Fontana Dam / AT Trailrun

The Wanderer... into The Unknown

Kungfu brother Jarrad & I almost met our makers yesterday. Scary shit along the AT. It was his turn to find a trail for our typical Sunday run and he found some whacked-out place at the end of “The Dragon” just past the NC/TN line, near the Fontana Dam.

The planned run was basically a couple offshoots of a section of the AT that looked promising. The drive took us forever, but about 1:30 we finally pulled up to the trailhead and set out for a 12 miler!
He’d broken the run plan into 3 legs: a 5.8 beginning, then a 2.7 mile sprint, and ending with a 3.7 stretch. We didn’t know what was uphill or downhill, just the connectors and how they eventually formed a big loop back to our starting point. 
Halfway through the first leg, Jarrad and his surgically repaired ACL slipped on a wet rock and took an ugly spill into one of the 5 big streams we had to figure our way across. The sky had been spitting little flurries all day, but around the time of his slip, the weather opened up a bit and it really started snowing, billowing a flurry of fat snowflakes down that continued throughout the entire 2nd half of the trailrun. The harsher weather rolled in and began covering any sign of trail we had to go on. For me, that’s when the first real pangs of panic started to creep in. We couldn’t turn back because that would mean trying to cross the wide streams again and, on paper, it would be a slightly shorter trip back to the car if we pushed onward. 
So we just kept on moving upward,  our legs pumping, arms working like pistons and not looking back. I tried to push the thought of how cold and uncomfortable Jarrad must have been out of my mind. Along with soaking about 75% of his body from his river slip, he’d also slammed into a rock and bruised his right hip pretty bad. He was a true warrior, never stopping, grinding it out up into the mountain unknown. 

More snow. Shadow games. We saw a black bear in a tree, and a pack of wild boars running for cover. Daylight slowly faded.
The second 2.7 part was insanely uphill and took forever and by then it was starting to get late –and dark! More snow continued to fall. It was a nightmare of constant self-doubt, wondering if we were on the right trail or were just wandering deeper into the Smokeys. At times Jarrad seemed to lag behind further and further, and then at other stretches he’d be right behind or beside me. I tried to stay ahead of him so at least it wouldn’t give him the idea of giving up and falling asleep -or maybe because I didn’t trust myself being the 2nd runner. We were together, but totally separate and alone. The most important thing was to keep moving.

The uphill and snow made it so we had to snowshoe it up, with our feet pitched at crazy obtuse angles.

I realized that we were already far past a reasonable time of getting home and I tried to push the images of a freaking out Alayne and a crying, fatherless Holland out of my head. I wondered if Alayne was paying attention when I’d told where we were heading, and if that information was enough to do any good if something (like this) happened. I thought about my life insurance policy and found some relief knowing my family’d be taken care of financially –but then I thought that maybe there was a clause that forfeited the payout if I died doing something so stupid and careless.

The snow kept coming and the uphill climb was ever-steepening and seemingly never-ending… Jarrad was a gray blur slowly trudging along down below. We would call out to each other and make sure we were in audible distance. Darker still.
We eventually reached the top of the mind & body crushing 2.7 and saw the trail to next (and final) leg. It was a HUGE relief, but then at one point somewhere around the beginning of the final 3.7 leg, the trail split, going both left and right. There were no markers and dim tracks headed in both directions. This wasn’t part of the plan. Darker still… more snow. Left or right? Left or right? He had to make a decision quick. We choose right, probably because it was looked more downhill and the uphill in the snow was becoming impossible for both of us. So, for the remainder we ran/walked in constant doubt. This was the final challenge that would have ended us. Hypothermia was close and we ran with our near-frostbitten hands inside our shirts against our warm bodies, but tripping on the snow-covered rocks and roots was a constant hindrance. A couple times we saw the lights of what we hoped was the dam far below, but then the trail would turn away from them and more doubt would take over. 

near the end, mind & body near breakdown

Jarrad still managed to take pictures throughout the death run and got a shot of me hanging onto a trail sign at the top of the summit 2.5 miler and I all I was thinking was HOLY SHIT, I HAVE TO RUN ANOTHER 5K (.6 more than actually!) –It was so dark and the snow was blustering at that high point.
We started to freeze. Our bodies had stopped pumping enough adrenalin through our bodies to keep us warm. Snow blindness had started to set in and we were both starting to see things that didn’t exist. Lesser men would have stopped long ago, but our kungfu training and strong desire to succeed kept us moving.
When we popped out of the black woods and saw my car sitting there we were beyond ecstatic. We hugged each other for a long time before finding my hidden keys and getting inside. Saying the experience was crazy is a ridiculous understatement. We had been gone for over 7 hours and needless to say, Alayne had already called 911 and Swainee County had started to put together a search & rescue team. But with so many different trails to run on and link onto in and around that area, I don’t think we would’ve been found in time. Death was certainly hiding in the trees, around our feet, and was a constant within the dark corners our minds.

This entry was posted in faith, hiking, lost in the woods!, snow trailrunning, the Appalachian Trail, the individual, trailrunning, training. Bookmark the permalink.

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