Monday, June 15, 2009

King & Queen of the Mountains - Craggy Dome & Mount Mitchell

BRP Trip – 5/21/09 - Day Seven 

This was another adventure-filled day that did not go as planned. I’m getting better at finding hike alternatives on the fly. Even so, I am very aware of hiking alone and so whenever I changed plans, I always left a note in my car for Jim in case he had to look for me.

Today I was anticipating conquering a SB6K peak. This is a hiking challenge designed by the Carolina Mountain Club and Tennessee Eastman Hiking Club to hike to the summit of the 40 mountaintops in the Southern Appalachians that are higher than 6,000 feet – and driving to the top does not count as a “challenge.” The hike must be a minimum of 5 miles with a minimum of 500 feet of elevation gain. Today I would be in the neighborhood of Craggy Dome, one of the SB6K peaks – a miracle in itself because the BRP around Craggy Dome and Craggy Gardens has been closed for a couple of years for road repairs and had only reopened on May 15 (last week!).

Mind you, as of this date I was not “officially” working on the SB6K challenge – I just happened to have climbed a few of them while on my Smokies quest. And did I mention that, like many of the SB6K’s, Craggy Dome has no maintained trail to its summit? To get the five miles in I planned to start from Graybeard Mountain Overlook at MP 363.4, hike down to Douglas Falls, retrace my steps and cross the Parkway and march (scramble?) triumph- antly up Craggy Dome.
I had plenty of time for this scenario, so I wistfully bade goodbye to the Switzerland Inn and hot tub (oh, yeah, and Jim too) and drove at a leisurely pace down the Parkway on this spectacular morning, stopping often at overlooks. The clouds were gathering and dissipating with the breeze, and the sun shone brilliantly through whenever possible. I especially enjoyed the cloud that was trying to cross the road, but the wind was not pushing it hard enough. I’ve seen this trick before while standing on the office porch at Mt LeConte in the Smokies, when the NC side of the mountain was a clear blue sky and the TN side was totally whited out.

Just by chance I saw the Green Knob fire tower in my rearview mirror and recalled a description that this was a short but steep hike to it from the Green Knob Overlook. I U-turned, parked at the Overlook and with my sketchy memory I looked for the trail, but after a few false starts I gave it up. Onward to Craggy Dome.

And the Graybeard Overlook was…closed. Heavy equipment was parked in several of the overlooks in the vicinity of Craggy Gardens Visitor Center where road repairs were still underway. There goes my entire plan! What to do, what to do? I was too far past Mount Mitchell to backtrack and hike any trails in that area. I continued on to Craggy Pinnacle Overlook, a larger parking area still open to vehicles (but also a staging area for construc- tion) and decided to walk my grumpy self up the .7-mile trail to the lookout point. On the way up I passed this gnarly tree, so maybe it would be worth it…The wind was strong, blowing the clouds up and over the summit, hard to keep the camera still.

Well, great, the view from Craggy Pinnacle looks straight at Craggy Dome, where I apparently was NOT going to be today…

Walking back down, considering other options for the day, I met a fellow carrying a mattock – not your usual hiking gear. We struck up a conversa- tion and I learned that he was Piet Bodenhorst, a volunteer with Carolina Mountain Club preparing to do trail mainte- nance on the water bars. Hey, Piet, what do you know about the SB6K? How can I conquer Craggy Dome? He looked at me kindly and said, “Well, why don’t you just walk there from here?”

And so I walked back up the Parkway to the Graybeard Mountain Overlook and hunted for the turnoff point from the Mountains-to-Sea Trail that crosses there. After going a while in the wrong direction (a clue – I was heading downhill away from Craggy Dome) I retraced my steps and picked up a faint trail. I did not have a compass, and my plan was to leave small piles of rocks every so often to help find my way back down, but I struggled to find any semblance of a trail and chickened out, disappointed once again on this day of dead ends. And then…there was a plastic pink ribbon tied onto a tree. I knew of the practice of flagging a route when hiking off-trail and then removing the flags as the hiker retraces steps. Maybe somebody was going up to the summit of Craggy Dome today? I saw another pink flag, then another, and soon I was confident that they would take me all the way to the top.

The higher I climbed, the denser the vegetation became. Craggy Dome is, after all, a heath bald. I could feel the trail beneath my feet but couldn’t really see it, just kept my eyes on the pink flags. The sand myrtle and bushes were so tight that I walked Egyptian style, with one arm holding a hiking pole in front and one arm holding the other pole behind me. Brambles pulled at my hair and my clothes and I was most worried about protecting my eyes. It crossed my mind that if I encountered an animal I could not even turn around to get away. Doesn’t this sound like the most fun EVER?

The reward at the summit is this rusted pole with the last pink flag. Was this really the tip-top? The trail still continued, so I followed it until I was again descending, and then turned around. The view from the top was just of bushes that were a foot taller than me. And there was no one else there, so the pink flags apparently had been left in place by a kind SB6K-er before me.

The return hike quickly brought me back to the Parkway. A self-portrait to mark the occasion was called for – the conqueror of Craggy Dome! I added up my mileage, including the hike up and down Craggy Pinnacle, the walk on the Parkway, the wrong direction on the MST, up and down Craggy Dome and back to my car at the Craggy Pinnacle parking lot, and it was about 5 miles and a yard.

Now that my goal for the day was accomplished and the clock said I had more time, I stopped at the Craggy Gardens VC (open!) and from there took a quick stroll on the Craggy Gardens Trail that leads to Craggy Flats, the largest single grassy bald on the entire Parkway. The long grasses rippled in the wind and looked like waves on water. Near the summit is a large rustic picnic shelter built by the CCC in the 1930’s. The trail continued on past Bearpen Knob, but I turned back.

My destination now was the Folk Art Center near Asheville and my rendezvous with Jim. He planned to climb Mount Mitchell on his bike today and I was anxious to hear how he did. I waited and waited and waited, finally spreading a blanket out on the grassy median in the parking lot and dozing until the warrior appeared.  

You don't have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great! ~Zig Ziglar  

Jim's Day Seven 

The start of the day was different than the past several. Yes it was cool but also damp and cloudy. Plus SS had left ahead of me so I was on my own for getting started. Not a big deal since I was leaving directly from the Switzerland Inn. I had a cup of coffee in the lobby by myself before I clicked in. Caffeine can really help a cyclist to a point, at least for me. I don’t make a habit of it though. 

If you recall my previous posting I had to climb to get to the Switzerland Inn. That climb did not end there. It continued so the ride today started with a climb. My preference to start a ride is a flat road. A downhill does not get you warmed up and an uphill gets you working hard before you are stretched out and have your joints loose and muscles primed. 

This part of the BRP is in a dense forest and there was virtually no traffic. I was able to sing out loud when I needed to take my mind off the climbing. Actually by this point in the trip I did not even think about the climbs much. I don’t mean that in an “I am superior” way but rather in an acceptance way. I did not even pay much attention to the climbing charts I put together. Any climb would end sooner or later. In the meantime I just took in the scenery. There are also a lot of tunnels along this stretch. Some of them are “unfinished” on the inside. By “unfinished” I mean that the rough rock face was left as it was after the blasting. There was no concrete liner applied. I tried taking a picture but could not get a good one. Staying stopped in a tunnel more than a few seconds is a bad idea.

 About 30 minutes after I left Little Switzerland SS sent me a text that she had passed Ben and Jack along with the mile marker where she saw them. They were about 2 – 3 miles ahead of me. It would be cool to ride with them again but I also planned to ride up to the top of Mt Mitchell today. If I wanted to catch them it had to be before Mt Mitchell. The entrance to Mt Mitchell was about 15 miles away. I estimated the number of miles of climbing between here and Mt Mitchell (I did use my chart for this). I ran the numbers in my head and figured I might be able to catch them in time if I kept my climbing speed in the 8 – 10 mph range. They were loaded down with gear and were probably more in the 5 – 6 mph range. Going faster on the flats and downhills would make some difference but not as much as the climbing. I could also not stop to take pictures but I knew that I could not pass up a good view or interesting sight. 

 I stuck closely to my plan but I was also careful to not push too hard. Remember, it is all about energy management. I needed to have legs left for the rest of the day which included the climb up Mt Mitchell. When I stopped at an overlook to snap a picture I asked northbound folks if they had seen two guys on loaded bikes. The answer was always “Yep, they are about a mile or so ahead of you”. To cut to the chase (pun intended) I caught up with them about 500 yards from the Mt Mitchell entrance. It wasn’t really my cycling ability that did it but rather the math, estimating skills and luck. For all the kids reading….pay attention in those math classes. You really do need that stuff. I have always liked math and figuring things out. Back to the ride… 

 It was good to see Ben and Jack again. Since we were so close to the Mt Mitchell entrance I just kept riding with them for 5 minutes or so to exchange email and phone numbers. We made plans to get together in Asheville for dinner tonight and a few cold ones. 

 I turned back and headed towards Mt Mitchell. When planning my BRP ride I was indecisive about climbing Mt Mitchell. Yes it would be cool to do it but it also added at least another hour to the trip. Once I started the BRP it seemed like such a silly item to be wishy-washy about. Mt Mitchell is a Mecca for cyclists on the east coast. It is the highest elevation east of the Mississippi (elev 6684) with a road that goes within 100 yards or so of the summit. It is a 5-mile ride from the BRP to the top with 1390 ft of elevation gain with some sections greater than 8% grade. OF COURSE I AM GOING TO DO IT!!!!! 

For a different perspective from my normal writing, how about a stream of consciousness approach to describe the Mt Mitchell excursion starting at base of the road: 

Ok, le's use the granny gear and lock in at about 8 – 9 mph…..hmm this is not so bad, it is steep but not outrageous, people do it all the time right?…slow and steady works….along with accepting some pain….starting to get a burn in my legs, lets stand….come on up for the rising, come on up and lay your hand in mine….hmm, the view is interesting but not pretty… lots of clouds and fog swirling across the road…. actually it looks kind of sinister… mile down…..I think I will get lunch at the restaurant on the mountain… ok now lets sit and spin…..its cool and windy but I am starting to sweat….not many cars…..jeez this wind and fog are something….climb, climb, climb…..lets stand….come on up for the rising, come on up and lay your hand in mine….I think I’ll get a cheese burger….look at all the dead trees… is not spring here yet…..finally, here is the official entrance to the park…..still 2 miles to go but not as steep…jeez, this wind!!!!.....there is the restaurant….I’ll get it on the way down…..climb, climb, climb….yea, I can see the observation tower in the distance….adrenaline kicking in now… come on up for the rising, come on up and lay your hand in mine….I am so grateful to be here….made it!!....need to walk the last 100 yards in my cycling shoes, that’s tricky….I am going to get blown off this mountain… jeez I am now officially very cold and sweaty…..a view only when there are gaps in the fog….lets head down….still cold… for the downhill….not too fast, I am cold….there’s the restaurant….lets sit at the counter….uh oh, a large group got here just before me….I am getting colder while I wait….I am shivering…my hands are tingling….coffee please, quick….hey here are some hand dryers in the bathroom…use them to warm up…dang, broken…lets put on all my clothes including rain jacket….cheeseburger finally…why did I order iced tea??....done eating and still cold but the food should help….this downhill should be more fun but my shivering is making me hold back….hmm 38 mph and shivering is a little scary…sun is peaking through…that is helping….back at the BRP….ok work a little and get really warm….I am glad I made the climb…what a neat place.” 

Now on to Craggy Gardens. This stretch of landscape seemed very rugged and remote to me. The road is carved from rock and hugs the side of the mountains. The trees are dwarfed and scrubby due to the elevation. The views went on as far as I could see with no sign of civilization. I liked this section a lot but soon hit reality. There is repair work going on close to the Craggy Gardens visitor center. Believe it or not there was a traffic light there to regulate the flow of traffic since only one lane was open. 

The descent from Craggy Gardens to Asheville is a screamer. About 15 miles or so long and beautiful views (of course). The sun came out. I elected to simply enjoy the ride though and not take many pictures. The only thing that slowed me down was the condition of the road. It was pretty rough and beat up in a few places. All in all, this was the only bad stretch of road on the BRP I can recall. I met SS at the Folk Art Center which is right on the BRP in Asheville. 

We went to the chain hotel (nothing special this time) and met Ben and Jack in downtown Asheville for dinner. We went to Jack of the Wood, a great Irish pub with local brews. It was a fun dinner with lots of conversation. Ben and Jack are interesting guys. Ben is a very recently retired oncologist from Bristol TN. He started this trip the day after his retirement. Jack is also retired (I think) and lives on 60 acres in Floyd VA. He was in labor relations. Both of them have lots of experience with long distance cycling. Turns out both Ben and I have a mutual interest in beer making as a hobby. SS felt right at home as Ben hikes a lot too. I wanted to stay and have a few more but I knew that was not smart considering I was climbing up to Mt Pisgah tomorrow. SS and I said our goodbyes, went to hotel and prepped for tomorrow. All in all an eventful day. 

 Stats for the day:  

Mile marker start: 334.0 
Mile marker finish: 382.0 
Total day miles: 60.7
 Day climbing: Still need to get this 
Avg speed: 11.9 mph 
Max speed: 38.0 mph  

I don’t care what they say at the beginning of a ride. If you have two guys riding bikes together it turns into a race. ~Gary Blevins

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