I woke up early and cold again. In Hiawassee, I sent home the heavier of my winter clothes. I was a little worried I had done so prematurely, but to my surprise, I was plenty warm with all of my remaining gear on.
I retrieved our bear bags and quickly packed up. Similar to the drive to make Unicoi Gap last week, I set off in the early morning fog to hike 22 miles.
Hiking alone in the morning is fast becoming one of my favorite things. While I’m not as fast as the other hikers in my group, I make up for it with early morning miles.
I finally decided to stop and have breakfast and then lunch 10 miles later in Betty Creek Gap at noon. I was making good time as the trail leaving Standing Indian was gentle, but that would soon come to an end.
The Albert Mountain ascent was easily the most difficult I’ve experienced on the trail. The trail literally went straight up the mountain. I put the trekking poles away for the first time and scrambled up the boulders. It was exceedingly difficult but a lot of fun.
At the top of Albert Mountain, I climbed an old fire tower for some amazing views. And the group still hadn’t caught up to me.
North Carolina has been absolutely beautiful so far. The size of the mountains and valleys are so much larger in NC than in GA. I passed Long Branch Shelter and paused at Rock Gap. It was about 5:30. I had just under 2 hours to make the final 4 miles to Winding Stair Gap.
I thought about bears. I thought about hiking in the dark. But I pressed on. I really wanted to complete my first 20+ mile day. And I wanted to be at Winding Stair when I went to bed so I could be one of the first in line to catch a ride to Franklin, NC.
The hike to Winding Stair was surprisingly gentle. I emerged from the woods to find a gentleman in a Jeep waiting at the trailhead. I didn’t even have time to take my pack off before he asked me if I was looking for a ride to town.
Truthfully, I wasn’t. I was content waiting at the gap til morning. Plus, my hiking buddies were still miles behind and presumably meeting me here soon. I explained the situation and the gentleman told me he’d give me a ride back to the gap after buying snacks at the store in town.
I graciously accepted his offer and bought chips and Powerade for myself and my hiking buddies (if they made it all the way as we had planned).
As he was dropping me off at the trailhead, I noticed four headlamps standing in a circle. I hopped out of the Jeep and into the excited embrace of my hiking buddies. They were as shocked that I hiked the 22 miles by myself as I was.
We made an impromptu dinner buffet in the parking lot and set up camp on the side of the road.
I’m looking forward to a day off in Franklin tomorrow. I need to make a few gear purchases and mail some (more) unnecessary gear home. I’ll also need to buy some sort of a brace for my knee.
While my knee feels better than it did yesterday, I’m still using caution as it hurts from time to time. My feet, on the other hand, are doing great – no hot spots, no blisters.
Breakfast – The last of my almonds, dried cranberries and beef jerky.
Lunch – Couscous with spam, also the last of both.
Note: No service again.
I woke up early, warm in my sleeping bag, but cold in my tent. Spotty cell coverage has prevented any of us from consistently checking the weather, but it looks like the rumors we’ve been hearing of an approaching cold from are true.
I retrieved our bear bags and packed up quickly in the early morning light. I needed to cover as much ground as possible today and tomorrow in order to make it to Franklin, NC on Sunday. I visited the privy one last time and took off.
After a quick up and over As Knob, the trail gradually starts gaining elevation. I paused about two miles before the GA/NC border and had a quick breakfast. I’d been thinking about crossing that border all morning now. As Savage put it, moving into another state makes you a “thru-hiker”.
The three of us met at the border sign and had a quick break. North Carolina was impressive right out of the gate. The gradual ascent out of GA gave way to much steeper grade. In the 1.5 miles it took to reach the summit of Courthouse Bald, my first summit in NC, I had gained a thousand feet in elevation. And it was noticeably colder.
Another cool thing about leaving GA is I’m also leaving the Chattahoochee National Forest and entering the Nantahala Wilderness. Forestry service roads are still closed from winter. We’re pretty remote.
I decided I was going to have lunch and get water 6 miles ahead at Deep Gap. It was another case of headphones in and moving on.
As I hiked today, I noticed a few things. First, the plants. Spring has still not come to higher elevations. The only green you see aside from moss and small patches of grass is from rhododendron, holly or pine trees – and they’re few and far between to begin with.
I also noticed that, as I was gaining elevation in NC, the mountains were getting larger in size. There seem to be fewer small peaks and much longer ascents and descents than I’m used to.
I started getting really hungry about a mile before hitting Deep Gap, but I rode it out. By the time I arrived, I was starving. I ate and ate and ate. It was great.
After about half and hour, Savage emerged from the woods with Kodak, a nice guy who’s also hiking with a camera. And soon after them, Kool-Aid joined us. While we had hoped to make it up and over Standing Indian Mountain, it was decided that we should camp on top. The timing was working out such that we should have plenty of time to set up camp on the summit and watch the sunset.
Man, I’m glad I did. I’m also glad I brought my camera – I finally put it to good use. I can’t wait to get some of the pics of the sunset up. It was truly incredible.
Apparently, Savage, Kool-Aid and Kodak were able to convince Canuck to bypass the shelter and camp with us in the clouds. So there’s five of us tonight.
This’ll probably be one of the highest campsites I experience on the entire AT at 5400 feet. There’s a fair amount of wind and it is really cold outside – again, don’t know exactly, but I’d imagine close to freezing.
Today was a hard day hiking – by far the hardest I’ve had yet. We had a few small rock scrambles. It’s like the AT trains you, like the trail was designed to slowly give you skills in the beginning that you’ll need to master before moving on to the next harder section. Gone are the volunteers at the shelters. I guess the ATC assumes that, if you made it this far, you’re probably good to go.
Tomorrow’s gonna be all about covering ground. I do want to check out the fire tower on Albert Mountain. In all, it’s 21.9 miles to Winding Stair Gap, and a ride into Franklin, NC. That’s a lot of miles to cover. I may have to stop a few miles short, but at least I’ll be close to the road crossing on Sunday morning.
I am pleased with my right knee – seems to be doing a little better. The bandana brace is working. I met a doctor who confirmed I just need to slow down a little. My feet are looking great, too. I’ll prob skip on buying boots in Franklin.
I’m getting really tired – I’m hoping to be up at 5:30 to start hiking.
Breakfast – Laura Lynn Virginia Creeper trail mix (whole bag)
Snack – Handful of almonds
Lunch – about two cups almonds, half cup dried cranberries, the last of my beef jerky, 2 Little Debbie Nutty Bars.
Dinner – salmon and couscous with a creamy pesto sauce.