After the past few winters being somewhat mild, this winter season has been just the opposite. So heading south for a warmer climate and good challenging climb sounded like just the spring break 2014 ticket. After completing Assault on Mt. Mitchell last year, and deciding to go back this year with several friends joining me, I knew we needed to climb more in our training than I did a year ago, therefore riding up Hwy 441 from Gatlinburg, TN to the highest point in the Smoky mountains seemed like a “no-brainer.” The plan was to head to the smokies after work on Friday and settle into a mountain cottage in the Village of Cobbly Nob for the weekend. First thing Saturday morning, we would roll out and head southwest about 12 miles into downtown Gatlinburg, then turn east and head toward Cherokee, NC.
The 4 man group consisted of Linn Laborda, Jim Simes, Tim Stout (Renaissance Man), and Kevin Pearl (Masher). We met up at Linn’s cabin near the exit of the village, talked briefly about our route, plans, the weather, and just general catching up on lost time as we have not all ridden together lately (especially Jim being from South Carolina). Linn had driven up the mountain on Friday to Newfound Gap overlook, about 7 miles short of the summit, and warned there was some snow and ice slush still along the road’s edge nearer the top and also that there was some fog which typically means less than pleasant weather. The collective consensus was that none of us cared to ride in a cold rain but the game plan was to ride to the top, then turn around, descend and ride back to the cabins, about a 70-80 mile round trip adventure. Linn’s friend, Dee, not wanting to be bored in a cabin alone all day, agreed to leave about an hour or so after us and offer SAG along the climb and be the photographer at the top. This gesture turned out to be a saving grace (maybe life saving).
The first section into Gatlinburg was fun, mostly flat with a few small climbs and descents, a pretty fast pace at this point. Not a ton of traffic on the roads yet, thankfully, until we made it to the downtown strip where it was already bumper-to-bumper at 10am. The air was somewhat humid but cool with temps in the mid 50s, sky was overcast and mostly cloudy with some spots of sunshine, we passed the Sugarlands visitor center and headed toward the sign that read “Clingman’s Dome 20″ and the climbing began.
In the first couple miles, the group separated a little, and I eventually found myself up front. After having some shin-splints along with nagging knee and back issues this past winter, this would be my first real test on how I’ve recovered from these few injuries, and in the early going I felt fine, finding myself settle into a nice climbing rhythm. About five miles into the climb, the humidity turned to actual moisture. Wetness on my clothes, wet roads, falling in drizzle form at this time. I pulled off on an access road to Chimneys overlook and moments later, Linn pulled in. We ate a quick snack, took in some fluids, and chatted briefly while Jim also caught up. I recall saying “this descent may not be too fun on a slick wet road.” Knowing Tim would climb a little slower than us, but with no quit in him, we headed on, so not to get stiff. The route appeared to be pretty as it winded up the mountain, but by this time it was nearly impossible to get a great view of the scenery because we had pulled into that fog Linn mentioned of, and the drizzle had increased to full on rain, but still it was not slowing us down any. Normally, Jim would have left us out of sight early in the climb, but having dealt with some health issues this winter, he was not in regular form yet, and Linn and I rode off from him again.
Shortly after, Dee in the SAG wagon rolled up to us and stopped ahead. Linn and I both agreed we were feeling good and would continue. She checked on Jim and Tim also, and leapfrogged us by a couple miles. Again, we rolled on, still in fresh form, but the temp seemed to be dropping somewhat as I felt a little chill and could see my breath. And the fog seemed to get thicker and heavier. We decided to pull off briefly the next time we saw her stopped for us and by this time, my legs still felt fine but my lower back was feeling a little sore, maybe from carrying extra weight that I’m not accustomed to as I was wearing a 2 litre hydration pack and had a light jacket and head cover stowed in a pocket on it (also maybe a life saver later on). A brief refuel, and we were back on the road.
The highway included plenty of traffic with us on the climb to the top, but we never had a problem or close call that was uncomfortable. The further up we went, it was clear, the temp was dropping and the weather was changing. We found the patches of snow and ice sludge and had to ride further into the lane in some spots, but still no traffic concerns. As we pulled into the parking lot at Newfound Gap overlook, there were lots of tourists (probably visiting on spring break, like us). This was a pretty cool spot because it was where the Appalachian Trail crossed the highway, and we witnessed a few hikers too. Dee told us that the last time she checked on Tim, he thought he would stop at this point due to the weather. I think at this point we were all a little concerned about how we would get back down because the plan to descend on bikes didn’t seem very safe on these road conditions. So, me and my Marine mentality (accomplish the mission and then figure it out, and the mission at this point was to reach the top), headed back out with Jim and Linn.
Immediately after leaving the overlook, our road turned off to the right with about 7 miles to go to reach Clingman’s Dome, the highest spot in Tennessee, and the second highest elevation east of the Mississippi River in the United States. 95% of the traffic we were sharing the road with continued on toward Cherokee as we continued up. This section felt like the steepest grade thus far on the route and about 3-4 miles up we finally caught a break on the legs as the road flattened out and then tuned down a little. At first it felt good to get some pedaling relief, but then it was clear we had little or no brakes and the bottom fell out of the temperature. After descending nearly a mile or so, scared of running off the side of the mountain, I could barely feel my hands and face at this point. Linn and I came back together shortly after the downhill roll, and we continued to grind again. A few miles later we spotted some caution signs on the road, and around a bend, we pulled into the parking lot at the top. A few minutes later, Jim also showed up and we all looked like hell. It was cold, very cold and windy. I promised them before we started that it would be painful fun, but the view at the top would totally be worth it. That was a lie, the fog was so thick, all we could see was about twenty feet in front of us. It was freezing rain on us and God bless Dee, who was there and took our picture in front of the landmark sign, then turned on Linn’s vehicle with the heat on high and opened the back up so we could stand under the hatch and get a plan to get off this mountain before we became victim to hypothermia.
I pulled out my jacket and hat, threw them on over my rain soaked clothing, and tucked in behind his SUV letting it block the wind and gasping for any heat possible that was blowing out of the vents as my body began to shiver uncontrollably, and all I could think about was we needed to get back down to get Tim out of the weather. Out of nowhere, a cyclist from Cincinnati showed up with his family and they were there to hike the half mile trail around the summit. He spoke to us briefly (probably thinking what dumbasses ride up the mountain in this weather?), then offered to help haul our bikes back down the mountain as he had his bike rack on his car. So we waited on them to return to the parking lot and he loaded Jim’s and my bike up and we headed down to find Tim. Also, by this time, Dee had gotten phone service long enough to get ahold of our wives and ask for assistance getting us and our bikes back to camp. They were graciously on their way. We pulled into the overlook parking lot and were greeted by a kind gentleman known as a “trail angel” (there to aid and assist hikers or anyone in need coming off of the Appalachian Trail) and he told us that he had helped Tim warm up in his truck, then he caught a ride down to the visitor center with a hiker from South Carolina named Phillip. Moments later, our wives showed up and we switched the bikes over to my vehicle and couldn’t thank our gracious Cincy cyclist enough for helping us out.
I think our wives were a little unnerved that we unexpectedly interrupted their spring break relaxation time back at the cottage to drive over an hour away through the ridiculous Gatlinburg traffic to come pick our asses up when we were supposed to be riding back, but when Tim’s wife learned he had taken a ride down the mountain with a complete stranger, they realized we were in serious trouble without their and everyone else’s help. We were so gracious to all that helped us get back to warmth and safety, and a cold beer in the hot tub back at our cabin never tasted and felt so good. Conversation in the jacuzzi informed me of how Tim got tired of waiting on us to rescue him, and set out back on his bike to finish the ride up Clingman’s Dome access road, only to turn back around at the spot where it flattened out (2 miles from the summit) because of his brakes not working and he thought he would be safer to get back down and search for help, or in his words, “lay down in the middle of the road and hope somebody picked him up!” We were very close to having a serious issue. The thermometer on Linn’s dashboard read 40 degrees at the summit, but with the wind chill, and wetness from freezing rain made it feel well below freezing temps. I drove back up to the overlook the next day with my family and the sky was clear, the sun was out, but the upper elevation was now covered with about six inches of fresh snow. That was indication of the storm that we rode into and with a little luck and help from fine folks just paying it forward, we were able to conquer the challenge, even though we had to alter our plans a little. This day, the views were exactly what I had hoped to see on my bike one day prior and it was evident we would have to come back and do it again, when we could witness the heavenly views and enjoy the 20 mile descent back to town. All the guys agree and are excited and looking forward to it. I’m sure there will be others join us next time too.
Though we all agreed before the ride that none of us wanted to ride in a cold rain, we were all glad we did the ride. Just another experience we’ll never forget. And the saying goes on … We don’t ride bikes to add days to our life, we ride bikes to add life to our days!