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Friday evening after getting off work, 7 guys met up in Nashville, piled our gear into the truck and headed out for our 6 hour drive to East Tennessee. Arriving at Carver's Gap a little after midnight we were surprised to see the large amount of snow still on the ground despite the warmer temperatures the past few days. The mile and a half hike over Round and Jane Balds had already been compressed down so the 2-4 feet of snow in places wasn't an issue at this time. As we reached the fork to head up Grassy Ridge Bald we found that no one had taken this trail since the snowfall and the drifts were deeper than 4 feet in some places. We post-holed, crawled and swam our way up near the top where it had been coated with 1-2 inches of ice atop the snow. This made things particularly painful when our feet broke through and scraped our shins down the layer of ice. We all have some nice bruises on bruises to show for that. :) The wind blown top only had 3-6 inches of snow in a lot of places and a lot more ice. We set up our tents around 3 a.m. and crawled into our bags out of the 28 degree air.
One of my buddies, new to backpacking, dug a snow cave and thought it would be a good idea to sleep in there without a bivy sack. Needless to say, after 2 hours and a lot of dripping he busted into my brothers tent with a soggy army surplus feather sleeping bag circa 1947, shivering cold. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way.
We packed up our gear and headed out for Big Hump mountain, 7-8 miles north on the AT.
Following our tracks back to the AT down Grassy Ridge . . . snowshoes would have been nice.
On down the trail there was evidence of a recent major storm. Lots of downed and split trees lined the trail. Once we got about halfway down to the next gap the trail we had been following in the snow disappeared. This meant navigation became much more difficult and we would now be sinking in up to our knees or even waist's in some places.
Whoever marked the trail through here was not very consistent with their blazes. Some places had them every 20 feet while others we would go 100 yards without seeing one. We often had to spread out to find the next marker. I guess in normal trail conditions this is no big deal, but in this kind of snow there is no way to know if you are on track without them unless you know the area well. This also wouldn't have been a big deal if we had snowshoes but with both of these factors against us we were lucky to be going 3/4mph.
Around 2pm we hit a drift that had us sunk in up to our packs and we still weren't touching solid ground. We had over 6 miles to go and in these conditions we estimated we wouldn't be there till at least 8pm . . . and that was being optimistic. We also knew a big storm was supposed to be blowing through and with air temps in the upper 30s we knew it was probably going to be wet. So we turned around and trudged our way back up to grassy ridge bald.
We made it back a lot quicker since were just retracing our steps. When we reached the grassy ridge fork I looked out towards Mt. Mitchell and saw storm clouds rolling over it. Within 20 minutes of this picture we were completely socked in and get blasted with 60-70 mph wind gusts.
We threw up our tents on 3 feet of snow, sheltered by a hammock of rhodies and spruce just in time. As soon as we got everything situated, the sky opened up on us. The wind gusts and rain continued to hammer our tents throughout the night. I slept well despite the tent nylon constantly slapping me and feeling like the poles were going to snap. Apparently the guys in the other tents didn't fair so well. The Eureka's and that blue tent failed the waterproof test. With every gust a shower of rain made it's way through the fabric and onto their sleeping bags. At 3am I was awakened to to a voice yelling through the storm "Josh, are you dry?," "Yes, and warm" I replied. "Well, everyone else is soaked and we have three people shivering."
The next 30 minutes were complete misery. Packing up in a 35 degree monsoon when you were warm, dry and cozy just moments before is no fun task. The 3 feet of snow turned into 3 feet of slush with a river of ice water running beneath it. Moving around inside the tent was frustrating because everytime you put a knee hand or elbow down it made a nice deep hole in the slush. By the time I managed to get everything packed away my hands were completely numb and useless.
We sloshed our way back to the car in the night. The wind made keeping our balance very difficult and the river of icewater beneath the snow insured cold wet feet. I remember standing at engine gap and being blown sideways on a slab of ice like a sail boat
Finally we made it back to the car, loaded up our soaking wet crew and headed home. We finished off the trip with a glorious meal at cracker barrel. Their giant fireplace is always a welcome end to our winter excursions. All in all it was an awesome trip. It tends to be, the more miserable the conditions the more memorable the trip. I can't wait till next time. :)