Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Clingman's Dome, Smoky Mountain National Park, TN

When I was about 12 years old, I went on a trip with my best friend, Andrew, from Florida to Tennessee and back. Along the way we had camped at a bunch of forgotten sites, hiked up a few mountains I'll never remember the names of, and swam in who knows how many rivers. Aside from that, and a couple camping trips with friends, I hadn't really spent too much time in the mountains before Andrea and I left on our journey.

Last year, a group of friends and I camped at Ft. Mountain State Park (which was incredible, and I have yet to find its equal in terms of beauty and mystery on our trip so far). Some of us had totally improper gear, some of us brought extraneous items, and although we have all done long hiking trips together in Florida, I'm pretty sure not a single one of us had been backcountry camping in that type of terrain.

The result: I think we had a three mile hike out to our site and it basically beat us all senseless. Granted, if we had the proper gear and brought only the essentials we probably would have made light work of the trip. Regardless, it was probably one of the best experiences of my life but the bottom line is that, in my experience, Floridians suck at mountain hikes.

When Andrea and I decided to hike Clingman's Dome (tallest mountain on the Appalachian Trail, the Smoky's, and all of Tennessee), we chose a difficult hike, about 22 miles round trip over three days. We started at the top of Clingman's Dome (elevation 6,684 feet) and hiked down to the bottom, about a 5,000 ft descent, then made our way back up to the summit. Andrea had only hiked one mountain before, Grandfather Mountain in NC, and I had only a handful under my belt. The hike was beyond our experience level, which was a concern of mine from the get-go, but we thought if we took it slow and made sure to eat and drink enough we would be OK.

The first day was an 11 mile hike, all downhill, and we were lucky enough to have crisp, cool, dry weather. As far as physcial exertion goes, it was not too bad, but I ended up getting a trail blisters the size of quarters from my big toe down to my heel on both feet. The last mile-and-a-half or so were excrutiatingly painful for me... worse yet, we had left a little later than planned and wound up hiking for about an hour in total darkness. I had a flashlight and a backup head-lomp, but Andrea had left her backup behind and her primary broke... Things started getting a little scary after dark... The head lamp was nearly useless for hiking, and toward the bottom of the mountain we had to cross several streams in the pitch black night, which was quite tricky at times.
Yayy for dead trees!

The second day was a breeze, we had only a four mile hike to the next site. While hiking, the weather was great again. We got to the site at about 5pm, gathered wood, started a nice warm fire, and ate dinner before bed. We had decided to share the one person tent to cut out some weight from our backs (my 2 person tent is pretty heavy and bulky). HUGE MISTAKE! About a half hour after getting into the tent the temperature dropped to about 40 degrees and it started raining. I woke up at about 3am and found myself lying in about 3 inches of cold water... the water had come through where our bodies were touching the sides of the tent!  I was wearing all the warm clothes I had brought, which were all made of cotton... Cotton clothes hold about a gazillion times their weight in water and take forever to dry. Luckily, Andrea was wearing a fleece and leggings that wicked repelled and dried quickly.

This is about the driest I was all day.
The next day I had to hike 7 miles back up the mountain, blistered, tired, and sore, with about 30 extra pounds on my back and no dry clothes to keep me warm. The entire way back up was cold and rainy, and all the rain since the night before had cause the streams to swell to near rivers and the boulder hopping to become pretty much impossible. We had to wade across the streams, which were often belly-button deep, cold as all hell, and moving swiftly. It was difficult to keep a footing, and we had a few tumbles and spills - luckily nothing serious. Miles away from any help, we had no choice but to forge on.

We made it to the car!
There were some pretty frightening moments that third and final day on the trail. I think I was experiencing early signs of hypothermia, and Andrea was concerned about her calorie intake because she kept getting getting light headed... meanwhile we were tip toe-ing across a narrow trail that often had 20, 30, 60 foot drops directly adjacent. The last hour or so of the hike left me exhausted. I had been weighed down by my pack, my wet clothes, my waterlogged boots. That, coupled with the bleeding blisters on my feet left me able to only make about 8 inch steps. The last leg of the hike seemed to drag on forever, but eventually we were safely back in car with the heat blasting full throttle. WE DID IT! Clingman's Dome beat the crap out of us, but what an experience! If nothing else, it was a great learning experience! Cotton is NOT your friend while hiking...


  1. What an amazing journey for you both...thanks for sharing your pictures, and thoughts :)
    The views were absolutely gorgeous...that snake was a little scary though, on that one trail, and man was he big!
    Stay safe you guys, and keep up the great blogging :)

  2. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts! Check back often! I try to update as much as possible, though it's hard at times on the road, and we can definitely use the traffic!

  3. Just checking in on you guys...hope all is well on your journey :) The views are beautiful in Tennessee..I love just that place, thanks for posting your pictures!

  4. havent seen a post in quite some time...
    everyone ok?

  5. Hey, really great blog post… I've enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy. I actually work for the CheapOair travel blog. If you're interested, we would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail: gchristodoulou(at)cheapoair(dot)com, and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.

  6. Good Job. I guess, this must be yours ultimate journey of your life.

  7. Wow. So, I just checked this blog for the first time since my last post. Just wanted to let everyone know that both Andrea and myself are safe! We ended up moving to Denver and eventually went our separate ways. Had actually completely forgot about my blog until just now! Maybe I'll throw an update entry sometime soon.