Friday, March 8, 2013

Trip Report

Each night on the trail, in spite of wanting to pass out right when we got in the tent, we recorded a daily journal.  Our full trip report is below.  We also took lots of pictures on the trail, so when we get back to Cincinnati, we will post a slideshow!

Foothills Trail Day 1:  Oconee State Park - Chatooga River
Today's Miles:  11.3

This morning we awoke in the cozy Mountain Inn & Suites to a complimentary hot breakfast & plenty of coffee... don't get used to this!  We got in the car & headed 30 miles south to Table Rock State Park, where we met up with our shuttle driver, Don Murray of Foothills Fun.  After paying for parking & filling out a sheet with our end date (so the rangers will know what day to start looking for our bodies) we left the Yaris behind & set out in Don's car for the southern terminus of the FHT, Oconee State Park.  (By the way, Don is a very friendly & interesting guy.  Look him up if you're ever in the area)

We got our picture taken at the trailhead while we were still fresh & clean (ok, Heidi already smelled bad but I'm not supposed to mention that in the blog) and then set off on the trail.  Finally, after 2 months of planning & training, we were on the trail!

It was a gorgeous day, sunny & in the 40's.  The trail was pretty easy on the first day, and we planned to hike 11 miles to sort of ease into things.  We passed through several stands of massive pines.  They were a beauty to behold and walking on the soft bed of pine needles beneath them was a joy.  We did glimpse some nice views of the South Carolina Piedmont through the trees, but we haven't yet hit any of the high mountain vistas the trail has to offer further north.

After about 8.5 miles, in the valley below us we could hear the Chatooga River, our destination for the evening.  We hiked the ridge above the river for a couple miles before the trail descended to follow along its banks.  The Chatooga truly is a rugged, wild river with booming rapids and deep green pools.  It's easy to see why Burt Reynolds was willing to brave some scary mountain folk to experience all the river had to offer.

Around mile 11, we found a nice little campsite along the river which we are calling home for the night.  Between the setting sun, a steady breeze coming off the river, and the fact that we had stopped moving, it quickly grew quite cold.  However, after a delicious Mountain House meal & a roaring campfire, we're both feeling much better!  The forecast tomorrow looks promising & we're hoping to tackle around 15 miles.

Well, that's it for now.  Have a good ni... wait, are those banjos?!?!

Foothills Trail Day 2:  Chatooga River - Round Mountain
Today's Miles:  15  Total Miles:  26.3

Today when we woke up it was COLD.  We got up around 7:00 am, but were pretty slow cooking breakfast & packing up because of the cold, so we weren't on the trail until 8:45.  Despite the temperature, it was clear out and the sun was starting to peek through the trees on the ridge, promising a warmer day ahead.

We followed the Chatooga River for the first few miles of our hike, which offered several views of spectacular rapids & waterfalls.  If it was July, we probably would have spent the whole day swimming, but in March, not so much!

After leaving the river, we had our first big climb of the trip to the top of 3,100 ft. Medlin Mountain.  We stopped at the top for lunch, taking in the views of the South Carolina Piedmont through the trees & soaking up the midday sun.

After lunch, we headed down the mountain to join the South Fork of the Chatooga River.  This branch was smaller, but every bit as scenic as the stretch we had traveled earlier in the day.  From here, we tackled our final climb of the day to the top for Round Mountain.  We were rewarded at the top with our first views of Lake Jocassee, which we'll see quite a few times over the coming days.

Thanks to our late start and the gorgeous weather that encouraged lots of breaks & photo opportunities, it was nearly dark by the time we reached our campsite.  We had just enough light to set up the tent, and we've just enjoyed some gourmet freeze-dried meals.  Now it's time for some rummy, then off to bed to rest up for another day of hiking.  We're both still feeling good, but have definitely got some sore feet after two long days of hiking, and the forecast for tomorrow is calling for rain.  Hopefully we'll still be married & on speaking terms when I write my journal entry tomorrow night!

Foothills Trail Day 3:  Round Mountain - Bear Gap
Today's Miles:  16.3  Total Miles:  42.6

We awoke this morning at 6:30 am to overcast skies, but no rain.  However, as we ate our breakfast, we began to hear the pitter patter of rain drops on the tent.  Fortunately, the night before we had set up a tarp outside, so we were able to pack our bags & put the tent away without everything getting soaked.  Shortly after we started our hike, the rain died off, leaving overcast skies and occasional bouts of fog or a light drizzle throughout the day.

I had thought that on a rainy day like today we would have put our heads down and powered through the hike as quickly as possible.  I wasn't, however, taking into account some of the spectacular scenery we would encounter throughout the day.  We crossed several rivers & large streams, the most impressive of which was the Whitewater river.  About 300 feet above the trail, a massive  waterfall gushed down the mountainside, followed by a series of huge rapids which roared under the bridge we would crosse.

Around 4:30, we crossed the Horsepasture River, our final river crossing of the day.  With 2.5 miles still to go to camp, we didn't have time to stop and fully take it in.  But what sped us up even more than the impending darkness was the fact that it had started to rain... hard.  We had gotten off pretty easy so far, but Mother Nature saw fit to dump a few million gallons of rain on us for our final hour of the day.

After crossing the Horsepasture River and climbing the world's steepest hill in the world's heaviest downpour, Heidi and I turned a corner and were startled to see a fellow hiker perched under a rock with a small fire going.  Wait, was I having deja vu?  Could it really be him again?  Yes, coincidence of all coincidences, it was Chuck Norris!  (You may recall from my Superior Hiking Trail journal that I had a similar encounter with Chuck in a rain storm in Minnesota last year)

We asked him how he was doing, but he just shook his head.  This, he said, was worse than the jungles of Vietnam.  Worse than a flash flood in a Texas desert.  Worse, even, than the Superior Hiking Trail in May of 2012!  He told us he had called in a chopper, which was on it's way to rescue him, and asked if we wanted to come along.  Before I could utter a word (yeah, I was going to take him up on the offer), Heidi told him to quit being such a baby, tossed him a bottle of Mydol and continued up the trail.  All I could do was follow her while chuck looked on with a sympathetic nod.

After our strange encounter with Chuck Norris, we finally arrived at our campsite, soaked & tired.  Somehow we managed to get the tent set up without getting it drenched, and our sleeping bags were mostly dry so we should be ok tonight.  Tomorrow, when we have to put back on our sopping we clothes in the freezing cold of morning?  Well, that's another story for another  day!

Heidi's Account of the Rain Storm

Just keeping hiking, h-i-k-i-n-n-g, climbing, c-l-i-m-b-i-n-g...

When I was a little girl my mom would say "you swim just like a fish" after my swim meets.  Today, I felt like part fish, part billy goat as I hiked 2.5 miles up a mountain in the pouring rain.  After losing count after the 6th flight of "ladder steps" dispersed between scrambling uphill, I felt like Alpine Drive in Cincinnati was just a bunny hill.  I began looking for encouragement along the path.  It was just like when coach Keith would put a smiley face in chalk on our run.  I found a yellow flower, then two white flowers, then a Hello Kitty Band-aid on the ground (okay, gross, yes I know, but you get encouragement from what you can).  Then I began imagining coach Anna running by my side telling me a story to distract me from the cold rain.  Next, coach Gina, at the next flight of stairs, said "I'm going to be meaner this season.  Keep going Heidi!"  Ass water soaked through my rain gear, my legs started to cramp & chills began, coach Molly was right there pushing me forward, just like over the Purple People Bridge, saying "You've got to catch the person right ahead of you!"  (Okay, no one was in front of me other than Matt, so just keeping up with him was incentive).

Thank you Team in Training coaches for all the encouragement you give me during the long runs.  It sticks with me and keeps me going even on this trip!

Foothills Trail Day 4:  Bear Gap - A Ridge over the Laurel Fork Valley
Today's Miles:  16.5   Total Miles:  59.1

This morning, the alarm on Heidi's watch went off at 5:30am.  Rather than feeling depressed about how early it was, we were actually pretty excited because at some point during the night it had stopped raining.  We packed up our wet (well, now frozen if you want to get technical) gear and hit the trail for a long day of hiking.

For the past two days, Heidi and I hadn't seen a single other person on the trail.  That changed when we saw  a couple fellow backpackers breaking camp about 2 miles into our hike.  They were heading south, so we compared notes about what each of us had to look forward to in the next few miles and then headed our separate ways.

After about 4 miles, we arrived at the shore of Lake Jocassee.  There was a break in the woods, so we took the opportunity to rest and let our rain gear dry out in the sun.  Back on the trail, we crossed over the scenic Toxaway River on a massive, wooden suspension bridge and then climbed a hill named Heartbreak Ridge.  This section of "trail" consisted of a series of insane wooden, rock, root and dirt steps up the side of a nearly vertical, 400 foot hillside.  Basically, Heartbreak Ridge at Alpine Drive for breakfast, Mt. Airy's Stone Steps for lunch, and Louisville's Lovin' the Hills' Scott's Gap for dinner... and then chewed us up for desert!

Now fully warmed up from this climb, we fell into a steady rhythm.  The trail passed some more scenic lakeside views, the stunning Laurel Fork Falls, and the small but still breathtaking Virginia Hawkins Falls.  At Virginia Hawkins, we still had 2 miles to go to get to camp.  With the miles starting to take their toll on Heidi, I pushed ahead so that I could set up the tent & get water while she took her time on the final miles of the day.  When I arrived at our planned campsite, I was greeted by the sight of a half-dozen large blue tents and a group of college kids gathered around a campfire.  The two hikers we had met earlier in the day mentioned a group of 15 NC State students on a spring break hiking trip heading north as well, and apparently we had caught up with them.  Not wanting to hike any further in search of a different campsite, and intrigued by the though of some company for the evening, I introduced myself and picked out a spot.  Just as I had finished setting up the tent, Heidi rolled into camp... she handled those last 2 miles (which were uphill, of course) like a champ!

After settling in & enjoying our final dinner together on the trail, we joined the college kids at their roaring campfire.  Heidi and I hadn't had the energy or time to collect wood & make a fire since our first night, so it was great to enjoy a fire & they were a really neat group of kids to hang out with... made us miss our college days!

Now, it's off to bed to rest up for our final day, 17.1 miles and our biggest climb yet!  But the care & then a hot meal and a hotel await... woo-hoo!!!

Foothills Trail Day 5:  Ridge over the Laurel Fork Valley - Table Rock State Park
Today's Miles:  17.1   Total Miles:  76.2!

We awoke to another cold, but clear morning on the Foothills Trail.  After eating breakfast & breaking camp, we gathered much of our extra food (we had brought enough food for 6 days just in case) and gave it to the college kids, as we didn't think we would need it and wanted our packs to be as light as possible for the next 17 miles.  After bidding farewell to the students, we hit the trail.  While we both had some sore spots from the previous four days of hiking, overall we were feeling pretty good, the weather was great, and our spirits were high.

After a few miles of steady downhill hiking, we hit the bottom of what would be our biggest climb of the hike, to the top of Sassafras Mountain.  At 3,567 feet, Sassafras is the highest point in the state of South Carolina.  The steady, 4.5 mile climb to the top definitely took it's toll on us, but we were rewarded with the best views we had yet seen on the trail.  About a mile after the top of Sassafras, we stopped for lunch at John Cantrell's home site, which was an interesting area with the remains of an old settler's home.  A very thoughtful and creative hiker had constructed several Adirondack-style chairs at this sight, which made the perfect place for lunch.  Shortly before we had stopped, Heidi had mentioned a pretty bad pain in her right knee.  I reassured her that it was normal to feel some aches & pains after this many miles, and hoped that after resting for lunch (and popping some Ibuprofen!) she would feel better.

After lunch, we continued the descend down Sassafras.  About a half-hour into this section of the hike, I could see that Heidi was in a lot of pain, and her pace had slowed down drastically.  Her right knee was giving her a lot of pain, and the downhill terrain was really hard on it.  We continued on for a bit, but soon began to question whether or not we would be able to make it.  We stopped to look at the guidebook, and it mentioned "Emory Gap Road" about a mile from where we were, and 6.5 miles from the end of the trail.  With Heidi really struggling, we developed a plan.  We would hike to this road, I would leave Heidi there, drop a lot of the weight in my pack, hike the remaining 6.5 miles to the car and then come pick her up.  While Heidi was really disappointed with the thought of not finished, 70 miles was an impressive total and it was the smart choice to make.

After taking Heidi's pack (against her wishes, of course) we continued on toward the road.  After about an hour and a half, we still hadn't hit the road.  Yes, we had been hiking slowly, but I really would have thought we would have hit it by then and started to question whether or not I knew exactly where we were at.  We stopped by a stream, and debated whether we should just stop for the afternoon and camp, or keep pushing forward.  While we had given away most of our extra food, we still had an extra dinner and some granola bars that could have gotten us through the night and the next day.  At this point, since we still hadn't hit the road, we assumed we had about 7 miles to go before the end of the trail.  Heidi's knee was feeling doing better since she had been able to stretch and I had taken her pack, but there was no way we were going to cover this distance today.

I took out the guidebook and poured over it to see if we really were where I thought we were.  Finally, I found a description of the stream we were sitting by.  Apparently, Emory Gap Road had been nothing more than an old logging road we had crossed over a mile and a half back, and we were in fact only 5 miles from the end of the trail.  The good news was that we were closer to the end than we had thought, the bad news was that Heidi was going to half to finish the hike (whether today or tomorrow) one way or another because there was not other road crossing between here and the end.  Heidi, of course, took this as all good news, and we decided to go for it!

After taking some of Heidi's stuff and putting it in my pack, and getting our headlamps out and ready since we knew we would be spending at least some time hiking in the dark, we got underway again at about 4:30. For the first mile from this point, we had a steep hike to the top of Pinnacle Mountain.  Fortunately, the uphill hiking was not as hard on Heidi's knee so we made decent progress.  There were several exposed rock ledges on Pinnacle which provided perhaps the most breathtaking views of the entire trip.

At the top of Pinnacle, it was a steep, 4 mile descent to the car.  We were moving slowly, but steadily.  Seeing how bad Heidi's knee hurt on the downhill, I again took her pack, and our progress improved.  With about 2 miles to go, it had finally gotten dark enough that we needed our headlamp.  Fortunately, Heidi and I have both done a lot of trail-running in our headlamps over the past few months thanks to the short winter days, so we weren't too worried about hiking in the dark, although we made sure to keep an extra eye out for the white blazes that marked the trail.  With a mile left, the trail finally started to level out to a more gentle descent, and Heidi took her pack back.  Just before 8:00pm, we crossed a bridge over Carrick Creek which we knew was only 0.2 miles from the car.

After 5 days and 76.2 miles, we had made it!  We plopped our packs in the car, and I groggily drove north back to Flat Rock, where we enjoyed a massive dinner at Waffle House and then crashed at the Mountain Inn & Suites where we had stayed before our hike.

We had encountered steep climbs and jarring descents, hand-numbing cold and pouring rain, and sore feet and knees, but we did it!  The Foothills Trail offered incredible mountain vistas, breathtaking mountain rivers and waterfalls, and plenty of challenges.  It was an amazing experience, made even more amazing by the fact that Heidi and I were able to share it together.  And, to top everything off, thanks to several generous supporters, we were able to raise almost $600 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through our hike!

What's next for Matt & Heidi in Motion?  Well, let our blisters heal and our knees loosen up, and then we'll talk!


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