Winter Storm Helena, Linville Gorge – Pisgah National Forest, NC.
About a week into December, the guys and I decided on our winter hike to the Gorge and set the dates for 6 – 8 of January 2017. We were all looking for a little more lollygagging and a little fewer miles, so we picked a short trek that would give us a little of everything the Gorge has to offer. The chosen route was to start off down Pinch-In on Friday and work our way up the LGT to the base of Conley. We figured we would get into camp early Friday and would have plenty of time to enjoy being down by the river. Saturday we planned to hike up Conley and make our way along Rock Jock to Bean Camp. It is only about three miles total, so we figured there would be plenty of time to explore some of the overlooks or even hike along L.O.S.T. The final day would just be a quick 3 mile hike back to Pinch-In. This of course was all planned long before Winter Storm Helena.
As the date for our hike came closer, it became clear that the temps were going to be a little colder than usual and we had a pretty good chance of snow. We all decided that even if the weather got pretty tough, we would stick it out and see what we could do. Just a few days before the trip, the winter storm was named and the chance of snow turned into the 5 to 8 inches. I would say we all were a little apprehensive at this point. None of us had slept in hammocks colder than 25 degrees and now we were looking at projected temperatures of 6 degrees. Still, we decided that our planned route was pretty safe overall and allowed us pretty easy access back to 105 in the event things went really south on us. Besides, a winter storm is a perfect excuse for all of us to buy new down jackets.
We left Summerville, SC around 3:30 am, hoping to get a decent start on the trail before the weather moved in on us. We rolled into the Pinch-In trail head around 10:00, that stop at the Waffle House may have slowed us down a little. Now keep in mind that it had been upwards to 80 degrees just a few days prior in the lowcountry of South Carolina, so when we got out of the truck and felt 30 degree temperatures with a little wind kicking in the face, I thought to myself “what did we get ourselves into here”. I was instantly cold and didn’t know what was going to warm me up.
It didn’t take long heading down Pinch-In to start feeling warm. The layers of clothes just started coming off as you hike. Pinch-In is an awesome trail and deserves its reputation for being a tough hike. The views you get are really great and worth the effort. After about an hour of hiking we made it down to the river and had a little lunch. Temperatures at this point were still pretty warm, maybe around the upper 30s. It made hiking along the LGT pretty enjoyable.
As usual the LGT was full of rhodo and lot of rocks to scramble over. Hiking along the LGT is probably one of my favorite trails. There is something about being down in the Gorge and next the river that is just awesome. We were about a half mile from camp when the snow started to fall. This spurred us on to get to camp and get things set up. We weren’t exactly sure what the temperatures were going to be and how much snow to expect, so we planned for the worst.
Our camp site was about a tenth of a mile south of Conley Cove, it was pretty large and could support a really big group. This made it easy to find plenty of hanging spots. One thing we have learned about fire wood in the Gorge is that it isn’t readily available near camp sites. We brought a couple folding saws with us and found a patch of dead standing tree limbs a little ways back up the trail. It took a good hour to cut out enough fire wood for the night and morning, but was worth the effort later on. So far things were going pretty much to our original plan. We got to spend a good bit of time down by the river and enjoy a camp fire well into the evening.
That night the snow kept falling. Every couple hours I would wake up and beat the snow off of the tarp from my hammock. I was wishing I had doors on that tarp, as the snow kept blowing in the sides. We ended up meeting the projected snow forecast with 5 -7 inches of snow through the night. Overall, we all slept great and no one reported getting cold during the night. The temperature gauge put us around 20 degrees for the low that night. Each of us had different gear for sleeping. I was using the Jacks-R-Better Greylock 4 with a homemade 20 degree top quilt. Nick was using a homemade 20 degree ¾ underquilt with a foam pad and a Military Sleep System Black Cold Weather sleep bag. Mike was using a 20 degree Underground Quilts full length underquilt with a foam pad and a 20 degree sleeping bag as a top quilt.
We had just enough wood to get a small fire going that morning in the snow, and did a little more lollygagging before starting back on the trail. By the time we hit Conley Cove trail, we all needed to stock up on water. We decided to just filter some river water and not try and find another source in the snow. We each carried around three liters of water up Conley Cove. We had a real difficult time finding the actual trail in all of the snow. We ended up starting off just to the right of the trail for the first couple hundred yards. Thankfully, we had the Avenza app and the maps from this forum to show us our mistake. It didn’t take too long to find the actual trail.
Hiking up Conley Cove in the snow was a real pleasure for the most part. There were a couple areas that made us nervous. The sides drop off steeply and it is hard to find your footing in the snow. We took it slow and steady, and didn’t have any issues by the end of the trail. It took us a lot longer to get up Conley then we expected, and we wanted to get into camp before the real cold set in. At this point the temperatures were around 15 degrees through the day, but we knew colder temps were coming. We decided to hold up at Lost Dog camp site for the night. Hitting Rock Jock was the first time we saw any other foot prints in the snow. We met a real nice guy, whose name escapes me now, that had just eaten a late lunch at Lost Dog. We ended up following his foot prints to get to camp around 3 pm.
There was a lot less lollygagging on the second night, as the temperatures started to drop. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any firewood to be had under all that snow so we planned for a cold night. I don’t think any of us were hungry at this point, we had to push ourselves to eat something. I would say the toughest thing at this point was keeping the water from freezing. There just isn’t a lot you can do about it. We heated the water up a little and put it back in the Nalgene bottles. Keeping them close to the body through the night is the only real option. I normally hike with Smart water bottles, but having the Nalgene in the colder temperatures was a big bonus. My one Smart water bottle didn’t hold up well in the cold at all.
That night brought with it a really strong wind that broke one of Mike’s tarp guy lines. The temperature dropped to a low of 5 degrees on the thermometer. I would be willing to bet that with the wind we hit somewhere south of 0 degrees. Sleeping arrangements were about the same for everybody. I think both Nick and I added the Military Sleep System Green Patrol sleeping bag to our set up to add a little warmth. The wind kept all of us up for the majority of the night. It is hard to sleep when your tarp is going crazy. I would open my eyes every hour or so to see if my tarp was still there.
The final morning was the toughest. The wind had died down, but the temperatures stayed below 10 degrees for a long time. None of us bothered with breakfast or anything that resemble lollygagging. The order of business was to get the gear packed up and get on the trail. The only way to warm up in these kinds of temps is to get moving. We all tried different techniques with our boots that night. We all ended up with frozen boots regardless of the method. I think there was just so much moisture on them that it couldn’t be helped. I ended up just leaving my boots under my hammock and dealt with the blocks of ice in the morning. Mike and Nick tried various methods of sleeping with the boots in the hammock, but didn’t have much better luck.
After breaking camp fairly quickly, we got on the trail. At this point, any notion of hiking along Rock Jock was gone. None of us had been on that trail before and it has a reputation for being exactly what it sounds like, rocky. We didn’t want to tempt fate with all the snow, so we decided to hike along 105 back to the truck. One would think that this would be an easy hike, but it ended up being a lot of uphill with a lot of ice on the road. We did make good time and no one got hurt, which was the most important thing.
Our final challenge back at the truck was getting out of the mountains. We did attempt to drive north back up 105, but having only a 2 wheel drive vehicle made for some challenges. We weren’t able to get out the way we came in, so we headed back to the trail head. We were looking at maybe trying to go south along 105, but we weren’t sure it would be any different. Thankfully, we met jlreevesiv about this time. He was confident that we would be fine heading south and offered to follow us in case anything went wrong. Fortunately, we didn’t have any other issues on the way out and had a great lunch with jlreevesiv before heading home.
WOW, what an exciting trip. There is something about the Gorge that keeps us all coming back for more. This trip may not have been what we first planned, but it ended up being a great adventure.
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