Many of my fears came true over the last three nights. My worries of hard rain and wind, followed by freezing temps, while in the Smoky Mountains far from a road or help came true.
Friday started fairly warm and partly sunny as we left Fontana Dam at 1782′ elevation and headed into Smoky Mountain National Park with Millie’s Ridge Shelter as our destination 12 miles away. At 4582′ elevation, the weather can be much colder and by the time I arrived there at 4:00, the rain had begun again and the cold and wind were coming.
The Smokies have extra rules about camping: thru-hikers must give up space to registered section hikers at the shelter, yet they MUST stay in the shelter unless it is full. So, thru hikers go to the shelter and wait to see if section hikers come and kick them out. (Some section hikers don’t carry a tent because they know they have a guaranteed space at the shelter.) If kicked out, a thru hiker can pitch their tent nearby, but only at a shelter site. Most of the time it works fine, but when the majority of AT thru hikers start in March/April, it can be a problem.
As I arrived and looked into the shelter for Blue Jay, the RidgeRunner there, who assists hikers and enforces rules, told me the shelter was already reserved fully, however since bad weather was coming it might turn out some would not arrive and I might have a space. It wasn’t likely, as about seven thru hikers were ahead of me in line for a twelve person shelter. He did not want us to pitch a tent as the shelter wasn’t sure to be “full” yet.
The rain was coming steady and the last thing I wanted was to wait a few hours – without setting up a tent or eating – to find out if I was in or out of the shelter. A couple men were setting up tents anyway, but when another hiker told me Blue Jay had gone ahead 3.1 more miles to try for that shelter, I decided to hike on in the rain, too.
I made it to the Russell Field Shelter and there was space for me at the moment. Seven section hikers had reserved, but only two had shown up and it was just past 6:00. Thirteen total people were in a twelve person shelter and they were willing to squish together to make room if a couple more showed up. I was excited to be inside because the rain was pouring down hard minutes after I arrived. I cooked, steam-baked muffins for a few hikers, and was about to sit down and read trail notes at dusk when a couple hikers walked in the shelter drenched. They were quickly followed by another three. These were the five remaining reservations and it meant I was out in the rain and dark to pitch my tent. Did I mention the temp had dropped into the low forties by then?
Some of the other hikers asked if they were the section hikers and before I could digest I was about to be booted out, the top row of people split up and moved over to each side as tight as they could and asked if the five could fit in the space they created. They said sure and I was able to stay in and stay dry! It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to panic about going out in the downpour to put up my tent. The next morning one of the men said many of us had expressions of shock as they walked in and we realized how many of them were arriving so late. You can believe that was true!https://fromdreamtolife.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/img_1055.mov
The next day was nice enough, but I was tired from 19 straight days of hiking and only made it 9.4 miles to Derrick Knob Shelter. The next one was 5.6 miles farther and I couldn’t do it in daylight, plus the predicted freezing rain and snow with temps in the teens seemed to be about to come true. I asked the RidgeRunner there if I had a spot and she thought I might. Many thru hikers ahead of me for that shelter were going on as it was only 3:00. I was willing to pitch my tent, but she advised me to wait. The low temp expected was 18 degrees and the cold was already setting in.
I made an early dinner and checked around 5:00 with the RidgeRunner to see if I could put on dry socks and go to sleep. There were three more section hikers expected, and we were already seventeen in a twelve person shelter, but she said okay as we had made room for all of us and two had come after me. Those two would be first out. By 7:00 the rain was beginning to freeze and two of the three other section hikers arrived. The last two thru hikers moved down to the bench in front of our sleep area because one left his tent in the last shelter by accident. No way he was going outside, nor would we want him to go. Even the dirt floor between bunks and tarp wall would be better.
At 8:30, the last section hiker to arrive wondered where his friend was and worried aloud because the friend had no headlamp or tent and it was dark. There was ice forming everywhere, on the bear cables, tree branches, and ground. Another hiker who was experienced in winter hiking took his backpack, cook stove, and headlamp out into the storm to search for the friend of the other hiker. He found him half a mile away where he was struggling to see the trail with his phone flashlight and about to give up and put his sleeping bag by a log and try to wait it out. It was hard to believe he thought that a better option than to continue looking for the path, as he would not have likely lived through it since the rain would have soaked him in his bag before freezing.
We had twenty in the twelve person shelter and a little fire burned through the night. Again, I was just fine after all.
Here’s the thing that struck me the most: several people DID set up tents and weather out the storm with no problem, both storms even. I was so scared to be out there, but the hiker I’m sharing a hotel room with tonight was one who set up her tent for both. She is a slower hiker and didn’t even check the shelter the second night as she knew it would be full. Her trail name is Mexican Mainer (from Mexico and lives in Maine). She believes the trail will provide what we need, and so far it has. Today I spent with her and we are treating ourselves to a night in the hotel since it snowed again at Mt. Collins Shelter last night, too.
I find it very motivating to see her just keep going until we are wherever we need to be. Maybe I won’t worry quite so hard about being out in the cold, rain, snow – or all of those put together – now that I’ve seen it can be done by someone a lot like me. There are almost 2000 miles to go. I’m sure to have another chance to weather out a storm.