Ep. 53 – Stuck in the Mountains During Winter

SHOW #53  February 17, 2015

Intro

This week on Episode 53 Smoky Mountains Radio, News From Around the Mountains, Listener Feedback, and Getting Stuck in the Mountains.   Let’s Go!

Post-Intro

It is Tuesday, February 17, 2015 and this is a special snowed-in episode here at Smoky Mountains Radio Studios.  That’s right, we are going nowhere with the weather the way it is now.  For now we have power.  Let’s hope that holds up!  Anyway, Welcome back to the show.  As, always, I am your host Mike, and I am here to bring my nearly forty years of experience in and around the Smoky Mountains help you have the best possible time on your next trip to the Smokies.   Before we get started, let me wish a very happy birthday to my beautiful wife!  Hope you are having a great day.  In fact, I know you are, because your stuck in the house with me!  Husband and wife stuck in the house for three straight days so far….what could go wrong?  Anyway….

I invite you to check out our website, SMR.com.  There you will find a wealth of information including hikes from all over the Great Smoky Mountains including length, difficulty, and a short description of what you will see and and can expect as you hit the trails.  If you are planning on staying in one of the surrounding towns, you can find information about those as well.  You can contact me directly by emailing me at mike@smokymountansradio.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/smokymountainsradio or on twitter @smokies_radio.  You can also call the listener line at 865-325 9784.  Finally, of course, every one of our shows can be found on the website for you to stream or download. Of course, you can make sure you get episodes the moment they are released by subscribing to the show via iTunes or stitcher.  Leave me a review while you are there.  Those links can also be found on SMR.com.  If you have anything you would like me to cover on the show, please feel free to contact me at any time.  Again, all the ways to reach me are right on the website at SmokyMountainsRadio.com

Let’s get started with News, From Around the Mountains

News From Around the Mountains

  1. The Smokies need you a bunch of others to volunteer for a tree study program they are initiating in the park.  The basic premise is that they want to see how the changing seasons in the park affect the trees and forest as time passes.  You don’t have to get far into the backcountry for this as the places of study are going to be right off main roads.  Obviously it helps to be local for this since you will be going several times at different times into the park.  If you are interested, there will be a meeting in Gatlinburg at Twin Creeks Science and Education Center at 9:30 on February 28.
  2. It’s baaaaacccck!  Winter weather is here in the Smokies as it is just about everywhere else in the country.  Not surprisingly, lots of roads and visitor centers are also closed.  I always tell you to go take a hike.  Maybe not so much today.  Look at pictures.  Read a hiking book instead.  The snow and especially ice have closed mountain roads and business all around the mountains in virtually every direction.  It’s a bad time to come out.  More weather is forecast so be sure to check that out if you are able to get out and about. But for now, the park is officially closed to visitors.  Best to stay out of clean up crews ways for today, and probably the next couple of days.
  3. WATE reports Gatlinburg among the tops in the county for a romantic destination.  We’ve talked before on this show about the huge number of places to get married in town and the surrounding towns.  But added with the attractions, dining, and vacation rentals, this town caters to couples.  Of course, having the backdrop of amazing mountains certainly doesn’t hurt.  In fact, to remember your trip forever as a couple, how about an airbrush tshirt with both your names.  That is, if you can find a tshirt shop in town.
  4. We talked last time about Ober Gatlinburg’s prayer for snow for their winter season.  Well, they certainly got their wish this week, and it has been great for business.  At last check, all the ski and tube slopes were open and added several inches of the white stuff to the man made stuff they had already been churning out.  Obviously, don’t try to drive up Ski Mountain Road to get up there right now or I have to classify you as completely nuts.  Use the tram or wait until the roads improve.
  5. There has been no further information about a man that fell from a 21st story balcony at Harrah’s Casino in Cherokee.  The scene was initially processed as an apparent suicide and seems to remain that same way.  Calls to Harrah’s were not immediately returned.
  6. The Smoky Mountains has a new Superintendent, Mr. Cassuius Cash.  He has scheduled several open houses as a kind-of getting to know you event all around the park.  Several of those have been cancelled due to weather.  He comes to us by way of Boston and Nebraska where he has served a large variety of roles with various parks since his start in 1991.

I’ll put more about this news in the show notes and on SmokyMountainsRadio.com

Listener Feedback

We are going to do just a little bit of listener feedback this week, so let’s dip into the mailbag and see what we’ve got.

Our first question of the day comes from Paul in Louisville, KY.  Paul asks, “You mentioned in your last show that you should fill up your tank before you go into the mountains.  Are there places to fill up close to the park entrances?  Well, thanks for writing in Paul, and the answer is yes.  There are stations basically within a mile to the entrance of the park at just about every entrance to the national park.  There is one right at the edge of Gatlinburg, one before the Greenbrier entrance, one near the Cosby entrance, a few near the Cherokee entrance, a couple in Bryson City, Fontana, and over by Newport.  You don’t have to worry about running out of gas once you get in if you fill up.  You won’t cover that many miles on a single trip, and there are stations quite close.  Sometimes those stations are a little more expensive, but they are available.  And by more expensive, we are only talking about up to a dime more per gallon than other stations in the heart of surrounding towns. So no worries, there are stations everywhere.  Don’t feel like you have to pack gas containers in the car.  It won’t be that bad.  If you do run out, rangers will help you out as best they can, but fill up in any of the towns before you hit the boundary and you will be in good shape.

Greg wrote in and asked a question that many have and I had for several years.  He writes, “what is the best place to get groceries in Gatlinburg?”  This has been a question and problem for many years.  For a long time, there were only small grocery stores and they were priced up to twice the prices you would find at home.  This is still certainly the case to some degree.    In the heart of downtown gatlinburg, you really don’t have many options.  You can get some basic supplies at Walgreens, but for more, you need to head to Food City on 321.  The selection there is decent.  There is another one located in Pigeon Forge just passed traffic light 8 if you are headed from Gatlinburg.  The prices are still pretty high, but you will at least find most of what you need. When we shopped there a couple months back, we ended up paying about 30% more than what we would at home for the exact same items.  There is a pretty high mark-up.  Further down the road you will find a Kroger at traffic light #3 in Pigeon Forge and a Walmart just before you get into Pigeon Forge City Limits.  The Walmart and Kroger have the best prices and selection for sure, but they are also the furthest away from where you are staying, so you have to way the time/cost benefit for you.  Hope that helps you out.

Rick called into fallen trees when going into the mountains.  That is certainly a concern here in the last several months.  He asks, “Is there any way to know when trees down are a danger or if trees are getting ready to fall?”  Thanks to you for writing in Rick.  The easiest way to know about fallen trees is to talk to a ranger either by phone or by stopping at a visitor center or ranger station.  These men and women have the best information from all over the park, so that should be your first stop.  After that, it ends up being similar to what it is like at your home.  If you have had periods of heavy snow or ice, branches get brittle and weighted down from the extra weight and can end up crashing down.  During and after heavy rain, it can also be a problem.  The slopes tend to be steep, so the runoff from water can cause erosion issues and give the slopes less soil to grab onto, and they fall over. The other situation that comes to mind is high winds.  Obviously those can cause havoc with any tree.  Unfortunately, all three of those situations occur pretty frequently in the Smokies, so the propensity will always be there for that to issue.  If you are hiking or walking in the park, just be on the lookout for long overhanging limbs.  Those are the heaviest, so they are the most likely to break.  If you are out during a time of high probability for trees down, don’t park under trees and don’t take breaks under trees.  They are great shade and can shield you from the elements, but if they fall on your then you are going to have a bad day.  Generally though, it is not a constant threat.  During 99% of my hikes, I don’t give the trees a second thought.  But it is good to stay vigilant and be prepared, so good question.  Hope that helps.

Bradley wrote in to tell me that I am crazy.  He was references my show last week where I described why Laurel Falls is the worst trail in the Smokies.  Bradley says, “C’mon man.  I can think of 20 hikes worse than that one in the Smokies.  How about the nature trails or Rainbow Falls?  Laurel Falls is way prettier than Rainbow Falls and much easier.  Well Bradley, I don’t disagree with you about Laurel Falls.  It is a pretty waterfall.  Not my favorite, but it is nice.  I just don’t care for all the junk that goes with it.  I like this comment though, because everybody has their hikes that they like and dislike.  I personally like rainbow falls.  It is a punishing hike, but I think well worth it, especially if you catch the falls at the right time.  But to each their own.  And hey, i’ll be happy to hike Laurel with you any time man.  Thanks for writing in.

Finally, Jack wrote in….not AT Jack, this is Jack from Rhode Island.  He simply said…. “Dude….new episode….today!”   Well, here it is Jack.  Thanks for writing in and for listening to the show!

And that will do it for Listener Feedback

I’ll put more info about this in this week’s show notes and on SMR.com

Stuck in the Mountains

It is winter.  Did you know that?  Okay, yes I am a smart allec.  Sorry about that.  Given that the temps are freezing and precipitation is frozen, I thought it would be a good week to talk about getting stuck in the mountains.  Back in episode 45, we talked about how to go for a hike even when many roads close.  On days like today when entire park is closed, obviously that does not apply, but some great information for you any other time.  But what happens when you are not expecting the weather or conditions higher on the mountain and you are already out in it.  That’s where our discussion goes today.

Perhaps the most common occurrence is when you are sitting in a town around the mountains and there is no snow, no ice, no problem.  You head out on a mountain trail and the higher you go, it starts getting a little more snowy and then a little more.  The ice inevitably hits and you start asking yourself if this was a smart idea.  My family had a situation like this just two years ago.  Me, my dad, and my nephew were headed to the jump-off along the AT at newfound gap.  The further we went, the more we started slipping and sliding. Eventually, I decided to go up and scout the trail a little farther up.  We decided it was not safe to continue, and we headed back down, encouraging others along the way to do the same.  I’ve said it before.  The trail will be there next time.  There is no sense risking it if there is any chance you could get injured, or worse, killed.  That is probably the best course of action given the circumstances.  Had I been alone, I might have continued.  Let me explain that one.

On that hike with my family, we all had proper hiking gear.  Boots, backpacks, supplies, etc.  What we didn’t have was winter climbing gear.  If I had gone by myself, I probably would have carried some.  So what should you carry to make sure a step on the ice is not your last?  There are several choices.  The one that most people are probably the most familiar with, though almost nobody owns, is crampons.  Crampons strap or tie into your boots and give you cleats on the bottom of your boots that grab and hold into the snow and ice.  There are a lot of different types and brands.  They are most often identified by the number of sharp teeth on the bottom.  6 point crampons have six teeth on the bottom.  There are also 10, 12, and even 16 point crampons.  You almost never need a crampon in the Smokies, but they can be helpful on days like today when there is a lot of ice.

There are two problems with crampons.  First, the snow/ice is pretty light here.  It can get deep, but crampons are primarily made for mountaineering:  think Rainier, Everest, or Denali.  If there is not enough snow/ice, they can grab into mud and dirt and get stuck which creates it own problems.  The Smokies are also rocky and root-filled along the trails.  They do not grab rocks/roots and in fact can actually make you slip, so they can create more problems then they solve.  The other problem is that many crampons require a specific type of boot, usually a rigid boot.  These boots are often plastic or at least hard-shelled and not like what we hike in up here.  There are strap on ones for hiking boots, but they are not as common.  Never use crampons with a tennis shoe or hiking shoe.  They will not fit properly.

If you do decide to add crampons to your gear list, get a 6 point crampon and nothing higher than an 8 point.  That will give you all the traction that you need.  But besides crampons, there are other devices that can help you in more moderate conditions that you will often find in the Smokies.  There are straps that go around your shoes or boots with little metal teeth all along the bottom. The most well known are made by Yaktrax, but a ton of companies make them. Basically, the dozens of little teeth bite into each step you take and give you traction.  The best part is you can wear them with just about any footwear you are using for hiking.  I have had these for many years and they have worked like a charm in both snow and ice.  They are easy to get off and on and much cheaper than crampons.  Expect to pay between 25-50 for these.  Expect to pay between 75-200 dollars for crampons.  I have used my Yaktrax on ice going up Mount LeConte in January and February many times without any issue.  Since you don’t have long spikes on the bottom of your feet, walking is much easier in these.  Personally, I don’t use crampons for hiking in the Smokies.  If it is bad enough out to need crampons, that also means that I need to be tied into a rope and hammering pitons in the rock along the way to make sure i’m not going to fall. That is simply not hiking that any novice mountaineer should do.  Unless you have experience with ice travel, its been to turn around if crampons become necessary.

So let’s say that you are in the mountains and the weather deteriorates before your eyes and you are miles from the trailhead.  Now what do you do?  The first thing to remember is not to panic.  We make awful decisions when we panic.  Stop, assess the situation, and decide a course of action.  Your best bet is to go down.  Get to the lowest elevation you can and as close to a trailhead as you can.  If you get stuck, rescue will be easier the closer you are to help.  The weather in the lower elevations will be better, so getting down is always the best bet.  This may not always be possible.  I have been in two white-out situations over the years in the Smokies.  It got to the point where I could not see more than a couple feet in front of me.  In this case, hiking higher or lower could be a bad idea.  You could end up lost, off trail, or worse take a fall right off the edge of the mountain.  It could end up more minor but still serious, like taking a fall over an obstacle you didn’t see and end up breaking a bone.  No bueno!   If this happens, your best bet is to stay where you are.  Set up an emergency camp and get out of the elements as best you can and wait for conditions to improve.

So what do you need to have on you?  We have discussed how to properly layer clothing in a previous episode as well as what to carry in your pack for day and overnight hikes.  Check those out if you haven’t already.  But for sure, if the weather might turn dangerous, have things like a lighter or waterproof matches, an emergency blanket…even the aluminum foil types work well.  You wouldn’t think so given how cheap and flimsy they are, but they work in a pinch.  Also carry something you can use as a shelter in an emergency.  Even if it is just a tarp.  You can set up some tarp shelters now with nothing more than your trekking poles.  It will do enough to at least get the wind, snow, and ice off of you.

As much as I rail against cell phones in the park, it is good to have just in case something happens and you need to call out.  FYI, in places where service is spotty, you can often get a text to go through even when your call won’t.  Just a little tip for you there.  I like to carry my stove when I hike in winter, even if i’m not overnighting, just in case.  it good to have a way to cook and even start a fire in a pinch.  Headlamps are a must in winter.  They can give you better visibility and even help you to signal for help in the case of an emergency.  I don’t leave home without one.  Another thing that tends to happen in snow/ice is that your feet end up getting wet by kicking up all that moisture into the boot.  Having an extra pair of socks can not only help you stay more comfortable, but keep hypothermia away as well.  But nothing beats simple common sense.  If it looks bad, don’t go.  Hiking into dangerous weather and terrain is not an adventure, it is a disaster waiting to happen.  But be prepared for the weather to change this time of year even if it is nice when you leave.  You never know out here.  I would much rather carry extra stuff on my back that I don’t need up and down a mountain than to not have it if a situation arises.  Just a few tips to help keep you safe on your next winter journey to the Smokies.

I’ll put more info about this in our show notes and on Smoky Mountains radio.com

POST:

Well, it’s about time for me to end this episode and get back to looking out the window and waiting for things to melt.  It was good be with you all again my friends.  I look forward to bringing you the next episode that will feature the return of our Spotlight Hike of the Week.  The weather is bad, the park is closed, and the roads are not passible.  So until next time…..hmm….don’t take a hike…..go…sit on the couch!

SmokyMountainsRadio.com

mike@smokymountainsradio.com

Facebook.com/smokymountainsradio

@smokies_radio on twitter

865-325-9784

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