… sometimes feels like an almost daily thing. March 29 for sure felt brutal.
I spent the night camped with about 25 or 30 others at Bly Gap. It was a really nice bunch bunch of folks and we had a huge toasty fire with lots of hiker talk and off-color jokes. The night was clear and cold. When I woke up at about 11 to pee, I wondered why the person in the tent behind mine had their headlamp shining my direction. When I woke up a little more fully, I realized it was a gorgeous bright moon. Stepping outside my tent to take care of business, the night was magical… a stunning sky lit by a glorious moon and, off in the distance, I could hear a pair of owls calling to each other through the dark. I got to experience this magic again at about 4 AM but the moon was mostly gone by then, taken over by clouds.
As beautiful as the night was, I did not sleep well. I had been tired and cold all day and my body just could not seem to relax and get comfortable. I was warm enough but my calves kept cramping and waking me. Adding to that, I had camped on the flattest space available but I still was on a slope and kept slowly sliding sliding sliding towards the door of my tent. The night before, I barely slept in a shelter where it had gotten down to 15° and this night was probably about 20° there in Bly Gap.
I woke in the morning determined this time to make myself a hot breakfast to start my day right! After a breakfast of coffee, cocoa, oatmeal, and salami, I prepared my pouch of lunch and snacks (including a high protein orange yogurt smoothie in a small Nalgene bottle for later that morning), got everything packed up and headed out of camp at the late hour of 9:45 AM.
The rest of my campmates were heading to Standing Indian Shelter 7.7 mi away, a distance I felt was probably beyond my ability, given my lack of good sleep for the previous two nights. My goal was to hit Muskrat Creek Shelter (2.8 mi) for a late lunch and decide at that point how much farther I would want to go.
And right after the gnarled tree, I hit knee high log-bermed steps taking me up about 500′ ele in maybe 1/4 mi. OOF! Wow, that made the old glutes burn, let me tell you!!!! At the top, I found a lovely log to sit on and have my little orange smoothie. I unscrewed the lid, put the bottle to my mouth … and my taste buds were shocked! This is not an orange yogurt smoothie! No … I had grabbed the wrong baggie of orange powder and made myself cold tomato soup!!! I consoled myself with half of a Big Sur Bar and could only laugh at myself. 🙂
Everything kept going up and I asked myself at one point does North Carolina only go up? Will there be any down at all in this state?
Courthouse Bald (summit 4666′) was beautiful with it’s craigy rocks and rhododendron forests.
Have I mentioned before how enamored I am with the rhododendron forests? I absolutely love the wide glossy dark green leaves and the twisty, slightly shaggy branches that arch over the trail to create an inviting shadowy tunnel of green. At this elevation however, that shadowy tunnel enabled the snow to remain and get packed down into near ice by the footsteps of previous hikers. You had to watch where you placed every step so carefully. Where there was no snow-turned-to-ice, there was often thick deep black mud. Several times a foot would start to slide and it was very slow going for me but with the footsteps and slide marks of the previous hikers, I had a bit of warning where the slipperiest spots where.
It was getting later and later; I was getting tired and beginning to consider that I might actually stay the night at the shelter coming up. Finally I made it to Muskrat Creek Shelter. It was 3 PM. 😦 The floor of the shelter had somehow flooded and turned to ice or perhaps it had simply filled with snow and been packed down but stepping into the shelter felt like stepping into a refrigerator; it was immediately and obviously colder inside the shelter than outside. No way was I going to spend the night there! I heated up my tomato soup for a late lunch and discussed options with a few other thru-hikers who stopped in for the same purpose. We pretty much all came to the conclusion that nobody wanted to spend the night in the icebox masquerading as a shelter so, one by one we used the privy (ice on the floor!), finished our lunches/snacks, and headed on down the trail with the idea of stealth camping at Deep Gap 4 mi away.
I was already getting tired and the idea of four more miles … 😦
That’s when the snow started to get deep. My first warnings were the 2′ deep drifts of snow alongside the trail which eventually became 2′ of snow everywhere with the trail cutting through, packed down again like ice. It was slippery enough when level but on a long long downhill, it was downright treacherous. I lengthened my hiking poles and proceeded slowly and cautiously as I was able. It was evident that hikers before me had slid, slipped, and fallen. I wasn’t surprised… It would’ve been far easier to go down that one long hill on skis or a toboggan! I was so close to losing my footing many many times. Still not sure how I managed to stay upright through that entire thing. There was one point where I slid about 3′ down the trail without losing my balance as if snowboarding.
Then the snow started coming down. I’d had a few flakes falling here and there but now the snow began in earnest… big fat clumpy chunks of snow. It was sticking this time, piling up and eventually obscuring the footprints of those who had gone before me. With the heavy cloud cover, I was starting to lose light and I really really wanted to get down off that mountain. Though I was hungry and there was rehydrated beef stew sitting in my pack, I did not want to take the time to stop and eat. The footing was getting more and more tricky as I had to pick my way across rock fields with 1-2″ of snow obscuring the difference between rock and ice. There were trees fallen across the trail that I had to climb over much like mounting a horse on one side and then dismounting on the other. What’s up with that North Carolina? Have you not heard of these amazing inventions called chainsaws?
Trying to hurry… trying to be careful… Somehow I put my right foot down and it slid to the left and I did some incredible aerial acrobatic and rolled/slid about 7– 10 feet downhill off the trail. Fortunately there was a 2′ deep snowbank to cushion my eventual landing. I laid there for a moment… mentally checking out all my parts… am I okay? My right wrist, back, and right knee all felt twisted …. but nothing was terrible; nothing was screaming. Nothing was broken! I had landed head downhill, on my back, with my pack on. Those lovely fat flakes of snow were falling in my face and the trees and sky looked really cool from that position but …. I had to get up and out of there and nobody was there to help me out. I was on own. THAT process would probably have been worthy of America’s Funniest Home Videos. Shift, roll, grab, use the hiking poles … it was a process! Think of what a turtle would go through if you put it on its back … with its head downhill … in the snow.
As much as I wanted to get off the mountain, I was that much more careful with my every step. There was no hurrying. If I have to do this in the dark, I have a headlamp. That would not have been my first choice but I would rather hike safely with a headlamp than recklessly in faltering daylight.
Three times I thought surely Deep Gap and the parking lot was around the curve and each time when I came around that bend in the trail, there was more trail. I had to stop thinking/expecting because the disappointment was just too much. I wondered if I had somehow passed the gap and was on my way to Standing Indian Shelter? I couldn’t possibly of passed the gap which was a forest service road, but… I felt like I had been hiking forever! Indeed I had been hiking for many hours, albeit slowly. I had to set all expectations aside because standing there feeling helpless and disappointed was not going to get me out of what could be turning into a dangerous situation. I had no choice but to hike on. So I did.
The trail curved and I suddenly saw way below me the road and I cheered! I still had to pick my way through the icy mud and rocks carefully and came into the parking lot unsure of my next step. Okay… To be perfectly honest my next step was to pee! There was an old fire ring and places to put up tents and it was nearly dark so didn’t have a lot of options. My first choice was to catch a ride into town, get a hot shower, dry bed, and buy Micro Spikes for my shoes before tackling the next mountain. I walked through the parking area holding my phone up to the sky, trying to get a good Verizon signal when a minivan pulled in (nearly ran me over), parked and disgorged a bunch of Boy Scouts and troop leaders. “Hey, are you going into town?” I boldly asked the strangers.
So here I am… safe, warm, and dry … a few odd deep bruises and a little sore but okay.
Yeah …. kinda brutal!