Wednesday, February 11, 2009

To Celo Knob and Back to Mitchell

Since the last time I'd hiked the Crest Trail had proven to be so hard on me, I'd decided that in my quest to bag the other 6,000-foot peaks on the ridge, I would camp overnight in Deep Gap and break the hike with an overnight stay. This would, I assumed, make it easier on me.

I was wrong.

There had been a lot of rain off and on during the night, and I awoke to an overcast sky, the clouds hanging right on the ridges. I knew that I'd have poor views, but I'd get to experience the trail and I'd end up noticing things I'd probably miss if the skies had been clear.

After waking, I fixed some breakfast and left my camp intact and headed toward Winter Star and the peaks beyond it.

The hike up Winter Star was foggy, the clouds coming in low and dropping almost constant rain as I walked the ridges.

At Winter Star I paused to take a picture at the summit looking south toward Gibbs and Celo Knob. Compare this foggy photo with this one.

As I hike along, the clouds kept closing in on me.

Right after I took this photo, the skies opened up in a tremendous downpour. And, yes, this is the trail. One has to climb it rather than walk it. And during the downpour it more resembled a waterfall than a trail.

Even relatively early in the hike, I was beginning to feel fatigue. The trail is just hideously rugged. Each time you hit one of the peaks, you then have to drop precipitously into a gap and regain the next ridge line. Here, the trail had corkscrewed down Winter Star and then climbed back toward Gibbs Mountain.

The trail is not continuously maintained and often vanishes beneath a sea of undergrowth. You just have to kind of figure out where the trail is and push ahead. This could lead to some unfortunate mistakes, if one is not deliberate.

This is why you have to be careful. I was moving along the trail and it led right up to the edge of this enormous cliff. This drop off was barely visible through the brush and thick clouds. It would have been very easy to step off the edge by not paying attention. This whole section of the trail skirted a series of such cliff faces.

I climbed this nameless peak on the way to Gibbs. I took a GPS reading from that rocky pinnacle and found that I was almost 6,100 feet above sea level.

Even in the clouds, the South's finest sub-alpine scenery is stunning.

I bagged Gibbs on my way to Celo Knob. One more Sixer out of the way. By this time I was soaked to the skin and exhausted. And even in the rain I was drinking a lot of water, wondering if, once again, I'd not brought enough with me.

Through the clouds, through the mist, through the rain I pushed on toward the last 6,000-foot peak along the highest ridge in the eastern USA.

And then, there it was, high above me through the clouds: Celo Knob. I hiked on up the well-traveled manway to the summit and was finally able to knock it off my list of accomplishments.

I quickly found the benchmark at the summit: 6,327 feet above sea level. The 11th highest peak in the USA east of the Mississippi.

Then I had to turn back and hike to my tent, break camp and head back to Mount Mitchell. This would be a hike of around ten miles, after I'd already hiked four to get to the summit of Celo. Since I'd split the hike up into a tw0-day trip, I had figured I was giving myself plenty of time to bag these peaks in a more leisurely fashion and save myself from some of the suffering I'd gone through on the Crest Trail the year before.

Hell, no. I was wrong again.

I'd come prepared, I'd figured, with plenty of water. There are springs to either side of Deep Gap where I'd even replinished my water. My mistake was in not realizing how tired I was by the time I'd made it back to Deep Gap from Celo Knob. Even with extra water I ran out before I'd made it to Big Sam. Big mistake. Once more, as I climbed up out of those huge gaps between the peaks, I found my legs
cramping as, again, the potassium had leached out of my system and my legs started seizing up with tremendous pain that locked me in place. First one leg and then the other.

And, just as I had the year before, I had to just bear the pain and wait for it to subside so that I could start walking again. The peaks became long, painful duels between myself and gravity. I was parched and hot and lugging my backpack up these big mountains with no water to quench my thirst and to stop my muscles from cramping up. It took me a very long time to make it back to the Mount Mitchell parking lot, and when I did, I was pretty much completely drained.

This was the view I had after I'd packed up my campsite and was heading back toward Mitchell. That's Potato Hill and Cattail Peak. I was already in a lot of pain, but it was worth it to see something like that ahead of me. I knew the hike back was going to be hard on me, but it's sights like this one that reward me for all of the effort and physical hardship.

This was the last photo I took that day. Heading up this ridge the leg cramps hit with full force and I was suffering far too much to fish out my camera for any more pictures. After that, it was a long, miserable march to my truck, and the drive back home. Within a few months, though, I was once again hiking the Black Mountain Crest Trail. And, yes, I'll go back again. It remains one of my favorite destinations.


Mike said...

Thanks for sharing. I plan on tackling this beast in June. Guess I need to bring a metric shit ton of water somehow! ; )

James Robert Smith said...

There is one reliable spring below Deep Gap. Last time I was there I found a better spring on the opposite side of the gap. I never have read about that one in any trail literature, so maybe it only runs intermittently. But it beat the climb down to the one that is recommended, being only a little bit down from Deep Gap.