Saturday, December 31, 2011

Smoky Mountain High

The title for today's blog post is a respectful nod to my all-time favorite musician, songwriter, and poet, John Denver. He would have been sixty-eight today.

Over the last few days I have once again been fortunate enough to visit the Smoky Mountains. Without any travel partners, I had planned out several long run options that would allow me to travel many of the highest ridges of the park, including the one bearing the AT. Unfortunately, the storm that dropped heavy rain and short-lived giant snowflakes on a large region of the Midwest and east coast also hit the national park. Ice and snow caused wrecks and, in turn, road closings. A talk with a volunteer in the backcountry permit office created a new set of plans.

Starting at the Big Creek ranger station near the TN/NC boarder, I reached the AT via the Chestnut Branch trail. This often used trail gained 1800 ft in 1.9 miles. Once on the AT, I ran out as far as time and, coincidently, the cold wind permitted before returning. The apex of the run was just beyond the Tricorner Knob shelter.

The 2-6 inches of snow covering a layer of ice was expected. The 40-50 mph winds in the gaps and on the spine of 6621-ft Mt. Guyot were normal. Subfreezing temperatures were par for December on top of the Smokies. I carried a 15-lb pack with enough gear to protect me from all of this. The pack even carried a puffy - a down parka - and extra socks. Though I didn't expect to use the puffy, it came in handy while I was changing into the dry socks while sitting in the snow and getting lashed by brutal winds.

One-third of the pack weight was water and the purifier. I carried less water than I would have if I were backpacking and less than I would have in warmer conditions.  Water from a trailside spring on Cosby Knob was used to refill a 1.5-L bladder, but only after I had inhaled a liter. Thanks to that spring and the puffy that insulated the water bladder from the cold, hydration was not an issue on this run.

Keeping my nutrition from freezing was a simple matter of keeping it inside my shirt. I have formulated a mixture of protein, carbohydrate, and salt which is concentrated in flasks. A bad experience resulted in some testing which taught me that this mixture solidifies to the point that most of it cannot be removed from the flask if it drops below 45F. The windy conditions on the spine of Mt. Guyot forced me to put on a jacket that was tied around my waist in order to prevent both the flasks - and me - from freezing.

That first run, which took 6:44 (6:32 without water collection/sock changes), covered 34 miles and involved 8400 ft of both ascent and descent. It was a blast. I was happy to find that my climbing legs were there after not completing any hill specific training since leaving CO in July. I was also happy to have a pair of Microspikes. They allowed me to descend much faster and safer than I would have thought possible. The many hikers I passed along the trail were amazed to see me hammering along. Again- it was a blast!

Running trails efficiently is not an easy task, especially when those trails are ruggedly vertical and littered with root/rock/ice obstacles. I have seen people run over such trails with such remarkable efficiency that their footfalls seem effortless while lacking impact or noise. My own stride is nowhere near this, but it is steadily improving with experience.

An elevation profile of the AT through GSMNP with my route in red.
It was near the Tricorner Knob that I encountered a bear. I paused and reached for my camera, but the bear snatched the camera. I ran. I ran right through the trail intersection and continued on for a short distance before I realized I had to return the way I came. I would just have to grab the camera back if the bear was still there. He was. As I approached he yelled "SMILE" and took this picture. He then handed me the camera as I ran by him. Thanks, Bear!

I told the guys from Nashville that I would claim a bear took this . . .
That run was difficult. It easily fell within the ten hardest physical/mental challenges I've ever attempted. This was largely due to the quantity of climbing and descending. The fact that my feet were soaked for almost four hours in sub-freezing temperatures added significant challenge. Those cold, wet feet caused me to continually increase my pace over the last ten miles. That strained pace made the effort feel more like the final miles of road marathon. At no time during the run did I feel in danger. Honestly, I was experiencing both the addictive adrenaline rush and the state of relaxation that outdoor endurance junkies like myself thrive on.

Upon reaching the RAV I immediately drank some organic chocolate milk and ate three of my homemade blueberry oatmeal scones. Then I drove to Asheville where I ate again. Not quite satiated and in a celebratory mood, I went to Jack of the Wood to enjoy the Bluegrass Jam. The previous evening I listened to the Ole Time Jam on the same stool while drinking the same Green Man Stout. Those talented musicians completed a fantastic day! I was lucky enough to sit next to Gabe both nights. He created a website devoted to Asheville area musicians called Simply Pickin.

On the second day I chose to climb Mt. Sterling (5820 ft) via Baxter Creek trail and continue along the Mt. Sterling Ridge trail. This marked the twentieth time that I have summited Mt. Sterling. I have long been drawn to Mt. Sterling because the old tower on the summit provides incredible views of Appalachian mountains. The summit campsite is also my favorite in the GSMNP. Bears like it, too!

Because the weather was warmer and because I expected my legs to give out before I reached that summit, I chose to go light. I carried only one handheld and two gels in a flask. Imagine my surprise when my ascent was less than two minutes over my best effort. This inspired me to run on over the summit and onto the ridge trail.

Mt. Sterling Ridge trail drops a little before climbing back to 5500 feet where it levels off for a few miles. I ran along the ridge enjoying the heavenly views until it ended at the Balsam Mountain trail junction. The descent of Mt. Sterling reminded me of the previous day's adventure - it hurt! That run was a little over 22 miles long and tallied just over 5000 feet of both elevation gain and loss.

After finishing that run I decided to attempt a short run without my orthotics. All previous attempts to ween myself off of those orthotics resulted in failure. Amazingly, I was able to run 3.8 miles on the AT, round trip from Davenport Gap to the junction with the Chestnut Branch trail (see profile above), without any issues. That 44-minute run was my longest run without orthotics dating back to 1986. And, because my quads were suffering, it was also my last run of the trip. I spent the rest of the day exploring and seeking historical knowledge of the region.

I should say that I was slowly exploring. My legs were stiff and sore. Imagine that. I had run 60 miles with more than 14,300 vertical feet of both ascending and descending within a 25-hour time period. (Who did I think I was - Dakota Jones??) It sure seems that experience would have prevented such a repeat of self-destruction. In reality, the effort, exposure, and views were exactly what I was hoping for.

It was while driving east on hard pack NC284 along the park boundary that I veered right at a fork in the road. Shortly thereafter I came to a locked gate where the road crossed back into the national park. I decided to walk along that closed section of road to further enjoy the clear and relatively warm day. That walk lasted about thirty minutes. Upon returning to the gate I encountered a strange scene.

A man stood between his big, late model pickup truck and the gate. He was screaming into a radio. The guy on the other end was screaming back. The man at the gate darted over to his open driver's door and then came toward me with a pistol in his hand. A BIG metallic pistol! I froze.

"They're always locking this gate," he said to me. "They know I'm tracking that bear."
"Where is it?"
"Right out there." He pointed the pistol toward the valley below the road. The same valley I had been admiring for the previous thirty minutes.
"Sow or boar?"
"Boar. A big boar. My dogs are on him right now and this gate is stopping me from getting to them."

This guy was moving frantically and still arguing with the guy on the radio while talking to me. He retrieved a shoulder holster from his truck and put it on. He put the gun, which he told me was a "boar-killin' 44," in the holster.

"You know I've got four ten thousand dollar dogs on that bear. I need to get through this gate!" he yelled at the man on the radio.

Forty thousand dollars worth of hunting dogs! Wow!

Sensing that I should not get involved in this incident, I wished him well before climbing into the RAV and driving away. What happened? I wish I knew. The hunter was demanding entry into the GSMNP to catch a bear that his expensive dogs were chasing. The person on the radio was not complying because hunting bears in national parks is a federal crime. The hunter was supposed to call his dogs off of the hunt when they crossed into the park. Maybe he was trying to do that. I don't know.

Before I left the Big Creek area I encountered three backpackers on the road.

"Are you the guy we saw running on the AT yesterday?"
"Yeah. We crossed paths on Cosby Knob."
"How far did you run?"
"Thirty-four miles."

They looked at each other and smiled.

"That's a week's worth of hiking. Why would you do that?"

Now I smiled.

"Because I got to see a week's worth of trail sights in less than seven hours."

I did not say that my back felt better than it ever did after long packing trips or that I had enjoyed great food and music before retreating to much better sleeping quarters than those they encountered in the mouse houses. I regret not admitting that, even though I have enjoyed every backpacking trip I've taken, I have come to love long runs in the mountains because that activity allows me to combine my love of running with my desire to experience the backcountry.

Here are some of the pictures I took along the trails during this short, therapeutic trip. Enjoy! (Click to enlarge.) ST



The view looking north from Mt. Cammerer on the AT
Much of the AT is a narrow trench
Gravesite at Davenport Gap
Chestnut Branch Trail

AT over Mt. Cammerer
Tightly bound rhododendron means cold air!
Notice the CCC-made stone wall at right.
Fraser fir skeleton
Spring used for my water supply
Walk this way . . .
Nearing Mt. Guyot
Fraser fir graveyard on Mt. Guyot
The ferns and lichens stand out on the AT near Davenport Gap

Davenport Gap shelter - one of a kind mouse house
TN 32 becomes NC 284 at Davenport Gap
There's always light at the end of a tunnel.

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