Our final REI Adventure of the season was finally happening! November 1-4 I spent out on the Appalachian Trail with six clients and another guide, Blue. Throwing a wrench into our hike was not only the fact that is is now November and the weather is much more unpredictable, but also the time change occurred the night before this trip. This means that now instead of getting dark at 6:30 or so, the darkness would set in the woods around 5 p.m. Thankfully, we had a great group of clients who trusted in our instincts and let us run a little wild with our trip planning.
After doing our general pack shakedowns and picking out our meals for the trip, we shuttled up and into another part of the Smokies. Our hike for the day originally had us hiking 5.5 miles from the insanely busy Newfound Gap Parking lot, hiking mostly downhill to Kephart Prong Shelter. Since it was already 1:30, Blue and I took the decision to park down the hill at the Kephart Prong trailhead and hike in the two relatively easy miles to the shelter, only gaining approximately 850 feet along the way. This decision turned out to be better for a variety of reasons - Blue had never seen this part of the trail before and there were tons of wild eatables, including Toothwort (tastes like horseradish), black birch, partridge berry, and stinging nettle to name a few. We got to take our time to get to know each other and taste a variety of wild plants on our hike. This also got us to the shelter earlier, meaning we still had some daylight hours to let people look around and take time to learn the bear line system in the park before dark. Blue built us all a fire and we got a chance to get to know each other a little better as darkness, and eventually the rain predicted, fell throughout the night.
The next morning, day 2, we awoke to rain, but we knew there was a 90% chance of it all day long. This turned out to be absolutely true. We left the shelter for our hike up the Grassy Branch Trail and the steady drizzle turned into a heavier sprinkle before turning into a full on downpour. We steadily climbed throughout the morning before coming to the Dry Slucie Gap trail. Dry Slucie is not how I'd describe our morning at all! The trail had turned into a stream and we were all thoroughly soaked before we made the 1.3-mile trek to the AT at Porters Gap. When we got onto the AT the temperature had seemed to drop by about 15 degrees. Thanks to being on the ridgeline the winds were whipping up the North Carolina side of the hill and blowing right through us. Now wet and cold, we kept moving as much as we possibly could before stopping for lunch on the warm side of the hill. We climbed through the Sawteeth, down into False Gap, and up to Bradley view with few moments for stopping and interpretation due to all of us being soaked and cold. From Bradley View, which we saw none of in the thick cloud cover and fog, we had a quick push up and over Laurel Top before heading down to Peck's Corner. Blue and I were so grateful for having a strong crew of hikers who kept smiling despite the terrible weather.
After getting to Pecks, the rain continued and I made three trips down the hill in the slippery mud for water. The third trip was unplanned, but necessary due to me spilling our entire 9 liter water bucket on my shoes. Good thing it was already raining! Thankfully, while I was getting water and heating water for everyone to have some warm drinks, our awesome guide Blue was out fetching firewood. Thanks to some Wetfire (an awesome firestarter!), Blue was able to get a crazy warm and huge fire started in the indoor fireplace. After all the clients went to bed, I stayed up and dried my clothes, rain gear, and socks in front of the fireplace before calling it a night.
Day 3 saw the end of the rain and Blue and I kept hoping we could wish the clouds away. We tried hanging around in the shelter until 10 a.m. to get everyone a view and some blue skies, but it just never happened. We started our hike up and out of Peck's Corner and back to the AT in the same damp and dreary weather we had seen the day before. The wind, however, was thankfully absent from our trip today! We climbed up to Eagle Rocks, where again we had not too much in the way of views, and began the highlight of any trip - our solo hike. I hiked all the way to Copper Gap before stopping because I had seen a glimpse of blue skies and sunshine. It unfortunately didn't last, but we all had gotten a moment of sunshine and a little bit of blue sky. After we all ate our lunch and hiked on, I mentally prepared everyone for our last push of the day up Mt. Chapman. Imagine my surprise when, after all the psyching up, we actually ended up being at the shelter, having already climbed the mountain and not noticing!
We spent the night at Tricorner Knob and slowly, the shelter began to fill. Nick and his wife, who actually read this blog, had come in from Icewater Springs and slowly five SoBo thru hikers came in for the night. The SoBo's got some trail magic from our group in the form of food none of us ever cared to finish eating and in return taught some of our clients a card game. We again had a fire and during the course of the evening, the sky had cleared and we had amazing views of the stars with a little bit of Milky Way action!
Our last morning, day 4, brought clearing skies and the views we had hoped for the entire trip. We stopped to take a ton of photos and by the time we reached the Deer Creek Gap helipad we had some beautiful scenery. Blue and I decided to take our crew down the Snakeden Ridge Trail to give our clients more miles on this warm and sunny day. We had a brutal 4080-foot descent, but we reached the campground at 3:30 p.m. We were so lucky to have a strong and amazing group of clients to lead on our last trip of the season.