Q&A with Nancy & Chris
CATALYST FOR TOUR DE SMOKIES
So what's behind their decision to take on the Tour of the Smokies this fall and how are they preparing?
FOTS: How did you and Chris decide to take on the Tour de Smokies?
Nancy East: I am a search and rescue team member on the North Carolina side of the park, and the search for Susan Clements was the primary catalyst for the Tour de Smokies. My team took part in this search, and it was a tragic reminder of how things can quickly go awry for a hiker who is not prepared for the ever-changing conditions in the Smokies.
I was motivated by this tragedy to do more educational outreach in the hiking community, to keep hikers "safe and found." When I discovered that Friends of the Smokies had a specific line item in their budget to raise funds for preventive search and rescue programs in the park, I came up with the idea to try to hike the park's trails in record time, in an effort to raise money for this cause.
The idea was hatched for me to team up with Chris for the effort while we were on a backpacking trip together in the park with one of their mutual friends and my Search and Rescue (SAR) teammate, Lane DeCost.
Chris also had ambitions of hiking the park's trails in record time. When I realized this, we began putting a plan in place to tackle the challenge together, while raising the funding for Friends of the Smokies.
FOTS: How are you physically preparing for Tour de Smokies?
Nancy East: We are physically preparing for Tour de Smokies by hiking lots and lots (and lots!) of miles on the park's trails. I recently completed my second map of the Smokies, and Chris his third.
By incrementally increasing the overall average mileage on day hikes, and stringing together consecutive days of high mileage hikes, we feel it's been the best way to physically and mentally prepare for an endeavor this big while minimizing the risk of injury.
FOTS: What was involved in designing the hiking plan for completing the 900 miles in a day-after-day and safe approach?
Nancy East and Chris Ford took a selfie at the LeConte Lodge dining hall during their Tour de Le Conte.
Nancy East: Our logistical plan was primarily created by Lane DeCost, my Search and Rescue teammate and our mutual friend who was on the backpacking trip when the idea unfolded.
Lane loves a good analytical challenge, so he actually enjoyed the task of unwinding the Gordian knot of Smokies trails, in an effort to keep the routes as efficient as possible.
He effectively became our "trail boss" in the process and has handled much of the behind-the-scenes logistical needs for us, in addition to creating the routes we will hike.
After Lane created the routes, Chris printed off enlarged "$1 maps" of the Smokies trails, and we used things like Monopoly game pieces (the National Park version, coincidentally!) to act as mock cars as we talked through each day's hikes, how we'd position cars, and if we would need support from friends and family.
Our home base each night varies, and each night's home base emerged after the hiking routes were finalized. Friends of the Smokies has been incredibly helpful in helping us find donated lodging in Gatlinburg, when it makes sense to stay on that side of the park. We are also utilizing various frontcountry and backcountry campsites in the park.
FOTS: What's involved in determining your hiking routes?
Nancy East: The planned hiking routes are all considered higher mileage hikes for everyday hikers (over 20 miles), and we both plan to hike, not run, them. They vary in length according to the elevation gain and loss the team will cover along a specific route. Because they are all bound to be long days, the team intends to start early each day.
Most of the routes are one-way, meaning we start and end at different trailheads with minimal backtracking on trails and most string several trails or segments of trails together. Some trails, however, have unavoidable backtracking miles, such as Ramsey Cascades or Spruce Mountain.
Our goal was to minimize the amount of mileage that needed to be walked twice, thereby creating a lower number of total miles hiked by the end of the challenge (and we feel as if we have dialed it in fairly efficiently!).
ROLE OF THEIR SUPPORT TEAM
FOTS: What is the role of your support team?
Nancy East: The primary role of the support team is to help shuttle cars for Chris and me, if needed. The Smokies' network of trails often entails long driving distances between various trailheads. It's a time-saving advantage to have help shuttling cars or driving the team to a trailhead, eliminating the need to pick a car up after a long day on a hiking route.
Because we know the people who have been entrusted to help with this endeavor, we have no doubt our support team will be a tremendous source of moral support too! Chris' wife, Jamie, will be able to help the team significantly with shuttling needs. Jamie, along with my husband, Larry, have been huge sources of both strength and support for Chris and me throughout the entire training period.
IMPORTANCE OF HIKING SAFETY
FOTS: Your hiking fundraising goal is to raise $60,000 to hire seasonal rangers dedicated to teaching visitors about hiker preparedness and hiking safety topics. Why do you consider this to be such an important GSMNP mission?
Nancy East: From my SAR work, I know first hand how many hikers make decisions out of ignorance that quickly put them in life threatening situations. If hikers understand the inherent dangers of the backcountry and enter it with humility, they are much more likely to take what they need and learn the skills they need to stay safe.
Even the shortest and most popular trails can become life threatening to unprepared hikers. Susan Clements' story is a profound and tragic testament to this fact.
If the funding from this effort proactively saves even one visitor's life, it's worth every penny and every step of pain we will walk to raise it.
FOTS: What steps do you typically take to be as safe as possible in your own hiking?
Nancy East: The three steps we take before any hike are as inscribed in our brains as much as the trails of the Smokies, and they're pretty simple:
- Always carry the 10 essentials and knowledge of certain vital skills, such as how to build a fire with wet wood.
- Notify our spouses of our hiking routes, including what time we predict we'll be on and off trail.
- Check the weather forecast for the day of the hike and a few days beyond.
We both also carry satellite devices (the Garmin InReach Mini is our favorite), which allows us to notify authorities of our location, should we become lost or injured, in addition to being able to send messages to our spouses if something goes awry while on trail.