Monday, February 09, 2009

The Rest of the Story

Yesterday's blog left me on the summit of Winter Star, ready to begin hiking back to my truck which was parked approximately six miles away just below the summit of Mount Mitchell. I was still feeling pretty good, and even realizing that it was later than I had thought it would be by the time I hit Winter Star, I felt confident in my ability to get back to my truck before dark.

Well, the Black Mountain Crest Trail was getting ready to totally kick my ass.

Now, I have to say that I do not go hiking without being prepared for various emergencies. My pack always contains matches, compass, extra food, warm clothing, headlamp, extra batteries, etc. I was not going to be hiking in the dark if the sunlight did fade, but the kicker was that the park locks its gates soon after dark. So if I wanted to get out of the park, I had to get to my truck in a timely manner.

And even then I was not at a loss. I had a tent, a sleeping bag, two gallons of water, crackers, and a down jacket behind the seat. I wasn't going to be without shelter and warmth and liquid refreshments in the worst happened. I was already thinking about what I would do if the gates were locked when I got to them. Either I could just pitch my tent, or go find the ranger's house and knock on the door. Neither would be a disaster.


I had miscalculated how much water I was drinking on my hike. I'd figured that five liters was going to do it, but as I headed back down from Winter Star, I was down to less than a liter. With a long hike before me. The weather had been far warmer than I'd thought, so I was really drinking a lot of water. But I had no recourse, as there is not a single source of water along the Black Mountain Crest Trail. You either bring what you need, or hike off the trail at Deep Gap to find a spring. I didn't have the time to hike down from Deep Gap, so it was do or die, so to speak.

As I began to hike down from Winter Star, I realized that the light was fading far faster than I would have liked to admit. There was nothing to do but turn on the afterburners.

The view I had of Potato Hill and Cattail Peak as I got down toward Deep Gap.

Looking back toward Winter Star from Deep Gap. Uh oh. Five miles to go.

The last of the direct sunlight was hitting the trees on the ridgelines as I climbed Potato Hill.

When I looked off at the horizon, this was what I was seeing. Dark blue haze and the fading pink blush of the setting sun. Shit!

Blurry photo as I climbed toward the peak known as Big Sam. I'd already run out of water. I was in a LOT of pain as the potassium had leached out of my body and I had nothing with which to replenish it. Not even a swig of plain water was left. My legs had begun cramping horribly. First the right, and then the left. I could only stop and wait for the cramping to subside, and then try walking again. This slowed me down to a crawl. It was getting darker. The forest was closing in around me and I was starting to fear being able to get back before the park gates were closed and locked.

Finally! I was at Mount Craig. I turned in the fading light to snap this shot of the spine of the Black Mountains, so different from that earlier shot from this same spot earlier in the day. Now I was thinking that I could make it out. If I could just keep walking.

In the near-dark, I picked my way across the summit of Craig.

I took this shot from about one mile away from Mount Mitchell and the parking lot. I could even make out a tiny white dot in the parking lot: my truck! That sight gave me a tiny burst of energy and I pushed on.

I paused briefly to take this flash shot in the picnic area at the trailhead. I'd made it before the gates were closed and locked!

Back at my truck, I tossed my pack inside and pawed at my supplies until I had some water bottles. I drank down three of them in quick succession. Climbing into my truck, I drove to the rest rooms at the top of the parking lot and went in and washed up. I pretty much took a bath in the sink and then changed into a set of clean clothes that I'd brought along. The leg cramps had ceased when I'd got to my water bottles, so I didn't have to contend with that any more. Clean, and wearing fresh clothes, I went back to my truck and headed for home. I'd spent the entire day hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail and hadn't see one other human being the entire day. Despite everything--despite the miscalculations and the toughness of the trail and the cramps--I knew that I'd be heading back to tackle The Black Mountain Crest Trail again.

I have done just that on several occasions. It remains my favorite hiking trail in the southeastern USA, and it never fails to challenge me.

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