Nina Baxley: AT Thru-Hiker

Winter Beauty

December 11, 2000

Even though that first morning would be typical of the four mornings I woke up to in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I could hardly complain about the weather. After a couple of hours of hiking, my hands and toes would thaw out, my boots would soften, and I would eventually be able to tie my shoelaces. Only then would I start enjoying the experience of hiking again.

The Smokies were covered in snow, and the skies were clear nearly every day. The park itself seemed nearly deserted; with the exception of a few section hikers, we southbound thru-hikers seemed to have the entire park to ourselves.

I felt like I was walking through a real winter wonderland. The grand vistas, as well as the sight of snow-covered evergreens, seemed like a reward for suffering the cold each morning. As on Hump Mountain in the Roans, I was awestruck by the co-existence of nature's harshness with its sublime beauty. I was often uncomfortably cold, and hiking through snow was difficult and slow, but at the same time I was seeing some of the most beautiful sights I'd seen on my entire thru-hike.

Because such cold temperatures were expected, I wanted to stick with other hikers throughout the 70 miles I would spend in the Smokies. Ever since my hypothermia experience, I've taken seriously the "safety in numbers" concept when the weather is cold.

For five days, I hiked with Nor'easter and Creen, a couple I had first met back in the Hundred-Mile Wilderness of Maine. I hadn't seen them often on my hike; after passing them in the wilderness, I didn't see them again until Upper Goose Pond Cabin in Massachusetts. I found that it was a real treat to have the ahead of me; in the shelter registers, they write humorous poems accompanied by cartoons, which I always look forward to reading.

Norea' and Creen caught up to me in Tennessee/North Carolina, and I was thrilled at the opportunity to hike with them. Although Norea' wasn't feeling well that week in the Smokies, and Creen hated the cold even more than I did, they stayed in good spirits and they were great moral support for me. I'm afraid I'm a bit of a cold-weather wimp, and I did my share of moping, complaining, and cussing out my stove, tent, pack, and other pieces of gear that wouldn't cooperate when I tried to operate them with my frozen fingers!

I was glad Norea' and Creen were with me because the AT in the Smokies posed the biggest mental challenge of my whole thru-hike. I could deal with the bugs in Maine, the rain in New Hampshire, and the mud in Vermont, but I couldn't deal very well with the cold. I wondered if I would even be able to make it to Springer. As I thought that morning at the Gathering, I didn't WANT to hike all the way to Springer if I had to be that cold!

Springer had never seemed so far away as it did when I was in the Smokies, even though it was only a couple hundred miles down the Appalachian Trail. It's all in the mind. Mentally, I was well over two hundred miles away from my destination because I still had mental challenges to overcome. I needed to learn to tolerate the cold.

It sure helped to get to Nantahala Outdoor Center (NOC) and get some warmer gear! And the warmth of a heated room has done a lot to restore my spirits!

I'm taking a zero day here in order to wait for Not Yet and Macon Tracks, another southbound couple. Again, because the temp could get dangerously low in the next week or two, I've decided to hike with other hikers for the remainder of my trek.

It's hard to believe I'm so close to finishing. I'm going to make it. If I can survive the snow and cold of the Smokies, I can survive these final 134 miles from NOC to Springer. In just a week or so, I'll be standing on Springer Mountain.

Check out Nina's gear list and pack weight.
See the trail dispatch archive for previous weeks.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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