13 Apr Alum Cave and Abrams Falls Trails
Around January 1978, my cousin, Mike Bowden, his friend, Jim Bowers, and I set out for a couple of day hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains. This is told as best I can remember about 33 years later. I was 17 years old, Mike 16 years old. In all we covered over 20 miles, but I think I might have slid on my butt one of those miles coming down the snow slicked Alum Cave trail from the summit of Mt. Le Conte.
I recall Jim and Mike having driven up from Athens to meet me somewhere along I-85. I parked my little red Honda Civic and we hopped into Jim’s pick up truck. It must have been a late Friday afternoon following my last classes. We arrived after dark at the Smokemont campground in the Smokies. The temps were already low and were forecasted to drop into the single digits that night. I wasn’t concerned since I had prepared with my dad’s old army surplus down sleeping bag and my long underwear with ski jacket and insulated ski bibs. I had skied in much colder weather.
Night 1 – Miserable and Shivering
I had not brought a tent. The memory remains hazy, but it seems I slept out in the open under the stars while Mike slept in his small tent. Jim decided to sleep in the cab of his pick up truck. I was dressed in full ski clothing and zipped up in my bag. This seemed more than warm enough, but at the time I didn’t know how important a sleeping pad was for cold weather. I thought a sleeping pad was only for soft cushion and I was too tough to need cushioning. I had no idea that the main purpose of the sleeping pad was to insulate the camper from the cold earth.
In a short while (well before midnight) I went from cold to shivering. I pulled in closer and tried to stick it out. It went from uncomfortably cold to miserably shivering cold yet the temps still had not bottomed out. I concentrated on stopping the shivering, then gave up to shivers. At some point I think I got up or Jim checked on me. “How you doing?” I tell him that I can’t stand it. He had already run the truck engine a couple of times to warm himself up in the cab so he must have known how bad it was for me. I sat for a while in the cab trying to warm up. He ran the heater. “I think I would be warmer in the bed of the pickup truck than sleeping on the ground”, I said. After a few minutes in the cab, I laid the sleeping bag out in the bed of the truck and tried sleeping again. It really was no different than sleeping on the ground. I couldn’t tell which was worse. Somehow I made it through the night, but I don’t remember sleeping.
Next Day – Hiking the snowy Alum Cave Trail
We drove to the Alum Cave trailhead. I was glad to be out of the cold pick up truck bed and finally back in the heated cab. The higher we climbed on Alum Cave the deeper the snow became. It was frozen hard in the early morning and made for good traction. We talked a lot about the cave and finally saw it. We also talked a lot about a knife edge ridge that people often made there way across. Would we try it? I hate heights; at least when I am perched on top of sheer drops, so I was happy when Jim decided to bypass the knife ridge. I’m sure he would have done it and Mike probably would have done it also. It would have meant that I had to follow or seem pretty lame hanging back to watch.
We finally reached the final switchbacks with snow deepening to as much as 6 inches. At the top we trudged through snow and checked out the cabins. We went on out to Myrtle Point where we had lunch with a view toward Charlie’s Bunion.
I had worn plain tennis shoes with the tread worn bare. As we started to descend the snow seemed to be melting fast in the afternoon sun. It turned slushier and slicker. My feet came out from under me and I fell on my butt for the first of what seemed like 50 times. Seriously, I am sure that I fell at least 15 times. It was funny at first, but after about 7 or 8 times my butt was really getting sore and I was doing my best to brace for the next fall. Eventually I sat down in my nylon bibs and tried sliding down the slushy muddy trail by pushing along. I made a little progress, but not much. At least I wasn’t falling, but I was getting wet. The sun started dropping lower in the sky and we dropped to a lower part of the trail out of the snow. With wet bibs and sopping wet tennis shoes I was soon getting cold again.
Night 2 – Gatlinburg
I was a wreck. Hungry. I was wet, cold, and muddy from sliding in the snow. My sore muscles and bruised backside testified to my misery. We all agreed that we couldn’t take another night outdoors like the last. (I am thinking that Mike and Jim might have also been too cold that night or perhaps they just felt sorry for me having no tent and no sleeping pad.)
We decided to drive into Gatlinburg and split the cheapest motel room we could find. We stunk and were filthy muddy so our first task was to find laundry and showers. As luck would have it, the laundry mat also had pay showers. We cleaned up and I think I slept in heavenly warmth in a motel room shared with Mike and Jim. I can actually remember turning up the heater in that room. I don’t remember much else, but it must have been great to sleep. I probably volunteered to sleep on the floor. I could have slept hanging upside down as long as it was warm.
We drove through Cades Cove. It was chilly but not frozen. Having been so cold the day before I felt hypersensitive to any cold. After a long drive we piled out of the truck and did a 8.4 mile round trip day hike on Abrams Falls trail to the falls and back. It was a piece of cake compared to the day before. Afterwards I recall being bored as we drove on around Cades Cove and horsed around near one of the historic cabins. It was kind of wet and drizzly. Not very inspirational weather. Having enough, we started the long trip back over Newfound Gap back to Athens and Atlanta.