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The Roan Highlands -- MLK Weekend 2010

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. :)

HaHa.....been there done that!

It all sounds easy till you get out there huh?

Thanks for sharing your trip and the photos. What kind of tent did YOU have?

I am currently using the REI Quarterdome T3 and I love it. Has served me well from all 4 seasons in the mountains of TN to the rainforests of the PNW to the summer Sierras to island camping in the Everglades. Keeps the water and bugs out and condensation has never been an issue . . . except for those muggy nights where it is unavoidable with any setup.

Had a Eureka Apex before that . . . they are okay tents, but the waterproofing is subpar in big storms and they seem to dry rot pretty quick.

Yep the Quarter Dome gets good reviews.

It sounds like you were a bit more prepared that the others, I have stories like that too. One of my so called 'experienced' friends showed up at a trailhead with no shelter, and can goods for food. I kid you not.

He said he was just gonna rough it, too many John Wayne movies I think.

Lol . . . nice.

I went to the smokies this last December with a group of friends and we get up to LeConte Shelter and my buddy starts getting all his gear out and he says "Guys, I think I forgot my sleeping bag in the car!" And he was serious. It got down to 14 degrees that night and luckily we all had down jackets to pile on top of him. He slept pretty snug in between a couple of us needless to say and said he was alright for the most part but his feet got pretty cold.

You've got some great fotogs here! Deep snow blotting out the trail and your comment "No way to know if you are on track w/o markers unless you know the area well" about says it all. Roan Mt is known for extreme weather, especially cold, and "3am at 28F" seems almost unreal and warm for the middle of January. Imagine your trip in the deep postholing snow at 0F?

It's a great trip report and it reminds me of my last trip where I had waist deep drifts which really slowed me and my dog down. Your comment about slush and sleet and numb hands completely useless reminds me of many of my trips in the TN mountains and high elevation camps, brothers to the Roan highlands.

This picture reminds me of some of your pictures and shows my dog postholing up a mountain in very low temperatures.

When you mentioned seeking shelter behind some rhodo, I thought of this picture when I neared the top of a 5,000 foot mountain in very cold ambients.

Last year I had a similar trip and hit a ridgetop with fairly deep snow and it took me two hours to do a 40 minute hike.

On my last trip Shunka dog and I hit a rough slow-going ridge with very deep snow and some of it waist deep where the phrase, "swimming thru it" comes to mind. Did you get any fotogs of your windblown camp on the last night in the rain and sleet?

Those really are some nice photos. What camera did you take with you?

Do you happen to know what models the eureka tents were? For years I got by with a really craptastic dept store two-man. Talk about misserable in a rain storm. Currently I have the Eureka Pinnacle Pass3xt, and I am not happy with it- it doesn't vent well at all, the tub floor is too shallow, the fly doesn't come down far enough, and the door opening is terrible. It's better than the my old, one, but I will def be gettting a more reliable shelter as soon as I can afford it!

Looks like you had a good time too Tipi. Gotta love the winter in Appalachia. Especially the winter storms. The warm weather definitely was unexpected for this time of year, which was equally surprising with how much snow their was on the ground due to these warm temps. Wish I had gone the weekend before . . . it was stupid cold. We went the same weekend last year and there was no where near as much snow. We did however get temps down near 0F with windchills of -20 F and all of our tents got smashed flat in a storm . . . poles snapped, fabric torn on some and ended up having to hike out in the night as well. I have camped out on Grassy Ridge Bald 4 times and every single time have gotten blasted by a huge storm on Saturday night without fail. It is pretty ridiculous. That must be one stormy mountain . . . no wonder there are no trees on the top.

This was the last shot I got off. Unfortunately the storm hit too quick for me to even grab a shot of our setup. This was taken right after I realized we were going to have to pack up. After this, the camera went deep in the bag and wasn't dug out till I got home.

I took this one a few years back in a mid Dec hike coming up the spine of Mt. Buckley off the AT towards Clingman's dome. We all got coated with a nice ice sheath from the freezing rain once that thing layed down on us. We road hiked down the closed Clingman's dome road which had about 2 inches of ice on it. Wished I had crampons for that one . . . we were slipping and sliding all over the place.

It's amazing how much slower the going is in a few feet of powder. After this trip I may have to invest in a pair of snowshoes . . . never thought I'd need them down here in the south. I did some snowshoeing out on Mt. Rainier last month and it is really efficient and actually a lot of fun.

Do you do anything for your dogs feet? I didn't take mine on this one because I didn't know how her paws would fair in the wet snow. I know my feet would have fallen off without shoes.

I use a Nikon D-60 Gonzan and the Eureka's were the Apex XTA's. I had a Eureka for some time myself . . . they do okay when it's dry . . . that's about it.

Thanks for the positive feedback and sharing of your stories. Glad I stumbled upon this internet community.

Yes, a bunch of nice photos.

When the winter temps are in the freeze / thaw range it's just very problematic and not very forgiving of mistakes. A few trips with inadequate gear and doing a couple dumb things is a great teacher, not smart, but a good learning experience. I didn't always have someone around to teach me, but mother nature has a way of stepping in and at least teaching you how not to do it.

It's funny though, my dog could just keep truckin' like it was summertime.

How old is your dog tipi? I love those photos of your dog.

Shunka is very lucky, if I was a dog I wouldn't want to be stuck in a backyard all the time.

Trenary, That shot of the front moving in sends chills down my spine. That is a really great shot of one of those beautiful, amazing, terrifying weather moments! I took a look at your flickr, your photography is quite good. I currently use a D70s that I have had for many years- I asked because it was clear the shots above were from an SLR and not a P&S.

How do you carry your camera when backpacking- IE, how do you keep it protected from the elements? I very often decide not to take mine, thinking it is too much of a hassle, and then regret leaving it once I am out there! I have thought about getting the Caonon G series just for backpacking. Not quite as good as a SLR, but as close as you can get to one.

Dakota leading the pack. March 2009 on the AT.

(looks better large -- )

These are from the same trip, before the snow came.

Camel Gap along the AT in the smokies if I remember right:

Cool...Dakota looks ready to go!

I'll try to post a pic of my dog, most of my dog photos are old and I'm having trouble with the file type.

Trouthunter--Old Shunka is 14.5 years old and is a serious old mountain man who only feels good when there's snow on the ground. His paws stay healthy and I check them periodically, especially around 0F or -10F. He's the only creature I can find who want's to be outdoors for large blocks of time.

Nice pics/good read. I am surprised the Apex didn't collapse in these conditions. Nice to hear noone went hypo. Good stuff.

This is my dog Boo. Hanging out by the pool.

He will be 14 tomorrow. He's got about 12 years of backpacking experience, and has always been able to out trek me.

I can't get the backpacking photos (JPEG photo files) to load on trailspace.

Those are some good looking dogs.

Awesome pictures, I'm going on a day hike to Roan Mountain State Park this Sunday. I'm hoping to get some good photos and test out some new gear i purchased with my overtime paycheck as well! Right ON!

I've been all around this great wide world but I've never been to Roan Mountain... which is practically in my back yard. I hear it is absolutely amazing. I'm excited!

Thanks clawson. I don't know much about the state park, but the views on up the road to Carver's Gap and heading north up the AT are spectacular. You may want to try and get ahold of some snowshoes. Happy trails!

These are some pictures my brother took on that trip of the sunrise. I was still snoozing in my tent and missed out on this glorious sight. He didn't use any photoshop or tricks on these pictures. Just had the shutter speed slow.

Very cool TrenaryJL,

Great photos, you guys ought to enter them in the Trailspace photo contest Alicia is working on. Not been announced yet, but sometime in the future.

Went to Grassy Ridge on sunday and it was spectacular! No cloud cover, sunny, and terribly windy on Grassy Ridge Knob. Now that's my idea of a great hike!

Camping behind the rhodies reminded me of these I took in the Cohutta Wilderness back in early December.

Fellas, Never take a "been there, done that attitude" toward your backpacking adventure in the Roans. You are so lucky you started hiking when you were youthful. That's my main message here. I've started hiking (the AT) when I retired from nursing in 2003. My husband does not hike but supports my addiction as way-pointer, dropper-offer, picker-upper, supplier, and occasionally, bailer-outer. I started at Springer Mt with friend who has since moved to CA. Each summer I do a section/part of section & have got to about 70 miles north of Damascus, VA by 2007; did some great hikes in Yellowstone, Yosemite, & Grand Canyon 2008 on our annual summer RV trek; went back to Smokies in summer 2009 & to do some off-AT trails with novice partner who bailed after hiking up Boulevard to LeConte in rain, a cold overnite in shelter, & down adventurous Alum Cave next morning. I somehow skipped Roan Mt area but am going back this mid-June. Should see blooming mt laurel gardens. Have planned several day hikes, a 2-niter, &n an overniter with another retired nurse who has never hiked/backpacked. Hopefully she will tough it out & actually like the isolated beauty and challenges. I planned the hikes so we are descending more than ascending. Thank God for hiking poles, knee braces, gel toe dressings, good boots, and pain meds. I've lost about 3 sets of great toenails over the years but my annotated photo albums of memories will sustain me when I am no longer a youthful 70 and able to hike in my beloved Appalachians. I grew up in West Virginia.

Thank You All for the pictures and stories. Take your kids hiking (maybe not in winter mts!). You are very lucky to be mostly young and brave enough to tackle the mountains in winter & enjoy freezing rain. I am good at summer backpacking, hiking, and feeling safe on the trail with my Find Me SPOT. I'm looking forward to seeing the treeless top of Grassy Ridge on our overnite from Roan High Bluff to US 19. I've planned a day hike from Roan High Bluff to Iron Mt Gap. Also several hikes ending up at Irwin & the Nolichicky River.

I hike locally with the LA Hiking Club. They're going to Roan Mt NP in April but I don't like cold weather. None of my friends hike so I just needed to talk to someone who loves being out there in a wilderness. My stories are tame compared to yours but at least they are My Stories. Cheers, ATHikerGal

You are welcome to come talk about hiking any time you wish!

You have an interesting story, thanks for sharing.

Best of luck to you and have fun out there hiking the AT.

Tell us about your next hike in the trip planning thread, the tab is at the top.

Thanks, Trouthunter. I may post some questions on the Trip Planner link. The ATC is very helpful & I always carry ATC & Natl Geographic maps. I never know who or what is around the next AT bend & I do have fun. ATHikerGal

November 28, 2020
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