearted that was about an hour ahead of me, and the snow started to cover his footprints as well as the trail. At times, I became a little uncertain about the exact location of the trail, especially since the snow was sticking to the trees and obliterating some of the blazes. By this point on the trail, you sort of develop a sixth sense about how the trail is laid out, so I continued as the wind kept gathering momentum.
Finally, I arrived at Big Bald and the brunt of the blizzard. In the woods, you can hear the wind gust coming through the trees like a freight train for five minutes before it arrives, giving you some time to brace yourself. Once you are exposed on a bald however, there is no warning, and on several occasions I would have been knocked flat in a face plant had it not been for my poles. Remember the joy of snowflakes on my eyelashes? When snow slams into your eyeballs at 60 mph, not so much.
Back when I was on Max Patch, I noted that the trail designers had placed poles with white blazes on them every 50 feet, and I remembered thinking that I thought it was excessive. Now I understood why. As I reached each pole, it was all I could do to see the next pole. To make matters worse, instead of heading straight to the tree line, the trail meandered around the bald so that you had the opportunity to enjoy the wind blasts from every direction. Finally, I reached the tree line and enjoyed some relief from the incessant wind, only to arrive at a second bald and start to process all over again.
I don’t have any pictures of this experience because my hands were stinging and I didn’t dare take my gloves off long enough to use my camera. Shortly after arriving at the tree line marking the second bald, I entered a third bald, where there was enough of a tree break to allow one picture.
Finally, I arrived at my goal for the day, the Bald Mountain Shelter. There were a couple of hikers already there huddled for warmth, and when I got out of the brunt of the wind, I said (forgive me Mom), “Damn! That was some real National Geographic shit there!” About that time, another hiker arrived with icicles (or some kind of ‘cicle) hanging from his beard. I realized that I probably had a similar appearance, but I was too cold to bother with a selfie. We unanimously agreed that there was no way in hell that we were spending the night in that freezing blizzard, so we all set out to find lower elevations.
Because of all of the snow that fell before it started to stick, the trail was slicker than eel poop. I told myself that if I didn’t fall today, I was never going to fall on the trail again. Around 2:00 pm, as if it was some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, both feet started going at right angles to my intended direction, so I planted my poles and laid down across the trail in the mud. It was too cold to cry, so I did the next best thing. I started laughing hysterically.
Although it continued to snow all day long, the lower I got, the more the weather conditions improved. After making it to Spivey Gap, at 3,200 feet, I started another climb through another lush valley, complete with streams and beautiful waterfalls. It was hard to fathom the difference in my surroundings from just a few hours earlier.
I am currently at No Business Knob Shelter (possibly so named because it doesn’t have a privy), having hiked 20.7 miles (my first 20+ miler). It is still cold and the wind is still howling, but at least I am off that mountain and have an easy six miler to Erwin, TN tomorrow.