I always planned to start my hike "early," which I defined generally as before "the bubble," by which I meant early to mid-March to mid-April. Although I wanted to avoid trying to find a tenting spot at Hawk Mountain with 60 of my best new friends, I also, consciously, wanted to hike in some colder weather. I wanted to experience (some) winter hiking and camping.
While this pretty much guaranteed I’d beat the bubble, it also meant I would tempt the weather gods that inhabit the 6,000 foot regions of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There's really no ifs, ands, or buts about it: you are taking on an added risk or challenge by leaving in February (or earlier, of course). This is not a news flash. This is not new information. Anyone paying attention while planning an early departure has heard the truism that "anything can happen in the Smokies, so be prepared." My experience, then, is much more a reminder, or a cautionary tale at best.
The AT has its own way of keeping its hikers honest, or off guard, so that over confidence never sets in (at least not for long).
It’s as if the Trail itself has a spirit reminding us to be ever mindful of the mental discipline and physical toughness required to take on the tasks all thru-hikers must face.
Perhaps there is no better example of this than early in the hike, maybe day 6 or 7, the newbie has just knocked off his or her first state ("done with Georgia") when the Trail destroys any overconfidence by giving you a nearly impossible climb out of Bly Gap. Similarly, one must pay dearly for the reward of finally summiting Cheoah Bald or Albert Mountain.
As for me, a novice thru-hiker who at the time of this writing has completed just over 400 miles of my NOBO hike, entering the Smokies was a dramatic learning experience. Among many other adjectives it was exhilarating, and, at a very real level, frightening.
Enough preamble. Let’s get to the point or purpose. Obviously I survived. I did not have a near-death experience, but I experienced the brutality of winter in the Smokies in March, and I witnessed hikers in distress as a consequence. Here is an excerpt from my journal:
After my first evening in a shelter I was again first up and out on the trail. The morning was clouded in, cold and windy. The snow was much deeper than the prior day. The trail headed up from the shelter and the climb became increasingly difficult due to snow, wind and terrain. I was "breaking trail," but now the drifting and general accumulation had me trudging through a foot of snow as it ascended Rocky Top and then Thunderhead Mountain. There were no views other than the white of the snow and the grayness of the cloud cover, which seemed to press in on me so it was if I could almost reach out and touch it. There was a starkness and almost a sense of doom created by the lack of color, snow enveloping me from below, gusts constantly challenging my stability, the inability to see any distance or gain perspective, and the unrelenting bitter cold and wind. I had not been overtaken, yet, by faster hikers from the shelter - itself unusual. What most days was enjoyable solitude felt instead like uncomfortable loneliness. (It was almost one of those - "what am I doing out here?" moments.)
For a good part of that day, my mind was focused intensely on two emotions competing for my utmost attention: fear and determination.
I'm not ashamed to say I was scared a few times as I wrestled with Rocky Top and Thunderhead and the overall, unrelenting blizzard conditions. Yet, I kept my wits about me primarily due to the confidence I had in my clothing and gear.
I was carrying almost five pounds of cold weather equipment I called my "winter supplement." And, we had already had enough bitter cold temperatures that I had experience (read: confidence) with much of the gear.
[I will prepare a "Part 2" to this post and mention the specific gear for those that may be interested.]
The main point here is that I am grateful for preparation and planning. Perhaps because I not only acknowledged the truism ("the Smokies can surprise you"), but acted upon it by thinking through how and why I would both address the risk and experience winter hiking and camp, I had proper gear seemed to have been prepared.
The day I entered the Smokies the forecast was spectacular with four days of sunshine projected. Only the very lucky will race through without carrying real shelter (even for those "beating the bubble" we had standing room only in all shelters; I and others tented in the snow on a windy, 14-degree night, more than once). Those with light running shoes complained of desperately cold feet and I saw them fall often attempting to get through the Smokies on icy trails without microspikes.
Maybe I sound like the old man I'm becoming, but absent planning and excellent gear selections, my thru-hike might have ended with the foray into the Great Smokies. My takeaway is if you want to leave early enough to beat the bubble, beating (read: surviving) the Great Smoky Mountain National Park at the same time may require careful planning in terms of clothing and gear.
Bruce Matson has yearned to hike the Appalachian Trail for over 40 years. Now he’s doing it. Follow him on social media: @rtk_at_challenge, hear interviews with him on the "Returning To Katahdin" and check out his website: returningtokatahdin.com.