Frozen South

We enjoyed, as promised, many cold days in the woods. Our coldest night was well below freezing. We got water from a spring and it starting freezing right away in our water bottles! One of my friends had a story about being near hypothermic one night because it had been raining during most of the day and then the temp dropped and it was snowing. His clothes were wet then it got really cold and he had no dry layers. I’m not sure what he did, other than I know there were some friends at the shelter that night who helped him out.

Dealing with winter conditions is probably the number one reason a southbound thru-hike is ranked as more difficult than a northbound hike. (Although some nobos do face similar conditions in early spring). So, how do you deal with the cold when you can only take what will fit in the pack?

Jeff and I believe the number one safety measure for the cold is to have a sleeping bag that is warm enough. He decided that I should take his 5° bag and he’d use my 15° bag. Also, another huge consideration is the warmth of the sleeping mat. I quickly learned that my inflatable mat really is no better than a pool toy: it has no insulating properties whatsoever. Instead of buying a new one (my top pick for the winter mat costs nearly $200), we supplemented mine with a ridge rest mat that was already in our repertoire. As for waking, the only significant change was switching to goretex running shoes. I was able to find my exact running shoes in goretex (waterproof). The goretex is a pain when it’s warm, because your feet sweat. But on those several days we had cold rain or snow (or ice), they were an improvement to the mesh shoes.

We’d have to remember to keep our water bottles close to our sleeping bags so they wouldn’t freeze solid. The wet shoes have to go in a plastic bag and in the sleeping bag at night so they won’t be frozen when you get up in the morning. Jeff took the season as an opportunity to buy a “winter” backpacker stove. Fuel canisters don’t do well in freezing temperatures because the gas turns to liquid and then won’t burn. This new stove enables you to turn the can upside down so the liquid will flow through a hose that is routed past the flame. The fuel turns to gas in the hose.

Even though we did experience some snow storms, it would only be for one day and not enough would accumulate to pose a problem. In the south there are many hostels and we took advantage of staying indoors when we had the opportunity.

Sound fun? Actually, winter can be stunning. We had a couple of hoar frosts: when the humidity/mist/fog freezes on everything. Every branch, every blade of grass is covered in ice. From an overlook, the upper elevations are perfectly white, while the valleys remain untouched. Some of my favorite ice was the strands that grow up from the ground in clusters. They’re like ice grass. Also the crunch of the frozen ground is very satisfying. Did winter ever make me wish I was a Northbounder? NO!

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November 22

Jeff rejoined me and Valerie at Watauga Lake, south of one of our favorite trail towns, Damascus. He slack packed us a couple of small sections and then Valerie left for Thanksgiving a couple of days later. Jeff and I had a lovely stay at Conney’s Greasy Creek Friendly hostel on the 21st. Conney likes to paint the bottom of thru-hikers feet and stamp their prints on the checkerboard floor in her kitchen. She says, but only the ones who will finish the trail. That means mostly all southbound prints decorate the floor, since we are near the end of our journey when we get to her place (close to Erwin, TN). Jeff of course successfully completed the trail as a nobo, and would be one of the only northbounder prints if he succumbed to the inking.  She asked if we’d like to leave our mark on the same square together, or separate. I laughingly said to Jeff, “I don’t know, same square? That’s a long commitment! We’ll be here together forever!”

From Conney’s house we had a lovely hike through leaf barren hills. Our biggest climb of the day was up Unaka Mountain. The peak was covered in the most magical pine forest. These pine woods are common on the southern high peaks. Even on the windiest day, when you enter one, it is still and peaceful. All of the boughs and needles block out most of the light. The forest floor has no undergrowth, only fallen needles, which make for a spongy walking path.

From the top we started to look for cell signal. We had decided a couple hours earlier that instead of camping out that night (as we’d planned, with another 8mi walk in the a.m.), we’d see if the closest hostel could pick us up from a road crossing. So we’d spend the night at the hostel and leave early the next morning for Thanksgiving at the Beach. Jeff seamed really excited about this idea, actually, I couldn’t really figure out why he was so excited, even jumpy.

From the peak (and after successfully placing our call to book the shuttle) we descended down many switchbacks. It was so windy, my cap blew off and nearly hit Jeff. The sky was really moody. Dark clouds swirled and trekked across the sky, threatening a terrible rainstorm. I was pretty anxious to move fast and not get dumped on. We came to a grassy clearing and I stood awestruck on our first open view South — of the dramatic Tennessee mountains, somewhere in the distance were the Great Smoky Mountains.

I turn around to find Jeff had dropped his pack several yards behind me and came running over. “Look what I found! Some water!” He is constantly trying to get me to drink more water. I didn’t really want to drop packs and hang out up there, because the storm seemed to be on its way. But, it was a really awesome view. He leaned into my ear and whispered, “will you marry me?” I said “Of course!” And all of a sudden he was on one knee and busted out this giant rock to put on my finger.

So, we’re getting hitched sometime in October. Outdoor wedding with pig meat.