Month: January 2012

The Breakup

I’m 8 days post-op on my subungual exostosis removal.  In regular terms, when you walk barefoot in a creek, bang your toe, and the nail doesn’t fall off, the blood underneath begins to turn to bone, which needs to be surgically removed by the nail being taken off, the toe being cut open, and the bone being ground out.  Recovery has been slow.  I thought for sure I’d be back up and moving around by now.  Turns out, I still have stitches in the top of my toe, I have to sit with my foot elevated for most of the day and while I sleep, and I’m only allowed 5 minutes of walking per hour.  It’s truly been devastating for me.  Last night I came to the realization that this whole situation is kind of like a breakup really.  Let me explain.  

The trail and I have always been good friends.  This year, however, something changed. The trail and I became more involved.  We started spending more and more time together. Sometimes I’d even blow off work for a few hours just to spend more time on the trail.  Over the summer I decided I didn’t want our time together to end, so I committed to becoming a thru hiker in 2012.  I ramped up my hiking even more, met new people, had new experiences, and pretty much just lived for all my time on the trail.  Then, suddenly on December 21st, 2011, my dreams for my relationship with the trail came to a bump in the road.  ”It’s now or never” my surgeon said, looking at the x-ray clearly showing the bone growth under my toenail.  ”We can do the surgery now or we can wait until you get back, but I really think you’re going to start experiencing a lot of pain.  If you lose the nail for any reason, it won’t grow over that bone.”  I chose to have surgery as soon as humanly possible, which was January 17th, 2012.  

Before my surgery came I planned these awesome hikes.  I hiked 33-mile 9000-foot gain weekends.  The final weekend before my surgery didn’t go as planned at all.  The hike I wanted to do wasn’t going to get my hiking partner home in time for dinner.  I felt defeated.  I cried on the trail and walked slowly.  Later in the day, I developed a painful shin splint, which made me have to cancel my 16-mile hike the next day in the gorgeous weather.  Tuesday, January 17th, I had my surgery and I’ve been house-bound and hardly able to do anything at all.  I went in for my surgery followup yesterday and finally got to see the toe causing me so much pain.  The doctor said it was healing “beautifully.”  I found this to be a strongly used word as it  looked like my toe had been through a blender.  He assured me that it would be halfway grown back by my April 1st departure date.  He also told me he expects me to be back to normal in three weeks.  Here is where my heart sank.  It was like the final blow in my relationship with the trail. 

“We have to take a break” the trail said to me.  “I think we can still be friends, but you need some time for yourself for a while.”  It stings.  It hurts.  I want to email my hiking friends and see what’s going on this weekend, but it’s all a bit too weird.  I see photos posted of adventures that took place without me, but the trail was there.  We’re in the same social circle, the trail and I, and when I see people spending their time with the trail it hurts a little.  “I should be there too” I think to myself and then close out of Facebook.  

I know that I need to be back at 100% so I can become one of the 17% of people that hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one season, a true thru hiker.  My breakup with the trail I know is only temporary, but the pain I feel is very real.  I feel like I’ve lost touch with my very best friend and we can’t see each other right now.  I know we’ll be back together soon and I hope our relationship can recover.  Right now I just have to take it one day at a time.  

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High Points Attempt – 1/6-1/8/12

Since a 4-day week wasn’t short enough for us, we decided to take Friday off and do a high point challenge.  The challenge, South Beyond 6K, is a bushwhack for the most part in which you’ll climb the 6K+ feet peaks in the southeast.  We decided to try and hit a ton of them this weekend, but mother nature doesn’t always coincide with your plans!  Our trip began with a drive over to the Big Creek area of the Smokies, where we’d drop off our permits for the weekend and drive up the winding and narrow Mt. Sterling Road to Mt. Sterling Gap for a short, steep hike up and in to the Laurel Gap shelter.  Well, imagine our surprise when, after driving, the gate 7 miles from our trailhead was closed.  No mention of this to us, but when we called the visitor center they informed us the road had been closed since around Christmas.  When we called the information line, they informed us all roads were open.  Thinking quickly on our feet, we decided to make the long (adding 5 miles!) hike up Baxter Creek Trail in to our destination instead. 

The climb up Baxter Creek Trail was absolutely brutal in every sense of the word.  A 6.2-mile hike that gains more than 4,000 feet in elevation.  Slow and steady was how we made it to the top.  When all was said and done and we had finally made it, we knew there would still be climbs ahead and that darkness would fall on us before we made it to Laurel Gap, crushing our hopes of hitting the three 6ers we’d hoped to get today.  We did make it to Laurel Gap at 6:10 that night, which wasn’t too bad, and there was a small stash of firewood inside the shelter when we got there so we were able to get a fire going and warm up before calling it a night.  With all the ice and snow we dealt with on the way in, it was nice to be dry and have dry wood for sure!

Our second day started super late, at nearly 11:30 a.m., and was very damp and humid. Les walked with JD and I to the Gunther Fork Trailhead before turning around.  JD and I wanted to head up Balsam Mtn. Trail to Tricorner Knob and head back making for a longer day.  We knew high pointing in the bad weather just wasn’t happening for us. We had continued the nearly flat trail for about 2.5 more miles when we reached Luftee Knob, the first of the 6K peaks on the trail.  We looked up and saw orange tape marking the way up and decided to go ahead and summit.  We followed the tape up, UP,  UP and came to three false summits before finally reaching the top.  To help us celebrate, mother nature decided sleet would be nice.  The ice falling from the sky was in huge clumps and soaked us completely before we got down the hill.  We layered back up and decided to head back to camp.  When we got back, Les said it had been pouring rain there since he’d gotten back to camp nearly 2.5 hours before us and had worried about us. After trying for nearly an hour to get warm, we got all our water and firewood resupplied, got into dry clothes and had a warm meal.  We spent the rest of Saturday evening sitting around the fire with some CCR playing from my iPhone and listening to the rain pour all night long.

Sunday morning we got up late again, 8 a.m., and were ecstatic that we couldn’t hear rain anymore.  Then we panicked hoping it wasn’t snowing instead!  Thankfully it wasn’t and we headed back out the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail and up to Mt. Sterling before descending down Baxter Creek Trail.  After reaching Mt. Sterling at noon, we booked it down Baxter Creek, JD and I reaching the car at 1:45 p.m. and we were totally amazed at how quick we’d made it.  I was hoping for 2:30.  We did run into two backpackers who spent the night in the rain up at campsite 38 the night before and said it was miserable out there.  Thankfully, the rain didn’t start until we were packed up in the truck and on our way home.  Our high pointing may have been a bust, as we only got one peak, but our trip was 33 miles with over 7800 feet of elevation gain for the weekend, so we still got out, spent two wonderful nights in the Smokies, and had a great time doing it.

Curry/Meigs + Old Sugarlands Rock House 1-2-12

Being that New Years Day was on a Sunday this year, I had Monday off as well for the holiday.  Extra days off mean extra trail time for me, so I was glad to help a friend mark off a trail on his map provided he let me try for some bonus miles in the Old Sugarlands area to a well-known hard-to-find rock structure.  My friend agreed and we had an excellent, albeit very cold, day in the Smokies.  After hiking in nearly 60-degree weather Saturday, the temperature was in the low 20s when we started our hike Monday!

We started off our hike by parking at The Sinks just down the road from Metcalf Bottoms. Our plan from here was to hitchhike up to Metcalf Bottoms and start our hike by going up Curry Mountain Trail.  We were picked up by a nice woman and her son who had driven through Cades Cove that morning at sunrise and were happy to give us a ride.  Our hike up the gently graded Curry Mountain Trail was uneventful to say the least with only small rockhopping and only one vista view.  When we reached the trail junction, we went right on Meigs Mountain Trail, towards the cemetery and campsite 19.  Just past 19 we ran into some dayhikers, one of whom finished her park map and nearly all of Big South Fork’s trails in less than one year.  We wished them well and continued along Meigs Mountain Trail to the junction with Meigs Creek Trail.  

When we reached Meigs Creek it was time for me to trade in my trail runners for Gortex Boots and a good pair of gaiters since we’d be crossing more than 15 good-sized creeks on the way back down the hill.  On a cold day like this, we were glad to keep moving as we crossed the creeks and nearly all crossings were uneventful except for one.  On a particularly large creek there was a good piece of deadfall running directly across in the form of a big tree.  Dapper Dan hopped up and crossed via the log.  On a cold morning like this one, however, the log had lots of frost on it and was quite slippery.  I made it about 3/4 of the way across before stopping and looking down, which was a huge mistake, and my legs gave out to either side.  I made myself into a human wishbone, but thankfully never fell in the water.  Shortly past this crossing we had a big surprise, violets in bloom off the side of the trail!  With the warm temperatures the last week of December the flowers had decided it was springtime and decided to open up!  The rest of our hike down to the bottom at The Sinks was uneventful.  

We took the car over to the Sugarlands Vistor Center and had a long lunch before deciding to head up the Old Sugarlands Trail.  This trail follows old road beds from the CCC days leading up to the development of the park system.  We walked about 1.5 miles on trail before we got off to head to the old cabin.  I knew where we were headed about 90% of the time and, thankfully, we were able to find the cabin in great time.  It was amazing to get up there and finally find it after looking for so many years.  When we got inside, there were so many old artifacts to see – bed frames, a stove with nested cups and a percolator, oil cans, glass bottles still intact… it was a true wonder to see, barely touched at all in the last 75 years.  I’m glad structures like this still exist unspoiled in the park.  

After all was said and done with the “bonus” hiking, we had only done 13 miles, but the sky had gotten dark, the winds had picked up, and it snowed on our way home.  This whole long holiday weekend was full of surprises and off-trail hiking, a great way to start my new year, 2012 – the year of the thru hike!

Greenbrier Pinnacle 12-31-11

On New Years Eve two of us decided to do an off-trail hike to the Greenbrier Pinnacle, a trail that hasn’t been maintained or on the map in close to 15 years.  I’ve been wanting to do this hike for as long as I’ve known a trail existed here and with the perfect weather we had that day, close to 60 degrees and blue skies, it was a perfect day to do so.  I have to say that Greenbrier Pinnacle is now my favorite “trail” in the Smokies. 

We started our hike with a ride up through Big Greenbrier and back to the Ramsey’s Cascade trailhead.  Imagine our surprise that we were the only car up there that morning! Very uncommon for this area.  We started our hike up the Ramsey’s Cascade Trail and up the old gravel road that used to run this area.  At mile 1.5 the trail comes to the old traffic circle and signs direct you toward Ramsey’s.  We, however, would turn left here and go through a rhododendron tunnel up towards the pinnacle.  I had high hopes that our trail would continue to be this well-defined and it turns out my hopes panned out.  Our entire trip up this trail, save for one very large blow-down that required us to crawl underneath, was in excellent and very followable shape.  There was one stream crossing about 0.3 miles up this trail, but other than that we had dry trail and good footing with minimal rocks.  Someone has truly maintained this trail very well with evidence of sawed logs and pathways being marked.  

The trail winds up the mountain via long switchbacks which made for gentle climbing. Toward the top there is an excellent overlook, called Man Overboard according to our GPS, with unobstructed views of Brushy Mountain and Mount LeConte.   About 0.25 miles past this is an awesome overhang with a cave on your right.  About 0.25 miles past this is the overlook near the top of Greenbrier Pinnacle with a great place to sit and take in the views.  From this point, one can go on 0.4 miles up to the top of the Pinnacle, but this is where the trail maintenance stopped.  Looking up the trail, it was heavily overgrown with laurel and rhododendron and there was a defined path, but it looked a little dicey.  We decided to stay here and enjoy the views since we knew the Pinnacle would be overgrown, the tower had been removed, and we wouldn’t see much from here.  The views from this point were absolutely phenomenal.  You could see so far on this clear day, as we saw not only LeConte, but we followed ridgelines and saw Cove Mountain and even could spot Rocky Top and Thunderhead.  You could hang over the rocks and look back to see Old Black and Guyot, follow the AT and all the high points… it was just breathtaking.

On our way back down the trail, we actually did pass two other dayhikers about halfway up.  I was both surprised and not surprised, given the great shape of the trail, that we’d seen anyone that day.  All of the reading I’ve done about this trail online did tell me that everyone that hikes this trail does see other hikers though.  We made it back down the trail uneventfully.  When we got back on the Ramsey’s Cascade Trail we saw plenty of dayhikers and lots of people with children.  The parking lot was absolutely packed full with no place to park and someone waiting to take our parking space.  This gem of a trail is truly my favorite to hike in the park and I definitely recommend it for a warm winter day. 

We finally found the old stone mystery house in the Old Sugarlands Area!

Mt. LeConte as viewed from the unmaintained Greenbrier Pinnacle Trail.