Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Mount Hardy - A Little Bit Lost In Middle Prong Wilderness

Mount Hardy, SB6K, Middle Prong Wilderness – 1/28/12 – 9 miles

Feeling a little restless in the new year without a hiking challenge – well, it looks like I should finish the SB6K.  We are having a mild winter in North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Parkway is still open in most places, so there is no excuse.  Some of the summits I must complete are off-trail bushwhacks and I need some help, but some are pretty simple. 

This was my thinking as I drove towards Mount Hardy on a breezy but beautiful sunny Saturday:  pretty simple. 

Mount Hardy is in the Middle Prong Wilderness, which is bordered on the south by the Blue Ridge Parkway and on the east by Highway 215.  Middle Prong is rugged wilderness where trails are not blazed, but this wasn’t my first rodeo.  I once slogged my way up the Green Mountain Trail to the very intersection with the Mountains-to-Sea Trail at the base of Mount Hardy…but I skipped it then because we were on a different mission.  Another time I passed the same intersection when Danny and I hiked the MST and we took the time to navigate the unmaintained trail to the top of Mount Hardy…only we stopped a couple hundred yards short of the true summit.  Since hikers are honest or there really is no point, I felt the obligation to reach the true summit once and for all to claim this SB6K.

The rules for bagging a SB6K peak include a minimum five-mile hike.  You can bag more than one peak in that five miles, but the five miles is essential.  The shortest way for me to claim Mount Hardy under this guideline was an out-and-back hike on the MST beginning where it crosses Highway 215.  I live too far from the mountains, I thought on the three-hour one-way drive to the trailhead. 

Hiking solo requires preparation.  I left my route with my husband and a time by which he should hear from me.  Middle Prong Wilderness and the next-door Shining Rock Wilderness are pretty popular so I expected to encounter other hikers on a Saturday.  This was a simple in-and-out hike on a trail that I had hiked twice before.  Mine was the only car at the small pull-off at the trailhead.

The trail was wet in many places, temporarily an MST “river”.  The temps were in the 30’s and the wind gusted frequently so my gloves and Liberty hat were essential.  I don’t mind hiking in the cold – no sweating!  As long as you keep moving, it’s easy to stay comfortable just by pushing shirt sleeves up or down, removing or putting on gloves.  I started off with a light step and passed the only white blaze in the Middle Prong Wilderness.

I passed by the meadow where our group camped in June 2009 on a shakedown trip prior to our visit to the Grand Tetons.  Funny, the meadow looks a lot smaller now. 

Thar she blows:  Mount Hardy

Hoarfrost on the trail, so delicate

A great day for shadows.   This is how I entertain myself when I am hiking alone. 

The trail to the summit of Mount Hardy is unmaintained, meaning don’t expect a sign and don’t expect even a trail, but so many people go up there that a path has been worn.  And yes, even some trees have been cut down to make the way easier, but it’s not official.  Imagine a line across the bottom of a page and an upside-down letter Y sitting on it.  The line across is the MST.  I was hiking from left to right and was looking for the left “leg” of the Y, to go the summit at the top of the Y. 

So…I found what I thought was the first side trail (left leg of the Y), blocked by a pile of limbs, which I nimbly stepped over and began to climb.  At the crux of the Y I turned left (theoretically going “up” the Y), and then I came to another intersection.  What’s this?  I wasn’t expecting an intersecting trail.  Both directions looked well worn and neither was ascending.  I stopped to scratch my head, rotated a couple of times, and realized that I wasn’t 100% sure now of the way I had come. 

Well, so much for a simple out-and-back hike.  Now what?  I knew that I should stand still to contemplate – walking while thinking you are lost is not a good idea.  After a good five minutes I made an X on the ground with sticks and turned back the way I thought I had come.  Happily, a couple of minutes of backtracking brought me back to what I knew was the MST.  What I still did not know was if this was a different unmaintained trail, an animal path, or really the summit for Mount Hardy. 

So I continued westbound on the MST, looking at my map for any landmarks.  The trail began to descend steeply.   I looked over my left shoulder and saw Mount Hardy – I was walking away from it.  What?

Soon I passed a trail going off to the right, but no signs.  Checked my map – was this the Green Mountain Trail or Buck Spring Trail?  If it was Green Mountain, then Buck Spring should be coming up fast and I would at last know where I was…well, I knew I was on the MST and I knew I was westbound, but I didn’t know where the Mount Hardy trail was. 

Hope I’m not boring you, but this is an important lesson. 

I kept marching westbound and quickly reached a creek large enough to be on my map, which meant I had altogether missed the Green Mountain Trail and had just passed the Buck Spring Trail, and I was way past the summit trail.  Time to turn around and start looking again.  But I knew that I was not getting off the MST now unless I was very confident that I was in the right place.  My time was narrowing down and I did not want the embarrassment or expense of anyone coming to look for me.  My pride was a little miffed at not summiting Mount Hardy, but “pride goeth before a fall.” 

Back- tracking, I again reached the side trail I had first explored, and traveling from this direction it was instantly familiar as the trail that Danny and I had taken on our incomplete attempt.   What a difference memory is from a different direction!  This was clearly the “right leg” of the inverted Y that I had been looking for.  Again I ascended the side trail, but instead of turning left at the junction, I turned right to go up the Y.  Sure enough, the trail climbed steadily, passing the clear space where I could see Sam Knob and Little Sam, passing the USGS marker which we mistook for the summit before.  I kept following the trail a couple hundred yards further until it simply ended and I knew I was on the highest point.  Here is a photo of myself in thick trees, no view.  You’ll have to trust me. 

Back down a short distance to the clearing with a view of Sam Knob, the warm sun on my back, I sat down on a rock to eat lunch.  Suddenly a roar came over the mountain, a sound so loud that I actually ducked my head, fully expecting a plane to fly over.  The wind gusting through the balsams is different than other trees, incredibly loud.  It sounded like a bear snorting into a microphone.  Of course, once I had that image I didn’t stay long, put my sandwich back in my bag and headed out.  It really spooked me. 

I descended back to the inverted Y junction, confidently turned right, which quickly took me back to the MST (where I had originally gotten confused).  I have a good head and memory for directions, so I won’t make the same mistake here again, but this experience was a lesson in map reading, orienteering, and I really need to use a GPS.
On the hike back I met a group of four adults with one little boy and five unleashed dogs.  I asked if the dogs were safe and the owners said yes a bit apologetically.  The boy was probably 2nd grade, extremely chatty, told me his name was River, insisted that he share a snack with me.  Everyone was outfitted very well, including River, who carried his own backpack loaded with a Camelback for water and his own food.  Good job, adults!

An unnamed waterfall glimpsed across a valley on the return MST

Back at my car, a car pulled up as I was changing out of my boots.  A middle-aged couple (yes, I realize I am middle-aged too) got out and asked if there was a trail crossing the road there that they could hike on.  I said yes, want to see a map?  I suggested they go the way I had been since I could verify that it was okay, no obstacles, and I also suggested they hike for a certain amount of time and then turn around.  They were pretty clueless.  And in the time that we stood there chatting, the guy decided it was cold and he didn’t want to go.  And we’re worried about ME getting lost in the wilderness?  Sigh.

Listening to a new compilation CD that my son made for me as a Christmas gift, the drive time home flew by.  Six hours in the car for a nine-mile hike feels like no time at all when you’ve got good music.  

I dream of hiking into my old age. I want to be able even then to pack my load and take off slowly but steadily along the trail. ~Marlyn Doan


Linda W. said...

Sounds like a grand adventure! Good for you for figuring out the correct trail. And yes, music is my salvation too when I'm driving lost distances to hike or ski.

Linda W. said...

Ooops, I meant "long" distances (not lost!) :)