Just as natural as spring rain and regular as bears doing their business in the woods, Kelly and Hank mapped out an itinerary that was about double what I can reasonably accomplish - both in daily mileage and altitude gain. We went 29 miles in two days, from Iron Mountain Gap to US 19E. Along the way we climbed many thousands of feet altitude, including 2,200 feet up the south side of Roan Mountain and 950 feet up Hump Mountain. Late morning on the second day, I reached Kelly and Hank lounging in the sunshine under a blue sky at the top of Little Hump Mountain. They had been waiting about 10 minutes, while I brought up the rear in a slow slog up the mountain. I commented that I would not have come along if I knew that I was going to slow them down so much. Hank brightly replied, "No problem! Can you think of a more beautiful place for us to wait for you?"
I got up at 4:15 a.m. Saturday to meet Hank at his house, the first of several designated spots along a route through town picking up riders. We carpooled to US 19E southeast of the town of Roan Mountain, TN, and left Jim's truck by the road for the end of the trip. Then all hikers piled into Hank's Jeep for the shuttle to Iron Mountain Gap. The group hit the trail right at sunrise about 7 a.m. From there we climbed 800 feet up Iron Mountain. We descended to Greasy Creek Gap and ascended 900 feet up a very rough, rocky trail to Little Rock Knob. From there it was back down to Hughes Gap.
Then began the climb proper of the south side of Roan Mountain. After a half mile or so we stopped for a pleasant lunch. Some of us aired out our feet, and I changed to dry socks. Two thirds of the way up we stopped at Ashe Gap to refill our water bottles. Mid-afternoon found us up 2,200 feet at the Roan Mountain Peak. Hank and I took hero photo shots of each other from the summit. Then another third of a mile took us to the shelter at Roan High Knob, the other peak on this double peaked mountain.
Stopping here would have been the closest shelter to the half way point, but the other guys voted to push on past the half way point to the next shelter at Low Gap. So down we went for the next 2 miles to Carvers Gap, where we reconnoitered the hydration situation. Though not marked on the map as a water source, the trail crossed a handy creek just before the parking lot. We elected to take on enough water that, if we did not make it to the Low Gap shelter (and the next official spring), then we could camp in a field somewhere. From Carvers Gap we climbed several hundred feet each over Round Bald, Jane Bald and Grassy Ridge for the next couple miles.
Before the top of Grassy Ridge, a huge storm blew up. The wind gusted up to 40 miles per hour and the rain was cold. It was the worst sleet storm of my outdoor career. Lightening pounded all around us. We elected to get off the trail and take minimal shelter among some scrubby trees. After about 10 minutes, with some let up in the lightening but no diminishing of the rain and sleet, the group took my suggestion that we keep moving up the mountain. We commenced to climbing in a trail that was now a running creek.
As we approached Low Gap Shelter, we obtained information from hikers going the other direction that the shelter was full. Since we would have to stay outside the shelter in our tents, and the ground around most shelters is beat down, hard and dirty, the group followed my request to stop at a beautiful, flat, grassy spot on a ridge with a fire pit and a view through the trees down the mountain. The storm stopped and we enjoyed a nice cozy campsite. Everyone ate a quick supper in our tent vestibules or at the fire pit and went to bed before dark. We had covered 17 tough, mostly uphill miles and were quite tired.
That night I was pleasantly surprised at how comfortable were my sleeping arrangements. Despite suffering from sleep apnea and having no C-PAP machine with me, I did not wake up a single time to my own snoring. Nor, despite going to bed before dark and staying in the sack for nearly 12 hours until the next day, did I have to get up to pee. Nor, despite the evening's rain and sleet storm, did my gear or clothes get wet inside my water proof stuff bags. I was warm, comfy, and had a wonderful night's sleep.
Sunday morning we were up a dawn and fixed solo breakfasts. Jim hit the trail first, getting so far ahead of us that we did not see him again until lunch time. The rest of us broke camp and hiked down to the Low Gap shelter to get water for the morning. We descended to Yellow Mountain Gap, where the Revolutionary War Over Mountain Victory Trail crosses the gap. Then we ascended nearly 900 feet up Yellow Mountain and Little Hump Mountain. After a nice break on the summit, we descended to Bradly Gap. There we tanked up on our last water of the trip. We then had the beautiful but tough 950 foot climb up the south side of Hump Mountain grassy bald. This ridge is one of my favorite places on the whole Appalachian Trail.
Hank and Kelly caught Jim at the Hump Mountain summit, where they shared lunch, as I dragged my way up about 15 minutes later. Upon my arrival, Jim took off again, and the other two guys waited for me to eat and rest. Then our route was a humongous 2,700 foot descent, 5 miles trip down the north side of Hump Mountain, over some very rough, steep and rocky trail sections, past beautiful Doll Flats, to US 19E. Just before the highway, Jim was waiting for us at Apple House Shelter. We finished the hike and shuttle, and trip home, all tired but happy with our accomplishments.
When we got back to our carpool spot at the Coffee Shop in Wilkesboro, we were all so sore we could hardly get out of the vehicles or walk around. That day and the next, my feet and calves were so painful and stiff that I had to hobble. Before we get to the Wind River Range, I am going to have to find some way to get into better shape.