Sassafras Gap Shelter to Fontana Dam Visitor Center – 22.3 miles
Tried waking up a bit earlier than usual since today was an extra long day to meet up with mom at Fontana Dam. Said bye to dad as he started hiking back to his car and I got started by 7:40am. It was mostly downhill, but parts were so slippery with snow, ice, and/or mud that I couldn’t hike very quickly. On good spots, I tried to half jog to make up for other slow miles. I convinced Grant and Graham to go for 22 miles to stay in the 4-person room my mom already paid for. Took them about 10 minutes to go from maybe to yes. Digs was further ahead so I sent him a text and he replied this morning while he was in town. Ended up crossing a road at the same time as Digs got dropped off from his resupply. All the guys made it before I did. Grant 2 hours before anyone because he ran down the mountain and Graham and Digs 30 minutes to an hour before. My last mile was met with a thunderstorm and hail. Worth it for a shower and a hot meal with mom and the guys. This lodge is nice! Taking a zero tomorrow to avoid the cold day of rain ahead and to do some laundry. Almost time to start the Smokies!
It was a very cold morning – as usual – so I did not get moving as quickly as I had wanted to. I saw Graham leave about 30 minutes before I got started hiking. I didn’t see Grant at all that morning and I thought he was still in his tent sleeping. I found out later that he woke up much earlier and was out hiking before I even woke up. I made sure to send out a text to all of them describing what my mom’s mini van looked like since it seemed like everyone would get there before me. After my dad and I finished our breakfast and packed our packs, we hiked the .1 mile back to the trail and headed our separate ways.
Today was very cold and wet. At some point, I got a response from Digs so all 4 of us would be sharing the room! In between trying to run down the mountain and balancing on a mixture of ice and mud, I called my mom to fill her in on where everyone is and what time I would most likely make it to Fontana Dam. Not long after that, I came to a road crossing with a small parking lot and a picnic table so I took my pack off for a few minutes before heading up the next section called Jacob’s Ladder. As I got started and was about to cross the road, a car stops in the parking lot and I see Digs jumping out. Could not have timed that better even if we had tried. We started up Jacob’s Ladder together and it did not take long for him to pull ahead of me. It. Was. Steep. But we made it and kept on going. About a mile after the end of the Ladder was a shelter where I took a quick 15 minute stop to use the privy and eat a fast lunch while Digs kept hiking on. After that, I did my best to keep moving without stopping except to lean over and get my pack weight off my hips and shoulders for a brief few seconds. At Cable Gap Shelter 8 miles from Fontana Dam, my feet were killing me. I took my pack off and lied down with my feet up the side of the shelter. I stayed like this for a solid 2 minutes before starting the final long and steep descent to Fontana Dam.
I don’t remember much of the hike after that besides my feet just hurting and my mind constantly thinking about the hotel room and my mom and her warm car waiting to pick me up. What I do remember really well is the last mile before reaching the Visitor’s Center. I had service so I called mom and told her I was a mile away. She took Grant to the Fontana Dam Lodge 2 hours earlier and Digs and Graham reached the car 30 minutes earlier. All day, I could see storm clouds rolling in and they finally reached me. It started pouring down rain, there was thunder and lightning, and I was running to get out of it as quickly as I could. 0.2 mile from my moms car, I could feel small pieces of hail hitting the back of my neck. That was the first time I had ever been hailed on without any kind of cover…It would not be my last.
Finally made it and got in the van as quickly as I could. My mom had Gatorade and lots of snacks for all of us. When we got to the Lodge, I took a shower quickly and was able to sit down at the restaurant with my mom and catch up while the guys took their showers. We weren’t able to order anything until all of us were seated so by the time the last of us was clean and at the table, we were ready to order. The food disappeared very quickly. My mom only drove up for the day so after we finished eating, we said goodbye, she started her drive back home, and we quickly fell asleep. I wasn’t planning on taking a zero day the next day, but after my first 20+ mile day and finding out Grant and Graham had already reserved the room for another night, I decided to take a rest day before heading into the Smokies.