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

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