Caradhras, Revisited


“And if the mountain defeats you, where then will you go?”

- Saruman

Unicoi to Tray

The crew, back before our spirits withered on the mountain.

Yesterday we set course upon what was to become our first officially failed backpacking trip. Ben would mention later on that a motorcycle safety course taught him that as the number of risks increase, the potential for serious problems increases. Here is our list of risks as we stepped out onto the trail yesterday morning:

  1. Late start – We didn’t get on the trail until almost 11 am. We had a lot of miles planned for the day, and the late start meant we needed to average 2 miles / hour to get to our planned stopping point before nightfall.
  2. Three significant climbs in one day – We had planned to do Rocky Mountain, Tray Mountain, and Kelly Knob in one big push.
  3. Illness – I’ve been sick for nearly a week now. I toted a healthy cocktail of cold meds with me in my pack in the hopes that they would mitigate this risk. They did not.
  4. The weather – weather.com LIES. It just LIES. That’s all there is to it. Today was supposed to be “mostly sunny” with highs “in the 60s” up there. It was not. Not even close. It was cloudy, raining, and immensely foggy the entire trip.

With these risks in mind, we headed out anyway. We reached a midway point, and a shelter, at around 4:45pm yesterday. We were way behind schedule and had essentially zero chance of being able to push forward the 7+ miles needed to get to our planned destination for the day. We collectively decided that we could camp for the evening and get up very early (pre-dawn) this morning to continue on, but that we would have to make 15 miles today to stay on schedule.

We camped at Tray Mountain shelter, which is one of our favorite shelters so far (despite mouse activity). We met a few fellow hikers, one GT student and a couple of recent grads, and their dog, Gus.

Unicoi to Tray

Meet Gus (not JD)

Gus, and the stick laying across his paws, ran circles around our campsite all evening, and all morning. Meanwhile the 3 hikers we bumped into managed to successfully make fire (in the rain!), and have scrambled eggs and bacon for breakfast this morning. Amazingly, they made hiking look like a pleasant experience, even in these conditions. Of course, their Ford Explorer was parked about a mile down the hill.

This morning I was dead to the world thanks to my Nyquil-induced coma. There’s a reason you need approval by a store clerk to buy that stuff. Seriously.

I understand that there were some alarms that went off to start our 15 mile pre-dawn trek to Deep Gap. I also understand that there was a casual observance of conditions outside the shelter, and a series of decisions that led to us staying right where we were in the comfort and relative warmth of the 3-walled structure we were resting in.

Around 9am this morning I finally woke up.

None of us saw or heard mice last night, but we certainly saw the effects of them. Half a roll of toilet paper was consumed (and then expelled) from inside its waterproof stuff sack home. This marks the second time that toilet paper has been demolished by rodents. I’m not sure what I have to do to protect this valuable asset (pardon the pun) from the jaws of these furry pests.

Unicoi to Tray

I wish I knew why this stuff was so appealing to them.

Perhaps the mice were telling us we didn’t need the whole roll. We had to face the facts. We would not be making it to the state line. Defeated by the mountain (er, well, this particular series of mountains), we decided to make the best of our morning and made hot tea and oatmeal while the dogs played.

Unicoi to Tray

A leisurely morning after facing reality.

It was almost nice, except for the bitter sting of defeat. We packed up and began our short hike back down to Unicoi Gap where we started yesterday.

Ultimately, we hiked roughly 10 miles total in awful conditions, but only made a roughly 5 mile dent into our northbound Appalachian Trail section hike.

We hardly took any pictures at all. With the constant wet and windy conditions, I didn’t want to risk the camera to the elements. With the thick and heavy fog, there wasn’t much to see worth documenting anyway. But, if you must:

All-in-all, I think Ben was right. With all the risks we had going in, we would have been tempting fate to try to push out 15 miles today. A quick scan of the weather radio announced thunderstorms moving into the area tonight and continuing tomorrow morning; yet another bad sign. The drive home was through some of the densest fog I’ve ever seen, cutting visibility to maybe 15 feet at times and forcing us to slow down to a crawl on the winding mountain roads. Coming around one curve, we found a family stopped on the side of the road. I hit my hazards and pulled over. A car had flown off the highway and down the side of the hill, flipping over. Its driver had miraculously climbed up the hill and was now resting in their van awaiting paramedics. We passed several emergency response vehicles on our way down the mountain.

At least our day ended better than his.

3 thoughts on “Caradhras, Revisited”

  1. Hey, I found your blog via twitter and have been following it for awhile.

    Did you manage to catch the names of those GT students? I am one myself and wonder if I might have known them.

    I definitely understand the sad feeling of defeat when you decide to step off the trail early. For the first time ever, I had to cut a trip short last weekend when forecast lows of 16F yielded actual lows below 0. We almost stayed out another night, except my friend and backpacking mate had some frostbite in his fingertips and we’d exhausted most of our firestarting supplies. It was a good move though, as the next night’s previously forecast 20F yielded even colder temperatures.

    I guess we backpackers should be thankful we have the intelligence enough to resist being stubborn and weathering some dangerous situations for which we aren’t prepared.

  2. No, I didn’t catch their names, only the name of their energetic puppy-ish lab, Gus. The guy who is currently a student is actually pictured in the above post. He’s the guy in the GT hat sitting by the fire ring.

    I think we were wise to leave the trail when we did. I’ve barely slept for the last two nights thanks to this cold that I just can’t seem to shake, and I understand the weather worsened after we left anyway. Even if we had continued, I don’t think it would have been even remotely enjoyable. I’d rather save those miles for a time when we actually want to be on the trail.

  3. The guys were brothers, one of them was named Brian or Ryan. The one not currently at Tech is married to Amanda. Maybe that helps…

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