Days 5-8: Is it really snowing? (Neels Gap to Dicks Creek Gap)
This morning we wake up to our last breakfast with Josh and Leigh. Everyone seems to have put the tornado scare behind them already as we gear up for the next multi-day section. Another curvy drive, this time with Leigh driving at a casual pace, puts us right back at Mountain Crossings. We hurry for the door to the outfitter because it is so cold and windy outside.
GI Jayne and Azalon decide that they want to take advantage of the Mountain Crossings backpack shakedown. We had been hiking with Azalon this whole time, so Erik and I didn’t want to leave him behind. We spent the morning shooting the breeze with the Mountain Crossings staff and other thru-hikers. Noreaster, Matt, Victor, Dragons Tail, Half Moon and the Lancaster Twins were all there at one point or another. Apparently, there had been some trouble with a couple of the guys staying at the Mountain Crossings hostel that night. Turns out, Papa Hix wasn’t fooling around at Blood Mountain Shelter when he said he was gonna get drunk at Neels Gap. No one seemed to be amused or well rested. I had another Hot Pocket.
A little after noon, we said our goodbyes to GI Jayne, who is taking a “zero day”. A zero day is a day in which you do not hike any miles on the AT. There are many reasons to take a zero day, such as rest, resupply, injury, partying, side trip, etc. There is also something called a “nero day”, in which you may only hike a couple miles on the Trail. On the way up the hill out of Neels Gap, Azalon admitted to purchasing a new 1-man tent. Gone were his tablet, solar panels, and trusty ‘log’. He seemed light on his feet with his new pack weight of 31 lbs (including food for 4 days: ramen noodles for dinner and a snikers bar for each breakfast and lunch).
At 12:30, the strong wind was still bitter cold at near 40 degrees. The day dragged on. We just weren’t making the miles we had been making the past few days. It seemed like we had been hiking forever and had not made the shelter, so we finally chose a small campsite to set up our tents a couple miles short of the Low Gap Shelter. A small campfire helped us ignore the dropping temperatures into the evening.
The next morning, it was FREEZING outside! My water bladder looked like a slushy and the hydration system hose was frozen solid. Boiling water and pouring it in the bladder had little effect. Warm oatmeal and hot chocolate really hit the spot on this 20 degree morning. We hit the trail early to ensure a spot at the next shelter.
Another day of hiking in the bitter cold. The temperature did not get much above 30 degrees all day and the wind continued to blow. The real problem is that when you hike on one side of the ridge, you get out of the wind and end up getting warm enough to shed layers and/or sweat a little, and then you pop back over the ridge and freeze your buns off. At one point, the snot in my left nostril was frozen solid. I had to put my wool buff over my face and warm up, as that was my first taste of the wonders of frost bite. With the wind chill, it was in the single digits all morning.
Around 1 o’clock, I arrived at the Blue Mountain Shelter along with 2 new characters, Ryan and Dan. Both in their 20’s and also from Florida, we immediately gelled. Shortly after, Victor (the 20-something from Singapore), also dropped his gear for the day. His dad had left him to continue at Neels Gap. Erik and Azalon, who were taking it a little slower today, crawled into camp next. Erik seemed to be having trouble with his knee and Azalon just seemed tired. After a little while, Dragons Tail also walked into the shelter and layed out his sleeping bag, completing our crew for the evening.
This was the first time everyone in camp was in their 30’s or under on this trip. And we are maybe just a little more industrious than the older crowd. We split up into teams to find firewood, build the initial fire, and get other things done around camp. It happened all very naturally and, as a result, it ended up being quick, easy, and lots of fun. In the middle of it all, we noticed something falling from the sky. “Is it really snowing?” I blurted out in disbelief. Its funny, because you have to picture 4 Floridians and 1 guy from tropical Singapore, who had only seen snow once only a couple weeks before, looking up at the sky in wonder as the snow flurry became very visible. What an unlikely bunch. I thought about catching a snowflake on my tongue.
That night was particularly cold. The coldest yet. As far as actual temperature, it was warmer than the previous night, but staying in a tent adds some wind and thermal protection. Staying in a 3-walled shelter was definitely colder. Sometime in the middle of the night, Azalon got up and left without saying anything to anyone. Erik said he thought someone was moving to a tent at like 12:30, but thought it was Dragons Tail. So far, no one knows exactly what happened. Could have been that he got really cold and had to get moving down the trail to warm up. Could have been that the cold got to him and he gave up and hiked out. Erik jokes that it must have been that horrible snoring noise that Dragons Tail was making right in Azalon’s face that night… “that would have made anyone want to quit”.
Today is a little less windy, but not much warmer. However, both Erik and I are having trouble with our knees. Dan, Ryan and Victor hike out front this morning. We don’t see them until we reach Tray Mountain Shelter, where they have already strung up a temporary 4th wall with a discarded tarp they found inside the shelter. Still no sign of Azalon. Ryan, Erik and I relegate ourselves to our sleeping bags to keep warm. Erik jokes that he is trembling like a Chihuahua, which makes us laugh very hard. Erik and I begin talking about taking a zero or two to rest our knees when we reach Dicks Creek Gap the following day. Out of nowhere, Orange Lightening arrives at the shelter and we proceed to chat for hours. Such a nice guy and full of positive energy. Even though he is a bit older, he fits in famously with our group. Dragons Tail arrived a little while later and, having heard Erik’s frank commentary on his snoring, gracefully tarp-tented just outside the shelter.
The next morning, my knee is really stiff and sore. Erik and I are slow to get out of camp, as Ryan, Dan and Victor get an early start. We say our goodbyes to Dragons Tail and Orange Lightening and hobble out of camp, stretching regularly. This stretching routine had become pretty standard at every break over the past couple days and was more and more becoming the reason for a break, rather than us being tired. To Erik and my amazement (and embarrassment), Orange Lightening would later pass us on a steep downhill section, larking like a little sprite, as he skipped down the hill. It was amazing to see an older guy with such indestructible legs. I remembered him saying something earlier about ritualistically taking glucosamine with chondroitin. Definitely buying some of that on my zero day.
The hiking day was relatively uneventful. We passed by the Deep Gap Shelter trail without taking a 2nd look, as the shelter sits .3mi off the main Trail. When Erik and I reached the road crossing at Dicks Creek Gap, Ryan, Dan and Victor were already trying to hitch a ride. Dan even had the brilliant idea of writing, “Hiker to Town” in big bold sharpie on one part of his tyvek (sp?) ground cloth and, “Hiker to Trail” on another part. I told them they would be more successful if they showed more leg.
Within 10 minutes, my mom and stepdad had arrived in their car. Apparently, the satellite tracking device I have been carrying (http://share.findmespot.com/shared/faces/viewspots.jsp?glId=0qtQZntGbdILkDfJBP3oBQxdB8xa810To) is doing a good job of enabling us to time these pickups. They were nice enough to offer the guys a ride into town and Erik a drive back to his place in Franklin. When my mom got back from driving Ryan, Dan and Victor into Hiawassee, she noted that Erik and I smelled much better than the other guys, who had been wearing underarmour. Merino wool > synthetic