Cafe de Desiree

July 30, 2012

Hiking in the Smokies:Conquering the Hardest Unmarked Trail on the Map

Filed under: Athletics,Blogging,Exercise,Health,hiking,photography — desi83 @ 8:12 am

Part One of Two:

I hiked the trail that the book said not to this week at the Smokey mountains. I went with two military guys and an extreme adventure hiker. I was told that it would be mostly a scenic hike with lots of waterfalls and a few rough spots. The whole “most difficult trail in the park” detail was left out of the description of our plans when Mike convinced me to go. I figure he didn’t think I’d go if he mentioned it, but he knew I’d be glad that I did afterward. He was right. The first day, we were supposed to hike eight miles to our campsite. I had a backpack with my tent and sleeping bag tied to it on my back weighing heavily on me the whole time. I don’t really have a good camping bag, so I just used what I had. My shoes are okay, but my toes are now screaming to me that I need some tough hiking boots instead of these hiking/trail running shoes or whatever they are. The eight mile hiked ended up being eleven because apparently the map was wrong. I was exhausted and sore, but it was the prettiest hike I’ve taken in Tennessee. It was tough, but manageable. We took a detour to see an overlook that was led by a narrow trail through some of the most exotic plant life I’ve ever seen. When we got to the overlook, I literally felt the breath escape my lungs and stop for a moment. I could really see now why it’s called the Smokey Mountains, and it was the perfect view of them. We stopped at a creek near the campsite to wash off our sweat. Mike and I got in and braved the nearly icy cold water, and it was quite exhilarating. I shamed the other two guys into joining us by pointing out that “a girl can do it”. I slept amazingly well after a hot bowl of soup from Mike’s camping boiler. It’s called a Bunson burner, I think? Jeff and I tried to start a fire, and the plastic he threw in got it going for a few minutes, but after the rain from the previous day, it was no dice. Mike and Zack piled on the wood they had gathered, and I was blowing on it like birthday candles, but it was too stubborn. I slept in a small one-man tent on an air mattress inside my Wal-Mart sleeping bag. The sound of the crickets and the wind in the trees put me to sleep. I was the first to awaken around seven the next morning, ready to blaze more trails. I couldn’t wait for Mike to brew us some instant coffee, and I peeled open a tasty protein bar for breakfast. He finally got up and boiled the water. I smiled as I smelled the Starbucks Via from my coffee cup. Finally, the military guys came stumbling over from their tents still waking up. Jeff started messing with the fire pit again, still resentful of the failure of it from the previous night. Mike told us that we’d be hiking for two brutal miles, and then it’d be an easy six mile hike to the campsite. He warned us that a blogger had said that it took her and her group five hours to hike the two miles because it was an unmarked trail. So, it’s a matter of finding karns (stacks of rocks) and other signs that other hikers leave to find your way through the trail. At some point, he said, it gets kind of hard for people to leave any marks because of the rough terrain. I don’t think it quite sunk into my mind at that point how difficult he was saying that it was going to be. I just packed up all my gear, threw it on my back, and set out with the guys with full confidence.

I felt like Indiana Jones or Tarzan in the jungle hacking away brush through this unmarked trail. There were nettles that temporarily burned and caused a rash on our skin. There was so much rhododendron in some parts that we were constantly smacking it away with our sticks and at the same time trying to look down to prevent tripping over stumps and rocks. It definitely made me start to feel like an adventure hiker. We hopped over a creek bed about ten times along the trail, and each time we searched for karns, and we left our own if there weren’t obvious ones marking the trail. The guys got creative and made a carnal karn at one spot. It was definitely a photogenic moment. After several attempts to not get my feet and legs totally soaked, I finally grew tired of risking a bad fall from jumping over rocks. I stomped through the shallow water figuring eventually my shoes would dry enough. We crossed over a narrow bridge at one creek crossing spot, and my fear of heights was tested a bit. Then, there were several logs that had fallen along our path that we had to climb over or under. Luckily, I had some strong and helpful dudes with me to help me with the crawling over. Sometimes being short is a problem. However, I laughed arrogantly when I barely had to bend down in some spots while they crawled through the mud. We took a few breaks; Mike filled our water bottles with water that he purified from the creek. I slammed down tuna, protein bars, and Mike’s trail mix. I have never felt so hungry in my life. It was fun, and just a little difficult. That was the first mile.

We began to encounter areas that were a little more inclined and rocky, but I was able to manage without hurting myself. Then, we came to the mountain. We are so not going to climb that, I thought. Oh yeah, we were. It was just inclined enough not to have to use rock climbing gear. We did have to climb up on our hands and knees most of the way, though. It began with our climbing large, slick rocks. I had bashed my ankle the day before and it was still a little red and swollen. So, of course, I banged it again a couple of times going up these rocks. I cursed and questioned how I managed to hit my ankle in the same spot each time. We stopped a couple of times, and I whined a bit. I kept asking how far. He said we’re almost there. Yeah, no we weren’t. I slammed down some tuna fish and sweet potato chips and drank most of the water I had left. I hoped we’d come to a water source soon. We climbed some more, and I asked how long we’d been out that day. It had been six hours thusfar. We had hiked/climbed about a mile and a half. Well, crap. Mike pointed in the direction where we were headed. Jeff pointed out that we could see the sun, and the tops of the trees were getting closer. Hope was alive, but barely breathing. I banged my knee and screamed out from the pain. They said keep going, you’re doing great. I kept climbing, and then I banged it again. What the hell? My right leg kept getting injured repeatedly in the same two spots-my knee and ankle. I still can’t wear shorts for all the bruises and scars. I yelled to them that I couldn’t go on. I had a panic attack. I cried. Oh, man, am I embarrassed about that, but it was a test of will that I never thought I’d be taking. They said you’re doing great, you can do it. Mike asked had I rather go up or climb back down. I looked down, panicked some more, and nodded my head. He offered to take my bag, and I gladly obliged. After all, I was at least sixty pounds lighter than everyone else on the hike, so it was physically harder for me. We got to a point where there weren’t so many rocks, and it was mostly moss. I scooted myself up by grabbing onto the somewhat tough moss. I slid a few times and looked death in the eye. I grunted and growled as I pulled myself up the mountain. It was the first time in my life I was enduring a truly death defying moment, and I was kicking death in the balls. We called out to Zack, who was several feet ahead of us, and he told us he was almost to the top. We kept crawling, and Jeff was losing steam as he was wearing a wet tank top and the temperature was steadily dropping. He would later be in the beginning stages of hypothermia. We called again to Zack, and he announced that he was at the top, but he didn’t know where to go from there. It was a complete drop off from where he was standing. We were supposed to come to an area at the top that would take us to a trail that was fairly flat as compared to the rest of the hike. We had taken a wrong turn. It’s okay, they reassured. We’ll figure it out once we get to the top. All of us finally made near the top where Zack was standing, but Jeff and I stayed in a somewhat level spot right below Zack and Mike, waiting to see if they could find where the trail was located. Jeff was shivering, and he had thrown his pack over the rock above us, so he couldn’t get out any more clothes. I was nursing a very sore and slightly injured knee and ankle. We both sat and complained about how tired and sore we were, and how we just weren’t ready to die.

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