Sunday
Mar142010

Breaking in During Lockdown

 Lockdown is when a prison tightens up. Nobody moves, the prisoners are confined to their cells, the guards are in the tower. No visitors are allowed, and nobody goes in or out. It seems this winter that the mountains of North Carolina and east Tennessee where on lockdown for most of the season. I made at least two ill fated attempts at going up to Pisgah National Forest, and these were after I had to turn around on the Haoe Lead trail back in December. For what ever reason I was out there on the wrong weekends. Nature was rioting and the mountains had been locked down. The Blue Ridge Parkway running from south of Asheville and ending in the Smokies was closed from December through the end of March because it was buried in so much snow. NC-215 and US-276 were blocked by downed trees or heavy snow both times I tried those routes. In January I helped the county engineer and her assistant clear out a downed tree so they could check the rest of the road. They drove off and I waited on them, they came back ten minutes later saying it only gets worse on up.

 I wanted to get up on the Art Loeb trail in Pisgah, camp out and experience some NC six thousand footers covered in snow. All of January and February for me, the mountains had been on lockdown as I was forced back home by the elements. Finally in March a break in was possible but it would take me two trips before I finally broke into the snowy summits at Flower gap along the Art Loeb trail.

 On the first attempt to go up Shining Creek trail my inexperience with the trail got me lost, and by the time I realized it I was committed to following Big East Fork river to its intersection with Shining Creek. At the time I really didn't mind that I was off course becuse I was walking off trail in the dee virgin snow and checking out the steep white slopes that converged on the river. When Big East Fork finally met Shining Creek I was elated, and turned and began following the creek looking for an intersection with the trail. At a certain point I decided to go straight up the slope and around forty feet up I grabbed onto the trail.

 The end result though was that I lost my window of opportunity to at least reach Shining Rock Gap. Being off trail and in deep snow the detour cost me about three hours of precious late winter sunlight. About a third of the way up I had to turn back and set up camp with about fifty minutes of daylight left. 

 I was checking out an area to set up camp when I was joined by two other hikers, Scott and Chris, who unfortunately for them had followed my tracks in the snow and who now themselves had no time to make it to the top and Flower gap either.  So we set up camp by stomping and digging out an area for the tents and another area for a fire. These guys had done it right, they had brought steaks and beer, and kindly offered me some of each.  I must admit they really had brought a high level of comfort to a winter camp out.

 The next day Chris and Scott left early and hiked on up towards Shining Rock Gap and I packed it in and had to head home.

 I got an email from Scott several days later with photos of him and Chris up at Shining Rock, camping in the snow and taking on the views. When I saw those pictures I knew I had to go back soon.  

  

 Two weeks later I was back at the trailhead and determined to at least make it to Flower Gap. This time I didn't miss the trail and was making good time up the mountain. A few miles in the snow tracks in the trail disappeared either from fresh snow fall or melting and re-freezing. There were a lot of trees blown down and so the trail was full of detours, but I kept close to the creek knowing it would eventually take me to a point where you leave it and go south along the ridge before reaching a number of switchbacks that lead to the summit. A bit before turning south I was contemplating where the trail was when a guy named Kip came up behind me. He was an officer in the Air Force stationed at the base in Charleston S. C. and it was his first time in the Shining Rock Wilderness. He had followed my tracks up Shining Creek and had caught up with me. We made the turn south along the ridge leaving the creek behind, but so many trees were blown down or weighted over by snow, and the snow so deep that we couldn't find the switchbacks. I had a real good idea of where we were and I knew we were really close to the Art Loeb trail and the summit at Flower Knob because we had started to angle up along the ridge and we could see sky and tree tops. So I told Kip we need to just go straight up the mountain and intersect with the trail that way.

 It was some of the most strenuous hiking I've ever done. The snow was so deep that when you'd put pressure on one leg to step with the other instead of giving you stability the leg would post hole up to your waist into the snow. Now you've got one leg buried in the snow and the other just kind of sitting on top of the snow. Basically you've got no leverage to take the next step. Anyone whose hiked in the deep snow with out snow shoes knows what I'm talking about. This miserable hindrance was repeated over and over for sometime. Downed trees were everywhere, and it was like an obstacle course, climbing over one tree and then crawling under the next one, and every few feet was another tree. My legs were maxing out when finally Kip popped out on the Art Loeb trail. I followed right behind and suggested we go south towards Flower Gap. The trails were so bad with deep snow and downed trees there was no sense in trying to go towards Cold Mountain.

 The Art Loeb trail was tough going too. It was basically the same scene we had just gone through being repeated again, except that instead of moving vertically we were moving horizontally. After what seemed like another hour of training on an obstacle course we finally broke out into Flower Gap. It looked like the surface of another planet. The snow was mostly smooth but shaped here and there by the wind with grooves or wafer thin craters. I don't know if anyone else had spent a night there since December when the first storms hit, but there were no tracks in the snow and no signs of anyone having been there all winter long.

 We climbed up on the summit at Flower Knob and the skies were so clear you could see all the way to Ashville and beyond to Mt Mitchell and the Black Mountains. I had finally broken into the mountains that had been trying to keep me locked out all winter and by breaking in I was rewarded by crystal clear skies at the summit and the feeling of being so free and alive.

It was a cold but beautiful night in the snowy mountains.

 

 The next morning we went back down the Old Butt Knob trail. For a while we followed some guys with snow shoes so the going was easy. Still the snow was so high you'd hit your head in the trees and the trekking poles would get stuck in them too. It was another clear day and we got lots of killer views. Eventually in the gap beneath Dog Loser Knob we picked up some tracks in the snow that took us down the steep trail home. Along that steep trail I lost sight of Kip and never saw him again. But I was sure he had a great story to tell when he got back to the base. 

 I don't know how long it will be until we have another winter like 2009/2010 in the southeast again but when the snow does fall next winter I'll pack my thief's sack and go back up and break into the mountains I love.

Sunday
Jan032010

UNFINISHED BUSINESS

Unfinished business is a term I use when evaluating the success/failure of my backpacking trips.

 Its that feeling like you left it all out there on the line but have nothing to show for it. Knowing you are the only one it matters to because nobody else shared your vision, your expectation, or your experience, makes it harder to accept. Unfinished business can take away your energy and leave you gloomy for some time.


Back in October I went into the Smoky Mountains to scout out some areas where to shoot some video for a project of mine. It was also a good chance to get some last fall camping in before winter season. I was staying at a site where you have to reserve a spot in advance, so even though the forecast called for rain on that Saturday I was totally committed to doing it anyway. Besides, the storm was moving quickly to the east and I figured it would be over with around noon. Instead it rained the entire day. Then it lightened up enough for awhile to where I could set up my tent/tarp and my neighbor Steve was able to get a fire going. Before we could really get the fire stoking hard rain started coming down heavy again and the fire was abandoned and I crawled into the tent to wait it out. And what a long wait, I didn't leave the tent again until nine the next morning when it did finally stop raining. I had spent a cold night, miscalculating the temperature I had left my mid-layer at home and was using my 45 degree (7 celsius) bag on a night the lows hit about 34 (1.1 c), so I had to sleep wearing my rain gear which wasn't enough. That morning the sun did eventually come out, but it was Sunday and I had to go home. At least I got all my gear dried out before I left. This bit of unfinished business will now have to be taken care of in the spring.

In December a snow storm was whipping up on North Carolina and East Tennessee on a Friday night. Even with news reports everywhere warning of severe weather and road conditions, I made plans to go to the Joyce Kilmer wilderness to camp out right in the middle of the storm. The idea was to go up the Haoe lead trail and get to the hangover so I could see and feel the snow storm go by. It would be that epic moment; being the only one observing the storm from this mountain, from this perspective. Knowing I was alone up there experiencing nature from the inside, and seeing how powerful it can be, and really feeling it so much deeper and personal than anyone could imagine was to be my sublime reward.

 The snow was coming down hard from the moment I hit the trail. The wind was blowing good too. There were a lot of trees down across the trail, and even more bent over it from the weight of snow and ice. The trail winds around the mountain before it picks up the lead ridge and it was tough to follow. For a small bit I followed some foot prints left by a hunter and his dogs. I Never was quite sure what they were doing out there, but their trail soon veered off back down the mountain. Then I started to wonder why I was out there.

  The higher in elevation I got the darker it got, the deeper the snow got, the colder the wind felt, and the harder the trail was to find. Even though I was following the lead ridge pretty much in a straight westerly direction it was becoming difficult to navigate through the storm. Around four thousand six hundred feet of elevation things changed rapidly. The trail was buried, so there was no way to tell where it was except if a tree that had been cut with a chainsaw after some previous storm was up high enough out of the snow to be seen. The sound of trees falling and branches cracking off and smashing to the ground was all around. I became very uncomfortable because the storm and the wind seemed to be silent, and what I thought I heard was the sound of the ice as it choked and froze the trees around me. On closer observation I noticed the branches and trunks of all the trees were totally coated in ice like popsicles. I moved higher on up the mountain staying on a westerly course. At some point I looked at my watch and noticed I had barely made any headway in the last hour and a half. It was now four o'clock with sunset expected around five forty-five and I knew I'd never reach the top before then. Crashing trees and branches, whose thrashes and thuds made a continuous chorus were making me think twice about trying to set up my tent or back-up tarp anywhere except at the top of the mountain. I was gripped by a sort of paralyzing force at work inside me, one part fighting to go on, and another part trying to pull me back down the mountain. Being heavily conflicted mentally, and facing more and more physical obstacles on the trail upwards I finally turned and headed down the mountain. Defeated, I slammed the door of my car, turned on the headlights, kind of slid the car down the icy road for the first six or so miles until it cleared up, then sped all the way home thinking of the frozen landscape where I'd just left a part of myself. 

 

 

See more photos of this trip in the galleries.

Sunday
Jun282009

The Towers of San Gimignano

 My lovely wife and I were on a trip in Italy and we were staying in the town of Radda in Chianti, in the Tuscan region. We spent one of our days visiting Siena and some other small but famous towns. One of those towns was San Gimignano, know for its towers, it was a place we had no intention of missing. In San Gimignano we took a nice hike to the top of one of these towers.

Seen from a distance San Gimignano resembles a modern city skyline.

 

A view from inside the city of six of the towers. The tower on farthest right is the one we climbed up.

 

Of the fourteen towers in San Gimignano this is the highest. You can take the stairs all the way to the top for some great views of the tuscan countryside. There's a museum inside you can visit too.

 

A view of San Gimignano from the top of the tower.

 

The Tuscan countryside from above.

 

Atop the tower with my beautiful wife.

 

A tower and part of the major piazza. Below are the "two towers".

 

The bell tower.

 

Afterwards back at the Agriturismo we enjoyed some Chianti from the vineyards of our hostesses estate before going out to dinner.

CIAO!