Austin has had quite the amazing adventure so far. Be sure to go to his GoFundMe page and to support him on Instagram, @austinshike. Austin is over a month in and all donations go a long way! This post is more about I am going to let him take this one:
A ton has happened since my last update, so this one is quite long. BUT this isn't even half of it, and I'd say it's worth the read.
I'm currently in Hot Springs, North Carolina, a tiny town right on the edge of the French Broad River. The area is gorgeous, the people are friendly, and beer flows almost as fast as the river.
The interesting thing about Hot Springs is that the AT passes directly through the center of town, where usually I have to hitch hike in a few miles to other towns. So all the locals are privy to our hiker escapades, and I've been running in to fellow hikers I haven't seen since the first day!
But I last left off at Fontana Dam, right before the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a pretty special part of the trail. The Smokies are the first piece of trail which is at crazy high elevations, including the highest point on the trail, Clingman's Dome, at ~6600 ft elevation. Along with elevation, the area is incredibly remote, meaning amazing views, but almost no chance to bail out if things get rough. The Smokies are an area which most hikers both fear, admire, and hold dear to their hearts.
I also learned the hard way that crazy elevation means crazy weather. Our second day in (of about eight days in total) a torrential downpour kept us in a shelter all afternoon. The next morning we awoke to pristine, silent forest, all of which was under two feet of snow. At first we were excited at the revelation of different terrain in a winter wonderland, but quickly we realized that the snow was still falling, everyone was wet, and staying warm was a thing of the past.
This caused us all to take considerably less mileage for a few days, and my feet have never been colder. Nights were spent huddling in a shelter hoping that Papa Smurf would be able to work some magic and start a fire. He usually succeeded and we were able to dry out our wet clothes, and the nights he didn't we would put on hard, frozen clothes the next morning. All in all, it was a trying experience to say the least.
While most were able to make it out of the Smokies unscathed, a few people had to get off trail for good. The fifth day in I arrived at a shelter with the plans of stopping for a quick lunch before pushing on, but the trail decided otherwise. A young mother and her two kids were stuck there waiting out the weather, as well as a shivering woman bundled up in the corner. The mother, Anne Marie, pulled me aside and told me the other woman, whose name I will leave out for her privacy, had been in the shelter all day, refusing to eat or drink due to the fact she was hypothermic. The night before all of her gear had gotten wet, leading to her being unable to get warmth again. Anne Marie had been trying to get in contact with rangers but was unsuccessful so far.
I was lucky. I had cell service at this shelter and I was able to get in touch with the rangers. I gave them all the pertinent information they needed, helped them find our coordinates, and the rangers figured out a solution.
They were sending out a helicopter to save this woman.
So I stayed, acting as a man on the scene, and a few hours later two Blackhawk helicopters swooped in, dropping off members of the Air Force to pick up the hypothermic woman. They wrapped her in a litter, got her vitals, and airlifted her out of the Smokies. All the while helicopters beat a steady rhythm outside the shelter.
It was a chilling experience, realizing that a simple mistake, the wrong campsite, could put someone off trail for good. It wasn't the first time fate had plucked someone from the trail. A close friend of mine fell one night while walking to the bathroom, fracturing his arm and having to go home all the way to Germany. Things like this happen regularly out here, and without warning. It's a humbling experience.
But this update has turned into a real wall of text so I'll cut it off here. My next stop is Erwin, Tennessee in five or six days, and I'll get in touch then!
My high since the last update: Escaping the Smokies and having a lovely, sunny lunchtime siesta on top of Max Patch, pictured here.
My low since the last update: Wondering if my feet would ever get warm again after shivering in my sleeping bag for 45 minutes one night
Happy Trails Everyone!"