Tag Archives: Big Creek Loop

Night Hiking, The Tower of Death and the Eternal Trail

DSC_0185We pack quietly and quickly in the darkness. Using our headlamps to piece together our possessions, we carefully load our packs, hoist them on our backs and off we go. It is very very dark…


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 traiMaking Coffee...l, 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.

Your reward after climbing 6.1 miles....6 storiesFINALLY! 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)

DSC_0192DSC_0193DSC_0194Inside the Fire Tower of Death....DSC_0196DSC_0198DSC_020010154036_437074776438023_1649213869_n

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.
Can you spot the campers... we are VERY high up!!!

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…DSC_0233

 

For the rest of the story start here:

Day One: Girls Gone Wild SB2014

Day Two: Redemption, Big Creek Trail and GSMNP Fitness

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Girls Gone Wild…SB2014

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.

6.2 miles to go!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.

Silly girls…..

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.

TrilliumDSC_0019DSC_0022

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.DSC_0040

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?!)

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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.

DSC_0041After 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?DSC_0032

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.

Day Two: Redemption, Big Creek Trail and GSMNP Fitness