Since a 4-day week wasn’t short enough for us, we decided to take Friday off and do a high point challenge. The challenge, South Beyond 6K, is a bushwhack for the most part in which you’ll climb the 6K+ feet peaks in the southeast. We decided to try and hit a ton of them this weekend, but mother nature doesn’t always coincide with your plans! Our trip began with a drive over to the Big Creek area of the Smokies, where we’d drop off our permits for the weekend and drive up the winding and narrow Mt. Sterling Road to Mt. Sterling Gap for a short, steep hike up and in to the Laurel Gap shelter. Well, imagine our surprise when, after driving, the gate 7 miles from our trailhead was closed. No mention of this to us, but when we called the visitor center they informed us the road had been closed since around Christmas. When we called the information line, they informed us all roads were open. Thinking quickly on our feet, we decided to make the long (adding 5 miles!) hike up Baxter Creek Trail in to our destination instead.
The climb up Baxter Creek Trail was absolutely brutal in every sense of the word. A 6.2-mile hike that gains more than 4,000 feet in elevation. Slow and steady was how we made it to the top. When all was said and done and we had finally made it, we knew there would still be climbs ahead and that darkness would fall on us before we made it to Laurel Gap, crushing our hopes of hitting the three 6ers we’d hoped to get today. We did make it to Laurel Gap at 6:10 that night, which wasn’t too bad, and there was a small stash of firewood inside the shelter when we got there so we were able to get a fire going and warm up before calling it a night. With all the ice and snow we dealt with on the way in, it was nice to be dry and have dry wood for sure!
Our second day started super late, at nearly 11:30 a.m., and was very damp and humid. Les walked with JD and I to the Gunther Fork Trailhead before turning around. JD and I wanted to head up Balsam Mtn. Trail to Tricorner Knob and head back making for a longer day. We knew high pointing in the bad weather just wasn’t happening for us. We had continued the nearly flat trail for about 2.5 more miles when we reached Luftee Knob, the first of the 6K peaks on the trail. We looked up and saw orange tape marking the way up and decided to go ahead and summit. We followed the tape up, UP, UP and came to three false summits before finally reaching the top. To help us celebrate, mother nature decided sleet would be nice. The ice falling from the sky was in huge clumps and soaked us completely before we got down the hill. We layered back up and decided to head back to camp. When we got back, Les said it had been pouring rain there since he’d gotten back to camp nearly 2.5 hours before us and had worried about us. After trying for nearly an hour to get warm, we got all our water and firewood resupplied, got into dry clothes and had a warm meal. We spent the rest of Saturday evening sitting around the fire with some CCR playing from my iPhone and listening to the rain pour all night long.
Sunday morning we got up late again, 8 a.m., and were ecstatic that we couldn’t hear rain anymore. Then we panicked hoping it wasn’t snowing instead! Thankfully it wasn’t and we headed back out the Mt. Sterling Ridge Trail and up to Mt. Sterling before descending down Baxter Creek Trail. After reaching Mt. Sterling at noon, we booked it down Baxter Creek, JD and I reaching the car at 1:45 p.m. and we were totally amazed at how quick we’d made it. I was hoping for 2:30. We did run into two backpackers who spent the night in the rain up at campsite 38 the night before and said it was miserable out there. Thankfully, the rain didn’t start until we were packed up in the truck and on our way home. Our high pointing may have been a bust, as we only got one peak, but our trip was 33 miles with over 7800 feet of elevation gain for the weekend, so we still got out, spent two wonderful nights in the Smokies, and had a great time doing it.