Black Mountains Backpacking

When the Shenaniconglomerate sets its eyes on a four day weekend, it dreams big. This New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day landed conveniently on a Thursday/Friday, allowing a perfect amount of time for a nice cruisey backpacking trip. The question was, where to? I pulled up google maps, zoomed out of my location enough to see a map covering everything within a 12 hour driving radius, and went to work. If I saw a bumpy part on the map (mountains) or green parts (national/state forests), I’d zoom in, get the name, and google image search it. If the pictures made me go “meh,” I’d move on to the next location. If they made me go “ooooo,” I’d take a mental note (i.e. forget it immediately; darn concussions). There were a couple of places that made me go “wow,” though, and those were the ones I did a bit of investigative work on.

First, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. No, this wasn’t the first I’ve heard of it, nor did I just realize it was in driving range; I had already been there on several occasions, and had backpacked there as recently as last year. However, it’s a big park, and I knew there’d be some good stuff in there that I hadn’t done before.

Second, was a gem I had not even heard of before: The Black Mountains in Pisgah National Forest (North Carolina). Extensive googling of the area uncovered the Black Mountain Crest Trail, a trail described by some as “a nice, challenging walk,” but more accurately described by most others as “extremely challenging,” “treacherous,” “the most difficult trail in all Appalachia.”

12552947_10153953704540774_243872359193343299_nAnd this was the easy part!

We decided that we shouldn’t just hit one mountain range…we should hit both. The Smokys are great, a definite staple on any backpacker’s résumé. The Black Mountains are boringly named, but contain five of the top ten highest peaks east of the Mississippi river. More on that later. Now that we knew what we wanted to do, we had to find some friends to do it with. Tierney, Thomas, Andrea, Marissa, and Kent all were keen, so we worked out the details (i.e. what day/state to meet in) with them and told everyone to dress warm.

Tier, Thomas, Tim and I left on Wednesday, December 29th at 10:30pm (we would meet up with Marissa and Kent on Friday). Car snacks, excitement, and open road kept us awake… and Thomas brought Mad Libs! We got through just two lines of Ninja Turtles Mad Libs before Tierney made us stop playing because our suggestions were inappropriate. Even without Mad Libs, we were able to keep the driver awake the entire time by switching drivers every few hours. We didn’t crash, only got lost twice, and nobody got tetanus from any of the gas station bathrooms. We arrived in Pigeon Forge a bit after sunset, hit a Wal-Mart for some last minute food items, and got ourselves some breakfast at a pancake house. NOT A WAFFLE HOUSE. Thomas and Tier were outvoted 3-2 and democracy prevailed, saving us from a truly, truly terrible fate that surely awaited us in the bowels of southern American ultra-casual dining. We’re all about adventure and staring Death in the face, but eating at waffle house would be like french-kissing him.

After a gruelingly slow drive through the Las Vegas – I mean Gatlinburg – the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains, we found our way up to the Newfound Gap parking lot. The parking lot lies on a saddle with North Carolina on one side and Tennessee on the other (pick your poison). After testing our luck with some cliffside pictures, we hit THE trail… the Appalachian Trail!

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The Appalachian Trail is notorious for being challenging, 2000 miles long, and probably deadly [insert link to dozens of news stories of people dying on the trail]. I don’t think we were prepared to hike the whole thing in one day, so we decided just to do a couple miles of it then hop onto another trail. This trail turned out to be less of a trail and more of a series of river crossings followed by walking down creeks to get to more river crossings only to be met with more river crossings. This seven mile hike that we had planned out on paper to take just four hours took seven. Some of that, however, was due to our half hour stop at the Chimney Tops summit.

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Where did you spend your New Year’s Eve?

Tier had already seen the Chimney Tops and was wary about hiking this strenuous trail with an expired inhaler, so she waited at the trailhead and guarded the path from bears, while the rest of us took off without flashlights up the steep, stair-infest path. The 2.2 mile out-and-back hike was basically straight up and down, taking you from below the fog to above the fog but still below the clouds. I can’t imagine better conditions. The Smoky Mountains are sometimes too “smoky” to see the scenery, but tonight the fog covered just the valleys, leaving the tips of the mountains visible. The clouds above the mountains were wispy and backlit by the last sunset of 2015. That’s enough description, here, have another picture.

12493708_10153946033935774_1126200880991713221_oThis picture is worth way more than the  words I just described it with.

We spent a lot of time taking pictures and sword fighting with our trekking poles, so we were running out of light. Thomas and I started jogging back down the mountain in case Tier had a bear in a headlock and needed some help finishing it off, while Andrea and Tim took a leisurely stroll down, resigning themselves to their fate: walking the rest of the trail in the dark. Tier and I sped off ahead to try to get hitchhiking before the last of the dusk-light faded. We failed. We got to the road in the pitch black but stuck our thumbs out anyway. It was either that, or a 6 mile walk back to the car, uphill along a dangerous road. Fortunately, a honeymooning couple was departing from that same parking lot and offered us a ride. We fetched the van and swung back to grab Tim, Andrea, and Thomas before setting out for the next leg of our adventure.

A short two hours after we left the Smokies, we finally found a place to rest up before the next big day: the Bolen’s Creek “parking lot”. I use the term “parking lot” lightly, because it was just a pit of mud near the end of a one lane driveway that led to some private property. But lo, a sign confirming that we had indeed reached our destination.

12591864_10153960078175774_1896257056_oI Noah guy who can never find an arking space.

The above photo was taken during the day, but we arrived at night, right around 10pm probably. We parked, explored, and ultimately ended up camping a quarter mile up the dirt 4×4 trail…right at the END of the Black Mountain Crest Trail, at the fork of a river. We settled down in the pitch black next to a rushing river and chowed down on some dinner: Spaghetti and champagne to ring in the New Year! We were in our tents (well, Thomas was in his hammock) by midnight but still awake to let out a tired, but hearty, cheer. Then to sleep.

Waking up the next day around 7:30am, we were able to get a fast start to what would turn out to be a long day. Up to this point, we hadn’t met up with Marissa and Kent yet, but they knew where to meet us and we knew we had some time. Since we started so fast, why hurry? So we didn’t. We made a pound of bacon and 18 scrambled eggs, because we needed all the sodium and fat and protein we could get for the day (and because that’s what we have for breakfast on a typical day anyway). We also had tea. With the extra bacon grease, we soaked the paper egg-carton and burned that and our teabags.

12540597_10153960126640774_2185904413061694247_nHappy twenty six-tea! … Go ahead and punch me.

After washing the dishes in the river and tearing down some of the camp, Marissa and Kent showed up! Hurray! We finished packing, we stocked up on water filtered from the river, swept the area, and packed out. We had to stuff the seven of us into one van and take an hour drive to the tippy top of the Eastern United States…Mount Mitchell! Also known as the start of the Black Mountain Crest Trail.

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The Black Mountain Crest Trail is a 12-mile traverse of some of the highest peaks in the eastern United States including: Mount Mitchell (6,684 ft.), Mount Craig (6,647), Balsam Cone (6,611 ft.), and Potato Hill (6,475 ft.). In total, between all the peaks, knobs, cones, mountains, summits, and hills, we were lookin’ to bag ten 6,000+ footers. All in a day’s… two day’s work.

We stopped in at the ranger station under the guise of finding out about weather and trail conditions, but with the real motive of trying to force out one last poop before heading out into the toiletless wilderness. The ranger on duty informed us that temperatures would plummet overnight and that they would be worst at Deep Gap, where all the wind funnels through a break in the peaks..

“Isn’t that the only place we are allowed to camp?”

“Yeah…”

Not to worry though; he assured us that it “shouldn’t drop below zero.” Finally, some good news…

Well, when the going get’s tough, the tough get going. And so do we. We laced up our boots, extended our trekking poles, hoisted our packs, and hit the trail. As per usual, we were off to a late start, but we still had about five hour of foggy daylight left and only four miles to go. No problem, right? By now you should know that this question is always followed by an account of some sort of problem, so let me tell you: It was still a problem. The terrain was so tough that we averaged less than a mile an hour. Remember that kid in your gym class, the rebel who would do the opposite of what he was told to do even if it made his own life harder, the one that walked his mile in the slowest shuffle of a pace humanly possible? Yeah, that guy is still posting a sub-30 minute mile, changing into his ripped jeans and obscure punk band t-shirt, and falling asleep in trig class by the time we finish our mile. I’ll give us some slack and mention that we weren’t trying to go fast, and we were taking a breather at each peak to admire the views and not die, but it was still pretty slow going.

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Also, photo shoots.

After more than four hours of altitudanal and emotional ups and downs, we reached Deep Gap. The ranger was not lying when he said this place was the worst for wind and temps. There became an immediate sense of urgency to find a place sheltered enough from the wind to set up our tents, get warm, and get some food in us. After passing a few very unpromising, exposed, windswept sites, we came upon a refuge beyond what we could’ve ever hoped for, sheltered from the wind and with enough flat(ish) ground for three tents (and two trees fro Thomas’ hammock, because he didn’t learn his lesson from the night before). It even had a fire circle (which is a fancy term to describe 8 rocks arranged in a circle, covered in ashes)! We hastily threw up our camp and got the kitchen cookin. Within minutes I had my burner and Tim’s Jetboil™ fired up inside my tent’s vestibule and started churning out rations of ramen and eggs. In the meantime, Kent, Marissa, and Andrea hunkered down in their tents, while Tim and Thomas moved the fire circle for some reason and got the fire going.

Both “fire” and “going” are generous descriptions of what they had and what it was doing. Nevertheless, it kept us warm enough to sit outside and enjoy each other’s company, instead of having to call it a night. The fire needed to be constantly fed, and firewood constantly scavenged. Sidenote: while looking for firewood on the windy side of the mountain, Tim found a torn up sleeping back in a bush. With no sign of the backpacker or the bear that most likely ate them, he took the extra layer and used it to keep a little bit warmer that night.

Although the fire was nice and warm, some of us warmed up further with some wine out of the 3 liter bag we brought along. We relaxed, listened to some 90’s jams, and ate an unconventional second camping dinner: nachos! Nachos are not naturally occurring, and they don’t exactly pack well if they’re pre made. We fried some tortillas in olive oil, mixed canned tomato with cheese and salsa-seasoning in a pot over a burner, and chowed down on our delicious creation.

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We were well into the evening when we heard another group of backpackers coming down the trail. We went up to meet them and see if they wanted to share in on our fire. They were three grizzled, seasoned backpackers who refused our offer to make room for their tents down in our safe haven, saying, “this is exactly what we signed up for!” They did however, after setting up their tents in the windiest spot on the saddle, come visit our warm fire for a bit. Tim was the only one of us still by the fire at that point, and what his health teacher told him in high school about not letting the bigger kids pressure you into trying drugs must’ve stuck with him, because he wisely refused all weed, shrooms, and whatever else those guys thought necessary to hike miles into the wilderness to consume worry-free. The rest of us were only caught snippets of conversation, as most of our efforts were focussed on not freezing to death in our sleeping bags.

The rest of the night was as restless as they come. The ranger was right when he said the temperatures would not drop below 0. They hit exactly 0. And didn’t stray too far from there the whole night. Each time I woke after catching a few winks (this is like, the only time this expression is ok; my eyes closed so briefly that it really did feel like I was just slowly winking) I prayed for daylight to come and get us up and moving. It never did. Well, it did, but it took literally forever. Day broke and so did the ice in our camelback hoses when we crushed them to get some sort of flow going. Even having our water next to us in the tent didn’t keep it from freezing nearly through. We laid out the little water (we never found the spring Tim read about online…) we had in a sunny spot to melt while we tore down camp.

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For once on this trip, we left on time, on the dot at 9:00am. We had done the math in our head: The parking lot on Mount Mitchell is gated closed at 6:00pm, meaning we need to get to the end of the trail by 4:30pm to drive over there, so… that gives us under eight hours to do about eight miles. If it’s anything like the start of the trail, we’ll need to pick up the pace from yesterday to have a shot at this. The first hour was not a promising one. It started with our longest uphill and was followed by several other ascents and descents of a similar difficulty to the day before, but this time we were already sore, tired, cold, and low on water. Our last ascent was Celo Knob, capping two days of elevation gains well into the thousands of feet. Here hope was restored. The signposts indicated that we were in for “more difficult,” rather than the “most difficult” hiking we had been doing. The path immediately became a significant amount wider, flatter, and downwardly angled.

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The next two hours were spent thanking one another for getting each other trekking poles for Christmas as we pounded down 4.6 miles of 3000 foot elevation loss. Still, there was a noticeable direct inverse correlation between elevation and spirit. We even found a creek to stop and fill up on water!

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We finished our journey at the campsite we had stayed at two nights before at Bolens Creek. We took one last victorious group picture before splitting up to go fetch the car back from Mount Mitchell. Kent zoomed Tier, Thomas, Marissa, and me up the windy mountain roads to our van, before we said our goodbyes and retraced our route to pick up Tim and Andrea. With the mountain at our back (and our front and all sides) we set off for dinner at our favorite Knoxville dining establishment, Calhoun’s on the River. We concluded our trip the only way we know how, by eating pounds and pounds of meat and potatoes. New years come and go, but some things never, and should never, change. Go outside.

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