Kephart Shelter Area - Uphillhike
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Kephart Shelter Area

Saturday, November 3, 2012

So you think you can ski? Try skiing the Appalachian Trail in a couple feet of slush using skinny cross-country skis.

Strapping on the skis and climbing up the AT toward Kephart Mountain for a couple of tenths of a mile, I struggled to maintain balance. Before turning around my GPS told me that I was at 5900 feet. I had climbed here from the Kephart Prong Trailhead at an elevation a little below 3000 feet. I thought it wiser to backtrack down the same trail than to  risk the unknown snow drifts and deadfall that might be present on a loop attempt via AT, Sluice Gap trail, and Grassy Branch trails.

The downhill skiing began. I improved. My trick was to look well ahead down the trail. I turned by lifting skis and the deep snow kept my speed very slow. Even so, I strained and was sore and exhausted. Finally, I leaned heavily on a ski pole and it folded in two. This was too hard. With the frequent breaks I needed, my average speed on ski’s wasn’t much faster than walking. I hiked most of the way down Sweet Heifer.

On skis - Appalachian Trail.

I skied part way down Sweet Heifer Creek Trail after climbing miles through snow 1 – 2 feet deep.

The Shelter –

The shelter welcomed with crackling fire in the fireplace and a collection of shelter companions. There was a couple that owned an organic farm near Mystic Connecticut. Fortunately, they hadn’t been harmed by Hurricane Sandy. Another married couple worked guiding rafting trips down the Pigeon River. Also present was Teebow, who built the fire and had gathered a large pile of dry firewood. There was a guy from Asheville waiting on 4 or 5 of his Asheville hiking buddies who had “night-hked” the climb up Mt. LeConte via Rainbow Falls. They had started at 9 PM Friday night and finished at 3 AM Saturday morning. They were “hardcore”, having night hiked this 6000 foot peak after a storm that dumped 3 feet of snow.

The Bear –

Among the late arrivals to the shelter was Thompson. He wore a long bushy black beard and a hiking kilt. One of his Asheville buddies jokingly told me that he hadn’t seen any bears, but that when his companions finally arrive sometime after nightfall, one of them could easily be mistaken for a bear. He had been talking about Thompson. The Asheville crew finally arrived with stories about how they had made a wrong turn and ended up hopelessly lost miles out of the way on the one way road around Cades Cove. You might wonder how they found their way along snow hidden trails to the top of Mt LeConte in the middle of the night.

I was tired and the first in a sleeping bag. I was sleeping on the lower level. At about 2 AM I heard a loud crash. I poked up my head and saw a large dark form on all four’s crawling around the floor of the shelter and swinging it’s front section as it apparently rummaged through some object that had created the loud crash. Seeing what I took to be a bear, I yelled, “GET BACK! GET BACK!”. The bear continued to swing its head around without moving away. “GET BACK”… I couldn’t locate my headlamp and couldn’t understand why others hadn’t wakened and turned on their headlamps. To get the shelter’s attention, I yelled “BEAR”. Finally a few lights came on and I saw Thompson on the floor of the shelter. He hadn’t said a word. He simply pulled himself up the ladder back to the top platform.

The next morning Thompson didn’t seem to remember anything. When reminded he said, “Oh yeah, I fell off the ladder right onto my back. Man my back hurts.”

The Hike –

Saturday – Two miles up Kephart Prong Trail then 3.7 miles up Sweet Heifer Creek Trail to AT. About 0.2 mi north on the AT, then return down Sweet Heifer Creek Trail to Kephart Shelter. Total 10 miles.

Sunday – 2.5 miles up Grassy Branch Trail to intersection with Sluice Gap Trail. Return to Kephart shelter. Two miles on Kephart Prong Trail back to car. Total 7 miles.

The Weather –

Hurricane Sandy had finished dumping 3 feet of snow on the higher elevations of the Smokies three days earlier. Only the previous day, Friday, a hiker stranded in 5 foot drifts on the AT between Pecks Corner and Tricorner Knob had to rescued by helicopter when rescuers gave up trying to reach him by foot on Thursday.

Mark on way up Sweet Heifer Creek Trail.

Climbing through 3.5 miles of snow covered 6 – 24 inches deep along Sweet Heifer Creek Trail with fully loaded backpack and skis strapped to pack. Here is a view of the unbroken trail midway up.