Which Way is North?

I went hiking back in March in the Middle Prong Wilderness, in North Carolina. I started walking up the trail to Green Mountain. I had with me my brand new map entitled, Shining Rock & Middle Prong Wilderness, my older map, the one that I usually bring is a map entitled Pisgah Ranger District. The new map is supposed to be more specific to the Middle Prong Wilderness, so I bought it, and now I'm here in Pisgah NC and I'm going to give it a try.

I reach the first meadow and the trail splits in two directions so I stop to consult the map. I open up the map and lay my compass on it and look for the north indicator arrow on the map. THERE'S NO NORTH arrow on the map!?! I mean I know the top of the map is always north, but it just doesn't feel right not seeing that arrow.

Anyhow I've been to Pisgah before, although this is my first time hiking up to Green Mountain. I know to figure out on my new map which direction north is I just need to locate Cold Mountain (or the top of the map), which I know lies north of me. Later as I get pretty high up on the on the trail I see Sam Knob to my right so I know I'm going the right way.

The trail up to Green Mountain makes many more splits along the way. At each split I take the one going north. Finally I make it up to what feels like it might be the summit of Green Mountain. There is a group of about five guys I run into lounging around under some fir trees. I ask them if I'm on the summit of Green Mountain and they say "yes". Explaining why I have doubts as to where I might be, I tell the guys about my new map with no north directional arrow on it. One of the guys sitting there smiles and says "You must have the same map we do". And I thought mine was just a defect, hilarious! You would think the same forest service that recommends hikers carry a compass and map would not assume all hikers know the top of a map is north.  At least I knew that fact and I made it to the summit of Green Mountain and found a nice spot to camp. Though like I said I still felt uneasy about the whole thing.

Of course let's not forget the view north!



  I'm hiking the Art Loeb trail in Pisgah National Forest, NC and I'm up on Black Balsam Knob. The weather is brutal. Clouds whip over, below and through the ridge line. Looking west towards Fork Ridge the summits there are covered by stubborn clouds either captured as they blew in from the west or forming due to the massive humidity zone up here.

The wind tires to flip me over each time my balance is tested on the uneven trail. My pack is jammed full of winter gear and a ridiculous amount of water which doesn't help any. Even though it is February it isn't really that cold, about 44 Fahrenheit but the wind chill takes it down around ten degrees. I've decided to take the trail around the eastern side of Black Balsam Knob so at least I'm not getting as pounded by the wind.

 I feel so alive, the elements are on top of, almost mixed in with my senses. Up at 6000 feet it is easy to fall into the sublime, it becomes one's guide. A mysterious world within our own- recognizable but alien. My I-pod is playing Soundgarden's "Superunknown" and I think to myself, yeah that's kind of how this moment feels, I'm "alive in the superunknown"! Walking around the eastern side of Black Balsam on some of the steeper parts, the trail is worn and eroded so deep, ground level on both sides can be knee to waist high. The thick brush, usually about waist to shoulder height, now stretches above eye level, it is very much like being swallowed by the trail. Mostly though the trail is exposed, open; the high mountains of Pisgah are mostly bald.

Views are spectacular, the eastern mountains (to my right) and Shining rock ledge, ahead north, are visible with some small clouds speeding over just high enough to get past. In front of me is Tennant Mountain which isn't as high as Black Balsam, but at 6070 feet is still an awesome sight. The south face of Tennant is pretty steep and the summit approach from the west skirts the steep face by way of a small finger like ridge connecting it with Black Balsam. Once up I'm getting hit pretty good, the summit of Tennant is getting whacked by the wind, I'm guessing around 40-45 mph, but the view is intense. It is basically a 360 degree view of Pisgah and more. On a clear day you can see the Nantahala Wilderness to the south and the ridges that separate Pisgah from the Smokies to the east. But not today there are too many clouds. At least I have some visibility, I can see Looking Glass for instance to the south and Cold Mountain to the north. It looks like the the masses of clouds are sticking on summits to my west and east; its the ones to my west that I keep an eye on; they are only a few miles away. There could be snow tonight according to reports, or it could just rain, or worse it could rain ice. But actually I'm really hoping that it snows, I'm ready for it like a kid waiting to go sledding or something.

 I pull out my camera and click off only my third pic of the day; then it beeps and the screen says replace battery, then the camera dies. "What the hell?" I checked at home and the battery indicator showed it was full. Checking my pack I realize I brought AAA batteries to back up my headlamp but forgot the AA's for the camera. This trip will have to be recorded in my mind, that's all fine except I can't share that as well as I can photos. It's time to move on down Tennant. I do it quickly and then take a break out of the wind before going over Grassy Cove Top and into the meadow on the other side to set up camp. I find a nice spot in the soft grass to set up the tent and stay for the night. About the time I finish I realize there are five guys looking about the meadow for a place to stay the night too. I decide to ask them if they have any AA batteries, which they don't and we all come to a consensus that if I use an old trick and rub the battery tips on my pants and lick them I might get off a few more photos. I walk back up the hill and to my tent and give it a try. I also try blowing on the batteries to warm them up. It works! I get off three more photos, each time having to rub and lick the batteries. 

 Just as weather can turn bad so quickly at elevation it can quickly turn good; the sun is out now, it's around 4:30 so it's getting low to the horizon but it is out for the first time today. To the west Fork Ridge is no longer covered by clouds but I can see Reinhart Knob and the rest of the Blue Ridge Parkway is still covered. In a few hours the sun will slip behind these clouds and the ridge line, and I know the clouds will eventually break away and make their way towards my spot.

I think of possible snow. Some smaller clouds are already braking off and passing over the meadow at high speed. The grass is soft and the earth contoured enough that I find a place for my ridge rest pad so when I lie down the ground fits my body like a glove. This is the first moment since 5:00am that I could just sit back and relax. The sun feels like it does on a cold day when you stand inside a cold room behind a window and you can feel the warm rays coming through the glass hitting you. It is sort of like feeling protected, like you are part of the elements but they have no hold over you. Well right now I feel the same way. Like I'm simply seeing and feeling the world through that glass window. A chilly breeze wraps around me, around my face, my limbs, like waves caressing me at the beach. I look straight up into the blue sky and feel like I'm swimming in it. I can't really explain everything about how I feel right now, not even to myself. There is a lot about going up into the mountains I can't explain. A lot of times when I get up on a summit I stick my arms out into the air and there is a rush that goes through me, but how do you explain this? I don't even know why I do it or where it comes from. I can't really tell my wife why I am so drawn to the summits, the words seeming hollow when compared to the experience, there really being no excuse that can be readily understood and accepted. She wonders why I keep going out into the mountains by myself, what is there that I'm looking for, what do I hope to achieve? There is something that sums it all up but I can't quite put my finger on it. The freezing nights, the hot days, the storms, the perfect days, all become some part of me. I guess that is why I write these stories, perhaps to find my answers and help others find theirs.  I often find contradictions in myself but out here one sees that even nature is a dichotomy. I might not make sense of things I should and things I shouldn't have a clue about I might be able to express clearly.........................

 Back on the ridge of Shining Rock Ledge in a beautiful mountain meadow looking towards the west I see the clouds that have been on Fork Ridge all day break loose and come heading towards me. In less than five minutes I go from sitting in the warm sun to being swallowed by clouds. Everything is gray now, and visibility is down to several hundred feet. Now inside the clouds the sky slowly darkens, the temperature drops and I decide to eat dinner, it is around 6:30 pm. Around 9:00 pm the cloud cover breaks and there above is the sky full of millions of stars. I live in the city so it is a treat to simply lie on my ridge rest in the grass looking up. Of course this means probably no snow tonight. After a few hours I decide to get in my sleeping bag and look at the sky from inside the tent because it is now around 23 degrees fahrenheit plus wind chill so I estimate about 5 degrees fahrenheit. I leave the rain fly door open and the interior door open too so I have a view of the sky looking south, straight over Grassy Cove Top. I don't remember falling asleep but when I wake it is around 2:00 am. I get up to go pee, it is now more like 15 degrees out and I notice my tent is covered by a sheet of ice. Damn! My water bottles are froze too. I forgot to bring them into the tent. on my way back into the tent I close all the doors to fend off the cold some.

 The next morning I wake up and the sun is out. There are clouds today but they are at a much higher elevation than the peaks. The view is perfect 360 degrees around. I can see all the various peaks of Pisgah Forest just fine today. In the morning air a sense of tranquility hovers upon the highlands. Coffee is black, hot and pops me awake. While breaking camp I continue to get the ice out of my bottles by smacking them and dumping the ice. The ground is still hard from the freeze but the air is warming up fast. There isn't much wind and the clouds are whiter than yesterday, but there is feeling in me it may snow, just a gut feeling. My camp is slowly broken down and I stash everything back into the pack. After finally defrosting my water bottles and dumping the heavy ice from them I hit the trail back to the car. The sun stays out and the wind is calmer than yesterday but it still is blowing pretty good. Except for taking some breaks to check the awesome views on my way back, my exit hike is uneventful. I keep feeling like part of me is staying behind, or is it subconsciously I want to stay longer and feel like more than just a visitor. Sometimes I stop and look back at the trail behind me as if somehow it will by its own accord pull me back. When I reach the parking lot I point to the sky and ask for thanks, I am grateful to be alive and to have come out of the wilderness in one piece once again. I reach the car, change my clothes and drink the beer I stashed in the trunk. It is good and cold and tastes like victory champagne right now. Then I wait a while and drive home. The winding road down untangles my bond to the peaks slowly, at some point I know I'm back down into the world again. The next morning I turn on my computer and have a look at the Cold Mountain web cam and see snow on the ground. I missed it by one night :(


Page 1 2 3