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Climbing the "Southern Six Pack" in world record time

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Clingmans Dome Summit

Cody Esbenshade, Travis Esbenshade and Adam Doc Fox on the summit of Clingmans' Dome, the highpoint of Tennessee, along the Appalachian Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a continuing series on Ashland's Adam Fox, a Richland Source employee, who is on a quest to scale the highest peak in each state, dubbed highpointing. Read about UtahOhio/IndianaAlabama/Mississippi/FloridaOregonCaliforniaRhode IslandDelawareKansas/NebraskaWyomingNew MexicoNew YorkWest Virginia, Colorado and Minnesota

It’s pretty much like "Inception;" someone puts an idea in my mind and it guides my actions. This time, ‘twas the two jolly and experienced old timers on Mt. Whitney, talking about the “Southern Six Pack” (SSP) and how you can do all six peaks over a long summer weekend.

Everything except the summer part sounded good to me. Six state highpoints all over one venture without long flights or drives in between. In a sense, dwelling in Ohio is great for highpointing because of its Midwest central location. Driving anywhere east of the Mississippi can be accomplished in a day. The bad thing about living in Ohio is that it is extremely flat. No White Mountains in my back yard to play around on. So all of my climbing and hiking has been learned “on the job,” so to speak.

Logistics, not the climbing, would be the most difficult aspect of this task. My goal was to summit every state highpoint this side of the Mississip' in winter. Why? One, if I’m going to drive 16 hours to Mt. Washington, I sure as shite don’t want to share the peak with some food addict eating ice cream with the AC on full blast in his bumberless dented Oldsmobile. Two, I needed the experience and training that can only come from eastern peaks if they are done in the winter season. Three, the adventure and four, the notoriety. We’re not talking about the Sharks Fin on Meru Peak or anything, yes, I realize, but I’d like some distinction among highpointers.

The most frustrating and hardest things to conquer when winter highpointing is dealing with road closures. Once you’re at the trailhead, bring the weather on. But adding an extra five or 10 miles to your trip by hiking up a closed road is simply not what you signed up for.

So attacking the SSP needed a plan laced with clairvoyant luck. Really just luck. Again, living in Ohio, you have to plan these trips months in advance, so waiting out weather patterns and storms simply isn’t a possibility. Family, work, time, money, blah, blah. So I planned to leave Ohio the day after Christmas, and adjust my route based on what roads were open.

Speed also became a big issue. Since the SSP, even in winter, was going to be a bit of a downgrade in terms of technical ability and skill, I wanted to up the ante a bit and try to complete it as fast as possible.

Naturally, I got on the SummitPost forum and asked about records. Did the same for "Fastest Known Times" and the highpointers page on Facebook. The record for the SSP in winter was nine days. That “expedition” was obviously taking their time. They also had to wait out weather and storms. Or chose to do so.

With all the navigating and logistics, I wanted a climb team. Cody and Travis Esbenshade, my 25-year-old still-in-shape-from-college-soccer twin cousins joined the team and Travis gave us the name, “The Summit Slayers.” You had the driver, the navigator in shotgun and the guy in the back was in charge of food and hydration.

Ohio to Gatlinburg, TN, to Newfound Gap

Believe it or not, the National Park Service had numerous Twitter accounts that they used to update road closures and to distribute information. Guess it’s not surprising to Millennials. [Insert contrived Boomer joke.]

We were following their tweets because we needed 441 to be open or we couldn't get anywhere close to the trailhead. Not too many roads run through the Smokies.

Every other day the Great Smoky National Park tweeted (from @SmokiesRoadNPS) that “US Hwy 441/Newfound Gap Rd from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC is temporarily closed due to snow/ice.” 

As we exited Ohio we kept checking twitter. At London, Kentucky, we had to make the call. If 441 was closed, we couldn’t reach Newfound Gap/trailhead, and there would be no choice but to head towards Kentucky's highpoint and do Tennessee and Clingman's Dome last. (Which also meant that if the road was still closed when we returned, we'd have many more miles to hike to even get to the trailhead and the record might be lost.) 

We almost didn’t get to London due to gas. I borrowed my parents Ford Explorer and couldn’t fill up in Kentucky. Imagine three idiots at a gas pump trying over and over again to slam the pump into the slot. Turns out the old pump nozzles at the non-chain gas station were a slightly different size, and thus wouldn’t push open the release that allowed the nozzle to fit in.

Two miles from London, Twitter informed us that Hwy 441 was open! On to Gatlinburg. (I will spare you the horrors I encountered in that invented city. Buy, buy, buy, nothing that you need while watching five different ways to make taffy. All for eight times the actual and ethic price.) We found fuel in carbs at an average Italian place downtown and headed for Newfound Gap to illegally camp for the night.

Yes, it would have been nice to get a hotel room and start fresh in the morning. But we couldn’t risk the Smokies string-pullers closing Hwy 441 while we slept. We would have to take our chances with a shady camp spot around the Gap. Two minutes from the Gap parking lot a ranger was heading north, back towards Gatlinburg. We were hoping he had just completed his last inspection of the area for the evening.

It was close to midnight when we hopped onto the blacktop of the Gap parking area. Where’s the freakin' snow? It’s only 35 degrees and we’re at 5,000 feet in winter? What the hell?

It was one of the weakest Decembers on record throughout the country, with high temps having melted the previous mountain snowfall from November. Definitely didn’t need my Everest-rated salmon sleeping bag that I used when it was -14° F one night around Mt. Marcy in New York.

We even decided the rain flap wouldn’t be needed. Without any real flat areas to camp, we threw our tent over the stone wall lining the parking lot and camp on the giant pavers that composed a walking path behind it. Best night of stoned sleep I ever got. 

At 3 a.m. it did, in fact, start to rain. I got up. The twins? Cody didn’t even move. Travis sat up for a second and then quickly dove back into his sleeping bag of protection. “Don’t worry, jerks, I got it.” The wind outside of the tent reminded me I was on a mountain, and I needed to have respect. I just yelled and cussed in the rain and climbed back in, learning nothing.

The Climb

I once started a short story with the line, “Beep, beep beep—there’s nothing worse than the sound of an alarm clock in the morning.” But on summit day, nothing could be further from the truth. After changing out of the wet clothes, I eventually did fall asleep and my watch and Cody’s cell phone simultaneously alerted me to the day’s mission at 5 a.m.

On summit day, all the bullcrap is over with. No more dealing with getting off of work, family and pet arrangements, travel, saving money, planning the route, getting new equipment, conditioning, etc., etc. It never ends. But on summit day, it’s just you and the mountain. Your training, wisdom and experience versus (or coinciding with) the mountain. Expect and embrace the suffering and fatigue.

Our bags were only damp but we packed away plenty of wet stuff with our headlamps on in the early morning chill and dew burnoff hours before dawn. There was a bathroom on the lot as well. Those are the little bonuses that help you start your hike off right.

From the Appalachian Trail (AT) intersect at Newfound Gap, it was 7.9 miles to Clingmans Dome, Tennessee's highest point. You can also hike the summit road that's open in summer, that parallels the AT. We started up the AT at 5:22 a.m., Saturday, December 27, 2014.

The trail itself was nothing fantastic in one way or another. Reminded me of the AT in Shenandoah and other places I had hiked on it before. A couple of good views but mostly a slow and steady approach up an established forest ridgeline. Half way up we still couldn’t believe the weather. Rising to the high 30s, sun, no snow on the trail and the ice and slick rocks were not much of a problem. Made it to the summit in 4 hours and 15 minutes, not trying to go too fast or get burned out too quickly.

Remember, with the road closures we would be hiking anywhere from 25 to 50 miles as quick as we could for as long as it took. Pace, but race, as runners say.

For the descent? We hiked the closed summer summit road. I know, so dumb. I was misled by someone online saying that the road offered amazing views and it was worth it for those. Not true. Yes, amazing views, but none better than the AT. And walking 8 miles down a road that looked exactly the same? Torture. And pounding the pavement cus the snow had melted. Uhggg. We were so mad. We were also told there was no water on the trail because of the high ridgeline. So we hauled 3 liters all day. There was water. It wasn't a raging river, and in low temps it may have been harder, but there was water to drink on both routes.

Off to Georgia

We were back in the car at 12:46 p.m., and started heading for Georgia and Brasstown Bald. There wasn’t much talking over the next two and a half hours. The 20-minute wrong turn and body fatigue all killed the team’s morale. I cheated with coffee at a gas station. Half French vanilla, half black. I was ready. And so was Brasstown. 

The summit road was surprisingly open all the way to the Brasstown parking area. We had planned to hike and do a nice 4-6 mile trek, but with so many cars we just couldn’t justify the hike when we could cruise.

In the planning, we found out the hike would have been 1.2 miles, 4 or 6, depending on road access. Again, no snow or winter weather for us. It was so warm they even had the shuttle service open so if you were extra lazy you could still sit atop all the peaches without any real physical exertion. We talked about our hiking philosophy. We came to climb but if the road was open we were going to take it. We planned this two months ago and it was set for winter. That’s all we could do. No shuttles to the top though. And it was a slow walk up—trying to loosen all the tightness after the 16 miles on Clingmans. 

Brasstown Bald, GASummit #2, Brasstown Bald, GA, Southern Six Pack

A half of a mile later we had summited Brasstown. The sun was just setting. Two peaks completed.

Actually a pretty impressive view and expansive range of Georgia beauty considering you didn't feel that high up. We raced back to the car and were starving. Too much traffic to set up camp and make dinner. Plus summit fever had me—must... keep... going.

Close to three hours later, after speeding like Speed Limit Cassidy, the sun had set and we were a couple miles away from Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina. The mountain roads were pulling on the veins under my eyes, stretching them and making the blue more apparent. Why didn't we eat? 

The summit road was open. Might as well bag this peak real quick before the weather changed.

Sassafras Mountain, SCSummit #3, Sassafras Mountain, SC, Southern Six Pack

The top of South Carolina was one of the grossest high points I’ve seen. Fences and towers and electricity and human prints everywhere. And some debris. Even in the dark, a sad sight to see.

We had been going hard, 15 some hours, and had covered three states. It was time to make a decision about sleep (endless PB&Js and other car snacks had been lunch and dinner). Plus, we had a big hike to the highest point east of the Mississippi early the next day in North Carolina. But road closures were again an issue. Just to be sure of everything, we decided to call the ranger at Mt. Mitchell State Park in North Carolina. 

We found out that the Blue Ridge Parkway was open from the east, off of 70 and 80, and we could get into the park that way. The park was, however, closed until 8 a.m. the next day. So we pushed on and then slept for a few hours and were at the entrance to Mt. Mitchell State Park at 7:55 a.m. The drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway didn't make mental sense--how were those mountains so blue! Some roads couldn't have been engineered any better when it comes to views. 

Mt. Mitchell, NCSummit #4, Mt. Mitchell, NC, Southern Six Pack

Alone at the top. Another easy drive up. Summit number four of six had been completed. Two more to go to complete the SSP and we were still on pace to do it in record time.

Time to play with the wild ponies on Mt. Rogers, Virginia

We had been to the top of North Carolina three hours earlier and when we arrived at Grayson Highlands State Park, ‘twas a little after noon.

For the past 30 hours straight, we had been hiking, climbing, driving and living on the road and in the mountains. The weather had allowed for us to simply fly through the trails and mountain highways—no matter the greatness of the view or multitude of hairpin turns—we stayed focused. Two summits left: Mt. Rogers, Virginia, and Black Mountain in Kentucky.

Fatigue was a factor, but we were still overconfident about Mt. Rogers. Again, really nice high 30s weather, only 8 miles of hiking and no snow or ice in the parking lot. This would be a simple stroll, we thought. 

From the lot we took the Rhododendron Trail to the Appalachian Trail, once again. Our pace was slow, uninspired and lethargic. An older man in jeans passed us. Like I said, Cody and Travis were college athletic fit, but the brain synapses were not meeting the muscle requests. 

Every turn we thought we were there. Didn't track our distance. Around the same pine and why wouldn't it end? No talking to each other but thinking how we all hated each other and life and nature was full of it and god existed but only to torture us and finally we saw another hiker and he said we had another couple miles to go.

But no respite. The weather turned foul. 

Just above freezing, raining and blowing hard. No reason for there to be this much wind, ever. If I was wind I'd kill myself for being so pointless. The worst conditions in which to hike. Even the best shells get saturated over time and you sweat from within, adding to the moisture. It soon became a mountain monsoon and my pack cover blew off into oblivion (as shown in the video).

Mt. Rogers, VASummit #5, Mt. Rogers, VA, Southern Six Pack

Deciding to accept mother nature's challenge, we accelerated our pace and completed the last two miles in 45 minutes and graced the summit with our presence.

On the descent, Travis decided to lead us down the wrong trail for some “new scenery” I guess. But seriously, I really did enjoy the wild ponies. Golden matted manes cus don't no one brush these wild mutha******, the dreadlocks are their flags of freedom.

Even though the wild horses of Virginia are skeleton relics like the bison at Yellowstone, it is nice, even in this sort of "safe roaming area" contrived sense, to see wild creatures in the wild. I guess it’s like Monument Valley. Neat to witness a living museum of how things once were.

Wild ponies on Mt Rogers

We got back to the car a little after 3 p.m. and began stripping the layers of soaked from our bodies and backs. The timing for this event was perfect. Because it was a state park, lots of people were around. A car pulled up beside us, and it was full of a bunch of high school girls. And on they stared and laughed at us as we shivered down to our boxers.

The end was in sight—just one peak to go. Still on pace for the world record. 

On route to Kentucky from Virginia, it was awesome to be so far away from chains and big America. The capitalist entities have not penetrated the isolated mountain towns in the U.S. And that was by choice. No money it in. Poor people all around, surviving and living. That’s all. The stuff that happens in Washington and cop killings and fires and all the "important" things we see, doesn’t affect them. Their lives won’t change. Too hard to penetrate that circle. Freedom in that isolation.

With all the thawing that had been happening, the mountain roads were once again open, and we could get pretty close to the top of Kentucky.

To this point, so much of the logistics were handled by technology from the twins and the Millennial mindset. Always on the phones for routes, info, temperatures, forecasts, etc. We never used my paper printouts and hardly touch my atlas. But when reception fades and batteries die, hopefully understanding a paper map won't be a foreign concept. 

Nothing can be done to combat fog. Soooo much fog, especially bad as it was once again night. Five feet of visibility, if that. And the Explorer headlights were pointed too far up by some factory mishap, so even with the fog lights, we were driving blind and could only go five-to-10 miles an hour. At one point, had to get out and check the other side of a cresting hill, on a single-laned, full-of-potholes mountain road created and then destroyed by mining.

Eventually, we parked and did the thick cumulus cloud walk through the mist to the summit marker. From pictures I'd seen, there wasn't much of a view and plenty of human industrial waste litter like Sassafras, but the dark fog shroud allowed us to believe in great views and glory through the pure white illuminated by our headlamps.

We sprinted back to the car and stopped our watches—total time taken to complete the SSP in winter: 36 hours, 52 minutes and 30 seconds. The fastest known time and new world record.   

Video of the climb. 

 

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