Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Clingmans Dome Or Bust ...

Hi readers ... I know you've been looking for more trail and race reports, but haven't had a lot to write about since coming home from Massanutten with an Achilles problem ... so here is a story that I wrote last January on my high-pointers trip that was republished in the High-Pointers Club quarterly magazine:

“I’m sorry, but the road is closed. It may be days before you can get up the mountain.”

Those were not the words I wanted to hear when I arrived at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center at Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Jan. 20 with plans to summit Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee. I was on a schedule – no, it was more like a mission – to high-point every state on a cross-country drive to California and back. Thirty-five in all, and Tennessee was next, come hell or high water.

Or nearly a foot of snow.

It had fallen the day before, when I was in Virginia bagging Mount Rogers, where about eight inches of fresh, unbroken powder had made for a magical day. But after high-pointing Kentucky in the morning, my arrival in Gatlinburg to climb Clingmans Dome was met by a roadblock in the form of a barricaded road.

Highway 441 that climbs through Newfound Gap for 13 miles to the turnoff to the Clingmans Dome Road was closed and no matter how much I pleaded with the park rangers, they weren’t going to let me drive up it. The only way up, the ranger said, was to hike it, and since it was already mid-afternoon, was snowing heavily again, and was expected to dip well below zero in a few hours, he threw it out there mostly as a joke.

But I wasn’t laughing. I was thinking. Thinking that it just might be possible to hike the 40-plus miles to the summit and back instead of waiting up to two days for the road to reopen. “Yeah, I can do that,” I finally decided and headed for the parking lot to pack up every shred of winter gear I had with me. Fortunately, I was well-prepared, but most of the gear I was stuffing into my pack were things I didn’t expect to need until Mount Whitney in California, not here in Tennessee.

When I returned to the Visitor’s Center 20 minutes later to secure my permit, the rangers there saw I wasn’t kidding. An older ranger advised me against this suicide march, telling me it was more than 17 miles to the Mount Collins Shelter where I was required to camp and it would be dark soon. Undaunted, though, I ignored the warning, having hiked in far worse conditions in my home state of New Hampshire on many occasions. In hindsight, I probably should have listened, because as it turned out, only dumb luck – or as I called it, superb intuition – enabled me to find the shelter in a raging blizzard, preventing probable disaster.

I started up the road to Newfound Gap at 3:40 p.m. just as the snow began falling with a more serious urgency. It was not a hard climb, as the road had been plowed earlier in the day, but now snow was piling up on it again, and it was getting dark. Then I discovered what was going to turn out to be a problem with life-or-death consequences: Once it got dark, I turned on my headlamp, only to see – nothing! Nothing, except blowing, swirling snow a foot in front of my face, rendering my headlamp useless.

So I turned it off and continued climbing in the dark, using the complete blackness of the treeline on either side of the road as my only reference point. Finally, the road leveled and I figured that I had reached Newfound Gap, but it was still impossible to see the Clingmans Dome Road that branched to my right. Continuing to use the treeline as my guide, I found the unplowed road and began trudging up it. The ranger had told me that I’d find a parking lot on my left about halfway up this summit road, and a sign opposite it leading to the Appalachian Trail and the Mount Collins Shelter. But I doubted I would be able to see any of this and knew I ran the disastrous risk of walking right by this trail in the darkness.

So I checked the time. It was 7:45 and pitch black, but I calculated that I could hike the three-plus miles to the trail sign in about an hour. So when I checked the time again an hour later, I began looking for this supposed parking lot. But in the blizzard, it had been swallowed up. I started hiking closer to the left side of the road in hopes of seeing something … anything … but knew if I missed this turnoff, I would have no choice but to keep hiking or…. I didn’t want to think about the “or.”

The temperature was now well-below zero and it was still snowing hard when suddenly I saw something on my left that did not look like a tree, but rather man-made. I walked over to it and leaned close. It was a trail sign! I turned on my headlamp again and could just make out the name of the trail. This was it! I knew the spur to the AT and the shelter was directly across the road from this sign and easily found it.

Once in the woods, under the canopy of the trees, the blizzard abated, and I found I could use my headlamp. I almost immediately noticed fresh footsteps in the snow and followed them straight to the shelter, where I arrived at 9:40 p.m. – six hours after I started – cold and hungry. Two college-aged brothers from Massachusetts, through-hiking the AT, were already in the shelter trying to sleep, but mostly shivering. They would tell me in the morning it was the coldest night they had spent since they left Katahdin in Maine back in August.

My hands were almost useless as I pulled everything I could out of my pack and prepared for a long, cold night. The wind was whipping into the open side of the shelter and I could barely get my stove lit, but I had no choice … I still had to eat. After melting snow for my pre-packaged meal, I pulled on every bit of clothing I had with me, topped by a thick, down jacket.

I wolfed down my dinner and climbed into my sleeping back, having already stuffed my boots into the bottom to dry them out. As I zipped myself in, though, I noticed something disconcerting. Two of the fingertips on my right hand, exposed to the cold thanks to holes worn through the thin, cotton gloves I had on, were frozen completely solid! Like rocks!

I struggled back out of my bag and somehow re-lit my stove, painfully thawing out the two fingertips before they were entirely lost to frostbite. Thankfully, this worked and I was soon back in my bag. Surprisingly, I was not cold as all the layers I had on were just enough to keep me toasty. My hands got so hot in my overmitts that they started to sweat and get cold, so I spent the night comfortably without any gloves on!

But the morning dawned cold and clear. And did I mention cold? Later, I was told it dipped to minus-6 that night, but with the wind, it was much colder. I pulled my boots out of the bottom of my sleeping bag to find that none of the snow that had bonded to them had melted! Not a smidgen!

The brothers had broken camp ahead of me, heading south and over the summit, still nearly four miles away. I thought I would catch them, but they got to the summit and were back on the trail before I arrived.

Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet, may be one of the highest points east of the Mississippi, but there is still a road to the top and because of that, there is a spiraling cement observation tower on the summit. Upon reaching it, I took out my camera and it promptly told me that it had not survived the night. Well, at least its battery hadn’t. All this work and no pictures … who would believe I was ever there! I went up the spiral walkway of the observation tower, banging my head on a tree branch I had to duck under.

The views were amazing on this perfectly still morning. The Smoky’s were smoking this morning, with mist seemingly rising from every valley from here to the horizon. The blue of the cloudless sky stood out in absolute brilliance against the pure-white mountaintops all covered in another six inches of fresh powder.

It was a long, grueling hike down the road through all the fresh-fallen snow. About halfway down Clingmans Dome Road I found the trail sign that had saved me the night before … and saw no parking lot next to it. I had been in search of an illusion the night before … I knew now that finding that sign by pure chance had probably saved my life!

When I got back to Newfound Gap, I felt much better, but I still had 13 miles to go to get back to the Visitor’s Center. Soon, the constant downhill turned into an excruciating ordeal. My feet were wet and it became almost tortuous to continue. I stopped twice to take my boots off, airing out my wrinkled feet and changing into a slightly drier pair of socks.

With about five miles to go, I heard the sound of an engine somewhere down in the valley. A snowplow, perhaps? But could I speed up enough to get to it before it left for the day, as it was now getting to be late-afternoon again.

I reached the side road just as the snowplow was driving out. I was never so thankful to see someone in my life. The driver let me throw my pack in the back and he gave me a ride the final four miles to the Visitor’s Center and my car.

Then I hobbled inside and told the rangers my story and they were amazed. All they could do was shake their heads and be thankful they hadn’t been called out to rescue me.

Tennessee now behind me, I got in the car and headed for North Carolina and Mount Mitchell, grabbing the first hotel I could find after leaving Gatlinburg. After having spent a surprisingly comfortable night in below-zero temperatures the night before, I went out to eat at a local Applebee’s and as I was sitting there, I started shivering uncontrollably.

Maybe it was just the events of the previous 24 hours catching up to me.

Next up on my high-pointers list: Mounts Hood and Ranier next week.

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