BAD JUJUBE SIDEBAR: The crew who came into camp after midnight are sprawled around the site on the ground in only their sleeping bags. This same crew used bad camper etiquette and while they hung all of their packs and food on the ample bear cables and then TOOK OURS DOWN AND LAID IT ON THE GROUND….. Who does that?!!!! Bad campers do that. Very bad and while it was tempting to take their food and dump it in the creek, we did not. We hoisted our packs and hiked our happy butts up the trail not looking back . . . These things have a way of working themselves out.
Back to the hike. The trail lit only by headlamps, we make the turn up Swallow Fork Trail and immediately start the climb. It will be 5.5 miles to the Prize~ Mount Sterling. Trees blown down from the night before slow our pace as we climb on, over and through. (did I mention it was DARK) The creek roaring beside us, I made a conscious effort not to fall in.
Our first creek crossing is over a narrow wooden bridge with one slanted rail. Rickety but did the job. Our second creek crossing makes us both stop as there is no bridge, just underwater rocks above a rushing portion of the creek. Envisioning myself swooshing down the creek, I grind my poles in between the rocks and step by step follow Harriett as she leads the way. So much for dry boots and we continue to climb. At some point we realize that it is snowing and have to stop to put on our rain jackets and keep climbing. I discover that night hiking is a lot like day hiking…..
Another wet creek crossing, another painfully slow mile up the trail, night turns to dawn and the snow stops. Finding a spot out of the wind we take a break and have breakfast. Harriett has broccoli and meat and beef jerky and I have beans and rice with half a pro bar. Remnants of last nights meal ,cold but necessary to hoist us the remainder of the climb.
Funny thing about hiking elevation. You simply lose all ability to judge the distance. Surely we are halfway there. The sign must be around the corner or maybe we passed it… Lungs are burning, legs are burning, the trail continues and you just keep moving. Back in the snow again we eventually make Sterling Ridge. BUT there is still 1.5 miles to go. Deep snow, frozen slush, ice covered rocks and steep climbs. The reward, glimpses of the mountain ridge and the sun is out.
FINALLY! After an attempt on Day One and after five hours of climbing on Day Three we reach the top of Mt. Sterling all 5,842 feet of her……. Scanning the small area on top of this mountain where the view is limited , it is obvious that the fire tower is the main feature. This tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1935. Mt. Sterling lookout has the highest elevation of any true fire tower left in the eastern U.S.
This is what we came for….the panoramic view of The Great Smoky Mountains. So we started our climb on a structure that has been pounded by wind and weather built in 1935… I climb CLINGING to the metal railing taking one step at a time. Stopping only to control my hyperventilation and trying not to look down, one step at a time, hand over hand, I finally reach the trap door and pull myself up into the tower. (Note to the Park: The floor needs some work)
The view was amazing and we take pictures in all directions all the while never releasing my death grip on the tower . . According to a good post from Hiking in the Smokys Blog, “On a clear day you’ll be able to make out Balsam Mountain and Luftee Knob towards the west, Mount Guyot to the northwest, Max Patch to the east, and the Cataloochee Valley towards the south. If you have a very good eye you may even spot the Mount Cammerer fire tower, which lies due NNW from the mountain” It was a good day, but after a few pictures the wind picked up and we started DOWN.
This is a shot of Campsite 38 from 60 feet up in the top of the tower. Can you spot the campers? eek
Standing in the snow….at the top of Mount Sterling, next to the Fire Tower of Death , next to the marker and the sign we adjust our packs for the long steep trek down. The snow is still deep and it takes concentration to keep from falling or twisting a knee. Ahead of us is 6.5 miles of steep downhill laced with roots and rocks. After rising at 4:00 am and climbing to the top of the tower we are women on a mission. GET TO THE PARKING LOT. (preferably without a serious injury)
So much like our trip down on Sunday, (remember the whole STRATEGY was to avoid hiking DOWN THIS MOUNTAIN and we did it twice) I’m not going to lie. This trail seemed ETERNAL. Like FOREVER ETERNAL. It seemed that it would never end. We went DOWN, DOWN and more DOWN. Climbing over fallen trees, snow turned to slush, slush turned to mud and mud turned to dirt, winter turned to spring and miraculously 13 hours and 12 miles after we started our day, we spot the bridge that would take us across Baxter Creek to our car.
Harriet and I take turns changing our clothes behind a big rock in the campground. (where I am pretty sure I traumatized a couple who happened to walk up on me. ) We toss our packs in the trunk and ease our aching bodies in the car. Recapping the trip we laugh at all of the events from the last three days.
Funny thing about hiking…it is a lot like labor. While you are in the middle of it all you can think of is the pain and that you are never ever going through that again. But then as soon as it is over and you have on a clean t-shirt and dry shoes you start to think about where you will go next…
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