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CLOUD ART

 

On Friday evening, I got on the internet to check for road closures in the area around the Black Mountains.I was planning a solo backpacking trip that weekend, and wanted to make sure I could get there.While I was browsing, I noticed that Mount Mitchell State Park was closed because of damage to the Parkway during the hurricanes.I had been planning a loop in the northern Black Mountains, but began to reconsider.If the park was closed, there would be no crowds at the summit of Mount Mitchell.Climbing Mitchell is always something of a disappointment.You hike uphill all day, only to encounter a huge crowd of people who had reached the summit in the comfort of their cars.It definitely takes away from the experience.

 

With the Parkway closed, I had a unique opportunity.Iíve been to Mitchell in the winter, and in nasty weather, and there have still been at least a few cars there.For this weekend, there was the chance that I could have the peak to myself.†† It was too tempting to pass up.

 

I planned an ambitious route starting from Carolina Hemlocks.Iíd climb 3000í in 4 miles to reach Deep Gap on the Black Mountain Crest.From there, Iíd follow the rugged ridgeline over a series of 6000í peaks before culminating my hike on the summit of the highest mountain in the eastern United States.Then, Iíd descend to Commissary Ridge to camp.On Sunday, Iíd return to Carolina Hemlocks on the Buncombe Horse Trail.It was a challenging plan, but a fitting one for experiencing Mitchell in a more primitive state.

 

I drove to Marion on Saturday morning and stopped at a rest area.I found out that highway 80 to Spruce Pine had just reopened the day before.On the drive up 80, I past several spots where rock and mudslides had recently been cleared.I passed under the parkway and continued into the Toe River Valley.Is there a more dramatic view from a road in the southeast than the one from highway 80 up to the Black Mountains?The jagged cliffs of the range towered directly overhead, and my pulse began to race.I had the same thought I always have when confronting that view.Am I really going to climb up there?

 

I reached the Colbert Ridge Trailhead after only a 2 Ĺ hour drive from Charlotte.I readied my gear and had a snack before Saucony and I headed up the trail.

 

The path starts gently before reaching several unmarked junctions.I took all of the turns leading uphill, and soon the climb was quite steep.After an hour, we stopped at a cliff that provided great views to the east and south.I gave Saucony some water before we resumed our grunt to the top of the range.

 

The trail eventually left the ridge and began angling to the south towards Deep Gap.I worked my way around one fallen tree, but an immense spruce blocking the trail was a bigger challenge.I remembered this fallen tree from the last time Iíd hike Colbert Ridge, some three years ago.I crawled under it and pulled my pack behind me.Once past the trunk, I still had to crawl over, under, and around a tangle of branches before I was in the clear.After that, the rest of the climb to Deep Gap was easy.I stopped for water at the first of two streams, and reached the saddle on the ridge a few minutes later.I had lunch in a pleasant grassy clearing, although the views were now obscured by clouds that had rolled in during my climb.

 

While I was eating, I was startled by a dayhiker coming from Mitchell.He had started at the same trailhead and hiked all the way to Mitchell and was on the return.His hike covered 16 miles, with a huge elevation gain.I was impressed, though he wasnít carrying a pack like mine.

 

After lunch, I tackled the climb out of Deep Gap.I knew this would be one of the biggest remaining challenges of the hike.I was pleasantly surprised that I was feeling pretty good.Iíve done plenty of easier hikes and found myself dragging, so it was a relief that my legs still felt strong.

 

I reached Tater Hill, and generally stayed above 6000í in elevation for the next 4 miles.Unfortunately, I missed out on the views from Tater Hill and Cattail Peak since the peaks were surrounded by fog.I was still a pleasant hike, especially since the worst of the climbing was behind me.I hiked on through a dark forest of spruce and fir, enjoying the scent of fresh balsam the entire way.

 

A final stiff climb led to the top of Big Tom Mountain.From there, it was only a minor ascent to Mount Craig.Craig is only 20í lower than Mitchell, and actually offers better views.The clouds had cleared partially, allowing views west to the Craggy Mountains, north along the crest of the Blacks, and south to the summit of Mitchell itself.I stopped for a snack, and Saucony had a nap right in the middle of the trail.I was enjoying a great hike, but I think she was getting more than she bargained for.

 

I descended into the forest before the final climb to Mount Mitchell.Near the top, I stopped in the picnic area and filled up on water at a fountain.From there, I ascended steps, followed by pavement, and more steps.Another stretch of pavement led to the Mount Mitchell ghost town.The concession stand, weather center, and museum were all closed up.Tumbleweed blew across the empty expanse of pavement that normally serves as a parking lot.There wasnít a single SUV, minivan, tour bus or motorcycle to be seen.There were no screaming children nor dysfunctional families.The silence was deafening.

 

I crossed the parking lot and hiked the final 100 yards to the summit.Iíve been to Mitchell many times where we skipped the summit tower out of indifference.Not this time though.After the climb I had completed, passing it up would have been a crime.

 

I climbed the steps and emerged at the top, where I was startled by a person.There was another solo backpacker there enjoying the solitude.He had come up the same way I had earlier that day, but oddly planned on returning to Deep Gap to camp.I was curious as to why he hadnít set up camp there and dayhiked to Mitchell, but decided not to ask.

 

He left a few minutes later, leaving the summit to me.The tower on Mitchell stood out of the clouds like an island in a sea of white.The clouds rolled in and crashed against the highest peaks like some sort of crazed tide.More clouds raced overhead in a bizarre display of ever-changing patterns.If you believe in clouds as an art form, this was the place for you.For my part, I felt like a mad sorcerer, standing on top of my tower in the midst of a storm of my own creation.

 

The setting sun put an end to those fantasies.I hustled the last mile and a half down the Mount Mitchell trail to Commissary Ridge to camp.I found a nice campsite in the meadow near the site of the old shelter.I was just setting up camp when a group of backpackers arrived.They had hiked up that afternoon from the Black Mountain Campground on the Mount Mitchell Trail.The meadow is the only likely camping spot, and they asked me if I cared if they camped at the other end.I told them I didnít mind, but it was nice that they asked.

 

That evening I enjoyed a jambalaya dinner and some liquid pain killer courtesy of my friends at Seagrams.I reflected on my hike.I had gone 8 miles to the summit of Mitchell.In the process, I climbed 6 peaks over 6000í in elevation, and climbed approximately 5000 feet.On the way, Iíd consumed 6 quarts of water.Statistically speaking, it would be hard to come up with a tougher day of hiking in the southeast.I was surprised that I was still feeling pretty good by the time I headed for the tent at 9:30.

 

BLOODY HELL

 

I could barely walk the next morning.My legs were tight and my left foot was killing me.So much for feeling good.I was up early because the blue sky was tempting me to hike the mile and a half back up to the Mitchellís summit.Iíve heard that the sun only shines on Mount Mitchell 2 days out of 10, and Saturday had not been one of those days.That pain in my foot changed my thinking quickly though.Instead, I used my early wake up to get an early start on the trail home.

 

The Buncombe Horse Trail is poorly named for a couple of reasons.First, itís not in Buncombe County.Second, itís hard to imagine that a horse has ever traveled it.The path is so overgrown, itís hard for a person to get through, never mind a horse.In fact, the trail is such a mess, I would strongly discourage anyone from hiking it if it werenít so scenic.The views are so good, itís almost worth the misery.Not quite, but almost.

 

The first section of trail from Commissary Ridge to the Big Tom Gap Trail junction was a marsh.I crossed about a dozen streams and even more expanses of boot-sucking mud.Occasional views took my mind off the muck though.The best scenery on this stretch is from a small clearing not far from the Big Tom Gap Trail junction.

 

After the junction, the trail became more primitive.Some sections are badly overgrown.I reached a fork, and went left.This was a mistake.The path led through a miserable tunnel of weeds before reaching Maple Camp Bald.At the bald, it rejoined the other trail, which is fairly clear.If you hike here, stay right at the fork!

 

From the bald, expansive views open up to the Black Mountain peaks, the Blue Ridge, and more mountains in the distance.I enjoyed a long, pleasant break here, and noted that clouds were already building around the peaks.The morningís blue sky was disappearing fast by the time I resumed my hike.

 

I backtracked for 50 yards on the lower path to a vague junction.Here the trail heads down through an overgrown meadow, but no signs or markers indicate the turn.The trail is so faint, no normal person would think it was the correct route.Luckily, Iím not a normal person.Instead I plunged forward through the undergrowth, using my hiking stick like a scythe.I didnít hesitate until I reached the first brambles.The thorns added blood and pain to the misery of the hike.I thought about turning back, but knew Iíd have to backtrack several miles and climb three 6000í peaks to get back to the Colberts Ridge Trail.My only other option was to plunge ahead.The only good thing about this section of trail was finding two portraits of George Washington among the brambles.They would pay for a well-deserved post-hike beer.

 

I sacrificed most of the skin on my legs and forearms, but finally found myself in a gorgeous forest of white pine.I love white pines, especially when it means the end of bushwhacking through a mile of thorns.Surprisingly, I was still on the trail.I realized this because, comically, there was a blaze on the first pine tree.I hadnít seen a marker in miles, but the next Ĺ mile of obvious trail was heavily blazed.Go figure.I did stop in the forest for lunch before resuming the hike.

 

Beyond the White Pines, I descended steadily on switchbacks.Initially I passed a rock outcrop with another nice view.From there, the path descended quickly into hardwood forest.I was surprised to find many leaves changing color, despite it being nearly a full week from the first of October.On the other hand, many green leaves were already on the ground thanks to the hurricanes.The so-called experts at the department of tourism are predicting a fantastic year for fall foliage, as usual.Call me skeptical, but Iíll believe it when I see it.

 

On my descent, I crossed a stream that had been diverted during the flood.Most of the water was now running directly down the trail.The trail has enough challenges, so I grabbed a stick and went to work.I cleared out the proper channel, and built a dam out of rocks and mud to keep the water off of the path.I was at it for 30 minutes before I realized that I hadnít done this sort of thing since Iíd been in elementary school.I guess being able to stop and play in a creek for 30 minutes is one of the benefits of hiking solo.

 

So far, the Horse Trail had started out ugly, was pretty briefly, then ugly again, followed by beautiful, then horrible, and once again pretty.Fittingly, it ended on an ugly note.The final descent was on a rocky roadbed that was not kind to my aching feet.At the lower end, I passed several unmarked junctions, but somehow guessed correctly at each one.My only error led me to someoneís house.If you hike this trail (even after reading this report), look for a large Tuliptree (a.k.a Yellow Poplar) with a strange curve in the trunk about 20 feet up.The tree is just past a 4-way junction on the left side of the trail.The path actually turns left here and ascends for some distance before arriving at a large stream.I rock hopped the creek without any trouble.I passed a couple of campsites here, and signs of horse use were everywhere.The horses donít make it to Maple Camp Bald any longer, but there is some horseback riding going on in the valleys.In fact, I saw 2 people on horses just before reaching the trailhead.They were the first people Iíd seen all day.

 

I passed a gravel parking area and followed a narrow dirt drive out to the main road.From there, it was a Ĺ mile of walking on the pavement to get back to the car.It was the end to a great adventure, but Iím not in any hurry to hike the Buncombe Horse Trail again.At least not until the scars heal.




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