I recently took a trip to Tennessee – Smoky Mountain area – and hiked up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Tennessee (6600ft) and a popular place on the Appalachian Trail. I hadn’t really planned to go hiking on the trip – lots of reading and sleeping and maybe a little running, but not hiking. However, when I got there and realized I was staying only 20 miles from Clingmans Dome, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

On Tuesday on the way through Gatlinburg I stopped at a visitor’s center and bought a map of the Smoky Mountain National Park roads and trails. Awesome! There was a road leading right up to the top of the mountain. I could drive up, drink in the scenery, snap a few pictures and head back down inside of an hour. Then the lady at the visitor’s center informed me that the road closed for winter three days before. I’d have to hike up – 7 miles on the Appalachian Trail. A 14-mile hike. No problem. I’d be sore but it was do-able. I’d done several consecutive 16 to 20 mile days with a 25-30 lb pack on my back on some backpacking trips. Admittedly, I’m not in that good of shape any more but 14 miles with a 6-8 lb pack was certainly within reach.

Mistake #1
Got to the trailhead at 9am and found where the AT crossed the scenic view pull-off/rest area.Trailhead to Clingmans Dome There was a sign there indicating that Clingmans Dome was 7.9 mile up the trail. Well, the visitor’s center lady’s 14-mile round trip hike was now up to 15.8. I suppose I should have taken a closer look at the map and added up the mileage for myself instead of taking her word for it. No matter, 15.8 with a light pack was still do-able. I had a good 8 hours before dark after all. My normal hiking speed is about 2.5-3 m/h depending on terrain. Plenty of time with a few rest stops thrown in for lunch and to take pictures. Such were my thoughts when heading out.

Mistake #2

Now, I did NOT go down to Tennessee with hiking in the plans, so I didn’t have anything I normally would take on a day hike except my Camelback backpack (minus the hydration bladder). All I had was cotton clothing – socks, underwear, short sleeve t-shirt with a long sleeve t-shirt over top – and running tights, sneakers, and a baseball cap. Basically, I had the running attire I wear down to about 25 degrees. No polypro or moisture-wicking fabric on this hike!

In my backpack I had a cotton sweatshirt, jogging pants, my winter jacket, and a digital camera, along with 2 bottles of water and a snack – peanut butter sandwich and Golden Grahams cereal. I also had my cell phone which was useless except for telling the time since there was no reception in the area.

The Hike
So, I started up the trail. The air was a bit chilly so I alternated wearing the inner shell of my winter jacket on the downhill sections and tying it around my waist on the uphill sections to minimize sweating until I warmed up enough to leave it off.

I saw some interesting ice formations on the ground much of the way. Saw a few birds. But no other wildlife. They were smart. It was a pleasant hike through a hardwood forest. The sky was clear and sunny although the mountain usually blocked the sun from reaching me. There were a couple ramps set up to cross over barbed wire fencing, a protected area to enclose the wild hogs and keep them from doing further damage in other areas with their rooting up the ground.

I also encountered some interesting blow-downs (trees that have fallen over across the trail) halfway up. The closer you get to the tree line, the smaller the trees get and the denser the woods become. There are a few large trees that do survive and when one of them falls across the trail in a manner that is impossible to climb over or under, it makes for some interesting bushwhacking. One tree had fallen over and taken a section of trail with it. As you’re hiking along all you see in front of you is a 10 ft wall of roots and ground. No getting over that puppy. The only way past was into the dense forest. Fortunately, the blow down area only lasted a mile or so with about a half dozen to skirt.

At about mile 5 things started to go downhill. My arms were chilly but my trunk was maintaining warmth with minimal sweating. Do I put my jacket on and really sweat but keep my arms warm or continue the way I was. I decided to stick my hands in the sleeves of the jacket wrapped around my waste to keep them warm and keep going. I’d get to the top, don my extra clothing, take a break to eat lunch, and get some pictures of the incredible view.

As I continued on, the sections of icy trail increased. A spring would run down the mountain, find the trail and follow it….and freeze there, creating stretches of slippery ice. About a mile from the top, the ice started alternating with sections of snow.

By the time I reached the top, and got into the really windy area, I was starting to get chilly. I reached the base of the lookout tower and reached back to get my water bottle on the side of my pack. I couldn’t do it. The muscles in my arms were so cold that they wouldn’t do what I was telling them to do. That scared the hell out of me. I immediately got the pack off, and put my sweatshirt, sweatpants, winter coat, and baseball cap on. In the amount of time it took to get everything on, I started to shiver. I grabbed my peanut butter sandwich and camera and headed up the ramp of the tower hoping the movement would help warm me. More accurately, I staggered up the tower. My leg muscles were starting to seize up from the cold too. I took a bite of my sandwich an choked it down. Got to the top and snapped 3 pictures. Between the wind blowing me around and the shivering, I wasn’t sure if they’d come out or not. Tough. I’d get better pictures some day when I actually thru-hiked the AT.

I headed back down and huddled on the ground on top of my empty backpack out of the wind and in the sun as much as possible and ate my sandwich, drank my water, and had a meeting with myself. For the past 15 years that I’ve been running (on and off) I always start out a little chilly in winter. As I run for a mile or so, I warm up. I always figured that all one had to do if they were dangerously cold was to get moving to generate heat, and they’d warm up (within limits), and that the real danger came with exhaustion. I’ve learned that isn’t so. I still had energy left (even after a slight bonking when my body finished consuming my morning cereal) to keep pushing but that walk up the ramp made me realize that the cold can prevent you from being able to move enough to generate heat. Scary.

I decided to head down on the road instead of taking the AT because the road was out of the trees and in the sun. Good choice. The sun made a big difference. After a few miles I was warmed up enough to start shedding layers. I pulled out the Walmart-plastic-bag-tasting-Golden-Grahams (no baggies!) and enjoyed the scenery the road afforded the rest of the way down.

I returned to my car at 3 pm, 6 hours and 16.2 miles later. I asked a nice man to take a couple pictures for me and then headed down the mountain to Pigeon Forge and an all you can eat BBQ rib dinner. I was still surprisingly cold throughout dinner. But an hour in the jacuzzi when I got back to the cabin took care of that.

This hike was a memory maker but definitely not the brightest thing I’ve ever done.

The cabin
DSC01691.jpgMore pictures of the cabin
At the trail head
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On the trail
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At the top on the tower
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On the road back down
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For Dave and Sherry