My wife Allison KD9JOK and I planned on traversing the chunk of the Appalachian Trail running from Newfound Gap to Cosby campground in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. This would involve what Adam K6ARK calls Harunking (Ham/Run/Hike). We generally run the flats and downs, hiking the hills. Along the way, we planned to activate five mountains, all around 6,000ft (2,000m). The trail itself runs along the spine of the mountains and doesn’t drop below 5,000ft. Three of the mountains required bushwacks to summit. I (erroneously, it turns out) calculated total distance at ~30mi.
Mount Kephart W4T/SU-006
We met our shuttle at 04:50 in the hiker parking lot at Cosby campground. It was raining, and about 65f. Our driver navigated the rainy, foggy route up to Newfound Gap and dropped us off a few moments earlier than our 06:00 planned start. After finding the AT trailhead we got underway, headlamps lighting the way. On the ridge the temperature was in the low 50s.
The climb from the gap to Kephart was the steepest and longest of the whole day, so it was a long while before we did any running. Eventually we found the trail that lead to the Jumpoff – a popular vista point when the mountain isn’t wrapped in a storm. This trail crosses Mt. Kephart’s summit (follow the signs to the Jumpoff and avoid the detour that we sadly made).
We’d practiced our summit speed-setups so we wasted no time getting on the air once on top. The rain and howling wind added a nice challenge. I’d worried extensively about getting contacts on Mount Kephart due to the hour (it was 07:30 local) and the propagation patterns. I shouldn’t have. I called CQ on 60m once and heard Scotty KG3W call followed by a pileup. We were, by this point, disillusioned, cold, soaked, and wondering what the hell we were doing there. Knowing there were people out there listening was indescribably heartwarming.
Allison got a contact on 2m, her first ever QSO! In some ways, that ended up being one of the major victories of the trip. I wish my first QSO had been from a stormy mountaintop.
I worked the five stations that responded to my first CQ, sent one QRZ? then packed up. I’d noticed my signal reports from the last two stations dropped precipitously. When we started packing up I saw why: the wind had blown over my antenna mast. The fog was so thick, we didn’t notice it despite it being 40’ away.
Total time on the summit including setup and breakdown was 20 minutes, though we were already 30 minutes behind schedule. I didn’t realize it until later, but I didn’t include the distance from the AT to the top of Kephart in my planning. That problem would be compounded over the next miles. I’d neglected to the bushwacks to all the summits in the total mileage and schedule.
Laurel Top W4T/SU-007
Laurel Top was the summit I investigated the least. The AT wraps around its waist, coming close to its summit on the east side. I looked at the map and figured “eh, 100 yards from AT to summit” and thought no more about it. When we arrived on the west side of Laurel Top, it was once again raining earnestly. There appeared to be a workable path to the top, but it was much longer to the top on the west side, so we continued on. Once we made it to the area I’d imagined us ascending on the east, I found the flaw in my plan: the eastern side of the mountain was hardcore thicket and exceptionally steep.
Already, 9 miles in, we dismissed the idea of going back (and down) to the east side. We were just on the verge of continuing on when one of us spotted a game trail heading up. We took this up steep, wet, tangled hillside until my altimeter said we were in the AZ. If you’re reading this looking for information on the summit, don’t go this way.
There was no question of getting a mast up, so we strung the wire as high as we could reach into some bushes and then retreated to the bothy bag. Allison opted for sitting in the rain rather than suffocating in the shelter in short order.
Very likely because of the poor antenna setup, I had trouble getting contacts. After 15 minutes I had only 3. I’d had several stations arrive, send ?? and not hear my response. Meanwhile, Allison got her second contact on 2m. I try to take credit for it on the video but she actually finally said “why don’t you call cq on the HT?” I did, made made a QSO, and the mountain was activated. We packed up and got out in short order.
Back on the trail, it was nearly 11am and we were off our schedule by an hour.
Mount Chapman W4T/SU-004
The span of the AT between Laurel Top and Mount Chapman is incredibly beautiful, often along a very sharp knife edge ridge. I know this because we actually got a few glimpses of the airy views as the clouds broke now and again. I would say this stretch of 6.5mi was the highlight of the day. We left Laurel Top talking about not even trying to bushwack up Mount Chapman, and by the time we got there the lack of rain and few glimpses of sun had changed our minds.
There is a relatively visible manway to the summit of Chapman that leaves the AT where the summit ridge intersects the AT. This was a fun bushwack along the narrow spine of the mountain involving some scrambling and some views over the steep north edge of the ridge.
I worked 20m on Chapman and had a pileup for several minutes. Allison got no responses to her CQs on the calling frequency nor did she appear to be able to reach the repeaters. Mountain Chapman is just about as remote as you can get in SMNP, so maybe that was it? I don’t have much experience judging how far a 5w HT signal reaches, particularly from mountaintops.
After nobody answered my QRZ, we packed up and headed down.
Mount Guyot W4T/SU-002
We descended Chapman in fine spirits helped along, do doubt, by the sunshine. We stopped a couple miles later at Tricorner shelter to fill up our water stores from the spring there. We tested out the new Steripen UV sterilizer and chatted with the people who were stopping for the night at the shelter. I could tell I was getting tired as I found myself envying them their long relaxed evening ahead. On the other hand, I was looking forward to sleeping in a bed.
Mount Guyot is my favorite mountain. I am not sure having a favorite mountain is a sane thing, but there it is. I’d hiked around it several times over the years without ever going to it’s top. When I saw that it was the last 6er in the park never activated, I knew I had to do it. In a freak weather opening back in February, Allison and I did. That story is here. It was my first first activation, and it’s now the first mountain I’ve activated a second time. Going up the side of Guyot, which is like a primordial forest, is magical and otherworldly.
We’d barely started up Guyot when storms once again blew in with torrential rain and wind. It was nearly 16:00 and I expected these were the predicted thunderstorms. By the time we found the cairn marking the spot to begin bushwacking, we’d heard no thunder so we headed up. The rain continued the whole way up, and it was nearly dark under the spruce canopy. The rain let up a bit as we set up and returned as we were activating. I again ran 20m as planned and made 10 contacts. Two of those were S2Ss, both to mountains in Arizona: WA7JTM on Elden Mountain (W7A/AE-017) and K9PM/P on Two Rock Mountain (W7A/YV-015). The Elden to Guyot was 10pter to 10pter which felt kinda grand. Allison was once again not able to make contact with anyone via simplex nor repeater on 2m. When the pileup was gone, we packed up and headed down.
As we descended Guyot, the rain ended and the sun came out. It would not rain on us again for the rest of the trip. On the way down Guyot, we did the math and realized there was no way we were going on to Mount Cammerer. We were nearly 2 hours behind schedule, and we’d covered 21 miles. If we went on to Cammerer, we’d end up with ~36mi and have at least a couple hours coming down in the dark. After the day we’d had, that didn’t sound like much fun.
Instead we opted to take Snake Den Ridge for a leisurely 8 mi stroll off the spine of the mountains. It ended up being somewhat less leisurely than I remembered, and we took our time, not doing a bunch of running anymore. Final stats for the day: 29.8mi in 14:55. Total ascent was about 5.5k feet.
The question I have been pondering since getting home is whether it’s realistic to imagine having actually managed all five activations. I think it would be tough but doable. Our moving pace was 20 minutes per mile, and that was about what I planned for (I actually calculated times based on a 21min/m pace). I think that going into the day budgeting for 36 miles puts you in a different mindset than 30 (and maybe as little as 24). I suspect that if the day had been sunny and mid 50s all day on top instead of going down Snake Den Ridge we’d have toughed it out a few miles to Low Gap. Then it would have been but a mile or so until Cammerer and we’d have probably gone on. Next time we’ll also benefit from knowing how to get to the top of Laurel Top and Chapman. I’m looking forward to giving it a shot again next year.
So many thanks to those who chased us: y’all made the day possible.
My first attempt at SOTA video!