I have to share an experience Rob, Mike and I had this past weekend.
Imagine possibly 2 of your worst nightmare type hikes...and both the same weekend.
On day 1, you commit to a trail (Caldwell Fork Trail), by wading a wide, swift and thigh deep creek with full packs in tennis shoes and short pants. You cross the creek and stash your tennis shoes for use when you return in 2 days. The air temperature is in the mid to upper 30's, and you can see your breath. The water temperature is literally painful to your bones and skin.
You dry off and start the remaining 5 mile hike late in the afternoon. Dark comes in 1 hour. Dark thirty comes in 1 hour and 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes of hiking, you come to the 2nd creek crossing, and there is no bridge. The creek remarkably appears wider, deeper and the water is moving faster. It's too late to go back and get your tennis shoes, so in your dry boots, you wade up to your thighs again.
Toes are now wet and cold, but you keep moving. After another 30 minutes, you come to the third creek crossing, and there is again no bridge. (Thank goodness for hiking poles.) Shoes, socks and short pants are now wet, but you keep going.
(Reminder: The air temperature is in the 30's by my account.)
Right before dark thirty, you come across 8 LARGE elk who are initially not interested in getting off your trail. With a rhododendron wall and the creek on each side of the trail, your insistence finally convinces the elk to get off the trial.
Aside from the creek crossings and Elk, the leaves on the trail mask the frozen sheets of solid ice that your hiking pole cannot even penetrate. You crawl through several blow downs, some of which span flowing side creeks.
You climb the trail and on a crisp and gloriously starry night and make it to the campsite 41 around 8:00 p.m. (I guess at the time we arrived because the time did not matter at that point, but the frost was heavy at 10:00 p.m. btw, the frost sparkled as much as Saturn and Orion's Belt sparkled.)
(For a moment, I will skip to Saturday's hike.)
Saturday morning, for reasons many of us understand, you get a late start on a 14 mile loop up to about 6,000 feet and back another trail to campsite 41. (Up Caldwell Fork Trail to Rough Fork Trail, along and Hemphill Bald Trail) It was almost noon when you leave. You have day packs.
(Mike left about 1 hour before Rob and I left.)
The first 5 miles is a climb to Polls Gap, about 6,000 feet high (as far as I can tell.) A cold wind picks up before you stop after about 2 hours for lunch. Sleet starts during the lunch break before you get to Polls Gap. At Polls Gap, HUGE snowflakes start laying on the icy trail. For miles the precipitation varies from snow, sleet and rain.
While it finally gets dark, you and Rob catch Mike at Hemphill Bald where you briefly and miserably watch people skiing at Cataloochee Ski Resort. Mike has an injury and is "limping home."
The three of you share water supplies, turn on your headlamps and head down from Hemphill Bald.
It's dark thirty now, and it is raining....constantly. Your old Gortex jacket is soaking wet. It's a balmy 40 something degrees though.
With waning batteries and dimming headlamps, you negotiate at least one 180 degree switchback in the wet darkness. (Mike is 20 minutes behind you, and he got off the trail for a time before making his way back to the switchback.) There are any number of blow downs you have to crawl through, over and under, and at one point you come to a creek crossing with apparently no trail reappearing on the other side. You have to walk up and/or down the loud, wet and probably 2 foot deep creek (over your boots) to eventually find a small trail piercing the rhododendron thicket.
The trail is also endless in the pitch, raining black.
Right before we see the trail sign you've been yearning for, some kind of big cat out in the woods screams out at you. You're too wet, cold and tired to even care. (Rob heard it. I did not hear it because of the drenched hood covering my head.)
Like last night, you again make it to camp.
Both times you get to camp, John Quillen is there with the wood collected and a fire blazing. (Mike was there the first night and gets credit.)
But on Saturday night, John Quillen had barbecue heated upon on the fire and buns that looked like were never in a back pack. They were fluffy and tasty. John Quillen also handed each of us some refreshments as we took off our packs. He even offered a Koozie.
It was a meal sent from heaven.
John had a pile of fire wood (no larger than your biggest wrist) and a fire blazing despite the rain for needed warmth.
That is my point to this too wordy Blog.
It's not only that John Quillen did what he did. The point is that during both nightmare hikes we knew that John Quillen would be doing what he did.
That trip down the last part of Hemphill Bald in the dark and the rain did seem endless. It is an absolute certainty that without trekking poles we would have had some serious injuries. I agree that the light at the end of the tunnel was that you knew you weren't walking into a cold camp. The BBQ Saturday night was absolutely a lifesaver. I was so tired that walking down to the creek to get some water to boil for noodles wasn't going to happen. I think that the bridges on Caldwell Fork will most likely never be replaced and it will be changed to a predominantly horse trail. Even cold and wet for most of the weekend I had a blast!
After seeing what you guys went through, sitting in camp was the EASY job! Thanks for the props, though. I still had a freaking blast!
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