Winding Stair Gap to Wayah Bald Shelter – 11 miles
Last free pancake and bacon breakfast in Franklin before heading back to the trail. Took the 9am shuttle to Winding Stair Gap and went on. It was snowing when I woke up and did not let up until close to dark. Windy all day also. Hiking in the snow and wind is very slow going. It was all around a very cold day and night. Four guys from the shelter even called a shuttle to pick them up at the Wayah Bald a mile back because they couldn’t take the cold. When I got to the shelter, I got in my sleeping bag and did not leave until morning.
The minute I woke up this morning, it was already snowing and it would not stop snowing all day. After another delicious breakfast – this time with my hiking friends who were able to wake up this morning not hungover – I wanted to head to the trail asap. The snowing started off very mild, but it had already picked up by the time I got on the shuttle at 9 to be taken to the trail and there was a light covering of snow on the ground. It was fine with me at that point since I had not seen any snow like that on the trail yet so I was enjoying it. As the day went on, the harder the snow came down and the more I realized that I could not stop moving without freezing my ass off. I stopped once to get of picture of me in the snow(picture below) and that was it. My most vivid memory of hiking that day was when the wind would change directions and blow the snow directly into my face and I just had to take it. You learn to “Embrace the suck” very quickly out there.
I did not realize it that day, but I have sectioned hiked from Winding Stair Gap to the NOC once before. The big difference was when I sectioned hiked it, it was the middle of summer so the grass was green, there was no precipitation of any kind, and I got a beautiful view on top of the tower on Wayah Bald. When I got there on my thru hike, I had already been hiking in the snow for a few hours and the top of Wayah Bald was completely unrecognizable. I didn’t even stop, I just kept moving to get to the shelter as quickly as I could. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that I had hiked there before.
Once at the shelter, I was happy to find a spot for myself so that I did not have to set up my tent. I got everything I needed out and set up quickly and grabbed a few snacks from my food bag to eat while I was in my sleeping bag. It was so cold that day that even taking the few minutes to cook some ramen wasn’t worth it to get my arms out of my sleeping bag. An 18-year-old there – Beans – had a gallon sized bag completely filled with candy so he was passing that around the shelter because it weighed too much and wanted us to eat the weight away. After maybe 2 or 3 hours, a few of the guys also crammed into the shelter decided that it was way too cold for them, so one of them called Ron from Baltimore Jack’s Hostel to see if he would drive up to Wayah Bald to pick them up. He said that he could do that, but because of bad road conditions he charged them almost $200, but these guys did not hesitate and agreed to that immediately.
This day and night was very much the coldest day/night I had on the Appalachian Trail. Any time I’ve talked to other hikers about this day, they know exactly what day I am referring too. This was when a snow storm went through the Smokies and trapped hikers in Gatlinburg for days because cars could not get back up to Newfound Gap to get them back to the trail. I would get to the Smokies a week later. Thankfully there was no blizzard while I was hiking through there. This is one of those days that I would never want to go through again, but I look back on fondly and remember the people that I spent hours with in the shelter. All of us in our sleeping bags, only getting out to pee when it hurts to hold it in any longer, sharing and passing around our food that did not need to be cooked, and trying to fall asleep at 6pm because we had already been crammed into the shelter for 4 hours.