Saturday, September 26, 2009

What Could Be More Fun Than Swinging On A Chain Link Fence?

7/11/09 – SB6K Trek – Mt. Mitchell, Mt. Hallback, Mt. Gibbes, Clingmans Peak, Potato Knob – 8.2 Miles 

 The last “conditioning” hike for me before our Grand Tetons adventure was a jaunt with Jeff. Jeff was closing in on finishing the SB6K’s (he did complete the challenge on July 19) and I was astounded that he had not yet been to the summit of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak in North Carolina and the highest peak east of the Mississippi. We met on a less-than-stellar Saturday morning at Mount Mitchell with big plans to bag a few peaks and then climb to the Green Knob fire tower for dessert.

These peaks are located in the Black Mountains northeast of Asheville, NC. Ecology is similar to the Smokies: human effects of logging and natural effects of chestnut blight and the destruction of Fraser firs because of the balsam woolly adelgid have changed the forest, but it continues to amaze mere mortals who stand at Mount Mitchell’s summit – if you’re lucky enough to be there on a clear day, purportedly an average of two out of ten days. (If you are planning a trip and care about the weather conditions, check here.) Our day started out in cloud cover but improved as we traipsed the trails. We took the short approach trail to the newly built tower for photo ops.

From here we turned onto the Old Mitchell Trail (also part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail) for a gentle downhill, passing intrepid hikers coming up and several lush expanses of St. John’s Wort. We passed the full-service restaurant (never pass up a chance to use a real bathroom – and the food and view are great too!) About a mile south we made a short bushwhack to the summit of Mount Hallback. As usual, I followed Jeff with his GPS and trusted him when he said we were at the top.

 We continued our descent to the Park Office and walked southwest across the paved road into less defined territory. From this point we were going without a map, using notes that Jeff obtained from Peter Barr of Hiking North Carolina's Lookout Towers fame, looking for a manway to take us to Mount Gibbes and points beyond. We think it was once called the Old Boundary Trail (now decommissioned) and several times we saw boundary markers and signs. No more nice downhill, time for a workout! We conquered Mount Gibbes, the last of our official SB6K peaks for the day, and pushed on to bag a couple of lesser peaks since we were in the neighborhood.

The manway took us on to Clingmans Peak and here the neighborhood changed. This peak has towers surrounded by a high chain link fence and Peter's notes said “walk around” and pick up the trail on the other side. To the right looked impossible, so we headed left, stomping down the vegetation and praying that snakes were on vacation. We kept hands on the fence whenever possible and inched along. Eventually the mountain fell steeply away and we were hanging on the fence – and still we clambered along (because the notes said so, right?) until we reached a rock face that we couldn’t climb. We turned around and stomped back (the vegetation had regrown itself to shoulder height again) and I remember thinking how insane we were to think this was doable at this time of the year. Back at our starting point of the manway, we were still too stubborn to call it a day, so we bushwhacked to the right along the fence – and soon the forest opened up and came to a trail again. Yippee! We’re not licked yet. Let’s have lunch!

Or are we? This trail went in one direction to an open view with a big rock and a dead end, then in another direction to a clearing with a house (vaguely mentioned in the notes, but where was the trail now?) We spent a half hour worrying about trespassing on private property, until I finally walked up to the house yelling, “Hello!” and saw that windows were broken and it was obviously unoccupied. Some more time spent unsuccessfully searching for the trail and we were once again facing giving up. But…hey, this looks like a bare spot…hello, trail!

Onward to Potato Knob, which has a rock to climb up on that I nearly fell off of. Other than the vagueness of the fence at Clingmans Peak, our notes were pretty reliable. I am a map person, though, and do much better with a drawing than with written directions, so I was constantly rethinking and rereading and questioning. Jeff was very calm and cool, but was he wondering how I was going to act in the Tetons? Ah, that 20/20 hindsight…

We found a second summit for Potato Knob, a gorgeous view of the Blue Ridge Parkway ribbon and beyond, but our last dilemma of the day was finding a different manway to go sharply down to intersect with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail and back to our shuttle car. We tried hard but only hit dead ends at steep overhangs, so ultimately we had to backtrack to another intersection with the MST, which added a couple of miles to our day (nice views and a great trail, though.) Again relying on Peter's notes, we ultimately found the bottom end of this manway, and I guarded our day packs while Jeff went up and scouted it out. He was gone so long that I sprawled out on the trail for a short nap. I had a little bit of time to debate about leaving him…but here he comes. He had followed the manway up to where we had lost it, but said it was ridiculously steep. Glad I took a nap.

Total mileage for the day was 8.2, total elevation gain was 2,727 feet, and to date I have summited 19 of the 40 SB6K’s. We skipped dessert (the Green Knob fire tower) and went our separate ways home. It was a very fun day, but driving in excess of 2.5 hours each way for a day hike is not a habit I want to get into. I much prefer several days of hiking and camping.

Coming soon: Stone Mountain State Park, an AT overnight backpack trip, hiking with my book club, and more!

Few people know how to take a walk. The qualifications are endurance, plain clothes, old shoes, an eye for nature, good humor, vast curiosity, good speech, good silence and nothing too much. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


Grand Tetons Adventure – Day Seven – 7/31/09 – Surprise Lake and Ampitheater Lake – 9.6 Miles Out-and-Back

By now our breakfasts at the Chuckwagon were automatic and we enjoyed pancakes, eggs, bacon, juice and coffee in the morning chill before heading for our last trailhead. Our final hike in the Grand Tetons was a classic trail up to Ampitheater Lake. The huge and busy parking lot at Lupine Meadows was testament to the popularity of this trail. Looking at the map, it appears that a garden spider drew in this route – just one big zig-zag going up Glacier Gulch. How was I going to do after my day of rest? How were Jeff and Mike going to do after no day of rest and yesterday’s challenging rocks?

The first mile or two of this trail is pretty tame and then the climbing begins - but what a spectacular climb it is. There were flowers, flowers, flowers, and the switchbacks through the open meadows allowed us to look down at Bradley Lake over and over and over again. I was tickled to find that I still had some gas in the ol’ tank. By keeping my pace slow, I made the entire hike up without stopping (except for photo ops, of course.) Many of the other pilgrims wore jeans and parked on every shady rock along the way.

Giant Hyssop - these tall blooms were abundant along this

Sulfur Buckwheat

Mules-ear Wyethia?

One-flower Helian- thella?

Heartleaf Arnica?

Showy Goldeneye? Or something not in my little book?

Bradley Lake in the foreground

What a gorgeous day for a hike!

The three of us were spread out a bit and Jeff, of course, was way up ahead. When I arrived at Surprise Lake, I came upon Jeff with a “surprise” – he was in deep conversa- tion with a young hikerette. I backed up and waited for Mike and then we strolled innocently down to the water’s edge so as not to disturb them, but the hikerette and her friend got away…

There was a lull in the crowd here so we stopped for an early lunch. Surprise Lake was a lovely spot – in fact, I liked it more than Ampitheater Lake, our destination further up the trail. Don’t know why – maybe because Surprise Lake is smaller or the rocks are more comfortable. It has been loved to death, though, and camping near the lake is now prohibited, but there are some backcountry sites in the vicinity so it’s still possible to enjoy a night at the lake.

Ampitheater Lake is only .2 miles past Surprise Lake and the end of the official trail. It’s not too much higher in elevation, but there was significantly more snow lingering here. A faint trail continues along the shoreline and past the lake, climbing up toward Disappointment Peak. Jeff kept going and Mike and I followed for a bit, and then decided it was beautiful enough where we were and sat down. From our vantage point we could hear and faintly see climbers on Disappointment Peak. I can guarantee you I will NEVER be a rock climber! I took photos looking over the cliff we were perched on but they are hopeless – they just don’t convey the depth perception we were seeing. If we had leaned over a little bit more (well, maybe a couple hundred yards more) we might have seen the Teton Glacier nestled in between Grand Teton and Mount Owen. What an awesome spot!

Teewinot Mountain in the background - There is a huge canyon between me and my tree and Teewinot

Looking back down at Ampitheater Lake

The wind picked up considerably and we started back down. Jeff went off exploring another side trail and Mike and I got back in the zig-zag groove. We counted the switchbacks going down – I wonder if he remembers the number? I believe it was over 20 in about three miles. As we descended, more weekend warriors were huffing it uphill. One young woman had on a tee shirt declaring “Outer Banks North Carolina” and I gave her a friendly, “Hey, we’re from North Carolina too.” Turns out she and her friend have recently moved to Charlotte! Now, what are the odds of that? We invited them to check out the Bergs when they get back home.

The trip down was as gorgeous as the way up, of course, and we continued to spot new flowers from this different point of view.

Blue Penstemon

Huge Hollyhocks

Jeff eventually caught up and then passed us. At the end of the 9.6 miles I was happy to put down the pack and take off the boots, although a little sad that our adventures were nearing the end. This was my best hiking day yet – I was finally in competitive canyon hiking shape. Bring on Paintbrush Canyon now, buddy!

The afternoon was still young and Mike was entertaining the idea of kayaking on the Snake River tomorrow after Jeff and I leave, so we spent the next few hours scouting out his paddle, looking at the take-outs and put-ins. A plan was formulated for the next morning: we would drop Mike at his put-in at the Jackson Lake dam, then drop his Jeep at the take-out, and then Jeff and I would pack up tents and head for the airport.

Our explorations took us up as far as the dam, so we continued northward to check out Coulter Bay Village, which includes picnic areas, a campground, a store, gas station, and most importantly – showers. For $4 I got to stand in line with more women and children for the privilege of washing off the day. Of course, women standing in line will strike up a conversation and I met some nice gals, compared campgrounds and national parks, talked to a second grader about what she was looking forward to most about going back to school. Jeff and Mike tell me that this is taboo for the fellas, just keep your eyes averted and get outta there. Yet another reason I’m glad I’m not a guy…

Clean and comfortable, the next item on the agenda was food. Mike took us to a pizza joint at Leeks Marina, where we sat outside in the coolness of the approaching evening and relaxed until it was hard to sit up unaided. We told stories of other trips and adventures. I confessed that I was glad that I had continued on the backpack trip. They are such good guys, they never once said “I told you so.” They gave me credit for spending an entire week with two bachelors. (I did mother hen them a little bit but they tolerated it nicely.) It was a very nice ending to an extraordinary week.

Back for our last night at camp, Mike busied himself with preparations for his kayak trip. Jeff and I packed some and then gave it up since we would have time the next morning. Lights out…sweet dreams…

The best remedy for those who are afraid, lonely or unhappy is to go outside, somewhere where they can be quiet, alone with the heavens, nature and God. Because only then does one feel that all is as it should be and that God wishes to see people happy, amidst the simple beauty of nature. ~ Anne Frank