Thursday – my ninth day on the trail and K2’s 10th – we hiked Jacob’s Ladder, which honestly sounds more ominous than it turned out to be. It is steep – sure, it is. The Appalachian Trail guide book, commonly known as the AWOL after the hiker who initially wrote it, mentions a cliff here. I envisioned more technical hiking involving a rock face or least some rock hopping. The AT gave us a leaf-covered trail with minimal switchbacks and a few muddy spots. We started at Stecoah Gap where a cold wind whipped through steadily. Then we dropped to Sweetwater Gap where the trail turned straight up to ascend Jacob’s Ladder: 598′ of elevation in only 0.6 of a mile. According to my Fitbit the climb pushed my heart into the cardio zone as I neared the top.
Trees obscured the view somewhat – although leaves will obliterate any view once spring arrives.
We waltzed over to Brown Fork Gap shelter less than a mile away for a break. Three thru-hikers rested inside eating lunch: a young couple from Pennsylvania and a woman in her late thirties from Australia. This meant at least for those few moments while we all sat and ate our lunch the shelter had more women than men – something I had not seen yet at any shelter thus far. Anecdotally, it appears men outnumber women on the trail 3 to 1 – officially it might be 4 to 1. After our refreshments we set off to descend the ladder. The wind had dried many of the slick spots making the downhill trek easier. As we dropped elevation the wind felt warm. When we got to the car the wind still howled through Stecoah Gap, but the temperature had risen to 45 or 50F. K2 had striped down to one layer.
Later in the day we toured the famous AT shelter at the historic Fontana Dam known as the Fontana Hilton due to its filtered water, hot showers, and overall civility of the place.
Still, I don’t think I’d receive Hilton Honors points for staying there.
Here the Appalachian Trail crosses the Fontana Dam to enter the Smoky Mountains.
Not sure when this plaque at Fontana Dam was installed, but by now the average number of hikers to complete the trail has to be more than 100. About 2 million people use the trail annually. When K2 thru-hiked the AT in 2015 he registered at Amicalola State Park as number 44. In the subsequent years the trail’s popularity has really grown and so has the drive to register hikers. We were registered as hikers 608 and 609 this year. Last year about 4,200 people attempted thru-hiking. However as the popularity of the trail climbs year after year, the completion rate in 2016 for thru-hikes fell from a norm of 25% to a new low of 20%. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy is still crunching the latest numbers for 2017 and 2018 to see if this is a trend or an anomaly.
Ups and downs abound. The uptick in usage has downsides for the ecology of the forest as well as for the tiny towns along the trail. Personally for the wannabe thru-hiker, attempting a thru-hike and then aborting it due to illness or injury or some other emergency must be an emotional downer. Think of the thousands of emotional rollercoasters playing out in the woods – those ups and downs within all those hiker psyches.
Will I make it?
When will it end?
Why do I like backpacking?
Is it too late to choose beach?