photos by Jerry McClanahan
Well, sometimes it's just hard to get organized, as when the Chattanooga Snow Assault Team (CSAT) made it's second winter pilgrimage to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Only three members from the team's 1993 ill-fated attempt on Clingman's Dome, which ended in a slush wading retreat under freezing rain, were able to return to the mountains on Saturday, January 13, 1996.
Member Brian Woodward begged off, claiming that he had a root canal or had to change the oil in his car, or maybe both. And lead member Chris Kleehammer canceled out late, causing a quick reevaluation of the trip agenda and a shortening from two days to one. This schedule change later proved to be a fortuitous bit of luck for CSAT, which having barely survived the first night out, would clearly never have made it through two.
Nevertheless, remaining members Jerry McClanahan, Ralph Smith, and myself (one day past the big four-O), leave out at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning to backpack overnight in the snow somewhere in the Smokies, actual detailed planning being delayed until we get there. The team is bolstered by reports of generous snowfall and numerous road closings in the park.
After a tasty breakfast of pancakes (McClanahan), waffles (Smith), and French toast (Hamrick) in Pigeon Forge, we head for Gatlenburg, the "Doorway to the Smokies" and all manner of bungee jumps and shark and dinosaur infested miniature golf courses.
My pleas to stop and see the basketball-playing chicken are callously ignored as we drive right through the tourist traps to park visitor HQ.
There a helpful ranger shows us the closed, the open, and the ugly on his trail map. With virtually everything closed or ugly, our choices are conveniently narrowed to a hike up to the LeConte lodge and shelter, where three spaces are still available just for our use. The ranger assures us that the snow is plenty deep up on top.
Our instantly assembled plan is to hike to the Mt. LeConte shelter at 6,440 feet via the Trillium Gap Trail and back via the Rainbow Falls Trail the next day. It's a little over nine miles in, not counting the three quarters of a mile we have to hike up an icy closed road to get to the trailhead.
As we begin the hike at 10:30 Saturday morning, the air is cold but the sun is out. Snow at the lower elevations is ankle deep. The conifers are draped in glittering white and dappled sunlight, and the whole effect is quite a bit more charming and authentic than the Christmas tree display at Wal-Mart.
By lunch break around 1:30, the sun has melted the tree tops, and we're walking in a light rain. We're also encountering more snow, and our pace is slowing as the effort to break trail increases. But as we enjoy our bagels, summer sausage, and crackers, CSAT remains confident -- some would say overconfident -- of the shelter before dark.
But nature, as is so often the case, has other plans. Somewhere between 4 and 5,000 feet our pace slows to a crawl. We're no longer walking in snow, we're punching postholes with every step into increasingly deep drifts.
Team members talk wishfully, almost obsessively, about showshoes. In my head I see myself making a set, MacGyver-like, out of dead branches and dental floss. A snowshoe vendor on the tail at that moment could have made a mint off any one of us.
By the time we reach the mountain top and the final turn toward LeConte, we're up to our knees in snow, low on water, and losing daylight fast. We're also not quite sure how far we still have to go to reach the shelter.
We head off in the direction of the lodge, but pretty soon we're spread out of sight of each other in the dark with only a cold, whipping wind to keep us company. McClanahan's in the lead, making like a snowplow, followed by Smith, and then me, my pitiful legs long since having turned to a Spam-like substance.
I'm so beat that I start playing games, promising myself I'll take a dozen steps before stopping. That optimistic goal gets rapidly revised to half a dozen followed by a long rest leaning against the wind. The lights of Galinburg are spread out across the valley below, each one, I'm pretty sure, marking the location of a hot tub.
At one point I catch up to Ralph, and he asks me how I'm doing.
"Mmm mabout tooo doe," I say, suddenly realizing that my speech has frozen. I can no longer form words. "I'm about to die," I repeat, telepathically.
"Okay," Ralph replies and heads off.
"Watt," I mumble," Mmm, mbout do dee."
Has the man never heard of the Psychic Friends Network?
The stars come out quick and bright at this elevation. They're beautiful, but I keep mistaking bright stars through the trees for the lights of LeConte lodge. Finally, however, one of these stars resolves into a fuzzy square. It's the lighted window of the caretaker's cabin. And McClanahan and Smith are waiting for me at the trail split to the spring. As they relieve me of empty water bottles, McClanahan tells me there's coffee in the lodge.
Coffee, good, I think as I trudge up the steps.
Inside I meet caretaker Bruce and his three friends from Louisiana. The planks of the cabin floor are wet with melted snow. Heat comes from a big black iron stove that shares the small crowded space with a big table around which the Louisiana guys are perched.
Bruce observes that it's up to about 60 degrees inside the cabin. To me, as I gratefully drop my pack, it feels like Florida. McClanahan and Smith return from the spring, and Bruce offers coffee or hot coca from two pots on the stove.
We choose both and proceed, with some help from the Louisiana guys, to drain both pots in a matter of minutes. It's probably the best mug of hot coca and best three mugs of hot coffee I've ever had in less than five minutes. By the end of all that fluid, my voice has returned, and I impress the Louisiana guests with my knowledge of the babies baked in king cakes.
Core temperatures on the rise -- and to allay Bruce's worries about the future of his coffee supply -- we haul on our packs and head back out. Two-tenths of a mile later, having fallen behind again, I stumble into the shelter.
It's packed with other snow hikers, and Jerry and Ralph are staking out the last three sleeping spaces. They're on the top sleeping platform, four feet off the ground, and it's all I can do to generate enough energy to get up there.
The time is in the vicinity of 7:30. It's taken us 10 hours to hike as many miles.
Ralph and I sit in our sleeping bags, looking beat, while Jerry cooks, which is not easy. We're sharing the small shelter with nine others, and there's something or someone hanging, lying, or standing in almost every available bit of space.
Pretty soon, though, McClanahan's poking hot food in us. Like little birds in our nests Ralph and I obey, popping our mouths open for hot grub. Then, without warning, McClanahan's standing in front of me with a small square of chocolate cake with four lit candles stuck in the icing.
"Happy birthday," he says.
I'm appropriately embarrassed -- and astounded that he's lugged that darn hunk of cake all the way up to LeConte.
Ralph produces a bright red flask from his snakebite kit. We celebrate my delayed birthday, and our brush with nature's cold heart, with cake and snakebite cure. And, at long last, warmth drains back into my icy toes.
Fortified by a night's rest, CSAT heads down the mountain the next day. We're still walking in post holes, but they've been punched by somebody else the night before. As we make our way down to Rainbow Falls, the sun is out, the temp is heading toward 50, and the snow thins to melting mush and patches of mud. By the time we reach the trail head, the memory of the previous night's snow is fading from our minds if not our muscles.
Fortunately, all hardship will have long been forgotten by the time the next big snow hits the Smokies and the Chattanooga Snow Assault Team heeds the elusive call of the white stuff.