COLD MOUNTAIN

 

 

ďAs Inman sat brooding and pining for his lost self, one of Swimmerís creekside stories rushed into his memory with a great urgency and attractiveness.Swimmer claimed that above the blue vault of heaven there was a forest inhabited by a celestial race.Men could not go there to stay and live, but in that high land the dead spirit could be reborn.Swimmer described it as a far and inaccessible region, but he said the highest mountains lifted their dark summits into its lowest reaches.Signs and wonders both large and small did sometimes make transit from that world to our own.Animals, Swimmer said, were its primary messengers.Inman had pointed out to Swimmer that he had climbed Cold Mountain to its top, and Pisgah and Mount Sterling as well. Mountains did not get much higher than those, and Inman had seen no upper realm from their summits.

 

Thereís more to it than just the climbing, Swimmer had said.Though Inman could not recall whether Swimmer had told him what else might be involved in reaching that healing realm, Cold Mountain nevertheless soared in his mind as a place where all his scattered forces might gather.Inman did not consider himself to be a superstitious person, but he did believe that there is a world invisible to us.He no longer thought of that world as heaven, nor did he still think that we get to go there when we die.Those teachings had been burned away.But he could not abide by a universe composed only of what he could see, especially when it was so frequently foul. So he held to the idea of another world, a better place, and he figured he might as well consider Cold Mountain to be the location of it as anywhere.Ē

 

From ďCold MountainĒ, by Charles Frazier.

 

 

 

Iíve been a bit frazzled over the last few months, and until recently, I didnít understand why.Then, the other day, I realized how infrequent my backpacking trips have been lately.Since thru-hiking the John Muir Trail over 22 days last summer, Iíve only managed two overnight trips.This is bad, because backpacking has always been the thing thatís kept me grounded.I live in a world (the so-called ďreal worldĒ), that I often find puzzling, if not downright inexplicable, and I occasionally need to punch out for a little while.Spending an extended period of time out in nature is what helps me hold the threads of my sanity together.Somehow, Iíd allowed myself to forget this.

 

Last week, a 3-day job in Greenville left me with an opportunity to squeeze in a mid-week backpacking trip.Even better, the hole in my work schedule coincided with an acceptable weather forecast.Although weíre in the middle of one of the wettest springs I can remember, the forecast promised dry weather on Thursday.More rain was expected by Friday afternoon, but I figured Iíd be well on my way out, if not back at the car, when the storms arrived.

 

I wrapped up my job at noon on Thursday and headed north.My goal was Cold Mountain, which Iíd last visited six years earlier.Cold Mountain has always been one of my favorite places (even before the book and the movie), but for some reason, I hadnít been there recently.I picked up lunch at Chik-Fil-A, but nearly choked on it when I passed by Furman University.Thereís something that just turns my stomach about that place.

 

I drove up through Asheville, and on to the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp, which is situated on the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River.Oddly, the Little East Fork is on the same side of the mountain as the West Fork, but on the opposite side from the Big East Fork.If you can explain how that makes sense, please let me know.

 

Anyway, I arrived around 2:30 and spent a few minutes puzzling over the parking situation.The road to the trailhead passes through the scout camp before reaching the National Forest boundary and the trailhead.All along the road near the trailhead, signs are posted stating that only National Forest Service parking is allowed.I was puzzled by this.Do the signs mean that only rangers and forest service personnel are allowed to park there? Or is it for users of the National Forest?I was unsure, so I parked in a small pulloff just across the boundary on camp property.That may not have been correct, either, but there wasnít really anybody around to ask.

 

I spent a few minutes loading my pack.By the time I was ready, it was 3:15. I knew the campsites near the top of the mountain were 5 or 6 miles ahead, and nearly 3000í up.Would I have enough time to get there before dark?I had hiked to Cold Mountain three times before, but Iíd never taken the direct route.On my first two trips, Iíd gone up the Little East Fork to Shining Rock, before following the Art Loeb Trail back north to Cold Mountain.On my last trip, Iíd taken the scenic route across the balds of Black Balsam and Tennent Mountain before passing Shining Rock and continuing on to Cold Mountain.This time though, I was forced to take the shortest approach, but I didnít really know how long it would take me.

 

The worst thing about taking the direct route to Cold Mountain is that there is no warm up.The trail climbs immediately, and the steepest part is right at the beginning.I started up on switchbacks, passing through a damp green jungle sprinkled with wildflowers.There was a tremendous variety of flora, but the White Violets and Nodding Trillium were dominant.At times it the forest floor looked like it was covered in fresh snow, thanks to the profusion of white flowers.Of course, there were other varieties as well.Yellow Violets, Violet Violets, and Mayapples were also prominent.Some of the Wild Azaleas were starting to bloom, and I saw my first Flame Azalea early on.One highlight was a Jack in the Pulpit, and high up on Cold Mountain, I saw some Lilies just beginning to sprout.Later in the trip, I found Wakerobin Trillium and Painted Trillium.The only flowers missing were Spring Beauties, which Iíd hoped to find high up on the Art Loeb Trail.

 

After the initial ascent, the grade moderated somewhat.The trail was still challenging though, and there were a few fallen trees blocking the way to add to the difficulty.Despite all of this, I pushed myself on, not allowing myself any extended breaks.This effort paid off, as I reached Deep Gap around 5:30.This was a relief, as I knew I only had another mile to go.I joined the spur trail to Cold Mountain there, and resumed the climb, passing a couple of tents as I left Deep Gap.This was a bit of a surprise, as I hadnít really expected to see anyone else on a Thursday in May.

 

The final climb was the worst, as the side trail up to Cold Mountain is steeper than the Art Loeb.I struggled a bit along here, mainly because of the heat and the humidity.I was soaked in sweat, which was a bit shocking, as I usually donít perspire much. Later I discovered that Iíd consumed more than 2 quarts of water on my three hour hike.

 

I finally passed the small piped spring, alerting me that my intended campsite was just ahead.A few minutes later, I reached the crest of Cold Mountain at the saddle between its two summits.There are a number of possible campsites here, and all of them were unoccupied.I took a flat, grassy spot surrounded by Beech Trees just off the trail.It was almost 6:30, which meant that I had plenty of time to set up camp before hiking to the summit for sunset.

 

I pitched the tent before searching for a tree limb to hang my food. I found the perfect limb, but quickly discovered that Iíd failed to bring the cord for the bear bag.I searched through my gear, and came up with a short piece of cord and an extra bootlace.Then I swiped two guylines off my tent, and tied everything together.I ended up with plenty of rope, and best of all, once I had the food up, there was enough leftover line that I was able to replace the guylines.

 

Once my chores were complete, I loaded my cooking gear, dinner, and water into my pack and headed up the mountain.The rest of the climb is fairly easy, but I was still struggling on dead legs.Fortunately it wasnít long before I reached the first of several rock outcrops.It offered a fantastic view of the Shining Rock Wilderness.I gazed to the south, out over a chaotic mass of soaring peaks and hidden valleys.The view from here is unlike any other in the southeast. Many of the best vistas reveal waves of parallel ridges marching off into the distance.The view here is completely different.It looks like one mountain range was hurrying off towards points west, while another was racing to the north, when they collided, leaving behind a jumble of elegant ridges and dark peaks.

 

Directly below, I could see Deep Gap, where Iíd hiked only a couple of hours earlier.Beyond Deep Gap were the rock outcrops of The Narrows leading up towards Stairs Mountain and Shining Rock.Beyond, I could see the high grassy balds of Tennent Mountain, Black Balsam, and Big Sam.Farther west, I spotted Fork Ridge, Green Knob, and Mount Hardy, and the Great Balsam Mountains beyond.Back towards the east, the tower on Fryingpan Mountain was visible, and I could just barely see the top of Looking Glass Rock high above the Davidson River Valley.Above those peaks, a full moon shown through the evening light.

 

The view from here was great, but there wasnít a good place to sit.I climbed on, passing more fine overlooks, before reaching the summit marker.Just below here is another grandstand view, complete with comfortable places to sit.I settled in there, and began cooking dinner as the retreating sun gradually changed the colors of the mountains below.This was wonderful, but there was one minor drawback.All of the views from Cold Mountain stretch from the southwest to the southeast.Unfortunately, in May, the sun sets in the west.As it dropped, I began to realize that my view of the sunset would be obscured.This was a bit of a disappointment, but only a minor one.In a place like this, itís hard to get too distraught over much of anything.

 

I finished up my Jambalaya dinner and clean up before heading back towards camp.Since Iíd miss the sunset anyway, I decided to go back before darkness fell.I was almost back to camp when I reached a narrow view through the trees to the west.The sun was long gone, but the sky over the Smokies was a brilliant red.I paused there for a few minutes to enjoy the colors before shuffling on back to camp.

 

I went to bed early that night, and despite ideal temperatures, I slept poorly.For some reason, I just couldnít seem to get comfortable.By 6 the next morning, I was groggy but ready to get going.I was hoping to beat the afternoon rain out, but I wanted to visit the summit of Cold Mountain one more time.

 

I loaded my pack again, and humped breakfast back up the mountain.I returned to my dinner spot, but continued out the ridge to the east.Here I found a partially obscured view of the rising sun between Mount Pisgah and the Craggy Mountains.Asheville and the surrounding valleys were dozing under a blanket of fog as the horizon gradually turned pink from the rising sun.Low clouds had moved in overnight, and they prevented me from actually seeing the sun rise.This was better though, as the colors rivaled those Iíd been treated to the previous evening.

 

I returned to my cooking spot and had breakfast.I was tempted to linger, but dark clouds building over the Smokies reminded me of the weather forecast.I hustled back down to camp to pack up.

 

 

THE SHINING ROCKS

 

ďOn the morning of the seventh day the people began climbing Datsunalasgunyi toward the Shining Rocks.They arrived just at sunset.The rocks were white as a snowdrift, and when the people stood before them, a cave opened like a door, and it ran to the heart of the mountain.But inside was light rather than dark.In the distance, inside the mountain, they could see an open country.A river.Rich bottomland.Broad fields of corn.A valley town, the houses in long rows, a town house atop a pyramidal mount, people in the square-ground dancing.The faint sound of drums.

 

Then there was thunder.Great claps and peals that seemed to be drawing near.The sky turned black and lightning fell around the people outside the cave.They all trembled, but only the man who had eaten the deer meat lost his senses from fear.He ran to the mouth of the cave and shouted the war cry, and when he did the lightning ceased and the thunder began to fade into the distance and soon it was gone, moving off to the west.The people turned to watch it go.When they looked back to the rocks, they saw no cave but only the solid face of white rock, shining in the last light of the sun.Ē

 

From ĎCold MountainĒ, by Charles Frazier.

 

 

 

I packed up quickly and hit the trail at 8:30. I descended to Deep Gap, enjoying the cool morning air and a fresh breeze.At the gap I met a couple there breaking camp.They had to hike all the way out to the Black Balsam parking area and were concerned about the weather.Their route would be high and exposed, which isnít ideal in a thunderstorm.I had a much safer escape route available, as I could simply hike back the way Iíd come.That wasnít really what I wanted to do though.I wanted to hike the Art Loeb Trail across The Narrows and on to Shining Rock, before descending the Little East Fork.Besides, it was only 9am.Surely the storms would hold off for another hour or two.

 

I headed south out of Deep Gap and began a stout climb.I had finally conquered the first steep pitch when I heard the first rumble of thunder.Turning around was still an option, but I foolishly pressed on.Soon the rock outcrops of The Narrows loomed ahead.I hurried across them, but paused to take in the views to the east and west.To the west, a wall of black clouds was racing towards me, up the Little East Fork Valley.I hurried onward, and now I really was past the point of no return.

 

The storm held off initially, enabling me to climb most of the way up Stairs Mountain without rain gear.This was a relief, as walking uphill with a pack while covered in Gore Tex can be miserable.Eventually the storm arrived though, and it came with a fury.The rain poured down, while thunder echoed off the surrounding peaks.Brilliant bolts of lightning flashed around me, and the temperature suddenly plummeted.Then the hail began to fall.The ice pellets pounded me, and my rain gear offered little protection from the frozen bullets.

 

I endured a nervous moment crossing the summit of Stairs Mountain before dropping down into the next gap.The trail was flooded here, and before long, my boots were soaked.I sloshed along, still cringing every time lightning flashed around me.Before long I found myself hiking through a lovely tunnel of dripping green fir trees.Then I began passing quartz boulders scattered along the mountainside.I realized that I was passing below Shining Rock, and that soon Iíd be heading down into the relative protection of the valley.

 

I found the large junction at Shining Rock Gap despite the limited visibility that the hood of my rain jacket allows.From there, I followed the Ivestor Gap Trail briefly.After only a few minutes, I reached the junction with the Little East Fork Trail.I took this path, which led down through more spruce and fir.Initially I followed an old railroad grade, before leaving it in favor of switchbacks.As I descended, the storm began moving away.Sometime later, I reached the Little East Fork of the Pigeon River.I paused there for a quick lunch, and the sun made its first appearance of the day.Itís funny, the afternoon thunderstorms Iíd expected started at 10am, and finished up right at noon.

 

Normally itís pretty easy to rock hop the river here, but thatís not the case immediately after a huge thunderstorm.I had to wade the river, but my boots were already soaked anyway.Once across, I followed an old road downstream, passing dozens of impressive cascades.There arenít any official waterfalls along here, but itís a great streamside hike anyway.There were some flowers, too, although the floral display didnít really compare to what Iíd seen the previous day.

 

Before long I reached the Scout camp and passed among a number of cabins and other camp buildings.I continued down the dirt road, before reaching an old cement bridge over the river.Once across, I turned left and walked a short distance to the Cold Mountain Trailhead and on to my car, which was just beyond.There I shed my wet clothes and gear, and prepared for the 3-hour drive home.It had been a great trip, and even better, the weekend had just begun!




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