This past spring break, an Outing Club trip to the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina faced a freak snowstorm and a series of unfortunate events. The trip consisted of co-leaders Zack Katz ’19 and Margot Robinson ’19, alongside Matt Stoner ’20, Anna Dolde ’18, Malia Becker ’20, Noah Steiglitz ’18, Michael Murphy ’19 and Adam Rogowski ’19. The group picked up the gear early in the morning on March 12 and drove 10 hours to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they planned to spend the first night of the trip. After arriving at the campsite and setting up their tents, they discovered the first two gaffes of the trip: their tents were moldy and their stove was nowhere in sight. “Whoever had used the Outing Club gear before us had been a little negligent and put away their tents when they were wet, so they were all moldy,” Katz explained. As for the missing stove, he recalled, “We had some nice burritos planned for that night and were going to get the stove when we realized it wasn’t there. We think that since there were so many Outing Club trips leaving at the same time, somebody got mixed up and took our stuff.” Despite the mishaps, the group enjoyed their first night of sitting around a campfire and eating chocolate-chip cookies.
The next morning, the group picked up a new stove from REI and headed to the Smoky Mountains on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. The plan was to complete a 32-mile, five-day hike along the Appalachian trail. They had enjoyed a successful first day, hiking three miles and setting up their tents for the night, when they realized that they had no tarps to protect their tents, even though it was supposed to rain that night. “We were brainstorming how to keep dry when this inevitable downpour came during the night, but luckily a group camping nearby lent us a tarp for one of our tents,” Katz said. “And we had to hope that the other tent would stay dry as well.”
When they woke up in the morning, both tents were luckily dry, but the rain had turned to snow overnight. “When they did this trip last year, it was in the 70s,” Katz noted. The agenda for that day involved a ten-mile hike and a 3,000-foot gain in elevation. At first the precipitation was light, but as the day wore on, the snow got heavier and deeper. “We got more tired, it got colder, and it got miserable, hiking through tons and tons of snow,” said Katz. “When we got to our shelter for that night, it was on top of a ridge that was completely exposed to the elements, with wind ripping through, and it was freezing cold.”
That night during dinner, they devised a system to keep as many people warm at a given time as possible. “We set up a tent under the shelter, turned the table sideways as a windbreaker, and put four people inside a tent to cook dinner, so they could pass pieces into the tent,” Katz said. “Meanwhile, we realized that there’s no way to pitch a tent outside without freezing, so we decided to have one tent with both tarps and we shoved all eight people in this four-person tent.”
That evening, another group of hikers walked by and told the Macalester group that they were evacuating. “We were like, ‘Wow, you can do that?’” Katz recalled. “So the idea was planted.” They woke up the next morning to frozen gear and extreme cold, and decided to take a vote: would they stay on the mountain or would they evacuate? The vote was 5-3 in favor of leaving, the first-aid responders on the trip, Robinson and Murphy, ultimately deciding that it was unsafe to remain on the mountain.
The group was three miles from the nearest pick-up location and needed to find a shuttle service. “We ended up finding out that the snowstorm was so bad that most of the roads were not driveable, so there was no place to get rescued at this near place,” Katz explained. There was a parking lot ten miles away where they could be picked up, but they could not be certain that it was accessible, so they decided to hike to a shelter that was halfway.
Upon reaching the shelter, they ate lunch and then Katz and Robinson headed to the road three miles away, where they could take a shuttle to the Macalester van and bring the van to bring back everyone else. The shuttle driver was a middle-aged woman in a Subaru and a self-proclaimed daredevil, who drove down the icy mountain at speeds that Katz said “would make my mother faint if she knew.”
As Robinson, Katz and the shuttle driver descended the mountain, they came across a pickup truck stalled in a ditch on the right side of the road, while another car was stopped on the right. The driver of the shuttle was unable to stop in time due to the icy conditions and attempted to drive between the two cars, only to find that the driver of the other car had run into the middle of the road and was waving his arms at her. In order to avoid hitting the pedestrian, the shuttle driver swerved to the left, towards the other car, at which point the other driver ran in front of the shuttle and got sandwiched between the two vehicles.
“So we just hit a pedestrian, and me and [Robinson] were sitting in the back of the car wondering what to do, while our shuttle driver and the man were getting into a screaming match,” Katz said. “Meanwhile, we were realizing that there was no way that our two-wheel Macalester van could possibly get up this hill.” They eventually found a shuttle that could pick up the remaining six members of the group, and turned their attention towards finding a place to spend the night. Through a driver of one of the shuttles, they found a nearby hostel that could take eight people for the night.
“Hostel was a generous word for it,” Katz said. “We didn’t have rooms, there was a Port-A-Potty for bathrooms, and it was basically an unfinished, unheated attic, but we were sheltered from the elements.” Meanwhile, the owner of the hostel asked Katz to move the van up the road, and as he was parking in the dark, he nearly backed the van into a ditch. “I was driving backwards when I heard a ‘clunk’, and my wheels weren’t going forwards or backwards,” said Katz. “I got out and saw that the van was teetering on the edge of this giant ten-foot ditch. All I could think was that I couldn’t have Macalester pay for me to roll a car in a ditch.” With the help of the owner and some day hikers staying at the hostel, Katz and Robinson managed to get the van out of the ditch without any damage.
The rest of the group eventually arrived at the hostel and the trials of their trip came to an end. Reflecting on the experience, Katz said, “Even though it was scary when it was happening, it was fun and I met some cool friends and it was ultimately a good time.”
The Outing Club Co-Chairs, Michael Murphy ’19 and Emily Hodel ’18, expressed similar thoughts on the overall success of the trip. “We faced a difficult situation with a snowstorm at 40,000 feet and we were able to get everyone warm and in tents and waited out the storm and called the shuttle and got out of there,” said Murphy. Hodel, who was not on the trip, agreed: “I was pretty impressed with the response of the participants of the trip and was happy to hear that even when things went wrong, it was a fun bonding experience and they have given us information that will help us improve future trips. It helps to get feedback on the route, on the difficulty of the trail, and on the specific leaders.”
Looking to the future, Murphy and Hodel said that they hope to expand the organization to include even more people, most likely in the form of day trips. Murphy concluded, “Each trip can be fun and unique in a million different ways.”