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Level II Fun (Part 2): Out of the Pain Cave, Into the Light

If you’re new to this blog and haven’t yet read Level II Fun, Part I, you might want to go back and do so.  This post picks up where the last one left off.  For those returning to the blog, recall that I had had a very bad day on Mt. Tom, was sunburnt, dehydrated, and suffering no small degree of psychological angst about whether I was going to be able to make it through nearly forty miles in the Smoky Mountains when I could barely finish a five mile hike in the hills of western MA. 

The Great Smoky Mountains:

I hit the wall somewhere around mile fifteen.  My brother and I had just hit the next to last junction guiding us back to the vehicle, which was parked in Elkmont Campground, Gatlinberg, Tennessee.  We had two miles yet to go and I wasn’t sure how much I had left to give.  Almost all my toes were blistered; I had what turned out to be a three inch blister on the heel of my left foot; the shoulder straps on my pack (a budget pack on which I had tried to save money) were digging into my shoulders, like rebar in concrete, pulling me down; my feet were soaked because I had fallen into the river a few hours back; the line between sweat and precipitation had long been disappeared long ago; the joints in my hips felt like they had little grains of sand in them; my hands had started to blister a while earlier because I was gripping my trekking poles so tightly in the effort to get down the mountain and make good time by propelling myself forward.  In short: Every. Single.  Part.  Of my body ached.  And the only way out was to walk through the pain.  This was day three.  We walked more than seventeen miles, including a summit of Clingman’s Dome (6,643 feet), from Double Spring Gap Shelter (approximately 5,420 feet) on the Appalachian Trail (AT) while descending over 4,000 feet to the vehicle.  And I had made it.  All my fears, anxieties, and feelings of insufficiency about this trip could all be laid to rest.  We turned a four-day trip into three, walking an extra, unplanned, 2.5 miles to avoid backtracking on one of the trails.  I accomplished more than I thought I would, or was capable of.

The Aftermath

We left CT for The Smokies a little after 4:00 am on July 14th, 2019.  I continued to experience uncertainty the entire time, right up until we strapped on our gear and started walking.  Mt. Tom’s climb on Saturday really affected my psyche, and  before even getting out of Connecticut, fifteen minutes into our drive, I realized I forgot my wallet and we had to turn around.  I just can’t seem to keep it together. 

In hindsight, much of my doubt came from living in New England and hiking in the White Mountains and the surrounding areas.  One thing every thru-hiker not from here mentions when they hit the Whites is just how rugged they are, given their relatively diminutive stature.  Fifteen- or twenty-mile days turn to ten very easily and the pace creeps from perhaps two, two and a half miles per hour to as slow as a mile, mile and a half per hour.  When I hiked the Franconia Loop last year with my oldest son, the experience was one of climbing straight up the mountain the entire ascent.  We spent ten hours on the mountain covering 8.5 miles.  It was brutal.  That’s what I had in my mind.  However, Clingman’s Dome is something like an addition 1,500 feet higher than the highest peak on the three-peak loop in New Hampshire.  And, we would be hiking higher and farther each day than I did on Franconia.  This is what I had in mind as I pictured hiking The Smokies.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Our first day on-trail saw us average roughly more than two mph, all of which was uphill until we jumped off the Miry Ridge trail to Lynn Prong, where we sloped gently downward to camp.  And yet, much of the incline was more akin to walking up a ramp than climbing a mountain.  We started out at Jake’s Creek Trailhead at Elmont Campground, roughly 2,000 feet above sea level and climbed to a little over 4,600 feet at our highest elevation.  That 2,600 feet of climbing covered more than five miles, putting the average grade at 2,600 ft/5.4 miles = 9% (roughly).  Easy peasy.  We still had to crush another three miles or so to camp, but it would be either level or downhill from that point.  We arrived at camp sometime around two o’clock, spending roughly five hours on the trail including breaks.  Compare that to Franconia Ridge in NH, which rises over 2,000 feet in about half that distance, averaging a gradient of 21%!  Even the hardest climbs in Le Tour don’t reach much past the mid-twenties.  In other words, over long distances, somewhere in the twenties is about as hard as it gets.  Anymore than that and it’s a wall; or, to think of it another way, gradients approaching and above 30% require some degree of technical rock climbing, scrambling, in the class three or four category: at that point, one climbs, not hikes.  Here’s a good comparison: the most difficult section of the back side of Half Dome in Yosemite is roughly a 28% gradient.  That’s along the Half Dome trail from the base of the dome to the summit.  The park has installed a cable system to aid hikers in summiting.  The first day in the Smokies being what it was, my initial hesitation that I wasn’t prepared for this trip seemed to be misplaced. 

Now, my confidence did a “one-eighty”.  This was especially true as while we would be hiking farther, we wouldn’t be climbing as high.  Our plan for day two was to backtrack along Lynn Prong, something like a mile and a half, reconnect with Miry Ridge and continue up to the AT.  I didn’t sleep much that first night, being completely exposed in a hammock out in the wilderness.  However, I felt great, even a little energized after (what I perceived to be) my stellar performance the day before.  I suggested that instead of backtracking, we forge ahead, see new things; doing so meant we would add unplanned miles to our day, lifting day two’s total from the original 10.5 to 13.2.  I was so ready for this.  Or so I thought.

Day two was a double-edged sword.  It was so much harder, physically, than day one; but it was also the day that saw the best weather, provided the best views—due to the weather—and introduced us to new friends: roughly a dozen of us stayed at Double Spring that night.  We also came within about forty feet of a wild boar, which was both pretty cool and a little intimidating.  It is true that I had wanted to stop and spend the night at Siler’s Bald Shelter, cutting the day a little short, but Jonathan talked me into finishing.  I’m glad he did.  While I was in a little pain today, I continued to feel a boost in my confidence and my performance.  Yes, I was sore; yes, I complained a little and wanted to give up; but no, I didn’t. 

Day two was also the day that I suggested the possibility of finishing the hike in three days, rather than four.  This, because time was becoming somewhat of a concern.  It took us sixteen hours to get to Gatlinburg by car.  If we stuck to the plan, we would not be leaving Tennessee until Thursday afternoon at best.  I had to be to work by five p.m. on Friday and I had no coverage; that was going to be cutting it close.  Neither of us wanted to drive that long with no rest, no shower, and nothing real to eat other than the food we had on the trail, which was mostly dry stores and dehydrated food stuffs.  However, my suggestion was not one that cut miles from our trip.  My newfound confidence in my ability to hike at elevation and make time found me saying, “We can do this same exact hike, with the addition of added mileage in three days, not four”.  And so we did.  Ouch!

Even after all the physical pain I suffered, I can say, with no hubris, that I am really proud of myself and my own performance on this trip.  My brother’s in great shape to begin with, and his performance on this trip was never in question.  He let me set the pace nearly the entire time, followed behind.  I applaud his patience.  Other than pushing me to finish on day two, when I really needed it, he allowed me to set the pace and simply followed behind.  We stopped when I needed rest, snacks, water, etc.  He never once complained about time or pace, which, if I may say, was pretty good.  He also put my performance in terms that really helped me to grasp exactly what it was I had done.  Framing the entire trip, he put it this way: day 1) We made great time on our first day covering the 8.2 miles to our first camp, in fact, better time than he thought we’d make: day 2) saw an increased output from 8.2 to 13.2 miles, an increase in activity of around 60%.  Include a more difficult terrain and it’s easy to see how much extra work that is: day 3) had us tacking on the mileage we would have done on day four, cutting an entire day from the trip but hiking the same distance in three days we had planned for four, plus the additional miles from day two.  We hiked some 17.5 miles on our final day.  And that, after summiting Clingman’s Dome and descending over 4,000 feet.  This meant that in roughly forty-eight hours I had more than doubled the energy output of the first day.  So yeah, I feel pretty fucking good about this trip and what I accomplished. 

Of course, I chose to do this, and I knew it would hurt.  I suppose it’s all sort of the process of wherever this journey takes me.  Maybe that’s what made/makes it so bearable.  I believe that those of us obsessed with the outdoors are either running toward or away from something.  Perhaps that is a bit of hubris.  And unless there is pain, some degree of suffering or privation, there is no progress.  Is this true in all cases?  No pain, no gain?  In The Twilight Zone episode “A Nice Place to Visit”, a man dies and goes to heaven.  He was a terrible human: a crook, a gangster, a thug.  And yet, somehow, he ends up in a place where he gets everything he wants, all the time.  Every poker-hand is a winning hand; every roll of the dice is the perfect role; he gets every girl, every time.  His successes take no skill, and obstacles to success are non-existent.    Turns out, this is hell.  How much truer could this be?  How much satisfaction is there in anything that really, really comes easy?  There is, then, at least some truth to the phrase, “no pain, no gain”.  One does not always grow or learn from suffering.  But suffering does, on some level, produce a particular kind of knowledge. 

Get out there, my friends. 

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