Tuesday, November 24, 2009

It Might as Well Have Rained

A funny thing happened during the night. The dew was so heavy that it rained down from the leaves of the mountain laurel. I awoke early this morning thinking the fog had risen and turned into rain clouds. It wasn't until I finally emerged from my tent just before sunrise that I realized there were no rain drops. In fact, the sky was still blue from our campsite. There had just been so much moisture in the air that when the temperature reached the dew point, everything became saturated. I've heard that the Smoky Mountains near where we hiked are actually temperate rainforest. From my experience today and the often inches-thick coating of moss on many of the trees, I wouldn't be surprised that this section of the Appalachian Trail also passes through temperate rainforest.

After wandering the ridge while everyone else slept and watching the sun rise from an outcropping of rock that allowed me good views of both the east and west sides of the peak, everyone else crawled out of their tents and tarp shelters, I fired up my stove for breakfast and we broke camp. Our packs felt heavier today from all of the moisture packed away inside them, but it could have just been the soreness on my shoulders making it feel that way. Chris, the hiker we met there at the top of Standing Indian was headed south and we were headed north, so we parted ways there.

Luckily for us, a majority of our hike today was downhill, and it was the same gentle slope of the hike up, meaning that about seven hours of our day were brilliantly easy. The only truly remarkable thing from the first 10 miles or so of today's trek was the fog. It may have been clear when we left the peak of Standing Indian, but we soon descended back into the gray mist we never once saw the sun again today. We could see the peak of Albert Mountain that morning, or at least we thought we could as it wasn't much shorter than Standing Indian and we had been able to see a couple of peaks in that direction, so we thought we'd eventually climb out of the fog. Apparently, the fog rose during our hike through the gaps and lower ridges that connected Standing Indian to Albert. When we finally summited Albert, it was just as cold, gray, and viewless as every other section of the hike had been. Worse perhaps.

Honestly, that wasn't the worst part of Albert. The worst part was the last bit of climb up to the top. About two miles before the summit the trail had gradually gotten a little rougher and steeper and my pace had slowed. Mickey had taken off ahead of Daniel and me not long after lunch and we'd meet up with him at trail intersections before he'd outpace us again. Daniel, who doesn't live 70 miles from the nearest hill like I do, was able to outpace me toward the end of this section as well, although not nearly as far as Mickey, the part-time park ranger and full-time freak of nature. Because of my slower pace (at least I wasn't stopping to take breaks even after 10 or so miles at this point), I hit the final scramble up Mount Albert alone. Because of the strenuous nature of this section, Mickey and Daniel had long since stopped talking so I couldn't even hear them in the distance. I turned a corner on the trail and realized that to my dismay the last half mile (probably less, but it felt longer) of ascent eschewed switchbacks and other trail-making methods to ease the difficulty of the climb, and just gone straight up the side of the mountain. Several sections had been turned into stairways, but others were simple scrambles up boulders and rock faces, a couple of which I actually had to make use of handholds to climb. I had taken off my cap when the trail had stopped being easy so the steam could escape my head and keep me cooler, and somewhere in this section, I dropped it. It was just too steep of a trail section to even consider going back for it, even without my pack. I abandoned my hat after a few choice words and continued my climb into the mist. Considering that I was carrying a 45-lb backpack up this entire section, I'm actually fairly pleased with my performance. I made each section of the climb up in one set. Then, I'd pause for a few breaths in the flat spot before the next scramble and I'd head up again. By the time Mickey got too cold standing around under the fire tower at the top waiting for me and decided to come looking for me, I was already just a few yards away. I dropped my pack and sat on the first step of the fire tower no more than five minutes before heading down the other side of the mountain to the Big Spring Shelter to make camp for the night. Sure, I was slower than the other two guys, but I was actually able to do the entire section without any significant breaks. I don't think I would have been able to do this only a couple of years ago. I may not be up to the fitness level of many of the through hikers we saw near the end of their 2,178 mile hikes, or Mickey, but I'm better than I was when I started backpacking.

We had to set up camp in the late dusk. It's funny, but after I rested a bit and ate supper, I really could have managed a few more miles today. In the summer, that would have been an option. In late November when the sun has set by 5:30 p.m., the days are just too short.

A bit of advice here for novice hikers. Spend the money for the hiking poles. I've never had knee problems since picking mine up, and you'd be surprised how much that little extra push from the poles and the extra stability they provide conserve your energy on tougher parts of the trail. Seriously, I'd give up my stove or tent before I gave up my poles.


Julie said...

My mom hiked the Grand Canyon this year and came back saying 'switchbacks' like a dirty word. 'Spose I should tell her to be thankful for them?

Jacob said...

Switchbacks can be frustrating because they make you walk uphill longer and you keep going up every time you turn, but they actually greatly reduce the difficulty of the climb. It may take a little longer, but the climb won't be as brutal.

The only people who should really hate switchbacks are those who are in really great shape who are having to take longer to get to their destination. When they do this on mountain roads its because the car literally couldn't make it up the grade if they didn't switchback. Same with hiking trails.

courtney said...

It's not a race. You made it, and that's the important thing. Besides, Mickey really is a freak of nature.