A Walk in the Smokies: Severe weather alerts don’t deter mountain hikers
By Buzz Trexler | (firstname.lastname@example.org)
It was around 6:30 a.m. that I heard the Midland weather alert radio sound off with its alarm.
Already awake, I bolted out of bed and went down the stairs to try and silence the noise before it awakened Donna.
Before hitting the “snooze” button, I allowed the robotic voice — Arnold Schwarzenegger with a White Pine accent, my wife says — to tell me what I already suspected: Storms will be rolling in soon. What I hadn’t expected was the potential for 60 mph winds and Ping Pong ball-sized hail.
The weather robot needn’t have bothered to alert me: I had been checking http://weather.com several times a day since April 16 — 10 days out, which is about as far in advance as you can get a reliable forecast.
I had only been back in bed for about 10 minutes before it went off again.
By now, I had decided this was Bill Bryson’s revenge.
In the book “A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail,” Bryson and his trailmate, Katz, had hiked nearly 200 miles from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Clingmans Dome. It was there they decided enough was enough with the “Smoky Mountain Rain,” as well as other discomforts, and exited the AT.
And here I was planning to set foot on the trail with my friends, Steven “Griz” Gilreath, Greg “Gypsy” Houchin, for a walk in the Smokies, in the midst of severe weather alerts.
Home of the ‘Mystical White Bear’
While not the highest point in the region, Clingmans Dome is the highest point on Appalachian Trail and the third highest point in the southern Appalachians: Mount Mitchell being the highest and Mount Craig the second highest.
Clingmans Dome rises to 6,643 feet above sea level.
It’s been said that the Cherokee called it “Kuwahi,” or “the mulberry place,” home to some sort of “mystical White Bear.”
Then along came Arnold Henry Guyot, a Swiss geologist so respected in his field that he has three mountains bearing his name: in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, on the North Carolina-Tennessee line in Great Smoky Mountains, and the Colorado Rockies. If that didn’t spread his fame far and wide enough, there are also the Guyot Glacier in southeastern Alaska and the Guyot Crater on the moon.
Let’s face it: that’s impressive.
In her book, “Land of the Horizons,” Elizabeth Skaggs Bowman writes that Guyot, who eventually taught geology at Princeton, “climbed and measured every peak of note from one end of the Appalachians to the other.” Bowman notes that the 19th century Tennessee naturalist S.B. Buckley named the second highest peak in the Smokies Mount Guyot. Then, “Professor Guyot returned the compliment by naming one of the other high peaks ‘Mount Buckley.’ He and Buckley honored some of the their mutual scientific friends in the same way.”
One such friend was Thomas Lanier Clingman, who was sort of a Renaissance man of his time, having served variously as a U.S. senator, mining prospector and Civil War general. Guyot renamed Smoky Dome for his friend, thus Clingmans Dome.
One source maintains it was because of an argument between Clingman and a tarheel professor, Dr. Elisha Mitchell. The story goes that Mitchell said a peak then known as Black Dome (now appropriately named Mount Mitchell) was the highest mountain in the region. Clingman, of course, said it was Smoky Dome, having personally measured the mountain. Guyot settled it: Black Dome, he said, was 39 feet higher than Smoky Dome.
Another source, Allen R. Coggins, writes in “Place Names of the Smokies,” that Clingman had a long-running debate with Mitchell as to who first measured the highest peak in the East. “Mitchell won the debate,” writes Coggins, “but he died in 1857 while on an expedition to re-measure the mountain.”
Bowman is a little more explicit: “His body was found ten days later perfectly preserved in an ice-cold pool of water at the foot of a waterfall.”
Personally, I would have taken Guyot’s measurements. After all, who would argue with the guy who has a moon crater named after him?
As evidence of his ability, Coggins writes, “Even by today’s standards, the elevations he calculated were surprisingly accurate — seldom being 20 feet different from today’s figures.
Heading for shelter
Going north on the Appalachian Trail, we pass over the summit of Mount Love (6,446 feet) and continue down into Collins Gap before ascending to Mount Collins, which was named for Robert Collins, who guided Arnold Henry Guyot in 1859 and helped him measure many of the high peaks. Locals used to call this same peak Mount Kephart, in honor of naturalist Horace Kephart.
We leave the AT at Sugarland Trail, making our way to Mount Collins Shelter, which is about a half-mile west of the Appalachian Trail. The shelter has built-in bunks to accommodate 12 people. On this day, there were 14 already there when we arrived. There’s also a spring and privy, both of which are important luxuries on the trail.
“Is there any room?” I ask no one in particular on the bunks.
“Not really,” a little female voice said.
“Well, I’m not about to throw anyone out,” I said. “But someone needs to make some room.”
Two guys near the end agreeably part the Red Sea of hikers.
Not sure whether it was the cold or what, but I really didn’t have any appetite. I forced some food down. I didn’t cook my mac and cheese right and it tasted terrible. Griz shared some of his chicken and rice while he added some more water to the mac and cheese. I kept shoveling it in slowly.
I shed the wet clothes, put my lightweight long underwear on and crawled into the sleeping bag.
Not sure what was going to get me first: Hypothermia or dehydration.