Monday, July 20, 2009

A Van Gogh Experience

June 27-28, 2009 – Overnight Backpack in Pisgah National Forest – 21.3 Miles

In late July I am heading to the Grand Tetons for a week of dayhiking and backpacking. My cohorts will be my friend Jeff, hiking guru, my friend Mike, who shepherded me through my first overnight backpack in the Smokies last fall, and a woman named Laurie, a Bergs member whom I have not hiked with before. This trip is really Jeff’s idea and we are just benefitting from all of his research and planning. The four of us have met once for dinner to discuss generalities and flights. We thought a shakedown hike would be a good idea, and finally settled on a date that 3 out of 4 of us could make it (Mike is always busy with some trip or another – I think he was on a biking trip this particular weekend.) Jeff proposed a loop in Pisgah that worked its way through Middle Prong Wilderness and Shining Rock Wilderness that he described as…well, here is his entire description:  

“Rating: strenuous. It's a 21.3 mile loop with 5,400' elevation gain in Pisgah NF. The first 3.5 miles contains 3,000' of that elevation gain and there will be spots within that 3.5 miles that are extremely steep. Other than that, the rest of the route is somewhat flat. We will start at Sunburst Campground and hike start on the Green Mountain Trail and either camp off that trail at mile 5.5 or continue on the MST and camp at mile 8.0. The 2nd day we will continue on the MST to Black Balsam Rd and then pick up the Ivestor Gap trail. From there we'll head back to Sunburst via the Fork Mountain Trail. Water should be available close by the campsites and at several other locations along the route.”

In hindsight, warning signs were everywhere…

Jeff posted the overnight trip on the Bergs website and an unsuspecting new fellow named Ken signed up. Jeff quizzed him for his experience and, upon learning that Ken was a former Marine, said he could pretty much handle it. Another sign…you need to be a Marine to do handle this hike…

Bright and early Saturday morning I headed to the mountains, picked up Jeff along the way, met Ken at a prearranged spot, and then met up with Laurie at the trail parking area, a very popular summer spot for locals along the West Fork of the Pigeon River. We stepped off the road and onto the most vertical trail I have ever encountered in my admittedly short hiking life – the Green Mountain Trail. The first quarter-mile gained around 400 feet in elevation. (Pause for gasps from the audience.) We started off cracking jokes but soon switched to spitting curses. My hiking poles were useless as I grabbed for trees and roots and rocks. Laurie was a less experienced hiker and stopped often to adjust her pack, get food, or just plain rest – and I was grateful every time. Normally I would have pushed on and been miserable, but our slow pace and frequent breaks ultimately are what saved us all. As advertised, the first 3.5 miles were very steep and the trail makers missed switchback class. Also, the trail was faint (what, it’s not trampled by dozens of hikers every day?) and whenever I was leading I often had to ask, “Am I still on the trail?” This was the third time Jeff had hiked this route in about 3 months (yes, he is certifiably insane) so he knew it intimately and told us in great detail what was coming up around the next bend, over the next rise, around the next boulder. It was not always welcome news.

BUT there are some awesome viewpoints along Green Mountain Trail. The trail eventually leveled out and we rediscovered normal breathing as we crossed over Green Knob. From one vantage point Jeff named the mountains we were looking at, including my favorite, Sam Knob with its double peak (see photo). Our entire route circled these mountains and we saw them from every side. Most of the time I could pick out Sam Knob. We had agreed before starting that we would push to the campsite at Mile 8 rather than stay at Mile 5.5, but we checked that one out anyway. It was part of another fantastic bald area. Here are Ken and Laurie frolicking in the field. As tempting as it was to park here, we knew we could not handle a 16-mile hike the next day – actually, 13 miles was sounding pretty overwhelming. Onward! We completed our beloved Green Mountain Trail and turned left onto the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, skirting Mount Hardy (hey, that’s an SB6K, but there ain’t no way I’m climbing ‘er today.)

Over smaller mountains, inside rhodo tunnels, across open fields, the need for water was getting critical. With the heat of the day and the extreme uphill, my buddies ran out of water before we reached the first decent source – and they had carried a lot of water. I was getting close to empty as well. We tanked up and resumed marching. I don’t remember many details of this part, just waiting for Jeff to say, “This is it!”

And finally we walked into a big open field and set up camp. We were actually within a half-mile of Route 215. It had taken us 7 hours to walk 8 miles. Now it was approaching 8:00 p.m. and we had to work fast to cook, eat, clean up and hang food bags. Since I was treating water with my AquaMira drops and pouring it into my CamelBack, I wanted to get another bottle of water, so Jeff took me to another water source…just a drizzle coming out of the steep bank beside the trail, but it was water. It was so slow that I nearly nodded off waiting for the bottle to fill! Note: If you ever go on this route, fill up at the stream, don’t wait until you get to this campsite.

We cooked and ate supper close to the tree we had designated to hang our food, and as we ate we noticed that the dew was forming rapidly. A chill descended and I was glad I had packed that long sleeved shirt at the last moment. Jeff, ever the minimalist, had brought only the clothes on his back, which by now were getting damp. After housekeeping, we all crawled into tents to enjoy our night in the wilderness. And what a night it was! Not a single sound, no crickets, no owls, just total silence. Around 3:00 a.m. I ventured out for the inevitable potty break and was stunned by the stars. The moon had passed on and the stars were gleaming thickly in the ink-black sky. I don’t believe I have ever seen stars as clearly. There was no light source for many miles, no tree branches to peer through, no clouds. I bent my head waaaay back and said a prayer of thanks. Hiking up that ridiculous Green Mountain Trail was absolutely worth it to experience that night sky.

[Click here for Blue Ridge Outdoors' recent article on "The Wildest Hikes You Never Heard of" and read the description for North Carolina's choice.]
God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars. ~Martin Luther

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