November Shakedown: Springer to Neels Gap, Part 3


This is the third and final part of the three part tale of my shakedown hike on the AT. I start this section at Woody Gap (AT mile marker 21) on day four.

Wet leaves make for a slippery walk.
Wet leaves make for a slippery walk.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of rain. By morning everything is wet. The fog is so thick I can’t see across the road. At 6:30a I pull my backpack into the tent with me. The vestibule has kept the backpack and my shoes dry, despite high wind. There’s enough room in the two person tent that I can pack up inside, keeping key items completely out of the elements. The additional weight of the two person tent seems well worth it at this moment! While the clothing I hike in will certainly get wet if this rain continues, I can keep my camp clothes dry to sleep in overnight. And it’s essential that my down sleeping bag (Big Agnes, Juniper SL 25F, Petite Rated to 26F for Women) and the air mattress it lays on (Big Agnes, Insulated Air Core, rectangular, 20×66) stay dry if I want to sleep warm tonight. Down is worse than useless if it’s wet. I keep these critical things that must stay dry in a trash compacter bag at the bottom of my backpack. I’m not carrying a backpack rain cover since I’ve had little luck with them. The backpack (GoLite, Jam 70L) sheds some water and all items are in Sil-Nylon stuff sacks, but it’s the trash compactor bag I count on.

A hostel isn't much really. This is the one at Mountain Crossing. But it's dry and clean. And both a shower and laundry facilities are available.
A hostel isn’t much really. This is the one at Mountain Crossing. But it’s dry and clean. And both a shower and laundry facilities are available.

In a perfect world, I’d like to make it to the hostel at Neels Gap tonight, Mountain Crossings. My AWOL Trail Guide says it’s 10 miles. The signs say 11. (But I trust AWOL!) The distance is bad enough, but the first 8 miles is almost entirely uphill, to the peak of Blood Mountain, the highest spot on the AT in Georgia. And I’m a flatlander. There is an historic stone shelter, built by the CCC, on top, but it has no water. To make matters worse, the Blood Mountain shelter is, IMHO, the coldest spot in Georgia, being very exposed. (Aside: I stayed there one clear Fourth of July night and nearly froze. Atop the huge boulder beside the shelter you can watch three fireworks displays from nearby towns, but by the time it’s over, it’s too dark to hike down the mountain. I had a summer weight sleeping bag and the temperatures had been near 90F at the base of the mountain that afternoon. Who knew?) I don’t want to stay there, so I either need to camp short of the summit, or I go all the way into the hostel. Since I’m trying to pace myself, I decided my goal will be the Woods Hole shelter (AT mile marker 28.1). That puts me at a leisurely (<cough>) 7.1 trail miles for the day, even if it is all up hill.

This was a safe and completely do-able plan. And I really, really should have followed it.

But first, I need to say goodbye to Fresh Ground and my new friends at the Leapfrog Café. There’s fresh coffee and new stories. There’s bacon and eggs and fried potatoes. I hate to pull myself away from these lovely people. This was my latest morning start yet, but the slowest hiker on the trail needs to get moving. The rain was slackening by the time I left, but it was afternoon before the first rays of sunlight came out.

It had rained part of two days, but it was still beautiful on the trail.
It had rained part of two days, but it was still beautiful on the trail.

Despite the hills, I make fair time. This is the section of the AT that I know best, having hiked it a dozen or more times. This summer, most of my overnight camps started from Woody Gap. But the woods are always changing with the seasons and the weather conditions. The rain brought out so many snails. I stepped over a dozen of them today, though I’d not seen a one earlier in the week. Other detritus feeders included huge, red millipedes and a couple slugs. I also saw a very tiny salamander. His waistline must have been an eight of an inch around. It was cold enough that he was easy to catch. He seemed to like my warm hands.

And there’s a surprising number of people to meet. I stood on the trail for 15 minutes talking to a southbound hiker, Pivot Dude, who would finish his thru hike the next day. There were three different groups of retirees out to enjoy the day and each talked for a few minutes with me.

I kept my rain jacket out the entire day, but not really to protect me from rain. I used it to stop the brutal wind. You are constantly moving from windward to leeward side of the mountain, from exposed to sheltered area. I quickly began wearing the jacket backward when needed, so I didn’t have to stop and take my pack on and off. Not a fashion statement, but effective.

These are a little difficult to make out, but most shelters in the south have cables like this. You hang your food, or even your entire pack, to keep it away from bears or other animals.
These are a little difficult to make out, but most shelters in the south have cables like this. You hang your food, or even your entire pack, to keep it away from bears or other animals.

By 3:00p I’d easily hiked my 7 miles and made it to Woods Hole shelter. Or should I say the path to the shelter, because it’s a half a mile off the trail. I’m not alone. There are three men already setting up space in the shelter. But they are a friendly group and offer to fill my collapsible water bucket for me while I set up my tent. Chivalry is not dead! Just as I get the tent set up, they come back saying that the water source is dry. I’ve had my main meal of the day so I don’t need a lot of water, but I’ve only got about 16 ounces. I consult my trail guide and see that the next water source is a half mile farther on. I decided if I have to walk a half mile out of the shelter and another half mile farther north, I don’t want to turn around and hike back here. I’m going to take down the tent and keep moving.

So that’s what I do. Except the second water source is also dry. At this point I’ve hiked a total of 8.5 miles with my pack. I’m roughly at mile marker 28.5 and my trail guide doesn’t indicate any more water between me and my final destination. This is one of those good news/bad news situations. The good news is that the hostel is just 2.5 miles away. It would be a long mileage day, but I could stay at the hostel in a bed tonight and even get a shower. The bad news is that it’s now about 4pm, I have only an hour and a half of daylight left and Blood Mountain stands between me and the hostel. I can hike 2.5 miles, but I just don’t know if I can hike uphill anymore today.

So here are my options: A. Camp near where I am now or B. start hiking and probably make it to the hostel after dark, using my headlamp.

I should have chosen A. I stupidly choose option C. There’s a side path called the Lemrock Trail, what we call a blue blaze trail. I consult my trail guide which says simply it “by-passes Blood Mountain” rejoining the AT past the shelter on the other side. Whoo Hoo! A shortcut! I don’t have to hike over the mountain!

Except it isn’t a shortcut at all. it turns out to be a FOUR mile, rock strewn, poorly marked, narrow path on the side of a mountain! But I don’t know that. YET. I start boulder hopping and it never stops. I’m trying to move carefully among the loose rocks and wet, slick leaves. I also need to move quickly because nightfall is approaching and I don’t know how far I have to go. (I only find out it’s four miles after I get home and look it up.) There is no flat ground on either side of the trail. It’s straight up to my left and straight down to my right. The path is hard to follow when it goes through boulders or where the leaves are thick. Those blue blazes are few and far between, too. I breathe a sigh of relief each time I see one. I’m grateful that a recent hiker had been eating pistachios. Whoever heard of following a trail of pistachio shells? I keep moving. This trail has to join up with the AT soon, right? Right!?!


I’m tired and my feet were tender before all these rocks. Now, every step hurts. I slip and scrap my leg. My hiking poles save me several times, but there’s one fall–entirely in slow motion–where I go completely down to the ground. Finally, I almost face-plant into a boulder. I’m relieved my arms are strong enough to brace me in a fall, even when wearing a backpack. But my thumb is numb for the rest of the evening.

This was so stupid. Nothing in my guidebook said this was a shortcut. I assumed it would be both short and easy. Idiot. Now I’m off trail and if I hurt myself and can’t walk out, no one will know where to look for me and this trail isn’t heavily traveled. I can’t fall again. And frankly I don’t have time to keep falling…….walking. I look at the sky and estimate I have 15 minutes of daylight. It’s time to make a new plan. Quickly.

Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, set up on flat land.
Big Agnes Fly Creek UL2, set up on flat land.

I can’t set up a tent on the side of the mountain because the angle is too steep. I can’t set up among these huge rocks either. I can’t hike in the dark through boulders and loose rock on a trail I can’t see, even with a headlamp, and besides I’m too tired anyway. That’s the bad news. The good news is that I have a semi-freestanding tent and I find a 6 foot section of the path that doesn’t have any boulders on it. I move aside the loose rocks and set up right on the trail. The path is about the width of my shoulders, or roughly the width of my sleeping pad. I can’t stake the tent, but the rain fly attaches directly to the tent in three places. It’s not ideal, but it will work. I’ve never loved my portable shelter more! By the time I have the tent up it’s too dark to hang my food bag properly, but I take it well down the trail, away from my tent, in the direction I’ll hike out in the morning. I hang the bag on the highest limb I can reach without stepping off the trail into thin air. Or at least that’s how it seems. I’m using my headlamp but it’s the weakest link in my equipment. The light isn’t strong enough to reach the ground. It’s too weak to be useful except to read a book with.

I crawl into the my shelter, such as it is. The only level floor is my sleeping pad, but it’s enough room to sleep if I just don’t roll off.

And here’s the kicker: I’m not lost. I can’t see headlights through the trees, but I can hear the cars on the pavement below. I can hear people talking in the shelter above me. I’m safe. I’m warm and dry. I’ve got food and a little water. It’s actually a bit warmer this evening and I’m sheltered from the wind. And when I turn on my iPhone I have two bars and 3G! I’m able to send an email to my mother saying cryptically, “I didn’t quite make it to the shelter this evening, but I’m safe in my tent on the trail.”

Well, it’s true. I would never lie to my mother.

I drink half my water and save the other half for morning. My feet ache for 2 hours before I can fall asleep, but they are not blistered. The scrap on my leg is superficial. Even when it starts to rain, I stay dry, though the sides of the tent are quite damp by morning since the rain fly isn’t staked properly.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mountain Crossing, Neels Gap
Mountain Crossing, Neels Gap

I wake before dawn and pack up. I hoist my backpack and start walking. My food bag is still where I left it. And that’s when I realize just a few more steps beyond is the end of the blue blaze trail. It was too dark with my poor headlamp to see it last night. I rejoin the AT and stride the gentle 1.5 miles downhill to Mountain Crossing. I’ve made it! It starts to rain again, but I don’t care. I’m at the only section of the AT that’s under roof, the breezeway between the hostel and the outfitters.

The outfitters isn’t open, but the ladies room is. I clean up as best I can and change into my camp clothes which are marginally clean, or at least less sweaty and smelly. I eat the last granola bar. By 9am I figure it is not too early to call for a shuttle driver. Ron promises to be there in 35 minutes. Just enough time to replace that headlamp at the outfitters. As a reward, I buy an individual chocolate pie for breakfast.

What I Learned/Remembered

  • Don’t push yourself too hard on any individual day. This is a marathon, not a sprint. The key to finishing is moving forward consistently.

    Frogg Toggs. They are lightweight and cheap.
  • Don’t be an idiot. Stay on the trail.
  • I was carrying an emergency bivy sack and an extra set of clothes. I didn’t need them. Dropping these items, along with a handful of other small things, will save me about 3 pounds. This brings my winter pack weight (not counting the clothes I’m wearing to hike during the day) to 27 pounds (includes all gear, clothing, 4 pounds of water and 4+ days of food). I’m getting closer to my 25 pound pack weight goal.
  • I’m investigating some new rain gear call the Packa. I think this might be an improvement to the Frogg Toggs,
  • This thru hike will be difficult, but within my abilities. I can do this.

If you’d like to see my full list of the gear I’m carrying, check out my Appalachian Trail Hike tab. For the most detailed and up to date info, check out the backpacking spreadsheet on that page.