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.