Up and down the ladder

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?

K2 rocks the NOC

Wednesday – uh-oh, another zero for Doo! K2 took the trail to represent our team.

I shuttled him as he slack packed from the Nantahala Outdoor Center at mile 136.7 of the AT…

…to Stacoah Gap at mile 150.3. The 13.6 mile (~21.9km) hike involved an elevation gain of 2,978′ in the first six miles coming out of the NOC at the river and climbing up Swim Bald. The real high point was Cheoah Bald at 5,062′ for a total elevation gain of 3,330′ in 8.1 miles. And after all that uphill there’s still 5.5 miles left!

Wiggy said that most hikers take two days to hike out of the NOC choosing to stay at Sassafras Gap Shelter after about a 7 mile hike rather than continue over Cheoah Bald. The next shelter with tent camping is another 15.2 miles from Sassafras so choosing to call it a day after cresting Swim makes sense for thru-hikers. For slackpacking wildmen like K2 though? Hike on!

I dropped him off at about 9:30am and he called me to pick him up at 3pm. The guy can hike.

I spent my time checking out the NOC’s outfitter, putting air in one of our tires, catching up on blog posts, and nursing my knees and my blister.

The Nantahala Outdoor Center hosts whitewater sporting competitions and other events in the spring and summer. People come from all over to race and to attend their highly acclaimed paddling school too. Early March is quiet at NOC, however, the AT goes right through the complex and many hikers stay at their hostel.

For noisy knees my mom always said, “RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation” and for blisters…. Well, I did a lot of reading before this hike about blister care while backpacking, but I can’t say much of it has helped me. I am NOT a fan of putting Leukotape over hot spots because at the end of the hike my socks are stuck to my skin. Ouch! I will admit Desitin (yes, the diaper rash stuff) seems to dry out hot spots, which I think has help avoid additional blisters. So far my best bet has been liberal use of Gold Bond foot power. Love that stuff.

Why are you hiking the AT???

IVVe43SlRdeSCdpoq71WFQTis a common question…most people say they hike the trail…for fun and enjoyment of life and for warm relationships with others…also…environmental awareness…physical challenge…camaraderie…exercise and solitude…in one form or another…are among typical responses among hikers…once in a while you get the obligatory “because it was there” from some pedantic old bird that lost all their creativity during the WPA era (Slosh)…er…uh…did i say that out loud?…well i cant go for that…no can do…so i got a whole routine that i use whenever anyone asks…(in fact this is what i told them at the AT Headquarters in Harper’s Ferry when they asked…it was met with a very long blank stare…lol)…so here it is…the coach came walking over to me…and i said…i know what you are going to say…i’m off the team right?…and he said…no…you never were on the team…that uniform is a bunch of rags your mom sewed together…and the helmet is a space helmet you got last halloween…you show up at practice…steal the ball and make my players chase you to get it back…and as he’s saying these terrible things i realize what he’s doing…he sees something in me…some special quality and he’s trying to draw it out…and thats when they put the handcuffs on ┬áme…after that i decided to hike the AT!

NOC Kneed

Tuesday – Day Eight on the trail – Wiggy dropped us back at Burningtown Gap and we headed off to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, otherwise known as the NOC. This 12.9 mile day would be challenging yet within reason because we were slackpacking. We set off just after 8:30am.

The air temps were in the 20sF yet the ground temps melted a lot of the snow in the lower elevations. As we climbed up Copper Ridge Bald (5,080′) we passed Cold Spring Shelter where several hikers had camped in 15F (-9.44C) weather that night. One hiker held most of the crowd’s attention with a bear story, but we didn’t stop to hear the tale. We reached Copper Ridge about an hour later.

We descended into Tellico Gap and then back up 767′ of elevation to summit Wesser Bald (4,627′) with its crazy metal and wood observation tower. My pace slowed from ~30 minute miles to ~45 minute miles with this up and down terrain. Totally worth it for the 360 views!

At Wesser Bald we stopped for lunch and chatted with Black Dog, a young thru-hiker.

From Wesser the trail dropped over 400′ in 0.7 miles and then held steady on a spine with steep drops off either side. A fire, I believe it was the Tellico Fire, had ripped through the forest in 2016 leaving the trees charred and scarred. When K2 thru-hiked in 2015, before the fire, the trees were vital. When he returned in 2017 and hiked the first 300 miles – that’s when K2 first saw the fire damage. The creosote. The bones. Really too sad to photograph.

Continuing along the mountain spine to “the Jumpoff” (don’t!) offered more 360 views.

Then the 4.1 mile downhill into the NOC stomped me. I kept going more and more slowly. With each step I felt my knees creaking and also burning and sort of itching – new sensations of this Appalachian Trail. Attitude is everything and mine was okay for a lot of the tail-end of this journey on my own personal Appalachian Frail, but I will admit self-pity reared its head and demanded to be entertained. K2 encouraged me to take breaks rather than fight on. We found a leafy knoll by the trail and laid down for about five minutes in the sun, which helped.

We made it to the NOC in time for dinner – great menu for vegetarians. Next Step and Which Way met us since they were staying at the hostel there. Ironically Which Way thanked me for the tips I shared on hiking to help your knees. She had been icing her knee at the lodge and feeling it every step in earlier hikes, but after we talked and she changed up her stride (and she took some Advil) – she had a pain-free day.

Then it was back to the lodge for K2 and Doo where we watched the Bruins rope-a-dope Carolina 6-4. They put a 5 spot on them in the third period!

Civilized slacking

Monday morning we drove the 50 miles from Blairsville, GA to Topton, NC. We pulled into Nantahala Mountain Lodge where the fastidious innkeeper, Maggie, allowed only freshly laundered clothing and the like into her place. Our hiker gear went into her mudroom. There we sorted out day packs to tote a bit of water, snacks, and maybe another layer if the weather changed (from flurries to blizzard or sun).

Then Steve aka Wiggy shuttled us to mile 115.1 on the AT at Wayah Gap Road nearby the lodge. We took off slackpacking (as opposed to true backpacking) for an 8.7 mile hike to Burningtown Gap where Wiggy would collect us once again. All very civilized.

We set out just before 11 o’clock and finished well before 3 o’clock. Not since my Vermont days had I hiked in weather like this:

The snow fell gently transforming the forest from dark to bright. Around every bend in the trail I gasped at the beauty, but didn’t stop to take pictures every time since I wanted to eventually finish hiking. Still the scenery transfixed me and I attempted to capture what I could – yet my pics don’t do it justice.

We topped Wayah Bald (elevation of 5,342′) and climbed up the historic stone observation tower (5,385′) even though the clouds obscured the view. The CCC built the tower in 1937. Currently, the tower roof has scaffolding around it for repairs.

We talked briefly with another hiker with long poles and trail runners. Then headed down to the Wayah Bald shelter just under a mile away where we stopped for a respite to refuel. As we sat – eating and talking with a few other hikers – that dude with the trail runners came in with BOTH poles snapped.

So, you took a tumble then?

Yeah, I wiped out.

And you broke both?

Yeah, that’s some bullshit. Glad I got duct tape. That’s the only reason I kept ’em. I need ’em for my tent.

Hiking is not for the faint of heart, yet perhaps it is for the fool hearty.

Back at Nantahala Mountain Lodge – Maggie and Wiggy’ place – we got to know some fellow hikers. Next Step and Which Way were thru-hiking now that Next Step had retired from the military and the kids are out of the house. They planned well for their hike and really seemed to be enjoying the outdoors together. Jingle and Bell, friends who recently retired, were beginning their thru-hike by doing sections close to home. Slosh, a gregarious retiree, was taking her time, carrying a big pack, and foraging for wild greens along the way.

All along the AT people like these folks and people unlike these folks set out in February, March, and April to thru-hike the ~2,190 miles to Maine. Apparently about 75% of those people decide somewhere between mile 3 and mile 2183 they have completed their AT journey and do not thru-hike. More people still join these hopeful thru-hikers to section hike, day hike, and whatever it is me and K2 are doing. My point is there’s a lot of people on this trail for a lot of reasons. All called to hike, to unplug, to match wits and grit against the weather and grime. Is the AT calling you?

Zeros suck

When we ran into our shuttle drivers, Donald and Tyler, at the Hole in the Wall, the happening spot for breakfast in Blairsville, we asked for their input on how to spend our zeros. They recommended touring some waterfalls. We managed to squeeze in one trip to a magnificent waterfall during our busy weekend. We also packed the time with two Bruins games, dinner at the five star restaurant, Copper Door, in Hayesville, and another visit with Scotty Roo -barbecue at Wild Hog and resupply at Ingles.

Positives about the Seasons Inn motel:

  • Clean bathtub (seemed clean anyway) and plentiful hot water
  • Walking distance to the Hole in the Wall for coffee and breakfast
  • Spacious room – handy for airing out gear and getting organized
  • Laundry onsite for $3/load

Four or five times more people hike by the vicinity of Blairsville as thru-hikers than there are residents of this tiny town. From the moment I soaked the Leukotape off my feet in my first bath, the quicksand of Blairsville held me firmly. Ordinarily, after growing up in a small Vermont village, I don’t feel such a pull to root into a place like Blairsville. Yet the sedentary life seduced me during these two zeros. I can see how hikers succumb to towns and don’t get back to the trail.

I’m grateful to my dad and K2 for encouraging the broader perspective that got me relaunched.

Well, you are there now so you just have to do it well – even if it is more difficult than you thought it would be. I know you can and I love you. – Dad via text

Horse smells the barn

Friday morning I woke up at 6:30am knowing only hiking would warm me up. Super cold night and yet my North Face One bag performed SO WELL.

K2 made us coffee and oatmeal which we enjoyed within the shelter of our tent. Then it was time to pack up and move out. I’m not super fast to break camp, but I’m faster when it’s super freezing. My fingers were so cold I couldn’t secure my sleeping pad to my pack. K2 was there to bail me out – he’s so much tougher and stronger.

It warmed both our hearts to see Scotty Roo roll into the gap before we took off. Scotty Roo had camped at Whitley Gap Shelter about five miles back. The only way to stand the cold though was NOT to stand around. I had to fire up my internal combustion engine by hiking out of the gap. It would take a while as we hoofed up the gentle rise to Blue Mountain (a 1,001′ elevation gain over 8.2 miles).

The water on the AT has been plentiful. We hike a jungle, a cloud forest, a creek basically. Even when the weather is dry, the AT is wet! Major plus: Not having to carry much water.

I use a Camelbak with a mini Sawyer filter, which removes over 99.999% of all bacteria and protozoa. Here’s a quick video of the filter in action:

We stopped briefly at the Blue Mountain shelter where we discovered a bit of unexpected trail magic: a bag with a couple apples and a couple oranges. Also, some one had abandoned a nearly new Nalgene bottle (with frozen water inside). We sat for a bit in a sliver of sun under the shelter awning to scarf our snacks. The ice cold citrus fortified us for the last 2.4 miles of the day. Some of the shelter graffiti inspired us too:

After that break, the clomp down to Unicoi Gap went quickly, a 1,076′ drop in elevation in a mile and a half. I knew I’d be sleeping in a bed instead of a bag so that help keep the pace rapid as well. Normally a hike over eight miles would give me some soreness, but knowing the Further Shuttle Service would meet us at Unicoi kept any aches and pains at bay. I nearly galloped down the mountain into the parking lot. The terrain made for great time – probably close to 2.5 miles per hour.

Then we piled into the Subaru and headed to our car just up the road at Dicks Creek Gap at mile 69 of the AT.

Donald, owner of Further Shuttle Service, recommended we stay in Blairsville, his home town, rather than Hiawassee. We checked into the Seasons Inn, a locally-owned hiker motel, Friday night for two zeros.

Zeros are days of no miles on the trail when hikers exchange time spent hiking for time spent relaxing and recuperating. We ran into one thru-hiker who took 75 zeros to earn the trail name No Worries. When K2 thru-hiked in 2015, he took a more typical 20 zeros.

For our first week of this section hike, we covered 61.1 miles in our first six days on the trail – averaging just under 10.2 miles (16.4km) a day at about a fairly consistent ~2 mile per hour pace.

Trail meditation

Thursday – Day Five – we left Blood Mountain Cabins showered and rested, our laundry clean, our spirits refreshed. Sure, it’s cold, but that’s not snow – it’s just dandruff!

The rise out of the gap warmed me quickly: 745′ in 1.7 miles. Then the trail bumped along with some beautiful views from Levelland Mountain, Wolf Laurel Top, and Cowrock Mountain.

At Cowrock we stopped for lunch including hot tea. Reminder, don’t let K2’s bare legs fool you into thinking it was balmy. Temps were in the 20s. Yet the sun showered down on Cowrock and the wind laid some so that made for a good stopping place. Especially with hot tea and a tremendous view.

Fueled up, we dropped down into Testnatee Gap where a young family provided hikers with trail magic.

Stid and his dog, Brofie, and several other hikers enjoyed the generosity. I grabbed a baggie of potato chips. Then we tackled Wildcat Mountain, a 500′ gain in a half mile. The aerobic, uphill hike challenged some of our fellow hikers who probably needed a safety meeting or two to make it up. I take respite in hills like Wildcat as a time for walking meditation. I use the mantra, “Ra Ma Da Sa, Sa Say So Hung,” take small steps, and keep climbing. I find that mantra connects me with the healing energy of the outdoors – the sun, sky, and earth. K2 is a very strong hiker and he’s always on my heels.

As the shadows lengthened and the sun crept closer to the horizon, the wind picked up. We did the hiker hobble into Low Gap – after an 11.5 mile day – where probably forty hikers stayed the night – mostly in tents and a few in the small shelter.

Outside the shelter some early arrivers had started a fire where people sat and swapped stories, ate dinner, or simply warmed their hands on their way to hang their food bag to keep it safe from bears.

When I cut tent stakes from some fallen branches my fingers were so cold I dropped my pocket knife at least two dozen times. I enjoyed warming up by that fire while feasting on Mountain House Pad Thai.

Even a full belly and a fire couldn’t fully mask the cold at Low Gap. The wind sounded like a freight train yet luckily it wasn’t coming straight through the gap. Our Big Agnes HV UL3 tent kept out the cold especially as we tucked into our bags. In spite of the cold (low 20sF / -4-6ishC), it was a surprisingly comfy night. I slept really well with the wind functioning as a white noise machine. Maybe I’m nearly getting the hang of this life on the trail.

Blood and noodles

Wednesday – Day Four – we rolled out of our Lance Creek tent site slowly at around 9am after fueling up on oatmeal and coffee as usual. The morning light in the gap gently turned from gray to purple to peach to periwinkle.

Day 4 I saw my first needle ice – caused by the earth temperature being above freezing and the air temperature being below freezing.

This short 7.2 mile hike took us over Blood Mountain, the tallest Georgia mountain on the AT at an elevation of 4,457′.

Stunning views at the top of Blood Mountain – Jonathan got out his compass and he and K2 figured they could see Atlanta.

Inside the historic rock shelter built in 1934, I overheard another hiker doing a phone interview from inside his tent.

The wind wanted to blow us off Blood Mountain on the way down. The insulated tube to my Camelbak froze from the wind chill for about an hour or two.

Yet when we hit Neel Gap and Mountain Crossings Outfitter, Jonathan announced he’d gotten an answer finally from Blood Mountain Cabins. K2 had called twice earlier and hit their answering machine. We were elated and immediately hoofed it down the quarter mile side trail to the main cabin lobby.

Jonathan bunked with a fellow who started the day as a thru hiker and by the next morning he was through hiking. That’s how bad coming off Blood Mountain was!

K2 and I bunked solo until we heard Scotty Roo was headed our way and then it was the three of us in for the night.

Our first showers in four days! Even the simple pleasure of being inside and drinking from a tap delighted us. Plus we had our laundry done – true lap of luxury.

On the way down Blood Mountain – the wind chapping my skin, my knees aching – a random vision of spaghetti marinara sustained me. Why a huge, hot plate of Italian noodles smothered in sauce? I didn’t know from where this carb fest might magically appear. It propelled me though. It got me through.

Then as I circled the shelf in the little Blood Mountain Cabins store I saw one box of spaghetti and one jar of sauce. Boom!

It’s the little things.

When it rains, let it rain

Rain on the trail?

  • Keeps down the dust – there’s a lot of people hiking their own hike on this trail: over 600 thru-hikers started by March 4th
  • Brings out the colors – the fallen acorns, the moss, the lichen, the rocks – they come alive shellacked with water
  • Eventually stops!

Tuesday the rain lasted into the afternoon. It lightened up enough around mid day for us to take a 10-min snack break past Ramrock Mountain.

Then the rain and wind turned fierce at Woody Gap where I experienced my first “trail magic” from a tradesman, Bones. Since he couldn’t work in this weather, he brought fried chicken, pepperoni pizza, Twix, Sprite, and beer to the parking lot by GA 60. He even let us warm up inside his truck.

For those interested about what I ate: ok, yeah, I picked the pepperoni off and scarfed away. It was therapeutic.

With trail magic fueling us we climbed about 400′ to Preaching Rock where the weather started to shift.

After an 8.2 mile day we arrived at Lance Creek with plenty of time to set up our tent, let our gear air out, and have dinner. Scotty Roo rolled through and had tea with us after dinner. Jonathan camped across the trail from us and let us put our food bag up with his PCT-style to keep the bears away.


  • The light at sunset and sun rise by the creek
  • The perfect fallen tree “privy”
  • Jono giving pointers to Scotty Roo on the Zpacks Duplex tent