Posted by: pjbarr | April 8, 2010

And Then The Hail Came

Start: Russel Field Shelter
Finish: Spence Field Shelter
Distance: 2.9 mi.
Trip Distance: 180.4 mi.
Side Trips: Spence Field Shelter
Side Trip Miles: 0.2 mi.
State: NC/TN
Highlights: Living to write this!

“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; begin it well and serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

And I am lucky I made it 2.9 miles. We all knew the rain and storms were coming. It hadn’t rained in 10 days, so it was overdue. But the reality of walking in a thunderstorm, rather IN the thunderstorm, was a harsh slap in the face. In fact, it was an ignorant decision to even hike today.

3Bears left about 20 minutes ahead of me. We saw a deer while getting water this morning. This was exciting because this was the first large wildlife either of us had see on our thru-hikes. But I was about to set out with 3 Bears and realized I hadn’t found my GPS or turned it on to record data today. I ended up unpacking my whole pack to find it, ultimately realizing I didn’t need to unpack it at all. Thus I started out today alone, trailing my friend by a nearly insurmountable 20 minutes. I would regret this.

Within 5 minutes it began raining, within 10 minutes it was pouring, and within 15 minutes it was violently thundering and lightning. I was hiking extremely fast – this seems to always happed in the rain even though hiking faster is futile – I was soaking wet in only seconds and shelter was far off. This time I was hiking fast out of fear. I was also trying to catch 3 Bears, though I knew he would be hiking fast too and I could never catch him.

The trail ascended to a ridgeline and instantly the lightning began to flash all around me. Several successive strikes the lightning would flash and turn my vision completely pink – like turning on and off the lights in a dark room. The thunder was instantaneous with the flashes. The strikes were close and then the hail came. It was pelting me in the face. And the wind was whipping the tree tops, I was sure one was going to fall on me either from the wind or lightning. The whole experience is loud – the thunder, the wind, the hail hitting the ground, the rain hitting my coat. But mostly the experience was absolutely terrifying. I wished I was with someone else even if this only gave me mental security and no real protection.

I hiked the 2.9 miles in under an hour. Many times, I ran. All too many times the trail came out onto the ridgeline and I felt extremely exposed to a lightning strike. Then the trail climbed nearly to the top of the 5,000+ foot Mount Squires. This was the highest point before Spence Field and the storm was at its most intense. I finally descended toward Spence Field. A last mild ascent made me think that I had misjudged the topography and I hadn’t yet reached Mt. Squires. Thankfully, I emerged at the clearing of Spence Field.

While the side trail to the shelter was near, I needed to walk through completely exposed grassy field on a high ridgeline. As I paused before entering the clearing, a flash and giant clap of thunder reminded me how dangerous this would be. I made the 100 yards to the shelter side trail practically holding my breath. I still had to make it 0.2 miles through a semi-open field to the shelter. I was hoping 3 Bears would be waiting at the shelter but he was not. Only one other person was there, Boston, a thru-hiker about my age. It didn’t take me long to decide this would be as far as I was making it today. The lightning spooked me good. And while the thunder diminished, ironically, after only about 15 minutes, I wasn’t going to chance it at coming back. The entire previous three miles I was thinking how stupid I was for not turning back. I checked the radar on my new fancy internet that Allison signed up for on my cell phone. It was terrible. The weather application had a lightning radar map. The results were as expected – about a hundred strikes right on top of me… I saw them all.

My next section would take me over the exposed and open Rocky Top where a hiker would be the highest object on the ridge. Then the trail would climb even higher to the summit of the ironically named Thunderhead Mountain, the highest point in the western side of the park, and therefore the top lightning choice for the real thunderheads. It’s a heath bald to boot, once again making the hiker the highest object. 3 Bears, since he was not at the shelter must have pressed on. That meant he was on Rocky Top during nearly the peak of the storm. I hope he made it OK.

I decided to stay primarily because of my fear of the lightning. I can deal with hiking in the rain, but not with the heart racing, fear driven, emotional wreck that I become. But I also realized why miss the Smokies and the views I love so dealy. I got slightly ahead of schedule yesterday, so I could afford to stop short today. I was ultimately sold when I saw the weather forecast for the next several days. If I waited I could get views from Rocky Top, Siler Bald and Clingman’s Dome in the days to come.

My only issue with stopping after just three miles was that 3 Bears will get ahead of me. We had planned to split a hotel room in Gatlinburg Friday night. I was looking forward to two nights in Gatlinburg. But I’m not out here to stay in hotel rooms, I’m here to experience the Appalachian Mountains and all of their beauty. And especially I was here to enjoy the Smokies, my home.

I forgot to mention that in the middle of last night a pack of coyotes strolled though Russell Field howling, yelping, whining and crying at an extremely loud volume. It was extremely bizarre. I didn’t actually see them, but there must have been at least 5 or 6. 3 Bears and I woke up and agreed that we were glad to be in the last remaining AT shelter with the closed in bear fence!

I caught up on a lot of postcard writing. You would think spending a day in a shelter from 10:00am and on would be boring, but you would be surprised how quickly down time passes. I’m here in the shelter with Boston, who agreed I had good reasoning to stay here and stop early. Silverback, not of the California duo, but an older gruff guy from the West Virginia panhandle, is another thru-hiker here with me. Several section hikers fill out the remainder of the shelter, all full of good conversation that I have enjoyed.

The rain stopped now in the evening, but the fog is dense. It is going to be a cold night. It’s almost 8:00pm and it is already below 40 degrees. Looking forward to a great day, albeit a cold one, tomorrow in the Great Smokies.

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