Sunday, May 18, 2014

Graybeard Mountain Summit - Success At Last

Graybeard Mountain Summit – 3/8/14 - 9 Miles

Like all love relationships, sometimes a hike is simple and sometimes it’s complicated.  The challenge of Graybeard Mountain has eluded me for several years.  Is it ultra-difficult?  Is it trailless?  Is it legendary?  Nah.  I just had a mild crush, not a burning desire, so the couple of times I’ve penciled it on the calendar the weather has been uncooperative and I’ve easily talked myself into going for a cup of coffee instead.  The one time I actually got on the trail, my hiking partner and I ran out of time and had to turn around before reaching the summit.  (How close were we?  Probably a quarter of a mile.) 

Hope springs eternal, and today was the day.  The Carolina Bergs were going to Montreat, so I knew the hike would be accomplished rain, shine, sleet or snow, daylight or dark, with food and fellowship at the end of the trek. 

Graybeard Mountain is near Montreat, NC, in the backyard of Black Mountain, home to Montreat College and evangelist Billy Graham.  The town’s cottages, both quaint and majestic, are tucked among the rhododendrons on narrow winding roads in this tiny cove with mountains rising on all sides.  One way in, one way out.   There are many great hike options on private conservation land with trails open to the public.  A trail map can be picked up at the Montreat Store at the conference center or  print one from this website.  (While you’re there, visit the College’s Chapel of the Prodigal to see Ben Long’s fresco “Return of the Prodigal.”)

Our loop started with a short road walk from the Graybeard Trail parking area to Suwanee Road and the Big Piney Ridge Trail, where we all quit talking for the 1.5-mile steep, steep, steep ascent.  Traces of snow on the ground were noted.  Little did we know what was coming.

A view of Graybeard Mountain from Big Piney Ridge Trail – how far did you say that was?

The loop turned right onto West Ridge Trail, the ridge itself called the Seven Sisters for seven gently rising peaks that lead increasingly upward to Graybeard Mountain.   An open rock face area on Big Piney (aka Brushy Knob) was a place to pose for photos, allowing us to catch our breath.

The steep climb was a warmup and now the slow and steady work began as we hauled our butts over the Sisters.  As advertised, the trail was rugged…and then there was that snow. 

And snow

And rock scrambling in snow

The day was warm and the snow was melting, the caution flags going up for us to slow down on the slippery surfaces.  One new member to our group mumbled something about not reading the fine print on the hike website.  We pressed on past the time we were hungry because Steve kept looking for “the rock” to eat lunch on and we wearily followed, increasingly wondering at his senility and whether said rock really existed.  BUT we did eventually find the rock – and it was perfect – and we enjoyed sitting and eating on top of a snowy mountain on a beautiful crisp clear day. 

After 2.5 miles of steady ascent the trail reached its junction with the Graybeard Trail at a point known as Big Slaty or False Graybeard.  The snow was deeper and we slowed down even more for the remaining .3 miles.  

The summit of Graybeard Mountain, 5,408 feet, was once clear but is now becoming overgrown.  The view directly north is a sweeping vista of the Black Mountain Range.  Mount Mitchell, the highest mountain in the eastern United States at 6,683 feet, is the distant peak to the right of the distinct white snow patch near the center of the photo.

With a chill breeze blowing and the clock running out, we did not linger long at the summit.  Backtracking .3 miles down to the junction, we turned left to follow the Graybeard Mountain Trail down to our starting point.  The steepness of our ascent had to be negotiated now going down and the slushy factor had increased with the strong sun.  Several people slipped but I set the record for two spectacular falls.  

Mike and Steve at the fire ring of Walker’s Knob Shelter.  The shelter is a great base for spending the night near the summit to catch a sunrise from Graybeard.  Reservations should be made through the Montreat Nature Center.  

After another mile of slip-n-slide the trail gentled out to long switchbacks.  A few extra steps at one turn gives a close-up of Graybeard Falls, a little underwhelming today but may be more robust after a good soaking rain.   

After two more switchbacks the trail followed Flat Creek, criss-crossing it several times, to finish our loop at the parking area.  Along this section we encountered several groups of late afternoon hikers.  I wondered how many of them would make it to the summit in the snow and back down before dark?

An excellent and more detailed description of this loop hike going in a counterclockwise direction is at this website. 

The perfect ending to a day of hiking in Montreat is a meal at My Father’s Pizza in nearby Black Mountain.  Enjoy local beers and hard ciders and make sure you are not the designated driver!

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”  ~Annie Dillard

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