Adventure in the Smokies

"First Full Day of Spring"

by David Horton

Pictures can be seen here

My two previous "fun runs’ had seen extremely cold weather and snow. The third version was no different. When I ran the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) in 1991, it was foggy and rained all the way through the Smokies (two days). I didn’t get any views. I wanted to go back and do the A.T. in the Smokies again.

I persuaded (conned) three others (Eliza MacClean, Muffy, and Andrew Thompson) to join me for this adventure. Afterall, what could be more fun than 70 miles in the Smokies on the first day of spring. We would see great views and it would be a tremendous training run for Barkley coming in two weeks.

At 12:03 am on March 21, we took a group picture and started our adventure from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap, 70.5 miles to the north. On our drive down, it rained very hard off and on. No problem, it would certainly stop raining before we got there and even if it didn't, so what, a little rain never hurt anybody, right.

As we began our little jaunt, it began to snow lightly. Within the first few miles, it began to snow much harder-but we were committed and there was no turning back. The elevation at Fontana Dam is just under 1800’. The higher we climbed into the Smokies the more it snowed. For a while it was pretty neat running in a few inches of snow. However, the snow grew harder and the winds grew stronger.

We stopped by the shelters to find water sources that were nearby. I’m sure the hikers really wondered what was going on. Around 8 hours, I knew that if I was going to finish all 70.5 miles, I had better pick up the pace. I left the others and headed on my way in the snowstorm. The views were…snow and more snow… visibility was 20-30 yards. The difficulty of going uphill had increasd dramatically. I made the side trip (off the A.T.) to see the tower on Clingman’s Dome. The dome looks like something from outer space-especially in a snowstorm. I climbed to the highest point (6643’) just as I did in '91, and what did I see….snow and more snow.

Then the real fun began. The descent to Newfound Gap (5045’) was treacherous. There was anywhere from 6-12 inches of old snow with drifts much deeper. Hikers had post-holed through in many places. Over this was 5-6 inches of new snow, which of course sufficiently hid the post holes from view. The only way to find them was to step in them. When the others got to Clingman’s Dome, they did the smart thing, they took the road down to the Newfound Gap and called it a day.

It took me 13 hours and 7 minutes to get to Newfound Gap, this was my only chance to re-supply for the second half. The total elevation gain in the first section was 12,800’. Eliza’s roommate Marina, gave me some food and I changed shoes and socks and left 20 minutes later into the howling storm.

The next section went very well for the first few miles. However, after getting on the north side of some 6,000 foot mountain, I got into the same conditions that existed on the north side of Clingman’s Dome… old deep snow with post-holes, fresh snow… all on a slanted surface. This section seemed to go on forever…as the snow continued. Finally, I reached the top of the last hill and had a downhill finish to Davenport Gap.

The last section found me falling many times, loosing my prescription glasses (in a brown leather case, just in case anyone finds them), water bottles freezing, and hallucinating more than I ever have.

My "adventure" started at 12:03 a.m. and ended at 11:14 p.m. (23:11:50) – 18,660 feet of elevation gain later. It snowed the entire time. The temperature stayed anywhere from 15-25 degrees with wind blowing from 10-30 mph.

Am I glad I did it? Yes. Adventure is just that. Not knowing what lies ahead…challenging yourself. Seeking your limits.

P.S. I feel sorry for anyone going through the Smokies…especially as the snow starts to melt.

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