Thursday, September 28, 2006

The Old Fart Almost Buys the Farm.

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It’s funny how small decisions can make a huge difference down the road.

I had the day off and had planned a quick drive up to Pisgah National Forest to hike to the top of Looking Glass Rock. I’d seen that mountain dozens of times from the Parkway and had even been to the trailhead twice and once to the base of The Nose (500 ft cliff), but had never hiked up. So I had decided to take care of that.

I’m pretty good at preparing for day hikes. I had my pack ready the evening before, with my lunch all prepared and in the refrigerator. Everything was laid out and ready to go when the alarm went off at 5:30 am. All I had to do was clean up, grab my stuff, and go. The only real decision I had to make was which boots to wear. I had three pair to choose from. My heavy-duty boots that I bought when I hiked Katahdin three years ago. My newer boots that weren’t broken in yet. And my old tried and true pair that are the most comfortable. I looked at the heavy-duty boys, but decided I didn’t want to deal with the weight. The trail was only 6.4 miles round trip with, I was told, no scrambling. I passed on the new boots because I figured I’d get a blister or two breaking them in and I just didn’t want to deal with that. So, despite the fact that I’ve just about worn the treads right off the comfortable pair, I put those on and took off.

Right away I encountered a few traffic problems getting out of town, and then some road construction delays near Hendersonville on 64 West. Because of these delays and a stop at the Ranger station to talk to the folk in the know, it was 11:00 am by the time I was at the trailhead.

I started right up and found the Looking Glass Rock Trail to be pretty steep. It gains 1800 feet over 3.2 miles, and there are many more switchbacks than I had been expecting. I stopped counting them after I hit a dozen.

The forests on the flanks of the peak are mixed cove hardwoods and hemlocks. A pretty mature, vigorous forest, I’m glad to say. Not sure what’s going to happen to the hemlocks with the Hemlock wooly adelgid invading the southeastern US. It’ll be sad to see the hemlocks go. As I climbed I found the trail to by typically southern, following along the ridges and hearing the patter of water nearby. But soon I was climbing out of the wet coves and onto the drier ridges. And sweating like a full sponge. Still, I’m a strong hiker and passed everyone in front of me and left them in my wake. This trail is a busy one, even on a weekday, and I passed about ten people on the way up.

I found the trail to be pretty well taken care of, but very eroded in some places, really swampy in others, and almost all of the switchbacks suffer from idiots cutting across. (I’ve never understood that. It’s no easier and seems to be inviting an ass busting.) Pretty soon I found myself very near the summit and approaching the lower cliffs and the emergency helipad.

One of the rangers had told me that the best view on the mountain was just beyond the helipad (merely the exposed rock with a huge “H” painted on)

She told me to follow the yellow dashes I’d find on the rock and that they would take me out to the cliff face where I would have a fine view of the opposing peaks and the cliff face at the summit. She was right and these turned out to be, indeed, the best views on the mountain.

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After pausing to take a couple dozen photographs I headed on back to the main trail and continued to the summit. I passed a fine spring gurgling heavily and in a bit I was standing on the true summit, all closed in with oaks and some pines. Going on, I followed the well-worn trail down to the cliff face just below.

Here, unlike the lower cliffs, the face drops off dramatically. There isn’t a lot of space up there to muck about safely, so I was tending to stay close to the trees to sit and to take more photographs. In addition, the forest floor of the summit bleeds water onto the cliff so that much of it is damp, or wet, or slick, or slimed with algae, or all of the above. I wanted a shot from a spot near the edge of the cliff and so was carefully picking my way over toward it. I saw a dry spot between some slick mats of lichens and stepped there. But what looked like dry granite was not only wet, but also slick. My boots, the “comfortable” pair I had worn, had no proper treads and I slipped, both feet going out from under me.

For a second I could see myself going over the edge of the cliff to my death. I was very close to the slope. But instead of sliding, I landed solidly on my back with quite a loud thud. Lardass down! For a second I just lay there and kept what was left of my wits about me. I didn’t want to get up only to slide closer to the edge. So I turned, got to one knee, and was able to reach up and grasp the limb of a green pine and used that to steady myself. Carefully, I moved away from the cliff and back to where I’d stashed my pack.

Sitting there, I drank down about a liter of water, calmed down, and decided to trash the boots when I got home. They were certainly comfortable, but not worth what I’d just experienced. I’ll buy a new pair of scrambling boots next week. I’ve got them picked out and only have to drive to the shop and pick them up. And I’ll be breaking in that other pair.

Going back down the mountain, I went straight across to the river opposite the trailhead. I put down my pack, took out my beach towel and my bathing suit and using the towel as a cover, I changed into my trunks. My shirt was, quite literally, wringing wet with perspiration. The crowds of locals who had been swimming in huge numbers when I’d arrived were all gone. I had the river to myself, and took my soapfree, clearwater bath here:
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After a short dip, making sure I was clean and refreshed, I got into some dry clothes. I took this photo of my stuff on the bank, and not until the following morning did I realize that I’d left my best hiking staff on the riverbank! Alas.

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A postscript: When I was sitting there with my daypack, after my slip, I decided to have a sandwich. But I soon realized, digging through the pack, that I’d left the sandwiches I’d prepared the night before sitting in the fridge. Maybe I was trying to tell myself something. (Or else I’m just getting even more forgetful as I age.)

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