Sunday, April 8, 2012

Too Cold To Stop

Richland Balsam and Reinhart Knob – Off Trail + MST – 2/11/12 – 12 miles, 2,770 feet elev. gain

My friend Jeff is helping me with the SB6K challenge.  He has hiked them all but enjoys my company so much that he is willing to repeat the tough ones just to spend time with me.  Or is he keeping his conscience clear so he doesn’t have to read about me in the papers?  Whatever the reason, I am very grateful for his expertise and for the opportunity to hike with him.  Jeff is a savvy hiker, has all the technology, and it’s no secret that I would/have followed him anywhere.  (Note:  after this hike I am adding a few caveats to that.) 

So after all these mild days the weather decided to go all winter-like on us, and our planned hike to conquer Richland Balsam and Reinhart Knob began to look dubious.  The Blue Ridge Parkway was closed and we couldn’t reach our trailhead.  After much phone discussion and internet searching, Jeff found a GPS track that offered an alternative:  an old logging road that would get us within a mile (or two?) of the Mountains–to-Sea Trail and a sort of lollipop route for our two peaks (lollipop = a short trail in, then a loop, then return on the short section again). 

Jeff and I live in different cities and we have a regular meetup spot for hiking in western NC.  From there he drove my car (A, I was already tired and, B, it has all-wheel drive, gonna need that) two more hours to our new trailhead, following directions that included “go until blacktop ends, go on gravel, need very good 4-wheel drive, go to flat area at hunters’ camp”.  The rough road wound up and around the mountain and we powered through a few muddy deep ruts until a gate stopped us.   Errbody out, we’re walkin’ from here.  We began trekking about 10:50 a.m. for what we estimated to be an 8-miler. 

The moment we got out of the car the cold grabbed us, sent us scurrying for gloves and hats ASAP.  Our theme for the day was established:  too cold to stop. 

The logging road seemed simple enough for the first 50 yards… and then it split with no way to tell what direction was correct without Jeff’s GPS track.  And then it split again… and again… and again…

Then the usuable part ran out and the road became overgrown, littered with fallen trees of every size and new trees pushing up, sometimes 20 feet tall, but the track was still discernible because it was level.  It paralleled Bearwallow Creek, which was just spectacular with many lovely cascades and mini-waterfalls.  The creek gave an incentive to keep going.  We were basically off-trail now, pushing through thick underbrush and rhododendron and climbing over deadfall.  My hiking poles were a nuisance as I ducked under branches and grabbed onto limbs and rocks with my hands.  A couple of times we tried to leave the logging trail, but the mountainside was very steep and even slower to negotiate.  Traces of snow began to appear. 

We finally turned right to cross the creek and scramble a short way (short being relative), very steep and slow, straight up to the MST, which was thankfully flat and wide.  The bushwhacking wore me out.  I had to stop to eat a tiny Clif bar – running out of energy.  I am not good at eating while walking – no kidding, I can’t chew and swallow and breathe hard at the same time.  But it was too cold to stop for long.  Now snow was an inch deep, melting in some spots, slippery.

The MST utilizes many old logging roads in this neck of Pisgah National Forest 

A side stream trickling/freezing  

Ninja Jeff

The rhododendron say it's too cold to be out here

The MST carried us for several uneventful miles and then we turned right for another uphill bushwhack to the Blue Ridge Parkway - closed to traffic, remember?  We were looking forward to this part, the easy walking and expansive views at the overlooks, but out on the open road the wind was bitter and again it was too cold to stop to enjoy (high 20’s before the wind chill).

We paused oh-so-briefly at Richland Balsam Overlook, the highest point on the BRP.  Jeff pointed out the rock face across the road from the sign and said, “That’s the short way up to the Richland Balsam Trail.” 

And here I go.

Scrambling up, my hiking poles were worse than useless, kept getting caught on rocks.  I was always leaning slightly in so it wasn’t true rock climbing, but definitely scrambling - whew, out of breath at the top.  Then there was the half-mile trail to the summit  - remember, we are here to make a summit, ladies and gentleman - gaining more elevation than I had thought about today. 

I hope this is the summit (nope – but close)

Near the bench I took off my gloves for the world’s quickest bathroom break, then to peel and eat a hardboiled egg and put on outer layers of rain pants and jacket.  In that few minutes my fingers got so cold that I could not feel them.  I had to drop the egg into my pocket and pull on my thickest gloves (I was carrying 3 pairs).  Jeff complained of very cold hands too and we both started moving quickly downhill, almost jogging, and I put my gloved hands inside my jacket pockets and briskly rubbed my stomach trying to warm them up.  One by one my fingers began to tingle on each hand, really hurt like pins and needles.  It took 10 minutes to get to the other end of the Richland Balsam Trail at the parking area and my fingers began to feel normal.  Very scary.  I had the sobering thought that we needed to be extra careful because if one of us got hurt we would be in bad shape in this cold while waiting for help. 

From the bottom of Richland Balsam we walked on the Parkway towards Reinhart Knob, but we did not enjoy the easy walk because of blasting cold winds blowing snow around on the road surface, stinging our faces.  Time was getting crucial – nearly 5 p.m. now – was there enough daylight to get back to the car?  Not likely.  We weren’t sure how many miles we had to go.

Using Jeff’s GPS track we scrambled to the summit of Reinhart Knob, a long, tough bushwhack.  The snow was a little deeper.  We both put our cameras away and got serious about finishing this hike.  The summit is covered with trees, no view, no desire to take a picture.  Again my poles were of little use and I briefly debated leaving them behind.  Then on the descent they were marginally helpful. The downhill bushwhack was slippery snow and we were scurrying because of the hour.  I will confess that sliding down in some places on my rain paints was almost fun.  I was increasingly concerned about getting hurt, though.  In hindsight I do wish I had some photos of what we were crawling over, under, around and through – but no time for posing.  Did I mention it was freakin’ cold?

We arrived back at Bearwallow Creek and crossed back over it in the area where we had crossed in the morning, what seemed like a hundred hours ago.  This was our last bad obstacle in the fading light.  We began retracing our steps on the logging “road” – didn’t seem so intimidating now because we knew what those conditions were.  Still, that last mile-and-a-half seemed to drag on as the sky turned pink, then purple, then darker purple.  We were determined not to use head lamps, and we didn’t.  It’s amazing how long daylight seems to hang on with no artificial lights, a slow fade.

Back at the car at nearly 7:00 p.m. – wow – eight hours to complete what turned out to be a 12-mile hike.  We crept back down the rutted road, Jeff driving again, and back on the pavement conditions were icy and the car slid a couple of times.  After an eternity we arrived at our meeting spot, dirty and starving, and after a well-deserved  meal we went our separate ways.  We agreed never to do that particular hike again.  I got home around midnight. 

Later I told a few people about this hike and the reaction was invariably, “That sounds just plain awful.”  Was it?  I’ve done a couple of shorter bushwhack hikes with Jeff in warmer weather and more vegetation where we’ve gotten dirty and scratched.  Hiking is hard physical exertion in any season and I’m not afraid of sweating or breathing hard or being exhausted.  Any marathoner, rock climber, cyclist, whatever, will tell you that his/her sport is physically demanding and the completion of a challenge is exhilarating.  Hiking is the same.  Since we had a successful outcome, of course it was a great, epic hike. 

The added element of the cold was the sketchiest part and we made one careless but big mistake.   With the last-minute changes in routes, neither of us had left a hike plan with anyone.  We were parked on a deserted logging road that likely no one would travel on for days.  I am embarrassed to admit that, but to everyone reading this, please don’t ever hike without leaving a detailed plan with someone and a window of time to call in.  In warmer weather, if one of us got hurt he/she could stay put while the other walked out for help.  In those cold conditions, though, the situation would have been much more serious. 

So…24 out of 40 SB6K peaks done.  What next?


Linda W. said...

Loved your tale of the latest adventure! What a hike! Glad to hear your outing had a safe outcome and good story too.

smoky scout said...

Although my writing concentrates on the extreme conditions, it really was a beautiful day and we enjoyed the challenge immensely.