This past weekend I headed to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for an overnight trip with a few buddies. We headed out Friday morning to the summit of Mt LeConte via the Alum Cave Trail. We stayed the night on top of LeConte Friday night and then Saturday morning we awoke and enjoyed being in the beautiful mountains before packing up and heading back to the car the same way we came up.
The Alum Cave Trail is the shortest and steepest of the five trails leading to Mt LeConte. The trail head starts out at an elevation of 3,830 ft and at the end of the 5 miles the summit of LeConte sits at 6,593 ft. This is about a 2,763 ft climb in 5 miles. Going up the trail the day before took right at 3 1/2 hours while coming down took a mere 2 hours and 15 minutes.
The temperatures were probably in the high 80’s when we started the hike at the Alum Cave TH and dropped to somewhere around the mid to low 60’s at night. We never really received any rain while hiking, but it was all around us and waiting. We heard lots of thunder on the way up, had views of some occasional dark skies and even a report of some lightening. My friend Patrick and I counted our blessings that the clouds held on to the rain while we were making our way up! Once up we headed to Cliff Tops for a hopeful view of the sunset while listening to the ranger give a very detailed history of the GSMNP. However, the clouds sat in the sky, and the sunset was not to be seen on this night. (On a good note though, the ranger thru-hiked the AT 2 years ago so I was able to pick his brain for about 30 minutes!)
That night I shared the shelter with 10 other people (including the 4 other guys in my group). I was excited about bedtime since I got to use some newly acquired gear, but more on this soon! We had no sign of bears throughout the night, or at least that I was aware of. This was a little bit of a surprise since the ranger actually ran a bear off from the LeConte Lodge twice within about 3 hours. The lodge is only 0.2 miles down the trail from the shelter.
So, like I already said, we awoke the next morning and hiked out via the same trail. This is the 3rd time that I have been up this trail this year, but the first time I went down it. I have a little more respect for the steepness of the trail after going down. I am surprised at this. I guess I was too busy being out of breath going up to really realize the climb, but going down I really had to hold myself back…wow!
After we got back in the truck, we headed to Clingman’s Dome. I had never been up to the summit and since we had a little time we decided to go and hike the whopping 0.5 miles up. I was deceived! Even though the way was completely paved wide enough to easily drive a car up, it was steep! There is 300 ft of elevation gain from the parking lot to the base of the tower atop summit. And of course, there was so much mist and clouds that I couldn’t see a thing! Oh well, at least I have been, and I will be back…
So, after this we drove home, and now I am here writing this. So, now I will get to the gear that I carried. My total pack weight was about 14 pounds for this overnight trip. (A full list of what I carried can be found here. The only thing not on the list was my ground sheet I carried; a piece of 2 mil plastic about 5 x 6.5 ft and around 6 oz.) I am not going to discuss all the gear, but rather some of the new gear I was able to use. So, here we go…
I will start out with my pack. I recently purchased the REI 25 L Trail pack. It held all my supplies (gear, food, water, & fuel, etc…) and even had a little room to spare. I used a 100 oz Camelbak in the hydration pocket and it fit fine. There is a little loop at the top of the bag in which the hook on the Camelbak slides into and it will hold the bladder in place. I did use a piece of blue foam inside and against the back of the pack to provide some sort of structure. The pack carried well with this amount of weight. I did not have sore shoulders at all during any part of the hike. The only complaint I have is that at times it was difficult to drink from my Camelbak. I only filled the bladder with about 40 oz of water, but I think that everything inside the pack was pushing against the bladder and actually pushed the valve against the back wall so that I couldn’t get any water to come out. I will have to work with this issue a little more to figure out how to handle it exactly. However, I am stoked about this bag and plan on carrying it many more times!
My very favorite new piece of gear was the regular size NeoAir. This thing rocked in all possible ways! We arrived in Gatlinburg around 1:00 am Friday morning and spent the night in a hotel. I rolled this thing out on the floor of the hotel room and slept probably better than I would have in the hotel bed! Everything has already been said about this pad, so I will just highlight them again… First off, it is tiny, which allowed me to use the smaller 25L pack to carry everything in. Next, at 13.8 oz it is light enough for me not to notice its weight. And last, but definitely not least, it is comfortable. I have never slept so comfortable in the great outdoors as I did this past Friday night inside the Mt LeConte Shelter. This thing rocks. And just to add, IMO, it feels quite durable, nothing like what I expected by everyone elses evaluations. But hey, this is just my opinion…
I guess that I can’t give all the credit for my awesome night’s sleep to the NeoAir. I have got to hand it to this little pillow, the Exped Air Pillow. It is a great companion to the NeoAir. They are much the same, this pillow packs small so I had plenty of room in my small pack for other things, and at 3.6 oz there is no reason to sacrifice the comfort that this pillow does in fact provide. I carried my R1 Flash Pullover to wear in case it got cold on top of the mountain and then at night I used it to wrap around my pillow. This was a sweet combination. When laying on my back I laid it with the shorter end under my neck, and then when I was getting settled in I turned over on my side and turned the pillow so that the higher end was under my head. With the R1 wrapped around it, it was at a comfortable height as well as just literally comfortable.
The last item I will go into detail about is the REI Ti Ware Long Handle Spoon. This is so simply ideal, it’s hard to wonder why I didn’t get one of these a long time ago. I am a lazy cook. I boil water and then pour it into a bag and let my food warm up and cook. I don’t carry bowls to eat out of because I don’t want to carry the extra weight and even more so I don’t like to clean them after I use them! Instead, I eat out of the (deep) Ziploc bags. So, duh, the long handle spoon. For this trip I carried a bag of Mountain House Chili Mac. I did not repackage it inside a Ziploc so I ate it straight out of the original package. My fingers never once entered the bag! No more food on my fingers. I was a little worried about the spoon bending inside my pack, but it survived without even a threat of becoming malformed. This is simple. This is good.
One of a few other items that I took along which are somewhat new is my Jag Bag silk liner. I actually laid the liner on top of the NeoAir and laid on top of it while I slept. Very nice. I also got to use my solo kitchen set-up again, which consists of the Gram Weenie Pro stove and the Backcountry.com 700 ml Ti cookpot. It worked just as advertised and impressed everyone in the shelter. Including me, so they will both remain close… One other item I took which was actually brand new is the collapsible 32 oz Nalgene cantene. I carried this rather than a Gatorade bottle simply because the cantene packed smaller. (However, the cantene is about 0.5 oz heavier than the Gatorade bottle. Oh well, sometimes size does matter…) Once I got to the shelter I took the empty cantene and filled it with my cook water. This cantene is listed to hold 32 oz, however according to the 32 oz line marker on the cantene, it will probably hold something around 40 oz of water. Another great product.
There are 3 items I carried in which I am testing for Backpackgeartest.org and these reports can be read at their website. I am still in the middle of testing them so all 3 sections of each report has not been submitted quite yet. The items I am testing are:
- Outdoor Research Dune Shirt
- Outdoor Research Graphic Dry Sack (15 Liter)
- LOWA Renegade GTX Mid Boots
So, I am very happy with the way the trip went. The gear treated me well and allowed me to really enjoy the time away from the hustle and bustle of the regular world and to just kick back and relax and enjoy the beautiful mountains.