Multi day backpacking trip discussions for Spring Break began in February. Freezing temperatures, multiple cold, gray rainy days, snow and ice storms increased the longing for warmer days on the trail. My friend and outdoor junkie, Harriett of She Moves Jewelry, came up with a plan to head to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the Big Creek Loop via Mount Sterling. Despite a trail description that this was one of the more strenuous hikes in the park, it sounded good to me…
DAY ONE: Walking in a Winter Wonderland…
Leaving early Sunday morning, while the rest of the world slept, we rolled on to our destination, happily chatting about life, gear, and past and future trips . As we neared the park, the top of the mountains were dusted with snow. We wondered if we would see any… Checking our weather apps, snow had been forecasted the night before but the next three days looked warm and sunny. Perfect.
So it began, once in the parking lot, we loaded, tweaked and adjusted our packs and crossed the bridge to begin our ascent 6.5 miles UP the Baxter Creek Trail toward Mt. Sterling and campsite 38. There are several routes that will take you to the summit of Mt. Sterling; however, the toughest route to the historic fire tower is the Baxter Creek Trail. In fact, the Baxter Creek Trail to Mt. Sterling is one of the toughest day hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. The trail climbs roughly 4200 feet in just 6.2 miles. Its important to emphasize our reasoning here. The STRATEGY (a word that should be removed from backpacking vocabulary)was to take on the toughest part of the trail FIRST and CLIMB UP to prevent the pounding our knees would take coming DOWN such a steep descent.
The green mossy beauty so a part of the GSMNP greeted us almost immediately with an early crossing of Baxter Creek. Numerous wildflowers had already braved peeking out of the ground and the trillium were unfolding all around us. We climbed…rewarded early by a view of the layered mountains old as time and serenaded by birds calling back and forth. Life is good.
About a mile in we saw our first dusting of snow and wondered what would be ahead. We climbed…passing huge rock formations, just soaking in the morning and warming up our legs. More snow…truthfully, I was almost giddy, giggling and laughing at our good fortune to actually get to see snow on the mountain…
As we climbed higher, the temperature began to drop, the wind picked up and the amount of snow significantly increased, slowing our pace. Wet snow blowing and falling all around us glistening in the sunlight. Soooo pretty, deceptively beautiful. Did I mention we were CLIMBING? Downed trees and limbs to cross, along with a combination of frozen slush, deep pockets of snow and increasing incline started a number of thoughts running through my mind. Mileage was impossible to calculate but we had been on the trail around three hours when a trio of wild eyed, very wet, snow covered young people came around the bend with their gear haphazardly hanging off of their packs.
As we later reflected on this meeting, they most likely were in shock and possibly early stages of hypothermia (which can KILL you) . Asking about their night, they told us the winds had reached SEVENTY MILES PER HOUR and that there was TWENTY INCHES of snow on top of the mountain…. We wished them well and continued trudging UP the mountain toward the prize. The top of Mount Sterling. (small voice… “are you insane?!)
Now we were stepping into the trios footprints, several inches deep into the snow piled high on the sides of the trail. Huge wet masses of snow falling off the trees in the wind began to soak us and our packs. The trail narrowed by the drifts and nowhere to stop, we continued to plod along , alternately amazed by the beauty of the Christmas card scene surrounding us and seriously wondering how much more snow was on TOP of this mountain, how much longer I was going to be CLIMBING this mountain, how WET my feet were, how COLD my feet were, HOW MUCH snow there really was, how COLD would it get, WHY did I swap my beloved 0 degree Ethel for the 15 degree Lost Ranger because it was lighter and if I was going to DIE… (okay, so I am dramatic but those were my thoughts)
Climbing around a fallen tree and sliding on my fanny, we spot an abandoned cotton sleeping bag. The kind that would not keep you warm in your friends basement. (NOTE: If you are going to backpack into the mountains, NEVER carry or wear COTTON. It is not your friend. It will kill you.) Tossed to the side of the trail, we figure the trio had dumped it. Following the drag marks in the snow up we continued into the snow bombs and wind. We will never truly know how far we went up the mountain. We have been hiking five and a half hours so our closest guess was five to five and half miles. All I know is we were grinding down to the slowest pace possible trying to keep our footing in the deepening snow and the frozen footprints and ignore the burning, now exhausted muscles in my legs.
After a particularly deep stretch of snow sinking up to our mid calves we stopped to strategize. Neither of us wanted to call it. AND neither of us wanted to go DOWN that mountain. We tossed out pros and cons, trying to hang on to common sense and let go of pride, trying to determine how far we had to go, when suddenly a huge mass of snow drift drops off of a rhododendron above us and plops right in the middle of my head. It’s a sign….. So reluctantly and relieved the decision has been made, we turn around and even the though the STRATEGY was to AVOID going down this steep mountain…. DOWN we went.
Slipping, sliding, twisting and of course, falling in the SAME SPOT, making our way back toward the parking lot we go. Neither of us talking, focused on one step, one step, one step until we reach the other world of brown trail, slush turned to mud, mud turned to dirt, stones and sticks and normal trail. And after seven hours of hiking, climbing, clinging, slipping, sliding, sinking and falling we finally stop for a break on a rock in the sun. Did this just happen?
We cross the bridge back to the parking lot near five o’clock, the sun dropping behind the mountains as we crank up the car heater attempting to dry our socks and shoes. The nearest open campground is Smokemont over an hour and a half away so we decide to stealth camp in the campground which was still closed for the season. (don’t judge, a donation to the GSMNP is already on its way and we left no trace. Desperate times call for desperate measures) After a warm dinner, a cup of hot tea, exhausted, I crawl into my hammock, relieved that I did not die, (grateful that I am not 4200 feet above ground surrounded by 20 inches of snow in 20 degrees), nested by down and fall asleep to the sound of the creek rushing beside me.