Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Tough Mountains

Underestimating the Black Mountains.

Whenever I go hiking or backpacking in the Black Mountains I almost always end up underestimating the range. When you look at a map of the Blacks, they form a kind of "J" shape or, if you include The Pinnacle, which some do, it forms a gigantic check-mark. All of the summits along either the "J" or the check-mark are over 5,000 feet in elevation, and many of them stand well over 6,000 feet above sea level.

This makes for some amazing topography, for some unique micro-climates, and the toughest hiking I know of in the South.

The day after we arrived at our great campsite at the Black Mountain Campground, I decided to hike some of the trails I'd missed in the past. One of the trails I've wanted to hike for some time is the Big Butt Trail (yeah, okay, go ahead and laugh). But every time I go up there to hike up Big Butt (yeah, yeah, it's funny), something happens to stop me. Usually it's the weather.

The trailhead for Big Butt (haha) is on the Blue Ridge Parkway
and several times when I've headed up there, the Parkway has been closed due to inclement weather and so I couldn't get to the trail. This time, however, the weather was absolutely sparkling, dry, and only cool to warm. I wouldn't have any trouble getting to the trailhead.

But guess what? Part of the Parkway had collapsed and so they had to close a section and I couldn't drive to the Big Butt trailhead. Another situation. Mother Nature just doesn't want me to climb these peaks! So what I decided to do was use the Mountains to Sea Trail to get to the Big Butt Trail. According to my maps, it was only 2.9 miles from the trailhead that I could reach with my truck to the Big Butt Trail.


As in other days, older hikes, I figured the trail would be a lot easier than it actually is. Just as with so many other trails in the Black Mountains, the MTS Trail is really rugged and rises to the tops of peaks and plunges down into gaps and along ridgelines so that it takes quite a lot of energy to go just a short distance. And a good chunk of the trail lies at the base of a line of cliffs on Potato Knob which makes for some very strenuous hiking. My plan was to hike the less than three miles to the trailhead I wanted, hike that one, and backtrack to my truck at Mount Mitchell State Park.

After three hours of hiking I had only reached the summit of Blackstock Knob and hadn't even headed down that peak to the gap for Big Butt Trail. There was no way I'd be able to get the mileage done that I'd planned before nightfall. Once again, I was frustrated in my attempt to hike to the summit of Big Butt Mountain. So I ate lunch at the top of Blackstock Knob and headed back toward Mount Mitchell State Park.

Even though I hike a great deal, I have one of the worst senses of direction known to mankind. Why I don't get turned around more often is a puzzle. But I do get temporarily lost in my hikes from time to time. And my ultimate directional kryptonite are red spruce forests. More than any other kind of forest, this type makes me lose my way. First of all, spruce trees have a very dark, dense canopy which restricts sunlight hitting the forest floor. This makes for some shadowy hiking--spooky stuff. Next, the trees are so uniform in appearance that there's little differentiation by which to get your bearings. Everything in there looks the same.

And so it was that I had to hike through a large grove of red spruce trees on my way back. And, of course, I lost my way. One minute I was hiking along the Mountains to Sea Trail, and the next I had dead-ended in the middle of such a forest, the ground covered in the brown rust of old spruce needles and shed limbs. Everything was very uniform and confusing. I had no alternative but to turn around and retrace my steps.

Again, I walked back along the trail to the next blaze. I tried to go forward again, and lost my way just as before. Another retracing of steps, this time about a quarter mile farther where I stopped, took a deep breath, and did my best to make the return trip, this time taking special care to note every detail of the trail. And I soon saw my mistake. The trail had taken a very sharp turn into a switchback. So many other hikers had missed this switchback that they had pounded out a false trail along the ridgeline that looked like the official trail before vanishing into the needles. After wasting twenty minutes going back and forth trying to find my way, I was headed in the right direction. Within two hours I was back at my truck and soon after driving to the campground to my wife and the comforts of our travel trailer.

That night, the cramps struck. Really bad ones in the hamstrings of my thighs. If there's a nastier and more vicious pain, I hope never to experience it, nor even to see anyone suffering such a thing. This is what the Black Mountain trails do to me.

I'll go back, of course. I'm already planning my next trip--a bushwhack to the summit of Potato Knob.

One of the nicest views of the Black Mountains, along NC 80.

This is a destination for another day. A huge boulder on the side of Potato Knob.

My directional kryptonite: a red spruce forest.

Taking a rest after lunch on the top of Blackstock Knob.

A reminder that I'm not alone in the forest: bear poop. Yep, they really dookey in the woods.

Near the shoulder of Potato Knob. That rock face screams to be hiked. Maybe in October or November. I'll find someone to hike it with me.

Looking down on the Blue Ridge Parkway from the slopes of Potato Knob. This section of the Parkway was closed for repairs, and was the reason I couldn't reach the trailhead I wanted.

Spruce tree at the edge of a clearing on Mount Halbeck.

A dead dried husk of a Fraser fir in a neat field on Mount Halbeck.

Standing in that neat open field on Halbeck looking across at Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in the eastern Unite States of America.

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